This talk was delivered to the Young Britons for Liberty group on Monday November 21st
Marketable Ethical Libertarian Policy
I am guessing there is a bit of variety in the reactions I am going to get here about the second word in that title, but most of you are probably thinking of that title Marketable Ethical Libertarian Policy as a pure good thing, a great option, something to push, something to get behind, if only you had any. But let’s be careful — any of what?
Rather than thinking of those four words as a verbose description of a single thing, I want you to think of them as a set of four scales, or four constraints which you have to navigate. As enthusiastic libertarians keen to Do Something, how you deal with all four of these constraints – and how you deal with the fact that there are four – not 3 or 2. These four or more /reactions/ will determine how you spend much of the rest of your life.
I will start from the right – no pun intended.
A policy, for me, is a concept which has achieved a certain threshold of concreteness and specificity, and in our context, the concept describes a set of social arrangements. Saying I want low taxes is not a policy. Saying you want to abolish income tax (leaving VAT and other taxes behind) would be a policy. It is much more concrete than simply having a complaint against taxes in general, and it is somewhat specific, since it implies a cut in taxes of about 30%, not 5% or 99% but 30%. The work of producing policy is the work of creating detail without blundering into any details which are a bad idea. I consider this to be fairly involved and technical in its own way.
Things that are not policy include moaning into your beers. Not productive. Making a Facebook meme is not doing policy. Writing a poem, a computer program, or a novel or studying for a PhD in history. None of those things are policy, yet they are productive uses of time. Some of you may decide that some of those things are for you. That is fine. The fact you want to do anything at all makes you really a very special person. You are in probably the most useful 5% of libertarians simply by resolving to do something. I am not sure developing policy is any more or less useful than anything else. That people might one day be able to vote for your policy is an advantage, that they might need to be persuaded to do so is a reason to possibly consider alternatives.
Regardless, making policy is an activity with a certain character. Policies are constrained by definition, to being policies. Not notions or principles or aardvarks or whatever. Deciding you want to focus on policy is a big decision and will mean you might be doing a great deal less of many other things, such as moaning into beers, studying history or flying kites on windy days. I would say I am not someone who has chosen to focus on policy in a very deep way. I tend to focus too much on technology, which is my job, and running my meetup which is a very different passion. I do, however, have some ideas for you about it, which I will get to.
Observe that in a logical mathematical sense, while I have said only a few very general things, we have learned something about the set of options under consideration. You have drawn a circle on a bit of graph paper and get to decide if the thing you are going to focus on lies inside that circle. Adding the other circles to this paper will make a Venn Diagram – and that Venn Diagram is the topic of this talk. Inevitably I will talk about the spot on the diagram inside all the circles, but I want you to focus for a while on the circles as well.
There are loads of people in the libertarian community coming up with ideas that are popular with libertarians. I think a great many, especially the well funded well thought out ones, are not especially libertarian. I am not being purist, or rather I aspire to not being a purist, but I think it is fairly obvious that some ideas have a uniquely libertarian flavour and others don’t. Take the 2020 tax commission. It also called for 30% cut in spending and a massive simplification of the tax system, keeping an income tax. It was very welcome, but could have been written by any good Tory, and the fact is it was probably written to influence Tories. Is making the Tories less bad the limit of our ambition? That is a fair question, but I like to assume it isn’t.
To some extent my libertarian scale, or constraint, is a question of how much you want to change. A more refined definition is that libertarian policies should tend to reduce violations of the non-aggression principle. A still better definition is that libertarian ideas tend to respect individual rights. It is perfectly possible to think of policies that appeal to people who are libertarians, but which actually fail to respect individual rights.
Note that I have not said that libertarian policies tend to promote the diffusion of knowledge, or clarify price signals. They are Hayekian economic issues. Policies or other things that tend to promote the diffusion of knowledge, or price signals or such like – those are better economics, they are not better libertarianism qua libertarianism. Better economics is a good thing, and have that radical libertarian flavour to it, but I suspect there is some confusion between the two. I think it is an issue of intent – are you aiming for less bad economics, or are you aiming to reshape society into one which attaches primary importance to things like autonomy, or consent. My definition of a libertarian policy is the latter, but I do value the former.
Why should we promote special libertarian policies and not merely better policy in general. Better economics can make you richer and lower your tax bill. Why worry about anything more than that? I think the answer to that is the same as Ayn Rand’s answer for why you should act with integrity, which I will summarise as: because if you aren’t then what the fuck are you doing? If you are acting the way someone else would, then are you even really alive? Who’s ideas are you promoting if you are not promoting those you prefer? Who’s ideas will win if you promote ideas other than your own? Other things being equal, probably not yours.
So now we have two circles in our Venn Diagram. You can choose any course of action, any spot on the paper, but we’ve created four categories within our set of choices. We can start to populate our categories with specifics and ask questions like “have I thought about what I could do in each of those categories”.
I need to sneak in here with another circle for the Venn Diagram. The Overton Window could be thought of as a circle on a Venn Diagram, as simply a round window. But, Overton thought of it as a scale so treating as a circle might be a bit of a mind bender. Let’s use an equivalent idea: Hallin’s spheres. They are at least round to start with.
Hallin defined three spheres of media issues:
- Concensus – ideas which journalists take for granted. They do not bother to appear neutral on these ideas. Climate change moved into this sphere in the last few years. The BBC had a meeting to decide that this was going to happen.
- Legitimate controversy – these are areas of tension that journalists treat seriously and handle with objectivity and neutrality, or at least they are supposed to try to do so.
- Deviance – which is a sphere containing the barking mad, or the reprehensible, or things most people are simply not into. Journalists want to ignore this sphere, for economic or ethical reasons, or perhaps both. Many issues of race and cultural identity have recently been ejected from this sphere because people got fed up of pretending they were not legitimate controversies. I am in danger of going off-topic but I think this is actually fine, except there appears to be a problem working out which issues or topics really need to move over, and which to continue to treat the same way. Donald Trump is part of the process.
Regardless of all that – much of libertarian thinking, of what you read on blogs like mine or in libertarian tomes, sits in the barking mad or massively unpopular categories and may even seem reprehensible at times for some audiences. Being concerned with a deviant, easily ignored controversy is a big deal for us and I do think it ought to be goal to move our ideas into the legitimate controversy sphere.
In my life-time I have seen the minimum wage move from the legitimate controversy stage to becoming consensus. The abolition of the minimum wage probably sits in the deviant sphere. At the same time, the idea of a living wage, which is – I shit you not – essentially the same as the idea that you have a human right to a holiday at Butlins. This idea has moved perilously close to becoming consensus. George Osborne’s tactical concession of this ground to the left is very dissappointing but I do not think it means that opposition to the living wage is a deviant opinion.
I really hope I am not saying anything much new here, so I will move on quickly. Feel free to put the Overton Window or the Hallin Spheres on your mental Venn Diagrams.
I am basically a natural rights libertarian, as distinct from a consequentialist. It is easy to be a rights based libertarian because liberty has good consequences but I do think that libertarianism is objectively justifiable from an ethical perspective. For those of you into technical philosophy, my preferred derivation of natural rights was written by Craig Biddle for the Objective Standard. He derived that from Ayn Rand, of course. I think this derivation is useful becuase it is defensible, but beyond that I consider the issue of derivation to be technical minutiae rather than strategically critical. The derivation “because it’s our nature” works for most current mainstream philosophy and is not logically different from the derivation of all religions. Religion is doing okay.
The basic problem here is that ethical policies, for detailed reasons, tend to push libertarians further into the deviant sphere. That is, almost by definition, a less marketable context for us so the temptation is to move away.
I think an ethical approach gives us three good consequences:
- Fire in our bellies. It makes us righteous, it gives us energy and motivation to do what we do. Handled well, I think this is an asset.
- It gives us a persuasive tool. Being able to launch a persuasive effort with a principle that someone can buy into – a reason “why” is a benefit to persuasion. You don’t have to show the entire technical derivation of an idea to be able to offer people a reason to believe in it.
- It gives us the opportunity to embed good ideas into the good policy we put forward, that is, to transmit policy and ethical ideas at the same time. If we say that we have abandoned our ethics in order to make marketable policy then what ethical ideas are going to end up baked into those policies? Not yours, that is for sure.
It is also, the right thing to do. I refer back to that Randian justification for the virtue of integrity – if you aren’t doing the thing you think is best, what the fuck are you doing?
I will get strait on and talk about what is.
People have said to me that consequentialism allows things to be said that are more marketable. I think that this simply represents a failure to imagine something which is marketable that is also ethical. It is certainly not an argument that it is ethical to abandon ethics. I think the idea that we should simply cast aside ethics and do what works is actually pretty dark. I don’t think I need to labour over an explanation as to why.
The most pressing example of this trend to abandon ethics is the basic income proposal, in which citizens all receive a fixed low monthly salary from the state, which is then clawed back through taxes on high incomes, or on land, with enough extra clawed back to fund everyone else’s income too. The ethical issue is obvious, for a benefit to be paid out it needs to be taken through the tax system and taxation is theft. I should not need to explain why theft is wrong. Of course, there is another issue which is that it encourages dependency. I am less exercised by that, but your mileage may vary on that.
It is pretty clear to me that helping a basic income policy succeed is not going to help spread better libertarian ethical or policy ideas. It will spread dangerous false ideas such as egalitarianism, even if it was Hayekian economists that contributed the margin of victory. It amazes me that there are people who opposed Brexit because it might help spread intolerance who support basic income and don’t notice that it would encourage and enshrine egalitarianism over property rights, or that the intellectual link between basic income and egalitarianism is really very fundamental and obvious, rather than contextual and obscure.
When we consider our mental Venn Diagrams with a circle for Policy, for What is Libertarian, for What is Ethical and What is inside Hallin’s Sphere’s (or the Overton Window) then you are left with very little room to manoevre. I understand the tempation of simplying saying that there is nothing left in that tiny space – no room for any policies at all – and wondering off discouraged into the world of basic incomes and ideological compromise.
There is another context – another industry – in which constraints are placed on people which are supposed to stop them. In this case, the idea is actually to stop them going faster – to limit maximum speeds without stopping people racing each other. I am talking about Formula 1 racing cars. The F1 regulations, a set of rules for participants, are designed to make sure a car can’t go so fast that it kills it’s driver, or spectators. Racing car owners still want their cars to go as fast as possible, and faster than the other guys’ cars. The rules constrain the design of the car but there are only a few standard components – notably the tires. People do find ways to go faster. I am pretty sure the rules would not allow jet engines, but what about an exhaust pipe that pipes hot air onto a component that encourages the air to fan out behind the car – called a diffuser. Well that sounds a bit like a jet engine to me, but it is not technically the same – it works by helping the car get grip, not by pushing it along – and is not as effective, but having a blown diffuser still makes your car go faster and it was still allowed by the rules, at least for a while.
Racing Car designers have the job of making cars go faster in the face of regulations designed to make them slower. They are not being stopped and race car engineers are still crucial parts of a winning team. The blown diffuser thing shows that it is possible to change your approach to a set of constraints and think of valuable things that do not trip up on the rules.
I have a bit of detail I would like to share about two examples:
Nearly half of councils outsource bin collection, most of the contracts go to the top three or four companies. Most of them also seem to collect commercial waste under direct contracts with the producers of the waste. Why do councils need to act as middlemen for home owners? Bin collection should be simply another utility you buy on a website. If it was then you can be pretty sure you will not be made part of the waste sorting process. Make no misake that bin collection is a huge libertarian issue. At present, Councils like Lambeth will fine you £1000 if you fail to take part in a compulsory scheme in which you are forced to enrich a private sector middleman by helping provide them with neatly sorted rubbish. As councils begin talking about collections every three weeks, there is so little being done to collect bins for people that there is an opportunity to go into business selling what people used to pay for through taxation. I think it gives an idea of how popular this could be that the bins issue has turned up in a Christmas advert and is a recurring theme on Eastenders.
Decentralising National Insurance
We’d all like to abolish tax, but abolishing tax would mean no money to pay for the welfare state.
The following section was ad libbed based on this article, copied below:
Turning off the welfare taps would not happen, and if it did there would be social unrest like you have never seen. [..] a reformer needs to provide some level of service of the existing kind and either reduce it slowly, introduce healthy incentives, or both. The services would need to include job seekers allowance, disability benefit and practical assistance programs such as job centres and training programs, but would need to be slowly changed to ensure recipients are genuine and that the schemes really work cost effectively.
And here in bullet point form are the key steps and details of the plan:
- make welfare a hyper local service – still state run and state funded but run at the parish or borough level. Because we basically cannot get this right and to incentivise market based restructuring later, we deliberately choose to make each provider a little too small to be self-sustaining.
- change funding flows to cut out middlemen – payments would start to flow direct from payroll departments to local providers. A tapering subsidy would ensure stability. The choice of provider would follow a simple rule e.g. based on your postcode. The payments would be treated as deductable, since they replace a tax, and the scheme is therefore revenue neutral.
- make the choice of provider free – this allows competition and new innovative market participants to enter, with some stability ensured by the subsidies and the fact payments are still compulsory. Failing providers would be allowed to go bankrupt. Frankly, things would already be a lot better if you stopped here and you might certainly leave things alone for a bit.
- make payments voluntary – including higher and lower amounts. The scale of payments would then always be proportionate to need as perceived by the payer. I’m certain the media (and trade associations) would ensure payers are well informed as to that level.
What has been done at this point is a transition back to voluntary Friendly Societies as the main service provider, but we have also achieved a “big bang” that opens up the market to all sorts of innovate players
Only a purist is going to tell you that there is only one choice. Instead, by having a set of intersecting categories to consider we can think about what we can do inside or outside of each, however, the more of these constraints you manage to adhere to the more successful you will be as a libertarian.