"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Sunday, April 22, 2007

On liberals, libertines and libertarians

What's a 'libertarian'? I know plenty of liberals, and more than a few libertines, but not anyone who would describe themselves as a 'libertarian', nor indeed anyone who appears to have the accompanying Nozick-esque ideology even if they didn't describe themselves thus. You could retort that this is because I have a narrow circle of friends, which might be fair enough. On the other hand, one of the reasons I haven't come across any libertarians in my community may well be - if what they write is anything to go by - that libertarians don't seem to live in communities of any kind.

Having said that, I suppose the blogosphere is a community of sorts and it's absolutely hoaching with them and I was wondering: how would I recognise one if I saw them in real life? I'm really not sure but if a regular trawl of the Land of Blog is anything to go by, I can guess at a sociological profile: libertarians, as far as one can tell, tend to be male rather than female; more likely to be without dependent children than with; more likely to have studied economics than history (are there any "libertarian historians"? Because history is full of bad news about the human condition); private or grammar educated rather than comp; relatively wealthy rather than relatively poor.

All of this may be a) inaccurate, b) unfair, but I'm afraid without any corporeal contact of my own to counter this, at present my mental image of the average keyboard libertarian is of someone - the gorgeous Chris Dillow excepted - who is essentially a Tory who has extended the Thatcherite logic of free-markets beyond the shop-keeper and is up for an occasional line of coke and some free love, if only they could find themselves someone to have it with.

As well as a) and b) this all might be c) irrelevant since were talking about differences in ideology here - the truth or otherwise of which is not dependent on the sociological profile of those who espouse it. So is a libertarian really just a liberal, only more so; merely a step further along a scale which takes as its starting point the idea that the sphere in which individuals should be able to make decisions without state interference should be as large as possible? Is it really just a difference in tone - or is there something more substantial?

I'm not sure but I've a couple of thoughts. Karl Popper wrote that "the paradox of liberty is that it has to be limited in order to be enjoyed". Implicit in this - in Popper's whole thesis, I think - is a liberalism that accepts the need for the state as given. One, moreover, that extends beyond the narrow Nozickian property-rights preserving state. Liberals like this - like me - think that history shows Hobbes had something more than resembling a point when he talked about man in a "state of nature" - it's just that he failed to extend the logic of a need for restraint on government, as well as the governed.

Libertarians don't come from this starting point, I don't think. Rather, they give the impression - to me, anyway - of people who have surrendered the anarchist position very grudgingly and whose default position with regards to the state is that the validity of its very existence is something that requires continual justification.

Further, the broad church of liberalism has historically allowed for the possibility - indeed the certitude - that there are occasions where we can achieve more collectively than we could as individuals. Libertarians, in contrast, are at their most generous when they treat this idea with extreme scepticism.

This can be seen, I think, in their approach to education - as can be witnessed in this frankly appalling piece about the lessons that can be drawn about compulsory education from the recent university massacre in Virginia. There's something absolutist about all this. It is impossible for the libertarian to concede that the problem may have arisen due to lack of compulsion - i.e. the failure of the American republic to compel its citizens to disarm - so instead the narrative becomes one of the problems of compulsion, in this case with regards to schooling.

School for these is somewhere where you are oppressed, denied your individuality, and indoctrinated. These things, of course, can and do happen in our school system. But their analysis is for me so heart-breakingly monist. Apparently missing for them (maybe not, perhaps they've just forgotten) is the experience of a place where you might have been bored most of the time, you might have resented your teachers and the uniform they made you wear - but it was still a place where you learned stuff, waded through tedious lessons in order to get the qualifications to do what you really wanted to do, had a laugh, made friends you've kept until this day - the sort of people you got drunk with for the first time, maybe took some drugs, maybe even met a future partner - or if not perhaps someone you lost your virginity to? The kind of experiences, in other words, that are the stuff of communities - the sort of communities that the average libertarian gives the impression of having never lived in.

All this may well be either inaccurately or unjustifiably personal, for all I know - but what prompted these thoughts was this: Chris Dillow, in this post, made a reference to an "area where libertarianism meets Marxism." He was talking about education but I went off in a tangent. I'm not sure the area where Marxism meets libertarianism is a particularly large one, or a particularly comfortable one. Marx wrote that it is man's social being that forms his consciousness. It's obviously not what he was talking about but I was wondering: would libertarians who favour, for example, privatizing the health service have a slightly different take - a different consciousness, you could say - if they'd had the experience of someone they loved being saved from disease, disfigurement or death because of the existence of this 'Stalinist' NHS? Perhaps they've had such an experience and confirm that they would not - but I doubt it.

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