Right libertarianism is dead. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker. It has joined the choir invisible. That is the inference to draw from John Redwood’s recent claim that Brexit is a “huge opportunity to…grow more of our food”, prompting Jonathan Portes to note that the man has gone from “economic liberalism in its purist form” to rebooting The Good Life. As Jonathan Calder says, the Tories are staging a headlong retreat from the free market.
This is not an isolated instance. Just before Christmas Norman Lamb’s proposal to legalize cannabis was opposed by prominent Brexiters such as Rees Mogg, Bridgen and Cash. Support for more liberal immigration policy is more likely to be found on the left than on the right. And the #MeToo movement – which is essentially an assertion of the libertarian ideal of self-ownership – has at best only tepid support from the right.
All these cases show that the right is not libertarian. Lefties love to ask the IEA and TPA “who funds you?” Doing so, however, misses the key point – that such thinktanks have to rely upon a small cabal of cranks and oligarchs* because their causes lack widespread support.
Now, this is not to deny that there are a few sincere libertarians out there such as Christopher Snowdon or Sam Bowman. But for every one of these there are, I suspect, many more shills for the rich, crypto-currency cranks, IQ fetishists or mindless contrarians. Right-libertarianism is no longer a serious political or intellectual force in the UK**.
Why? It has always been the case that libertarianism is unpopular with the public. Even when they were voting for Thatcher, less than 10% of voters wanted to cut taxes and reduce spending on health, education and welfare***. This might have been because, as Hayek said, the benefits of freedom are diffuse and unpredictable:
Since the value of freedom rests on the opportunities it provides for unforeseeable and unpredictable actions, we will rarely know what we lose through a particular restriction of freedom. Any such restriction, any coercion other than the enforcement of general rules, will aim at the achievement of some foreseeable particular result, but what is prevented by it will usually not be known....And so, when we decide each issue solely on what appear to be its individual merits, we always over-estimate the advantages of central direction. (Law Legislation and Liberty Vol I, p56-57)
Back then, though, there were men like Redwood who were economic liberals.
So what changed?
It could be that such claims to love freedom were insincere. Many on the right only used freedom as a stick with which to beat the Soviet Union: many were quiet about the crimes of Pinochet or apartheid South Africa, and they remain content with workplace coercion.
But there’s something else. It’s that one of the foundational beliefs of small-staters has been refuted by events. The idea that capitalism could thrive with only minimal state intervention was disproved the moment the government bailed out the banks in 2008.
That was a specific instance of a more general pattern. In his famous AEA presidential address (pdf) in 1968 Milton Friedman said:
Our economic system will work best when producers and consumers, employers and employees, can proceed with full confidence that the average level of prices will behave in a known way in the future.
This, he thought, would create a climate “favourable to the effective operation of those basic forces of enterprise, ingenuity, invention, hard work, and thrift that are the true springs of economic growth.”
Events have proved him wrong. Since the 1990s inflation has been stable. As Eric says, it “is truly dead, and policy makers don’t need to worry about it.” And yet the “basic forces of enterprise” have been weaker now: productivity has stagnated for years. The idea that governments only needed to provide price stability and low but stable regulation to unleash a dynamic economy has been proven wrong. The state must be more active than that. In this sense, the demise of right libertarianism is an example of evidence-based policy.
Perhaps, then, we should regard Brexit as a displacement activity: having realized that a small state is unachievable, rightists directed their energies elsewhere.
* Maybe they’d be not: I’d be happy to be proven wrong.
** No, support for the Singapore model does NOT make you a libertarian.
*** This isn’t as contradictory as it seems: Thatcher was not the small-stater of latter-day myth.