How do we attain liberty?


Adapted from an image by Amaya Rodrigo on Flickr (CC BY-NC license).

We have got to fight for justice and liberty, and Socialism does mean justice and liberty when the nonsense is stripped off it.

– George Orwell

One of the things that has interested me in recent years is the seemingly increasing numbers of self-identifying “libertarians” inserting themselves in public discourse. This is true of the media in generally, but particularly on social media where barely a day goes by without a “libertarian” invading your space and offering their own particular perspective on society. What I find particularly interesting, however, is that these “libertarians” appear to put themselves on the extreme right of the political spectrum. You could accurately describe them as far-right given their very extreme belief in small state and economic freedoms (obviously such a description is upsetting to right-wing libertarians given the way that description has historically been applied, but it is perhaps the most accurate description of their position). That they predominantly use a medium that wouldn’t exist were it not for state investment we should perhaps put to one side.

What I find interesting in their beliefs is their view that they are the ultimate defenders of liberty. That only the libertarian right are truly advancing the cause of liberty by continually and persistently lobbying for a smaller state and less state regulation, predominantly less economic orientated regulation but also a superficial focus on personal liberty. Superficial because, I would contend, it is not actually the right that are the true keepers of the flame of liberty, but the left.

The left has been tainted for some time as the movement for the large state. That a left-wing ideology advocates for a large state with a small corporate sector, and a certain curtailment of individual liberty. This is perhaps unsurprising given that the 20th century was dominated by a particularly malevolent form of socialism which was authoritarian and deeply oppressive in nature. However, at its core, left-wing ideology is ultimately an ideology of liberty and true freedom, rather than one of bureaucratic control and state authority.

A right-wing libertarian ideological approach, however, is painted as one where individual freedoms are valued and can be achieved through the shrinking of the state and the freeing up of corporate power. But is this really the case? Will a smaller state and less restricted private sector actually lead to greater freedom and liberty for the individual?

When I think about the cutting back of state regulation of the private sector, I immediately identify such a rolling back of regulations with an assault on workers’ rights. So often the regulation that is restricting big business is there as a bulwark to protect the rights of the workers as well as of wider society. The “cutting of red tape” so often results in disempowering the workforce or relieving big business of its responsibilities to the communities in which they operate. Devoid of the “burden of regulation”, would large businesses really operate altruistic and in a way that encourages individual freedom? Or would they act in a way that would impede the freedoms of citizens? If one was to examine how a corporation operates (hierarchically, often with very strict controls on the actions of its workforce via contractual agreements), one could only conclude that they would not encourage freedom, but continue to act in a way that limits individual freedom and is authoritarian in nature.

When I look at my own field of work, I have to conclude that the road to libertarianism as envisaged by the right is a mirage. Look at the publishing industry. Should publishers be completely free to operate without state restriction, would they operate in an altruistic way that strengthens individual freedom? No, they would not. Would a publisher enable an ebook, for example, to be distributed freely and without restriction, without those in receipt compensating the publisher? Unlikely. Would a publisher enable large tracts of its work to be copied and distributed without impediment? No, it would not. If it hurts their income stream, it is a threat to their existence. Where it is a threat to their existence, they must take measures to limit the damage it causes. By taking action on this threat, they are limiting individual liberty. Allowing them to operate entirely freely does not free the individual, it merely frees the profit making enterprise.

In terms of the approach by the left, the road to liberty would initially take a more authoritarian strand in the short-term but this is necessary to achieve the desired outcome: individual liberty. So, regulation is needed to protect the individual in the first instance, but it may be necessary for the state to assume control of the means of production (ie the publisher), thus ensuring that the threat of “copyright theft” no longer applies as the state is not seeking to make a profit, rather it is purely there to ensure that production takes place. As we move into a left-libertarian approach, we would find that not only is the corporate entity no longer in existence, but neither is the state. The copying and distribution of texts would, consequently, result in no penalty (arguably in a left-libertarian state, capital would be abolished) and rather would be a natural state of being. This would result, therefore, in a strengthening of individual liberty. In the right-libertarian “state”, corporate interests would be able to punish and restrict the freedoms of the individual. Without a threat of punishment, the individual truly becomes free.

I would contend, therefore, that the road to liberty is a road that branches left rather than branches right. It is the left that ensures liberty, it is the right that creates the illusion of liberty through a superficial economic freedom that ultimately shifts power from the state to corporate entities rather than to the people. A true libertarian, therefore, can only be of the left, never of the right and the notion of a right-wing libertarianism is, essentially, an intellectual fraud. The challenge for the left, is to once more take ownership of the cause of liberty and ensure that the left’s vision of justice and liberty is the default.