Taking a Liberty

Following the onset of the global financial crisis there were plenty who were quick to hail the failure of capitalism (again) and call for various forms of social democracy. Yet, equally there has been a revival at the opposite end of the spectrum, among those who go far beyond simply extolling the benefits of the free market.

These newly converted young libertarians may not have taken to camping outside St Paul’s; yet they propound a radical anti-statism that resembles an anarchism of a different kind. So socially liberal that they can sound more libertine than libertarian, they also share a striking degree of common ground with the far-Left when it comes to their views on open borders and opposition to Western intervention overseas, albeit for rather different reasons.

Although on this side of the Atlantic they may not have anything quite like the staunch free marketeer and former Republican presidential contender Ron Paul around whom to gravitate, you will find those of a libertarian bent frequenting the events of the Freedom Association and deriving their intellectual sustenance from groups like the Liberty League and the Adam Smith Institute.

Armed with a brazenly selective reading of Adam Smith and having virtually deified Ayn Rand, this not-so-smart set professes the ultra-individualist credo that every man is an island. Of course, if like Sir Richard Branson you do have your own island then you need not worry about the chaos that would doubtless be unleashed by the policies of drug decriminalisation that he and this political persuasion advocate.

It seems to be lost on those who dream of an emancipated future in which everyone is simply left to do pretty much whatever they feel like that most people, left to their own devices, do not devise their own rational moral frameworks or value systems and that this failure to do so is not something that simply affects them alone. As we saw during the London riots, the domestic arrangements of a whole class can profoundly impact upon the rest of us. What goes on behind closed doors never stays there indefinitely; sooner or later it spills out into the streets, courtrooms, hospitals and prisons.

Perhaps more fundamental is the argument made by Irving Kristol: that for the market economy to function successfully society must comprise people possessing a certain kind of character; those who are self-controlled enough to defer gratification so that the future can be nourished at the expense of the present. It is religion, suggested Kristol, that restrains self-destructive hedonism, so allowing people to be industrious and enterprising enough to be beneficial to the economy.

There may indeed be a great deal that cannot be legislated by the state, but as Roger Scruton has suggested the excesses of permissive individualism might well be countered by a culture in which people showed a greater interest in the conduct of their neighbours. Undeniably, market forces can greatly improve the lives we live, but they cannot tell us how to live them. What the radical new libertarians refuse to recognise is that the good society is not simply one that values freedom, but one that also cherishes virtue.

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