Libertarianism and the lessons it has for the Left

Backbencher June 3, 2014 5

Libertarianism has many valuable lessons for the Left, argues Lily Summers, and the Left is foolish to ignore them

On many, many occasions, I’ve heard numerous people on the right, or people who identify themselves as libertarians, argue that socialists, social-democrats and people on the Left have views that are inherently statist. I’m told that they desire an all-powerful state which controls how people spend their money, how to run their own businesses, what to think and what not to think, what to say and what not to say (political correctness is out of control!), and what you’re allowed or not allowed to consume (i.e. marijuana).

Some of this is true; for others, not so much. There are many socialists and social-democrats across Europe who advocate a socialist or at least socialistic economy. This could include: a minimum wage, which would infringe the rights of firms to pay their workers how they see fit: high taxation to pay for significant public sector spending: possible extensive regulations for health and safety.

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It could also include re-nationalising the railways, energy companies and other public utilities. In general, it would be right to say that the Left, whether in a mixed economy that I as a liberal socialist would advocate, or in a full blown socialist economy, could infringe individuals’ and firms’ freedom and liberties (although, as devil’s advocate, I would argue that the freedom to be in poverty isn’t a freedom to be cherished or aimed at, along with other criticisms of the free-market, but that’s another issue for another day).

But leaving aside the issue of the economy for one instant, isn’t it fair to argue that socialists, social-democrats and people on the Left can learn a significant number of lessons from libertarians and those who are wary of or very critical of government? Just because socialists and social-democrats are unlikely to agree with free-market economic opinion doesn’t mean they cannot learn from libertarianism on other issues and become able to ensure less government elsewhere.

Let’s take social issues, for instance. For a start, the Labour Party, in its historical form, has sometimes been good for progress on this libertarian stance. The Wilson Government of 1964-1970 helped to decriminalise homosexual acts, abolished the death penalty for murder in 1965 and legalised abortion in 1967. (Admittedly, two of those measures were enacted via Private Member’s Bill, but the Prime Minister could easily have asked the Queen to veto them).

Those acts were a step in the right direction. Government should have no right whatsoever to intervene in what consenting adults do in the bedroom; no right to stop a woman having a safe abortion; no right to exercise authority to murder an individual (as in imposing the death penalty) in any circumstances. Therefore, that Labour Government made good progress in libertarianism.

But its successors in the current Labour movement need to go further. Much further. For a start, they need to liberalise marriage even more. Achieving same-sex marriage for England, Wales and Scotland is fantastic, but Northern Ireland is still behind the times.

They also need to push for polygamy. Yes, this would be unpopular politically as it’s not at the moment an important issue for people. But in times of progress towards a more libertarian society, legalising polygamy for civil marriage is very important. Government has no right to prevent marriage between consenting adults whether they’re the same-sex or whether the marriage includes 3 people. It’s irrelevant.

Then there’s the contentious issue of drugs, where, unfortunately, Labour has not yet found the backbone to advocate more radical reform. The current system of purported criminalisation/control is both utterly inefficient and utterly ineffective, and costs the British and American Governments billions in attempting to regulate what people can and cannot consume.

The Labour Party needs to offer a more progressive and libertarian message on the issue of drugs, one which would call for all drugs to be legalised. Yes, it would be very controversial, and again, as on polygamy, many would declare that it’s not important enough to people at the moment; but this is another area where libertarianism can benefit the Left generally, and the Labour Party in particular.

Sex work should also be included in libertarian-inclined reform. The Labour Party should resist attempts from the European Union and other European countries to introduce the Nordic Model, where, basically, the purchase of drugs is illegal, but the selling of sex is not, the theory being that prostitution will decrease, but sex workers won’t be prosecuted.

Labour should utterly oppose this: sex work should never be illegal, but we should tackle real exploitation and trafficking. Tackling all forms of sex work as illegal will simply harm sex workers who enjoy and want to be involved in sex work: far better would be making sure that it’s easy for them to get out of sex work if they no longer want to do it. This is a positive message for libertarianism and one that Labour could quite easily advocate.

Similarly in Foreign Affairs, the Labour Party can benefit by taking a more libertarian approach. The disastrous decision by Tony Blair to invade Iraq in 2003 along with the Americans keenly showed that intervention doesn’t always succeed or win popular support.

Future Labour governments need to be assiduous in not rushing to war like Tony Blair did in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and as David Cameron attempted to do in Syria, especially when intervention by the West will actually hurt our chances of influencing and having strong trade links with important, growing countries such as India, Brazil, Singapore and Russia.

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“Future Labour governments need to be assiduous in not rushing to war like Tony Blair did in both Iraq and Afghanistan”

Democracy itself is also dependent on libertarian tenets. Freedom of speech is one of the most valuable and inalienable freedoms in humanity. The right to think or say anything you want, fettered only by the limitations of civil defamation or criminal incitement, is a precious freedom that the Left should protect absolutely, under all circumstances.

This also includes ensuring our government is fully democratic, accountable and ensures that peoples’ civil liberties are never infringed, unlike what happened under the last Labour Government, where, in light of the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, our civil liberties were challenged or even curtailed in the name of “security” or “preventing terrorism”. Never again, should Labour even attempt to do such a thing.

There can be no denying that Governments of the Left in some, or even many countries, have been authoritarian in some form or another and that the extreme versions in countries such as China, the USSR, Nazi Germany and Cambodia have committed unimaginable atrocities and heinous acts, which are inexcusable.

So there many valuable lessons the Left can learn from libertarianism. Upholding the inalienable rights of freedom of speech, thought, conscience and religion, regardless of whether anyone agrees with it or not. Ensuring that Government doesn’t get involved in superfluous foreign policy intervention as we have done many many times. Always protecting civil liberties and ensuring Government is effectively constrained in the area of social issues.

On the Left, we may disagree with libertarians on the economy. But that doesn’t mean we can’t agree on many of the areas I’ve discussed. There are highly, highly intelligent economists and philosophies, such as Rand, Friedman, Hayek and Von Mises that all socialists and social-democrats should want to read. There many lessons for the Left to be learnt from libertarianism, and it would be utterly foolish to ignore them.

Lily is a Labour Party member and a fervent Liberal Socialist. She fights for nuclear disarmament, the removal of the Monarchy and for government to back off from important social issues.

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