It may be just my impression, but the political tides flowing in England at present and for the next few months do not seem particularly conducive to libertarian involvement. The most important event on the political calendar is the forthcoming European elections, the key element of which will be how well UKIP manages to do. Across the rest of Europe it is likely that similar non-centrist, nationalist parties will achieve success, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National across the Channel. Much as UKIP has flirted with libertarian positions in the past and still contains a sizable contingent of our brethren, that is not going to be the message they take to the electorate this year. Farage, who in his private opinions may well be a classical liberal, is likely to distance himself from any overtly libertarian position, and react in the same way as he has to the comments on God’s judgement and the floods from a Christian UKIP counsellor in recent days.
So what, then, if anything, should libertarians be concerning themselves with in the political discourse? The Tories have been pushing through various reforms to welfare, which no doubt many libertarians think are moves in the right direction. However, libertarians should be careful in their support for such measures. Tories are not libertarian – Cameron stated very clearly that he is not one of us. If libertarians wish to support these policies, they should understand that these policies are the very kind of thing which makes the Tories hated across the land. Furthermore, there will be no quid pro quo coming back the other way. Their days of speaking up in defence of civil liberties ended when they got back into power, notwithstanding the handful of true libertarians amongst them.
As for the reforms, no doubt the welfare state is dysfunctional. No doubt the moral arguments against taking from one man and giving to another through tax and redistribution, are valid, but there is very little to gain by conforming to the pejorative stereotype which is fixed upon libertarians by leftists – that we are heartless bastards, with no concern for the poor, the downtrodden and the unfortunate. If the state with its present size and reach continues, and only welfare is cut, very little liberty, if any, will be gained.
Regarding the activities of the state, it is possible to identify many which society requires, whether or not the state does them, and which we can assume would get done, with or without the state running them. I like to point to St Bartholomew’s, which has been standing on its present site since Anno Domini 1123, which, for the benefit of those educated in the state schools, is considerably earlier than the formation of the National Health Service.
The arguments made by the last of the laissez-faire liberals against the rising statist consensus was not that the stated goals of socialism were wrong, rather that socialism was not capable of achieving them, that the kind of prosperity and freedom from want which the socialists claimed they sought could only – or certainly could best – be achieved through economic liberty.
Bastiat made the point well back in 1850, looking down from the heights of Fourvière:
Contemplating the theater of so many bloody conflicts, I thought that there is no more pressing need in man than that for confidence in a future that offers some stability. What troubles the workers is not so much how low their wages are but their uncertainty, and if men who have achieved wealth were prepared to take a look at themselves, seeing with what ardor they love security, they would perhaps be somewhat indulgent toward the classes which always, for one reason or another, have the specter of unemployment before them. One of the most beautiful of economic harmonies is the ever-increasing tendency for all classes in succession to achieve stability. Society achieves this stability as civilization is attained, through earnings, fees, rent, and interest, in short everything that the socialists reject; to such an extent that their plans bring the human race back precisely to its point of departure, that is to say the time when uncertainty is at its highest for everyone. There is a subject here for new research for political economy . . .
Sadly this great hero of liberty was on his last journey when he made these observations and would be dead before the year was out, so that new subject for research would be left to others. Nevertheless, he hits upon the most fundamental element of the widespread support for the welfare state; the insecurity faced by those without resources to cushion them from life’s tempests.
It may be said in response that the welfare systems which have arisen in the post-WWII Europe, Britain included, are not sustainable and will inevitably collapse like the original Ponzi scheme, but that is not necessarily the case, given the role of government in the schemes and the political suicide that presiding over such a collapse would represent to whichever politicians were in government when it happened. This notion of insecurity is central to understanding the hostility to cutting welfare. Whatever the rights and wrongs of certain Tory ministers views on reform, that Victorian society of self-help and charity is not going to reappear out of nothing. We are not Victorians. We do not have their moral code, nor their propensity for hard work, self-sacrifice and cold showers.
Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ motif didn’t resonate with much of the public, and libertarians, who probably saw it in a far better light than the average punter, should note how quickly it got thrown overboard when this proved to be the case. So, I would advise libertarians to be very sparing in their praise of the government’s reforms, especially when so much else it is doing is utterly contrary to the values we should hold dear.
I haven’t really answered the question posed in the title, but I’m sure that, whatever we should be doing, it will have little to do with Westminster or Brussels.