Libertarianism may not be setting the world of electoral politics alight, but it continues to be the source of tremendous intellectual vitality – a fact clearly evident at the Annual London Conference of the Libertarian Alliance and the Libertarian International on Nov. 19- 20,2005.
The finest speaker of the conference was, for me, Sir Alfred Sherman. This gentleman of 86 spoke with the vigor of a student radical, and the certitude of a man whose life had brought him from the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War to a role in starting the free-market Centre for Political Studies.
His speech was largely concerned with the failure of the social sciences to concentrate on humans: “Political science – a term whose legitimacy goes largely unquestioned – brings the methodology of the physical sciences to human affairs, and has thereby largely dehumanized their study.”
There are those who treat humans as such, and those who treat them as tools for some allegedly benevolent end. The eternal dream of the perfectibility of man, and the terrible consequences of the misinterpretation of human action, became the central themes of the conference.
A case in point: the address of Sean Gabb, a conference co-organizer. Gabb outlined the obscene invasions of privacy committed by the British and ED governments. He listed recent attempts to enlarge the powers of the British government. The Proceeds of Crime Act has granted the British police tremendously invasive powers to spy on customers of the banking system. Nominal sums of money have now become “suspicious,” thus calling for declarations by so-called “Money Laundering Reporting Officers.” To Americans still concerned about the Constitution, this is reminiscent of the ongoing abuse of the Fourth Amendment through the War on Drugs. Then there’s the Civil Contingencies Act, which provides any number of reasons to declare a state of emergency and thus to imprison people without trial, confiscate their property, and so on. Finally, in the recent affair of the attempted Terrorism Bill, Tony Blair lost a motion in the House of Commons to empower him to hold a suspect for 90 days without formal charges.
Nevertheless, Gabb believes that “it is not the laws of Parliament” that are most threatening to liberty: “These could be rescinded. These are merely symptoms.” The problem, according to him, is the system that has governed Britain since Magna Carta. Unprotected by a written constitution, the British have benefited from a “web of associations.” Those associations can be changed. Slowly, we lose old customs – customs such as trial by jury (how expensive and inefficient!) or protection against double jeopardy. The “immemorial antiquities” slip away; strands of the web are cut. No sweeping acts of abolition occur; all we see are seemingly trivial, modernizing alterations: writs becoming “claim forms,” bailiffs becoming “court enforcers,” judges no longer wearing wigs….
But this is all just nitpicking, isn’t it? No. We are talking about the past being forgotten, or misunderstood. Without a grasp of the ideas of the American Founding Fathers, or the natural rights enjoyed in Britain for centuries, one may easily imagine that legal documents from centuries past must be outdated. How could they encompass today’s social situations? Doesn’t it make sense not to wear wigs? By the same token, doesn’t it make sense to try someone twice for the same crime, if some new evidence is found?
But once a system is rearranged, it becomes different; and once history is ignored or misunderstood, it becomes the basis of false deductions. “Subtle falsifications of events in the past,” Gabb explained, are means by which the past itself is altered. Multiculturalism is a prUne example. Past achievements are rewritten as exploitation of this class or that race; developments and discoveries are reconstructed as damaging to the environment and morally detrimental.
The legacy of the 20th century has been a severe misunderstanding of the role and powers of the state. According to Sherman, echoing several generations of libertarian philosophers, “the essence is that the state has grown at the expense of the civil society, weakening it. We look to the state to remedy evils or shortcomings; we ignore the price it is bound to exact … the more we turn to the state for remedies, which turn out poisonous.”
This lack of appreciation for consequences was vividly illustrated by Mattias Bengston, president of the Centre for the New Europe, in his lecture on “Statism: The Swedish Model and Its Lessons.” It would be difficult to find a worse understood system of government than the present “Swedish Model.” Sweden is far from enjoying pure socialism. Sweden has:
• No minimum wage;
• A reformed state pension scheme, in which every- one makes free choices about investments;
• School vouchers;
• A strong shift toward privatization of hospitals and clinics;
• Mass privatization of banks, transport, and other major industries;
• Zero regulation for trading hours;
• Abolition of death taxes and gift taxes;
• No “competition authority” to “help” the market; • Very little red tape in industry in general.
It wasn’t always so. In the 1930s, the Social Democrats made a pact with businesses and the trade unions for the establishment·of a corporatist industrial policy. Without participation in either world war, Sweden was able to maintain a comparatively luxurious welfare system … for a few decades. But by the end of the 1960s, the Swedish Model was in trouble. Taxes had soared; the marginal tax rate was around 100%. Initial income taxes – ie., taxes before all the other taxes were added – rose to 35%. Inflation was in double digits. Labor unions were starting to demand more control of industry. The “Wage Earners’ Fund” was conceived – a scheme for forcible acquisition of stock on behalf of workers. A gradual takeover of industry was imminent.
Then Sweden changed. In recognition of the fact that the unintended consequence of socialism was an economically moribund country, free-market alterations were made. Today, the Swedish Model works – to the extent it does work – because of that recognition.
As yet, there has been no similar recognition in “European” politics. Syed Kamall, a British Tory and member of the European Parliament (MEP), described the inner workings of the “European Project.” A consensus-based, rather than the adversary-based, system, the Parliament brings new levels of confusion to democracy – Brussels-style.
First, voting takes place months after debates, enabling deal-making by interested parties. This also conveniently allows for the necessary confusion and
The EU’s Lisbon Summit: empty words covering up a desperately sinister descent into madness.
amnesia to set in. Dr Kamall claims that many fellow- MEPs admit they don’t know what they’re voting about. This doesn’t stop them from voting “yes.”
The health of the “European Social model” lies at the heart of the EU parliamentary ideal. Continuously generous social security, small demands for workers to contribute to such programs, protected labor laws … anyone reading this magazine will know the corollaries. But the idea that this social model is anything less than a marvel of sophisticated thinking simply has not entered the heads of most parliamentarians (let alone most of the delusional electorate).
Another problem of the European Project is the parliamentarians’ distance from the voters, preventing any genuine representation. Coupled with that is a passion for the Project itself that blinds its adherents to any of its defects. So enthusiastic are they about their dreams that they have little interest in the obvious failures.
Kamall felt that Europe was on “the road to damnation.” No “reform” is in the offing; there is no likelihood that Brussels can be made smaller and more accountable. The EU’s Lisbon Summit in 2000, where “the EU embarked on a strategy to make Europe the most competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010,” was, in Kamall’s words, “empty words covering up a desperately sinister descent into madness.”
More hopeful indications of the future were discerned by Sacha Kumaria, Director of Programs at the Stockholm Network, although he echoed the bitter truth, well known in libertarian circles: .the universities and the mainstream press are lost. But the message is: don’t mourn for them, organize! Organize your own institutions. As evidence for the validity of this idea, he cited the network of free-market think tanks and the remarkable penetration of the Internet by libertarians.
The rebellion of the libertarians – consequence of world socialism – continues in good health.