Quite the contrary

How might the game of life unfold if it were played with no rules? Libertarians are gasping to find out, and Joy Lo Dico says they’ve got it wrong

April 21 2020


“Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” No, not Toby Young but Thomas Hobbes. This is how the philosopher described life before the Leviathan of the State arrived, the citizen’s defence against war and hunger.

In the minds of some, there is another world possible, with the Leviathan caged and the people free. Such is the dream of the libertarians. Emboldened by a few recent victories – the Brexit result, the arrival of Boris Johnson – they have determined to build a new Garden of Eden without the pesky rules about which fruit we can eat.

In this land, people will no longer hurl spears at each other on Twitter. Respect and tolerance will flourish. So too will trade, propelled by gentle ocean winds, uncannily always in a favourable direction. The brambles of regulation will recede, the overbearing government will trip under the weight of its own branches, and the taxman will be hunted to extinction. Hobbes’s French contemporary, Poussin, will paint this libertarian Arcadia, populated by handsome men in red corduroy trousers, and women with equal status, yet who strangely always do their bidding.

You have to love a libertarian for their idealism in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Ever since the State and the social contract took shape, they’ve had a better idea. The early libertarians were proto-hippies in the Midwest in the 19th century, following the “individualist anarchist” Josiah Warren. There was peace, love, and harmony in this self-organising society but they never got much further than a few dozen oxen – no-one would invest capital in a place without rules. Our modern libertarians, in the US and UK, gave up on the idea of the shared plough but instead argue that if we take individual responsibility, the sum of all our actions will lead to a happier, more productive and naturally co-operative society. If only we didn’t have to pay taxes.

It is with good reason that no country has adopted full-blown libertarianism as its philosophy. Because they know one thing: When the weather is fair it is easy for man to love his fellow man and agree on a set of principles to live by, without any written contract of duties. But, as poet Charles Bowen said, when it rains, “The rain it raineth on the just/ And also on the unjust fella;/ But chiefly on the just, because/ The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.”

“No, no,” cry the libertarians, “you’re confused. The umbrella cannot be stolen as we shall enforce property rights.” Well, we already do – and still the umbrella is not always where you left it.

Raise further objections and a libertarian will find a simple answer to every complex problem, which doesn’t need legislation. “We would be better off if we just…” they say, dismissing several centuries of intellectual energy already expended on finely balanced decisions about the competing rights of a landowner who wants to build a skyscraper with those of his low-rise neighbour who objects. Or, say, the whisky drinker who’d like to know he’s drinking decent liquor, but there’s no label on the bottle.

It is no surprise that libertarians despise government. Government was designed to be despised. Its job is to balance the assertion of liberty to build or distil as one wishes against the rights of those affected. The bureaucrat makes the ruling, steeped in the tedious history of similar bickering, takes the flak and allows us to greet each other civilly if somewhat sulkily. Does the outsourcing of these decisions not in turn give us a different kind of freedom – to do something more enjoyable?

Push any libertarian hard enough and it’s all about taxes: A socialist chastising the rich for greed and demanding it be shared is another form of greed. Though sure that man is by nature good and productive, the libertarian suspects his fellow man wouldn’t agree with his vision of society. It is not just about minding my own business. It is about assuming my business judgement is best.

Poussin’s painting of Arcadia is looking rather messy by now. The curve of the hills is ruptured by a tower block. On the right there is a chap in the stocks for stealing an umbrella, to the left someone flattened on cheap hooch. Around the rubble of a civic building, people gather to debate how best to make decisions for the community. “What about a kind of council?” one asks. “Elected,” adds another, “with some officials to enforce the rules.” “And it’s hard work and unpopular,” says one more. “Do you think we should give them some financial compensation for doing it?” Poussin depicts them all with taxed expressions on their faces.

Joy Lo Dico is a writer and journalist for the Financial Times and Monocle