Tag Archives: capitalism

Book Review: “Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know”, by Jason Brennan

I have just finished listening to the audio edition of “Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know” by Jason Brennan, (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Libertarianism-What-Everyone-Needs-Know/dp/B00I4LGTJI/).

In “Libertarianism”, Brennan examines what libertarians believe and explores the different schools of the libertarian philosophy.

Brennan distinguishes between hard and soft libertarians. Hard Libertarians, he argues believe that we have a moral duty to help the poor. However the state has no right to force us to do so through taxation, as we have an absolute right to do as we please with our property (provided that we respect the property rights of others), and government has no right to force us (through taxation) to assist the needy. In contrast soft libertarians contend that some form of social welfare may be justified. Brennan sights, for example Milton Friedman’s support for some form of basic income.

Both hard and soft libertarians believe that the best way to help “the poor” is by removing barriers to them entering the labour market. For example libertarians oppose minimum wages due to their belief that these reduce employment amongst the unskilled. They contend that minimum wages cause employers to hire less workers, introduce technology which reduces the need for workers or, in some instances even go out of business. This, they argue benefits neither the poor nor the employer.

Libertarians also favour abolishing labour market regulations, or, at the very least greatly reducing their scope on the grounds that regulations prevent poor people from starting businesses thereby trapping them in poverty. Brennan sights the example of an African-American wishing to offer eyebrow threading. In order to do so she needs a hairdressing license. She can not afford this (in his view) unnecessary license, therefore she is deprived of a source of income and remains poor.

Many libertarians support doing away with immigration controls. They believe that it is morally wrong to condemn the poor to a life of poverty in the third/developing world when there are jobs for them to do in the richer west. Allowing poor people to immigrate into richer countries, enhances their economic opportunities and also benefits those who are willing to employ them. It is, in effect a win win situation for all concerned.

Libertarians respond to concerns that uncontrolled immigration would lead to a ballooning welfare state by pointing out that, under a libertarian regime there would exist no (government) welfare. Therefore immigrants would (along with the native born population) have to support themselves or rely on private charitable provision.

Libertarians are not Conservatives, although they do, as Brennan points out, share with the latter a belief in private property as a bulwark against tyrany and as a means of enhancing the freedom of the individual.

There is, within Conservatism a school of thought which advocates state intervention to protect the poor. For example the Conservative Party in the UK introduced the Living Wage. It is illegal to pay someone an amount under the Living Wage, something which is seen as anti competitive by other strands within the Conservative Party (and by all libertarians).

Whilst Brennan’s case against immigration controls possesses a certain superficial attraction, he does not answer the question as to where all these new entrants to the USA (and other developed countries) would live. As there would be no state provision, I, for one have visions of the development of vast shanty towns with the rise in crime that plagues such places in countries such as Brazil. When people are desperate (and they have no social welfare safety net) some of them will turn to crime in order to survive. The libertarian advocacy of no immigration controls has the potential to lead to disaster.

Are libertarians selfish?

Brennan argues that libertarians are no more or less selfish than the adherents of Conservatism or Socialism. One finds selfish and altruistic Conservatives and Socialists. The same holds true for libertarians. Granted libertarians tend to oppose a welfare state, but many of them do give to charity which gives the lie to the idea that libertarians are selfish.

Brennan is, I believe correct that one can not label libertarians as selfish. Many of them do give to charity. However one can legitimately ask whether a libertarian society (one lacking any form of social welfare) would be more humane than societies in which social welfare is provided. The answer is, I would argue, no. Whilst private charity can (and does) play an important role in aleviating poverty, it can not fill all the gaps currently being plugged (admittedly not always successfully) by welfare states. So, whilst they are undoubtedly well meaning, libertarians who are sincere in their belief that unfettered free markets are the answer to almost all social problems, they are, I believe hopelessly optimistic (even naive) in their advocacy of unfettered markets.

Libertarians (rightly) criticise Socialists for their advocacy of failed collectivist solutions to social and economic problems. However in there blind belief that market solutions are (in almost every case) the only possible solutions, they are just as blinkered as the Socialist collectivists.

There is much in Brennan’s book with which libertarians (with a small l) would agree. The libertarian belief that the state/society has no right to dictate how consenting adults live (including their sexual preferences) is a view with which I strongly agree. Again, the support of libertarians for civil liberties is something with which most of us (in the west at least) would agree.

As libertarians point out, “the war on drugs” is not working. Whilst many libertarians would like to see the wholesale decriminalisation of drugs, there are arguments in favour of controlled legalisation (I.E. places where those addicted to drugs can legally obtain them, together with the help they need to kick their addiction). Such a policy would not be a “free for all”, but a compromise between the unworkable “war on drugs” and the libertarian “free for all”.

In conclusion, as someone who would describe themselves as a libertarian (with a small l), there is much in libertarianism with which I agree. Libertarians are correct that private property is essential to personal freedom. They are, I believe also right to highlight the failings of collectivism and to press for limits to be placed on the power of the state. Where they are wrong is in their blind, almost slavish belief that free markets can solve almost every problem. Certainly the lack of markets in Communist societies caused huge problems in terms of sluggish economic growth and the lack of personal freedom. But unregulated Capitalism can lead to child labour, the growth of slums and other social ills. So, in short a very good read but I’m not going to join the UK Libertarian Party any time soon.

Rise Of The New Libertarians

At university I read history and politics. Then, being a glutton for punishment I went on to do an MA in political theory, hence my interest on coming across this article concerning the rise of libertarianism among young people, (http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/rise-new-libertarians-meet-britains-next-political-generation-1469233). According to the piece, young people are turning away from support for the welfare state and embracing classical liberal economics combined with social libertarianism. What is being described in the article is not Conservatism for Conservatives do, on the whole support laws against drugs, prostitution etc. In contrast the libertarianism being described here is opposed to what it perceives as unwarranted restrictions on personal liberty of which (they believe) measures against drugs, prostitution etc are a part. Again, within British Conservatism there exists a school of paternalist or one nation Tories who have accepted or, on occasions promoted social reforms (Benjamin Disraeli for example). This strand of paternalism is foreign to libertarianism of the kind being described here.

Worth a read.



Book Review: Eugenics And Other Evils By G K Chesterton

I recently read Eugenics And Other Evils by G K Chesterton, http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B0082XCCNK?ie=UTF8&ref_=oce_digital_UK. Chesterton wrote at a time when eugenics was gaining ground. Politicians ranging from Will Crooks on the left (Crooks was a member of the British Labour Party) and Winston Churchill (at one time a Liberal but later a Conservative) advocated eugenic measures while intellectuals such as the Webbs joined in championing such ideas.

In essence Chesterton argues that old-style capitalists/individualists such as Cobden and Bright had believed that the capitalist system would in time uplift the condition of the poor through increased prosperity. As time went on it became apparent that the condition of the mass of the population was not improving. The wealthy members of society became alarmed by what they saw as the deteriation in the quality of the population and the stubborn problem of pauperism so became receptive to the arguments of the advocates of eugenics. Likewise many on the left embraced eugenic measures out of a belief that social planning of which eugenics should form an integral part could improve the condition of the working classes.

While Chesterton rejected capitalism as it existed at the time of writing he was no fan of socialism either. He saw both systems as seeking to control people. In his view capitalism denyed the poor property by paying them insufficient wages thereby preventing the accumulation of property. Socialism on the other hand saw property as the cause of social evils and actively saught to limit or prevent it’s accumulation. Chesterton advocates a middle course in which property is widely distributed thereby enhancing the independence of the population and uplifting the condition of the poor. Widely distributed property rather than eugenic measures are, in Chesterton’s view the answer to the widespread pauperism which he condemns in Eugenics and other Evils.

So what where the eugenic measures which Chesterton attacks?

In 1912 the British Parliament passed a bill allowing for the separation of “the feeble minded” from the rest of the population. The term feeble minded was not well defined and led to the confinement in institutions of everyone from the genuinely mentally ill to those with minor learning difficulties and unmarried mothers. Pauperism was seen by many eugenicists as a disease the cure for which was to prevent so far as was possible the breeding of those afflicted by it.

In the UK there was no mass sterilisation programme despite it’s advocacy by many eugenicists. However in the United States organisations such as the Eugenics Records Office under the leadership of Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin played a leading role in persuading American states to introduce sterilisation programmes under which those with various forms of disabilities and unmarried mothers (among others) where sterilised. Nazi eugenicists modelled the German eugenics law on the law drawn up by Laughlin although in Germany, unlike America sterilisation lead on to mass killing of disabled people under the Action T4 Programme.

After World War II eugenics fell out of fashion as a consequence of the atrocities committed under the Nazis but also due to advances in science which showed flaws in eugenics (E.G. few now believe that the poor are poor due to genetic defects).

Chesterton wrote Eugenics and other Evils in 1922. Given the abuses committed in the name of eugenics his book was remarkably prescient.

Communal Living Anyone?

Can people live together in a state of equality by which I mean a society in which resources are shared equally and each individual contributes to the good of the whole community? The collapse of the former Soviet Union together with it’s former satelites in Eastern Europe has lead many to contend that such a state of afairs is pie in the sky. States which aim at equality inevitably degenerate into dictatorships which are neither equal or free the argument goes. But what about small communities or communes? Can groups of like minded individuals come together and live in a state of equality in which each person contributes to the common good? In any case how should we define the common good? Does it exist?

I have an idea for a story in which the above themes will be explored. I envisage a group of idealistic people joining together to farm the land in common and escape from what they perceive to be the materialism and corruption of capitalist society. Will their little community work or is it doomed to failure? Watch this space.