Part 4: Reality
The International Dimension
A sovereign nation is a union of the people within it, Especially within a democracy, where these people grant all power. Consequently its responsibility to uphold libertarianism is limited to within itself, in my opinion. In a sovereign democratic nation the people are in a union because they perceive sufficient benefit, on the whole, from collective governance, and even in libertarian system this is necessary on some scale, to provide the basic services which are essential for a country to function and prosper. However, though some degree of foreign relations are necessary for all countries, there is no real reason why seemingly libertarian ideas should be exercised in external affairs if it is not beneficial to the union of people itself, since libertarianism itself would be enacted in within the union of people for their own perceived benefit. That union should, in fact, be able to act as a single entity exercising its own rights just as individual entities within its own system, who therefore don’t lose their own freedoms just through collective actions, rather than attempting to extend its internal libertarianism to others. Specific issues involved include immigration, trade and international organisations.
Migration can have a very real impact on the people of the receiving country. Chang acknowledges that migration control is really what determines wages (2011, p. 24-26). If all countries had open borders, as may be an intuitive element of libertarianism then labour would be free to flow from areas of low wages to those of high wages, driving down the high wages through added competition for jobs, while causing wages in formerly low wage areas to rise through the scarcity of workers and hence competition among firms for them. Realistically this is a slow process given peoples’ national ties, however it has undeniably been slowly occurring within the European Union with inflows of low-skill labour from poorer member states to countries such as ours. Yet this is not necessarily in our interest, since it will drive down wages of our own low skill works, who as part of the union which constitutes a country should be entitled to have these interests safeguarded, and it can only worsen internal inequality as higher skill workers gain relative scarcity alongside the reverse process, which as expressed is not favourable (and indeed best tackled when it can be done without the violation of libertarian principles). So as a free entity there is no reason why a country should not be able to select its immigrants based on which will bring their own people the greatest benefit – likely in monetary terms, however there is no reason why people can’t perceive value in ‘national identity’ and allow immigration selectively or in small amounts only accordingly. Neoliberalists may claim that open borders are the way to go, but this is based on the collective interests of all people in the world, and thus doesn’t account for the right of countries themselves to pursue self-interest, which is really just an extension of the rights of the constituent individuals. As for international organisations more specifically, it can only really come down to an assessment of costs and benefits. Of course explicit costs must be met by an internal compromise on libertarian principles through taxation. One cam hardly argue that the small cost of UN membership is not worthwhile with all the benefits of diplomacy from trade deals to peace. The EU is more debateable between its aforementioned, among other, implicit costs, plus explicit costs and direct violation of libertarian principles through supranational legislation which would compromise the basis of any hypothetical libertarian member state.
The economic consensus is that trade is that trade is normally best left free, so it may not be so contentious and issue concerning whether or not it is a matter of libertarianism. However based on the aforementioned principles international protectionism, though in most cases harmful, would not necessarily be ethically wrong in this manner. Indeed there can be credible strategic arguments to restricted trade, particularly in developing countries, so this is still a consideration to bear in mind and not to assume inconsistent with libertarianism.
Despite the lack of ‘libertarian responsibility’ to those abroad, everything which I have so far advocated has been on the basis that I see libertarianism as morally responsible. While part of this moral responsibility is the minimisation of taxes, there can still be moral responsibilities beyond a country’s own borders with which these ethics may conflict and may therefore have to be balanced. Be it ISIS, Hussein or Hitler, we can all agree that there have been people of past and present whose autocracies have been so severe that those with the ability to aid the persecuted cannot simply stand by and fail to act. On this basis, although unnecessarily extravagant military spending is unfavourable, military intervention, even when it is not for the purposes of national security (although especially when it is) can be justified in conjunction with libertarian ideals given that they should not extend beyond a country’s own borders, while the unfortunate need for taxation within those borders is an unavoidable requirement. Yet, this is perhaps the only instance where it can be said to be justified; when people are slaughtered on mass for exercising their human right to choose their faith, or for the circumstances of their birth and such a problem can be solved (which is of course not always the case, and certainly not without a human cost which must also be considered), this cannot be accepted, just as people dying on our own streets cannot be ignored. As I said, libertarians are not uncompassionate people, and sometimes desperate requirements must supersede the interests of ideological purity, as the ethics of the most extreme real world situations transcend economic entitlement and it becomes a matter determining which is the lesser evil.
Parallels with Anarchism
There is no doubt that anarchism and libertarianism have common elements, however it is important to remember that these are similarities of principle and the differences lie in how the two ideologies wish to act upon these principles. I have in the past been questioned on how my general dislike of government allows me to be different from anarchists, who are for good reason generally poorly regarded for their desire for a completely ungoverned society in which morals would inevitably be disregarded by some.
Deontological libertarians and anarchists generally believe what they believe because they object to the notion of a government intervening in the rightful autonomy of individuals. However, with regard to implementation, libertarians will accept the need for the existence of government and its provision of a limited number of goods and services to its people. As I detail below, the fact of the matter is that without a government it is not possible to defend some of the most basic social rights of people, resulting in an essential trade-off with the economic rights which must be forgone for any government to function. Nobody could realistically argue that a lawless society benefits people on the whole, who would as a result lack security and economic incentive, and by extension wealth and amenities as they otherwise would have. However, as long as these basics can be guaranteed by a simple government, then there is no reason to infringe upon the personal rights of people any further.
Anarchism may even be seen as a subset of libertarianism, despite these apparent differences, which would then enable a spectrum of libertarianism to be considered, with the above impracticalities accompanying this extreme of no government. Indeed there are many who call themselves libertarians who regard a much more active government as essential, however at this extreme also one must ask questions concerning whether this does indeed constitute necessity. This, however, would not include the established group of ‘libertarian socialists’, who fail to be encompassed by my earlier arguments linking the significance of economic and social freedoms.
As an interesting side note, Karl Marx himself, the father of communism, can credibly be considered by some to have been a libertarian in some respects. He believed in the eventual withering of government once its utility was exhausted, an idea consistent with those above. He saw revolution and the onset of communism as an inevitability of popular support, and thus a manifestation of the free will of people. This was of course not the way in which communism was enacted in the world, but it was merely what he believed as a deterministic course of history. His ideas were, however, flawed: the labour theory of value in which he believed mistakenly regards the value of a product as equal to its labour inputs thus making workers the origin of all wealth, whereas in reality value is determined by the personal perceptions of individuals, since individuals are those who make purchasing choices, with capital inputs of ever growing importance with technological development since Marx’s time (and perceived value is fundamental to the willingness of workers also), and; he failed in his projection of exploitation and class differences – with all people having grown substantially wealthier since the publication of the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital.
No ideology can be implemented without some degree of compromise. Consider merely the fact that in order to uphold the basic individual rights of people to remain free, unharmed and to own property, there is no avoiding the use of some type of government intervention, most likely taxes, in order to fund the necessary police force, military and legal system. It is therefore impossible to have a completely free system – some individual rights require defence yet this necessitates taxation. We can therefore only minimise this taxation when it is reasonable to do so, though it is undeniable that security is in everyone’s interest.
Without these basic functions of government economic growth would also be severely inhibited. Much of the cause of underdevelopment in many countries across the world is the failure to have a functioning system of law and enforcement. Without knowing that a contract will be enforced by courts it is much more difficult to make them, and hence value surplus-creating deals will not be made. People are deterred from entrepreneurship because they have no assurance that others will honour their commitments such as to buy or deliver, or even that they will be able to protect their business from crime or forceful takeover. Material wealth growth is in everyone’s interest, by definition raising living standards, and so again there is here is simple medium of government intervention which can have disproportionately huge and beneficial impacts on the lives of all people, not to the detriment of anyone who respects the rights of others. Indeed, these functions are the real reason why people must group into sovereign entities, for these activities which are of such significant benefit for all.
Similarly, the government has a responsibility to build and maintain infrastructure, since this is also useful and fundamental to growth, while as a public good unlikely to be supplied within a free market. Again this as well as other public goods are necessary for the interests of the collective which forms the country in which the activities are conducted.
A more unfortunate necessity may be competitively regulations. Though this interferes with the rightful autonomy of firms in some areas it can be absolutely essential for consumers. If firms were free to collude then they can effectively exercise complete monopoly over an industry accordingly, setting prices at will. This disrupts the competitively of markets which is important in making them so effective and affects consumer decisions such they cannot maximise welfare as they would if purely market forces could determine prices. These regulations can never be avoided as firms will and must be profit motivated, however they are most important when consumer access is vital, for example food or healthcare since these of course have the greatest impact on people’s lives. In cases of ‘natural monopoly’ regulation may also be essential. An example is water provision – a market which can only typically support a single firm in a given area due to the huge infrastructure requirements. This would leave the consumers to be completely vulnerable to the decisions of the monopolist which faces no competition on prices or quality. People must have water as there is no reasonable substitute (a point which makes this argument invalid for trains, since there are alternatives despite the limited infrastructure within the train market itself) and so it is acceptable for the government to act in some way to protect consumers.
With regard to specific elements of our economics course merit and demerit goods are not reasonable causes for government intervention to deny consumers their right to select products based on their personal perceived preferences. A good example is milk, where there is support for subsidies in order to lower prices for consumers and thus increase its consumption. Similarly cigarette taxes are often intended to deter their consumption. This constitutes direct government action violating peoples’ rights to make their own choices and cannot be justified in principle. There is no reason why the government should have the right to dictate personal lives in this way, just as before – it is a minor infringement on freedom, yet completely unnecessary, with interventions often relating to health as if we don’t own our own bodies. Many make the case that if we don’t control health standards then the NHS and taxpayer must bear the costs, yet since individuals do not necessarily choose to have the NHS this is completely invalid. Why should the preferences of some, for a universal healthcare system, be allowed to assert control over the lifestyle choices of others? Again this bears a resemblance to slavery in this way (and again much less severely, but nevertheless the principles are there). As for externalities, effects of production or consumption which affect uninvolved third parties, government intervention may be more justifiable, since those who are not involved in the choices made can involuntarily suffer effects which may be considered to violate their own freedoms. This can be used to justify environmental measures, as I look at later, as well as occasional restrictions on the use of public space, such as smoking indoors or noise restrictions.
And there is of course the issue of social welfare payments. Removing them entirely, as would be the theoretically ideal based on the above arguments would inevitably result in suffering for those who have difficulty working, are between low-pay jobs or, in the current system, are unemployed since they do not have the appropriate skills or proximity for available jobs. In a developed society there is really no reason to allow people to suffer in the most severe circumstances when they can be sufficiently well of in absolute terms to be acceptably comfortable with relatively little funding. Certainly there is no excuse for people suffering on the streets or dying due to low incomes, in this country perhaps due to malnutrition, though in the US the cost of healthcare makes this even more of a real prospect. Welfare is a necessity, however the amount which is provided should nevertheless be minimised to the lowest reasonable level based on the above arguments. Certainly excesses should not be funded, providing incentive to work (though this would of course be more effective in the hypothetically free labour markets previously discussed, in which anyone can work), and so the ‘bedroom tax’ for example is perfectly justified. It merely recoups some of what society had to forgo, contrary to ethical principles concerning entitlement.
All ideologies must include some degree of compromise; however where to draw the line must be carefully considered. Many things, from higher welfare payments to curfews or even slavery could be presented as ‘necessary’ if well argued. What must therefore be essential is honest judgement aiming for minimal interference in peoples’ lives.
The 2nd Amendment
The ‘right to bear arms’ is something which may seem a logical element of libertarianism, principally in the US where it is such a contentious issue, and seen by so many to specifically concern a matter of personal freedom.
Indeed, the possession of arms without criminal intent is something which should be perfectly legal under libertarian principle. As long as they are not used to harm others, then their possession has absolutely no serious repercussions for those living in their vicinity, and consequently it should be the right of the bearer to choose to act as they please regarding the purchase and maintenance of firearms; the government should have no right to interfere with their ability to own any item, regardless of whether it can spew metal projectiles at high velocities – this is just a mechanical function of a collection of materials arranged in a certain way.
So many claim gun ownership to be a symbol of their freedom, such a valued American principle for good reason. Others claim a practical need to retain firearms – protection being that which is most often cited, and that gun control would simply leave the general population defenceless against armed criminals.
The problem with such a seemingly libertarian stance as this is that it forgets that, as previously discussed, when there is a problem which poses a problem for their people the government – however libertarian they may me, short of anarchism, in which case they would not exist (governments exist in the first place to implement some sort of intervention, however minimal) – they can and must intervene to preserve some order within society. And there is a problem – gun crime within the US exceeds by far that of any other western country; massacres shake it and the world, from Sandy Hook to Orlando. It is people’s very lives which are threatened by gun liberties – the exact same reason that welfare safety nets and militaries must always exist. Some form gun control is a necessity of government – if we can see that we must have some taxation and some regulation, however small we try to make them, why can’t we all see that we must have gun control for the exact same reasons?
There is no quick fix – Americans own more guns than any other people, and there is no easy way to remove them from circulation in any meaningful way, certainly not such that criminals can be prevented from obtaining them. But for gun-fanatical conservatives to claim that people are safer if all have guns to delusional – look only at any country of Europe, all of which have significantly tighter gun regulations, and then at their homicide rate compared to the US. Back in 2011, in the UK the homicide rate was 4.7 times lower than in the US (UNODC, 2012) Here we don’t give a second thought to the threat of guns in our daily lives, and we mock those who insist that they are integral to their security. Where were the righteous gun-bearing citizens at Sandy Hook, San Bernardino and Orlando, to name the sites of just a few recent massacres? These are the most serious atrocities, and while a minority of incidents may be prevented by domestic gun ownership, in the most prolific incidents it is clearly the case that the 2nd amendment was assisting only the perpetrator and not the innocent slain victims of their terror. It is the police who always have and will do their best to limit these tragedies. Nevertheless, any process has to start somewhere, and as a consequence gun control should be implemented in the US as soon as possible. If a stopping point can be reached which limits the problem while allowing guns to be owned, that would be ideal – the legality of guns still matches libertarian principle, however their limitation is just as much a practical necessity as any other core responsibility of government.
Even Ronald Reagan, our aforementioned tacit-semi-libertarian, under a conservative banner (typically those who so strongly defend their right to bear arms) took a very sensible stance on this. In 1986 he signed into law a bill to ban the ownership of new fully-automatic weapons, amid a myriad of stronger stances and actions throughout his life on the matter, from the Mulford act in California banning the public carrying of firearms, while supporting the Brady Bill, to impose a 7 day waiting bill for the purchase of firearms after his presidency (Weber, 2015). All infringements of personal freedom and yet all doubtlessly saving real people’s lives.
Environmental harm is a problem, especially if regulation on industries is relaxed and also if the government is bound not to intervene in issues such as renewable energy in the name of non-intervention. I have never seen a credible rebuttal of climate change, and consequently we best assume that it is real and a threat.
Of course limited regulation can be deemed a necessity as above if we deem issues to be sufficiently pressing. There has been some success with tradeable emissions permits, for example, concerning sulfur dioxide specifically given how easily its emission is reducible, adding the advantage of integration into a market system.
Since pollution is a negative externality it is clear that consumption of products producing it causes more harm than is perceived at the point of consumption, to uninvolved third parties, and so the personal perception of a value surplus loses some of its credibility. Here it could indeed be justifiable for the government to interfere to attempt to adjust consumption to a point which results in greater welfare overall. As mentioned this could be effectively achieved through consumption taxes, as is indeed done with petrol (though this should not be confused with attempts to recoup expenditure from building infrastructure, though this may again be done through consumption tax on petrol to estimate the use of roads by each individual road user who will buy more petrol the more they drive, though this nevertheless increases the disincentive for inefficient vehicles).
Tax incentives for renewable technologies may be crucial for their widespread deployment, helping to curb this great issue. Personally, however, I don’t see increasing our own renewables use by a few percent, or increasing efficiency by a few percent in accordance with the Paris agreement as really significant in helping solve this issue – they seem so insignificant, especially when one considers the scale of development occurring across the world which will only result in higher energy demands, with which we are in no position to argue being such large per capita users ourselves. So in my opinion the real area for focus has to be research and development into the real game-changing technologies – the likes of fusion and travelling wave reactors, otherwise the reality is we will simply use all of our fossil fuels, even if we are able to delay it be a few years. It is certainly a big issue, though not one which can’t be approached by libertarians willing to consider necessity.
Freedom is always preferable and people should recognise this and not limit it to what is immediately obvious to them. The conclusion which can be drawn from the extrapolation of these principles within a rational context is that libertarianism it the most ethical approach to governance. It may not be possible to implement in a pure form, however it can at least exist as a mind set to guide all political judgements.
The only way to meaningfully express political ideas is through advocacy and voting. Any of the ideas expressed can be advocated, though voting presents a more difficult issue for the time being since libertarian parties are generally political outliers, voting for which is largely pointless. Given its greater fiscal conservatism alongside a reasonable respect for social rights and equality on the whole, the Conservative Party is the best significant approximation of libertarian values available in the UK. Though quite clearly much of what I have advocated does not neatly align with their policies, and recently they have become less ideologically driven.
In the US libertarianism has historically been somewhat stronger given its consistency with traditional American values and founding principles. Despite their notable third party presence in 2016 in particular, the strength of libertarianism has in the past been within the Republican Party, with self-proclaimed libertarians in Congress, Governorships as well as high up in executive policy such as with Friedman. However Trump poses a dilemma for this group with his discriminatory tendencies and potentially authoritative approach to government, in addition to his populist approach devoid of principle. With the issues with Clinton and Democrats in general already highlighted, Gary Johnson seems the only sensible candidate. Realistically he is not going to win the election, but at the very least there is hope that he can have enough impact to reignite libertarianism within the Republican party, which seems to have been drowned out by conservatism particularly in terms of social stances such as on abortion and gay marriage as well as horrifying religious influences which seem to challenge secularity.
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