Libertarianism again

There have been a couple of long responses to my last post on libertarianism and Ukip.

First out of the blocks was Longrider, who takes us away from abstract political ideologies and brings in a bit of pragmatism.

Libertarianism in its pure form is anarchy. If you are to have individual freedom, sooner or later you are going to need commonly accepted rules to govern the limits of that freedom. Put simply, all freedoms are limited to a greater or lesser degree. I do not profess to have the freedom to do as I please if it hurts others or impinges on their freedoms. The moment we accept this principle, we have stepped away from the brink of anarchy that is the absolute of libertarianism.

None of the libertarian bloggers I frequent appear to be offering anarchy as an alternative to what we have. This means that they recognise the need for some form of collective behaviour where individuals are unable to achieve their aims alone. We need government for foreign policy, policing, defence, local services, for example. Therefore, we accept (grudgingly) the need for general taxation to fund these activities. Depending on just how extreme is the individual will decide just how large that list is. So all of those libertarian bloggers are prepared to compromise. It doesn’t damage their libertarian credentials, though; it merely makes them pragmatists.

Longrider is absolutely correct. There is probably not a single (sane) person on the planet who thinks that there should be no government. But this is precisely my problem with a lot of the arguments put forward by libertarians.

It is a contradiction to say that government intervention in the economy is a bad thing, then to turn around and say that the government should do everything it can to control immigration. Either interfering in the economy is bad or it isn’t. Make your mind up.

I am not saying that everybody has to make a black and white choice between having a lot of government invovlement or none at all. Far from it. I sit in between, like most people do. It is not inconsistent to want free trade in goods and services but to want a restriction in the movement of labour.

But this is the thing. Once you accept that some government intervention can be a force for good, you have voided your ability to use “small government” as a mantra, a panacea for all economic ills.

It is no longer good enough just to say, for instance, “the government should reduce taxes because government intervention harms the economy and restricts my freedom.” Because in DK’s instance, he has decided that, in the case of movement of labour, govenment intervention improves the economy and that freedom matters not a jot.

I should now link to DK’s post now as the issues are becoming intertwined. His post contains not a single sweary-word, which AntiCitizenOne in the comments reckons means that “you can tell he was angry”. Heh, sorry about that DK.

DK is at pains to point out that while he is broadly in favour of free trade, he has reservations when it comes to labour.

I have reservations about the free trade in labour for reasons that I shouldn’t have to expand on beyond saying that my reservations are based on the fact that humans are not homogenous. If we were, we wouldn’t be having all this ruckus about Muslims, veils, etc.

The thing is, DK is probably right that there are problems with culture, language and so on that mean that in reality free movement of people can be a genuine problem (even though I think most of the “problems”, particularly with the debate about veils at the moment, are exacerbated and blown out of proportion by the government and the media).

But cultural issues are not the only things that vex DK about migration.

Our policy of poaching trained nurses from Africa and the Phillipines or doctors from India has been criticised, for instance, because it leaves already impoverished countries lacking trained medical staff. And now, of course, many of our medical staff cannot find jobs here and are looking to go abroad (but you can pretty much guarantee that they won’t go to the Phillipines or Africa.

Now, one can argue that this is precisely what the free market is about, but it is difficult to conclude that it does not both countries, in general terms, worse off.

In the short term it probably does make at least one of the countries worse off. In the long term it would probably make everybody better off. A proponent of the free market would usually say that if there is such a high demand for nurses in the Phillipines, surely it will encourage many more people to become nurses in the Phillipines because wages will be increased.

Here’s what The Economist had to say about migration of Poles a few months ago.

Even the emigration of a million-odd Poles has its upside. It is better to wash dishes in London than to be jobless at home. Many Poles abroad are learning new skills, languages and attitudes that will stand them in good stead when they return, as most do. Freedom of movement inside the EU means that, unlike previous generations, most Poles are not emigrating for ever.

All I will say is that short term losses for long term benefits are usually relished by libertarians. Who can seriously argue that cutting welfare benefits would not make anybody worse off in the short term, even if it makes them better off in the long term?

Just as free trade in labour has its problems, free trade in everything has its problems. These are usually played down by libertarians — think of income inequalities. But in the case of labour, DK is placing an emphasis on them.

As I said, it is perfectly fine to hold these views, even if the explanations for holding these views seem inconsistent. But that is the thing. It is not the views themselves that I object to — although I may not necessarily agree with them, that wasn’t the point I was making. It is the explanations of these views that need some fine tuning.

Since DK has revealed that in his opinion government intervention can be a force for good, he has become a utilitarian like the rest of us. It is no longer good enough just to call for smaller government for the sake of smaller government which is what most libertarians spend much of their time doing.

Longrider also puts forward this favourite argument of those who would like more controls on migration.

The argument comparing movement of peoples within the UK and peoples moving in from outside is fine but for the small matter of numbers. Just how many people can we accommodate before it becomes too much?

But people have been predicting such a Malthusian catastrophe for centuries and it has never happened, not in Britain at least (and famously the world has a food surplus). Incidentally, the fact that a Malthusian catastrophe has never occurred is also one of the most popular (and convincing) arguments put forward by climate change / peak oil deniers. Somehow, for some on the right, while it means that nothing should be done about climate change, it suddenly becomes a major problem when it comes to migration. Strange.

DK points at water shortages in the south east as evidence that it is happening, but I don’t buy that. People just as commonly point at climate change or the privatisation of water companies as causes of those water shortages, but DK wouldn’t see it as a reason to nationalise the water industry or treat climate change as a top priority.

Given that population growth in the UK (and Europe) is reaching a plateau, and that population in Scotland has actually been declining, the idea that the UK is somehow running out of space is absurd. Anyway, if we were genuinely unable to accommodate more people, nobody would want to move here, would they? That’s how the free market supposedly works you see.


  1. Good response.

    But people have been predicting such a Malthusian catastrophe for centuries and it has never happened, not in Britain at least (and famously the world has a food surplus).

    My question was rhetorical as I don’t proffer an answer. Also, as I made clear in my piece, I am broadly in favour of worldwide open borders (free movement of people and goods – even though I share some of DK’s reservations). It ain’t gonna happen, but then, that’s life…

  2. […] I really don’t want this debate between me and DK to go on and on ad infinitum, so I’ll keep this short. DK has responded to my post yesterday. He says I’m missing the point. But I fear it is infact DK who is missing the point. But I’ll go through his points in the order he wrote them. …[O]ne might also say that, to bring the greatest economic prosperity, one might desire a certain type of person to move into this country. Are the people that Martin Kelly constantly highlights in his Foreign Criminal Of The Day series (a great many of whom carry previous convictions in their own countries) economically or socially beneficial to this country? I would say that they are not. […]