Another take on libertarians and localism

Henry Hill is a worthy winner of our 2011 Young Writer on Liberty Award, and I’ve enjoyed reading his three victorious blog posts. But I have to respectfully disagree with his take on ‘Libertarians and localism’.

Certainly, I understand Henry’s point: that since libertarianism dictates only a very small role for government – consisting solely of a ‘legal framework for the defence of rights and property’ – it doesn’t make much sense to have local governments as well as a central one. Under the libertarian ethic, you don’t really want ‘government to be different to suit local wishes’. You just want it to guarantee peace, property and liberty, and then stay out of the way.

But I think Henry misses a couple of important counter-arguments. Firstly, given that the modern status quo is hardly minarchist in nature, doesn’t local government serve a useful purpose? For starters, it would be much easier for libertarians to win control of, or influence over, a local government than a national one. It may also be far easier – practically speaking – to trial libertarian policies at the local level than the national one. The upshot of both these points is the same: given our starting point, decentralized government gives us a better chance of putting libertarian (or at least more libertarian) policies into practice in the real world. To that extent, I’d say the more decentralization of power the better.

Secondly, even if we were living in a libertarian world, there would remain a good argument for having lots of small, competing libertarian governments, rather than a few big ones. The reason is that geographically smaller governments are much easier to escape from than big ones. This ‘exit option’ provides powerful protection for individual freedom – if your government starts to interfere too much, you can just up sticks and move to the jurisdiction of another one. It’s worth remembering too that socialism wasn’t the only political evil of the 20th Century – nationalism had a disastrous influence as well.

Ultimately, then, I’m rather a fan of decentralization. In the real world, I think it provides a good way of advancing the libertarian cause a step at a time. In my libertarian utopia, it provides insurance against governments once again growing too big and powerful. So whichever way you cut it, I say libertarians should be localists.