28 June 2018

Why are some conservatives so obsessed with libertarians?


Some UK conservative thinkers and commentators have a problem with libertarians.

Though self-defined libertarians could probably fit on a single London bus, the ire thrown their way is palpable. Tim Montgomerie has been one crusader, previously setting up a website called “The Good Right” to push an agenda seemingly distinguished from the “Bad Right” of the UK’s free-marketeers. Theresa May’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy is more vitriolic still, even dedicating a chunk of his highly successful 2017 Conservative manifesto to tell the nation how the “libertarian right” worship the “cult of selfish individualism.”

The idea that the Conservatives’ main problem is the malign influence of libertarian ideas is pretty baffling. The Cameron-Osborne modernisation project was socially liberal, but owed little to libertarian thought. The Cameroons didn’t care for economic liberalism at all, agreeing to Labour’s spending plans up until the financial crisis. In government they prioritised deficit reduction out of necessity, but no meaningful economic liberalisation. They left the highest tax burden for decades.

And Theresa May’s government has arguably been the least liberal Conservative administration on economics (and much else) since Ted Heath. In fact, it has gone some way to delivering on Tim’s Good Right agenda, with a rapidly increasing National Living Wage, increased nannying on lifestyles, a higher tax burden on the rich, and new funding for social housing.

As Kristian Niemietz recently wrote on this site, “The party now stands for a mix of micro-interventionism à la Ed Miliband, industrial policy à la Mariana Mazzucato, anti-big-business communitarianism à la Nick Timothy or Tim Montgomerie, and NIMBYism à la Campaign to Protect Rural England.” Libertarianism’s critics have a Prime Minister who agrees with them about the “good government can do”. So why so much obsession with a libertarian bogeyman?

One reason may be that the other wings of the UK conservative coalition have no unifying worldview, and so define themselves by what they stand against. Liz Truss made an economically liberal speech at the LSE this week, extolling fiscal discipline and championing open markets, personal freedoms, and planning and regulatory reform. But this was dismissed by Montgomerie as “libertarian”.

Given these have been steady principles of the Conservative Party for years, and the one area she repudiated government policy (nannying) has seen a relatively recent full Tory conversion, it is difficult to suggest these positions are inherently unconservative. But what Montie didn’t like was “the general disposition”. Libertarianism incorporates these ideas, and Tim opposes libertarianism, so he opposes this speech.

Another reason some conservatives may disdain libertarians is because they think free-market ideas are electorally unpopular, or state intervention more popular. The rise of Corbyn and plenty of survey work may support that psephology. Then again, Theresa May failed to win a majority with her agenda of dealing with “burning injustices” and highlighting “the good government can do”, while Cameron won largely standing on a post-1979 traditional Tory ticket, ignoring the warnings of those who said he couldn’t win without coming to peace with the state.

But I don’t like judging motives. Maybe the likes of Timothy and Montgomerie just genuinely believe free-market ideas don’t work and want to entrench a hegemony for their (albeit different) economic ideas.

Free-marketeers may not be politically powerful right now, but they do still act a bit like the Conservatives’ economic conscience and openly defend unpopular views, meaning they are the key group you have to argue with. Converting the party to a new way of economic thinking requires taking on classical liberal thought. That task is made easier if libertarian ideas are caricatured as selfish and individualistic.

Yet here’s the problem. However much some people claim the UK’s classical liberals are all avaricious Ayn Rand individualists, it doesn’t make it true. The Institute of Economic Affairs (where I used to work and arguably the UK’s classical liberal mother-ship) has published extensively on social capital, international development, anti-family biases in tax, welfare and childcare policy and much else.

And most UK classical liberals support a smaller state precisely because they believe a big, intrusive, highly redistributive government undermines both market and non-market institutions that conservatives are supposed to believe are crucial to a healthy society.

Tim and others these days seem to have fallen into a somewhat left-wing, progressive worldview, which says that if you do not support state intervention or spending for something, then you do not care about it.

You do not care about developing countries if you do not support foreign aid. You do not care about competitive markets if you do not always support active trust-busting when market concentration is high. You do not care about the nation if you don’t favour extensive immigration controls. And so on, and so on.

Libertarians would instead stay that you can perfectly well care about all these things without them being issues of politics. Indeed, we would go further, claiming that big government undermines the little platoons of family, charity and civil society that conservatives are supposed to defend.

If government is too big, people have fewer resources to redistribute or use for their own needs within the family or broader social circles. If regulation is too intrusive, it stops informal social gatherings or activities from working effectively or, in the form of the minimum wage, stops low-skilled people finding jobs that teach the essential skills that make a productive, fulfilled member of society. Montgomerie and others know this is what we believe, because we have told them.

So let me offer one final hypothesis for the libertarian obsession. In many ways, UK libertarians seem to be more in tune with traditional conservative philosophy than the self-declared conservatives. Wealth taxes should be anathema to conservatives. Conservatives should reject the extensive concern about aggregated inequality statistics too, since they tell you little alone about whether they reflect nefarious activities or merely differences.

Yet libertarianism’s biggest critics demur from conservative positions on these issues. It was the conservative Edmund Burke too who said we should deal with the world as it is, and not as it should be. But whereas libertarians generally are at ease with economic development, new technologies and business methods in demand (merely proposing that regulation adjusts to new trends), many conservatives want to regulate and tax them such that they conform with some pre-conceived economic model.

Maybe, just maybe, the reason that some conservatives are so keen to caricature “libertarians” is because often the libertarian arguments weigh on their intellectual conscience. They are not so much attacking libertarians as convincing themselves that we are wrong about the world. And, as Bryan Caplan noted, they keep attacking because they haven’t truly convinced themselves that their ideas will work or are actually conservative.

Ryan Bourne holds the R. Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute