Flat White

Why I am not a libertarian but keep getting called one – and why you should care

9 August 2020

5:00 AM

9 August 2020

5:00 AM

It started five or six years ago. I was defending what I took to be some basic value of mainstream liberal democracy – I think it was someone’s right to have their say even if what they said sounded offensive to others – and one of my interlocutors looked over at me with what looked like a flash of recognition in his eyes. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘You’re a libertarian.’ 

I’m pretty sure I’m not a libertarian, actually, and I don’t say that because I have any special dislike for libertarians (if anything, I have a particular fondness for them right at the moment, for reasons I’ll come back to in just a second). Libertarians have made a lot of interesting and outside-the-box contributions to the kind of debates that we’ll go on having as long as we have politics – about the nature and role of the state, for example, or the relationship between freedom and equality. We’d be the poorer without Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia and the Austrian school of economics, just as we’d be the poorer without Marxist economics and Das Kapital 

But, as I say, I’m pretty sure I’m not a libertarian. New Zealand, where I currently live, is one of the few countries with an outright right-libertarian party, the ACT (Association of Concerned Taxpayers) party, in parliament – even if (for the moment at any rate) their only representative is the party leader, David Seymour. Seymour believes that taxation is a form of extortion (a not uncommon position among committed libertarians) and recently, in an interview with Maori TV, declared that libertarianism was about avoiding coercion. That, too, is an attitude shared by a good number of libertarians, who distrust (perhaps for good reason) the tendency states have often had of forcing people to do things (build pyramids, go to war) without so much as a by-your-leave.  

I don’t personally believe that tax is a form of extortion, because ‘extortion’ for me refers to illegitimate taking, and I think it’s legitimate for a democratic government to collect taxes. That may seem like a superficial point but, in fact, it touches on a deeper issue. This is government coercion, something that Seymour would like to avoid, but which most political philosophers, not to mention ordinary people, would say is legitimate as long as certain conditions are met.  

Maybe they’ll demand that the government is democratic, for example, or that it’s committed to upholding a set of basic rights. Maybe they’ll want to add that coercion is used as little as possible, and that those given the authority of wielding force are accountable in various ways. But, though most people will have some conditions of that sort in mind, they’re also basically OK with the idea of legitimate government power – partly because it’s what allows us to have functioning armies, police forces, and welfare systems (which ultimately depend, after all, on the taxman). Seymour is on board with the government using its power for a small set of purposes (national security, for example), but most people would want to leave a bit space for governments to act in (while remaining accountable to the people, of course). 

So why do I have a particular fondness for libertarians right at the moment? Because libertarians like Seymour have been doing an exceptionally good job in recent years clearly and unapologetically defending the freedom of speech. In fact, they’ve been virtually alone in standing up for the principle, what with the alarming collapse of the free speech left (a few honourable exceptions – like Noam Chomsky and Glenn Greenwald – aside). Across the English-speaking world, it’s libertarians – both of the right (think Reason magazine) and left (Spiked) that have been at the forefront of the increasingly desperate fight for free expression. 

And it’s probably the fact that this has been going on for a good few years now that explains my increasing liability to being misidentified as a libertarian. After all, I’m often found defending free speech (sometimes even on these pages), and isn’t that what libertarians do? Obviously, just because libertarians defend free speech a lot, that doesn’t mean everyone who defends free speech is a libertarian, any more than the fact New Zealanders play a lot of rugby means that anyone found playing rugby must be a Kiwi. But there’s something especially problematic about the way most of the major political parties, certainly in New Zealand, and possibly in the US too, have ceded (or outsourced) the free speech issue to libertarians.  

Free speech used to be a mainstream ideal, something (like democracy) that all serious political movements in the liberal democratic world used to pay lip-service to, even if there were occasional major lapses in actually upholding it (McCarthyism being the most notorious example). Nowadays, though, it’s more likely to be seen, at least in the mainstream media and on Twitter (which is becoming an even more important manufacturer of elite-endorsed opinion) as the obsession of a lunatic fringe.  

I think of this as one of the most astonishing, and least positive, political shifts that have taken place in my lifetime. It’s as if, in a few short years, defending the idea that taxation is a legitimate activity of governments had become restricted to a small number of hard-core Marxist holdouts – and an even smaller number of moderates who get called Marxists every time they defend the idea. Of course, some right-wingers have been labelling relatively moderate levels of public expenditure ‘socialism’ for a while now, trying to make a mainstream idea look like a fringe one – but they haven’t been anything like as successful as the left-wingers who’ve been telling us free speech is for weirdoes. Granted, sometimes views once considered mainstream get pushed to the fringes for good reasons – the idea that gay people should be punished for their sexual preferences (common half a century ago, and now rare) is a good example. But there are certain principles which shouldn’t be seen simply as part of ordinary shifts in the political or social landscape. One of the many positive changes socialists have brought to our societies was more humane working hours, eventually culminating in the five-day working week that we all know (and, I’d wager, all love), today. One of the many positive things conservatives have fought for is the preservation and upkeep of our cultural heritage. But if we decided to make it easier to work longer hours, or to take down a few monuments (or even more than few), that would hardly strike at the root of our political system. 

For whatever reason (probably their emphasis on freedom), libertarians have as one of their core values a principle that happens to be an essential ingredient in open societies: that we should all be allowed to have (and share) our political opinions without fearing that this will lead to us getting the sack (or being packed off to a gulag). To be fair, socialists and conservatives are also exceptionally committed to certain values which are essential to well-functioning liberal democratic nations. Socialists’ passion for equality has often led them to defend the principle of one person, one vote (and to push for it to be expanded to groups that had previously been excluded). Conservatives’ dedication to orderly government often sees them insisting on proper procedures in ways that often help secure existing rights and freedoms. 

But for reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay (and, frankly, beyond me), it’s the freedom of speech that’s the key liberal democratic principle that most needs defending today. It’s libertarians that are doing the best job defending it right now (and by far), so much so that Mr Seymour may yet get my vote in September. But this isn’t a good situation to be in. It shouldn’t be left to what’s still essentially an interesting but eccentric fringe movement to defend one of the fundamental principles our societies run on. Whether you’re reading this as a socialist, a liberal or (as seems more likely) a conservative, we all have a responsibility to help restore the freedom of speech to its merited place as one of the central ideals of liberal democracy. If we all pitch in, hopefully we can, within a few more years, get back to a place where defending free speech isn’t seen as a libertarian thing, or even remarkable; and where I don’t even have to tell you why my support for it doesn’t mean I want to go back to the gold standard.  

James Kierstead is senior lecturer in classics at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, where his research focuses on ancient Greek democracy. He tweets at @Kleisthenes2.

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