13 November 2015

What happened to left-wing libertarianism?


I have never quite understood why libertarians are considered right wing. They believe in small government because they trust people, distrust elites, are suspicious of Leviathan and value freedom. In what sense is any of that either conservative or reactionary? In the nineteenth-century, support for free trade, small government and individual autonomy went together almost automatically with opposition to slavery, colonialism, political patronage, and an established Church.

From the Levellers of the 1650s to the Chartists of the 1830s, via the Boston tea party, the radicals on the “left” of British and American politics consistently demanded free trade and free markets as well as free speech and political reform. Richard Cobden, the great champion of free trade responsible more than anybody else for that extraordinary spell between 1840 and 1865 when Britain set the world an example and unilaterally dismantled the tariffs that entangled the globe, was a passionate pacifist, deeply committed to the cause of the poor, who was heckled as a dangerous radical when he first spoke in the House of Commons and who refused a title from a monarch he disapproved of. Hardly a conservative.

Only after Marx convinced the left that the state was the means through which the interests of the working class should be pursued did freedom come to be associated with the right. But libertarians have just as much antipathy to right wing authoritarianism as they do the left-wing variety.

As I argue in my new book The Evolution of Everything, it is the authoritarians we should treat with suspicion. Far too many people on the left want to put government in charge of everything, and far too many people on the right want to put God in charge. Why are we so reluctant as a species to embrace freedom, so keen to (in the words of the poet Hilaire Belloc): “always keep a hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse”?

In truth, the libertarian creed is needed more than ever. In some ways we seem to be living through the dimming of the enlightenment, with free markets and free trade out of favour in much of the western world, free democracy increasingly questioned by activists, for example in the climate policy debate, and free speech increasingly under assault on campuses from a strange alliance of Islamists and feminists.

Some examples: last year Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a victim of female genital mutilation, outspoken advocate of Muslim women’s rights and a terrorist target for Islamists, was disinvited as a commencement speaker at Brandeis university after a campaign by feminists. This year Brendan O’Neill, the editor of Spiked!,  invited to speak at a debate about abortion (which he favours) at Oxford University found it had been cancelled because it might damage the ‘mental safety’ of students to hear ‘a person without a uterus’ speak on the topic. What’s the opposite of diversity?, goes the joke: university.

As for democracy, Naomi Oreskes, a climate activist, has said that “China’s ability to weather disastrous climate change vindicated the necessity of centralised government” while the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman has written in 2009, on the topic of solar power: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.”

We have been here before. Around a century ago, the world turned its back on what it then called liberalism, the belief that had united free trade with free speech and free thought. The left fell in love with socialism – state power wielded by the working class – instead of liberalism, while the right embraced Taylorism (the theory of scientific management) and strong-man nationalism. As the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey put it, ‘The sons of bourgeois fathers became enchanted . . . by the revival of secularised faith called nationalism and of secularised hope called socialism.’

The libertarian editor of the Nation, Ed Godkin, lamented in 1900: ‘Only a remnant, old men for the most part, still uphold the liberal doctrine, and when they are gone, it will have no champions.’

The fate of Herbert Spencer is a good example of this. Spencer, who though British was probably more influential in the United States, was a libertarian radical like Cobden: a pacifist and anti-elitist who believed in free markets. In the 1940s, however, long after his death, his reputation took a blow from which it never recovered. The Marxist historian Richard Hofstadter coined the label “social Darwinism” and pinned it on Spencer. He was a heartless proponent of survival of the fittest, arguing, said Hofstadter, that the devil should take the hindmost for the betterment of the race.

We now know that this was largely a calumny. For Spencer, Darwinism was a description, not a prescription and he supported welfare for the disadvantaged. Libertarians, Spencer included, dabbled far less in the eugenic craze that disfigured the social application of Darwinism than socialists did. Many of the most enthusiastic eugenicists were socialists, keen to nationalize and control marriage and procreation: Beatrice Webb, H.G.Wells and Bernard Shaw among them.

But, as Thomas Leonard of Princeton has argued, Hofstadter “succeeded brilliantly in affixing the epithet ‘social Darwinism’ to free-market economics” whereas he soft-pedaled progressive support for eugenics and racism. And, of course, it was the authoritarians, on left and right, who embraced and implemented eugenics, not the libertarians.

In my new book I make the case for seeing human society as an organic thing that grows, emerges, evolves and flowers, rather than is created, directed, led or commanded. This is the very opposite of social Darwinism, for it argues that society itself evolves through the selective survival of ideas, and that because ideas die, so people do not have to if society is to progress.

A good example is the world’s falling birth rate. The demographic transition by which global birth rates have halved in 50 years is largely an evolutionary phenomenon, a consequence of freedom and prosperity, undirected, unexpected and unplanned: as health and wealth improve, people spontaneously plan smaller families. Figures show that China’s one-child policy did not accelerate and may even have slowed the country’s birth-rate decline: the birth rate fell faster in the ten years before than the ten years after the policy began. It was a prime example of top-down command and control, which came about because a ballistic missile designer named Song Jian attended a technical conference on control systems in Helsinki in 1978.

While there he came across The Limits to Growth, the manifesto of a group of elite American and European environmentalists known as the Club of Rome, whose philosophy was set out in 1974: “Now is the time to draw up a master plan for organic sustainable growth and world development based on global allocation of all finite resources and a new global economic system”.

Many people have a visceral dislike of libertarianism, as if it had a shady past. But the great cruelties of the past, from ancient Egypt to Auschwitz, from slavery to Mao’s Great Leap Forward, were all crimes of authoritarian regimes, not libertarian ones.

We need to rediscover radical libertarianism, and to learn to distrust authoritarianism.

Correction: Douglas Hofstadter has now been amended to read Richard Hofstadter

Matt Ridley is a British journalist who has written several popular science books. He is also a businessman and a Conservative member of the House of Lords