Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The Sceptical Libertarian

Chris Dillow at Stumbling & Mumbling has a good, thoughtful post up about the 'two libertarianisms'; two different attitudes to markets and governments that he describes as 'utopian' and 'sceptical'.

As the title of this post suggests, I identify more with the second of these 'libertarianisms' rather more than the first: "markets and governments both fail [to maximise well-being]...because society and big organizations are unmanageable. Our choice is between the centrist errors of the state and the (smaller?) dispersed ones of markets.".

Perhaps because I perceive the errors in thinking from those who believe in statist utopianism to be more egregious and larger in scale (see this recent post, or just about any Polly Toynbee column you care to choose), I can perhaps come across on here, and even more so when responding to the authoritarians on CiF, as one of the first type - one who believes that markets maximise well-being.

This is not the case at all. You don't have to look too far for counter-examples to that particular statement. The USA's health insurance 'market' is one example. Another, in the UK this time, was provided by the recent revelation that at least seven companies including three of the country's major supermarkets colluded to fix the prices of dairy products1. It's hardly a well-kept secret that businesses and businesspeople act to maximise their own well-being, not that of society as a whole*.

However, the converse of this is true as well. There's a quote at the top of arch-bloggertarian Devil's Kitchen's blog2 from right-wing US humorist PJ O'Rourke that bears repeating at this point:

"Politics is the business of getting power and privilege without possessing merit." - PJ O'Rourke
I get the impression from reading some left-wing blogs that their authors somehow believe that politicians, particularly of the Labour variety, are a superior sub-species of Homo sapiens, somehow immune from the failings and foibles of the rest of us (and evil capitalists in particular). So despite all of the evidence to the contrary (I don't really need to provide links do I? You've read a newspaper in the past month?), leftists continue to push for ever-greater authoritarianism. The current trend is for climate change3 to be used as the justification for this. If it isn't climate change, it's 'child poverty'4. If it isn't 'child poverty', it's terrorists5. Whatever the problem, the solution is always the same - More centralisation, more authority, more power in the hands of Government.

In my opinion, no issue betrays this tendency more than that of the growing 'database state'. The loss of 25 million child benefit records has not deterred New Labour from collecting and storing and centralising more and more personal data. Through ignorance or by design, they mislead the public time (on the effectiveness of biometrics), and time (on the motivation behind the ContactPoint childrens' database), and time (on the benefits of the ID cards project) again.

There is no easy solution to the outlined dilemma. State socialism and anarcho-capitalism are extremes, and given the basic fact that states and businesses both are run by human beings, both are utopian. It is impossible for the populace to make all of the political decisions that will end up affecting their lives, so some representational element is required. As Sir Winston Churchill is quoted on the subject, "it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time". All that remains to be debated is which form of democracy would provide the best outcomes, in terms of individual liberty and general well-being.

Personally, I believe that a more direct democracy would be superior to the current modus operandi, that places too much power in the hands of a select few whose main focus is being re-elected and obtaining funding to do so. That is, however, a complex subject deserving of a full exploration another day.


1. http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/business_money/supermarkets+fined+for+dairy+cartel/1153947
2. http://devilskitchen.me.uk
3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2225387,00.html
4. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2225566,00.html
5. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4705390.stm

* Doubtless, some of the negatives I've hinted at here are partly a function of the interplay between states and corporate entities. That too is a subject for another post another day.

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