What Libertarians can learn from Antonio Gramsci and Why they Should Join the Tories.
I describe myself as a Libertarian, mainly because the traditional labels of ‘left’ and ‘right’ don’t fully fit. As P.J. O’Rourke remarked “Turn right at Economics, Take a left at sex and drugs, straight ahead to paradise“*. The right are largely economically liberal, but socially authoritarian, and the left, the opposite. And this varies by time and place, influenced by history. Swedish neo-nazis for example are strongly in favour of that kingdom’s generous welfare state. But I don’t want to ‘smash the state’. Shrink it, gradually, for sure. But I don’t want a revolution. Nor do I see much fundamentally wrong with representative democracy.
Libertarians too often have an intellectual jump-off point at their state-free utopia. This isn’t libertarianism, but anarchism, but these anarcho-capitalists hurl abuse at any libertarian whose ideas include working with existing institutions: not “real” libertarianism. There’s no coherent plan to get from a state which takes 50% of GDP and thinks it reasonable to control the font on cigarette packets, or the contents of Children’s lunch-boxes, to one where the state keeps to its reasonable functions. Thus libertarianism is a philosophy for spotty herberts, ranting in pubs, mainly to each other. And the An-caps are to blame.
Unless your intellectual jump-off point is our society and government, complete with problems, here and now, you will be ignored. This is why Labour was out of power for nearly two decades until they abandoned their marxist fantasy. The Tories fell into the trap of imagining an Elysium somewhere around 1953, which saw them out of power while Gordon Brown laid waste the economy. The party that wins power is the one with a clear solution to the problems of the country now, and an optimistic vision for the future sufficient to encourage people to vote.
The problems faced by the UK government are a deficit requiring spending cuts, and preventing tax-cuts. A population which appears to be obsessed by immigration (especially in the kind of places where there is little). This means the solutions are extraordinarily unpopular, as the left hate spending cuts, as the right thinks not giving tax-cuts is tantamount to socialism. Social liberalism, gay marriage for example seems to have brought out the right-authoritarians out in full-scale culture war. Immigrants are the first casualty, as they seek their fantasy ’50s Britain.
Despite extraordinarily difficult political headwinds, the coalition’s doing a good job. Taxes have even been cut, especially on the low-paid. In-work benefits are about the same or more generous, increasing the returns to work, and out of work benefits have been frozen or squeezed. This tax-cut, and benefit rise has been largely responsible for the missed deficit targets. But the effect has been profound. Added to the incentive effects, supply-side reforms, mainly making it easier to fire, and less costly to employ, have seen something of a jobs miracle. Despite a weak economy, millions have found work, and the coalition has mostly achieved this by increasing incentives to the out of work, and by reducing obstacles to jobs being provided. Even the jobs miracle is grotesquely unpopular. Ranty rigties and “libertarians” bemoan the increased in-work benefits bill. The left are having a right old froth about “zero-hours” contracts or the rise in self-under-employment.
But everywhere you look, the coalition’s been shrinking the state’s influence over economic life, and seen a flourishing of private sector economic activity. State headcount, the bean-counters and box-tickers of Gordon Brown’s expensive client state, has been pared back to pre-1997 levels. The debate about the deficit has been comprehensively won – even Labour has abandoned its punk-keynsianism in rhetoric at least.
Ranty twitter libertarians often ask how I can stomach being a Conservative. It’s simple. They do a good job in day-to-day government, and they do shrink the state overall. It is true Conservatives are not libertarians. The clue is in the name. But they are fellow-travellers, at least as far as they want to go, and especially so in matters economic. The Cameroons are also reasonably socially liberal. They do want to get the state out of the bedroom, and pursue a more reasonable set of drug laws. The Tory party has lost its ranty, EU-obsessed authoritarians to UKIP, who, one suspects, mostly hate the EU because it prevents bringing back hanging. And the Tory party looks a whole lot better without them.
Libertarians should offer a vision of a freer, richer, stronger UK, starting with the rich, free and strong UK we have now. We should do so by infiltrating the existing parties and making arguments for policies that work mainly by freeing people from state dependency and control. Citizens’ Basic Income, protections to civil liberties, freedom of expression and association. If there were more libertarians making the arguments rather than stomping off in great huffs like David Davis, or Douglas Carswell, we might get somewhere.
But Libertarians are too selfish, immature and self-centred to compromise. We do have the answers. Libertarianism is right, good and helpful to people. But we are absolutely rubbish at making the arguments to those who matter because we couch the arguments in such absolutist terms. Libertarians need to get their shoulders to the wheel of debate, instead of standing at the sidelines shouting incoherent abuse to people trying to come up with solutions to problems faced by people in the here and now. Otherwise we leave policy-making in the here and now to Gramscian marxists who’ve already completed their long-march through the institutions.
Libertarians should join the Conservative party. Not because the Conservative party fully agrees with us, but because it should.
*if anyone can find the source for, or correct me on this quote, I’d be grateful.