A Memorandum to Libertarians and Socialists: Part Two

I began confronting my detractors yesterday, in my first Memo to Libertarians and Socialists.

This is the second – although probably not final – response to those who attacked my Open Letter and those who were just plain bemused.

Don Paskini and Andreas Paterson: England got rich through hundreds of years of having an empire and didn’t practice what it preached

Don Paskini criticised my characterisation of England, Hong Kong and Singapore as countries which became rich through free market capitalism.

He suggested that I had been to generous to Libertarians, and that the policies and actions of these countries were still miles removed from what Libertarians actually suggest.

That is England as in ‘got rich through hundreds of years of having an empire’, Hong Kong which is run by the Chinese Communist Party and Singapore as in the country which is ranked as being ‘partly free’ by Freedom House and ‘having a mix of authoritarian and democratic elements’ by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

I think Don has badly misunderstood England’s growth, or at least misinterpreted parts of its successes badly.

He is certainly right in some ways. Critics of the current aim to provide 0.7% of national income as aid often talk as though we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. Don is right to challenge this, it was the bootstraps of Ghana, India, Ireland, Latin America and elsewhere on which we hitched a ride.

However, Don has given too much credence to this argument. England’s transformation from a rural European backwater to the Land of Hope and Glory isn’t the free market success story many believe, but it is significantly closer than most other places

As Andreas Paterson argued, Britain didn’t always practice what it preached. From Edward III to Walpole, national leaders had often taken steps to try and push Britain’s industries towards the technological frontier of the time. Edward III banned imports of Woollen cloth to try and encourage domestic production and Walpole introduced regulation on the quality of British products so that foreign competitors could not harm her business.

Even in the 1820s, as the Industrial Revolution was in full swing tariffs remained higher than in Switzerland, Belgium Germany, the US and the Netherlands.

However, in other ways Britain was a very free market country. By the 19th Century, land had been parcelled out nicely by enclosure, and there was a large workforce with no other means to subsistence but its labour. It had a well defined legal system and well protected property rights, compared with other countries of the period.

Very few other places can say this, despite their protestations but free trade was introduced in Britain – if only once it became the undisputed leader in Europe and hence the world. Don is right that Britain did suck in a huge amount of resources from the regions in its orbit, but it is mad to ignore the productive forces which the marketisation of British society had released.

Paul Sagar: Mill would ban smoking in bars

I disagree with Paul here, the smoking ban is fundamentally illiberal in my eyes. Paul argues that:

Er, there’s a long-standing Millian argument that you can ban smoking in pubs because it does hurt other people…

However, the other side of Mill is that no one is forced to take a job. If people do not wish to work in a smoky environment they can take another job.

You will only arrive at the idea that a smoking ban is acceptable in Millian terms if you also figure in arguments that people have to take any job they can get. For example, you can prefigure the existence of a Marxian lumpenproleteriat. Or you can assume that markets are not self-clearing in terms of stick prices or information asymmetries. In either case, you introduce imbalances in Mill’s arguments which mean you cannot appeal to the Harm Principle in this way.

I agree that people are forced to take work under conditions that they may dislike, especially in a recession like we are experiencing now. I see capitalism as inherently cyclical and moreover I see job destructions almost as much a part of booms as busts.

I don’t find the argument convincing in utilitarian terms either, given the damage which can be done to rural and urban communities on the exit of “the local” and the increase in inconvenience for those forced to no longer frequent pubs as they used to.

But I do not think a smoking ban is justifiable on the grounds presented. Smoking licences, perhaps.

Ideally there would be more provisions for those seeking work, so that they could make positive choices, rather than have to take the first job going. As a compromise which I would be comfortable with I would also love a licensing scheme where a number of pubs per county could apply for smoking licences. Staff can be protected – as those who don’t smoke can swap with those that do and vice versa – and people can smoke freely.

And I say all this as a non-smoker who probably prefers pubs now. At least those still open and still busy.

Martin, Bella Gerens and DK: There is no difference between civil and economic freedom. There is only one freedom, the “freedom from X”

This is a difficult area for common ground for Socialists and Libertarians.

While I think we agree there shouldn’t be a difference between the economic and social spheres I think we differ on whether capitalism is simply the expression of natural social relations or some form of perversion.

When I say “[s]o long as you don’t hurt anyone else, do as you like. But for not one second does the evidence suggest this is a good guiding principle when it comes to economics,” I am arguing against capitalist economic relations, this is something which makes discussing this with Libertarians very difficult.

Another root of this fracture tend to stem from our views on value and labour. For Marxists this presents itself in the difference between an items use value and its exchange value. Others are uncomfortable with the idea of a market in Labour.

A Casio watch is a commodity it is produced for sale, truck and barter. Labour is just another word for human activity, which goes with life itself.

…on this specific subject, there is of course much more to come, but that will have to wait.

Prepare for part three, which will include…

Martin, Bella Gerens and DK: There is no difference between civil and economic freedom. There is only one freedom, the “freedom from X” continued…

Chris Dillow (via e-mail) and Bella Gerens: Mixed economies are not the best way to generate wealth and even if they were, so what?

Mr Potarto and DK: Private property must be respected. If I shoplift then I increase my quality of life. If everyone shoplifts, the stores close and we all suffer.

DK: Enclosure is merely an excellent example of “the tragedy of the commons”

Thomas Byrne: Can we not have a “People of the world, unite against the corporations?”

…and probably more of Tim Worstall and I arguing about America.

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