Three essentials for liberty

The United States of America is going through a huge change at the moment. The Republican presidential primaries are in full swing, displaying a growing rift in the GOP. One side is supporting the status quo of growing government and military bullying overseas, while spouting meaningless rhetoric on spending cuts. The other side is lead by Ron Paul, the true revolutionary in the party expressing views that would have traditionally sit well with the Republicans, but draw nothing but loathing from the establishment. It is unlikely that he will win the GOP nomination, but the longer his campaign lasts, the louder the voices of his cause for liberty will become. I keep making comparisons to Ron Paul because he is the only symbol of libertarian thinking in the political mainstream, and I sense that Paul’s campaign will leave a lasting effect, not only on the United States, but on the wider world. There are others in the UK mainstream who purport to be libertarian, such as a large portion of UKIP members, but their libertarian message is lost in the campaign against Europe. I have been considering recently whether or not liberty, on the scale of what Ron Paul is campaigning for in the states, is even possible in the UK. The history of the United States is very different to our own, and from a philosophical standpoint, are more inclined to be accepting of libertarian ideas than the UK. In my view, we are a country that is more divided than we would like to admit, so it is certainly difficult to identify very clear changes that could be made to increase individual liberty and reduce the scope of government personally.

There are a number of different laws in the UK which infringe upon our individual freedoms, (the smoking ban being a personal hatred of mine, and I don’t even smoke) yet these are just accepted by the population as the norm. It is not to say that some of these laws are ill-intended, as some are enacted sincerely with our own personal safety in mind, yet it is such laws that waste time and money in the police service and in government bureaucracy by the government simply saying “you’re not capable of looking after yourself”. In order to achieve true liberty, a massive cultural shift needs to take place where individual responsibility becomes the norm. There are a few fundamental changes to the system which can set us on the right track. These aren’t new ideas by any account, but they provide the basis on which liberty can be achieved in a practical sense, and the rest would be up to the people.

  1. We need a constitution: Although it’s widely accepted that the UK has a constitution of sorts, uncodified and drawn from such ancient documents as the Magna Carta and the British Bill of Rights, but it is clearly the case that such laws hold no real weight on the UK parliament, so it is time that we had a real constitution. Although some will say the flexibility allowed to the UK Parliament through the absence of a constitution is its virtue, and it is the reason why our parliamentary system is copied all over the world, I would disagree. Yes, our system works insofar as it gets things done, and most mechanisms to the operation of Parliament would remain, but a constitution is a necessity in order to say to Parliament (this is where your power ends). It is something that I have written about before, so feel no real need to go into it here, but it must be acknowledged that if we were to adopt a constitution in the form of one similar to the United States, we must be aware of the problems their constitution has encountered, and address them when creating our own. Lessons can be learned from the mistakes of the United States, yet the fundamental principles of their constitution are sound. In the context of the UK, our central government should be concerned primarily with issues of national defence, whereas everything else would be devolved to local authorities to manage. Democracy is best when decisions are taken as close to the individual as possible, so it is about time we had a total rethink of how our government, and our nation operates.
  2. Voting Reform: We had a referendum to change the voting system earlier last year, the vote was lost, but this should not be the end of the discussion. I am a strong supporter of Proportional Representation, as this grants every voter with a voice in Parliament, yet I am also persuaded by arguments in favour of party primaries which would encourage party candidates to engage with their constituents. Some MPs simply see meeting with their constituents and actually doing their job as a hassle and a nuisance to their real personal goals, whatever they may be. One simply has to look at the case of Middlesborough MP Stuart Bell, a man who has not only failed his constituents, but he has failed his party and his country, by achieving the proud tag of “Britain’s Laziest MP”. Perhaps a hybrid of sorts would be possible – and necessary – to encourage greater voter engagement, and fairer representation of all voices in the commons.
  3. Citizens Initiative: This is a subject talked about in a book called “The Plan: Twelve Months To Renew Britain” and proposes the idea that the citizen should be given greater legislative clout. Currently, it is only MPs that make the law, but there are elements of what goes on in this country which are of great national concern – such as Europe. But the citizen is powerless to the whims of the Prime Minister and his cabinet on issues of such importance, and there is a significant disconnect between the ordinary voter, and the men and women in Whitehall. We have already made moves to such an initiative with the epetition, under which if any petition gets 100,000 signatures at least, then this will force a debate in Parliament. The downside to this is, Parliament are in no way bound to do anything other than debate it. Of course, the epetition has lead to a widely publicised debate in Parliament on an EU referendum, and the success in Parliament in agreeing to release secret government papers on Hillsborough, so it is not a total failure, yet greater power to the people would be important. With the introduction of a written constitution, local authorities could easily introduce such citizen initiatives in the form of regular local referendums, but it would be essential to enshrine a principle with a constitution that even local authorities must not legislate in such a way that infringes the liberties of those who live within its boundaries.

There are many other areas on which the present and future governments should focus in order to improve individual liberty. It is not impossible, yet it will be an uphill struggle. We are a nation that is so familiar, so used to having the government tell us what to do and how to do it, that we have lost any ability to use our common-sense. From health and safety laws to driving laws, we have become a nation that’s gone from “well I’ll just use my brain” to “well if the government doesn’t tell me not to, then that must mean I should”. This mentality is not reason for more government ownership and intervention, rather it is a clarion call to roll back the state. People should go back to using their brains when making certain decisions, rather than considering whether something is or is not illegal, we should be looking into ourselves and asking “what are the potential consequences of my actions?”

The mentality of reliance on government intervention is not something that can be broken overnight. We are a nation that has always seen our government as having a purpose to intervene into every aspect, and this has made us incapable of making our own rational decisions. Look at it from the metaphor of a parent and child. If a parent mollycoddles their child too much and for too long, that child will grow up to become helpless, when that support is taken away. Liberty in the UK is possible, but it can only be achieved over time. The USA will accept such libertarian principles more readily, as they are principles and ideas which form the bedrock of the founding of that nation. We are different. It is our history that has condemned us to tyranny, but it is our future that allows us to move toward the light of liberty.

Steven Stewart

I have always been a libertarian, but only recently discovered libertarianism. My thoughts and ideas have always fitted along the same philosophical perspective of what some would call libertarian, though I lean a bit more to the left on certain issues. You can also find my on Google+. I am an open-minded individual, and I hope that comes across in a lot of my writings, wherever you may see them. I hope you enjoy what you read. 

  13 comments for “Three essentials for liberty

  1. Jan 13, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    There is an interesting contradiction in between the three points, and there is a resolution which you hint at in the rest of the peice, but is more fundamental than you think.

    Points 2 and 3 place power and therefore trust in the people and therefore reject the mollycoddling you condemn, but the first point is actually a form of mollycoddling, you turust neither the people or the parliament they appoint to obey core principles and want the core principles to be laid down in the constitution instead. This is arguably a form of the very mollycodling attitude you condemn in others.

    The answer is not to place the principles into a peiece of paper and attempt to limit the actions of the people, but to educate the people and change the culture *first*. Once the dominant ideas in the culture are pro-liberty, then the actions of the people will be trustworthy. Rand, Peikoff, Brook, Cookingham and other Objectivists understood this, and speak of peoples politics being derived from more fundamental principles, such as ethics, epistemology and metaphysics. This is why Yaron Brook will never give a talk or write an article in which he fails to tell the reader that the dominant ethical theory of our time – altruism – is simply wrong.

    I agree with the model that the underlying ideas drive the choice of political arangements, but believe that self-ownership and non-agression are sufficient prerequisites to get accross, and you don’t need to sell the whole of Objectivism to achive liberty, though ideally you would because they are the most accurate philosophy I’ve had the privilege of reading.

    To summarise, the real essential is the cultural shift you mention elsewhere in the piece, the three things you highlight will be consequences of that shift, not things which will make it happen.

    • Ken Ferguson
      Jan 16, 2012 at 2:28 am

      This is the first time I’ve heard the idea of a written constitution being described as mollycoddling!!!

      At its best, some form of written constitution and Bill of Rights would be a clear statement of the limitations of the power of the state and the specific freedoms to be enjoyed by the individual and, it seems to me, this is a much more vital factor in fostering liberty than is the particular brand of democratic system we are governed under.

      Indeed, there is an argument which says that the more fair and equitable our system of choosing a government is, the greater moral justification it gives to those elected to tyrannise us.

    • Jan 16, 2012 at 10:49 pm

      Leaving aside for now my fundamental disagrement over altruism, my view is that indivduals are corruptable as per Acton, and so there need to be limits on what governments can and can’t do.

      My current thinking is that a better term than consitution would be covenant, and that such agreements would be voluntarily entered into and would serve to define the releationship between the individual and communtiy in a way that benefits both (yes I am currently re-reading The Diamond Age)

      • Ken Ferguson
        Jan 17, 2012 at 10:04 am

        Hi Andy

        I am not sure how a voluntary covenant between citizen and state would work. What would happen to those who refused to enter into a covenant?

        What we really lack is something (call it what you will)that defines the parameters of the power of the state and protects the natural rights of individuals from violation.

        Tim rightly raises the problem of who will write it- well we could start off with the original US constitution. At the moment we have nothing workable at all.

        • Jan 17, 2012 at 10:46 pm

          In short Ken, they’d move (I’m thinking more in terms of new societies, based either offshore or off-planet). This is a big part of my current project I’m working on

  2. Simon Bellord
    Jan 15, 2012 at 11:35 pm

    Yes I agree. Binding constitutions, democracy, petitions, an overall judgement of an individual MP based on a third party one size fits all evaluation… nothing libertarain in there im afraid sounds like a Lib Dem speaking, where’s the sick bucket

  3. Tim Carpenter
    Jan 16, 2012 at 10:28 am

    The problem of getting a written constitution is who will write it.

    As of now, you will see it chock full of ridiculous positive rights or contemporary issues like “digital divide”.

    Simon is right IMHO, the population needs to be re-introduced to the rights and freedoms of the individual so as to not let buffoons in The House scribble down a load of codswallop that will be unfit for man or beast.

  4. Ken Ferguson
    Jan 17, 2012 at 10:12 am

    Steven

    Re-reading your piece, you seem to have a strong belief in improving democratic procedures- the role of the MP as a social worker, e petitions etc.

    Frankly, I would much rather live in a small state dictatorship than a large state democracy, because the former would allow more individual freedom than does the latter.

    Wouldn’t you?

    • Jan 17, 2012 at 12:11 pm

      Ken, greater democracy = greater freedom. I understand Simon’s point, but I’m of the view that, the only way the culture of the people will be changed, is through the introduction of massive changes to our current system of democracy.

      I read a debate a few days ago asking the question “what if people don’t want freedom?” In my eyes, the real question should be “why wouldn’t they want freedom?” The only reason that I can see why people wouldn’t want liberty is because they don’t really understand how it could benefit them.

      The introduction of a constitution setting governmental limits, citizen initiatives etc would introduce the people to the benefits of greater freedom and responsibility, leading to a cultural shift.

      I see Simon’s point about a constitution, citizen initiative etc being the consequence of such a cultural shift rather than the cause, but I take the opposite view that these changes can help assist that cultural change.

      • Jan 17, 2012 at 2:28 pm

        Steven, I’m interested in why you take the opposite view?

        I think it is particularly challenging to introduce a constition as a means of demonstrating freedom in the context of a democracy. It is exactly because people’s current ideas are daft that the only constitution to pass a referendum test would be a constitution full of daft ideas.

        To acheive something else, would require a libertarian revolution and a benevolent libertarian transitional government, which you would not get unless you first either a) acquired a nuclear weapon so that your tiny minority can negotiate power b) created a cultural shift so that you have support of a majority. a) is undesireable and unlikely and b) means you don’t need a revolution at all, and can proceed to write the constitution with the popular support to pass a good one. Eitherway, the cultural shift must happen first, or you fail.

        • Jan 17, 2012 at 2:30 pm

          or c) you seastead.

  5. Ken Ferguson
    Jan 17, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    Steven

    greater democracy = greater freedom

    Sorry, but that does not follow at all. A “tyranny of the majority” is as much of a tyranny as any other.

    In my eyes, the real question should be “why wouldn’t they want freedom?

    Because they prefer security. Freedom is a scary notion for many and they prefer the security offered by a totalitarian government whether it impinges on freedom or not.

    Whether that government is elected or not is irrelevant.

  6. Jan 18, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    ‘Government is not eloquence, it is not reason, it is force. Like a fearful master and a dangerous servant, it must never for a moment be left to irresponsible action.’
    -George Washington.

    I believe that if libertarianism is to indeed become a significant political ideology, then civil society must be given the neccessary powers and knowledge in order to carry out tasks and responsibilities which are presently undertaken by government.
    Its an often used crtique against libertarianism that society and individuals cannot or are not willing to undertake certain roles which are fundamental to society, i.e. industry regulation, security and defence, etc.
    However, civil society must be given the opportunity to show that not only is it capable of doing such things, but it is in fact far more effective and efficient than government.

    A quick sidenote. What is government? Is it not just an extension of civil society, of you and me. Is government not a part of civil society, or does it view itself as being apart and above civil society? We must remind ourselves of who the true rulers are. We dictate our wishes and desire to our government, and not the other way around. What dangerous absurdity and democratic heresy have we found ourselves in where we must conform to the dictates of government. Nay! Having the consent of the governed is the only way to be governed.

    For life, liberty and prosperity.

    Zohir Uddin.
    Commissioning Editor.
    LPUK

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