Why Libertarians are NOT Liberals

Modern-day Libertarians have emerged from right-wing* politics although they’ll often disguise what is, in reality, their ‘self-first’ agenda by defining it as a seemingly less selfish ‘my right to choose.’

The further right you go the more the ‘self-first’ agenda exposes itself for what it really is – ‘I can do whatever I want and no one has the right to stop me/challenge me.’

A Liberal on the other hand will say ‘I am an individual and my views should not be constrained by the state, however, I also accept that I take both responsibility for my actions and I will always try not to pursue individual liberty when it has negative effects on others, the environment, the natural world etc.’

So what would a typical Libertarian think? How about these examples? –

* I won’t be vaccinated, it’s my right to decide what goes into my body and it’s not my responsibility to protect others.
* I don’t go with climate change, it’s not happening and I won’t do things to stop what is not happening.
* I park my vehicle where I want, if pedestrians can’t get past it then that’s their lookout; nothing to do with me.

A Liberal on these same issues will respond to them:-

* I will be vaccinated as it’s my duty to protect my own health and that of others.
* On climate change, I follow the science and will do my bit to address it.
* I don’t park my vehicle where it will impede pedestrians and those with disabilities.

And then whilst thinking about such issues and debating them with my very progressive and Liberal daughter she said this – It’s a Bill Bryson quote from the Road to Little Dribbling book:-

Now lots of people are governed not so much by whether something is right or wrong as by whether they think anyone’s watching. Conscience only operates when there are witnesses”

To me, that thoughtful contribution says that those who tend to be Libertarians, but who don’t want to get caught being selfish, will tend not to be self-first if they are likely to be caught at it. That means, for example, they won’t drop litter if they think someone may see them but if they can get away with it, it’s OK.

* Libertarians were originally of the ‘left’ but in modern times the ‘right’ has taken the term on as its own. They have in effect corrupted what was once based firmly in progressive and radical Liberalism.

Little regulation & minimal enforcement

I can’t say I was big on or even thought much about regulation and enforcement until after the turn of the last century, but that’s probably because for most of my life UK governments, of all colours, made a reasonable fist of regulating and enforcing things across our society.

What I think made me sit up and take notice was when Gordon Brown brought in his ‘light touch’ regulation of banks before the financial crisis hit. It struck me straight away as being a bad move to trust too much those who control our financial systems and my feeling is that the crisis, which soon followed, demonstrated why shutting one eye to the activities of banks and the financial sector, in general, was a really bad idea.

But deregulation and light touch/no-touch enforcement is now the thing across many sectors. It’s as though there’s now a general acceptance that ‘do as you please and beggar the consequences’ is mainstream in our politics! Yes, I realise that the austerity which followed the financial crisis will have brought with it a considerable reduction in the enforcement of regulations simply via the regulators and enforcers being reduced in number within government agencies/departments, councils, the police etc. etc. So my first question is, was austerity used as a back door by the libertarian right to get regulators off their backs to enable that ‘do as I/we please’ attitude? I’m pretty sure the answer to that is a rather obvious YES.

Our roads are a clear example of pretty much no regulation or enforcement leaving drivers to do as they please with little chance of any come back other than via retrospective enforcement due to an accident where someone has been injured or killed. But policing, in general, is surely now a process of reaction to events with prevention very much a thing of the past. Community policing has all but been abandoned and with it the local intelligence that used to be gathered by policewomen and men in neighbourhoods they knew well.

There’s little point in having laws if there are no effective regulators or enforcers of our laws. However, bit by bit over the years we have arrived at a point where those who wish to break laws and regulations have realised that there’s a high likelihood that they’ll be able to get away with whatever dodgy things they wish to. Human nature is to push at boundaries to see how far our luck can be pushed. Sadly, we’ve now created a society where those who want to push boundaries a long way are doing so because they’ve twigged that no one is likely to stop them or enforce action against them.

So whether it be a poorly regulated financial sector or no effective enforcement of bad driving (and there’ll certainly be other sectors too) this process leads to a wild-west approach to our society. You could call it an ‘every man and woman for themselves society’ where significant numbers of the population are beyond any effective control and they know it.

This libertarian right approach has been driven by Conservatives and other right-wing political groupings, yet it’s within living memory that there would have been significant numbers of people within the Conservative Party who would have been far from happy about our developing a lawless society. To me, this shows how much the Tory Party has changed from being the party of law and order to a party of spivs and chancers. Of course, those spivs and chancers have always been there but our politics ensured they were kept in the background; now they are upfront and running the show!

Once you start down the road of desiring government to be as small as possible, deregulation and a lack of enforcement is where you’ll pretty much always end up. That’s a challenge for progressives as it’s hardly a vote winner to tell the electorate that you want more inspectors, more police etc. etc. It’s easy to say pay less tax and we’ll get rid of red tape even if that red tape keeps us all safe and sound.

So do we need better regulation and enforcement? Yes of course we do if we are ever to have a fair and equitable society. The alternative is more spivs and chancers taking us all for a ride!