Free Market or Social Liberation?

The realm of politics can be split into two main spheres – economics and social policy. For the libertarian, minimal government intervention consistent with maximum freedom of the individual in both spheres is paramount. At the moment in Britain we see an overbearing government in economics (NHS, excessive welfare state, employment legislation) and in social policy (illegalisation of prostitution, narcotics, gun ownership). It is conceivable that the advancement of freedom in one sphere could be achieved with little advancement, or even a regression of freedom, in the other sphere. Such a situation was seen in 19th century Britain, where laissez-faire economics were allowed to prevail but there was still a strict social policy. I put it that the maximisation of liberty in economics should be the primary concern for today’s British libertarians.

If we consider the trend in economics over the past few centuries in Britain, it is clear that the government is becoming a more and more powerful force. This graph shows government spending in real terms from 1830 until now.

Ignoring the two world wars (which account for two clear spikes around 1918 and 1944), government spending has been on a steady rise for approximately 100 years. Although there have been a few minor temporary drops since 1970, they have not been sustained and do not represent a significant fall to anything near the pre-20th century levels. A Conservative government after the 2010 election may be able to reduce spending by a small degree, but this would likely be another small, temporary reduction. Incidentally, this trend of increasing government spending is common to the majority of Western economies and it’s not clear how or when it will stop. Libertarian action to drastically reduce the size of government is clearly a necessity if a free Britain is to be realised.

In social policy, however, the general trend is different. Whilst the economic sphere indicates an ever increasing size of government, there are mixed tendencies in the government invasion of social freedoms. Since such civil freedoms cannot be quantified in the same way as economics can, it will be instructive merely to list some of the key changes.

On the one hand Britain has seen a social liberation in several ways:
• The legalisation of homosexuality since the Sexual Offences Act of 1967
• The illegalisation of slavery thanks to the Slave Abolition Act of 1833
• The enfranchisement of women after the Representation of the People Act of 1918, then further enfranchisement (to give women an equal voting age as men) after an Act of the same name passed in 1928.

However, on the other hand, more recently there has been a curb on our civil liberties:
• The increasing restrictions on gun ownership since the Firearms Acts of the 20th century
• The illegalisation of most drugs as per the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971
• The plans for the new ID card (and other similar terror-response legislation)

Certainly those civil liberties which have been recognised are great steps towards a libertarian understanding of social policy. But, as noted, there have been several steps back. Just as there have been mixed tendencies in the past couple of centuries in social policy, it would seem that the future of our civil liberties is in a state of tension: on one side, for example, the movement to legalise cannabis is enjoying increasing support, but then on the other side, the fear of terrorism may well invoke more restrictions on our freedoms. Some of our civil liberties our under threat; but others are close to seeing legal recognition.

Thus, so long as the position of civil liberties remains stationary, I argue that it should be the primary focus of libertarians in Britain to push against the tide of the ever increasing size of government in the economy, and to fight for reduced taxation, less employment legislation and a significant drop in government spending. Of course, this is not to say that we should ignore the regular infringement upon our civil liberties. But the largest barrier between Britain as it is and a free Britain is in the economy. British libertarians must make this our first objective.


  Tom Waters, Undergraduate reading Philosophy, Politics    and Economics at Pembroke College, Oxford University.

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