The end of history
With the fall of the Berlin Wall politics has entered a period of ideological hollowness, characterized by the absence of viable alternatives to Western Liberalism. Some even believe that the rise of Western liberal democracy marks the endpoint of humanity´s socio-cultural evolution and argue that the collapse of the Soviet-Union symbolizes “The end of History”. Today, liberalism’s far-reaching hegemony truly seems to stand unchallenged – especially in the Western world. The outcomes of Western political elections confirm this impression for they reveal that essentially all seats in parliament are occupied by liberalists of some kind. Although these liberal politicians may disagree on redistributive aspects, virtually none of them challenges the prevailing dogma of our time. That is, all agree that the role of the state consists of providing social services, supplying infrastructure and, above all, guarding private property and free markets.
Despite the overwhelming dominance of liberalist thought in public life, a significant number of people dream of societies based on different principles. A smaller number actively tries to challenge liberalist ideas as to create their earthly Utopia. Some of these activists intend to revive old dogmas, whereas others put their fate in new ideologies. Who are these people? And, what do they have to offer? In order to answer these and more questions, Rostra sets out on a journey through the margins of Dutch politics and interviews the idealists who aspire to shape the world of tomorrow.
I meet Jasper de Groot of the Dutch Libertarian Party on a rainy afternoon in Amsterdam. Right on time, Jasper arrives at the Coffee Company where the interview takes place. First, I wonder how this ordinary 23 year old Brabander can lead a political movement. But after a minute or so, I discover that his eyes start to twinkle the moment we commence discussing politics. The chairman of the libertarian party affirms that fundamental principles are no longer discussed in parliament, rather “most discussions are about tiny percentages”. When it comes to him and his libertarian party, this is about to change. The interview below offers an interesting snapshot of the society he envisions:
What is libertarianism all about?
The nonaggression principle is the most vital principle of libertarianism. According to this principle no one is allowed to attack the belongings or freedom of an individual. This might seem evident but, in contrast to what other parties believe, we believe that this principle should also apply to the government itself. That is, the state should be just another legal entity. Taxes, for instance, are imposed upon us. A libertarian disagrees with this practice and sees no fundamental difference between taxes and extortion. I have to add, though, that Libertarianism is an umbrella concept, which ranges from anarcho-capitalism – which opposes any form of government whatsoever – to classical liberalism. Our party falls within this latter denominator and advocates a night-watchman state.
According to your political program, libertarians “strive for a free World; a World in which no one is forced to sacrifice his or her freedom or property for the sake of others.” To what extent are our personal freedoms infringed upon under the current political system?
First, I want to recognize that we are way better off than people in, for instance, North-Korea. Nevertheless, we could be much more free than we are today. For example, think about the strict government policies that regulate the use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs. If you decide to use these substances, only you will bear the consequences. Still, the government forbids you to consume these products. Even more, the state can deprive you of your freedom and put you in jail for doing so. A similar argument holds for taxes. According to us man should be free to enjoy the fruits of his labor, but again, if you do not pay your taxes the state will imprison you. Unfortunately, few people realize how limited our freedom actually is. This has to do with the fact that we are accustomed to live in a society of limited freedom. Besides, most deterioration of our freedom happens gradually and therefore go by unnoticed.
Dutch tax revenues finance our social services and our infrastructure. Who else but the government can provide these services?
A significant amount of social services already existed before the state started to provide them. Previous to World War II, when the Netherlands was much poorer then now, two thirds of Dutch citizens had some form of private insurance. Labor unions had their own health care insurance programs and several private insurance companies offered means-tested benefits. During the German occupation, social services were brought under state command. The same argument holds for infrastructure, for the first roads were privately built. The market is very capable of creating social services and infrastructure. And when I say market I do not only refer to big businesses but also to co-operations and local collaborations.
Let’s try to clear things up: what would be the role of the state in a Libertarian society?
The libertarian party wants to minimize taxes and maximize personal liberty. For instance, if you want to build a house on your own ground, you should have the freedom to do so as long as that house and its construction do not affect the freedom of others. Furthermore, a libertarian state will not intervene in the rise of new initiatives like Uber and Flixbus, whilst today the state often impedes their ascent. This has to do with the fact that these businesses attack state monopolies. Flixbus, for example, is only allowed to offer their transport services on routes that do not harm the monopoly of the NS.
So we are free to do as we please as long as our actions do not harm state revenue?
Yes and no. Legislations of all kinds affect our freedom. Furthermore, it is not necessarily out of bad intentions that the state impedes new initiatives, but also because the state is a cumbersome machine. State bureaucracy and sluggish decision making slow down innovation. The internet, for instance, has been able to grow rapidly in an environment without legislation. Now that the state starts to regulate the internet, we witness a deceleration of innovation on that market.
In a libertarian society businesses would enjoy the freedom of unregulated markets. Among others, this implies that legislation aimed at preventing monopolies would be absent. That seems like a huge disadvantage for the average citizen.
The monopolies we have nowadays are the result of privileges provided by the state. The NS, for example, is the only company allowed to make use of the Dutch railway system. Because of the absence of competition, the NS can raise its prizes with a maximum while its services deteriorate. Almost all monopolies have originated in a similar fashion. In a libertarian society there would be no state to hand out privileges, neither would there be patents or copyrights. This would increase competition and, therefore, monopolists would not have as much power as they have today.
Should we not be afraid that big companies would become too powerful in the business Walhalla you propose?
In the current system businesses can increase their power by lobbying. A few years ago Philips lobbied for a ban on light bulbs. Why? Because Philips owned important patents in LED technology, but was not able to sell their expensive LED lamps in a market dominated by cheap light bulbs. In a libertarian society, companies are not able to manipulate legislation in order to eliminate competition. This would result in a society that is no longer dominated by big enterprise, a society with low entry barriers for small businesses. We see, for instance, that In states with a more liberal economy, like Hong Kong and Liechtenstein, young and small businesses flourish. The rich lists of these countries are filled with people that made their fortune in the last twenty years. Dutch rich lists, however, are dominated by old fortunes like those of the Heineken family.
In a minimal state there is no room for a social security system. What does this mean for the people at the bottom of the economic ladder?
In the current system the government is an unreliable partner. It arbitrarily changes the conditions under which you can apply for economic support. In some cases, the government can force people to work in exchange for allowances lower than minimum wage. We are in favor of abolishing minimal wage as to create more employment. Furthermore, social security can be perfectly provided for by private enterprise. Increased social dependence forms a positive side-effect of our plans. We often complain about the hardening of our society, which is exemplified by stories we read in the newspaper: an elderly woman that lies in her apartment for two months before someone finally discovers her death. Those stories are illustrative for the time we live in, a time in which the government plays to big a role in social security. We believe that, rather than the government, society should be most important. People often make the mistake to confuse the government with the society. The society is the people and the state is the organization on top of them.
In his book “Capital in the Twenty-First century” Piketty showed that capital outgrows wages. This implies that, without government intervention, the gap between rich and poor is destined to get bigger.
On the other hand research has shown that the fortune of rich families in the United States, where the economic liberty is larger than in the Netherlands, tend to vanish within a couple of generations, because younger generations squander the fortune. We believe that it is important to make a distinction between income equality and income mobility. According to us, the latter is more crucial. Internationally the Netherlands scores relatively well when it comes income equality. Income mobility, in contrast, is relatively low. This has to do with the fact that high labor taxes make it hard to gather capital. We also see that more free economies have higher income mobility.
So, individual freedom is of central importance for a libertarian. But rich people definitely have more possibilities than poor ones. Aren’t therefore the rich more ‘free’ than the poor?
That depends on your definition of freedom. We define freedom as the absence of coercion. It is true that you have more possibilities if you are rich, but you are not necessarily more free in the sense that you experience less coercion.
But circumstances often force the poor to make certain decisions.
Yes, but that constitutes another kind of coercion, one in which violence is absent. In our view, coercion limits itself to the use of force or the threat of doing so aimed at pushing people in a specific direction.
Your plea in favor of personal liberty must be based on an optimistic image of human nature. How well founded is this image?
A positive image of human nature is not strictly necessary for a libertarian. Some libertarians argue that, especially, if man were intrinsically bad, you should not give him the power to rule over others. Unfortunately, that power does exist today. Politicians, just people after all, determine how individual lives are arranged. We want to take the power of the 150 members of parliament and distribute it to 17 million Dutch citizens. If this is achieved, these 17 million people are forced to consider the interests of each other for social pressure and the threat of social exclusion will discipline them.
There is no example of a libertarian state in modern history. Can I say that you propose an experiment?
You are right, there is no example of a truly Libertarian state. We do see, however, that libertarian policies are effective. For example, the countries with the most free economies are among the most wealthy countries of the planet. We also see that the number of drug addicts is lower in states with a more free drug policy. In Czech Republic, where cocaine use has been decriminalized, cocaine use is lower than in any other European country.
Finally, how would a libertarian state behave in international conflicts like the war in Syria and the crisis in Ukraine?
That constitutes a hard topic, which we often discuss in our political meetings. On the one hand, we believe that state intervention in foreign conflicts should be minimized. The roots of these conflicts often lie in in the intervention of foreign powers. Think, for instance, about the rise of ISIL, which can be traced back to U.S. intervention in the region. On the other hand, the nonaggression principle allows us to intervene in international affairs as soon as individual liberties are under attack. This certainly holds in the case of ISIL. Ideally, foreign intervention would not depend on state financed armies, but would depend on donations and voluntary work.