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New Labour ‘freedom’ versus libertarianism

Rather oddly for British politicians Mr Blair and his New Labour associates have heard of libertarianism. This is known because Mr Blair and co often sneer at and attack libertarianism. This is logical enough. After all the present government (like so many governments) has increased taxes and state spending, produced endless new regulations and shows contempt for the principles of law (or ‘civil liberties’ as the modern way of saying this goes).

However, Mr Blair and the rest of New Labour also talk about their support for ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’. This would seem to show a contradiction in that New Labour attacks freedom and shows contempt for libertarianism (i.e. the non aggression principle which seeks to limit the threat of violence to the defence of persons and their possessions) and yet claims to stand for freedom.

Normally at this point I might be expected to examine, in detail, the dispute in political philosophy between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ freedom. But I think only a brief examination is needed. ‘Negative’ freedom is basically ‘hands off’, and ‘positive’ freedom has mutated from an old belief (going back to Classical times) that true freedom was control of the passions by reason (i.e. freedom as moral self improvement), to a belief that “positive” freedom is material possessions – in short the more money someone has or the more services that are open to him the more free he is.

I would then carefully explain that it is a false choice, as the state can not develop the moral responsibility of individuals by imposing lots of regulations (indeed such a state undermines the moral development of people) and nor can statism (more regulations, higher taxes and so on) promote prosperity or reduce poverty (again statism undermines prosperity and, in the long run, increases poverty over the level it would have otherwise have been). In short the way to advance ‘positive’ freedom (however one defines it) is to advance ‘negative’ freedom.

However, as I said above, I do not believe that a detailed examination is needed here (although I admit that the ‘positive’ freedom people have much more to say, and ‘negative’ liberty, on its own, may not be enough to advance the control of reason over the passions).

The reason that I do not think a detailed examination is needed is that I do not believe that Mr Blair is thinking of “positive liberty” as an alternative when he is sneering at libertarianism. Shocking as it may sound I believe that Mr Blair, when he uses the word ‘freedom’, just means the freedom of the government to do as it likes. Certainly he means a democratically elected government (a nondemocratic government will not do).

But a democratic government should do what it likes as long as it does not undermine the democratic process itself – that is “politics is freedom” as the political philosopher Bernard Crick (much admired by Mr Blair) said in his In Defence of Politics (first published back in 1962, but many editions).

It is the political process that is freedom to Mr Blair, not the freedom (‘negative’ or ‘positive’) of individuals.

16 comments to New Labour ‘freedom’ versus libertarianism

  • Rob

    Are there any direct quotes from Blair or his cohorts on the subject of libertarianism? (googling for “Tony Blair” and “libertarian” doesn’t give me any actual quotes, though Samizdata is the 2nd-ranked link)

    The word itself is starting to appear more widely in political discourse, but I’ve yet to see it used by anyone in the Labour party.

  • oral robertson

    Mr. Blair is not into the freedom or liberty thing. He is in the EU thing. Yeah, he reforms ‘Old-fashioned’ Britain into the typical colony of the EU, that the other member states are. His hero lies neither in sovereignty of the state or the people but in supranational institutions with their ‘democratic-reforms’ and ‘human rights’ trojan horse. Look how he hijacked the 1200 year post of Lord Chancellor last year in the name of an ostensibly more democratic ‘ a panel of selectors’. Well who select this new panel Mr Blair? The EU?

  • “Are there any direct quotes from Blair or his cohorts on the subject of libertarianism?”

    David Blunkett interviewed by John Humphreys, BBC Radio 4, Today Programme, on Saturday 13th November 2004:

    “DB (laughs)
    Charl, Charl, I, I challenge Charles Kennedy on this. We’ve actually got to be able to distinguish , er, an open, liberal society, from Libertarianism, where Anything Goes, and where Selfishness and Individualism, are some, somehow presented, as though that is somehow Liberalism”

    c.f. the full transcript of this interview)

  • Labour government is increasingly using spin in the form of outright lies to erode fredom. The population seems to be incapable of reacting to this e.g. Charles Clark v Prince Charles dispute. Clark commented on a memo which simply did not exist and the public via the media went along like sheep. Crimedown.Org has an interesting suggestion

  • Rob

    “The word itself is starting to appear more widely in political discourse, but I’ve yet to see it used by anyone in the Labour party.”

    Peter Haine recently described himself as a libertarian. He was duly and appropriately excoriated on Samizdata for his bare-faced cheek.

  • mike

    “…and ‘negative’ liberty, on its own, may not be enough to advance the control of reason over the passions..”

    I don’t see why the value of negative liberty should be taken as instrumental – in promoting the control of reason over passion – in the first place. Should people prefer a little more irrational passion over Kantian moral law, that is their entitlement and they are responsible for any consequences.

  • mike

    I’ve also heard/read Blunkett and Hain mention libertarianism – they are either trying to influence public discourse to their own advantage or just jabbering off the top of their heads. Or both.

    Speaking about politician’s jabbering off the top of their heads – I wonder whether Javier Solana’s apparent gaffe this morning (admitting he has had meetings with Hamas) was some deliberate attempt to fuck up Jack Straw’s trip to Israel? Straw’s meeting with Sharon was cancelled at the last minute…

    Let’s hope the Palestinians can *curb* the negative liberty of certain members of their fold..

  • Ian

    A big problem is that conservatives, say, latch onto the word and describe themselves as libertarian or fiscally libertarian. Because it sounds cool. Actually, they’re more corporatist. And they don’t understand that libertarianism is a coherent philosophy. You can’t be libertarian because you uphold civil rights – Hain’s meaning – while denying rights in the economic sphere.

  • Of course the PM and New Labour despise libertarianism.

    What has New Labour actually DONE to enhance personal or economic freedom in the UK? Little to nothing. The Blair government (like practically all British governments) is big government, which naturally commits force and fraud against the individual.

  • Euan Gray

    And they don’t understand that libertarianism is a coherent philosophy

    It is? Why is it then that if you put two libertarians in a room within 10 minutes they will be disagreeing heartily over things that one says is fundamental to libertarianism and the other says is nothing to do with it?

    And where is The Book which explains precisely what this coherent philosophy is, that no libertarian disagrees with and that covers both social and economic philosophy?

    EG

  • I remember Blair in one conference speech describing *something* or other as “libertarian nonsense masquerading as freedom”.

  • Rob

    It is? Why is it then that if you put two libertarians in a room within 10 minutes they will be disagreeing heartily over things that one says is fundamental to libertarianism and the other says is nothing to do with it?

    And where is The Book which explains precisely what this coherent philosophy is, that no libertarian disagrees with and that covers both social and economic philosophy?

    My pet theory on why there is no single definitive view on what constitutes libertarianism is this: as a political reality, it is so far away that the details are obscured by distance. We can gauge whether policies in the current context are “more libertarian” than others, but the institution of a state entirely motivated by libertarian principles is simply too far away for it to be discussed in terms of the present context.

    This is the key problem for achieving libertarian policies today – they cannot be achieved in a single step, but in order to take steps in a libertarian direction we would have to accept that elements of the current political enviroment will continue for some time. The fact that many libertarians regard this as unacceptable compromise makes this process somewhat difficult.

    If libertarianism is an ideal to strive for, then any move in its direction should be supported, and any move in the opposite direction should be opposed. I doubt there will ever be a day when we say “we are now a perfectly libertarian society”, but there may be a day when we say “we are much more libertarian than 20 years ago”. That this might not be enough for some people should not obscure the fact that (if we really believe in libertarianism as a working model, rather than a vague aspiration) life should be improved for a great many people.

  • Richard Easbey

    here is one of the most effective explanations of why libertarianism IS a coherent philosophy:

    http://isil.org/resources/introduction.swf

    enjoy!

  • Wild Pegasus

    It is? Why is it then that if you put two libertarians in a room within 10 minutes they will be disagreeing heartily over things that one says is fundamental to libertarianism and the other says is nothing to do with it?

    Libertarianism is a political philosophy of principle. Like all principles, there are cases where it is easy to apply and cases where it is difficuly to apply. For instance, the War on Iraq ripped the libertarian community in half, but each side was arguing from libertarian principles. Pro-war advocates were arguing about the necessity and rightness of fighting for liberation, and anti-war advocates were expressing scepticism about the state’s ability to do such things and objecting to the tax and police state increases.

    Also, like any particularly small, passionate, intelligent group, libertarians spend a lot more time trying to excommunicate each other than saying, “We’ll argue over the final 3% later. Let’s get the 97% we do agree on out of the way.” Kissinger said of universities, “The politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” In large part, that describes libertarianism.

    - Josh

  • Dr Eric

    I think it was James Thurber who wrote: ‘It is better to have the ring of freedom in your ears than in your nose!’

  • Paul Marks

    So Mr Hain said he was a libertarian. I suppose he might try to justify that by talking about his youthful protests against the race laws of the old South Africa.

    Although the new South Africa has race laws (and a racial classification board) of its own, the new laws are still not as bad as the old ones.

    However, to suggest that he is a libertarian or even “upholds civil rights” is absurd – if there were any truth in it he would resign from his post in this government.

    Yes I have hard Mr Blair sneer at “libertarians” and “libertarianism”, but no I can not give a link.

    Libertarianism – the restriction of violence to the defence of people’s bodies and goods. This does not mean that a person must use violence in the defence of himself or others – only that he may not, in justice, use violence in some other cause (for example to promote the equalty of income)

    Simple to say, but (as others have pointed out) a lot to argue about in practice.