top of page

What It Really Means To Be A ‘Libertarian’

Zoë Tidswell Press Officer


People ask me: what is a Libertarian? What does a Libertarian do? What does it mean to be a Libertarian?  Whilst I can acknowledge that varying and nuanced interpretations abound, I can heartily say the answer to all these questions is quite simple: as principled creatures, we generally spend our time minding our own business. Such a clichéd idiom arguably resembles J.B. Priestley’s famous, albeit unpopular character Arthur Birling – a man reviled for his adherence to capitalist principles over humanity. He is known for his classic sentiments ‘a man must make his own way – [a man] has to look after himself – and his family too.’ Sage advice. After all, few would hope to help anyone unless and until they ensure their own affairs are in order. Yet it seems increasingly unpopular and ineffably egotistic to prioritise the management of one’s own affairs over others; Priestley’s text has now been memorised by teens across the country who study it for their GCSE.

Perhaps such state sedition (yes, I acknowledge Animal Farm is also included on the syllabus – so I can hardly suggest such revisionist bias to be entirely one-sided) may explain some societal aversion to the idea of ‘minding one’s own business’. But I digress.  That is another matter. Clearly, the notion of ‘minding one’s own business’ has almost become an unpopular cliché. It seems unsatisfactory for many ascribing to any political ideology; this makes sense given that many people in the UK are now conditioned to navigate a society which is becoming ever more ‘Nordic’ in its higher-taxes – increased collectivist, state homogeneity stakes. We are supposed to be a morally pluralistic society, and we are – so long as the morals followed are fashionable. Allow me to explain.

We now suffer the predictable side-effects of rampant collectivism: the rise of identity politics amongst political parties including the most socially ‘progressive’[1]; positive discrimination – possibly at the expense of real talent resulting in hostile reaction to any dissent on the matter (remember Google?[2]); emotionally driven ‘thinking’ resulting in the hysterical cessation of worthy debate – take the recent shambolic events at the Lewisham East Hustings – or lack of it – a great loss for Lewisham East who would have benefited greatly from a frank discussion on the impact of Brexit and a constructive dialogue on policing[3]; finally to top it all off, Theresa May has announced the introduction of higher taxes to fund the NHS!. She states “taxpayers will have to contribute a bit more in a fair and balanced way to support the NHS we all use”[4]. It is unclear whether Conservatives wish to create the big state, high tax society promised by Labour, or merely to hurt the already hard-pressed, over-taxed worker bees. Currently they excel at achieving both these dubious ‘aims’.

Alongside this highly statist, conformist climate:  dissent shall not be tolerated. Not even in the private sphere! Consider the recent distasteful episode of Count Dankula and the Nazi pug salute. This was clearly a private joke, which whilst in poor taste was clearly not intended for mass public consumption (ironically such fame was only achieved by the publicity gained from the knee-jerk reaction of the state). Or ponder the unsavoury racist comments of disgraced ex-UKIP leader Henry Bolton and his lover Jo Marney[5]. Make no mistake, racism is ugly and it is understandable UKIP cannot abide such in their party, but this was a PRIVATE WhatsApp conversation, which was spread and used to publicly shame. Dare I ask, is privacy dead?  And should the careless, unpleasant mutterings of others, however reprehensible, once uttered in the private sphere – be cast into the public domain and those responsible relentlessly vilified? If you’re struggling to answer this question, I would urge you to scan your own life and find no instance for private regret. We all make mistakes and some intellectual discoveries grow from the most unsavoury origins. Besides, I’m still minding my own business – and that’s great because such distance means it is hard for me to become offended! Plus, it’s thoroughly unwise to judge others for careless sentiments which once expended, are hard to retract and correct. We are all human: therefore, such judgement is hypocritical. It seems preferable to ‘set one’s own house in order, before criticising the world’[6]. Make no mistake, there is much unsavoury content but flagrant disinterest in such doesn’t mean we exist in a moral vacuum or that we endorse it. It means content objectively gains the credit (or lack of) that it deserves, it means we are free to judge what is thrust into the public sphere and ignore or discredit appropriately. Objectivity grants space for thought for rational interrogation. If people can speak freely – in public and private spheres – we can judge freely. Whether we want to or not, humans are programmed to judge others. Do I wish to judge a private conversation? No: prying is ugly and minding my own business limits my capacity for unnecessary mental exertion and possible worry. Most people are too busy to cast their minds into the important or urgent, let alone the hushed, raw ramblings of others. Such logic doesn’t explain the insatiable interest over Bolton and Marney, but perhaps this is where most people are missing the point. We shouldn’t be interested in their private discourse, more the lack of meaningful public substance issued from Bolton whose potential to be radical, in light of all achieved regarding Brexit, has been sorely missed. He had the opportunity to be great; he squandered it.  I would therefore argue that most people are obsessed with the private business of public figures because these figures utter so little of substance that the bored minds of would-be voters seek stimulation in the mundane. Besides, this is still not my business.

Yet as society is becoming ever further policed into political correctness[7] – censorship prevails, discourse becomes stifled and it is filtered under the radar or hushed into nothing at all. As such, few people can constructively discuss controversial topics without fear of suspicion or rebuke. In fact, I’d venture to say that such ubiquitous cultural censorship has resulted in a society utterly incapable of discussing controversial topics at all. The adage ‘never discuss politics or religion over dinner’ still prevails, yet instead of retaining social niceties, we have now created those who cannot constructively discuss politics or religion. And this is unhelpful because controversial issues have a way of simmering beneath the surface, only to erupt later. We still judge, except now we are judging in a hasty, reactionary manner as we are ill-equipped to engage in challenging debate. Now we have a new generation retiring to their safe space! Such a notion did not exist ten years ago when I was at university. We believed in an open forum which would permit the logical working of possible scenarios and the forming of a response at best – and the judgement of ideas to be bad – at worst. It was not personal; the interrogation was solely of the ideas. Note the distinction here – that between ideas and people – I am arguing for freedom of ideas, not violence or threats or intimidation – ideas are powerful and thought must be free. Violent dealings indicate nothing more than that one has lost their argument and consequently any respect possibly garnered.

This brings me to The Spectator’s recent analysis of the ‘religious bigotry’ surrounding Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg[8]. He is a Catholic, as such he believes in marriage as that formed between a man and a woman. He is staunchly pro-life, pro-Brexit and regarded to be a traditional Conservative. He invites a strong, albeit mixed response from the masses. Many (myself included) like him. Others despise him for holding opposing views which earn him various labels ranging from ‘polite extremist’[9] to one subjected to ‘extraordinary questioning’[10]. Yet despite this mixed response he is able to remain rational under pressure during interview – retaining a tenacious grip of facts over emotion. Not only this, he remains composed in the wake of ANTIFASCIST protesters, seeking to verbally engage with them in his distinctive, respectful manner[11]. It is a pity that others cannot follow suit, alas – the insidious phenomenon infecting political debate at large, namely one of visceral reaction in the wake of increasing censorship – continues. I assert that his values – traditionalist or otherwise, are as important as Henry Bolton’s racist remarks, or his extra-marital affair or Dankula’s poor taste. Namely, they are irrelevant. And Mogg is not liked because of his religion, or his lifestyle. I would argue people respond to him because he is a person who recognises the difference between personal value and public policy, the latter being an area where less is clearly more. He supports freedom of ideas – and this must be so as he sought to engage with ANTIFA. Alas, many will not accord him the same respect – resulting in his assertions for those who find his beliefs unsavoury to be ‘religious bigots’[12]. It is hard to argue with this interpretation as many seek to use his Catholicism against him for any (potential, future) role as PM or further promotion. Yet would anyone dare to level such criticism toward Muslim Mayor Sadiq Khan for his religion? I doubt it; the hypocrisy is nauseating. Khan (whatever you make of his attainment as London Mayor) has appeared to be popular in the face of modest performance[13] and his religious preference is celebrated as a desirable feature to promote diversity in London![14] The message is clear: society likes Muslims for politicians but not Catholics. Perhaps as an atheist I am fortunate as I care for neither religions, but this is beside the point. Religion, or lack of – is irrelevant. I do not care for the personal attributes of my politicians. I care about their policies, how hard they work and whether they attend Parliamentary debates[15], and if they appear to possess the intellectual rigour required to discuss policies. I am not analysing their personal affairs, because I am too busy minding my own. Clearly prying requires much energy, why waste such energy on other people? Such behaviour is inefficient, invasive and leads to inaccurate conclusions – is Mogg a Catholic? Yes. Will he overhaul the abortion legislation in light of his personal beliefs? Highly unlikely. Does he care to alter the current rules relating to civil partnerships? I doubt it.

Thus, I return to my original question. What is a Libertarian? A Libertarian is effectively an essentialist by nature[16]. We seek to do less – but better, rather than more, ineffectively. The state may have a role in the life of its citizens, but this role is small. We acknowledge that in order to help others, we must first help ourselves and no one is better placed to help ourselves than us. We do not look to hard-working taxpayers to fork out for needless frivolity or facilities we could gain through our own employment. We do not seek to hurt the needy either, voluntarism is golden – help thy neighbour, just ensure you help yourself first. We acknowledge one requires a moderate threshold to make a personal choice, but a much higher one to purport to choose for others. Therefore, mind your own business and let others mind theirs because in a morally pluralistic society – difference is guaranteed and seeking to manipulate others and control outcomes based on such difference is clearly a waste of time[17]. We believe in freedom of speech – and that means freedom of ideas – however unpopular or unsavoury, this value must be upheld and disseminated. We believe a private life must be respected. We believe in life, liberty, property[18] – do what you want, but don’t hurt others[19]– these are central values to the Libertarian. And yes, we’re a broad church ranging from the classical liberal to the anarcho capitalist – but we are united on this: mind your own business before you mind others. The Tories are a broad church too, but now I cannot see what they actually agree upon[20]. Regardless of political perspective, most rational people have fulfilling lives and have neither the time or the inclination to expend on managing other people. It’s a big, bad world out there – one where the individual must take the risk with their reward. Whilst various audiences may dislike Arthur Birling’s persona – he was right – ‘a man must make his own way’.