The significance of last week’s English council election results cannot be downplayed. A shift in the power structure of British politics, perhaps not. But the start of a political movement that has the potential to force very real change, quite possibly. The Prime Minister’s embarrassing backtrack on inflammatory remarks were enough to suggest that he certainly felt the force of the UKIP assault. There is an immense amount of political manoeuvring to be had over the next 2 years before the general election; the Conservatives could attempt to regain ground on the right by offering harder immigration proposals, they could stick it out and instead go after Ed Miliband’s weak leadership. Or the momentum that UKIP currently have could evaporate and we’ll be left wondering what we all got in a fuss about. As such it is very hard to make predictions about how libertarians might vote in 2015. It might however, be useful to consider how libertarians should respond to UKIP, in the here and now.
UKIP describe themselves as a libertarian party. Would any libertarians reading this consider a national health service, restrictions on travel, greater police presence, and intervention in the free market as things that libertarians can support? A national health service is a lynchpin of socialism; it puts lives directly into the hands of the state. The freedom to travel is a fairly fundamental right; can we endorse the state controlling our movement? As for intervention in the free market, if one understands anything about Austrian Economics, on which libertarian philosophy depends, then one must agree that no economic intervention is good economic intervention. UKIP claims on its website manifesto that they’ll ‘fight proposals like unwanted housing developments, unwanted out-of-town supermarkets and inappropriate energy schemes’. The beauty of the free market is that it figures out societies’ desires by itself; better than any government agency could. Clearly UKIP missed this lesson from Ludwig Von Mises, elementary though it is. My point here is not that UKIP are unreasonable for standing for these things, but that they are clearly not a libertarian party, and should not be thought of as being so.
As we see from the financial crisis of 2008, people love to blame the free market. “Damn those filthy rich bankers and how the free market let them make risky loans. And damn them for forcing us to bail them out!” In reality of course, if we had a free market the crisis would not have happened since bankers could not have made such risky loans. And, of course, in a free market no-one would be forced to bail anyone else out. What we learn from this is that people really don’t understand freedom and how it works. UKIP offers a ‘more libertarian’ option, but when UKIP’s meddling in the economy fails, once again the free market will be blamed and bigger government will be called for again as the solution. The only way to avoid falling into this trap is to take the position that UKIP and all that it stands for is not what libertarians want; they do not represent the libertarian position. The tendency of all governments to grow over time is obvious, and UKIP, with their nationalist tendencies and poor economic understanding, would be highly susceptible to this effect.
A huge problem I personally have with voting for UKIP is a moral one. Libertarians put great value in people having choice, but equal importance on people taking individual responsibility for the decisions they make. In voting for a party, I would take responsibility for giving them my mandate for power. In UKIP’s case, I would be giving my mandate for them to implement everything they stand for. This kind of compromise is not something that morally I feel I can do. Historically, we respect and admire those people that stood up for their principles and did not compromise even when it was inconvenient, and even when it was utterly irrelevant. I disagree with income taxation because I believe it is theft, so how would it be right for me to support theft? It wouldn’t. Would Gandhi have endorsed violence, if is fulfilled his aims? Would Martin Luther King Jr have killed a white man, to increase his political power and support? Would Jesus have stolen from honest people, in order to feed others? The answers are obvious. This is why I personally could never vote for a watered-down version of freedom; I do not think that morally one can argue against theft and at the same time support its use. So to those that say that say UKIP is our best compromise, I would say that there is no compromise to be had between right and wrong.
Nigel Farage (centre) with Ron Paul (left) and Peter Schiff (right)
There are, however, political realities to be faced. Less than 5% of the UK will both understand libertarianism and support it. And few of those individuals will have the principles, patience and moral conviction not to be tempted into voting for ‘the best option’. I do not doubt that these libertarians will have noble aims of correcting the party from the inside, or that they think that practically this is the best we will be offered, but I would challenge them on the basis that even looking at it from a purely practical point of view, they will not get what they desire through UKIP. The current system is far too entrenched for a freedom movement to work from within. The party itself is far more likely to be hijacked by nationalists, racists, and bigots than by true libertarians. I fear that UKIP’s success will actually be to the detriment of the freedom movement by inaccurately representing liberty and its benefits.
The most effective, moral approach that libertarians can take is to teach the public. The political parties of the day will change their positions endlessly, but they will do so based on public opinion. By targeting parties as instruments of political change, we tackle the symptom rather than the disease. Once the disease is cured, and people understand the blessings of liberty, the various political entities will evolve to reflect it.