Saturday, 15 July 2017

The Role Of Government: Why Are We Debating This?

Me debating, a Wendy Cockcroft cartoon for On t'Internet
I pick fights with Libertarians on principle; they're all about "small government" but the maths doesn't add up. Today I'm going to play Devil's Advocate and ask if they might actually be right.

I've been thinking about Brexit and last night's post in particular. While I've often complained that Libertarianism is an intellectual cul-de-sac (which is why it's so easy to pull their arguments apart) I've never really thought about the attractions of the movement. Why would anyone subscribe to a philosophy that someone like me can pull apart in a matter of minutes? I can think of four reasons off the top of my head:

  • Morality
  • Personal freedom
  • Exceptionalism
  • Idealism

Let's take a closer look.


Libertarians tend to couch their arguments in terms of morality. They accuse us of using force when exercising our right to vote or when it comes to paying taxes. Basically, we're Dick Turpin robbing them blind when we're not imposing our will on them. They also use the word "deserve" a lot when it comes to discussing minimum wage increases or where we live and even healthcare. It's a form of morality not recognised by the rest of us but the idea is to provide moral cover for their beliefs. This tactic is as old as the hills — religious leaders use it to incite their followers to violence, etc. on the grounds that it's the right thing to do and that those who do so will be rewarded. Libertarians also promise reward for the faithful down the line if they toe the line today; their god Market will provide. This is important. Without the all-powerful Market, Libertarian arguments fall apart, so all I've ever had to do is point out that it ain't free and the game is rigged. That's when they change the subject.

The role of government

As I've pointed out, it's a faux moral delusion that eschews the role of government, declaring that a) it ruins everything it touches and b) restricting it to law enforcement and defence of the nation and of property. Okay, fine. If that's true why put government in charge of anything as important as enforcing the law and defending the nation? I'm genuinely curious on the grounds that those are things I definitely don't want to see being ruined. How, then, is it moral to entrust an explicitly incompetent entity with our personal and national security? And, given that taxes must be levied to pay for this, aren't we still being robbed, even in a Voluntary utopia scenario? I get blocked for asking those questions.

Welfare for me, not thee

The amount of unnecessary expenditure on the military and on military projects such as Trident is obscene. Given that the private sector is deeply involved, spending on the military is basically corporate welfare so effectively we ARE keeping people dependent on government given that if we cut the spending tomorrow, a lot of people would find themselves out of work. Libertarians go quiet when I mention this. Those who speak up tut and twitch but there's a principle at stake here, so "Meh!"

Personal freedom

Libertarians are all about personal freedom — mostly for men. Women may get a nod but sincerely held belief trumps personal freedom if your boss is religious. What medication you use and why should not be any of my boss's business and I'd like to know why they're more interested in what their staff get up to between the sheets than in stopping drone strikes that kill innocent people. This could easily be palmed off to Planned Parenthood to deal with but the right-wingers are trying to shut that down, too. Honestly, I've never heard a better argument for Single Payer.

The role of government

The government's actual job is to provide governance, i.e. to manage the administration of the nation. To decide where the roads go, to manage our resources and to help us when we need it. Taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilised society. The idea that it's theft is ridiculous; people whose incomes fall below a certain threshold pay no tax so if you live off the grid, a) nobody will force you back on to it and b) you won't be paying taxes. But the government needs revenues to pay for the upkeep of the institutions required to run the country and that's why we pay tax.

Freedom of choice

I understand that people of faith might not like their tax monies to be spent on maintaining some tart's profligate lifestyle but that's a strawman argument assuming that all women who use contraception are slappers. That's not in the least bit true; drugs used as contraceptives serve other purposes and it's expensive for us to cope with the cost of unwanted kids. When the government steps in to provide for a public good it does so without pre-judging the recipient. This is why I wouldn't leave it up to "individual choice." This assumes the recipient can afford it.


Looking again at Richard Epstein's polemic against Middle-out economics I'm struck by the extent to which exceptionalism is invoked. Exceptionalism is the grease in the wheels of every cult; it's the grist for which the mill wheel turns. Without it, Libertarianism loses its allure. Exceptionalism permits the abuse of the poor on the grounds that they deserve it because the implication that the abuser is superior allows it. It ignores the plight of the poor because it's not its job to help them. It creates a sinkhole into which intelligence is sucked because even a stupid idea has merit if it's big enough.

The role of government

We can't have true individual freedom for everyone if we allow some people to gain precedence — and therefore an unfair advantage — over others. Since exceptionalism causes such massive problems we need government to make and enforce laws to protect the weak from the strong. My beef with Libertarians is that they have no problem with the strong trampling the weak at all. The best advice they can give in those situations is, "Get out of the way."

Libertarians in government

Libertarian exceptionalism has caused the mess we're in where Brexit is concerned. Heck, the most influential media outlets in this country are owned by an Australian who calls himself Libertarian. However, their philosophy seems limited to stopping poor people receiving help from the government; they've got no problems with fracking.


Idealism is the twin sister of hope; it's what pushes the salmon upstream to spawn, it's what sends men and women to war zones to fight, it's what keeps former President Jimmy Carter working to build homes for poor people. The idealism that one day things will be better if we all just get with the program, you'll see, is what underpins Libertarianism. The trouble with idealism is that it needs a solid foundation. As Terry Pratchett wrote, "...only those with their feet on rock can build castles in the air." Empty idealism married with exceptionalism, the promise of protection of personal freedom and the imperative of morality is a heady mix but ultimately does us no favours. You can see this in every Brexit argument ever, as described here:

It is up to us to continually sell the positives of why Brexit is good for the country. There may well be a pause of confidence by businesses to invest and by consumers to spend. We must interpret and explain this as the inevitable consequence after a long period of steady growth. Markets cannot go up for ever, without such a pause for breath - Thanks To Brexit, We Can Celebrate A Year Of Economic Success by Richard Tice for Huffington Post.

Basically the argument goes, "Things are looking good now, so trust me even though I'm going to lie to you when it all goes south." Erm, no.

The role of government

You'd have thought that anyone planning to take us out of Europe would have spent years plotting to ensure a successful exit, planning strategies to counter legal problems, etc. LOL! You're kidding, right? They have no plan and no clue. They've even had to walk back "Go whistle!" The role of government is governance, carrying out the day-to-day administration of the country and its institutions, not implementing unrealistic ideologies on principle. It's not supposed to be either big or small, it's supposed to get the job done.


The only reason we're debating the role of government is because some people want to shut down services to vulnerable people on the grounds that helping others robs them. Our government isn't really doing its job at the moment because it's more interested in implementing its ideology than in doing right by the people. We need to arm ourselves with the facts and be ready to challenge these attitudes when we see them. If we don't, enjoy another twenty years of austerity.

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