Two interesting developments this week have prompted some ponderings…
1) The European Court of Human Rights has ruled the UK police’s stop and search tactics illegal
This creates a serious dilemma for anti-EU libertarians, as shown by the response of anti-EU blogger 13th Spitfire in the (fascinating) comments thread on law blog Charon QC’s coverage of the ruling (via the rather good Jack of Kent). As 13th Spitfire puts it:
Though I sincerely disagree with the Stop and Search laws, it just leaves a very bad taste in the mouth that we have to be told by a foreign court that our domestic proceedings, and by extension our parliament, is illegal.
2) The EU-withdrawalist UK Independence Party has announced that it favours a ban on the burka. This despite UKIP long having portrayed itself as a more or less libertarian party.
Libertarians are a hugely over-represented breed among the political blogosphere. There’s hundreds of them, on both sides of the Atlantic – but in real world politics there’s barely a handful, and they rarely even retain their deposits in elections. They are, however, so vocal on the web that few online political discussions can pass without a libertarian of some stripe cropping up to make their case. As such, libertarian arguments increasinly need to be addressed, even while libertarianism remains decidedly fringe.
The prime unifying belief that they share is that individual liberty is paramount, and that the role of the state should be kept as minimal as feasibly possible. A libertarian, as a rule, opposes bans and restrictions – taking John Stuart Mill’s laudable harm principle as the starting point for pretty much all their approaches to the world, but taking this idea far further than Mill himself (or his fellow small-“L” liberals) ever did.
The libertarian argument against European integration in general – and the European Union specifically – is usually that it implies the imposition of a new layer of government above the national. As libertarians believe small government to be the best form, this is an understandable approach. After all, if you already have a national ministry dealing with policy area X, where’s the need for an additional European-level administration which deals with the same area?
What happens next, however, is that the majority of libertarians seem to take this entirely reasonable argument against the repetition/overlap of governmental/administrative layers, and from it extrapolate that it is the super-national, European-level layer of government/administration which is the unnecessary one.
If the smallest amount of governmental/state interference in the life of the individual – and the maximum level of individual liberty – is the key aim, then surely it is the *national* layer which is superfluous?
If we agree that there are a few basic fundamentals for individual liberty – the right to trial, to vote, to be free from persecution, to free speech, etc. etc. (read Mill and the US declaration of independence for more) – then why, in the case of the EU, have these asserted 27 times in 27 countries, when once should be enough?
If we agree, as most libertarians do, that some laws and regulations are necessary for the smooth functioning of society – agreed systems of weights and measures (to prevent fraud), some level of health and safety guarantees, product standards, environmental/pollution restrictions (all taking Mill’s dictum that as individuals we shouldn’t harm others and applying it to corporations and government bodies), etc. etc. – why have 27 different variants of these laws and regulations, when what’s good for one of us is surely good for all?
This is the fundamental reason why libertarians should be in favour of European integration (note: not necessarily the current nature of European integration or current European bodies, both EU and non-EU, but the general principle) – for an individual in country X to have to abide by different laws than an individual in country Y implies a strong likelihood that the two are experiencing different levels of individual freedom. Plus, most importantly, if individual X goes to country Y, then he/she will have to abide by country Y’s laws – a potential restriction on that individual’s liberty of movement. (Case study: In Germany and Austria, it is illegal to deny the Holocaust; it is not in the UK. When British citizen David Irving went to Austria, having denied the Holocaust, he was arrested and imprisoned.)
Of course, restricting this to a mere continent (and not even all of that) is not ideal. The true libertarian would agree that liberty is universal – for true liberty to exist, what applies to one individual should apply to us all – and therefore we should be pushing for world government, where everyone on the planet has the same rights as everyone else.
But this still doesn’t take away from the fact that if you want small government for maximum individual liberty, the higher the level at which the basic laws and regulations are imposed, the better. Universal is the ideal (hence the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights), but if that proves impossible for now then you surely go for as broad an area as you can? The best part of a continent is not a bad starting point, and is certainly better than a mere individual country. Especially when, as the European Court of Human Rights ruling demonstrates, individual countries cannot be relied upon to safeguard the liberties of their citizens.
I have long stated this to be one of my prime motivations for supporting European integration: the ability of super-national bodies to restrict the power that nation states can hold over the individual. Case in point: if you are British, you have obligations but few rights – we remain, technically, subjects, not citizens. As I have argued before (in some detail), it was only with the introduction of EU citizenship that
“for the first time in Britain’s history, British citizens/subjects have the right to vote, to free movement, and so on, rather than just the privilege – we are no longer dependant upon the whim of parliament.”
And yet still we find self-professed libertarians clinging to the old, liberty-restricting national apparatus, rather than the new, liberty-granting super-national bodies of the EU and Council of Europe. Supposedly state-hating libertarians who cling to the state.
It genuinely baffles me. Can any libertarian provide me with a libertarian case for this apparent nationalism? Because the way I see it, nationalism and libertarianism are mutually exclusive – one being a collective idea focussed around the concept of a geographically and legally-restrictive state, the other focussed around the ideas of individualism and freedom.