“If we cut taxes, we can actually raise Government revenue.” This is the standard argument of a great many libertarians when discussing issues with the public or among intellectual opponents. In most cases, however, those very same libertarians want to cut the size of the state and see government revenue fall. Unfortunately, this sentiment is common among libertarians, and it is deeply dangerous to the cause for liberty.
The essence of this issue is as follows: Adopting politically expedient principles to attain short-term gains is ultimately detrimental to an ideology’s long term progress, and integrity. Although this practice certainly moves us to our end goal quicker in the short term, in the long term, it fatally undercuts our cause. Consider the following examples:
Libertarians will often proudly and publicly support the legalisation of marijuana. Indeed, they are right to do so and the public support libertarians in this goal. However, when debating this issue, or when asked, we shall often hesitate to state, in fact, that we are also in favour of legalising all hard drugs, such as heroin, as well.
We instead deliver a false reasoning, one which we do not fully believe in. It may proceed along the lines of stating that heroin is too addictive or that cocaine does too much harm to the user, while marijuana does very little to none, no more than alcohol for example.
This furthers the libertarian agenda in the short term. The person you are talking to will see you as a reasonable individual, will not be put off by your views, and may well convert to being in favour of legalising marijuana. However, by denying your ultimate end you reaffirm your opponent’s position and make it harder to realise your ambitions in the long term.
In this example you are reaffirming the idea that government is there to protect individuals from themselves, for example from paternalism. You are saying that government is warranted in stopping people from harming themselves.
In stating that the government is warranted in stopping people from harming themselves, you are now simply setting an arbitrary line for how much harm an individual can do to himself, a line that you know does not exist. You are betraying the libertarian agenda and behaving as an intellectual bankrupt.
The “Laffer Curve” argument, for my neoliberal readers, poses the same issue. The theory suggests that there is a trade off between tax cuts and tax revenues.
If the neoliberal’s central justification for cutting taxes is that such cuts will maximise revenue, he is committing a great intellectual sin. This argument implicitly agrees with the socialist notion that the state should be as large as possible.
When neoliberals find that that they are at the peak of the Laffer Curve and wish to cut taxes further, how do they intend to react when socialist rightly use their argument against them?
Yet again, in the pursuit of a short-term goal, for example, cutting the 45p rate to 40p, the neoliberal has made it harder to move from 40p to the desired flat rate of, say, 20p.
In the process of using the Laffer Curve it has been conceded that the state should not be small, reaffirming the socialist notion that it should be as large as possible.
Imagine, instead of wading through custard at a steady speed, the neoliberal has decided to wade through 10m of water, only to then wade through 90m of treacle.
At a deeper philosophical level, the Laffer Curve argument implies the belief that individuals are simply there to have as much taken out of them as possible. To argue with socialists and social democrats on this point is to accept their position of the collective being more important than the individual.
It is to concede the very essence of liberalism. It is simply to argue that socialists are plucking the goose ineffectively, and not to say that the goose should not be plucked at all. To argue over an economic technicality is to concede the moral grounds to the opposition.
From all the examples, one thought should be clear: Libertarians, classical liberals and neo-liberals should never concede the grounds of debate to our opponents in the pursuit of short-term gain by operating on our opponent’s terms.
The prospect of changing one policy tomorrow may be enticing, especially for those in the think tank community, but the temptation must always be resisted.
Hayek outlined in “The Intellectuals & Socialism” that history is determined by the “second-hand dealers” of ideas. If the second-hand dealers of ideas on our side continually fail to challenge the assumptions of the statists, we are certain to lose the battle of ideas.
This is a prospect we must never face. The Overton Window will only ever be decisively shifted in our direction if we are prepared to make the extreme case for our positions.
The debate regarding strategy outlined in this piece is between gradualism, on the one hand, and abolitionism on the other.
Gradualism in intellectual debate (that is between academics, columnists, bloggers, and wonks) is always a sacrifice of the ‘ultimate end’ in the long term.
Instead we, on the liberal side of the debate, should adopt a staunch abolitionism. The path to liberty will be slower in the short term, but in the long term it shall move us there at a far greater pace.
The time has come to fight the opposition on our own grounds; the time has come to compromise no more.
The ideas represented in this article are not reflective of the values held by UCL Conservatives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely representative of the author.