One cheer for democracy

Today (20 January) is hailed in the UK as Democracy Day – the 750th anniversary of the establishment of the first parliament of elected representatives in Westminster. Let’s not get too dewy-eyed. We classical liberals are democrats, but we are sceptical democrats. Yes, some (minimal) functions require collective action. We think that the public, not elites, should make those decisions – and that representative government is probably the best way to do it.

But we are fully aware hat the democratic process is far from perfect. It is not about reconciling different interests (as markets do), but about choosing between conflicting interests – a battle in which only one side can win. Democracy is tainted by the self-interest of electors, of representatives and of officials; it can produce deeply irrational results; and all too often it leads to minority groups being exploited, and their liberties curbed, all in the name of ‘democracy’.

That is why democratic decision-making must be bound by certain rules, and should focus, with precision, only on those issues that cannot be decided in any other way. Many people (and almost all of those who happen to be in power) argue that more and more things should be decided through the democratic process. But that means deciding them through the political process; and politics is not always a benign force. The more things that are decided politically, the easier it becomes for the rights and liberties of individuals to be eroded, and for minority groups to be exploited or suppressed by those who are wield the coercive power of the state.

But rights and freedoms are for everyone: they are not a matter of numbers and majorities. Election success does not license the winning majority to treat other people exactly as it chooses. The power of majorities needs to be restrained.

That restraint really has to come from within the understanding and culture of the people. A constitution might curb the excesses of politicians for a while, but even countries with seemingly strong liberal constitutions are not immune from rapid increases in the size of government and from the erosion of individual rights and liberties by majorities. Constitutional freedoms are hard to protect if the general public loses its understanding of their importance and its will to protect them. Let’s hear it for Limited Democracy Day.

Farmers are milking it through state subsidies

Milk is now cheaper than bottled water in some UK supermarkets. So of course there is much wailing that our dairy industry is in terminal trouble and needs subsidy and protection from foreign imports. Wrong.

One reason why milk is so cheap right now is that supermarkets are using it as a loss leader. They hope that while customers are buying cheap milk, they might be tempted by less cheap other stuff. They are not actually paying farmers any less.

The dairy industry is indeed in a sorry state, but not because of the lack of state support. Rather, the problem is too much of it. When you protect industries from foreign competition through tariffs (as EU countries like the UK do), and then go on to subsidise them, you kill off competition, both international and domestic. Subsidies and protections allow production to carry on in old, outdated, inefficient, expensive ways. The result is higher prices, lower quality and less choice for customers.

Cold, rainy Britain is not a good place to raise cattle. It’s fine in the summer, but in the winter the cattle have to be brought into shelters and given heat, silage and hay, all of which adds to the cost. So other, warmer countries, inevitably have the competitive edge on us.

Dairy producers can compensate for this a bit by creating much larger farms, which can be sited in the sunnier parts of the country, and where large-scale winter housing can be run much more efficiently than countless small-farm cattle sheds. In large, modern facilities, new technology can be employed, such as dry bedding, using other farm by-products for feed, recycling heat, and recapturing methane. And while we are on the subject of greenhouse gases, how much more energy-efficient is it to collect milk from one 8,000-cow farm than from 100 with 80 cows?

But planning policy, that great UK obstacle to progress, is making it hard to build such facilities – a plan for one in Lincolnshire has recently been scrapped. And the existence of subsidies makes it less urgent for inefficient dairy farmers to leave the business, and for more efficient ones to replace them.

Some people argue that we should subsidise UK agriculture to cut down on ‘food miles’. Tosh. 80% of food-related emissions are from production, only 4% from transport. So it is 20 times more important to make efficiencies in production. That means super-farms here, or importing products from countries where the climate is more suitable. We do that with wine, why not with other agricultural products? And in any case, domestic production is an environmental nightmare, what with the fertilisers, pesticides and heating that have to be used. DEFRA figured that the carbon footprint of Spanish-grown tomatoes is probably smaller than that of UK tomatoes grown under glass. Remember too that food is transported, efficiently, in bulk. Most ‘food miles’ are getting small quantities of the stuff from the supermarket to your fridge, which is not going to change even if it is grown locally.

If we scrapped the subsidies and protections, the market could do its stuff, weeding out inefficient production and diverting investment into something better. That would be good for the industry, good for customers in terms of lower prices, good for taxpayers in terms of lower taxes, and good for the planet.

Freedom of speech in a free society

Some people might be deeply shocked by the words, images, arguments and ideas that are sometimes put forward in a free society. But in a free society, we have no right to prevent free speech and block other people’s opinions, even if we all disagree with what is said or find it offensive or immoral.

There is certainly a case for curbing language that incites people to violence against others, or that recklessly endangers life and limb – like shouting ‘Fire!’ in a theatre. And there is a case that children need special protection too, which is why we have age classifications on movies and games.

That is very different from preventing particular words, images, arguments and ideas from being aired at all. There can be no such censorship in society of free individuals – for then they would not be free.

There is a practical case for free speech too. People must understand the options available to them if they are to choose rationally and try new ideas – ideas that might well improve everyone’s future. Censorship closes off those choices and thereby denies us progress.

Nor can we trust the censors. Truth and authority are different things. Those in power may have their own reasons–such as self-preservation–to forbid certain ideas being broadcast. But even if the censors have the public’s best interests at heart, they are not infallible. They have no monopoly of wisdom, no special knowledge of what is true and what is not – only debate, argument and experience determines that. And censors may suppress the truth simply by mistake: they can never be sure if they are stifling ideas that will, eventually, prove to be correct. Some ideas may be mostly wrong, and yet contain a measure of truth, which argument can eke out, while the truth of other ideas may become obvious only over time.

The way to ensure that we do not stifle true and useful ideas is to allow all ideas to be aired, confident that their merits or shortcomings will be revealed through debate. That means allowing people to argue their case, even on matters that the majority regard as unquestionable. Truth can only be strengthened by such a contest. It was for this reason that, from 1587 until 1983, the Roman Catholic church appointed a ‘devil’s advocate’ to put the case against a person being nominated for sainthood. It is useful to expose our convictions to questioning. If we believe others are mistaken in their views, those views should be taken on and refuted – not silenced.

From Socrates onward, history is littered with examples of people who have been persecuted for their views. Such persecution often cowers people into staying silent, even though their ideas are subsequently vindicated. Fearing the wrath of the Roman Catholic Church, Nicolaus Copernicus did not publish his revolutionary theory that the planets rotated about the sun until just before his death in 1543. His follower Galileo Galilei was tried by the Inquisition and spent his remaining days under house arrest. Subsequent scientific endeavour and progress in Europe moved to the Protestant north.

Ideas that cannot be challenged rest on a very insecure foundation. They become platitudes rather than meaningful truths. Their acceptance is uncritical. And when new ideas eventually do break through, it is likely to be violently and disruptively.

Certainly, it can be unsettling when people say things with which we fundamentally disagree, express ideas we believe are profoundly wrong, do things we regard as deeply shocking, or even scorn our moral and religious beliefs. And in a free society we are at liberty to disagree with them and to say so publicly. But that is not the same as using the law, or violence, to silence them. Our toleration of other people’s ideas shows our commitment to freedom, and our belief that we make more progress, and discover new truths faster, by allowing different ideas to be debated rather than suppressed.

Adapted from Foundations of a Free Society.

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A Capitalist Carol, Stave 9: The End of It

Splurge was awakened by the sun streaming through the curtains, and the distinctive morning knock of one of his Downing Street staff.

“What day is this?” cried Splurge.

“Why, the day of your Party Conference speech, Prime Minister!” came the reply from outside.

“Oh spirits!” exclaimed Splurge. “Thank you! Thank you! I haven’t missed it! I shall make them such a speech!”

His hands were busy with his garments; turning them inside out, putting them on upside down, such a state he was in. As he picked up his wallet to thrust it into his usual pocket, he chanced a look inside and saw the picture of Adam Smith on the back of the £20 note. “It’s all right! It’s all true, it all happened! Ha, ha ha,” he whooped.

He frisked into the study and fumbled excitedly for a pen and paper. “Oh, I am light as a feather, as happy as an angel, as merry as a schoolboy,” he exclaimed, laughing and crying in the same breath.

“What a speech it will be! I will tell them that public spending and regulation always has perverse side effects! I shall tell them that government just keeps on growing unless you restrain it! I will tell them how a free society is tolerant of others and does not try to dictate their how they should live; and how we should be wary of politicians telling us they are limiting our freedom of speech and action for our own good.”

“I will tell them about Public Choice! Yes, indeed! How democracy is not the answer to everything, and is best limited to things we cannot decide by any other means. How elections are not a measure of the public interest but a battle of competing interests – and how the majority has no right to exploit the minority with high taxation. The Rule of Law! Yes! I will tell them about how laws should apply to everyone, without favour, and not framed to give privileges to those in government and their cronies!”

“Oh, they will be so surprised!”

“And the IMF too,” he exclaimed all on a sudden, remembering his recent conversation. “I will tell them how the financial crash was caused by our expansionary policy, built on cheap credit and loose money! And how our inept regulators made it worse! That it wasn’t the bankers at all – that they were just caught up in the spiral like everyone else!”

“I know!” – at this point he danced a little jig of excitement – I will tell them that we will adopt market monetarism so that our currency remains sound and these things never happen again. And that we will pay off the national debt and adopt a zero deficit and balanced budget rule so that governments are never again tempted to spend beyond their means.” Splurge looked into the distance for a moment, thinking. “Oh, and I must write to the European regulators too! So much to do! So much to do!”

And gathering up his sheaf of scribbled notes, he dashed onto the street, dismissed his chauffeur-driven car, and took the bus to the conference centre where the Party were assembled. He had never dreamed that being surrounded by ordinary people, who were not part of the political class, could give him so much happiness. Nor that his mission to save and preserve human freedom could yield him so much pleasure.

Splurge was better than his word. He said it all, and did infinitely more. To freedom, which did NOT die, he became the as good a friend, as good a protector, as the good old Westminster Village knew. Some people laughed at his U-turn, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them. For he was wise enough to know, how healthy it is for a society to be able to laugh at its politicians, and how so few societies allow such jest.

He had no further intercourse with extravagant public spending schemes, nor bureaucracy, nor excessive taxation and regulation; but lived upon the Limited Government principle, ever afterwards. And it was always said of him, that he knew how to preserve liberty well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of all of us!

And so, as Adam Smith observed, “It is the highest impertinence, in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people. They are themselves always, and without exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society.” Save all of us from that, every one!

A Capitalist Carol, Stave 8

The story so far: The third spirit to visit the high-spending politician Ed Splurge is showing him the dystopia that will be created by his statist policies…


What Splurge had seen was bad enough: talk of universal surveillance, the suppression of free action, free speech, even of free thought itself, in this future of his own creation. But as the Ghost of Freedom Yet to Come continued to point Splurge towards the dismal scene, he knew that worse was to come.

The zealots arranged around their computer screens continued their business. “Report from the Minister of Public Safety!” called the figure at the head of the gathering, as another got up to speak.

“I am glad to report, Prime Minister,” said this second figure, “that a complete ban on unhealthy living is now in place. After our total suppression of smoking – “

“Total?” asked another, skeptically. “I understood that the black market in cigarettes was booming since you outlawed tobacco, and that thousands were being smuggled in by organized gangs!”

The Minister of Public Safety hardly missed a beat “– we moved to ban fatty foods and fizzy drinks, with similarly harsh penalties for those who subject their bodies to these vile substances.

“But there is more sugar in orange juice than fizzy pop!” cried Splurge, before realizing that the shadows before him could not hear, and were unaware of his presence.

“Chocolates, bacon, and eating Christmas goose are now all illegal,” continued the Minister. It is a positive contribution to the health and welfare of our citizens.” There was yet more satisfaction expressed by the assembled gathering.

“Oh, spirit! Cried Splurge. “Can they not see that in the name of promoting the welfare of human beings, they have robbed them of their very humanity? They have robbed them of their freedom!”

“Chancellor of the Exchequer!” Another figure rose up to speak at the command: “The new 100% tax on income is working well, Prime Minister,” it reported. “Our procedures to assess how much people actually need to live on are now in place, and most are receiving their allowances within a month at the most.”

“Can we really be taking all people’s income, and then giving them back only what the state deems fit?” howled Splurge, realizing the horror of where his high-spending, high-taxing, high-borrowing policies were actually leading. “Do people in this future really need to ask officials before they dare do anything at all?”

Another figure was called to speak: “The Permission to Act Bill has now completed its passage through Parliament and is now the Permission to Act Act,” it began.

But by this point, Splurge’s head was reeling. As darkness swept over him, he had a strange feeling, that the figure at the head of the discussants was none other than – himself.

“Spirit!” he pleaded. “Are these the shadows of things that must be? Tell me these things might yet be changed!” But there came no reply, only darkness.