Monday, December 21, 2009

Canton it...

Over at a Very British Dude, Jackart has written a rather good post about socialism and libertarianism. The post covers several aspects of the whole debate—not least countering the argument that "socialism has never been tried" (and The Nameless Libertarian makes some good additional points on this subject)—but it is on one crucial difference between libertarianism and socialism that I wish to comment.

The real difference between libertarianism and socialism is choice; in philosophy, the two actually have quite a lot in common. As I pointed out in my recent Total Politics interview, libertarianism has a strong tradition of collectivism—unlike socialism, however, that collectivism is voluntary.

This is a point that Jackart makes quite simply. [Emphasis mine.]
A Libertarian like me might decide that Libertarianism "has never been tried", but the libertarian has no promised land which is the destination. No individual is "expendable" for my political ends, which begin and end with the statement
"I do not desire power over my fellow man, and I desire none to have power over me"

All creeds, beliefs and politics are acceptable to a libertarian. If you're a communist, go live in a commune. You'll probably make it work. If you're an objectivist, become a businessman and run a corporation. Just don't impose your world-view on me.

This is a point that I have often made: under a libertarian state, you can go and form a socialist collective and, provided that you coerce nobody, you can live quite happily under the (minimal) libertarian laws. Naturally, we shall watch with amusement as every drifter, grafter, lazy fucker and idiot starts to join your collective, but you can, nonetheless, do this.

Under socialism, I cannot form a libertarian enclave: I cannot opt out of the forced collectivist society that you have built. What? Do I hear you demure?

OK, let me give you a real-world example: I have a private pension, private health insurance and private unemployment insurance—can I opt out of National Insurance? No, I cannot.

What does this mean? What it means is that any libertarian state is going to have a very small, nearly powerless government and that by far the most political power is going to wielded on a local basis. A very local basis.

Is this a system that can be maintained? Indeed, what might it look like? Tom Clougherty at the ASI blog has some speculation on this point.
Tom’s excellent blog on the nightmare of ‘world government’ hits upon a very strong argument for localism. As Tom put it:

When all is said and done, there is one, final check upon a government’s ability to oppress its people. It is the mechanism used by Cubans when they tie empty oil drums to the chassis of old cars and try to paddle to Florida, or by North Koreans who manage to sneak all the way from the Yalu River to Bejing to try to slip into foreign embassies and beg for freedom. It is the ability to escape.

But this ‘exit option’ could be extended far beyond nation states. After all, even though it may be possible to move to a different, freer country, doing so is generally inconvenient. If we were to radically devolve power within nation states, however, that exit option would be very much enhanced. You could, in a sense, create a competitive ‘market’ in governments. And if you could change your government by moving from, say, Norfolk to Suffolk, you would have a far more genuine ‘choice’ about the policies you are subjected to than you could ever get at the ballot box.

The instinctive reaction of most English people to this suggestion would be incredulity. But look at Switzerland. Its 26 cantons exercise by far the greater part of that country’s political power, taking prime responsibility for healthcare, welfare, law enforcement and public education, as well as taxation. The most populous canton is Zurich, with some 1.2 million inhabitants, while the least populous (excluding the half-cantons, which band together) is Jura, with 70,000. And yet despite their small size, they seem to do rather well: the Swiss enjoy low taxes and excellent services.

Indeed they do. But could this really work in this country? Tom seems to think so.
There is no question that England’s traditional counties could operate effectively with a similar degree of autonomy. There would be numerous advantages to this: local governments would be more responsive and accountable than distant ones, they would be able to tailor policies more appropriately to local needs and conditions, and they would be able to innovate and learn from other jurisdictions. Moreover, competition between jurisdictions for businesses and residents would likely drive down average tax rates, while encouraging better use of taxpayers’ money.

Of course, in some areas the governments that resulted from localism would be even worse than the Westminster government. This is unfortunate. But if we believe in choice and competition, and further believe that those areas that adopt free market policies will prosper and inspire others, then we really should be prepared to let go of centralized power and see what happens.

Any move towards this system would be a move towards a more libertarian country, for certain. Of course, a libertarian government would have to allow secession from the state on the basis of individuals: if I wished to secede from the rest of society, then I should be allowed to do so.

Obviously, I would then have to agree treaties and payments should I wish to use the facilities enjoyed by the "parent" society. I might, for instance, wish to make a commercial contribution to the upkeep of police and the roads that I use.

In reality, the complication of all of this would probably mean that most people would not choose to secede—or, at least, not on an individual basis—but, under a libertarian government, it must be possible to do so.

And this speculation is where we came in. Because, you see, it is the ability to choose that sets libertarianism apart from socialism—or, indeed, "social democracy".

And it is the lack of choice in our society that means that—for me—nothing significant will change upon Cameron's accession to the throne Prime Minister.

10 comments:

cmp said...

Agreed; especially that last sentence

cabalamat said...

Can I opt out of National Insurance? No, I cannot.

Yes you can. It isn't even difficult -- over 99% of people have never paid NI in their life. Of course, if you chose to leave Britain, you'll likely end up in another state, might may well want you to pay taxes. The reason for this is that pieces of land without states tend to be less successful than ones with (consider Somalia).

I'm probably more liberatarian than 90%
of the UK population, but I think the LPUK are a bunch of swivel-eyed loons; you may want to consider how likely that makes your electoral success.

Martin said...

Hmm, that's comparable to a mafia don saying "If you don't like my services, bugger off and be extorted by a different mafia".

Er, no thanks.

Intruder said...

As a libertarian.... I can see the merit of paying NI for those who can't. If I could opt out I would, and leave the rest of you to pay for them. If we could all opt out with the same reasoning, we would have people without health care through whatever reason and you can say it's their fault, or you can be forced to pay for it.

I can see the merits of both, but on balance, I'd rather we were all forced to help those who are needy, and sod those who were lazy. That must mean I'm more socialist than I thought...

Devil's Kitchen said...

cabalamat,

"Yes you can. It isn't even difficult -- over 99% of people have never paid NI in their life. Of course, if you chose to leave Britain, you'll likely end up in another state, might may well want you to pay taxes."

If one wishes to remain in this country—or any Western country—then one will find oneself paying NI: it may not be called NI (it might be called "Social Security", for instance) but it's the same thing.

And leaving the country "isn't even difficult"? Why don't you tell that to my wife? It's actually pretty hard to leave and find enough work to sustain oneself—especially where there is a foreign language involved. Also, many states (including ours) deliberately discriminate against foreign workers.

"The reason for this is that pieces of land without states tend to be less successful than ones with (consider Somalia)."

Oh, for fuck's sake, this old chestnut. Somalia has never been a cohesive society, OK? It has never been a cohesive state: it was manufactured. And the government fell because of the civil strife: the civil strife didn't happen because the government fell.

"I'm probably more liberatarian than 90% of the UK population, but I think the LPUK are a bunch of swivel-eyed loons; you may want to consider how likely that makes your electoral success."

Which is nice coming from a man who leads the British wing of a single-issue political party—the single issue of which is the support of theft and contract-breaking.

Mind you, I can see how that might appeal to some of the population...

Martin,

"Hmm, that's comparable to a mafia don saying "If you don't like my services, bugger off and be extorted by a different mafia"."

As opposed to now when if you don't like the mafia don's services, then it's tough fucking shit because there ain't any others.

Intruder,

"As a libertarian.... I can see the merit of paying NI for those who can't. If I could opt out I would, and leave the rest of you to pay for them."

Which makes you something of a hypocrite, doesn't it? You "care" about the needy, but you won't actually do anything to help them voluntarily. And because you don't give enough of a shit, you think that everyone else should be forced to pay for your conscience.

That ain't very libertarian.

"I can see the merits of both, but on balance, I'd rather we were all forced to help those who are needy, and sod those who were lazy."

Quite. And the best way to do that is through mechanisms such as the Friendly Societies and other local charities and community bodies who know the people involved.

DK

Chris Edwards said...

The big stumbling block to socialism being libertarian is because socialism has to be authoriterian because you have to force actual working people to pay for lazy bastards. I suspect that to be libertarian you can only be central or slightly right wing, anything else would impinge on the "liber" bit.

Intruder said...

DK

"Which makes you something of a hypocrite, doesn't it?"

It does, yes. Self-interest is a powerful force that drives much of our world, and it's not always dissuaded by accusations of shameful behaviour.

"you think that everyone else should be forced to pay for your conscience."

That'd be nice. But seeing as it's not going to happen, I'd rather we were all forced to pay for my conscience rather than not, in the belief that's it's not just my conscience we'd be paying for but the lives of the needy. (Ive direct debited to a charity for almost 20 years now, so it's not exactly wanting people to pay for my conscience, so much as tax avoidance is a legitimate pursuit of us all).

"That ain't very libertarian."

No, which leads me to believe I'm more socialist that I thought.

"the best way to do that is through mechanisms such as the Friendly Societies and other local charities and community bodies"

For many things that's true. But for many other things (eg emergency services or epidemic prevention) it'd be too disorganised to be effective. Sometimes things have to be organised and effective for everyone to be effective at all, and since I want emergency services for myself and kin, and would expect everyone to similarly wish it, we'd all have to pay for it. And pay for those who can't or won't pay and would otherwise jeopardise the service.

Chris Edwards
"you have to force actual working people to pay for lazy bastards"

I would hate that to happen, but I would also hate an emergency service that checked your NI payments before deciding what treatment to give you.

I *thought* I was anti-authoritarian and libertarian, but I realise I believe that some things need to be organised centrally and paid for by all who can pay.

e.g. A deadly-disease outbreak is exacerbated by the lack of treatment of those who dont have private healthcare. It affects all those with healthcare... thus it's in the interests of private healthcare to treat those who don't pay, but proactively... so it's in the interests of private healthcare to prevent the next disease outbreak... we end up with a system that is bigger than my own personal healthcare and effectively be NI. It'd be nice to think it'd be voluntary but I doubt it could be.

Now I suspect these aren't new issues and you have some very good articles pointing out how you'd address it, which I shall read with interest...

cabalamat said...

DK: If one wishes to remain in this country—or any Western country—then one will find oneself paying NI: it may not be called NI (it might be called "Social Security", for instance) but it's the same thing.

Yes, because just about all successful countries are Western democracies. This suggests to me that Western democracy -- including all that entails, such as having to pay a largish slice of one's income as tax -- is the best form of society that humans have invented so far.

Look, I don't like paying tax either. No-one does. But I recognise that all the places that I regard as decent places to live, one has to pay taxes. I don't see that it's possible to get round this unless the country has lots of mineral wealth, and that bring its own problems (e.g. Saudi Arabia being a shithole despite being rich).

And leaving the country "isn't even difficult"?

I didn't say that. It's not living in Britain that isn't difficult; 99% of people do it, with no effort at all.

Which is nice coming from a man who leads the British wing of a single-issue political party

I don't lead any party. I'm the Campaigns Officer of Pirate Party UK, which incidently is not a "British wing" but an independent party (the parties that make up the international Pirate Party movement are all independent of each other).

the single issue of which is the support of theft and contract-breaking

PPUK does not support theft or contract breaking. We do think that the term of copyright should be shorter, and that non-commercial copying shouldn't be an infringement of copyright law; but only misinformed or malicious people call that "theft". I've no idea what you mean by "contract breaking".

Actually, we're more libertarian than most parties (and all IP-maximalists) on the issue of ownership of physical property, because we don't thik that one's ownership of physical proprty shoukld be as constrained by overly restrictive copyright and patent laws.

So if I own a lump of steel, I should be permitted to make it into any machine I like; if patent law prevents me, that has infringed my property right in it. If I own a hard disk, I should be permitted to set up the patterns of magnetic alignment on it as I like; if copyright law prevents me, again my proprty rights have been curtailed.

Incidently, what is the position of LPUK on intellectual property issues -- there doesn't seem much on your website?

Ivan the Terrible said...

I'm not sure about the anti-Tory rhetoric.

My beliefs are not too disimilar to the authors but I am realistic enough to realise they will not be made true any time soon, at least here in the UK.

If the Tories stand for smaller government (let's just accept that is the case!) and more local democracy (elected police chiefs etc) and lower taxes and they're the only option that has any chance of electoral success then I'd be mad not to lend them my vote would I not?

If my society is less authoritarian and my government less powerful than it is now in, say, 10 years time (under a Conservative government)then I'll feel a lot better than having watched a decade of continued socialist rule and having seen my local Libertarian candidate lose their deposit several times in a row!

cabalamat said...

Ivan the Terrible: If the Tories stand for more local democracy

They do, because they are in opposition. Labour believed in local democracy when they were in opposition, too. If the Tories win the election, they will no longer believe in local democracy, they will instead want to centralise everything. Just like they did the last time they were running the country.

Anyone who votes for either Labservative party is voting for a bunch of cunts who will shaft the country for the next five years.