Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Liberal Test

The Libertarian Party has added a multiple choice quiz to their website, so people can measure how liberal they are. This is because, as they explain:

To be a liberal basically means you believe in individual freedom. And that you accept the responsibilities that this entails. As is clear, this outlook is worlds apart from the collectivist ideologies of those on the left.

Therefore the Libertarian Party — which is a truly liberal party — asks you to take our Liberal Test. And to see if you really are a liberal...
Liberalism does place a high value on individual freedom, but libertarians are not liberals. There's some common ground, but there is also common ground between liberals and progressives, and between liberals and neo-conservatives.

Liberalism coalesced into something like a coherent political philosophy in the eighteenth century, the time of the Enlightenment and of the great liberal revolution in America. It's reasonable to take two of the most prominent figures from that time, Adam Smith and Tom Paine, and compare their views with those of the Libertarian Party. On a couple of points, I think the Libertarian Party gets it wrong.

Incidentally, to see what the explanations would say I deliberately gave the "wrong" answers to every question in the test and the page returned was headed as follows:

You scored 0%
Are you one of the individuals below?

This sort of hyperbole, ranking Gordon Brown alongside Stalin and Hitler, immediately disqualifies those responsible from serious political conversation.

I had answered "yes" to the following:
We should raise taxes on the rich so we can redistribute wealth to the poor?
The question is badly put (increase taxes? Levy them?) but I took it to be about progressive taxation. It was. Here's the explanation why my answer was wrong:
It is illiberal for people to be taxed at a different rate based on their income. Also rich people are the most mobile members of society. If they are over-taxed they will simply move themselves, their assets and capital offshore. Which will in turn decrease investment in the country.
This is misplaced (progressive taxation has nothing directly to do with individual liberty) and factually incorrect (we have progressive taxation, rich people have not moved all their assets offshore). But what of the principle? Here's Adam Smith on the subject:
A tax upon house-rents, therefore, would in general fall heaviest upon the rich; and in this sort of inequality there would not, perhaps, be anything very unreasonable. It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.
Smith was in favour of progressive taxation. Though Paine had a great deal to say about taxation, especially excessive taxation, I'm not aware that he said anything on its distribution according to wealth.

Much can be said about tax from a good liberal point of view: it should not be too high, income tax requires unacceptable intrusion into a person's private affairs (unlike Smith's tax on house rents, or a land value tax). But if the issue of progressive taxation is used as a measure of liberalism, especially when it is remembered that liberal thought is no friend of the rich, then it is support for it that marks the liberal.

On the minimum wage, they have this to say:
The minimum wage is an illiberal restriction on free trade. It also places an artificial value on the cost of labour which makes it more difficult for low skilled workers to find work, and therefore gain experience and training.
That's true. But there are other distortions on the free trade in employment. State benefits for the low paid provide a subsidy to bad employers which the minimum wage in part counteracts. Why isn't the Libertarian Party worried about that? On balance, they seem to be more Tory than Liberal.

In the answer to a question about climate change, there is this sentence:
In a liberal society the state will not force any law abiding person to behave in a certain way as this is an infringement on freedom of thought and action.
I don't think people should be forced to alter their behaviour because of climate change, but this is a sweeping statement that owes far more to libertarian thought than to liberal. Liberalism places great importance on individual freedom, it doesn't fetishise it. In a state of emergency (which is what climate alarmists try to say we should declare) there can - plainly - be constraints on behaviour.

The explanation why the answer to this question:
It is wrong for democratic nations to overthrow foreign dictators?
should be "no" runs as follows:
It is illiberal, and a sign of gross arrogance, for one state to impose their will on another in this way. These issues are for the people of said state to resolve themselves with their leader(s).
The man from Thetford who went to America and fomented rebellion, then to France to take part in revolution, then who worked - now an American - for rebellion in Britain, Tom Paine, might have had something to say about that.

But even were this not the case, it is fatuous to suggest that Iraqis, say, could have overthrown Saddam. If we place the greatest weight on individual freedom then it is incumbent on us to help others free themselves. The LP position places greater weight on the autonomy of states than of individuals, which is incoherent with their other views, and is far easier to reconcile with the isolationist conservatism that has characterised modern libertarian thought.

The final question - "Free market capitalism should be forced on other nations to help create a better world?" brings us this explanation:
It is illiberal for one state to impose their way of life on another. A liberal foreign policy involves free trade with all willing participants. It does not involve forcing states to behave in a certain way if they do not wish to.
A state is not an agent in the free market, individuals are. A liberal foreign policy is not a trade policy. Arguably, there should be no trade policy. But a liberal foreign policy would be aimed at seeing the greatest possible weight placed on individual freedom in everything that involves overseas contact, like travel and trade. At the very least, a liberal foreign policy would encourage free trade with countries with free markets. The LP answer is incoherent, again, but to the extent that it coheres, it is wrong.

I want to support the Libertarian Party. I haven't been able to so far. This hasn't helped.


Anonymous said...

"the great liberal revolution in America": the one that had Patriots lynching Loyalists, that had two Nazi-like slaughters by Patriot forces, that was led by slave-masters, that one? Was any event in history so misrepresented? Apart from the Bolshevik coup, obviously.

Peter Risdon said...

That's the one. Lynchings and massacres went both ways, there were slave masters on both sides. But the republicanism that developed and the constitution that resulted from these events were definitively liberal.

Anonymous said...

It was an exercise in reclaiming the word Liberal from an avowedly Social Democrat party called the LibDems

Peter Risdon said...

That would be fair enough, Andrew. The Lib Dems are not liberal either. Nor are the progressives who misuse the word.

I think the points above still stand, though.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Oh well, terms like commie, nazi, etc. are a normal part of the modern political discourse. Probably to become terms of endearment in more politically-minded families too.

Peter Risdon said...

I can picture the scene over the politically minded breakfast table, Snoopy.

Anonymous said...

Give me an example of a Nazi-like massacre by Loyalists. "Lynching" was quite specifically a term introduced for the action of Patriots. And it won't do to say that there were slave-masters on both sides AND that the revolution was about liberty, will it? I stand by my argument that the popular account of the "Revolution" is bunkum.

Peter Risdon said...

I don't know about Nazi-style, but a series of massacres by British troops, sometimes acting with the help of Indians, helped to trigger the revolution, starting with the Boston Massacre of 1770. The etymology of the word "lynching" is uncertain, Charles Lynch is one possibility but there are others. I certainly didn't say the revolution was about liberty, I said it was a liberal revolution and clarified that by pointing to republicanism and constitutionalism (limited government) as liberal values.

Some of the Founding Fathers opposed slavery and Franklin founded the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1789. Paine probably pamphleteered against it (hard to be certain with an anonymous pamphlet). But slavery was not a glory of the Republic.

I don't disagree that the popular account is distorted, but it was a liberal revolution.

Anonymous said...

I draw a distinction between the "Boston Massacre", described by Wikipedia - A tense situation... eventually led to troops discharging their muskets after being attacked by a rioting crowd" - and Patriot troops storming a village, slaughtering the men, women and children civilians, piling the bodies in the church and setting it on fire. Which would you class as Nazi-like?

Peter Risdon said...

Neither, to be honest; I try to avoid Nazi comparisons, in fact was critical in this post of such. But I take the point that the latter was worse than the former. Of course, the bombing of Dresden was worse than that of Liverpool. The victors in a conflict do the most damage. The French Revolution showed the excesses that are possible, and the USA never descended to the depth of the Terror. Dare I suggest that was to the credit of the Patriots?

But this is slightly off-topic, isn't it? I called the revolution liberal, not unblemished.

Trooper Thompson said...


what on earth are you talking about? You ought to be ashamed of yourself, representing the American Revolution as some kind of nazi holocaust.