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Are the Liberal Democrats Libertarian?

A few days ago Cicero met with one of the better known figures in the Libertarian Alliance, Brian Mickelthwait. Brian writes for various blogs that I enjoy reading- including Samizdata.

Ahead of our meeting Brain expressed "scepticism" about the Libertarian credentials of the Liberal Democrats: "My charge was that when you meet a Liberal Democrat you never know what he will believe. The one who talks to you is likely to say what you want to hear. But the others will simultaneously be telling other people with quite different views what they want to hear. So don't vote for these lying creeps."

Political parties- all of them- are coalitions of people who quite often disagree with each other. Apparently we are not supposed to "air our dirty linen in public", but actually one of the reasons that the Liberal Democrats appealed to me was that they were prepared to talk about issues and policies amongst themselves in public. The eclipse of the Liberal Party as a force in government led to the party becoming a ginger group for pioneering ideas- ideas that were subsequently put into place by other parties. Liberalism was about ideas more than power.

However, over the past fifteen years something important has happened in British politics. Social changes have undermined thecoherentt "class" basis for the Conservatives and Labour. As a result the ideological underpinning of first Labour and now the Conservatives' agenda has weakened drastically. The consequences have been the creation of PR driven, increasingly unideological political agendas- so-called "triangulation". However, the Liberal Democrats have actually gone in the other direction. More and more the debates inside the party have begun to relate to first principles of Liberal ideology.

The emergence of a group of successful over achievers in the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party- David Laws, Edward Davey, Nick Clegg, Susan Kramer and so on has brought the debate to the highest level. The publication of "The Orange Book" was a key step in framing the debate in much more explicitly economically Liberal terms.

At the time, the leadership of Charles Kennedy was reluctant to engage with the debate- and many activists in the party found it difficult to accept the policy conclusions that were drawn in the book. However, although Ming Campbell has continued to call himself a politician of the centre-left"- a position I have explicitly rejecte. Nonetheless, the new leadership has actively engaged with the economic Liberal positions. Meanwhile the members have actually got round to reading the book. New policies- especially on deregulation-explicitly come from the freedom agenda, while the debate on taxation has shifted from a tax and spend perspective to the ideology of "setting limits to the role of the state"- which for me is the hallmark of Liberalism. From our commitment to civil rights is emerging a far more Liberal approach across the board-especially in taxation and the wider issues of the economy.

To a degree the Liberals and Liberal Democrats never wholly lost the free market agenda- Malcolm Bruce was talking about similar issues when he was industry and treasury spokesman 20 years ago- but there is no doubt that there was and remains a significant constituency for a more Social Democrat "social justice agenda" inside the party. However to me this is no more shocking than seeing Social Conservatives and Libertarians inside the Conservative Party. The reality is that any political party is a coalition.

The publication of a follow up to The Orange Book: Britain after Blair continues to advance the debate inside our party in the direction of an explicitly freedom driven agenda. Although the debate continues, the fact is that issues like land tax, flat tax, deregulation and so on are being taken seriously, even by those who do not necessarily support them.

So the answer to Brain Micklethwait is no, we are not yet wholly Libertarian- but no party is, or is likely to be. However there is an increasing number of Liberal Democrats who are absolutely Economic and Social Liberals. I believe that the tradition of J.S. Mill in our party makes us far more open to the ideas of Hayek than any other political party. I also believe that as the Labour and Conservatives descend into Butskillite mush, the Liberal Democrats will develop a firmer ideological edge over our rivals, and that as a party we will reap the rewards.


Anonymous said…
Maybe it would be a good idea, that some more libertarian-minded Lib Dems would join the discussion forum of Libertarian Alliance so that the misapprehensions could be overcome. But please notice, that there are two organisations called "Libertarian Alliance", and therefore also two Libertarian Alliance Forums:
Tom Papworth said…
An excellent article. It saddens me to think of the Liberals as merely a ginger group (despite their orange hue), but to remain a serious political party in the middle of the last century they’d have had to invade Labour’s ground and effectively become socialists, which would have left liberals without any home at all.

I am intrigued by your comment that you have explicitly rejected the position that Menzies Campbell says he is a politician of the centre-left. Do you doubt that he is sincere? Or are you simply saying that you place yourself elsewhere? I find the left-right access ever more inappropriate and prefer F. A. Hayek’s triangular model opposing liberty, socialism and conservatism. Liberals and socialists share a progressive nature that conservatives reject, but differ as to whether progress should come from below or above. For conservatives and socialists, liberty is never more than a means to an end. Whereas liberals and conservatives share a belief in a rule of law that socialists simply do not understand.

I do believe we have a golden opportunity here. The Conservative Party is abandoning liberty as an objective and adopting the “social justice” agenda. Let the other two parties fight it out over socialism! I would be inclined to take a firm libertarian stand, but sadly I doubt whether we would be believed; Brian Mickelthwait’s suspicion is too deeply engrained in society. That is a shame, because the ever-expanding State (another £2 billion in taxes this month!) is a threat both to freedom and to prosperity.

So I agree with your conclusion. I would also remind you that Hayek saw the future of liberty in the Liberal rather than the Conservative Party. But then, in those days the Liberal constitution promised above all things to set freedom first.
Cicero said…
Thanks Tom,

I reject the Centre-Left Label because a) I do see politics in terms of a Libertarian-Authoritarian axis and b) even if I accepted the left-right model I would reject the idea of being left wing.

I agree the Liberal Democrats are finding an intellectual constituency in Hayekian Liberalism and a political constituency in the anti- statist agenda.
mel said…
Libertarianism is a pipe-dream much like socialism and communism. However, in contrary, aspiring towards libertarianism is bliss...
Anonymous said…
Well, I've been thinking of myself as a 'libertarian liberal' for a while. For me it all comes down to freedom, liberty and the rule of law.

Your point about coalitions should be remembered. Personally I find the Social conservative-libertarian-tory alliance very strange, but I think it rests in a certain amount of anti-socialist/social-democracy sentiment (interesting point on that, in the first chapter of his book, Conceived In Liberty, Murray Rothbard pins the re-emergence of libertarianism in the US as being a reaction against conservatism rather than against socialism).

I was also drawn to the LibDems by the debate I saw in the party, particularly the Orange Book. Debates about ideas was refreshing, especially when they're ideas I often hold.

I am sometimes called right wing- but I reject that, my reasoning is all founded in freedom and what could be termed social justice. But that doesn't make me left wing either, it makes me liberal.
Anonymous said…

The reference to Rothbard was from "Towards A New Liberty: A Libertarian Manifesto".
Cicero said…
"I am sometimes called right wing- but I reject that, my reasoning is all founded in freedom and what could be termed social justice. But that doesn't make me left wing either, it makes me liberal"

Yes I would agree with this whole heartedly!
mel said…
There are people on the right wing of politics, there are people on the left wing of politics, but I like to think of us classic liberals -- who aspire for but never dream of libertarianism -- as the head of the eagle...
Anonymous said…
A very long comment coming up, I hope some people survive until the end. It's good to see some Lib Dems engaging with Libertarianism. It was very unusual at the time I used to be mildly active in Lib Dem politics before relcoating to Istanbul in 97. Encouraging as all this I think some points need to be brought into this and further discussion.
Different forms of Libertarianism.
I'd very happy class myself as a Soft Libertarian, and judging from online questionnaires like PoliticalCompass I would fit into most people's idea of such a position. That means I think e.g. there should be a social safety net, though not redistribution of wealth through welfare; that the state should promote some kind of civic ideology while aiming for a free thinking and diverse society. I would not classify myself as a'hard' libertarian, who would object to any social safety net and any involvement of the state in ideology. I think it would be helpful for Lib Dem Libertarians to think about where they fit in.
The Libertarians referred to in the discussion are Mises, Rothbard,Mill and Hayek. There are considerable differences between Mises/Rothbard, Hayek and Mill and reasons I would object to Rothbard/Mises and Hayek. I object very strenuously to Mises/Rothbard who are hard libertarian but not because of that but becuase of their dislike of Lincoln and support for the South in the Civil War. Apparently slavery is a lesser evil than a stronger Union. I think not myself. Hayek is more soft libertarian but is also a definite social conservative. A big yes to Hayek on economics and public sector management but a big no on most other issues. Mill is an extraordinarily ambiguous thinker, strongly rejected by Mises/Rothbard for allowing social justice on utilitarian grounds. For less socially and morally conservative Libertarianism in the US take the Cato Institute (check out e,g. a recent link on current liberal-libertarian convergence. There is also a link to this on a website I help to run), the philosopher Robert Nozick, the two Ayn Rand insitutes (though Rand herself was a lighweight as a thinker) and South Park the cartoon series. Yes really, please do take South Park, one of the writers is a registered Libertarian and libertarian themes are evident in most episodes, a link to a Libertarian discussion of South Park appears on Going back to the 18th Century, take Wilhelm von Humboldt author of Limits of State Action and an influence on Mill. Online version of this any many other liberal/libertarian/republican classics at For a contemporary of Mill, take Nietzsche, yes really take Nietzsche. At least one US libertarian philosopher Lester Hunt favours Nietzsche, look at the section on the state in Nietzsche's Human, All too Human. If anyone would like to see my thoughts on this at even greater length go to draft versions of papers I published or presented on Nietzsche on politics and ethics at my academic website ( For Classical Liberalism influenced by the Civic ideology of classical republicanism (Aristotle, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Harrington, Rousseau) take Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy on America (an influence on Mill). The new leader of the Canadian Liberal Party is a Tocqueville scholar and he influences a wide variety of political writers in the US. I plan to discuss these issues at even more length in the blog I have just started. I hope I've helped map out ways of categorising Libertarianism and the choices to be made.
Anonymous said…
All this talk of "libertarian Democrats."

Democrats may want to link up with us libertarians, but we libertarians have little if any interest whatsoever of linking up with Democrats.

Put aside for a moment our huge disagreements on economic issues.

Democrats are even bad these days on civil liberties. Who is pushing all the smoking bans all over the US? Democrats. Who is it that's calling for a return to the Military Draft? Democrats. Who was it that blocked our brave libertarian petitioners for property rights and got our libertarian petitions kicked off the ballots all over the US like MT, MO, and NV in 2006? Democrats. Who is it that protests and disrupts speeches by libertarians on college campuses all over the US? Democrats. Who is it that wants to take our guns away? Democrats.

Who is it that supports anti-libertarian affirmative action laws? Who is it that supports seat belt laws? Who is it that wants to force little kids riding bicycles to weat helmets? Answer to all the above: Democrats

When was the last time you even heard a Democrat supporting legalization of marijuana?

There are virtually no areas of agreement between Democrats and libertarians. Maybe Pro-Choice on abortion and Gay Rights. But even there Dems want government funding and "special rights for Gays"(which we libertarians oppose).

Further, how many libertarians ever win election as Democrats? Virtually none. How many libertarians win as Republicans? Hundreds like former Libertarian Party Presidential candidate Ron Paul now a Republican Congressman from Texas.

"libertarian Democrat"? A stupid idea if there ever was one.

Eric Dondero at
Anonymous said…
A correction that didn't get through the system yesterday.
I should have referred to yesterday, NOT, Go to Liberty Fund for an extremely excellent selection of texts on Libertarianism etc.
On the most rent post. The Cato Institute is the leading Libertarian group in the US. Their website has included a report which suggest that the 13% of US voters who are Libertarian now mostly vote Democrat though they used to mostly vote Republican. Eric Dondero is entitled to defend his version of Libertarianism, it is not appropriate to talk about 'we libertarians' who are all Republicans. It's the Bush administration which has presided over an increase in public spending, which is biger than any increase since the New Deal, even taking out security expenditure. It's also Bush who has ended Hebeas Corpus for alleged terrorists, includng US citizens, and allowed their torture. The Democrats really don't have to try too hard right now to be at least a bit more libertarian than the Republicans.
Anonymous said…
Excellent analysis. My only other comment would be to add the name of Karl Popper to those of Mill and Hayek.
Anonymous said…
Fascinating post. I've always been very interested in the overlap between liberals and libertarians. It strikes me that increasingly as someone with liberal instincts though no real political views, I find myself repelled by the right of the conservative party and their social agenda more than by the welfare agenda of the left.

I do think there is a danger in imagining a liberal lineage stretching back to Aristotle, through Spinoza etc. My own view is that you can't separate the liberalism from the philosophy- looking say at Spinoza in particular his philosophy grows out of a particular moral and theological world view and you can't really dissassociate the two. Sometimes I think we don't recognise the heterogenity of political discourse- what you are pointing to in your left right distinction works for me, increasingly I find those terms meaningless, and to my own mind politics increasingly in practice is a kind of applied history and in theory an applied politics.

Good post, made me think.

Incidentally its nice to find someone else with a "Roman" internet pseudonym!
Cicero said…
Thank you for all you comments- it has helped to clarify some of my thinking, and I think I will return to the idea of Libertarian stands in Liberal thinking before too long.

As to our American colleagues- I make no claims for the US Democratic party, though under President Bush it is currently pretty hard to view the Republicans in any form of Libertarian hue. As I hope Eric Dondero now realises, as a British Liberal Democrat, as opposed to an American Democrat, whether "liberal" or not, I can only view American politics as a friendly observer.
Anonymous said…
I have met a couple of Liberal Democrats at university who had more in common with Stalin than Ming Campbell let alone libertarianism.
Cicero said…
c4- that is the problem with labels- I meet incredibly right wing Socialists and virtually Communist Conservatives, which is why I focus on defining what Liberal ideology should or could be
andyt said…
The danger of making economic liberalism part of a 'harder ideological edge' is of holding economic objectives above all others. The classical economic tradition is that economics is a means to an end and not an end in itself. The late Conrad Russel observed that we have never been a party of laissez-fair. If we say it is about the maximization of economic freedom, the problem is that the amount of economic freedom you have depends on the amount of money you can earn and spend. Social justice is therefore paramount. We are about giving freedom to everyone, not just those who can whack their wads.
Cicero said…
andyt Yes- fair point, and explitly the Lib Dems talk about Freedom in its broadest sense. My point is that talking about freedom without mentioning economic freedom is just as an extreme position as assuming that Human beings are always and solely economic units- which is the core of the Marxist position.

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