From Free Life No 21, November 1994
Fed up with Government?
Four Nations Publishing, Hereford, 1991, xv + 294 pp, £1.95
Mr Dykes and the Reform Party
There can be few hobbies as absorbing and as inexhaustible as constitution-mongering and political party-forging. Pronouncing on every conceivable subject that is dear to your heart; praising and blaming, with a sense of solemn duty, every figure and action in recent politics, at home and abroad; inflating and polishing your oratory; planning, in the dead of night, your very own cabinet-in-waiting, drawn from your friends and relatives, with a sprinkling of invited celebrities - these must, I imagine, put stamp-collecting and ballroom dancing in the shade. Some people play out table-top battles with model soldiers; the founder of a new party plays out political battles, past and future, in his imagination. And he does not have to bow to the roll of the dice: in imagination, he wins them, every one.
Nicholas Dykes spent, by his own account, nine years in working up the manifesto of the Reform Party, which finally appeared as Fed Up With Government? in 1991. The party itself, however, has apparently not appeared: in an addendum pasted to my copy of the book, Mr Dykes states that permanent illness has forced him to lay aside personal involvement with the party. He now offers the book at a reduced price in the hope that others will take up the challenge. Evidently he loved theory more than he desired power, or he would have gathered a Gang of Four around him who could have carried on.
Mr Dykes is a business writer. He was prompted to begin thinking about the need for a constitution for Britain, he explains, by the failings of the Conservative governments of 1979 onwards. To what extent he blames Margaret Thatcher for these is not clear: he idolises the lady, as he makes clear in several places. The causes of his dissatisfaction are such as any libertarian would cite, though many of them pierce the side of the businessman with special pain: the mismanagement of the currency, the hamstringing and near-asphyxiation of the economy. But he was also made indignant by British dealings with foreign dictators, from Amin to the communist Chinese.
A few of Mr Dykes' proposals
The book is crammed with proposals guaranteed to cheer the hearts of minimal-state libertarians and of would-be simplifiers of all persuasions. The powers of Parliament and of the prime minister are to be drastically reduced, and the idea that Parliament may legislate as it pleases is to be "eradicated". Government powers are to be limited constitutionally. Executive, legislature and judiciary are to be strictly separated. The prime minister is to be separately elected, and like the rest of the cabinet will not have a seat in parliament. The prime minister will not be permitted to "influence the law-making process"; he or she will be limited to the administration of parliament's laws, but will be free of the interference of parliament save by impeachment. Measures will become law only when passed by a straight majority of the full membership of both elected houses - not by a majority of those actually voting. The seven members of the cabinet will have security of tenure during the prime minister's term of office, being subject to dismissal only by the House of Peers, the elected upper chamber of parliament.
Income tax is to be set at low rates, with no allowances or deductions: a flat rate of ten percent on gross incomes over £10,000 is suggested, with lower, continuously graded rates for lower incomes, and voluntary payment on incomes below £3,000. Tax-evaders presently in prison are to be released, since their supposed crimes are understandable and justifiable.
Companies are to be taxed on either turnover or margins, not on profits - hence none will escape tax. Duties, excises and so on are to be rationalised and set at low rates. Budgets are to be balanced and all debts cleared by the end of each prime minister's term of office.
Parliament and government
Doubtless in the Reform Party's congresses and electoral campaigns we should learn some answers to questions that the present book does not adequately address. For example, Mr Dykes does not spell out clearly his reasons for preferring the parliamentary arrangements outlined above, so strongly reminiscent of the US presidency. And since the American system has some pretty major and obvious failings, such as runaway pork-barrelling, he really should explain more clearly why these failings should not appear in a similar British system.
Since all the powers of government are going to be so drastically reduced, Mr Dykes does not hesitate to tilt the balance in favour of regional government against central. The elected second house, though smaller than the lower chamber, will consist of seats allocated to revived traditional counties and "great cities". County and borough councils will be highly independent of central government and will raise their own funds by any means they choose, subject only to limitations on tax rates set by the upper chamber. Each local government will consist of two houses, one containing elected, the other appointed, members.
Similarly, constituencies will fund their MPs themselves, and will design their own voting systems. These will be subject only to the constitutional requirement that MPs shall be elected by a straight majority, whether this be achieved by run-off voting, or some system of weighted second preferences. Mr Dykes is strongly against proportional representation. The Reform Party "advocates" that local government have no involvement with health, education, housing or welfare, which will be the responsibility of central government. But Mr Dykes does not explain how this abstinence will be enforced.
The right of Scotland and Wales to govern themselves is conceded, but Mr Dykes will try to persuade them that they will get all the autonomy they want if they federate with an England governed on Reform Party principles. So where I speak of Britain herein, I mean whatever coalition emerges from this negotiation.
The solution of the problem of Northern Ireland is pretty radical: persuade Ireland to govern itself on Reform Party principles, "with a very high degree of local autonomy", and then to accept a loose federation with the three other nations of Britain.
If the republic were 'with' Britain again, Northern Irish loyalty to Britain, as opposed to Ireland, would have no rational basis. (p.239)
And without a rational basis the conflict would wither, of course. While we're waiting for these small changes to happen, I wonder which of the independent British nations will volunteer to run Northern Ireland? The Scots are nearest.
At the same time the central government will be forbidden to cede any of its sovereignty to any foreign power. "Britain" will have to get out of the European Union, while earnestly trying to persuade the EU not to raise tariff barriers against us. She will withdraw diplomatic recognition from countries that do not meet stringent criteria of democracy, and will distance herself from the United Nations. The Reform Party will propose setting up a League of Free Nations, whose moral authority and prosperity will soon make the UN unimportant. (pp. 232ff)
Reform Party Britain would not dream - or would not have dreamt, if it had come to birth in time - of handing Hong Kong over to the Communist Chinese (pp. 236-7). Mr Dykes is extremely indignant about this. He really should have given us a little explanation, just a word or two, about the nuclear threats Britain would have to make to keep the city free. He speaks only of an international trade, sporting and diplomatic boycott. But his silence is understandable. Not even Margaret Thatcher would regard a willingness to make war on 800 million Chinese as an election-winner.
Mr Dykes is willing to initiate economic warfare on our behalf elsewhere. Ships "benefiting from subsidies by foreign governments" are to be denied free access to British ports. So British consumers are to be prevented from benefiting from those subsidies. There is no mention of restricting foreign planes and French trains on the same grounds: nor of starting up an economic war over the countless imported goods that are government-subsidised in their country of origin. Such omissions make me wonder why Mr Dykes chooses certain topics to bang the drum about, and about the solidity of his commitment to free trade.
The Fundamental Laws of Great Britain
Almost everything in this book is a proposal rather than a commitment - a proposal to be put before the first congress of the Reform Party, whenever that might occur; so it is rather hard to tell what are core policies and what are not. As far as I can see, the only policy that the Reform Party is committed to putting to the electorate is that an explicit British constitution, comprising the Fundamental Laws of Great Britain, will be created, and that this will be done gradually by means of a series of referenda.
I would like to know what guarantees there are that the electorate will approve of the libertarian measures that Mr Dykes and I would like to see. For example, if tax rates are to be kept low they will presumably have to be controlled by the constitution, and therefore will have to be the subject of a referendum; but on this topic what possible question could be put? Perhaps whether tax should be fixed-rate or progressive? I see no reason why the people should not vote for a steeply progressive income tax. Even if they like the fixed-rate idea, that means nothing until rates are specified, and that is a question too complex for a referendum. And this leaves the question of other forms of tax untouched. Mr Dykes does not propose to abolish duties and other forms of commodity tax - on the contrary, VAT is to be broadened to cover all retail sales. Its rate is to be lowered, of course, to five percent; but how is a constitution specified by referendum going to control this?
State unemployment insurance will become a "genuine insurance scheme run by a mutual society independent of government" (p. 279). Participation will be voluntary. So tax expenditure will be reduced essentially to advertising the necessity to join this or some other private scheme (p. 220). But Mr Dykes does not explain why even this residual government activity should be necessary.
The book is packed with source material for an Anthology of Famous Last Words:
It should also be pointed out here that the Reform Party plan to end unemployment by shifting resources from welfare to work is purely and simply a temporary expedient. True, the country is crying out for a proper road system. True, the funds are available, if one cuts welfare payments, to create the best roads in the world. True, the Reform Party will do just that. But the long-term Reform plan is to allow private companies to create virtually all employment - by removing the regulations and taxes which currently inhibit them from doing so. The Reform does not anticipate that its infrastructure expenditure programme will last more than a decade, at the outside. (pp. 219-20)
There are some grim threats: state expenditure will be switched from welfare to
necessary and/or worthwhile infrastructure and other projects, such as new hospitals, improved roads and railways, sea defences, pollution control, etc; as well as additional spending on police, and more effective spending on defence. In this manner, ample work will be available for skill levels all over the country, unemployment will cease, and those currently on welfare will have nothing to fear.
How can we take the free-market rhetoric seriously when there are substantial passages like this? It could have come straight from the manifesto of any conventional party. When Mr Dykes claims that the government's income tax take will be undiminished, and perhaps even increased, by lower rates of taxation, it becomes clear that the government's grip on the economy would scarcely be loosened by the Reform Party - despite the much-to-be-desired abolition of interventionist nonsense like the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, consumer protection acts, and the rest of it.
Law and order
Mr Dykes believes that prison should be a place of punishment. Prisoners will do productive work twelve hours per day, six days per week. The most terrible punishment of all: they will have to forego cigarettes and sweets, eat plain food and drink milk or water. Thieves will forfeit their right to property until full restitution has been made to their victims. Mr Dykes is firmly against the death penalty, because the consequences of a mistaken conviction are so grave; but murderers would never be set free.
But Mr Dykes reveals himself as a humane man. "The institutions should be warm, bright, and clean, with one person per cell, and devoid of inhuman practices such as 'slopping out'." Conjugal visits would be permitted, "so that prison shall be a place of correction, not of degradation. . Corporal punishment, if restored, would not be permitted in prison [but] administered before the prison sentence began." (pp. 136-37.)
Mr Dykes would remove the TV sets from prison, but permit literature "of literary merit or devoted to some trade or profession". I'm sure it's purely coincidental that Mr Dykes is a business writer. But I'm not at all sure about the "literary merit". Good literature is dangerous fare. Dickens, Orwell, Sartre, Lawrence . all would presumably qualify as literature of quality, but all could easily rot the prisoners' moral fibre by reinforcing their conviction that society has wronged them. One could have fun drawing up a personal beauty parade of edifying literature, and no two people - not even any two libertarians - will agree on its membership. This is the kind of absurdity that one is tempted into when one starts to regard prison as a place of psychological engineering as well as straightforward retribution and restraint.
State policing will be greatly expanded, though "local communities" will have the right to set up their own forces and private police firms will be permitted to compete for custom. The government will merely "determine safe ways of restoring the right of citizens" to carry and use weapons to defend themselves. (What "safe ways" are there? The way to restore a right is to restore it.)
Private courts for civil cases will be permitted. But this seems to be the only proposal that might do something to speed up the work of the criminal courts.
Coming off the fence
Necessarily, the Reform Party manifesto has to take positions that many libertarians will disagree with.
Abortion is an easy case, according to Mr Dykes. Just as the right to life is self-evident, so is the fact that this right begins at birth and not before, and that the new-born child immediately acquires the same rights as an adult (p. 287). Anyone who thinks otherwise is the victim of a misunderstanding.
Not all ethical questions are so simple, of course. For example, the full force of a government commission will be needed "to determine legally, for once and for all, the extent to which animals have rights" (p.281). And
Another vital need is to determine the facts of environmental problems before deciding what action, if any, is needed. (p.191)
Mr Dykes seriously believes the twin absurdities that such questions can be settled and that government committees are the way to do it.
Reform Party statism
Clearly the Reform Party's proposals are a long way from anarchism. Although the Bank of England is to be privatised, currency is to remain in the control of the government; but it will be based on a gold standard, so we have to believe that all will be well. A national lottery will raise extra revenue - which it will hardly be able to do unless private competitors are somehow thwarted. Major roads are to be privatised eventually, bundled with neighbouring railway lines, and names for the resulting companies, such as "the Great Eastern" and "the Scottish and Northern", are obligingly suggested.
But I doubt that privatisation will happen very soon, considering the opportunity that roads offer for some wizard wheezes of social engineering. Apparently things will be very much better in Britain after an enormous government road-building programme has been carried through. Tunnels will be freely employed in place of bypasses and bridges, London's road system will be redesigned, crawler lanes will be multiplied, and motorway signs will be made even bigger. (Mr Dykes attaches great importance to the last point. I can only hope that the first Reform Party-dominated parliament will have better eyesight.) Evidently the Reform will have to get elected not only without the help of the Green and hard-core socialist vote, which is to be expected, but also without that of countless Tory nimbys. Road-building seems to be the major government activity in the Reform Party future, and will soak up many of the residual unemployed, allegedly a million or so, who will remain when unemployment benefit to the able-bodied is abolished.
I can't share Mr Dykes' optimism that:
...once the reduction in government activity suggested by the Reform Party had been carried through, Parliamentary business would be so diminished that the legislature would probably sit for less than three months a year - as it used to in times gone by. (p.75)
Or, to take one example of a reduction in welfare payments:
Child benefit would be wound down quickly. The payment is small enough that dropping it will cause no great hardship and the recipients will be amply compensated by jobs and tax cuts. In all cases public works programmes would be initiated all over the country as cuts were made so that there would be no hardship. (p.216)
We have been warned. Another public works programme would always be available to fend off the howls from pressure-group spokespeople.
Mr Dykes thinks it outrageous that when state monopolies were privatised, their shares were sold off instead of being distributed free of charge to the population at large. But he doesn't apply that principle to, say, the environment: the care of selected areas is to be put in the hands of countryside trusts. How do you define the aims of a trust while permitting the ability to redefine them as the world changes, other than by simply permitting the market to operate?
In fact there will be many other state enterprises under the Reform Party - hospital-building , sea defences, pollution control. "Infrastructure" will be as handy a term for this government as for today's opposition parties.
Nannyism pervades the Reform Party's proposals. Broadcasting frequencies are to become private property, but they are to be allocated in the first instance by a national authority to "bona fide broadcasting companies", and if they are unused, they are to revert to the authority for reallocation. As a criterion for interference, a future government would find it a short step from "non-use" to "inadequate" or "inappropriate" use.
Who wants to party?
Is a libertarian party such as the Reform Party a good thing for the cause of libertarianism?
Libertarians who don't
The majority of libertarians with whom I come in contact think not. Some say that it diverts energy from the essential task of spreading libertarianism among the "higher-order intellectuals"; when this has been done, libertarianism will trickle down automatically to the lower orders.
But I don't think that political activity is a diversion: I doubt that in the US any worthwhile libertarian propagandists have been side-tracked from their vocation by involvement with the Libertarian Party. Those who love politicking will politick, and those who love ideology will write and talk. Only bad writers will, mercifully, be distracted by the charms of envelope-stuffing for the party.
Other libertarians say that you can't achieve a good end by bad means. It's generally anarchists who take this line: they say that, since the state and its works are wrong, libertarianism will lose its way hopelessly if it tries to use them to promote freedom. (I suppose minimal-statists could consistently take this line too, arguing that excessive-statist means can't lead to minimal-statist ends, but that position seems a little tortuous.) However, I haven't noticed anarchists taking an agnostic line on current affairs. They seem to have their heroes and villains among political figures, causes and events. I don't see that anyone who expresses enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher or for reduced gun control can claim that society cannot be improved by piecemeal measures.
Yet others might say that a libertarian party can't retain electoral power because the mass of voters will blame it for the unacceptable face of freedom. In a free society there will be slums and no political mechanism for "doing something" about them; there may (we don't know) be more drug addicts; there will be unnatural deaths of all kinds that are thwarted in our society (deaths of teenagers in ritual combat, workers taking risks for high pay, adventurers taking risks for glory . ). The alarmed electorate will turn away from the party that has nothing to say but "let the market decide" to the ones that promise to "do something".
I don't think there is much to worry about on this score. People will interpret their experience according to their beliefs. When the idea of freedom is loved, events and activities that would seem shocking to today's electorate will be palatable if they are regarded as the inevitable accompaniment of freedom.
Some libertarians take another line, with which I agree: that by the time a libertarian party has a prospect of winning, the other parties and a large sector of wider society will have been largely influenced by libertarian ideas anyway. In this case there will be no prospect of attracting votes from the other parties, nor any great need to do so. I think this true. Of which, more below.
Libertarians who do
Some libertarians believe that a libertarian party is a good thing. As I said above, minimal-statists are likely to believe that making the state progressively less bad is a moral and a constructive policy to pursue; and many anarchists, of whom I'm one, can agree. It would be nice to experience a lightening of the statist yoke before we're all too much older, even if this gives us all less to denounce.
And when propaganda is so important for the libertarian cause, what better propaganda could there be than a party getting its share of media attention? Even "first-order intellectuals" listen to the "Today" programme.
I don't know, by the way, which "order" of intellectuals we're supposed to be aiming for nowadays. When Purpose and Strategy of the Libertarian Alliance declared in 1981 that it was the second-order intellectuals who counted, it was already hopelessly out of date. With a free-market leader of the Conservative Party already in place, the message had obviously got much further down the pecking order. By now it must be the fifth- or sixth-order intellectuals, whoever they're supposed to be, that are awaiting conversion. Getting a libertarian party talked about would be a highly effective means of getting to them.
The inevitability of libertarian parties
Actually, the question of the rights and wrongs of forming a libertarian party is completely academic. Among the countless effects of libertarianism's ideological success will be the formation of libertarian parties. Lots of them. There will probably be pro- and anti-death-penalty, pro- and anti-abortion, pro- and anti-children's-rights libertarian parties. These and all the other standard points of divergence among libertarians can be combined in endless ways with different views on less familiar questions such as the right constitutional status for the nations of Britain, the organisation of government, and all the other questions raised in the book under review. So the Reform Party's constituency will be thoroughly diluted long before it comes within reach of power.
And of course, all the little libertarian parties will destroy each other's chances of power. There will be no chance of their getting themselves elected by forming a coalition or sharing out the constituencies that they'll contest - an anti-abortionist libertarian won't vote for a pro-abortionist libertarian.
But whether libertarian party activists are in reach of power or not and whether they're in the public eye or not, libertarian ideologues will find them at least as worth talking to as BBC journalists or mainstream politicians or student unions. There should be no question of "opposing" a libertarian party if this means what it means in the world of party politics: refusing to cooperate with it, refusing to acknowledge the existence of points of agreement, concealing difficulties in one's own position, resorting to dirty tricks. This has nothing to do with the world of ideological debate.
The keys of power
There is nothing of all this in Mr Dykes' book. He and the Reform Party are much too far from any sort of presence in the political world to have to resort to party-political manoeuvrings. The realities of messy political compromise are far in the future. Principle and reason pervade the pages of Fed Up With Government?
But they are mixed in with quite a few of Mr Dykes' hobby-horses. For example, the trimmed-down, efficient Civil Service of the future will do away with their old-fashioned QWERTY-layout keyboards and replace them with the up-to-date designs that Mr Dykes read about in the Telegraph the other day (pp. 211-12). The QWERTY design will go into "an honourable, well deserved retirement" as he characteristically puts it. In addition, the Reform Party will nag keyboard manufacturers about how best to go about their business. Most appalling of all, it will introduce rationalised spelling into government work. What chance would there be of rolling back the frontiers of the state when a spelling reformer had his hands on power?
But there are a great many provocative ideas in this book, and it is a handy stimulus to doing one's own thinking on these subjects. I had been warned in advance that it was probably a self-published rant by a political crank. (Cheeky, this, coming from the Editorial Director of the Libertarian Alliance.) I was pleasantly surprised to find it clear and well written. I do not think the Reform Party or any other libertarian party will come to power. But I believe the existence of such parties, making as much noise as possible, can powerfully advance the libertarian cause.
See also Nicholas Dykes' reply in fl22 and Chris Cooper's counter-reply in fl23.