And the Libertarian shall lie down with the Left

Mr Eugenides has written a very insightful post about the root causes of left and right attitudes towards the Ian Tomlinson affair. He takes his cue from James Graham’s shudderingly evocative empathy with what Tomlinson went through, and theorises as follows:

I think that some of us on “the right” take the view, usually subconsciously but sometimes explicitly, that our most cherished civil liberty is simply the right to be left alone. What tends to vex us most is those instances where government tries to impinge on that right – through a national ID scheme, for example, or punitive taxation, or petty officialdom.

Because “protest” has traditionally been a tool of the left – the average Tory does not go to many demos, no matter what government is in power – it is something that many on the right simply don’t and can’t identify with.

Mr Eugenides cannot control his subsconcious, and simply does not have the same visceral reaction to the video of the assault as James G did, much though his reason tells him it is a clear and shocking curtailment of civil liberties.

This is a neat theory, certainly backed up by some of the more characteristic responses on both left and right – contrast the anguish of Laurie Penny with the lofty moralising of Letters from a Tory, for example. The former assumes a connection between the fall and the heart attack which is not currently supported by hard evidence, and the latter uncritically accepts the Daily Mail’s position that being shamblingly drunk makes one more deserving of attack from behind by a policeman with a big stick.

Soak up the generally cynical tone of the posts on Liberal Conspiracy (which on the whole I share, though I was careful to keep Lib Dem Voice‘s coverage on the restrained side throughout) and marvel, if you will, at Danny Finkelstein’s unfortunate attempt before and after the event to paint various Lib Dem MPs’ involvement as legal observers as “an extraordinary insult to the police” which “misjudged the public mood”. He hasn’t been seen since, poor man.

But actually what has struck me most forcibly about the online chatterati’s reaction to the affair is the precise opposite to what Mr E is talking about. I am amazed by the sudden faultlines everywhere. I’ve never seen people like LFAT and Dizzy get such a drubbing from commenters who normally agree with pretty much everything they write – and the latter express their own astonishment at this too. Suddenly the libertarians are lying down with the left. Or something. The fact that libertarianism (where it is not a poorly worn excuse for the protection of existing privilege) is in many ways a distinctly left-leaning philosophy suddenly looks less awkward

It’s not all one-way traffic either. There are fewer examples of leftie blogs I have come across taking the police side (please do point me towards them) but exhibit A is of course the still silent Labourlist, top-down tool of the left at its most authoritarian. Sadie Smith’s overall attitude to the protestors (though divorced from the context of Tomlinson’s death) also echos much of what the pro-police right-wingers say, for all that she appears to be taking a diametrically opposite view (“trustafarians” being her disparagement of choice, as opposed to “unwashed rabble” or similar).

It’s a pretty rum set of reactions, in other words. I think I just heard the sound of a hairline crack splintering into a jagged gap you can get your thumb into. I think one of Mr E’s commenters has it right, referring to the contention that “some of us on “the right” take the view … that our most cherished civil liberty is simply the right to be left alone.”

I wonder if that makes us ‘right’ or whether those distinctions are now outdated.

Commentators have been referring to the death of left and right, with no real conviction, ever since Labour came to power, but have never found a narrative that sticks. We have come to understand over the past couple of years that they were looking in the wrong place. Because left and right were defined, ultimately, by economic attitudes, they focussed on the shifting sands of an economy that we do not, never have, and never will control completely through the tools of either side to the satisfaction of all.

It has taken a series of quite serious blows to liberty to make the new faultline visible. For some of us, liberalism versus authoritarianism (or the y axis, in political quiz terms) has been the real divide, the one that matters, for quite some time. That goes for me and most Liberal Democrats, some Tories and some ex-Labour people too. How else would members of the former hard left ever have ended up in the same conference centre as a man who favours the return of capital punishment?

I have found the divide between the liberal and the authoritarian becoming still more real for me over the last week.  And as it grows, there will be a certain amount of jumping for various people to do. In five years’ time, what will the political blogosphere – and the political landscape – look like? Me, Mr Eugenides and Laurie Penny versus LFAT, Dizzy and Sadie? What an entertaining thought.

59 Comments

  1. Hmm very nice round up. I’d noticed this split although I’d only seen the ‘left right’ not really the ‘liberal/authoritarian’ one – it seems that the left were nearly universally condemning police brutality and the right were apologising for the police.. and I found myself ironically splatted between the two – that there was no evidence linking the shove to the heart attack, but that even if Ian Tomlinson was being ‘obstructive’ the police were still heavy handed (and worryingly easy to provoke into doing something stupid).

    As with all things, the calm rational voices seem to be drowned out by screaming and squawking.

  2. The reason why there’s the split – let’s face it LFAT and Dizzy etc are simply thicker than the average Lib Dem relying on old-fashioned nostrums and totally inflexible to the speed required of modern thinking.

    I wonder if in 20 years time we’ll marvel at the shattering of the political world and its parties too. If so, the Lib Dems with their superior intellectual vigour will have a very good future indeed.

  3. “I’ve never seen people like LFAT and Dizzy get such a drubbing from commenters who normally agree with pretty much everything they write”

    What a shocking misrepresentation of the truth. Cherry Pie, Patently and Stu – three of my regulars – said they wanted more info before making a final judgement (Patently said he was inclined to agree with me), I had new commentors like Sam, Rich and Moorlandhunter agree with my post and it was only the Lefty trolls who decided to start an argument (which, as today has shown, they were unwise to do in some cases). Shaun, my most frequent commentor, did not comment at all while JuliaM / Ambush Predator made her disgust at the Left quite clear on Wednesday and today both on my blog and on hers. I’m disappointed that you would stop so low as to deliberately misrepresent my comment thread to your readers.

    “the latter uncritically accepts the Daily Mail’s position”

    Errr, you mean I provided the full quote from a new eyewitness reported in the Daily Mail? That’s hardly the same as accepting a position taken by the newspaper itself. I couldn’t care less where the eyewitness testimony was published!

  4. I was looking at the comments by Obsidian, Dungeekin and Cjcjc, all right wing and/or libertarian types.

    Stuart was buffeted around by the various arguments and ended up making his position in the middle clear @19, in which he clearly stated he felt the police reaction was disproportionate, thereby disagreeing with one of your key points (although he agreed with you on some other things, as indeed did I though you still don’t seem to accept that).

    Patently I think takes a very measured approach that I can agree with, even though my interpretation of the video might differ from his/hers.

    “Roy” commented: “i come along here every now and then for a read and occasionally a chuckle, but today i’m just shocked and a bit disappointed at your pathetic analysis.”

    And Doc Bud at some high number ending in 5 (can you fix your comment numbering please? Or is it my browser?) has an interesting perspective of having always voted Tory, but “I do not concede that the government or the police have the right to tell me where I should or cannot walk on a public highway if I’m minding my own business and not breaking “proper” laws”.

    Apart from that, they are mostly either lefties or liberals (don’t put me into the former category please) except for possibly Jiggles, who also disagrees with you and whom I had it in my head was a Tory, but am prepared to be corrected on this.

    As I say, the proportion of people disagreeing with you who would normally be right on your side surprised me. I can hardly say fairer than that, can I. Same story at Dizzy’s. And (which I should have added) plenty of right-wingers at Iain Dale’s who took his position on it (roughly mine) instead of yours.

    So no need to smear, thank you.

  5. Alix, as is the central focus of your post, libertarians aren’t really left or right. left and right generally suggests a type of government that the individual would like to see. Libertarians would rather no government, which makes them sort of ambidextrous.

    Which is to say, you wouldn’t expect a libertarian to agree with Letters – and indeed they very rarely do agree.

    This is not to say I really agree with the stance LFaT has taken on the Tomlinson issue, but I think his posts have served an excellent and important purpose – to shine a totally different light on the situation and get some who would otherwise be instantly critical of the police to take a second look at their attitude. And that was the intention he had all along, so I can’t find too much fault in that.

    P.S. If I may delve into the nastiness that everyone else is enjoying for a moment… Note to John: ‘simply thicker than the average Lib Dem’ is not a comment which makes you look clever: it’s a comment which makes you look like an arrogant prick.

  6. Alix,

    There will be a struggle with this whole thing until people drop the

    “The fact that libertarianism (where it is not a poorly worn excuse for the protection of existing privilege) is in many ways a distinctly left-leaning philosophy suddenly looks less awkward”

    mindset.

    I have never met a Libertarian who is trying to protect existing privilege.

    Yes, Libertarianism shares some of the social views that follow the rule ((Left) AND (NOT(Conservative)) but do not confuse Libertarian rejection of Social Conservatism as being “left leaning”.

    This is not Left vs. Right, but Libertarian vs. Authoritarian, an upholding of the Rule of Law. As such, the Left are just along for the ride.

  7. If so, the Lib Dems with their superior intellectual vigour will have a very good future indeed.

    Not if they go round telling everyone that they’re intellectual titans while everyone else remains intellectual plankton by comparison they won’t.

  8. @Roger, fairy nuff. I was thinking of Jock Coats describing himself as a left-wing libertarian, and I was thinking of the natural tendency of true libertarianism to promote absolute equality of opportunity. Which is what the left think they want – it’s generally thought to be a lefty aspiration. But you’re quite right, I shouldn’t perpetuate it unthinkingly.

    LFAT, now that Stuart has solemnly ticked me off, perhaps I can put it this way. Leading on from Mr Eugenides’ original classification, it seems to me that your natural empathy lies with the police side of things. Am I right? Now, I am not, you will note, one of those who cried “Murder” as soon as the video came out. My reportage at LDV was, I think, balanced and factual. I even said, over at yours, that I didn’t want a witch-hunt of the officer so much as a hard look at the culture that put him there (which was, of course, a lefty political culture, another good point that I feel evaded you).

    So while I’ll happily admit that I fall into Mr Eugenides’ category of a natural empathiser with Mr Tomlinson, I still think I have done right and been fair by the police. I am willing to see what the outcome of the investigation is – all my LDV pieces were written *before* an independent investigation and a second autopsy had been conceded, after which I relaxed about it. Justice is now beginning to be done as far as I’m concerned.

    From my perspective, it looks as if you are *not* balancing your natural empathy towards the police (which is a perfectly respectable viewpoint, though opposed to mine) with due consideration of Ian Tomlinson’s position. Your empathy with the officers’ frustration is leading you to excuse the assailant’s OTT reaction, which is not right. In fact, you are ironically doing what many of the lefties were doing, but in reverse. Do you see now where I was coming from?

  9. And as regards the Daily Mail’s new pictures, what I should have said was that your evident belief that this fundamentally changes *everything* seems to me to be clear evidence that your social conservative agenda is affecting your civil liberties judgement.

    That is what I meant by saying that you buy into the idea that a shambling drunken person is more deserving of getting batonned than the next person.

    This is also generally – with occasional exceptions such as the Martin Samuel article linked above, and pretty much everything Suzanne Moore writes – the Mail’s agenda.

  10. Having argued against LFAT on his blog, I find it amusing that I am thus dismissed as a “leftie troll”, especially considering that that well known internet marxist Old Holborn’s only comment was “I’m with Ian B on this one”.

  11. Obsidian is a fairly new commentor, Dungeekin rarely comments and Cjcjc has never commented as far as I can remember, but I digress…

    I think Stu’s phrasing of ‘shining a different light’ on the issue is an excellent way of putting it. Pointing out not once but twice that I was not excusing the police’s actions nor was blaming everyone on Ian Tomlinson obviously went unnoticed. I agree that you were certainly nowhere near as vicious as the ‘they murdered him’ brigade, and neither was Sunder Katwala.

    Your suggestion that I have had an “evident belief that this fundamentally changes *everything*” is perhaps where this all went wrong. I have never expressed such a belief, but my posts have very much been emphasising the point that the evidence *might* have changed *something*. The tribal ‘we have seen all we need to to make up our minds’ rubbish I’ve seen splattered across many lefty blogs is what I’ve been rallying against, not the need to find out the truth nor the possibility that this officer needs to be disciplined.

  12. I must confess I have never given libertarians enough credit for banging on about the non-initiation of force, thinking it too obvious a principle to be worth stating.

    Yet these events show otherwise. Police routinely initiate force against people at demos whether they are law-abiding or not, protesting or not. I don’t blame the officer who assaulted Tomlinson, he was not doing anything unusual. No, I blame the government. They make the policy.

    If somebody on a demo commits a crime, they should, of course be treated like any other criminal. The state has no business bullying the rest and it is time it stopped.


  13. I was thinking of the natural tendency of true libertarianism to promote absolute equality of opportunity

    Isn’t that rather like the natural tendency of true Communism to cause the state to wither away?

    1. Well yes, yes it is. Doesn’t devalue the point, the authoritarian nature of the revolutionary regimes that were established in the eastern block used the excuse of “communism” to transfer power from one oligopolistic elite to another.

      Without equal access to truly open and competetive markets, we cannot truly be said to be living in a free or liberal society; JS Mill would definitely have agreed with that, which is why I’m a liberal socialist.

      The distinction between the labels of “liberal socialism” and “left libertarianism” are minimal–I frequently think Jock’s right when he prefers the label mutualist. Your absolute belief that everyone who believes in empowering people to compete effectively against entrenched power interests is in some way a Tory entryist is amusing, but a little frustrating.

      1. No, I do not have an “absolute belief that everyone who believes in empowering people to compete effectively against entrenched power interests is in some way a Tory entryist”. But your failure to understand the point I’m actually making does not help your case.

        What is really so difficult about the idea that when some people own a lot and some people own little, those that own a lot have much more freedom in markets than those who own a little?

        I am not opposed to truly open and competitive markets. I simply think it’s nonsense to suggest that “absolute equality of opportunity” happens when some people are so desperate to survive that they will do anything to get enough to live by, and others have huge amounts of wealth, and indeed will be encouraged by defending the rights of those who are wealthy not even to have some taken to away to even up chances a bit.

        1. What is really so difficult about the idea that when some people own a lot and some people own little, those that own a lot have much more freedom in markets than those who own a little?

          Nothing, it’s a statement of the obvious. Which is one of the reasons why most “tru” libertarians emphasise the need to ensure everyone has access to opportunity.

          Your straw man denial of this point, repeatedly, makes discussion with you incredibly frustrating, as you seem to completely ignore us every time we tell you the way we solve the problem you think we’re ignoring.

  14. Suddenly the libertarians are lying down with the left.

    I think you misunderstand the left – which on this blog and on Charlotte’s blog frequently seems to be characterised as being in love with the state.

    There is a strong element to the left which has a deep distrust of the state because it is associated with powerful vested interests that keep the working classes in their place. The leftwing environmental movement (which I grew up with) has always been distrustful of the police and the state. Many of the people who created Charter 88 etc saw themselves on the left.

    I do think there is intellectual paralysis on the left on how we approach the issues of civil liberties, something I intend to write about soon, but that doesn’t mean everyone on the left is pro-state and authoritarian.

    1. There is a strong element to the left which has a deep distrust of the state

      Yes, yes there is. But there are others, especially within the current “left wing” government who like using the state and belive it’s empowering “their” people.

      The Labour party is definitely a left wing party, but it has a large proportion of authoritarian/conservative members who want to “empower” people by giving everything to the state or its agencies.

      That’s using “let wing” in a broadly economic sense.

      Like Tristan says below, libertarianism has strong left wing roots; Hayek rejected conservatism in all forms, and although I’m not a huge fan of some of his solutions, his analysis of many problems was sound.

      I’ve long argued that liberalism is the most radically left wing position, it wants to redistribute power, not wealth, access to markets for the very poorest is absolutely essential, as Mill made very clear.

      Damn shame he died before On Socialism was finished.

      1. I can go to the market, but if I have no money I cannot buy.

        The man who has a million pounds has much more power in the market than the man who has one pound. Isn’t this obvious?

        Wealth is power in the market, so how can you claim to want to redistribute it when a central part of your philosophy is that it is evil to take wealth from the rich?

        1. when a central part of your philosophy is that it is evil to take wealth from the rich?

          You going to stop putting words I’ve never said and have in fact told you I completely disagree with into my mouth?

          Supporting LVT and a high threshold high rate flat tax, combined with a CBI, is taking lots of money from the rich.

          So stop tilting at windmills before I start swearing again.

  15. I think Matthew has a point. Nothing promotes absolute equality of opportunity, except perhaps runaway global warming.

    Opportunity is a kind of outcome – it is something people work for, buy, or otherwise achieve through efforts and advantages. So equality of opportunity is largely inseperable from equality of outcome, also not promoted by anything.

    I’m not sure what the “true” qualifier does to libertarianism. No true Scotsman…

    But it seems to me that hardline libertarianism, typically, takes no interest in outcomes or opportunities. It demands a particular agency – the state, because it is uniquely magically bad – to get out of the way, and expects the consequences of this to be good, but would still demand it on principle even if the consequences were bad.

    To me, the consequences are what matter. So I am happy for the state to pay for things which extend opportunities, such as education.

  16. The spectacle of people fighting for political gain over Ian Tomlinson’s unburied carcass is unedifying to say the least.

    So can I change the terms of definition, please?

    In the same way that the left-centre-right divide is meaningless to liberals, I think this debate shows that the communitarian-authoritarian-libertarian political debate is meaningless to those of us who put real people before artificial structures in society.

    While political commentators concentrate on how the swing-o-meter goes round and round in a never-ending spiral the focus moves further and further away from people and detracts more and more from the balance of experience in our lives.

    I would be interested to know whether Ian Tomlinson voted during his life.

    What I’ve discovered from the reports about his job, his interests and his lifestyle suggests he fits every category for a member of ‘ordinary’ society disconnected from politics.

    So, will his family now get involved in political campaigning and speak out on the issues raised, or will this tragic incident push them into the shell of apathy?

    Are we at risk of losing our humanity, and can we rescue some dignity from the episode?

  17. Well, libertarianism grew out of the left. It only became associated with the right as a reaction against the wide scale (although not complete) adoption by the left of coercive means.

    Personally I think libertarianism is most powerful when it admits its left wing roots and embraces them.

    1. The hypocrisy of wealthy people using supposedly liberal argument to defend their own privileges at the expense of the poor goes back a LOT longer than you suppose, Tristan. It was a central feature of the writings of William Cobbett, for example.

  18. And further to this another video of some policeman hitting a woman – quite a small one – with his club.

    I don’t think that this is a left/right matter, or even an authoritarian/libertarian one; it is a very primal one. Sexist though it probably is, the video of the woman getting hit made me feel even more keenly a deep and immediate sense of cold rage; for an Amisesque ‘atavistic moment’ I really hoped that someone in the crowd would twat him one.

    Politically, police brutality brings people out in a rash of Orwell, though most of them haven’t got beyond Animal Farm, and forget that he also pointed out, sort of, that if the police weren’t prepared to do violence on our behalf, we would have to do it ourselves and wouldn’t have the opportunity to be quite so high-mindedly critical of them. Sadly, we do need people who are prepared, in extreme situations, to hit other people. Equally sadly, the job attracts people who just like hitting people. The army doesn’t tend to attract pacifists, riot police like hitting people with sticks. My instinctive reaction is based on the fact that lots of armed men in uniforms attacking one person who is unarmed, with the state’s backing and paid for by me – amongst others – is repugnant and contemptible. Nothing to do with politics.

  19. Glib moment of the week: nothing is “nothing to do with politics”. Hehe.

    I would still argue that a seemingly natural revulsion to the lots-of-armed-men-versus-one-unarmed proceeds from a liberal mindset, even without the rider about state backing.

    If it were a matter of universally understood human justice then various people wouldn’t be suggesting police brutality was defensible because the police have a difficult job to do, or similar. The lots of armed men versus one unarmed thing doesn’t resonate for them. They see it as equivalent to consideration of what a difficult job the police had that day, not as an immediate and obvious trump.

  20. Glib moment… Fair cop. Nevertheless…

    I’m not suggesting that there aren’t some people who get a kick out of seeing individuals they don’t like getting a shoeing from a group of uniformed men; I’m sure there are but that surely doesn’t stem from their political outlook. Some deep-seated pychological problem and a massive inferiority complex, perhaps. But those people are likely to be found across the political spectrum. I define as a libertarian, yes,* but don’t think that that’s where the primal reaction comes from; show me footage of anyone being downed by a group and my sympathies go directly to the person.

    I suppose you could argue, if you wanted to, that that instinctive tendency to empathise with the individual rather than the mob is part/parcel of the same reaction that makes me an instinctive libertarian. But I really don’t think that’s the case, because surely most people would have that reaction? You’d have to be pretty damn committed to the tyranny of the majority to watch a gang attack and sympathise with the crowd.

    Essentially, even the people defending the police do seem to accept that they are making excuses for something that shouldn’t happen. “The police have a difficult job” is just a more adult version of “Johnny’s having a tough time at home…[and that’s why he’s behaving like a shit]”

    (*because I value personal autonomy and want other people to have as little power as possible to compel me to do things I don’t want to. It’s a very simplistic political credo, but it’s mine and I like it.)

  21. Matthew,
    let’s not confuse power with freedom.

    Are you talking about the lower-middle-class poverty of the voting populace or the very real poverty of the underclass?

    The biggest limitation on freedom in a consumer society is not your level of wealth (or the lack of it), rather it is whether or not you have access to market mechanisms in the first place.

    Whether a person has one spare pound or a million to dispose of is beside the point of having essential needs provided for, because how you spend/invest your spare money is a matter of personal choice.

    The problem is that many people still have no spare pounds and their outgoings are effectively dictated to them as a result of debts (mortgages, student loans, credit cards etc).

    The fact is that there are forms of additional help available to anybody who hasn’t discredited themselves.

    I think the ‘liberal’ plan should be to ensure people manage their borrowings and can live within their means – it’s no good complaining about others if you don’t take your responsibilities seriously yourself.

    Jealousy is an emotional reaction which conceals deeper causes, so, for me, this is a question of disentangling economic justice and equal opportunities from the artificial appearance of ‘fairness’ and ‘equality of outcome’ – I’m less worried about anybody who is unhappy they don’t have a ferrari than those who can’t put a meal on the table.

  22. Oranjepan

    I am just saying Alix’s line:


    I was thinking of the natural tendency of true libertarianism to promote absolute equality of opportunity

    strikes me as complete and utter bollocks, as self-serving and as ridiculous as the Leninist Communist claim that the withering away of the state will be a natural tendency of their ideology.

    It seems to me to be stark-staringly obvious that when some people own a lot and others own a little, there is NOT equality of opportunity. In generally the more you own, the more you can do, and the advantage of owning more helps you to do more and so get to own even more. A philosophy which says that any interference in what one owns and what one may do with that ownership is wrong seems to me quite obviously to have the very opposite of a “natural tendency to promote absolute equality of opportunity”.

    Saying this does not mean one wishes for the opposite, for enforced equality of wealth. There are many reasons why an inequality of wealth needs to be accepted; personally I think there’s a role for the state in ameliorating it, but reward for enterprise and freedom in knowing one owns something is extremely important and worth tolerating a fair degree of economic inequality for.

    All I am really asking for is honesty here – an acceptance that this is an issue. When people who call themselves “libertarians” seem blind to my fears, and answer them only with insults saying I am not a true enlightened liberal like they are but some stupid social democratic fool who hasn’t entered the higher realms of superior thought they dwell in, it does not endear them and their ideas to me. I may be stupid, but I don’t think I’m more stupid than most of the electorate, so if they can’t explain to me why what seems obviously likely to make the rich richer and the poor poorer will do the opposite, I don’t think they will do well selling their ideas more widely. Except that, of course, the rich are very keen on those ideas, and so will do a lot to give them a gentle push, or at least those aspects of them which most favour the rich.

  23. How shall I put this..?

    Absolute freedom is the denial of any equality.
    Absolute equality is the denial of any freedom.

    So, there is a trade-off involved, or one will be sacrificed for the other.

    They are two competing principles which must be balanced in order to be maximised, but they are not exclusive.

    It strikes me as obvious that either side of the argument has an entrenched interest group which supports their side against the other. It also strikes me that the system only works to the benefit of the whole of society if all sides listen to each other and maintain a unified position.

    So it’s a question of balance, not absolutes.

    Liberty and equality are linked: you only get one when you get the other.

    Whether it’s personal liberty and social justice, or civil liberty and national security. We need both.

    Agreed?

    Okay, I’d add the balance is assumed to be regulated by the law, but it is the welter of new regulations introduced by a cabal of professional lawyers in parliament has upset this balance.

    The result is plastered across every daily headline – we see the forces of authority (be it the police, the ASA and Ofcom, the FSA etc) undermining their own legitimacy by acting inappropriately, irrationally or not at all – there’s a reason why lawyers turn to politics, they didn’t make good judges.

    The number of lawyers on the frontbenches of parliament in recent years have upset the representative balance and increased the cultural tendency favouring interventionist tools.

    As this breaks down there is a natural rebalancing of the public debate and the growth of anti-interventionists of various guises is the backlash. The reaction might be automatic, but it’s important it doesn’t go too far, so engaging ‘libertarians’ in alliances of shared concern prevents the reactionary tendency from tipping over into conservatism.

    Ultimately though, while I’m happy to talk about theory I try my damnedest to avoid jargonised phrasiology, sloganeering management-speak and the tick-box soundbite constructions of politease, I’d rather stick to real matters of real interest to real people.

    “Equality of outcome” and “Equality of opportunity” are by now so degraded as reference points that they have lost too much meaning to be helpful – just like the pro-life/pro-choice split: in an ideal world you could be both.

    So: clarity; simplicity; good policy.

    …off to work.

    1. Equality and freedom are only opposed if you concentrate on equality of outcome, which most of us don’t.

      I don’t think you can have equality of opportunity without freedom.

      1. Well, that might be what ‘we’ think, but it’s not what everyone concentrates on.

        As a tactical position I don’t think you can convert people unless you meet them on their ground and try to apply their terms, so keeping a unified sense of what equality means may help.

        Basically the ambiguity in the way the term can be applied at different stages of the process means you have to overcome the divisions opened up where people start from different premises – why waste effort on outrage when you can shift the debate and forge agreement around a related definition?

        My emphasis was on ‘absolute’ for exactly this reason – can you name any concrete absolutes?

        If you want to test me I’m happy to try to put conditions on, erm, absolutely anything you wish to suggest. Well almost. There are exceptions to that rule as well…


    2. Absolute freedom is the denial of any equality.

      No, I don’t think so. Absolute freedom is unobtainable because we live in a world with physical limits and shared by other people.

      But even taking out this, I certainly don’t agree that there’s an absolute balance between freedom and equality. This is what I have been arguing – without a degree of protection of equality, many people would become destitute since they won nothing but their own bodies and those bodies aren’t worth much. They need to sell themselves to the highest bidder to keep alive – how on earth can that be “absolute freedom”?

  24. MatGB


    Supporting LVT and a high threshold high rate flat tax, combined with a CBI, is taking lots of money from the rich.

    Yes, if I was absolutely sure that these things were what you and everyone who calls themselves “libertarians” or “economic liberals” were about, I’d have few problems with you, and would regard you as allies.

    The reality, however, is that the arguments and language you use are generally used by people who want to keep wealth and privilege for themselves. We hear a lot about “cut taxes, it’ll encourage enterprise” and very little about “replace other taxes by LVT”, we hear a lot about “cut welfare, it only encourages laziness” and very little about “replace welfare by CBI”.

    If you made LVT and CBI the major things you talked about, I’d have more confidence in you. But they do rather seem to be things you only drop in when pushed to justify concerns people like me raise. The result is that I fear that the “cut taxes” and “make the poor suffer” line would get heard and implemented if you ever gained power, and LVT and CBI would get forgotten.

    So, if you want to enter a constructive dialogue, it’s simple – cut the language that makes you sound like Tories, and try the other stuff.

    1. Matthew, some people talk like that but not MatGB that I can recall.

      So the Tories talk about encouraging enterprise. Does this mean that enterprise is evil? Does this mean we should concede the position of supporting enterprise to them, on principle? They are smirking their socks off at you, handing a victory like that to them on a plate.

      In any case can we have less of what it “sounds like” and some comment on the actual substance of the position?

      1. Nothing I have said suggests a belief that enterprise is evil. Why can’t you get it? I have expressed a concern that people lack freedom in a market system if they have very little to pay with, and your only response to me is to throw abuse, accusing me of being some sort of stereotypical socialist type who hates enterprise etc?

        Shit, Joe, I was trying to be constructive here, and look at ways in which those who call themselves “economic liberals” and those of us who are sceptical of some of what is done in the name of that can work together as liberals. But instead you just want to play the game of “you’re not one of us, get out”.

        1. OK, if you’re not saying that enterprise is evil, can you clarify your complaint about Mat using the language of promoting enterprise.

          Matthew, I share your concerns – and I have said many times that the state should do better to add a layer of opportunity for everyone on top of what they might make for themselves. And provide a safety net. I don’t count myself among the libertarians largely for this reason.

          But I do count myself an economic liberal, because liberal economics adds to opportunities across the board. It is basically a massive force for good. I prefer to celebrate this than to whine that it doesn’t also wipe my arse.

      2. Read what I wrote, Joe, instead of jumping to assumptions.
        I didn’t say Mat shouldn’t use language about promoting enterprise. I was simply calling for balance. Saying “you give too much attention to X and not enough to Y” isn’t the same as saying “X is evil” or “you should never talk about X”.

        Now I do actually feel that the language of “tax cuts to promote
        enterprise” is often used to justify tax cuts which actually support unearned privilege, but that’s another issue.

    2. the arguments and language you use are generally used by people who want to keep wealth and privilege for themselves.

      But I’m not one of those people.
      How many fucking times do we have to repeat the same conversation?

      Thatcher picked and chose the crap she was in favour of. I’m not a huge fan of Friedman, but even he was in favour of LVT and a negative income tax.

      FFS, you’re tilting at non-existent windmills, even extremist libertarians that are distinctly on the right have argued in favour of things like a CBI—it’s up on the Adam Smith Intitute website FFS.

      You haven’t heard it being discussed.

      Well good, that just shows you’re not paying attention.

      Arseholes use the language of liberalism to justify privilege.

      That doesn’t mean they’re actually liberals, nor does it discount actual liberal positions.

      I have, repeatedly, here and elsewhere, explained my personal position on LVT, CBI and similar. Repeatedly, specifically, to you.

      How many times do I need to repeat the same fucking answers before you stop accusing me (a socialist, FFS) of being an anti-poor Tory?

      Ye gods man, if you’re not going to read any of the answers I and others give, what’s the point of asking the questions?

      cut the language that makes you sound like Tories,

      If you think everyone that disagrees with you sounds like a Tory, then that’s your problem, not mine.

      1. Mat,

        I am trying to be constructive by suggesting how you might overcome people’s misconceptions.

        I’m with you on LVT, I’m with you on CBI, I was trying to say, great, we agree on that, so let’s hear more about it and dicuss it. I thought I was agreeing with you – your support for these things answers a lot of my concerns. But in return, all I get from you is “fuck off”.

        What a great politician you are – here’s someone who’s interested in what you’re saying, you’re getting him round to your ideas, then you just insult him. Well, if you don’t want to hear how you might sell your ideas to the sceptical, don’t bother, stay in your little self-righteous group issuing insults at anyone who isn’t in your enlightened little gang.

  25. Oranjepan


    The number of lawyers on the frontbenches of parliament in recent years have upset the representative balance and increased the cultural tendency favouring interventionist tools.

    This is bizarre. I really do not think interventionist tendencies have anything to do with the number of lawyers who are MPs.

    What has caused it is the “something must be done” attitude. Indeed, every time something goes wrong somewhere, you will hear these great calls “something must be done”. While the tabloid newspapers will rail against “government intervention” and “red tape”, they’re generally the first to say “something must be done” in response to almost any bad news.

    Take the Baby P case, as a good recent example. Was the reaction of most people “oh dear, some people are just rotten parents, and some people are good at hiding it”? No, it was a great upcry of “something must be done”, the consequence of which is likely to be more rules and procedures added to the load of those working in child protection.

    Take the national curriculum in schools. Was this introduced by wicked socialists who want to control everything? Or by lawyers thinking it will lead to juicy legal cases? No. It was brought in by Conservatives (who thought of themselves as “economic liberals”), who felt the problem with schools was trendy teachers doing whatever they wanted so “something must be done” in the shape of heavy-handed state control.

  26. The real present conflict in society seems to me to be that between ‘those that are certain’ and ‘those that are not’. Every generation seems to spawn a new set of Young Turks, who, blind to the errors of the 10,000 generations before them, have come to the conclusion that they, amongst all other, have ‘the answer’ to the ills of society. And they try to foist that answer upon us. Such is authoritarianism – the belief that something should be done to society for its own good – and it is quite different from populism.

    Imperialism, socialism, fundamentalism (of whatever religious flavour) – they are all authoritarian examples of ‘I know best’. And it takes the naivety and inexperience of youth to have that certainty about life. This is why those that man the barricades are all in their early twenties, whether Penny Red or Georgia Gould (perhaps the latter is not really a socialist though?).

    This is why the cliche is true, that youthful university lefties turn into small ‘c’ conservatives once they have mortgages to pay, but more importantly have had the time to experience the actions of state and others upon them. Most of us, deep down, just want to be left alone, and are fed up of both suicide bombers and the Blears and Jacquis that want to curtail our liberties from either side.

    The true debate of our time is not the out-dated left and right, but between libertarianism and authoritarianism, between certainty and uncertainty. That is perhaps the only thing of which I am sure.

  27. I am pretty appalled by Walton.

    “I know best” is a philosophy which does not “take the naivety and inexperience of youth to have that certainty…” as you say.

    The casual assault on youth is a bit shameful and unfortunately typical of an attitude which pervades politics.

  28. Walton might be being a leettle sniffy, but I’m not sure s/he is saying quite that.

    I’m reminded of the saying (who the hell actually said it?) “It’s not true that all conservatives are stupid, but it is true that most stupid people are conservatives.”

    By the same token, it certainly isn’t true that all young people think they know best – some of the most thoughtful people I know in the blogosphere are under 25, Asquith, Bensix etc – but it probably is true that many of the people who are most insistent that they know best are young. I certainly remember plenty of those types being around in my peer group ten years ago who aren’t now (though maybe that’s just because I got away from them!)

      1. at the risk of being a spoilsport, I’ve always thought that particular statement was a glib way of making a truism sound political. “stupid people are resistant to change, especially changing ideas” doesn’t sound nearly as impressive, does it? And I’m not sure that he believed it, the old utilitarian; he also said (apologies if slightly misquoting in letter though pretty sure not in spirit) that a party of order and stability was as necessary for healthy politics as a party of progress and reform.

        And I don’t remember him being awfully keen on progressive taxation, either…

        1. Is the tax regime in this country progressive? Is
          ‘progressive taxation’ actually progressive (ie beneficial)?

          If ‘progressive’ means constantly tinkering around the fringes without addressing the underlying causes of our ill-fortune then no and no.

          Without meaningful reform progress goes nowhere and goes there fast.

  29. The casual assault on youth is a bit shameful and unfortunately typical of an attitude which pervades politics.

    Oh, I don’t know. Y’see the problem with politics is not – contrary to what most people say the whole f***ing time – that no-one takes the trouble to interest da yoof in politics. On the contrary, politics is now couched in the language of youth, suffused with the smug moral certainties of adolescence, and shows a childish aversion to complexity, compromise or ever having to think. Age and experience do not necessarily bring wisdom, but the vacuous modern creed that everyone’s opinion is equally valid just because they happen to hold it, and that therefore we have to give equal weight to people who are holding ideas for the first time as we do to those who have seen their theories tested, and lived with the consequences of applying them is pretty silly at best.

    The most detrimental attitudes that currently ‘pervade politics’ are more likely born of the fact that many people engaged with it are professional politicians who have never done anything else (bar lobbying, Public Affairs, think tanking, etc)

    Straw poll: how many people here over the age of, say, 25 were active student politicos?

  30. “Smug moral certainties of adolescence” were expressed more by Thatcher, Blair, Gladstone, and yes, even an elderly Mill than adolescents I have met.

    I agree that “smug moral certainties” are not a good thing, but they are not “adolescent”.

    In fact, adolescence is usually characterised by uncertainty, and if the younger person has had their opinions challenged enough, an acceptance of that uncertainty.

    One can be young and have had one’s opinion’s shot down. One can be old and have never had to revise one’s opinions (whether down to arrogance, stupidity, or accuracy).

    The “vacuous moral creed” that everyone’s opinion is “equally valid just because they happen to hold it” is indeed absurd. But to paint your opponents as holding that view is to create a straw-person.

    I think a valid argument is a valid argument, regardless of your views about the person holding it, and if you assess it on this basis rather than

    [There is, and has been a lack of engagement with younger people. But I didn’t think the call was for greater engagment; I objected to Walton’s comment on the basis of the casual lumping in of ‘the youth’ or younger people with teh state of politics at the moment: dominated by the enfranchised, presumptive, and certainly not adolescent, Blairite, Thatcherite, and Brownite style of politics.]

    I would, and I think everyone should (with uncertainty of course), treat all views as open to criticism however senior, junior, venerable, young, or middle-aged, the person holding them might be.

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