Why I am not a Libertarian
This post was inspired by a discussion thread on Lib Dem Voice
about self-styled libertarian Mark Littlewood resigning from the Lib Dems to take up the post of Director General of the IEA. The thread has attracted a lot of comments from sympathisers with Mr Littlewood, others who regard him as some kind of Satanic Thatcherite infiltrator and a couple from people like me who just see him as a mildly irritating media tart. The interesting part of the discussion was concerned with whether or not libertarians have a place in the Liberal Democrats.
I'd like to say first of all that, in spite of the title of this post, I am a libertarian in the general sense because I seek to promote liberty. For the same reason I would also call myself a liberal, which is the term that has been used for a promoter of liberty in this country for the last 200 years. The reason why people are now choosing to call themselves libertarians in preference to calling themselves liberals is that they want to identify themselves as being in favour of liberal economics (in some sense). A great many people who currently claim the title liberal would reject economic liberalism as being authoritarian in practice. I'm not one of them, but I'm still not comfortable calling myself a libertarian when describing my politics.
The reason for this is that there is already a party in the US called the Libertarian Party (it now has an imitator in the UK). The LP occupies positions on property rights and other human rights that would lead it to reject all forms of redistribution. As a result it is against antitrust, would not promote employee share ownership and would eliminate the welfare state without challenging vested interests in our society. The LP does not have ownership of the term "libertarian" and there are many different thinkers who accept that label for themselves who wouldn't accept the tenets of the LP's constitution. However, it is the LP that has supplied the popular meaning of the political term "libertarian" for a great many people. When people describe themselves as libertarians they are therefore associating themselves with positions that in a lot of Lib Dem cases I suspect they don't really support. It is for this reason that I avoid the term like the plague.
Instead I have tended to call myself a liberal, or, if more definition is needed, a social and economic liberal. The thought that occurs to me after reading the thread that sparked this off is that perhaps a new term is needed for people on my wing of the party. Too many people seem to associate economic liberalism with warmed over Thatcherism. The position that I occupy, and I'm not alone in this, could be called distributivist or mutualist in that I want to see workers and service users take ownership and control over more of the public and private sectors. Simply cutting back the state and letting the corporations rule isn't what I'm aiming at at all. However, distributivism and mutualism only describe part of an agenda and as words they probably don't mean much to most of the general public.
The term I'd pick out for myself is radical liberal. I don't think there is another thoroughgoing radical agenda on the table aside from one incorporating distributivism. If the term doesn't mean much in itself I think it is at least suggestive in practice. Also, "radical liberal" feels right. It sounds like someone who is on the side of the dispossessed and not at all like a Tory or a right winger. Anybody else who wants to be a radical liberal too is more than welcome to borrow the term.
Labels: distributivism, liberalism, libertarianism