Tag Archives: libertarianism

Would a libertarian society deprive individuals of cultural roots and collective identity?

Robert Henderson

There are many rooms in the libertarian  ideological house.  That fact often derails rational discussion of libertarian issues, but it need not be a problem in this instance because the question being asked is most  efficiently  examined   by testing  it against  the flintiest wing of libertarian thought.   If  that pristine, uncompromising  form of libertarianism is incompatible with the maintenance of cultural roots and collective identity, then  all other shades of libertarianism will be incompatible to some degree.

The pristine libertarian has no truck with  any form of government, believing that  personal relations  between individuals  will adequately order society no matter how large or complex the society,  and that such ordering will arise naturally if  only the artificially constraints on human behaviour such as governments and laws are removed.   Such a society  would supposedly  work along these lines.    If the society is threatened by an invader,  individuals will join together to defend it out of a sense of self-preservation.  To   those who cannot work for reasons of sickness, injury, age or innate infirmity,  compassion and a sense of duty will ensure that private charity is  extended  to relieve the need. If  public works such as roads and railways are required, self-interest and reason will drive individuals to join to together to build them.   Matters such as education may be safely  left to parents and such charitable provision as arises.   Above all the individual is king and personal choice is only circumscribed if a choice involves the imposition of one individual’s will on another.   You get the idea.  The consequence is a vision of a society not  a million miles away from  Rightist  forms of anarchism.

This concentration on the individual makes for a fissile society. If each person  is to follow his or her  own way  without any requirement to believe anything other than to respect the conditions necessary to realise libertarian ends , that in itself  would definitely weaken  collective identity and probably affect cultural unity.  Nonetheless in a truly homogeneous society, especially if it was small, the probability is that cultural weakening would not be great and the absence of a conscious collective identity would not present a difficulty provided the society was not subject to a serious threat from outside.

Serious problems  for the pristine libertarian  arise if the society is heterogeneous,  because  then there is a loss of collective unity. If the heterogeneity comes from class,  the cultural roots may  be largely untouched or at least develop in a way  which ensures that there is still much cultural  uniformity  and that uniformity is clearly an extension of  past cultural traits. It is also true that in a racially and ethnically homogeneous society, a sense of collective unity will be easily rekindled if the society comes under external threat.

The most difficult society for libertarians to deal with is one which is ethnically divided, especially if the ethnic divide includes racial difference. There a society becomes not so much a society but a series of competing racial and ethnic enclaves.   In such a situation,  it is inevitable that both  cultural unity and collective identity is undermined because there is no  shared general cultural experience and this plus racial difference makes a collective identity not merely impossible but absurd even in concept.

The brings us to the most obvious threat presented by pristine  libertarians to the maintenance of cultural roots and collective identity. That  is the idea that national boundaries  should be irrelevant with people travelling and settling wherever they choose.  This presumes human beings are essentially interchangeable and in this respect it echoes  multiculturalism.  The consequence of such a belief is to greatly increase the heterogeneity of a society through the mass immigration of those who are radically different from the native population.  We do not need to guess what the result of such immigration is because it  has happened throughout the western world in our own time. More specifically, it has happened in those  countries whose populations which are most naturally sympathetic  to libertarian ideas: those which may broadly be described as Anglo-Saxon; countries such as Britain, the USA and what used to be known as  the old white dominions.

The influx of millions of people who  see themselves as separate from the native populations of the countries to which they had migrated has resulted in the Anglo-Saxon states gradually destroying their tradition of freedom. Driven by a mixture of liberal internationalist ideology and fear, their  elites have severely restricted by laws and their control of the media  and public institutions  what may be said publicly about immigration and its consequences.  In Britain it is now possible to be brought to court simply for saying to someone from an ethnic minority “go home”, while any allegation of racist behaviour  – which may be no more than failing to invite someone from an ethnic minority  to an office party – against a public servant will result at best in a long inquiry and at worst with dismissal.  Nor, in practice, is application of the law or the  witch-hunts  directed equally against everyone for it is overwhelmingly native Britons who are targeted.

At the same time as native Britons are being silenced and intimidated, an incessant tide of pro-immigrant and multiculturalist  propaganda is pumped out by government, the public organisations they control such as the civil service and state schools and the mass media , which is overwhelmingly signed up to the liberal internationalist way of thinking.  The teaching of history has been made a non-compulsory subject in British schools after the age of 14 and such history as  is taught  is next to worthless in promoting a sense of collective unity,  both because it fails to give any chronological context to what is put before the pupils  because it concentrates on “themes”  rather than periods and because the amount of British history that is contained within  the syllabus is tiny, often consisting of the Tudors and little else.  The consequence is that the young of the native British population are left with both a sense that their own culture is in some strange way to be valued less than that of the various immigrant groups and the lack of any knowledge about their country’s past.

The most  and sinister  consequence of  post-war immigration and the British elite’s response to it  is the development within Britain of  a substantial number of Muslims who not only do not have any sense of belonging to the broader society in which they live, but who are actively hostile to  Britain and its values.  But if this is the most dramatic example of the fracturing  of British society, it is merely symptomatic of the separatist attitude of  ethnic minorities in Britain generally, especially those from radically alien cultures allied to racial difference.

All of these developments are antithetical to pristine  libertarian ideals,  both because they  undermine  shared values and because they  result in actions to control friction between competing racial and ethnic groups which in themselves undermine the conditions in which libertarian ideals  flourish.  That libertarians so often subscribe to the ideal of open borders despite the overwhelming evidence of  its counter-productive effects for libertarian ends is indicative of the blinkered nature of much libertarian thinking.

The fundamental weakness of pristine  libertarianism is its complete  failure to take  account of  human psychology  and the way humans behave as groups.  This is unsurprising  because of the central position given to the individual.  But by doing this pristine  libertarians  ignore the central fact of being human: we are a social animal. Being  a social animal entails two defining behaviours: all social animals  produce hierarchies  and   all social animals place limits to the group.  Homo sapiens is no exception.

Because hierarchies in the human context arise not only from the personal efforts, qualities and talents of each individual, as is the case with animals,  but from the  position  each individual occupies through the accident of birth, this raises two difficulties for libertarians.  The first is there is not a level playing field and without that the pristine  libertarian ideal of society organising itself through freely  entered into relationships is severely distorted because it is clearly absurd to say that a man born poor is freely entering into a master-servant relationship with a man born rich when the poor man needs money simply to feed himself.  The second difficulty is that the very existence of an hierarchy,  whether or not it is based on merit, undermines the notion of free choice because once it is established different power relationships exist.

The question of hierarchy becomes more complex as the heterogeneity of a society grows whether that be ever deeper division into classes or increasing ethnic and racial diversity . All social animals have to have boundaries  to  know where the group begins and ends.  This is  because a social animal must operate  within a hierarchy and a hierarchy can only exist where  there are  boundaries.   No boundaries,  no hierarchy, because  no  individual could  ever  know what the dominance/submission situation  was  within their species or at least within those members of the species with whom they interact.

The need to define the group is particularly important for libertarians.    Above all libertarianism requires  trust. In the pristine libertarian society this means each individual believing that other people will keep their word and generally behave honestly. But as we all know only too well  people cannot  be trusted to observe societal norms and a society which is fractured by class, race or  ethnicity  is the least likely of all to have a shared sense of what is right.  Therefore,  libertarians need to recognise that however much they would like to believe that each human being is an individual who may go where he or she pleases and do what he or she pleases, the sociological reality precludes  this and that the only sane ideological course for a libertarian is to advocate closed borders and the preservation of the homogeneity of  those societies which are most favourable to libertarian ideals not because the society  consciously espouses them,  but because the  society has evolved in a way which includes libertarian traits.

There will be libertarians who find it immensely difficult going on impossible to accept that the individual must in some respects be subordinated to the group.  They will imagine, as liberal internationalists do, that human nature can be changed, although in the case of libertarians the change will come not from re-education but the creation of circumstances propitious for libertarian behaviour to emerge.  Let me explain why this is impossible because of the innate differences between  human beings and the effects of cultural imprinting.

Because Man is differentiated profoundly by culture, the widely accepted definition  of a species – a population of freely interbreeding organisms sharing a common gene pool –   is  unsatisfactory,  for  clearly Man is  more  than  a brute   animal  responding   to   simple  biological   triggers.  When   behavioural differences  are perceived as belonging to a particular group  by  that group  as differentiating  members of the group from other  men,    they perform the same role as  organic differences for  they divide Man  into cultural species.

An analogy with computers can be made. As hardware,  a particular model of  computer is  practically identical to every other computer which  is classified  as  the same model.  But the  software available to every computer of the same model is not identical.   They may run  different operating systems, either completely different or different versions of the same program. The software which runs under the operating system is different  with different versions of the same program being used.  The data which is input to the computer varies and this in turn affects the capabilities of the computer.

It  clearly makes no sense to say every computer of the same  model  is the same even if the computer is loaded with the same software.   But of  course  not  all  computers  are  of  the  same  model.  They  vary tremendously  in  their  power.  The same software  will  run  at  very different  rates  because of this.  Storage and memory size  also  vary tremendously. Some computers cannot run programmes because the programmes  are too large.   We  may call all computers computers ,  but that is to say little more  than that  all  animals are animals,  for  computers  range  from  the immensely  powerful super computers – the homo sapiens  of  the computer  world  as it were – to the amoeba of the  simple  chip  which controls  lights  being put on or off in a room  depending  on whether someone is in it.

Are the circumstances of computers  not akin to those of  Man?  Do  not the racially based  differences in IQ correspond to the differences  in power  of  older  and  newer computers?  Do not different  languages  represent different operating systems? For example, think how different must be the mentality of  a native Chinese speaker (using  a language which  is entirely  monosyllabic)  to that of a native English speaker  (using  a polysyllabic language) simply because of the profound difference in the structure  of the language. A language will not merely impose limits on what  may  be  expressed it will affect the  entire  mentality  of  the individual,  from aesthetic appreciation to  social expression. Is not the experiential input analogous to the holding of different data?

But the most potent of human behavioural triggers are racial differences,  for they exercise the strongest control over the group in a territory where different racial groups exist. Race trumps ethnicity where the ethnic clash is one of people of the same race but different ethnicities.  Place a significant population of a different race into a territory where ethnicity rather than race is the cause of unrest and the ethnic factions of the same race will tend to unite against those of a different race.

To argue that racial difference is  not important to the choice of a mate is as absurd as arguing  that the attractiveness of a person is irrelevant to the choice of a  mate.

In  Freakonomics  Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner  cite a study made of a  US dating site (the full story is on pp 80-84).  The site is one  of the  largest  in  the US and the data examined  covered  30,000  people equally  divided  between San Diego and Boston.   Most were  white  but there was a substantial minority of non-white subjects.

The  questionnaire the  would-be  daters had to  fill  in  included  a question  choice on race as “same as mine”  and “doesn’t matter”.   The study  compared  the responses  by white would-be  daters  (those  from non-white were not analysed) to these  questions with the race of  the emails  actually  sent soliciting a date.   The result  in  Levitt  and Dubner’s words was:

“Roughly  half of the white women on the site  and  80  percent  of  the white men declared that  race  didn’t  matter to them. But the response data tell a different story  The white men who said that race didn’t  matter sent  90  percent of  their e-mail  queries  to  white women. The  white women who said race  didn’t  matter sent about 97 percent of their e-mail queries to white men.

“Is  it  possible that race really didn’t  matter  for  these  white women and men and that they simply  never  happened  to browse a non-white date  that  interested them?”

Or,  more likely, did they say that race didn’t matter  because they wanted to come across  especially  to potential mates of their own race as open-minded?” In short, around 99% of all the women and 94%  of all men in the sample were  not  willing  to  seek a  date of a  different  race.   How  much stronger  will  be  the tendency to refuse to breed with a  mate  of  a different race?

If sexual desire will not commonly override the natural disinclination to remain racially separate nothing will.

Because the tendency to mate with those of a similar race is so strong  and universal,  both in place and time, it is reasonable to conclude  that the  behaviour  is innate and that cultures  necessarily include  the requirement for a member of the society to be of a certain racial type. The  consequence of this is that someone of a different racial type  is effectively precluded from full integration because one of the criteria for  belonging has not been met.  That is not to say,  of course,  that many  of the habits of mind of an alien culture may not be  adopted  by someone  of  a  different race.  What is withheld  is  the  instinctive acceptance  of the alien and his or her descendants  as members of  the society. Just as no human being can decide for themselves that they are a member of this or that group, no individual can decide that they belong to this or that nation because it is a two-way process: the other members of the group they wish to join have to accept them as a true member of the group. (Stephen Frears the English  film director once wryly remarked that he had known the actor Daniel Day-Lewis “before he was Irish”).

Where does this leave us? In its present form libertarianism is a most efficient  dissolver of cultural roots and collective identity. It is this because it ignores the realities of  Man’s social nature.  This results in the  creation of the very circumstances which are least conducive to the realisation of libertarian ends.  If libertarians are to realise those ends, they must recognise that the society  most favourable to their beliefs  is one which is homogeneous in which the shared values create the platform of trust which must underlie libertarian behaviour.   Of course, that does not guarantee a society favourable to libertarians because  the shared values may be antithetical to them, but it is a necessary if not sufficient condition for libertarian ideals to flourish. To that libertarians must add a recognition that there are profound differences between ethnic and racial groups and identify those societies which are most worth protecting because they have the largest element of libertarian traits within them.

Written for entry to the 2010 Chris Tame prize

Can a Libertarian also be a Conservative?

Robert Henderson

If there was ever an essay title  which begged questions it is this one. What is a libertarian and what  a conservative? What is liberty? What is  Left, what is Right?  The problems of definition run so deep that they efficiently sabotage the question “Can a Libertarian also be a Conservative?”

Take libertarianism. The range of views which huddle under the libertarian banner range from the absolutists who want no government  at all  with everything decided by  voluntary agreement, to those who accept varying degrees of state intervention from a minimal state comprised of justice, police, defence and the tax raising powers needed to fund such a  state, to those like Hayek who accept that the state should provide a bare level of subsistence for those unable to work.

But the confusion does not stop there. Question any libertarian closely and  you will invariably find that they are inconsistent in their beliefs. For example, a libertarian will often claim to be  absolutely opposed to censorship  in the abstract but then start making exceptions for the difficult cases such as child pornography or racism.

Or take the central tenet of libertarian thought , the primacy of property, a concept which  for libertarians stretches beyond the common use meaning of the word to such things as the property a man has in his labour or his right to have a say in any government which taxes him. At the level of common usage – goods and services which a man owns – property  is underpinned for the libertarian  by a commitment to laissez faire economics , both within the domestic market and for international trade. Yet many, probably most,  libertarians  accept without question such gross interferences with a free market as anti-monopoly laws, limited liability and copyright.

Nonetheless there is a general thrust to libertarian thought; that   individuals should live lives largely untrammelled by government  and  society should be primarily arranged on the basis of agreement between  individuals. Institutions, culture  and  history are not a necessary part of a libertarian’s  life although they may contingently form part of it.

With conservatism the immediate problem of definition is the pedantic fact that a  a conservative is one who wishes to maintain the status quo. If a libertarian lived in a society which was already thoroughly libertarian, they would presumably wish to maintain the status quo and hence be  a conservative in that context.

But of course conservative has a particular political connotation and that is infinitely  more problematical. We have a party called Conservative in Britain but it is not  a party which would have been recognised as conservative two centuries ago. Semantic drift over the past two centuries

while libertarianism and the natural tendency of human beings to find ideologies imperfect  and to consequently wish to amend them.  However, although no objective certainty is possible, an examination of  the terms will reveal what they share and if there is any absolute bar to their mixing.

The Duke of  Wellington epitomises the mentality of the Ancien Regime.  He objected to the practice of   private soldiers cheering their officers because it came close to the expression of  an opinion. He believed that his private soldiers were the scum of the earth but admired them. He was resolutely opposed to any extension of the franchise – he described the first post-Great Reform Act House of Commons as containing “more bad hats than he had ever seen”.

In 1809 when the party we today call conservative or Tory  was known only as Tory, a thorough going conservative (if the term had existed as a political denomination)  would have been someone who supported the landed interest against the Whig commercial interest,  was for the Old Colonial System and against the idea of free trade, both in the domestic market and with the rest of the world,  looked with a jaundiced eye at  British foreign adventures  and  thought the British Constitution  a model of perfection,  which perfection nullified the need for any  reform of rotten boroughs or expansion of the franchise.

But if that was the feeling of the natural Tory in 1809 there were ideological rats gnawing away at the innards of the of the Party.  Pitt the Younger had been in sympathy with the idea of free trade but his plans were thwarted by the French Revolution.

Once lodged within some supposedly Tory hearts the idea lay there like  a dormant disease for the better part of 40 years, every now and then flaring up but never seriously challenging the existing Tory order.  Then came the Great Reform Act of 1832 and  a newly bourgeois House of Commons changed the balance of political power. With that came the opportunity of laissez faire.   Surprisingly the man who gave it practical effect was a supposedly Tory Prime Minister  Sir Robert Peel . He for the second time in his career  (1) broke a solemn promise to his party and began a series of reforms – of which the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 is the most famous – which gradually  emasculated the Old Colonial System until it was finally died at the  beginning of the 1860s.

The effect of Peel’s embracing  of laissez faire policies was to cause a split in the Tory Party which kept them out of power for more than twenty years.  During that time the Whigs, who were in the process of evolving into the Liberals,  avidly embraced the policies of  laissez faire and free trade. (2). Just as Old Labour transmogrified into NuLabour and the Conservatives into NuTory  during long spells in the political wilderness  through a desperation for office so did the Tories in the mid-nineteenth century.  The  party split after 1846  but  the party which was left and which developed over the next 25 years saw  laissez faire  firmly ensconced within it without becoming utterly dominant. It was a party divided between  Tories and Conservatives.

Because it has been melded by practical politics and the Conservatism traditionally sees institutions, culture  and  history  as vitally important because they are the priceless artefacts of the organic development of society, the repositories of the collective wisdom of  the evolution of society.

At the same time the party which was now called Liberal was split between  Whigs and the new liberals

But just as libertarianism and conservatism has mutated over time and are both broad ideological churches today , so have other political ideologies. Socialism can run from meaning any state intervention beyond the minimal state –  socialist and  commie are  common epithets directed at Obama in his attempt to provide universal healthcare in the USA – to Marxist-Leninism.

There is a profound practical difference  between the two ideologies. Conservatism has been put to the test of being encased within serious political parties which have formed governments while the libertarian cause has  been more of an aspiration than an organised  political movement. Indeed, there is an inherent difficulty in the idea of  libertarianism being enshrined within a party because. a party implies not only a set menu of policies but the need for enforced discipline on party members. Even more problematic is the idea of a libertarian government because that would mean libertarians forcing their will on those who were not libertarian, a direct contradiction of the idea of voluntary association which lies at the heart of libertarianism.

The worm at the heart of the concept of  liberty is the division between negative and positive freedom. Libertarians eagerly embrace negative freedom but thrust positive freedom firmly away, because negative freedom is simply the freedom to do whatever is not forbidden, while positive freedom requires the intervention of state authority to impose  measures such as a re-distribution of wealth or the  favouring of the poor when it comes to the provision of state-funded education. Indeed, many libertarians would deny that positive freedom is a  semantic fraud akin to “positive discrimination” .

The  consequence of  libertarians denying the need

Negative and positive freedom are not of course concepts which are peculiar to libertarians. Conservatives, even of the “old order” were great supporters of negative freedom. The last thing they wanted was an intrusive state for it interfered with their  social and political power. Nor did the entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution, who were all for the state allowing them to run their mines and factories as they  chose without such encumbrances as the Factory Acts.

The roots of libertarianism lie in the natural bias of  human beings to follow their own will.  But because Man is the social animal par excellence that will has to be filtered through the will of others. This necessitates, for any viable society, a degree of general concord. That is turn raises problems of  how such concord is reached. In simple tribal societies agreement is reached partly by  accumulated custom, partly by the natural formation of hierarchies and partly by general discussion and agreement.  These three things apply  to more sophisticated and larger societies but other forces come into play in such societies: the need for delegated authority and representation and the magnification of  the power of individuals through their control of ever greater resources  whether privately held or state acquired. This invariably restricts the freedom of the individual. It is consequently pointless for the libertarian to produce a blueprint for a libertarian society which is intended to fit any society regardless of its size and sophistication.

In principle, the libertarian ideal of a society based on individual agreement can be most closely approached at the level of the small tribal society, because it is only at that level that it is practical to have a society which can be run entirely on the basis of personal contact.  The fact that tribal societies are in practice far from the libertarian ideal is another matter, although  in some at least the reality is  probably closer to the libertarian ideal of individual determination and agreement than is any more sophisticated society because  circumstances force all the members to interact with one another.  What matters  is the  practicality of libertarianism within the society.

Once the

There is of course a great deal of difference between  theoretical political  positions and their practical realisation. A naturally authoritarian government  with very limited resources  may impinge far less on  the lives of those it governs than a government which has avowed libertarian intentions but a  much larger treasury, An Englishman living in the first half of the nineteenth century would have had his life little brushed against by the state provided he did not fall into criminal ways or need great enough to drive him to the Poorhouse. What could have impinged upon his freedom were poverty, lack of education,   the still surviving social dominance of landowners, the virtually unrestrained power of employers, especially in industry, and the general restrictions of  the class structure.

There is a lesson for libertarians there. Freedom is not simply  the absence of state control. It is also freedom from  the  tyranny of  those who are  powerful without the support of the state,   whether that be as a group or an individual,  That raises the problem of how libertarians are to create a society which minimises  both state intervention and non-state social control.  Clearly both cannot be realised so that there has to be a trade off between the two. If this is not done, all  the realisation of libertarian non-statist aspirations will achieve is the rapid creation of a plutocracy, a form of society which is antithetical to libertarian ends because it would reinforce and  enlarge the natural tendency within societies to

The honest answer to the question posed by the competition’s essay title is simple:  it cannot be meaningfully answered because there is no such thing as a perfect adherent to libertarian or conservative ideology  or an objectively certain  definition of Libertarian or Conservative. The same applies to any  other political ideology.  That being so it makes no sense to argue whether a libertarian can also be a Conservative even if a conservative is defined as  it has been  defined politically for the past few centuries.

What can be said is that most people who sail under the Conservative flag today  share much with libertarians, at least in their theoretical policy positions. They favour  a minimum of state interference in most aspects of  national life, the main areas of policy where this does not apply being policing and penal policy. Such people  are supporters of laissez faire economics,  although they often oppose completely free movement of labour.  They are for low tax.  They  support the idea of the family, something which a libertarian should support because the family is a bulwark against the state. They favour strong defence, something acceptable at least to libertarians who are not absolutists.  They support private healthcare and  private schools and ideally would wish universities to be independent of government.

A  card-carrying Libertarian could not be a card carrying political Conservative in any of the words’ historical or present senses. What he can be today is someone who embraces those aspects of  modern political conservatism  which accord with or at the least come nearest to meeting libertarian desires.  In theory at least, there are plenty of those.

But there is more hope for most libertarians than merely making do with aspects of conservatism,  for as pointed out above  few who call themselves libertarians are thorough going believers. They, like every other person, can  choose political ideas which are deemed to be politically incompatible  according to a particular creed or the  traditional  Left-Right political classifications.

Political ideas at bottom are simply conveniences  which human beings accept or reject insofar as they find them useful and congenial. Logical necessity extrapolated from an ideology counts for nothing.  For example, the more extreme believers in laissez faire economics build a theoretical construct which insists that free trade must logically include free movement of labour. The logical necessity exists only within their man made and self-conscious ideology, and is irrelevant  to real life  because it is self-evidently possible to operate a political policy of free trade in goods and services while preventing mass immigration.

There is no shame in  ideological eclecticism, merely an acknowledgment of  the impracticality or impracticality of political ideas and a recognition that  all ideologies are inadequate descriptions of reality and contain contradictions.  Political ends should be aspirations  towards the ideal.

For only liberty, only a free market, can organize and maintain an industrial system, and the more that population expands and explodes, the more necessary is the unfettered working of such an industrial economy. Laissez-faire and the free market become more and more evidently necessary as an industrial system develops; radical deviations cause breakdowns and economic crises. This crisis of statism becomes particularly dramatic and acute in a fully socialist society; and hence the inevitable breakdown of statism has first become strikingly apparent in the countries of the socialist (i.e., Communist) camp. For socialism confronts its inner contradiction most starkly. Desperately, it tries to fulfill its proclaimed goals of industrial growth, higher standards of living for the masses, and eventual withering away of the State, and is increasingly unable to do so with its collectivist means. Hence the inevitable breakdown of socialism.   Murray N. Rothbard

Cicero quotes Cato as saying that the Roman constitution was superior to that of other states because it “was based upon the genius, not of one man, but of many: it was founded, not in one generation, but in a long period of several centuries and many ages of men. For, said he, there never has lived a man possessed of so great a genius that nothing could escape him, nor could the combined powers of all men living at one time possibly make all the necessary provisions for the future without the aid of actual experience

and the test of time.” Chapter Four, Freedom, Reason, and Tradition; The

Constitution of Liberty ISBN 0-226-32084-7, University of Chicago Press | 1960 | Friedrich A. Hayek

There are many things specifically in laws and governments,” wrote Chief Justice Hale in the seventeenth century in a critique of Hobbes, “that mediately, remotely and consequentially are reasonable to be approved, though the reason of the party does not presently or immediately and distinctly see its reasonableness…Long experience makes more discoveries touching conveniences or inconveniences of laws than is possible for the wisest council of men at first to foresee. And that those amendments and supplements that through the various experiences of wise and knowing men have been applied to any law must needs be better suited to the convenience of laws, than the best invention of the most pregnant wits not aided by such a series and tract of experience…This add to the  difficulty of the present fathoming of the reason of laws, which, though it commonly be called the mistress of fools, yet certainly it is the wisest expedient among mankind, and discovers those defects and supplies which no wit of man could either at once foresee or aptly remedy…It is not necessary that the reasons of the institution should be evident unto us. It is sufficient that they are instituted laws that give a certainty to us, and it is reasonable to observe them though the particular reason of the institution appear not.”

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.


Means subverting ends – The fatal flaw at the heart of libertarianism

Ends not means

A political philosophy should be about ends not means because there is never a single certain way by which a political end can be achieved and the interpretation of what constitutes the attainment of an end is subjective. Moreover, the prescription of means may subvert the desired ends, the most common example being the corrupting nature of violence used to gain that which is morally desirable.

Where a political philosophy hardens into an ideology (a menu of ideas which supposedly acts as a sociological algorithm to answer all political questions), the individual who accepts it unconditionally has given up his or her personal autonomy and has moved from rationality into the realm of religious belief. This is pernicious because all ideologies are inadequate descriptions of reality at best and contain internal contradictions at worst. These deficiencies mean that any attempt to rigorously apply the tenets of an ideology leads to outcomes which are damaging because they conflict with reality. Sadly, many libertarians have crossed the line between philosophy and ideology.

An example of rigidly inappropriate adherence to ideology is the distinction being made between depositors and shareholders in the present banking crisis. The argument that shareholders by definition take a risk while depositors do not looks attractive at first glance but has no logical substance. Any arrangement an individual or corporate body makes with a private company other than a bank has exactly the same status as the relationship between a bank and a depositor. For example, if I put down a deposit on a fitted bathroom and the company liquidates before I receive the goods I have almost certainly lost my deposit. That is exactly the same situation as a depositor who has placed their money in a bank which then finds itself insolvent. The depositor has provided the bank with his or her money to purchase banking facilities and possibly interest on the money deposited.

A rigid follower of laissez faire would say let the depositors lose their deposits, arguing caveat emptor and suggesting that depositors had only themselves to blame if they failed to take out insurance to guarantee their deposits. This is correct in logic if you accept the premise that what primarily matters is maintaining the principle of personal responsibility, a “let justice be done although the Heavens fall” approach. If it was their own savings at risk, the odds are that no libertarian would be arguing that the depositors should be left to stew in their own responsibility. Moral: don’t subscribe to a philosophy which is too demanding.

The sane and practical way for libertarians to proceed is to identify their general ends and then look at what type of society will bring them closest to those ends. This assessment should into account human psychology and sociology, for any system of thought which is incompatible with human nature or its sociological expression is at best futile and at worst destructive. Because of the emphasis on personal freedom and responsibility, the danger for any libertarian is that they concentrate so much on the individual that they recklessly neglect the fact that Man is a social animal. Where that happens, their vision of what a libertarian society should be becomes utopian and consequently unobtainable.

There is plentiful evidence that the extent to which human beings will behave badly or well is to a large extent determined by their circumstances. As a general rule those with power, wealth and influence will behave with less restraint than those who lack such advantages. The reason for this is easy to see: power, wealth and influence remove the social restraints which keep most people within the bounds of reasonable behaviour. The powerful tend to believe they are beyond criticism or punishment; and think they do not need the voluntary help of others because they can purchase what assistance they require, while those without power fear retribution,, for bad behaviour and recognise that they need the voluntary assistance of others. The lesson for libertarians is that their philosophy must be designed to create a society which produces not complete equality of circumstances for all its members but enough similarity between each to prevent significant abuses of power.

What are the general ends of libertarianism?

All libertarians support the idea of laissez faire (generally, not only in economics), although they vary considerably in the role they allow the state, They are united in their desire to see as much as possible of social interaction left to voluntary agreement between individuals,. They wish, if they wish for a state at all, for it to be the absolute minimum required to provide the necessary framework around which society can coherently form and survive. They are strongly opposed to the state intervening in the decisions the individual makes which are private to
themselves.. They wish to see human beings living lives in which the individual takes, as far as is possible, responsibility for his or her life and for any dependants. They expect to provide voluntary aid to those in need.

Perhaps most importantly libertarians give a central place to the notion of property, a word which in libertarian thought has a connotation which extends far beyond its commonplace meaning of the ownership of physical objects to such things as a man’s labour and his very body.

Varieties of libertarianism

The most unblemished libertarians favour a world in which each individual provides for and protects his own family and property, a world in which voluntary aid from relations and friends are the bulwarks against misfortune or incapacity, a world in which everything, including the right to property, is governed by personal relationships and behaviour is moderated not by laws or official force but the moral context in which people live, with good and bad behaviour being rewarded and punished by the informal responses of others.

Most of those who call themselves libertarian would subscribe to something a little less demanding of the individual. They want a world in which the state interferes with their lives as little as they deem practicable while providing a secure social structure comprised of defence, diplomacy, justice and policing to protect both their persons and their property. Some libertarians such as Hayek would go beyond the routine minimalist state and allow a basic welfare state.

The problem for libertarians, whether they be those who want no state or those such as Hayek who would allow quite a large role for the state, is that there is no instance in human history of a single community which has corresponded to any of the envisioned societies or even come close to it.

Where there is no formal authority the societies which result invariably lack the qualities which allow libertarian ends to be attained: property is not respected, there is no system of law to which individuals can appeal, the strong dominate the weak simply by their power. No state has ever concentrated solely on those items which are considered to constitute the minimalist state. Even the enhanced minimalist state of Hayek has never been realised, although it is comes closer to reality than the others. Societies which has never existed may reasonably be
assumed to be incompatible with being human. Libertarians need to accept that fact and ask what else is needed to produce the ends they seek.

What is missing from most libertarian thought is an understanding of the need for positive as well as negative freedom. Most human beings are not and never will be thorough going libertarians even in theory. That being so, libertarians need to re-configure their philosophy to aim for a society in which those libertarian ends which are most widely shared throughout society are best achieved. The ends which are most widely consciously shared, are those which relate to the state not intervening in private lives in matters such as raising children. .
In addition, libertarians need to understand that the intervention by the state to create material conditions which produces a rough equality of power and opportunity between individuals promotes the ability of all to take responsibility for their own lives.

The money problem

Money is the elephant in the minimalist state room. This is unsurprising because it presents a tremendous problem for all libertarians except those who would be satisfied with a society based on barter for if the state controls the money supply it has immense power., Hence, libertarians prefer not to mention it if they can possibly help it. But it cannot be ignored because it is the oil which drives the entire economy. If a currency fails general economic disaster ensues in an advanced economy. It is not just another commodity.

The record of state control of money (state being defined as a central controlling power) is not encouraging, history telling us that it has commonly resulted in the debauching of currencies through the diluting of precious metal content or by recklessly printing money and expanding credit in the case of a fiduciary currency.

That might seem an excellent reason for not trusting the state with administration of the currency and leaving the matter to private initiatives. The problem is that experience says that private initiatives to produce and maintain fiduciary currencies are vastly riskier, the record of private banks failing being legion. The current credit crisis is a prime example of the dangers. Governments in Britain and elsewhere have allowed banks to expand the money supply vastly through promiscuously granting with the consequence that is now upon us, a freezing of credit to the point where most, probably all, British banks are in reality insolvent, their insolvency only being hidden by the lines of credit and guarantees offered by the British government.

By allowing private institutions to inflate the money supply governments to their hearts’ content , governments have effectively privatised monetary policy. When currencies were based on precious metals monarchs and states debased the currency: now it is the financial institutions which achieve the same effect. An analogy would be with a government with a currency based on gold minting coins of a standard gold content whilst allowing private mints to produce coins with whatever gold content they chose.

Some libertarians hanker after a return to a currency based on a precious metal such as gold. This would be completely impractical in the modern world, not least because the amount of gold available is merely a tiny fraction of that which would be needed to be held to make the currency fully convertible as it was before the Great War.

The dominance of economics

Much of the difficulty with libertarian thought lies in the central position given to laissez faire economics., a system of thought which is intellectually incoherent and impossible to defend at any level other than that of emotional exhortation and has consequences which lead to non-libertarian ends.

A truly free market by definition must be one in which no artificial restrictions exist. Yet the so-called free markets we have rely on the most fundamental restriction of all, state-regulation to prevent the natural workings of a market.

How unnatural the idea of a “free” market as (defined by laissez faire economics) is can be seen by the complete absence of such markets throughout history. Economic history is a record of men attempting to reduce competition.

But the intellectual incoherence is not the main problem with laissez faire. The major  problems lie in its practical effects. These are to create greater wealth divides and produce regular bouts of serious economic instability. This has been true since its first real trial in Britain from the 1840s onwards (Trollope’s great political novel The Way We Live Now was an early critique of its effects), the bank crises of the 1890s, the banking crisis of 1907, the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression and currently the credit crisis the world is presently undergoing. These crises have all occurred during periods when laissez faire has been the dominant economic credo of the most powerful economies in the world.

Contrariwise, the period from 1931(when Britain came off the Gold Standard) and 1979 saw state intervention in the economy and protectionism re-established. During that time no major banking crises occurred. There were of course other financial problems, most notably the defence of the pound and a period of high inflation in the 1970s, , but the period overall was remarkably stable and there was nothing as dangerous as the present situation. Draw your own conclusions.

Plutocracy and the quasi-state

The central position given to property by libertarians , including the unfettered right to inherit, subverts the ends of libertarianism. Even in a society which starts out with a large degree of democratic control, the inevitable outcome of unhindered passing down of wealth through the generations is the rapid formation of a plutocracy. Such a society is a form of  authoritarianism, and arguably the most potent form of authoritarianism because it is not the direct and overt consequence of an elite which has seized power at a given point and
wielded it unashamedly for its own advantage. Rather, it is a social state which develops organically and is all the stronger for that.

There is no obvious villain for the have-nots to attack for there is no monarch, no party, no dictator to direct anger at, merely a group of the privileged who colonise and control the political system, reducing the democratic process to an pantomime of elective oligarchy in which parts of the elite compete for formal power.

A plutocracy also passes its power and privilege down the generations through inheritance, the importance being in the inheriting as a class rather than as an individual.  This avoids the habitual cause of failure amongst authoritarian regimes, the problem of succession.

Once a plutocracy is established , the state becomes less important because the elite have power which is not solely dependent on the formal positions of power as it is in states such as the Soviet Union. The elite’s power ultimately flows from the wealth they command, which allows them to effectively buy the command of society, both formally and in their relations with other individuals.

Wealth, as my old history master never tired of saying, is power. The consequence is that substantial differences in wealth mean that those without wealth are left in a grossly subordinate situation which undermines their ability to attain libertarian ends. Inherited wealth reinforces and amplifies these power relationships and very rapidly produces a plutocracy. a social state utterly at odds with the ends of libertarianism.

How to judge an ideology

A good way of testing the moral nature of an ideology is to ask what would be an honest election manifesto for a party adopting it. In the case of most libertarians it would be this: We shall pursue a policy which will make around a third of the population richer, leave a third of the population as they are and make a third poorer. There will be great differences in wealth which will increase with every generation. Wealth being power, this will mean those born to wealth and high social position will be able to exercise authority over those who are significantly poorer than themselves. Those who through incapacity or misfortune cannot support themselves will have to rely on the charity of others to survive at worst or on a meagre subsistence at best.  Society will not be a race in which everyone starts at the same point but a handicap gallop with the handicaps being decided not by Nature but by man made laws and customs. Would any libertarian be comfortable standing on such a political platform?

Libertarians also need to ask themselves whether they want the world reduced to the banality of a system of economic relationships, ironically exactly what Marxists do, That is the danger with making a god out of property and laissez faire economics.

It is a singular fact that I have never come across anyone who was poor, either through knowing them personally or through their writings , who was a libertarian or even just a supporter of laissez faire economics. That tells its own story. Only those who feel themselves beyond the reach of poverty or unemployment are comfortable with the idea that everything will work out in the end for the best aggregate result.

Voluntary action is simply too unreliable an engine to drive and maintain a society. For example, to argue that private charity will make good that which is provided by the welfare state is simply to go against all historical experience. There has never been a society in which private charity ever came close to meeting the needs of the incapable or the misfortunate. America in the Great Depression is a classic example of what happens. Until then the USA had been a society in which welfare even art the local or state level was very limited.

If libertarianism is to be more than simply an ideology for the haves, whether through their own efforts, luck or the accident of birth, then it must take into account the way societies actually work and cater for the wide range of ability, personality and personal circumstances which always occur. That can only be done if the positive freedom side of the liberty equation is given equal weight to that of the negative freedom side.

An ideology which unwittingly subverts its ends is worse than useless; it is absurd. That is what the libertarian thought does all too often through its emphasis on the individual to the exclusion of the social nature of human beings.

If you really want parental choice you need a school voucher system but….

….don’t forget the administrative complications

By Robert Henderson

The “free schools” currently being promoted by the Coalition Government (in reality the Tory part of it)  has two flaws:  it mixes private enterprise and public service and is in practice something likely to be of interest to the middle-class .  If greater choice and diversity for all was really wanted it would require a voucher system  which included all parents and guardians and kept private money out of the picture.

I am not ideologically opposed to a voucher system  for  school education  provided the voucher does not end up as a subsidy for private school fees, that is, the voucher should  not be used to pay part of  the  fees of, for example, Eton.  Indeed, I would go as far as to say that a  loosening of direct state control of education is in principle a good  thing.  However, attractive as the idea  is,  there are very large  administrative problems involved in moving to a fully-fledged voucher  system.

The most obvious  difficulty is what real choice can a parent have in  practice if they only have two or three schools in their catchment area?  Precious little, because it is unlikely that all will be good. Outside  the larger cities and towns the choice, particularly in rural areas, is  likely to be even more restricted.

Catchment areas could in theory be  greatly widened or even abandoned  altogether,  but neither  is  practical because  few parents and even fewer  children want to be travelling long distances to school every day or meeting the increasing cost of doing so.  In places where there are competing schools a  reasonable distance from a child’s home, a catchment might reasonably be defined as being within a thirty minute journey by public transport.

Allowing popular schools to expand is an  alluring idea but most  schools, and most are in cities and towns,  would have the land to do so  significantly.

The reality for most parents is that, as things stand, they will not be able to exercise significantly more choice than they do presently.

But even where  a school does have the land to expand fresh problems arise. First, where is it to get the money to fund expansion? The individual voucher  will pay for  the tuition, administration and the  maintenance of the  existing school. It will not fund  new buildings.

Who is to pay? The taxpayer? Private investors? If the latter, how would  the private investor be repaid? Out of future voucher proceeds? If so,  that would reduce the amount of money available for teaching, books, computers and so on.

Second, if a school expands it must draw pupils away from other schools  in the catchment area. Those schools at best will be underfunded and at  worst will become unviable. If the former the question why should the  pupils there be left  in a declining school with little morale has to be answered? There is no moral answer. If the latter, where exactly would  the  pupils from a failed school go to get an education?  Not to the  expanded school because that will already be full.

Is there any way to circumvent these  difficulties? A variety of private  options are possible. Parents could club together and use their vouchers  to fund a school of their own in its own premises. But that would be an  unstable  institution because parents would cease to have an interest in  the school once their children left, either through age or because the  family moved away.  Suppose a school had fifty pupils and ten suddenly  left. It could make the school unviable.

Private schools, in their own premises,  charging no more than the  voucher cost could arise, but they would drain pupils from the existing  state schools.

The third private option would be for private investment in existing  state schools. To an extent this is already happening. The problem with  this would be that once the schools have been
placed in private hands  the private contractor will have the option of blackmailing the  government into  paying more or seeing the school close down  leaving  pupils with nowhere to go. This is something which is already happening  in PFI projects generally. Alternatively, the private contractor might  go bust or simply walk away for a contract. Who would educate their  pupils then?

There is a general problem of how to maintain provision if the state  and private sector becomes entwined. Suppose private schools took so  many  pupils that many state schools had to
close.  That would reduce  the default  state educational provision. If there is a severe  depression and private schools really  felt the pinch, many might go to  the wall. Who would run the schools then? The taxpayer would have to  stump up to keep things going.

All of this is rather daunting. However,  we might inch towards a voucher system by degrees. The first thing to do would be to make all  state schools self-governing. This would prepare them administratively  for a voucher system.

The second thing would be to put more money into schools to bring them  up to the mark before a voucher system was introduced. The money should  come from  abolition of LEAs (which would  free up a good deal of money  they spend on their administration and reduce the administration schools have to undertake) and the abolition of all teacher training colleges and departments (teachers would learn on the job).

I would further free up teachers by  reducing the current  age-group  tests to the three ‘Rs’,  making all school exams true exams, that is, their  classification to be simply a final exam mark  with no course work to  count towards the grade and generally reducing the  information sought  by the Dept of Education and Science. I would  also reduce the stress on  teachers by abolishing  league tables,  which  have  merely distorted  the way schools’ operate to the detriment of true education. Government  could control quality by ensuring that the school public exams were of  sufficient standard.

The real answer to our present educational woes is of course a good  school for everyone.  But even if that were possible people would still  have preferences.  The only honest way of deciding who should go to  which school when a school is oversubscribed is to put all the names  into a hat and draw out enough to fill the school .

There is also the question of  the curriculum and  religious schools.  Would it be reasonable to allow schools to set  their own curriculum beyond the teaching of the three Rs?  Would most
people want Creationism taught as science?  I suspect a large majority would not. Nor is the idea of segregation within religious schools an easy question to decide. C of E schools are often
very mixed in terms of faith, ethnicity and race where a catchment area is mixed. However, other  religious schools, especially Muslim ones, are  frequently mono-cultural, that is, comprised entirely or almost entirely of the faith they represent. This is plainly dangerous for social cohesion.  More broadly, should it be government policy to allow vouchers to be used to create what are de facto ethnic minority schools?  The same objection applies as to religious schools.   To prevent ethnic minority ghetto schools a maximum percentage of any school being from ethnic minorities should be made law.

The move to self-governing schools  would multiply the opportunities for fraud and allow  administratively incompetent school managers to get into serious financial trouble without meaning to. Consequently, it would be necessary to put in place a rigorous external  audit regime to keep  dishonesty and  financial incompetence in check and there should be a legal requirement for bursars with the right background in financial management to be appointed by every school.   There would also have to be checks on schools to ensure they were appointing and remunerating staff fairly –  no favouring of friends and relations –   and operating the entry to a school within the legal framework.

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