Chaired by IEA Director Mark Littlewood, the debate—titled Who Holds The Liberal Torch In 2010: Libertarians, Lib Dems or the “liberal elite”?—featured (in speaking order) myself, Brendan O’Neill (editor, Spiked!), Paul Staines (aka blogger Guido Fawkes), Julian Harris (chairman, Liberal Vision), James Delingpole (writer, journalist and broadcaster), Michael White (assistant editor, Grauniad) and Mark Pack (co-editor, Liberal Democrat Voice).
Before commenting on the debate itself (or, rather, some of the more extraordinary views exposed by it), I thought that I would post the introduction that I had written. On the day, this introduction ended up being slightly rushed, since I had anticipated having six minutes to speak whilst, in fact, being kept to five (and a minute does make all the difference): however, for the edification of my faithful readers and of those who were there, I am going to post my expanded speech—the one that I would have given had time not been short—below (although the themes will be familiar to those of you who have read posts such as this and this).
So, who does hold the liberal torch in this day and age?
In order to consider this, one needs to consider what "liberal" is. I, of course, would hold that "liberal"—in these days of the corruption of that word—really means "libertarian", and it is these terms that I frame my argument.
I have written before that there are two types of libertarian—what I call "positive" and "negative". The negative are of the ultra-individual, "don't tread on me" variety: they are often the gun nuts, and the shrillest advocates of the "all tax is theft" mantra. Of course, I agree with them: all tax is theft—in fact, it is extortion with menaces.
However, I am more of the positive libertarian persuasion. I want the greatest amount of freedom that we can possibly get—indeed, in an ideal world, I would be an anarchist—but, ultimately, I am interested in the best possible outcome. What makes me a libertarian is that, broadly speaking, I believe that the best possible outcomes are achieved through giving people the greatest possible liberty, and encouraging the free market to work its magic (in almost all things).
In other words, I am a libertarian not simply through moral or philosophical dogma, but because I believe that a libertarian state—or, if you like, liberal state—will make everyone's lives better.
Of course, given the tenets of the philosophy, the real problem is how one goes about "practical libertarianism": indeed, as the leader of the Libertarian Party, I can tell you that this is—quite naturally—the conundrum that is the basis for the majority of our internal (and external) debates.
In any case, personally I am anti-state: yes, there is the aspect of ideology (and I deplore its monopoly on force), but my real objection is that it performs its tasks so badly. Not only is it wasteful, and swayed by successive governments' ideologies, but it is so easily corrupted too.
As an illustration, I would like to use an example—that being one of the most damaging, stupid, destructive laws ever passed. It is a law whose effects have been devastating and incredibly long-lasting—the 1911 National Insurance Act.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, welfare was generally handled by the Friendly Societies: perfect examples of voluntary collectivism, of people banding together in local, organised structures to improve their lives.
By the early 1900s, Friendly Societies had branches in almost every town, almost every district of every city—and, at their peak, provided community-rooted insurance and primary medical care to some three quarters of Britain's manual workers. Parents could even buy memberships for their children so that they were insured from the moment that they left schooling.
Friendly Societies competed against one another for members, keeping costs down, and yet had reciprocal arrangements (like private gentlemen's clubs today) with other friendly societies—so ensuring the mobility of labour. You paid into your insurance fund—not some nebulous government coffer—and when you moved, it moved with you.
Friendly Societies were small, and local. They held events and regular meetings. In this way, you got to know people in your community, people in other professions. People are less likely to steal from those whom they know personally—and that went for the managers of the Societies as much as it went for the possible malingerers. Further, members could chip in extra money, or vote for extra monies, to be distributed to those who were genuinely in need and whose premiums would not cover their care.
So, when I have excoriated the state—or pointed out that the state spend only 8% of GDP in 1880 (despite fighting several wars)—and people say to me "I suppose you want to see the return of the poorhouses?", I have an answer. "No," say I. "I want to see the return of the Friendly Societies."
The Friendly Societies show what human beings can do when the state does not interfere. Indeed, the original aim of the 1911 National Insurance Act was to provide Friendly Society membership to those who could not otherwise afford it.
But the Friendly Societies' success was, ultimately, their downfall. No, they were not brought down by internal strife, or by any factor within their control. They were brought down by the power and the malice of their enemies and the corruptibility of politicians—of the state.
The Friendly Societies had two powerful enemies. The first, and obvious, was the private insurance companies which had—with little self-knowledge, it seems—organised themselves into an association with the somewhat sinister monicker of "The Combine".
The second enemy was the British Medical Association, the BMA: an organisation that, even now, is lobbying vigorously to persuade the state to remove yet more of our freedoms. The BMA disliked the idea that the lower orders should be able to give orders to "gentlemen doctors". Not only this, but these common little men often had the impertinence to vote bad doctors out of their jobs with Friendly Societies—organisations that did not, the BMA felt, pay doctors the wages that they deserved.
These two enemies of the people combined to form a temporary but unholy alliance to lobby the state—and particularly Lloyd George, who was piloting the Bill—to pervert the National Insurance Act into an instrument that would destroy the Friendly Societies.
What the insurers gained was the removal of competition. The doctors gained all that they wanted, not least a doubling of the minimum wage that a doctor could be paid. And all of this was paid for by a deeply regressive poll tax—National Insurance Contributions.
As in other things where the state starts to provide a service, they crowded out the Friendly Societies. After all, if you were a relatively poor manual worker, you could not spare your three shillings per annum to the Friendly Society and the three shillings that the government was taking directly from your pay.
And so the Friendly Societies all but vanished, along with the communities they nurtured. And with them went the libertarian model of welfare—of people getting together as a voluntary collective in order to look after themselves. And so the model of state as mater and pater—the state in loco parentis, with all the intrusive hideousness that concept has spawned—was started.
Lloyd George and the others started with good intentions, but they were perverted by powerful vested interests. As such, the liberal torch is borne by all those who fight and campaign for the removal of such vested interests—and the state is the biggest of those.
But more than that: the liberal torch is not carried by the LibDems, or any other politicos; nor is it carried by the elite who form part of the state-perpetuating establishment—all of whom are like big children playing house, putting on airs of supreme importance and throwing their weight around as if the actions of government are the most significant and serious actions of all.
It's the actions of regular people that are the most significant, serious, and worthy of respect, and they don't deserve to be treated like dolls when, in reality, the only truly and moral libertarian proposition is that they should be masters of themselves.
They did so in the past, and their aspirations were crushed by corporate whores and political shills: and in removing the ability of people to organise themselves, these evil people also removed the desire for them to try. It is this that has led to our "broken society"—the cynical ambitions of the vested interests, backed up by the monopoly of violence that a corrupt and venal state willingly brought to bear upon its people.
And so I say that those who really carry the liberal torch these days are ordinary individuals, providing for themselves and each other voluntarily, trying to live fulfilling lives according to their choice, without interference or interfering.
And that, for what it's worth, is probably the clearest mission statement that I can give, frankly. I wish that I had had the time to deliver it in full, but that is the way with these things.
Many of the others made a strong case for liberal—or libertarian—policies, with Guido concentrating on drugs (and recounting memories of a long and eventful night that we had a couple of years ago), Julian recounting a personal story, and James Delingpole concentrating on the Climate Change scandal (according to Pater Devil, James has mentioned me favourably in this week's Spectator, but I have been unable to obtain a copy of it thus far). Michael White was—whilst being moderately and unexpectedly amusing—as smug, stupid, irritating and patronising as I had imagined that he would be; still, with the Grauniad group making another colossal loss of £171 million this year, perhaps we won't have to read his witterings too much longer.
Two people are worth further commet. The first is Mark Pack, who was generally sensible until he started raising the spectre of what our old friends at The Spirit Level would call "psychosocial pathways". Mark denies it but, as far as I am concerned, his clear implication was that we should legislate against things that, to put it bluntly, hurt people's feelings.
Mark commented on Dick Puddlecote's review of the debate, leaving the following snide little comment.
Yup, mentioning some scientific research and saying we should think about its implications is a truly an attitude that strikes terror in some :-)
Unfortunately, Mark is no scientist. But, with a PhD in political history, he ought to know what happens when you start to legislate according to a few groups of people's personal morals. Let's say some "science" said that people were offended by gays and wanted them to be stoned to death; would Mark endorse that?
I presume not. So why would anyone who calls themselves a liberal be in favour of legislating against advertising or anything else that happens to hurt people's feelings—or in any other way influence their behaviour.
But it is more fundamental than that: it is not that I particularly hold a candle for advertising: it is that I strongly object to smug, superior politicos deciding that they can better judge what other people's behaviour should be. I am immediately repulsed by people who believe that they have a monopoly on sensible choices and should be able to force their opinions—by force—on everyone else.
That is not the philosophy of a liberal, but of an authoritarian scumbag: it is the attitude of the kind of idiot who believes that The Spirit Level is science and that Nudge—and all of these other books advocating "libertarianism paternalism"—are about anything other than totalitarianism.
And that is why I said that I found Mark Pack the "most terrifying person in the room": because he is a dictator clothed in the raiments of a liberal.
The second person who is worth drawing to your attention is Brendan O'Neill, the editor of Spiked!. Spiked! comes, roughly speaking, from the very left wing, and describes itself thus:
spiked is an independent online phenomenon dedicated to raising the horizons of humanity by waging a culture war of words against misanthropy, priggishness, prejudice, luddism, illiberalism and irrationalism in all their ancient and modern forms. spiked is endorsed by free-thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, and hated by the narrow-minded such as Torquemada and Stalin. Or it would be, if they were lucky enough to be around to read it.
Brendan pointed out, quite correctly, that many so-called libertarians—on the right and the left—will shout about getting the state away from their particular likes, but call for it to come down hard on their bug-bears. The right, for instance, might shout about paying less tax, but holler for the state to crack down on people taking drugs; the Left might go on about civil liberties but insist the government crack down on free speech for terrorists.
All well and good. Brendan is right: people are very bad at being consistent in their cries for liberty.
But, bizarrely, he then went on to prove his point—by insisting that governments should get out of our lives, except where it concerned striking workers. Brendan essentially seemed to hold up the right to strike as one of the very cornerstones of liberty. And by "right to strike", as he clarified, Brendan meant the state laws that prevent companies from firing striking workers.
In other words, Brendan advocated drug legalisation, and free speech and civil liberties and all of these other good things, whilst bizarrely insisting that the law should be brought to bear on employers in order that Brendan's own bug-bear could be backed up by state violence.
In conversations afterwards, in the pub, I pointed this out to Brendan. I was consistent, I maintained, because—like him—I did not want the government propping up (and being lobbied by) business. But trades unions are just as much of a vested interest as the corporates. If one truly believes in libertarianism, then one should not support the laws against sacking strikers. In fact, there should be no government interference on either side.
The whole point of a trade union was to be able to motivate large numbers of workers so that, if an employer behaved unjustly, then they would have to negotiate because otherwise they couldn't carry out their business. This is far more true now—when most workers are skilled and require considerable training—than it was when the trades unions were first formed (when much of the work was repetitive manual labour).
In the end, Brendan appeared, at least, to agree with me that the state should be involved on neither side, although he still maintained the right to strike was one of the most fundamental. I countered that everyone has the right to strike, law or no law—they just don't have the right to remain employed if doing so.
Anyway, generally the whole event was interesting and enjoyable: let us hope that these debates continue...