Liberalism in Europe

Alex Massie of Britain’s Spectator offers a European perspective on the future of liberalism:

Libertarians dreaming of nirvana – or conservatives who think libertarians can’t possibly forge any meaningful, if even temporary, alliances with the left – are starting from the wrong place. At some point you have to deal with the world as it is, not how it might be had everything been different from the beginning.

So, sure, you wouldn’t start with something like the NHS. And you might not sign on to every aspect of German labour laws. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be liberal (in a classical, european sense) advances in Britain or Germany. Indeed, both countries are currently governed by socially-liberal, economically-conservative coalitions. If you want to see whether “liberaltarianism” is possible then you might look to these countries.

Germany’s Free Democrats and, to a lesser extent, some Liberal Democrats in Britain would probably come within a US definition of “liberaltarian”. Rock-ribbed libertarians can find plenty to be unhappy with in each instance but these governments are much, much closer and friendlier to what I’d term real liberalism than anything on offer from either party in the US or from any of the alternatives in the UK and Germany.

American thought tends to be confused on this score because the peculiarities of our electoral process has left us with just two political parties. That means that if you want to participate in mainstream politics, you have to choose one of the two major parties to do it. The modern libertarian movement allied itself with the Republican party in the mid-20th century, and since then the process of partisan polarization have exerted a steady rightward tug on the libertarian movement.

Multi-party electoral systems like those in the UK and Germany leave room for parties that are (relative to the altnernatives, at least) socially liberal and fiscally conservative. And what ends up happening is exactly what Brink Lindsey describes in his excellent book The Age of Abundance: libertarians (or liberals, as they’re known in Europe) occupy a kind of “centrist” position, acting as junior coalition partners and moderating the big-government tendencies of both the left and the right. At a minimum, the Britian and German experiences show that there’s nothing inherently contradictory about a left-libertarian movement.

The British and German experiences also provide support for the Boaz/Kirby argument about the libertarian vote in the US. The FDP and Lib Dems have historically gotten around 10 percent of the vote, on par with Boaz and Kirby’s estimates of the size of the libertarian vote in the United States. Boaz and Kirby also argued that the political effectiveness of libertarians is maximized when libertarians aren’t too closely tied to either end of the political spectrum. A credible threat to walk away from the Republican Party and support Democrats will give both major parties an incentive to take libertarian voters. That certainly seems to be confirmed by recent developments in the UK, where the Liberal Democrats were able to push their coalition government in a direction more friendly to civil liberties.

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7 Responses to Liberalism in Europe

  1. john says:

    European coalitions also make it more clear that the purpose of a coalition is to Get Things Done. It’s never clear to me in the US whether libertarian advocates of “fusionism” or “liberaltarianism” are just seeking to find common ground to promote particular policies, or are attempting to construct a new political ideology. The more clear need for inter-ideological coalitions also tends to reward statesmanship and pragmatic compromise more. The various party faithful in the US don’t view compromise as a necessary component of democratic politics.

  2. leviramsey says:

    I think it’s also striking that liber(al|)tarians (of whatever party) in Europe have probably achieved far more in terms of dismantling state power in the past 40 years than have their American counterparts (and I choose that time period to allow the various deregulations of the Carter administration to be counted on the American side). Most of Europe has at least partially privatized their postal systems, for instance, something that has to be considered a pipe-dream in America (and not surprisingly, the various privatized European postal systems are profitable and deliver better service than the US Postal “Service”).

  3. Nick Gibbons says:

    Not sure I agree with your analysis of the source of Liberal Democrat vote in the UK. During the Blair years the LibDems found the ‘centre’ squeezed by New Labour’s embrace of pro-business rhetoric and rejection of traditional socialism, and so frequently positioned themselves to the left of Labour on economic and social welfare issues. Much of the LibDem support over this period came from people who believed they had been let down by Labour because it had not been sufficiently interventionist and redistributive. This is already a source of significant tension in the coalition.

    The LibDems obviously have a longer tradition of liberalism on social and civil liberties issues but even there the record is muddied by their enthusiastic support of ‘Europe’, which whatever its merits represents another layer of (largely unaccountable) government and regulation in British society. I would also doubt to what extent the civil libertarianism of the LibDems has positively influenced their support. LibDem support tends to be regionally focussed, in those areas of the country (such as the South West) where Labour support has always been weak due to a historical lack of an industrial base and non-Tory voters needed an alternative.

    In short, I don’t think the libertarian constituency in Britain is particularly significant at all. Populism, albeit in muted British form, is vastly more influential, with people generally supportive of the NHS and other benefits proposed by the pro-state left, while the right makes headway by pushing its own populist themes such as crime, social order, anti-immigration and the undeserving poor (‘scroungers’). The fact that the current coalition has ended up effectively in a libertarian position by combining the common denominators of both parties is, I think, a curious anomaly that has not yet fully registered with the electorate.

  4. Chris says:

    The LibDems aren’t exactly libertarian. They’re like the more left-wing US Democrats.

    If there was a third party in the US, it would be a populist party. Probably something like the Populist Party that existed in the 1890s. It would push higher tariffs and farm subsidies, and make both other parties even less libertarian.

  5. Brian Moore says:

    “The fact that the current coalition has ended up effectively in a libertarian position by combining the common denominators of both parties is, I think, a curious anomaly that has not yet fully registered with the electorate.”

    But that’s precisely what libertarians want. I don’t really care if someone calls themselves libertarians, but if a conservative (tory) and liberals (libdems) form a coalition and say things in public about a “bonfire of laws” and “rolling back the surveillance state” then that’s optimal for me (so far). It hasn’t been that long and so far the news looks good. Now, I’m perfectly willing to be disappointed if they don’t follow through, but failing to live up to libertarian-sounding policy statements is better than not having those statements.

  6. Wonks Anonymous says:

    I thought the German FDP was considered a right-wing party. Even to the right of the Christian Democrats, analogous to the Greens or Die Linke. Maybe by American standards they would be considered welfare-statists, but in the German context I don’t think they would be viewed as left-leaning.

  7. Kaleberg says:

    The Democrats in the U.S. are socially liberal and fiscally conservative. At least that’s what the data show. Republicans are socially conservative and spend borrowed money like drunken sailors.

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