By William Austen
Once upon a time, I was a libertarian. I spent my teen years reading the works of the Austrian School economists, and some, though not enough, of the eighteenth and nineteenth century liberals. I also spent much of my time blogging about what was wrong with my country and hoping for some kind of libertarian revolution.
I was always a rather cynical sort and have always been able to identify the in-group words and phrases, attitudes and beliefs denoting membership of the Party in 21st century Britain. I think this started in primary school; I was a very odd child. But eventually cynicism gave way to defeatism and the thinking and the writing and the hoping all dried up.
When I started blogging about politics some years ago, the Conservative Party had just returned to power; now they are facing a 1997-style wipeout. Perhaps this has something to do with my decision to write today. Cynic though I was, I had always thought a Conservative Government would do something to weaken, if not decisively break up, the actual ruling Party. Well, I was wrong. In fact, I struggle to think of a single minister aside from Michael Gove who has defied the Inner Party – the one in power regardless of General Election result – on anything. But more on Michael Gove later. My decision to write today has another, more immediate cause.
I said that, once upon a time, I was a libertarian. I also said that I have always been a cynic. Today I discovered this rather neat summary of two types of libertarianism:
Loser libertarianism says that the world is going to hell and that there’s nothing to be done about this. Loser libertarianism says: I am not free. My life is a failure, but it’s not my fault. My life would work fine, if only taxes weren’t so high, if only the Surveillance State wasn’t spying on me all the time, if only government regulations weren’t so crazy, if only the State wasn’t sending anthrax through the post and blaming it on Arabs and using that as an excuse to fight wars and put up taxes, if only bad people didn’t control the mass media and the schools and colleges and brainwash everybody, if only people in black helicopters weren’t selling my country to evil foreigners, if only, if only, if only.
Winner libertarianism is about how to make the world better, and how the world is, at least in some ways, actually getting better. Winner libertarianism explains how I can make my life a success. I am free. Yes, governments do bad things, as do others, but they can be confronted, resisted, criticised, and sometimes – quite often actually – defeated. They can also be got around or even made use of, if you choose something to do that the politicians are now not ruining, or perhaps even organising quite well, or if you learn better than others what the government is doing, good and bad.
This is as much a psychological categorisation as an ideological one. Some people are naturally chirpy, optimistic, and starry-eyed. Some of us have a tendency to disillusionment and perhaps depression. But it is a remarkably good summary of the two sorts of people within libertarianism and the Right generally, written twenty years ago by one of the Winners. When I read it, I realised that the Winner libertarians have won. Let me explain. Let us consider what the Conservative and Conservative-led administrations have actually done during the last thirteen years.
Have we not had thirteen years of economic liberalism? Have we not had thirteen years, with occasional disruptions, of relative fiscal conservatism? Have we not had thirteen years of tax cuts? Have we not had thirteen years of welfare reform? Have we not had thirteen years of deregulation of the private sector and of measures to increase efficiency and competition within the public sector? Have we not had the extension of various rights to LGBT people, reform of the criminal justice system, and market-driven solutions to environmental problems? And have we not left the European Union?
In short, have we not had thirteen years of soft, if poorly implemented, ‘Winner’ libertarianism?
Which brings me to the question of whether I am a libertarian. The problem is that our country is now in such a bad way that hardcore ‘Loser’ libertarianism will not work. Once upon a time, I cared little for arguments about whether or not policies would work. I used to care only for discussions of our inalienable natural rights. The state, any state, anywhere and at any time in human history, must be reduced in size and scope because that is the right way to ensure freedom in the abstract. Well, that was then. Now I tend to care about two things: firstly, whether any proposed change is in keeping with our own unique national story and national identity; secondly, whether that proposed change will tend to bring about or increase human flourishing and autonomy in the longer-term. If a cut in the top rate of income tax will do these things, then so be it, but if an Arts Council subsidy for the English National Opera to put on performances of the Mikado will do the same, then why not this also? Does this make me a libertarian? Probably not, but there we are.
I say that this country is so comprehensively buggered up that libertarian solutions to its various problems will merely make them worse. Take Brexit and free trade. Free trade is great if a country is already competitive, but we are not. Instead, opening ourselves up to freer trade is a receipt for foreign nations to purchase all of our assets with the currency we give them through our running a trade deficit. Any sixth former will be able to explain that to you.
Take inflation. Leaving aside the money printing and the recent supply-side shocks, a major reason for our high inflation is increased market concentration and increased rank persistence of large firms, which increases the price-setting power of those firms. We have had decades of deregulation and regulatory reform. There’s not that much red tape left to cut. Cutting it may be what got us here in the first place. Markets international and national are not born perfectly competitive. And it is not enough for us to say that free markets are just better than unfree markets. If they produce results which impoverish ordinary people, then this is not, I would suggest, the time for more of the same.
And take immigration. We have had a libertarian immigration policy for some time now. The result is a country which is most certainly not at ease with itself. We have millions and millions of people living in this country who know nothing of, or at any rate have no respect for, its history, traditions, and values, who create and inhabit foreign enclaves, and who push up prices and depress wages for the indigenous population. This is a receipt for disaster, contributes to what can only be described as anarcho-tyranny, and libertarianism has no answer to it whatsoever.
But I mentioned Michael Gove earlier. This man is a genius and a hero of mine. His education reforms were wonderful and it is a tragedy that he was sacked as Education Secretary after just four years. His reforms took new state-funded schools, set up by groups of local parents or teachers, out of the control of the local educational authorities. The groups which tended to apply for permission to set up these schools were conservative in their educational philosophy, i.e. they believed in adult authority, a knowledge-rich curriculum, teacher-directed instruction in the classroom, and in the importance of discipline and moral instruction. These free schools, and academies influenced by them, produce outstanding academic results, but also, more importantly, produce children who are able to sit up straight in a chair, look adults in the eyes, turn up to school on time, and to say ‘thank you’. Given the state of parents and families in our country today, it falls to school teachers to teach children these basic ‘soft skills’. A libertarian will see this as oppressive, but others will understand that this is yet another area of life where a short-term curtailment of freedom brings about human flourishing and individual autonomy in the longer-term. And that is exactly why Gove had to be removed.
A country is not free if it cannot compete in the international market. A market is not free if the same few firms are able to shut out competition, increase their own prices and profit margins, and deliver no noticeable improvements in efficiency of one kind or another. A country is not free if crime and civil unrest are rife. A population is not free if it is functionally illiterate and innumerate. A child is not free if he has not learned basic self-control. As it stands, free trade, free markets, a smaller state – these things are now a receipt for further tyranny.
And so, because the Winner libertarians have won, our country has lost.
For Loser Libertarianism to ever work, at least in the short-term, we must abandon libertarianism for something else. The facts have changed, the country has changed, the circumstances have changed; we must change our minds. Does this make me a libertarian? Perhaps that is the wrong question. Rather, this Loser Libertarian says: let us have libertarianism, but not yet!
 Micklethwait, B. (2002) Losing, blogging and winning, The Brian Micklethwait Archive. Available at: https://brianmicklethwaitarchive.org/la/persp017.html (Accessed: 31 July 2023).
 a system of government that fails to enforce or adjudicate protection to its citizens while simultaneously persecuting innocent conduct. Term coined by Sam Francis.