Can Libertarianism set us free?

Sunday 14 October, 14:0015:30, Level G StudioStudio Conversations

Of all the political ideologies, libertarianism seems one of the hardest to pin down. Used as a slur by many to dismiss free-market positions as little more than a cover for the rich, there are equally as many who wear it as a badge of honour, championing individual freedom and personal liberty. Unlike other major political ideologies, it is harder to point to a foundational text or intellectual movement that would give concrete substance to the idea of libertarianism. What’s more, it seems hard to distinguish libertarianism from classical liberalism. Thus, the term can support free-market economics, drug legalisation, gun rights, prison sentencing liberalisation, free speech or abortion rights. Does this mean the idea of ‘libertarianism’ is so broad as to be unhelpful?

Indeed, the vagueness of the term seems to have led some libertarians into difficult political territory. The prospect of significant tax cuts and other boosts to the free market led many libertarians to support President Trump. But how do such libertarians square this with Trump’s agenda of economic protectionism and increasing authoritarianism? Does this suggest that there is an uneasy relationship between the economic aspects of libertarianism and its more social or political causes?

What’s more, a libertarian focus on the importance of individual freedom seems slightly out of step with some contemporary concerns, be they group-identity politics on the one hand or resurgent nationalist politics on the other. More broadly, critics of libertarianism worry that without attaching importance to wider collective goals or social rules, society collapses into a form of ‘anything goes’ individualism without any sense of common purpose to bind people together. But for some, this is precisely the point: society needs a robust defence of the individual against the claims of the group to prevent the ‘tyranny of the majority’.

In a world of campaigns against so-called junk food, attacks on the free press, minimum pricing for alcohol, and ever-expanding police and local council powers, is there a renewed need for libertarian politics? How does libertarianism sit with broader collective aims, or even the notion of democracy as such? Should we celebrate the marginalisation of a ‘selfish’ ideology? What are the limits to libertarianism, and can it really set us free?