A libertarian party is wrong in principle.

Political parties can exist under two general conditions: they can be based on a well-defined ideology or be coalitions without any rigid ideology, which at best are driven by an unfocused desire to “improve things” and at worst are primarily vehicles for the careerism of politicians. All modern British Parliamentary parties fall into the latter category, which might be best described as parties of vague expediency.

Libertarians are excluded from the ideological category not because they lack ideology  but because libertarianism it is not a neat, single set of ideas. It is not even, as Marxism or Christianity are, a system of thought which has started from a central point of authority and then worked itself into various forms. Rather, it is a multitude of  different and frequently contradictory ideas which arise from the simple human aspiration to take responsibility for your own life whilst living as free as possible from the suffocating attentions of both the state and overweening private authority . In all its forms libertarianism is the pursuit of the ideal of freedom not the mechanistic working towards exact ends such as is found in Marxism.

Because freedom is essentially subjective – one libertarian’s negative freedom may be another libertarian’s positive unfreedom and vice versa. – and because the means by which even a defined and agreed free end may be realised is uncertain, the variety of movements which fall within the libertarian fold is legion. To take only the major divisions, there are the  rights theorists (who eschew force) and consequentialitists (who permit it), the Right and Left Libertarians who dispute over property, minarchists (minimalist state) and anarchocapitalists (no state), those who call themselves libertarians and those whom others call libertarians but who repudiate the term themselves, most notably Objectivists.

Any ideological libertarian party would be faced with two choices: either produce a mish mash of ideas which wholly satisfied few if any libertarians or  allow itself to be captured by ideologues who would tolerate only their form of libertarianism, which behaviour would be the antithesis of libertarian ideals.

The reason why libertarians cannot go down the road of vague expediency is simple: libertarianism is the pursuit of an idea, the ideal of freedom. A party which did not have that ideal at its heart, which did not frame its policies with the intent of realising that ideal, would by definition not be a libertarian party.

There is also the nature of those who are attracted to libertarianism . As a philosophy (in all of its strains) it will tend to attract those of independent character, people who are naturally unwilling to compromise their beliefs and will tend more than the
ordinary run of humanity to want their own way even in non-ideological matters such as party organisation. . The propensity for fission within a libertarian party would be great and this trait, together with the diverse nature of libertarian ideas, make it probable going on certain that if one libertarian party was formed others would arise to compete with it.

Still not convinced? Very well, let us suppose that a libertarian party was formed. On what policies would the party run for office? Well, a “pure” libertarian party could seek power with the intention of disbanding the state entirely. A middle-of-the-road  libertarian party would remove from the state responsibility for health, the provision of benefit for disability and employment, education, the roads and railways, power generation. All that would remain is a minimalist state providing police, a justice system, armed forces and possibly a skeleton diplomatic representation. A moderate libertarian party would accept the minimalist state and in addition attend to basic infrastructure such as roads and take the Hayek line on subsistence support, viz.: “We shall again take for granted the availability of a system of public relief which provides a minimum for all instances of proved need, so that no member of the community need be in want of food or shelter” (The Constitution of Liberty Routledge pp 300-301).

The implications of having no state or even a minimalist one would seem to most Britons to be at best dangerously naïve and at worst a philosophy designed to promote the interests of haves. (A thorough-going libertarian party would be asking the British electorate to go into the unknown because no such party has ever obtained a seat in the Commons let alone formed a government). It is unlikely any party putting forward no state or a minimalist state would be treated as anything other than political eccentrics.

Even what I have defined as a moderate libertarian party would tend to scare the electoral horses. The public would be asking what would happen to the poor or the unfortunate? Who would pick up the social pieces in an emergency? What would happen if parents cannot afford to pay for their child’s education? Doubtless when pressed during an election representatives of a moderate libertarian party would say, because no electorate would begin to listen to them otherwise, “we would not be so extreme, we would take care to ensure that a bare minimum of welfare was available to stop people starving or dying from cold, we would not allow the infrastructure of the country to be left at the mercy of market forces, we would ensure every child was educated“.

The problem with such responses from libertarians is that they sell the pass on the minimalist state. Instead, they have become part of the mainstream political debate. The only question left for them to dispute is how much should be spent on welfare, education and so on. The argument that there should be nothing spent by the state, that it should all be left to private charity, has gone.

Democracy presents an insoluble problem for libertarians because most people are not wholehearted libertarians. In fact, most people are anything but libertarian, hence the depressingly frequent polls which show large majorities in favour of identity cards and CCTV, the banning of personal weapons, restrictions on free expression and  ever more draconian restrictions on drugs. But the reluctance to embrace libertarian ideas goes far wider than those iconic libertarian issues. . Most people in Britain enthusiastically approve of the Welfare State; and it is a fair bet that most would approve of protectionism and closed borders. if they were ever asked to vote in a referendum on such matters because it is a natural human instinct to protect one’s own territory and “tribe”.

There is also the practical difficulty of a new party succeeding within the British political system. In the three centuries or so in which parties have existed in the modern sense only one new party has managed to form a government, the Labour Party. Moreover, they managed it in the highly unusual circumstances of the aftermath of a World War in which members of their Party had been co-opted into Government and thus gained a public profile. It is noteworthy that no new political grouping since the extension of the Franchise to universal manhood suffrage in 1918 has succeeded in gaining permanent representation in the Commons. It is most

In opposition the position of the party would be simple: it could act as a platform for disseminating libertarian ideas: in power it would have to deal with the ugly realities of making decisions. It would have to force those who are not libertarians to live in a libertarian world., thus negating the idea of libertarianism being built on voluntary association. The fact that governments of a different colour force libertarians to live in ways they do not wish to live is neither here nor there, for that is something done to libertarians by those who are not libertarians. Libertarians cannot respond by treating  non-libertarians in a non-libertarian manner for that would negate their libertarian ideals.

Does this mean that libertarians should eschew political action? Not a bit of it. They should make every effort to promote libertarian ideals through other parties, especially the existing mainstream parties which have a chance of power. They should join such parties and argue from within and lobby individually and as groups. They should try to obtain jobs in the mainstream media. They should lobby the mainstream media. They should In short, they should attempt to do what the liberal internationalist left has done over the past sixty years, infiltrate the positions of power and influence.

Being a libertarian should be about ends not ideology because what the libertarian wishes to achieve can be reached by more than once means. Any person who imagines there is a set of objectively necessary ideas to be a libertarian is by definition not a libertarian because they wish to reduce the world to their black and white version and exclude all other voices. The sort of self-described libertarian who believes such a thing is the type of person who can be heard wondering to themselves “what is the correct libertarian position on this?” sadly oblivious to the fact that they echo the mentality of the Marxist.

Even amongst those who describe themselves as libertarians there are few  who subscribe to the “pure” libertarian menu. Most recognise that a minimalist state is necessary, that society cannot be left entirely to voluntary association and agreement. Many go further than the absolute minimalist state and recognise that some state intervention beyond the basics of defence, justice, policing, public health and sanitation and foreign policy is necessary for the maintenance of a stable society.

Most libertarians have something in common with the mass of humanity: they are libertarian on some issues and not others. Let me take myself as an example. I am pure  libertarian on issues such free expression (no censorship at all because it is an absolute: you either have it or you do not), drugs (legalise them all), the ownership and carrying of weapons (you should be able to buy a gun as easily as a pound of carrots) and self-defence (you should be able to use whatever force you choose if attacked), public surveillance by the state or others (an outrage), petty state interference with private life (an absolute no, no).

On other issues such as immigration and free trade I take a non-libertarian position because I believe the ultimate consequences of these  policies is to undermine the ends which libertarians seek because they create circumstances of pernicious competition, both ethnic and a simple scramble for scarce resources. The more fractious a society is the less libertarian it will be because when a society becomes more disordered those with power seek ever more authoritarian means to control the disorder. Libertarians may wish this was not so but it is a contingent fact that it always happens. .

These views provoke a considerable variety of responses from those who call themselves libertarians. Nor is the response of any individual libertarian I have ever encountered consistently libertarian. . One person may disapprove of drug legalisation while being utterly opposed to surveillance; another be in favour of free trade but against open border immigration. Interestingly, the most general resistance I have encountered is on the issues of freely available drugs and weapons, support for which one might have imagined would be naturally close to all libertarian hearts. .

The fact that few libertarians do follow a wholeheartedly libertarian ideological line means that most will not find it emotionally impossibly to engage with other parties. They will have even less difficulty with single issue movements. The individual libertarian will be able to pursue his or her particular libertarian passions within such contexts.

Should libertarians be downhearted at the idea that there should be no libertarian party or any likelihood of a full-blooded libertarian programme being brought to reality? Most certainly not, in fact, they should rejoice. Libertarians should never wish for a perfect libertarian society because one could only exist if all other competing forms of political thought and action were suppressed by authoritarian means, for it is certain that never would there be circumstances where most let alone all would subscribe to the full gamut of libertarian ends. That inescapable authoritarianism would undermine the principle at the heart of libertarianism: voluntary association. All that would exist would be a perfect libertarian society in form not content and even the form would be ephemeral for all tyrannies fall sooner rather than later.


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  • Claire Khaw  On February 2, 2012 at 2:24 am

    A Libertarian one-party state would be the perfection solution.

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