Some people think I’m a libertarian. That’s because either libertarians think I’m one of them, or many on the left believe this to be my creed, which obviously makes me evil. But no, I’m not a libertarian. I used to describe myself as a classical liberal until that helpful term got hijacked by parts of the right and even the far-right. So now, I’m just a liberal. Which is different from being a libertarian.
I believe in the power of the individual over the collective. Often this means favouring keeping the state out of something and allowing the private sector to run it – but not always. For instance, I like having a single payer health system because I think that is what is best for the individual. As an example of this, several years ago my son started having seizures. The doctors weren’t sure why, testing him for everything relevant. We put him on several medications, none of which worked. He was in and out of the hospital all of the time. Thankfully, we eventually found a medication that worked, the seizures stopped, they found there was nothing seriously wrong with him and after a couple of years, we were able to wean him off the medication. He hasn’t had a seizure in almost three years now.
During that period of time, I changed jobs and in fact became a freelance contractor. Had we had a system like the US, I wouldn’t and more to the point, couldn’t have done this; the risk of quitting a job that in the States would have been attached to my health care insurance would have been too great given what was happening with my son. Having the NHS allowed me to do what I wanted instead of what I had to do career-wise. It was a great example of something state run allowing me freedom as an individual as well as the chance to do something more entrepreneurial.
This is my first problem with libertarianism – it presumes that the case I outlined above is impossible. That the state is only there to provide a military/police apparatus and otherwise it is overreaching. Nothing state run can empower the individual, they believe. This stems from a belief amongst libertarians that the free market is perfect; that anytime a problem arises that is perceived to be caused by the market it is only because the market in question isn’t free enough. In other words, if libertarianism doesn’t work, it is only because what is being tried isn’t real libertarianism. Yes, you got it: that does sound a lot like the excuse given for why 20th century socialism was a nightmare – because in every wretched case, it supposedly wasn’t real socialism.
Yet those are the problems that are most often talked about in relation to libertarianism already. One not discussed at all – as far as I’ve ever come across – is that libertarians lean very heavily on the progressive theory of history while consciously dispelling the idea. In other words, they reject the progressive theory of history while baking it heavily into what they believe and even using to support their ideology.
If you ask a libertarian why countries without a functioning state, such as post-Soviet Afghanistan or Somalia, are not bastions of libertarianism but rather violent messes that often become dictatorships when people inevitably seek security, they will fall back on the idea that they don’t believe in lawless societies, just ones in which the state is simultaneously strong enough to enforce the law yet free enough to still be libertarian. Yet this doesn’t get round the problem presented here, which is that libertarianism isn’t a natural state of being for humans; some sort of default setting that occurs as soon as the state gets out of everyone’s way. This leads next to a key paradox: if libertarianism doesn’t naturally occur when the state apparatus is removed and yet the whole point of libertarianism is that you don’t have a state imposing things on people, how does real libertarianism ever come into being?
This is where the progressive theory of history makes its grand entrance. Yes, libertarians concede, social democracy might have served the minor purpose of stabilising society – but we don’t need it to do that anymore since we are now civilised enough not to need it. In other words, what would be different about a newly libertarian Britain versus a state in Africa that has become libertarian by accident is that Britain is further along on the progressive arrow of history. We wouldn’t regress as a society because we’ve got over all that stuff already. We wouldn’t start killing each other for the basic reason that we don’t do that sort of thing anymore. Once a society becomes civilised, in other words, it never goes backwards. How things like Nazi Germany fit into the equation is problematic here, but let’s not digress. To summarise: libertarianism doesn’t occur naturally in human society but can supposedly be progressed to once peace and stability have been established – because once a society becomes civilised it never rolls back from that state of being. Except of course, it does, and this has happened many, many times throughout history.
To be fair to libertarians, this false, unconscious leaning on the progressive theory of history is also used by the paleoconservatives and the Eurosceptic Right. For the paleoconservatives, if we rolled back liberalism, we wouldn’t find women’s rights eroded or newly revamped homophobia rampant because we’ve overcome that stuff and can’t go socially backward. For the Eurosceptic Right, European countries will never got to war with each other ever again because we’ve all progressed past that sort of stuff.
History shows us nations either find a way to trade with one another or they try and kill each other (although, in fairness, this isn’t actually binary; you can trade with each other and start trying to kill each other, but the trading makes the latter far less likely). And trading with each another isn’t the default, it’s the killing each other option, unfortunately. And in order to trade with one another, we need rules and regulations, usually quite a few of them. And this means you need states that do more than just have militaries and police forces. Free trade, like peaceful, functioning societies, are not the natural state of things. In order to have them, you need not only countries with functioning, highly developed systems of government but other countries with the same willing to come to supranational arrangements that everyone abides by. It turns out we need structures, both national and international, that are pretty complex in order to have the personal freedom libertarians desire.