Why are libertarians seemingly excluded from British political debate, and what we can do about it?
Hero-worship is not my style. Alas, in trying to understand why there are so few libertarians in the UK, I have succumbed. The relatively unknown Barbara Oakley is now my hero. For it is she who provides the insight that allows us to understand why British political discourse is so hostile to libertarian ideals. Her theory of pathological altruism can explain how Britain, an island nation that has prospered by being open and free, could become so viscerally attached to the State.
Oakley’s conclusions concerning the decision-making processes within human beings are of vital importance to the libertarian movement. Put simply, most people base their decisions on emotions, empathy and morality, rather than on rational and reasoned consideration. Why? Basically, because it takes the brain longer to consider rational and logical solutions to problems with which it is presented.
This is heavy stuff. But the implications are clear; the rules of the game are fixed against us. With grandiose moral and emotional narratives targeting a human weakness of natural origin, political debate is the territory of the left. But, as libertarians, we have only compounded this problem. Instead of resistance, our biblical sin has been to surrender any claim to morality, targeting the head rather than the heart. We lost the political battle, perhaps, when we chose to express ourselves in spreadsheets rather than emotions.
The libertarian movement in the UK is weak because we lack the means to inflict a political blow. As a weapon of choice, GDP figures don’t stand a chance against claims that the ‘Bedroom Tax’ forces small children to kill their puppies – or whichever social ill Owen Jones ascribes to a benefit cut this week – whilst the Laffer curve withers in the shadow of powerful ‘moral’ arguments about child poverty and social inequality.
Everywhere one looks, our politics has become infected with emotion. The debate over intervention in Syria, for example, slowly but surely descended into a competition to see who can feel most emotional about murdered children. This shows no sign of receding. In fact, it’s getting worse.
A TV in every room, a computer on every lap, a smartphone in every hand. With echoes of Orwell’s Telescreen, we are bombarded with a constant flow of information and opinion; comment and interference that despite being counter to our rational instincts, is absorbed and processed; believed and deployed, on some small subconscious level.
‘Morality binds and blinds,’ claims Oakley. This we cannot change. Instead, we must play the Left at their own game. In the contemporary cloud of information, the headline is king. We must cheerlead our ideology in someone’s name, organising protest movements to block the construction of wind farms on account of the way they kill pensioners who freeze to death, unable to pay their fuel bills. Okay, a little extreme: but it’s that kind of passion combined with an all-mighty rhetoric that allows the Left to set the rules of the moral game before we’re even out of the clubhouse.
Margaret Thatcher once purportedly said, “one of the greatest problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas.” I tend to agree. It enrages me that the most virtuous quality in public life now seems to be a willingness to emote. But in our frustration we have become cruel and lazy.
Too often we have chosen to hate the welfare recipient rather than the state apparatus that traps them there. Even worse, at times we appear ashamed of our own ideology. Zero hours contracts for example, which are a vital part of a flexible and vibrant labour market; the last gasp for many young people thrown upon the rubbish heap by the effects of minimum wage laws. Alas, we are not willing to defend them. Instead we register a half-hearted argument, with mumbled justifications about vague intellectual ideas.
Using clinical terms like ‘necessary’ ‘unavoidable,’ and ‘a price worth paying,’ to describe things most people see as deeply traumatic – unemployment for example – only confirms to the audience that the left-wing, emotive, discourse is correct. The Left will in any event portray us as cold, calculating and even evil people; we must not make that job any easier for them.
In the information age, human beings are increasingly relying on emotion and moral intuition as a means of making sense of the world. Fear not however. As indebted western economies continue to lurch from ever-bigger boom to ever-bigger bust, we should be confident in our worldview. For it is not our ideals that are wrong, quite the opposite, but rather the way in which we communicate our principles.
The lack of a coherent libertarian movement in the United Kingdom is not because of an intrinsic flaw; rather that we must learn to speak in a language people understand. But this is not an insurmountable challenge and in that we should take great heart.
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