Wednesday, 6 January 2010

My journey to Libertarianism: 7

(In which a young bear gentleman from darkest Peru realises that he is not the only one who is giving the politicians a very hard stare.)

By 2005, I was feeling distinctly negative about the state of the nation. But I seemed to rather alone. There were, of course plenty of people who were unhappy, but the things that were upsetting them were not quite the same as the things that were upsetting me. I found it distinctly frustrating when I read of public opinion surveys which asked questions like “Which of the following is the issue that most concerns you?” And one was offered a choice of unemployment, inflation, the Iraq war, the threat of terrorism, education, immigration, or environmental issues / global warming. Because none of those matters was at the heart of my discontent. Clearly I was an unusual case.

And then in June 2005, I chanced to hear a programme on BBC Radio 4. It was presented by Simon Jenkins, the first of a series of three, entitled “Mad as Hell.” I would encourage you to listen to all three, or at least read the transcripts.

In the introduction, he said
“I've a file on my shelf labelled simply 'mad as hell'. . . . To give you some flavour of the file, it currently has letters protesting the new swimming pools order which requires every pool, including private ones, to be surrounded by a locked railing, a metre high. I kid you not. Another is from a grocer protesting at the need for all his staff to wear a different pair of rubber gloves for each loaf of bread sold, as if they were delivering babies. Another is from a vicar told his medieval church floor is sloping at more than the regulation angle and must be concreted over.”
My ears pricked up. I could identify with this. He then went on to speak about William Cobbett.
“Cobbett's most abiding hatred was of government, especially Tory government. This was small wonder since Tories were in power for the 30 years of his maturity. They twice drove him to exile and jailed him for sedition. Government, to him, was a pestilence. It curbed liberty and ruined the economy with paper money. When the House of Commons went up in flames in 1834, he cheered and listed all the rotten statutes it had passed.”
This sounded good to me, though in my case it would have been
“especially New Labour government.” And Mr. Jenkins seemed to see my point: “Whenever I go on a rural ride - or even an urban one - I wonder how apoplectic today's government would render Cobbett. His Britain was liberty hall in comparison.”

And he went on
“Some listeners may remember back in 1979 - a full quarter of a century ago - we voted, or some of us did, for Margaret Thatcher. Her programme at that election was to 'roll back the frontier of the state'. She proposed less government, less meddling interference, less red tape. She promised it. People voted for it. Yet the state today is just as big as it was in 1979, indeed by some measures bigger. And its intrusiveness - its bureaucracy and regulatory zeal - is greater beyond compare.”
And there was this wonderful gem:
“I once interviewed Thatcher shortly before her fall in 1990. I asked about the paradox of her yearning for more control and the Tory tradition of laissez faire. She exploded. Never call me laissez faire, she said, dreadful French word. "There are always things to be done!" she shouted. "There is always more to do!" ”
And there were more fascinating nuggets. This is from the second programme in the series:
“At the recent election the Tory leader, Michael Howard, pledged priority to cleaner hospitals, school discipline, more police on the beat and lower local taxes. A German friend of mine was amazed. ‘What've they got to do with him?’ he asked.”
And this, on ‘target culture’:
“We know the result of such targetry. It distorts medical priorities. It encourages academic verbosity. It has police cars crashing by measuring only 999 response times. Why should any public servant do otherwise than what government wants, when that is what government pays for? . . . Targets are the reduction to absurdity of the centralist state. . . . Targets make the bureaucrat king because they leave no room either for inspirational leadership or for local choice. They are one-size fits all government. Parliament does not oversee them. They simply emerge from someone's head. I once asked who fixed targets, such as that cannabis use be halved in five years or truancy reduced by 20 per cent. The answer was that "someone" unknown just made them up. Throughout history central power has meant arbitrary power. The target is government by whimsy.”
And then there was Mr. Jenkins’ comment on the BBC's Today
“It is often accused of left-wing bias. I have never agreed with that. But then its bias is far more powerful, towards interventionism as opposed to devolution. It may anti-the government but it is fiercely pro-government. And in this it is no different from most of the media, indeed most of Britain's political community. Day after day its interviewers intone the same mantra. ‘What are you doing, secretary of state, about the crime rate, hospital waiting list, traffic jams, trains, schools, litter, hooligans? Something must be done. Come on minister, what are you doing?’

In response I have never heard a minister dare to say that anything is none of his business. He dare not say it's the business of the private sector or local government or some quango chairman. The major premise of political debate is that more must always be spent and be done. When a dog bites a child, the Home Office must look into dog licences. When salmonella is found in an egg, all eggs are suspect. If a man falls into a pond, all ponds must be fenced.”
Simon Jenkins did not argue in the programmes for libertarianism. The word ‘libertarian’ was actually used in the first programme, though only in passing. (He argued for localism - which does happen to be a component of most libertarian thought.) But he had encouraged me to believe that often it is better if the state chooses to do nothing about certain problems - because the government’s cure often turns out to be worse than the disease. Like Cobbett, I was coming to believe that government was the problem.

(Part 6 of my journey is here, and if you click on the label below, you'll find previous parts as well.)


Stuart said...

I'm totally with you and completely agree.

I only discovered Libertarianism recenly and oh what a relief.

indigomyth said...

FYI - I recommend Libertarianism: A Primer, by David Boaz, and Realizing Freedom, by Tom Palmer. Both excellent books on libertarian theory, philosophy and history.

Young Mr. Brown said...

Thanks for those helpful recommendations, indigomyth. Those are big tomes that you have been reading!

I must confess that there are so many books on libertarianism that it is difficult to know where to start.