John Louis Swaine wrote in with an interesting piece about his own ‘road to Damascus’. “It took approximately 8 years to move from being a Labourite teenager to a Libertarian at the age of 23. I used to blog quite a lot so I felt the urge to write something about it. Since the Samizdata weblog has been one of the most important contributing factors for this change, I thought I would submit it to you.”
Most people have a “Summer of ’69” they can relate to; a magic period of youthful exuberance, tempered by important life experiences and left to bake softly in the warmth of the July sun. Mine was in 2001, I was 16 and beginning to ask the bigger questions about society and life.
I had opinions, I suddenly cared about issues. Like virtually every young person I came to the conclusion that equality was of paramount importance and that the only means by which to achieve it was through the prescription of schemes and initiatives by Government. After all, is that not what my generation had been taught? The importance of civil duty, of taking part in the organs of governance and through them making life better for your fellow man?
I dutifully signed up to the Observer brigade. Things could change, things could be fixed and crucially, the fix was always within the grasp of Government.
I did have the benefit of a decent grounding in knowledge of markets. I rather suspect you cannot have spent a significant amount of time growing up in Hong Kong without absorbing it – capitalism and free markets are in the air there, mixed in amongst the toxic levels of pollutants and exhaust fumes. Your chances of developing lung cancer or respiratory disorders may be high but you will also assimilate at least some understanding of how a financial system works.
Tony Blair’s governing ideology therefore seemed intoxicating – using the state to care for one’s fellow man whilst reforming the public sector and embracing free markets. Everything fitted nicely into place.
The first cracks in my political viewpoint began to appear on the 11th of September, 2001… Following the terrorist attacks in New York and subsequent UNSC Resolutions authorizing the use of force to depose the Taliban in Afghanistan, I read daily in my newspapers of the horrors of warfare in Afghanistan. The US, it seems, were doomed. If the might of the Soviet Empire could not conquer the nation, then surely the US would be bogged down into a quagmire of small arms fire and disappearing assailants.
Within a month of beginning their assault the US had demolished the Taliban’s standing army, on November 12th the Taliban fled Kabul and a military victory was imminent. The emperor had no clothes.
I read the Observer and the Guardian less and less and instead migrated to the Times. However I retained my same staunch belief in the struggle for an egalitarian society through Government. I wrote a political blog and had quite a bit of traffic. I moved to London to read Law and joined the Labour party. I was ultimately quite satisfied with the way in which the United Kingdom was being run and governed.
During my study for my degree I took a particular interest in Constitutional Law and received a 1st for the module, my lecturer asked me to perform some extra research for one of his upcoming books on Civil Liberties and I happily accepted. The history of the British ‘constitution’ was enthralling and I began to get a real sense for what it meant to be British.
We were a people who lived under the Magna Carta, whose parliament established the ground rules for modern day governance, and who time and time again, took up arms in defence of liberty. We had little time for despots, deposing one and then giving up on the other’s ridiculous dictatorship the moment he passed on. Through all of this, a current of individual liberty ran strong. The Common Law is a marvellous thing and leafing through its enormity was like gazing up at the shadowed spires of a Cathedral from the inside.
I watched the Labour party’s reforms shudder to a halt. Where there were steps taken towards decentralization in Foundation Hospitals, the Government took several back in other areas of public life. Government began to balloon. I grimaced as grown men and women on the Labour back benches complained that businessmen from the private healthcare sector had been given posts within the NHS – heavens forbid those who have proven themselves in competitive healthcare markets should be given the reigns of a Hospital.
I had the good fortune of attending a Grammar school for two years after passing the 11+. As a young adult, the ‘debate’ surrounding Grammars disgusted me. My school (Colchester Grammar) had certainly not been a haven for rich boys whose family could afford “tutors”. Amongst all my classmates I was unquestionably the most affluent, being the son of a successful barrister. My friends were almost universally drawn from the working class, with one or two hailing from the lower middle classes. I do not think I knew of one boy at that school who was ‘privileged’.
What people objected to, it seems, was not that this ‘free’ schooling system existed, but rather that it meant someone, somewhere out there was getting a better education than someone else. This was not a cry for equality of opportunity, this was a demand that no child aspire to or achieve better than anyone else his age. The gifted should remain amongst the rest, to be held back to ensure that they did not get too far ahead or somehow to drag their classmates towards better academic achievement. Anyone who has attended a school in which they have exceeded the academic capability of their classmates knows that this is a patent fallacy. Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” has special significance for those of us who have, we know what it feels like to be kept in a system for arbitrary reasons, which limits your liberty and traps you within the confines of what is deemed to be ‘average’.
I drifted towards the centre of the political spectrum and no longer called myself “centre-left” or “Blairite”. However it was not until about 3 weeks ago that I came to my final realization. The writers with whom I agree most tacitly: Hemlock, Glenn Reynolds, the contributors to Samizdata are libertarian to a man.
They are not simulacra of Ebineezer Scrooge, they all believe that society should be fair, they just disagree vehemently with the notion that such a task should be left to the state, or indeed that the state is in any way capable of achieving this goal. Charities and NGOs perform consistently better than public initiatives designed to carry out analogous tasks.
It was this realization that was the final catalyst: caring about your fellow man and opposing the works of the state in achieving that goal are NOT mutually exclusive political creeds.
I’ve lived in a society in which there is no capital gains tax, no tax on dividends, an extremely low income rate (16%) and a streamlined civil service under the full protection of British Jurisprudence. Guess what? It was a great society! Crime was low, the streets were well kept and the tasks, which Government is necessary to perform were carried out perfectly adequately. The Government did not need to pick up Inland Revenue like a dust-buster and hoover up half my money each year to achieve it! It had followed a Laissez-Faire industrial policy for generations and had been a free-market economy since its creation.
I speak of Hong Kong pre-1997 and I can not believe it took so long for me to see how competent such a system was.
Sure it had an ID card system, but it was across the border from a billion people doing their damnedest to escape a barbaric communist dictatorship and had an immigration crisis on its hands. The card is now tied into the Drivers License so it’s not an arbitrary extra bit of identification you need to carry around and works as a passport for HK immigration. Most importantly since the state is not hell-bent on interfering with every single facet of your life, it generally does not seem so odious.
One of the arguments made for ID cards in the United Kingdom is that the state is not some malign force as in other countries so it can be trusted with an extra means of keeping tabs on its populace but this is akin to saying that the pit bull about to ravage your arm is not in fact a carrier of rabies like the one across the street, so it’s all right to put down your handgun. If the state wants an ID card from me, it can bloody well start behaving a lot more like its former colonial charge.
Why, when all the evidence available points to the same facts – Free Markets perform better than regulated ones, US States with more lax gun control laws have lower rates of violent crime that ones which do not, Charities and NGOs are more efficient than public sector bodies etc – do we insist on following the ideas which have proven, in the past 100 years, to be complete and utter hogwash?
Banal though it may be, I remember playing SimCity 2000 as a teenager on my computer. Every time I tried to set up a high-tax, high-service economy within my city, my economy, followed by the city itself, stagnated. The answers have been staring me in the face for years.
Yesterday I cut up my Labour party membership card and cancelled my standing order to the party. When asked about my political affiliation a few days ago, I answered “libertarian” and somehow the world made a great deal more sense.
As I pondered this matter and resolved to write this piece, I concluded that I had taken far too long to realize what was in front of my nose, yet the sobering reality is that this left-to-liberty transition is typically played out over the course of a lifetime. How many 40 year old Labourites are there still in this world? I believe I’ve been remarkably fortunate, I have the means to concentrate my personal wealth under a low tax regime and now have the intention of doing so. I can still make the world a better place like my 16 year old self wanted and more importantly I can do it without stuffing the paycheck of 40 inefficient public sector bureaucrats. All that at age 23? I have got a bright future to look forward to and perhaps with the growth of libertarianism, my children will too.