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Nicholas RogersNicholas Rogers is a member of Tunbridge Wells
Borough Council and Deputy Chairman of Tunbridge Wells Conservative
Association. He writes in a personal capacity.

When Tim
Montgomerie called on "all Tories to drop the libertarian language" the other day, he undoubtedly knew he would
rattle a few cages. Libertarians of one form or another make up a sizeable and
growing section of the Conservative Party, especially among its younger
members. Libertarian organisations such as the Adam Smith Institute and The
Freedom Association enjoy significant levels of support from the young
Conservatives who are the future of our party. In this article, I hope to take
readers on a whistle-stop tour of my own personal libertarianism and to explain
why I believe libertarian ideas can help the Conservative Party achieve
electoral success.

What is
libertarianism? Whole books have been written to answer that question and in
truth it differs from person to person. I think it’s possible to sum it up in
five words: "do no harm to others". David Boaz of the Cato Institute is more
precise: "libertarianism is the view that each person has the right to live his
life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others." Libertarians
seek to achieve this goal through maximising the role of the individual and
minismising the role of the state, through free-market economics, property
rights and liberal social policies.


There
are many strands of libertarian thought. I intend to examine just two of the
more common themes; the desire to limit the power of the state, and the primacy
of the individual.

I have
experienced "the state" in several guises over the course of my life thus far,
for example as a Special Constable in the Met and as a visiting politics
lecturer at two further education colleges, as well as in my activities in
local government and politics. Everything I’ve seen tells me one thing – the
state just doesn’t work very well. When I try to think of services delivered by
the public sector in an effective way that fulfills people’s needs, the only
examples I can come up with (excepting, of course, the exceedingly well-run
Tunbridge Wells Borough Council!) are ones where the delivery is in fact
independent of direct government interference, such as academies and free
schools. In almost every area of human activity, from welfare and housing
through to small businesses and the environment, government action seems almost
always to exacerbate problems or at most prolong temporarily the inevitable
effects of an ever-changing world.

This
should not come as a surprise. The free market is the sum total of all the
independent, voluntary decisions of the sixty million citizens of this country
and, increasingly, of the billions of people around the world, interacting,
trading and cooperating with each other in a thousand different fields of work.
How can a few government employees in an office in one part of the country
possibly hope to know enough to direct even some of these activities in a meaningful,
beneficial way?

Worse
still is the use of economic policy as a crude political tool. There are so
many examples of this I don’t know where best to begin. Gordon Brown’s Labour
government imposed the 50p rate of taxation despite all the evidence that it
would actually decrease revenues. It did this for no better reason than to
posture to its left-wing supporters. Libertarians aim to make taxes flatter,
simpler and above all – lower. The more of their own money people can keep, the
better and healthier our economy will be. Pro-tax accountant Richard Murphy
says that taxes are what we "owe" the government. Nonsense. To "owe" something
implies some sort of voluntary transaction. We have no choice but to pay tax
and very little control over how it’s spent or the level at which it is set. Libertarians
would reduce spending and taxation, thereby increasing economic freedom and
galvanising the economy far more effectively than any stimulus bailout could.

The second
common theme running through libertarianism is the focus on the primacy of the
individual. This is where many traditional conservatives differ with
libertarians. Economically, we generally agree on lower taxes and smaller, more
business-friendly government as outlined above. However, conservatives believe
in an organic society bound together by common institutions such as the
monarchy, the armed forces, the Church of England and the BBC, with laws and
social norms drawing deeply from Christian teachings and always predicated on
the idea that man is a fallen creature in need of guidance.

Libertarians
believe in a more atomistic society, populated by sovereign individuals capable
of making decisions about their own lives. If I want to do something that
doesn’t harm you or infringe your rights, something that doesn’t affect you in
any way at all except that you disagree with it – fundamentally, what right do
you have to prevent me from doing what I want to do?

Take gay
marriage (but leave aside political considerations of timing, government
priorities etc.). Marriage is a legal contract that has existed in one form or
another for thousands of years. The nature of marriage has changed many times
and varies from culture to culture across the world. In Britain, many – though
not most: 68% of marriages in the UK are civil – imbue marriage with religious
connotations. But no single group, religion or government can say plausibly
that they own marriage. Therefore, if two people of the same sex want to sign a
contract with each other and call it marriage, how does it harm anyone else? It
cannot possibly affect the marriages of heterosexual people, because the
success or otherwise of those relationships rests solely with the participants.
One person simply does not have the right to impose their view of morality on
others. And governments have no business sanctioning one moral code over
another. People must be free to choose the values by which they live, as long
as they respect the equal rights of others.

Add up
all the little, seemingly innocuous, infractions on our freedom of action and
you get to what we have now – the nanny state, where the Mayor of New York bans
large soft-drinks, British people are unable to smoke in establishments where
the owner might permit it, schools ban playground sports and where you seem to
need a risk assessment simply to leave the house. All of these are decisions which
normal, rational human beings are capable of making. We know that drinking
sixteen ounces of Coca Cola probably isn’t a good idea. We know that smoking a
cigarette isn’t as good for you as eating some celery. We don’t need government,
well-intentioned or otherwise, to tell us these things and we certainly should
not be prevented from doing them.

Being a
libertarian, I often find myself defending ghastly people who say and do
offensive things, as well as practices that many find immoral and wrong. But I
just don’t understand how one individual can say of another who has not harmed
them: "I don’t like what you are doing, so even though your actions do not harm
me I am going to request that the coercive power of the state be employed to
prevent you from managing your own life." When the government accedes to such
demands, the usual outcome is that the activities in question are merely pushed
underground, where participants lose legal protections against force and fraud
and become increasingly cut-off from society.

I said I
would talk about how a more libertarian approach from the Conservative Party can
help win elections. To address Tim’s survey, in which respondents suggested
that they were in favour of government action and intervention – well, maybe in
theory they are, but talk to almost any voter about their actual experience of
the state and you’ll receive precious little positive feedback. Coupled with
the notion that most people are, with a broad brush-stroke, socially accepting
and financially conservative, you have the basis of a libertarian vote – in
fact, if not in name. (Incidentally, can anyone think of a Conservative
politician who espouses socially liberal and financially conservative views and
who enjoys massive popular support and electoral success? Who maybe runs a
certain capital city? Anyone?)

In
addition, a libertarian approach could be key to engaging disaffected,
anti-politics voters. Speaking with my residents, its clear that most of them
just want to be left alone to lead their own lives, to associate with whomever
they chose and to not engage with politics, politicians or the state unless
they really have to. A libertarian approach has much to offer these people.

Finally,
I believe libertarianism is simply and inevitably the way of the future. I
spent a year lecturing in politics to young people at two further education
colleges in the south-east. Almost without exception they were financially
conservative and socially liberal. They were concerned at the sort of things
their future taxes would fund. They were infuriated by the nanny state and deeply
distrusted the ability of politicians and bureaucrats to make decisions in
their best interests. They were anti-war and pro-civil liberties. Want to
engage the next generation of voters? Libertarianism might be the answer.

There’s
much more I could say. I haven’t delved into libertarian attitudes on war, law
& order, drugs and other issues. Whole articles could be written, and have
been written, on such topics. I hope that this particular article will serve to stimulate
good-natured debate about the future of libertarian ideas within the
Conservative Party. I hope also that it will counter the notion that just
because voters don’t necessarily self-identify as libertarian, they won’t
support a libertarian approach to policy. Above all I hope that, as we approach
the next election, those developing our manifesto will fight for policies that
uphold the primacy of the individual, shrink the power of the state and hand us
back control over our own lives.

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