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Artillery Row

Libertarians and progressives are too irresponsible for freedom

Authoritarianism is the perverse outcome of irresponsible forms of libertarianism and progressivism

Coronavirus has made fools of both the left and the right. Conservatism has been explained scurrilously as a phobia of disease, in which case conservatives should shine as handlers of pandemics. However, the Conservative government was unprepared, hesitant, and indecisive, which it covered up by championing liberties. Opposition parties accused it of putting liberties before lives (particularly economic liberties).

The conservatives eventually sided with the authoritarians and imposed the severest lockdown anywhere. However, irresponsible libertarians, such as Peter Hitchens, objected to even temporary infringements, and were caricatured as murderers. Woke progressives disobeyed lockdown to promote their own egos and social justice.

Irresponsible libertarians do not care for other people’s liberties. Woke progressives trample on everybody’s liberties in order to promote the unfalsifiably “disempowered”. Their shared irresponsibility drives both unpreparedness for real risks and non-compliance with risk management. The inevitable result is more authoritarianism.

For the first three months of this pandemic, the British government relied on voluntary guidance to contain Covid, but most Britons did not comply. They did not self-isolate, they did not social distance, they took time away from work to engage in tourism (helped by early good weather). The government became shriller, but Britons didn’t correct themselves, and authoritarianism is what we got.  The first culprit here is irresponsible libertarianism. Britain’s fine libertarian heritage has been so demonised and denied that the irresponsible are justifying themselves as libertarians. Ultimately, they are no better than authoritarians.

Authoritarianism is driven in part by irresponsibility for personal risks. Holding the government responsible for everything unintentionally encourages politicians to prevent us from taking risks. Authoritarianism is driven also by irresponsibility for other people’s risks. This is the dirty secret of libertarianism: if everybody does whatever they want, everybody is impacted. Your irresponsible liberty impinges my liberty. You should have the liberty to play windmills with your arms, but not within range of my face. You should have the liberty to take your own risks with Covid, but not to pass your risks to me. Go ask a stranger to cough in your face, but don’t cough in my face.

Most people are simultaneously libertarian in their own lives but authoritarian in everybody else’s

The trouble is that most people are hypocrites. They expect more than they grant. Few people follow the Golden Rule, even though most agree with it. They don’t want the state to intervene in their personal lives, just in everybody else’s. Let that sink in for a moment: most people are simultaneously libertarian in their own lives but authoritarian in everybody else’s. This hypocrisy is paralleled in our politics. Libertarianism is practised by most individuals but denied by most parties. Authoritarianism too is denied by most parties but practised by most governments.

One of the few British politicians to claim libertarianism in the last decade was Boris Johnson – but look at him now. After his appeal to common-sense failed, he led Britain into a severe and costly – but ultimately unsuccessful – lockdown. Johnson himself has taken little responsibility, although he continues to describe society’s irresponsibility and to prescribe authoritarianism. After experiencing Covid and a ventilator for himself, Johnson now wants to force Britons to lose weight.

If everybody was responsible with personal liberty, nobody else’s liberty would be impacted. We would be both free to take risks and free of other people’s risks. Then we wouldn’t need authoritarianism. Libertarians could impact each other’s liberties by mutual consent. You shouldn’t deny me my free time unless I sell it to you: that’s paid employment. You shouldn’t regulate me unless I agree: that’s consensual government.

Classical liberals also talk about social contracts. Indeed, classical liberals are really libertarians. However, in 1976 Robert Nozick differentiated an “ultraminimal” state from John Locke’s “minimal state”, which itself was little more than an enforcer of contracts. Nozick started with rights, in contrast to normal ethics-based philosophizing. Nozick’s notional, rational beings assert their rights, but come into conflict, so they join protective agencies. They favour agencies that respect rights, publish procedures of justice, honour their commitments, and purge unfair or unreliable procedures. Consolidation leads to a state that has been volunteered to by its members, and is protective, ethical, and just.

Most critics of libertarianism reduce it to an assertion of absolute rights, but all rights are relative. I cannot be free unless your freedoms do not infringe my freedoms. The flip side of this is that if you infringe my freedom, I can infringe yours. Self-defence is a righteous infringement of an aggressor. This same principle justifies punishments and corrections, such as compensation for pollution. Absolute/irresponsible libertarians would claim they hadn’t signed up for any of that, but if we live in society, we accept an implicit social contract that carries responsibilities to society.

Progressives focus society on its social responsibilities. I praise them for this. However, progressives abuse the principle of responsibility to justify corrections for things that are not everybody’s responsibility, such as inequalities of outcomes. I shouldn’t hold you back, but I shouldn’t pay for your independent opportunities and choices. We could volunteer to make ourselves responsible for other people, via charity. And in a democracy, we could vote for a progressive government.

Progressivism is a slippery slope and a vicious circle, because the more responsibilities we give to society, the more excuses society has to intervene. Take Johnson’s interventionism in British obesity. He offers a progressive justification: his intervention is good for you. Yet he neglects the libertarian justification: if you consent to social healthcare, society should expect you to make healthy choices, otherwise your irresponsibility costs others. If you don’t like it, you could opt out, according to this libertarian argument. One uncomfortable implication for Johnson, but not for responsible libertarians, is that he is less justified in regulating what we eat than in making the obese pay for avoidable consequences.

Behavioural economists know that making people pay for their own avoidable outcomes is the most effective correction. In economic terms, social healthcare discourages personal responsibility, and thence makes society unhealthier, and thence justifies more authoritarianism. That’s the vicious circle; and that’s why Britons keep paying more for the NHS while they get unhealthier. We could delegitimize authoritarianism by being responsible citizens, but Covid revealed Britons of 2020 as insufficiently responsible. Compare the superior freedoms and health of current Swedes and Japanese despite similar unpreparedness.

You would have thought that leftists, with their bias for change and interventionism, should have prepared for Covid and welcomed emergency controls. Alas, even though a more serious coronavirus than SARS and MERS was inevitable, the opposition parties were no more vindicated than the Conservatives. That is because the left had been taken over by the woke. The woke were too busy wasting our resources on exaggerated social injustices, such as personal pronouns, rather than realizing real risks. When Covid became an event, the woke wasted our attention on its supposed social injustices. For instance, instead of discussing Covid’s real biochemical injustices against men, and bald men in particular, the woke captured the political discourse by treating normal socio-economic disparities as evidence for discrimination.

To add hypocrisy to fallacy, the woke then disobeyed their own interventionism. At its core, woke-ism is over-compensation for privilege. This over-compensation manifests as hysterical protection of the supposedly non-privileged, not really for the good of the non-privileged, but as virtue signalling by the privileged. Narcissism is always hypocritical. Early in the Covid emergency, the privileged exaggerated their anxieties and exceptionalisms as reasons against personal compliance. In the end, the woke disobeyed lockdown, social distancing, property rights, and empiricism to protest systemic racism everywhere, given a particular event in Minnesota. The media misreported the protests as peaceful. Politicians bent the knee.

Both the irresponsible libertarian and the woke progressive undermine the liberalism they claim to monopolize. Their illiberalism then undermines democracy. Irresponsible libertarians demand rights without responsibilities. The woke demand exclusion, cancelation, and censorship of everybody but themselves. Allowable debates and policies are narrowed. For instance, earlier this year, Liberty, Amnesty International UK, and Human Rights Watch condemned “debate” as leading to abuses of human rights. A British Member of Parliament described any “debate” of the Gender Recognition Act as “an effective rollback of the assumption of equality”.

The Conservative Party has colluded in the rollback of liberty and democracy, at least since David Cameron’s progressive takeover. The mistermed “liberal consensus” is to regulate, spend, intervene, and outsource. Its liberalizations are really reversed privileges and injustices. The progressive Conservative Party differentiates itself from the opposition with talk about liberties but promotes reckless rights that appeal to both irresponsible libertarians and woke progressives.

This government’s handling of Covid has been opaque, incompetent, unaccountable, and authoritarian. If a democracy is a tyranny of the majority, the majority gets the tyranny it deserves. The current majority is an unnatural alignment of irresponsible libertarians and woke progressives. They don’t deserve the freedoms they claim to champion. That’s bad for everybody.

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