Sam Bowman: “public opinion is on the libertarian side of almost any question you can think of”

Sam Bowman is Research Director of the Adam Smith Institute, a free market libertarian think tank in Westminster. He is responsible for commissioning and editing the Institute’s research and online publications, as well as running the Institute’s award-winning blog and commenting on current affairs in the media.

His current research is on the political economy of “Bleeding Heart Libertarianism”, a school of thought that tries to blend ‘social justice’ with free markets. He is also interested in monetary policy and the economics of migration. He holds a BA in economics and history from University College Cork and an MA in history from the School of Oriental and African Studies.

I caught up with Sam to discuss the the state of libertarianism in Britain today.

-We’ve often heard the line that Britain is a naturally conservative country. Do you think that’s true?

“I think this is a hard question to answer. Sorry – my first answer should be a bit more clear, shouldn’t it? On one hand, Britons are clearly remarkably conservative in their preference to err on the side of maintaining things that work, even if they believe that they work quite badly. Many people believe the NHS to be a very badly performing system but are highly sceptical of any alternative.

Part of this is the “People’s Romance” factor (they like the NHS because it’s a universal national institution) but part of this is because they fear that the alternative would be much worse. Similarly, welfare is tremendously unpopular, but any reform has to be piecemeal, gradual and – in actual fact – very modest. I think that the Thatcher government was far less radical than either its supporters or opponents imagine it to have been.

On the other hand, I think Britons are much less culturally conservative than many people assume. They are highly tolerant by historical and international standards, and have dealt with significant influxes of different ethnicities repeatedly, and largely without the kind of reaction you tend to see in other countries. It’s a cliché to point out how globalized our tastes have become in terms of food, music, cinema, literature, and art, but it’s true – and that globalization has taken place almost without people noticing.

I think the best way to describe Britons is as culturally progressive but institutionally conservative. Although it doesn’t help my own political preferences that people are so institutionally conservative, overall I think that’s a pretty good combination.”

-Considering its culture, history, politics and place in the world, is Britain fertile ground for libertarianism?

“Probably not in any absolute sense, but more so than many other places in the word. I don’t think libertarianism as a revolutionary ideology has any hope of ever becoming successful anywhere in the world, at least without some major technology-driven socio-economic changes first (think stuff like 3D printing and digital currencies becoming so widespread that government cannot exercise control over people even if it wants to). But as a gradual Fabian-style movement, I think it can work.

Clearly, there’s some form to go on: arguably, the Levellers were one of the first classical liberal/libertarian movements in the world, the Scottish Enlightenment was a fundamentally liberal phenomenon, we’ve had long periods of liberal hegemony in recent history. We’re not as pro-market as Americans are, but compared to most places public opinion is on the libertarian side of almost any question you can think of. By international standards, even our socialists and conservatives are pretty liberal.”

Sam Bowman
“We’re not as pro-market as Americans are, but compared to most places public opinion is on the libertarian side of almost any question you can think of.”

-In your view, what are the greatest impediments to the spread of libertarian views?

“Well, we don’t do ourselves any favours. I think that the main problem is that, to a non-libertarian, arguing with a libertarian can actually be very unpleasant. We tend to be highly dogmatic and have already made up our minds about the cause of and solution to virtually every political issue you can think of, no matter how little we know about that.

Particularly when you think of natural rights libertarians who use the ‘non-aggression principle’ (which states that the first and only rule should be a complete prohibition of all physical aggression, whether by individuals or by states – a principle that I reject, by the way) as their measure of a good or bad policy, you find that libertarians basically just want to preach at other people, not actually engage in a dialogue with them where either party might end up admitting that, actually, there’s a bit more to it than they originally thought. Why would you want to argue with someone like that?

You do see an increasing understanding of this, especially among younger libertarians, but my fear is that some of them see being open-minded as a rhetorical technique rather than a genuine intellectual disposition – they want to seem like they’re interested in what you have to say, but only so that you’ll listen to them. That doesn’t seem much better to me.

And yes, a lot of libertarians simply do not have the same goals that I have. If I thought libertarian institutions would in fact make most people poorer, less able to do what they want, and more subject to the whims of others, I would stop being a libertarian. I happen to think that corporate power over people would be much smaller without an expansive government to collude with, but if I turned out to be wrong, it would make me think twice about the institutions I prefer.

But we shouldn’t assume that we’ve got the right message, if only we sell it properly. It’s not like everyone out there has an inner libertarian, waiting to get out. The vast majority of people do not know or care about politics – and I tend to think the ones who do are the strange ones – and the natural reaction to most socio-economic problems is to devise a piecemeal solution to those problems. As a systematic theory of politics, libertarianism doesn’t have much to offer those people.”

-To further libertarian goals, are we better striking out alone (as writers, pundits, journalists etc), forming our own parties, or trying to reform existing parties from within?

“I think it depends on the individual. I’m pretty sceptical about trying to create new parties – I don’t think there’s any point given either the electorate or the electoral system we have, and I think it’s a pretty big waste of time compared to other things people could be doing. I don’t mean to be rude about anyone who has spent time on new party projects, because I might be wrong, but it really doesn’t strike me as a realistic way of effecting change.

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Joining and trying to manipulate established political parties is a bit more worthwhile, I guess. Of course it would be better if the leadership of the main parties were more libertarian. The big question for me is how much any individual can hope to bring that kind of state of affairs about by campaigning for and working within a party. I’d hate to see people spend much effort trying to get a crap party elected without being able to make that party any less crap.

Can being a ‘pundit’ change things any more than party politics? Well, honestly, probably not. But – to me, at least – it’s the most fun.

If I was trying to be the most effective propagandist for libertarian views possible, I’d become a TV producer. TV still is the most centralized medium of communications and the easiest to change public opinion with. A well-crafted storyline in a TV drama can have a huge impact on mass and/or intellectual opinion. The Wire has probably done more to change people’s minds about the War on Drugs than every policy paper published by every think tank in the world.”

-How far can the libertarian label stretch? For example, when does a minachist just become a classic liberal, and does it matter?

“It doesn’t matter. Nobody is entitled to define what a libertarian is. You’d be justified in calling Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, FA Hayek, Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand and a whole raft of other thinkers ‘libertarians’, but there’s no single principle or thread that they all have in common except a strong preference for institutions that protect private property rights.

Some of them (like Rothbard and Rand) thought those institutions were a good thing in and of themselves, some of them (Friedman, Hayek, Mises) that protecting them would make people’s lives better. Some of them were very absolutist, some of them (like Hayek and Friedman) were OK with certain kinds of social welfare. And so on.

I don’t have a clear idea of my perfect world, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing – I know the direction I want things to go in, and that’s a direction that anarcho-capitalists, mutualists, left-libertarians, minarchists, classical liberals and a whole load of other people agree with in many cases. Why we I want to quibble about who calls themselves what?

Discussions about what kind of ‘perfect world’ we’d like can be fun, so we should have them, but I have no interest in crafting some purist definition about who is and isn’t. It’s not a pissing contest.”

Are libertarians more or less guilty than other groups of being hung up on ideological purity?

“We’re a lot more guilty than most groups. That’s understandable – for many of us, our worldview is very systematic, built up from one or two basic principles (private property, the supreme badness of aggression against private property), so it’s easy to get annoyed if someone seems to be breaking one of those principles and still associating themselves with you.”

-Do most people have libertarian instincts but just don’t know it, or is libertarianism the preserve of the political geek?

“I think a lot of people have liberal instincts: many, many people are basically socially and economically liberal, but for whatever reason choose to emphasise one or the other aspect in their voting habits.

But people also believe in a pragmatic, problem-solving approach to socio-economic problems. This is the dominant political theory of our age, and it is shared across all mainstream political groupings. What possibly sets libertarianism apart from liberalism is its more rigid opposition to this kind of piecemeal policy-making – although this is often for more long-term ‘pragmatic’ reasons. (Hayek on “Principles or Expediency?” )

-On a personal note as a foreign policy nerd, can one legitimately claim to be a libertarian at home, and a pragmatist abroad?

Yes, sure. Countries aren’t people, and the idea that invading a country’s sovereignty is like invading a person’s private property seems really weird to me. But I think libertarians have a healthy scepticism of the ability of the state to plan complex orders, and that should apply abroad too. Unintended consequences should be a powerful deterrent to any would-be planner, and the unintended consequences of foreign intervention are even more potent than usual because they so often involve widespread death and civil strife. Chris Coyne’s book on the difficulty of exporting democracy, ‘After War’, is good on this.

I can certainly think of times in the past when military intervention has turned out to have made people better off on net – the obvious example is World War II, but the Sierra Leone and Kosovan interventions both seem to have turned out better for people than not intervening would have. The problem is that it’s difficult to tell from the outset which interventions will turn out well, and which will have appalling results (in terms of loss of life) as, say, Iraq or Vietnam did. Having said that, I do not think unintended consequences should mean that we prohibit any and all possible interventions in the future.”



  1. 3rd-world couuntries have made remarkable progress by abaandoning the ideology-driven pursuit of government education; see research by James Tooley and Pauline Dixon.

  2. Fantastic interview, Lee. I’d be interested to know what particular brand of utilitarianism Sam aspires to! Completely agree with him on the direction being more important that the exact end, but I’ve always been sceptical of utilitarian bases for libertarianism – at least the ones that I’ve come across thus far.

    Matt Zwolinski wrote a great article about a week ago for BHL on NAP. He cited a 1988 survey that asked:

    “Suppose that a parent of a new-born baby places it in front of a picture window and sells tickets to anyone wishing to observe the child starve to death. He makes it clear that the child is free to leave at any time, but that anyone crossing his lawn will be viewed as trespassing.

    1) Would you cross the lawn and help the child? And 2) Would helping the child violate the parents’ rights?”

    I’m sure Sam, and indeed myself, would cross the lawn and save the child. Yet I would still categorise myself as a natural-rights libertarian. The distinction that Rothbard (yes, it’s that man again) drew between legal and moral issues is key, I believe. Whilst under strict natural-right formulations of libertarianism, it would technically be an “illegal” invasion of property rights to cross the lawn, it would of course also be the utterly moral course of action. In fact, almost everyone replying to that survey would cross the lawn. I’d struggle to imagine a society in which a right-enforcement agency would genuinely pursue the “trespasser”, if not for shared humanity then for reasons of profit (if my REA prosecuted someone for that, I’d be switching provider in an instant).

    I think it’s therefore possible to reconcile the absolute legal nature of NAP with individual moral cases that seem to “disprove” it, simply due to the monstrosity of said moral cases meaning that virtually nobody would choose to enforce such “rights violations”.

    In cases where the morality of rights violations is decidedly unclear, NAP seems to serve as a useful yardstick (ala Hayek). Citing interventionism, Sam says:

    “The problem is that it’s difficult to tell from the outset which interventions will turn out well, and which will have appalling results (in terms of loss of life) as, say, Iraq or Vietnam did. Having said that, I do not think unintended consequences should mean that we prohibit any and all possible interventions in the future.”

    Pragmatically, there have probably been cases in which intervention was the best option (then again, hindsight is a wonderful thing). However, as an advocate of the natural-rights based approach, I would err on the side of a NAP-inclined solution. If there is a significant body of public opinion that is pro-interventionist, REAs or indeed other firms may find it profitable to provide such a service. Indeed, free market interventionism could perhaps end up looking something like the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War.

    That’s my two cents, anyway. I’d be interested to know others’ opinions on this stance. My open-mindedness is, I like to think, not a rhetorical technique.

  3. Cracking article. Well thought-out questions. The part about certain libertarians attempting to define libertarianism to fit their own extreme opinion was very welcome, and needed to have been asked.



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