Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Libertarians, Radicals, and the British Perception of the State

Despite their relative lack of strength in the British MSM, the BritBlog scene is full of libertarian voices - most notably at Samizdata and Tim Worstall. Their basic position is that any state intervention is bad, and that people achieve far more when left to their own endeavours than when controlled in whatever form by an intervening authority. This leads to an intriguing mix of positions, being very socially liberal on matters such as ID cards, prostitution and drugs, and yet in many ways far more right-wing on crime. I, for one, have been engaged in many running debates with them as regards the right to shoot criminals who illegally enter their home.

Their running refrain (especially on Samizdata) is that "the state is not your friend". It is this mantra, I feel, which precludes them from becoming a strong force in British politics. Despite some of the best efforts of Margaret Thatcher, the state has always been viewed as a power for good in the British system. This will hopefully be the first in a series of posts where I try and analyse various aspects of the British political system with respect to the view of the competence of the state.

This is because Britain is almost unique in never having a form of government totally and utterly discredited. Even though Cromwell prevailed in the Civil War, he himself could not repudiate the hereditary principle, passing power to his son Richard, who was eventually forced into acceding to the Restoration. Despite another monarchical crisis occurring just 30 years afterwards, the ultimate settlement was to rewrite the constitution to assert the rights of Parliament in the Bill of Rights so as to limit the independent exercising of monarchical power.

In short, the royal prerogative has never been successfully overthrown in Britain. Paradoxically, it now resides (almost) entirely with the people, through the principle of the "Crown-in-Parliament". What this means in practical terms is that there are no real constitutional limits on the operation of power. Yes, the Lords may act as a restraining factor, but it can only slow things down, rather than definitively stop them. The limits of political power rest solely with what is pragmatically expedient.

Other countries, on the other hand, have experienced violent revolutions which have tempered their attitude towards political power. In America, it was the "arbitrary rule" of George III and the British Parliament which made them place written limits on the actions of government. The theory of the Bill of Rights (in a US context) is one which recognises all power as resting with the people, except where expressly delegated. Although more statist, the German hierarchical model of power finds restraints on uncontrolled power by playing local forces (expressed in local government and the Bundesrat) against national and supranational ones. Even the French centralising view of the state is by no means universal - experiences before the Revolution, of the Terror and of Napoleonic rule are engrained on the national mindset. A totally statist government would not allow liberty and equality to be viewed as non-contradictary principles.

Britain, by contrast, has maintained a benign view of Parliament. Whilst the rest of the continent convulsed in revolutions of different kinds in 1848, British radicalism focused on extending the franchise. Power was not to be seized in a violent overthrow, but through reasoned arguments, demonstrations, and the extension of the franchise so that all could have their say in Parliament. Similarly, whilst continental movements in the decades before the First World War concentrated on the espousal of radical socialist doctrine, the trades union movement in Britain moderated the Labour Party, and kept it focusing on incremental change through measures such as working reform. Certainly radical overthrow of the political structures was out of the question.

These views have been further entrenched by the extension of the welfare state following the end of the Second World War. In short, the state has always adapted to the political pressures it has found itself under; in this way, it has been able to buy off its opponents in times of danger, and maintained a constitutional right to unlimited legislative power. For all that we may complain about the extension of state power, without a proper movement for constitutional change, we are actually powerless to stop it, short of a viable alternative being presented at the ballot box.

The thing is, no party has ever truly presented itself to the country offering a genuine small government programme. The Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher came close in their attempts at privatisation, but her instincts were always to bring things under personal control than to allow significant local latitude. This is not surprising, for it continues in a long line of British tradition. At the start of the 20th century, for example, when the social policy of Britain became more “interventionist”, there were still significant powers concentrated in local government. The policy of funding new programmes through the “block grant”, which allowed government control over local expenditure, was an effective means of making sure the will of the government was upheld.

The libertarian argument has some basic merit to it – force the individual to take responsibility for his or her actions, and with that, society will improve. In a British context, however, many of the specific arguments are redundant because people see the state as a benign behemoth. Michael Howard’s rhetoric about “rewarding those who play by the rules” is a case in point – the state decides what the rules are, yet we are happy to reward those who adhere to them. We could not support such language if, as the Samizdatans would have us believe, the state was not our friend.

Belief in the state is a remarkably secure way of living. In a fantastic essay written for The Cricketer, and later reproduced in his classic book Beyond a Boundary, CLR James (an unapologetic Marxist) bemoaned the defensive style of cricket becoming more and more prevalent, blaming it on the “welfare state of mind” (admittedly, I like this essay so much because it attempts to link styles of sporting play to cultural phenomena). And yet, has a statist world view really cost Britain so much in the past? After all, even our original support of free trade was in the knowledge that Britain’s productive and naval capacities were so much stronger than any other country – and thus Britain was the almost guaranteed winner in the absence of trade barriers.

As yet, the answer to the question posited in the previous paragraph is no. There haven’t been serious problems. The difficulty facing a constitutional reformer like myself is that all my arguments are based upon theory and hypothetical situations – and little has happened in Britain to suggest that the potential pitfalls of the system are likely occurrences. Tories and Labour differ in which areas they would like the state to rule, and who they want the state to benefit. They most certainly do not differ fundamentally over issues of big and small government. In short, just about all mainstream political instincts in Britain reside in the state.

When Tony Blair was accosted by a member of the audience on a chat show earlier this year, her revulsion was not at benefits. It was where they were directed that caused the problem. "The people who have to pay the taxes that keep the country going; we want our share for our families and our children." When the liberal left insist on directing funds at education programmes to keep children off the street, the right do not respond by holding the right to defend property personally inviolable – instead, they argue for more police and tougher prison sentencing. It’s a reallocation of the state they want, not a fundamental reassessment of its competence. And until that is changed, the fundamentalist libertarian windbags will be fighting in vain.