On liberalism and government control

My first exposure to political ideologies took place in 2004, when I joined the now-defunct (but then brilliant) social networking site Orkut. While filling up my personal details, I was asked to pick my political beliefs from a drop-down.

It had things such as “left-liberal”, “very left-liberal”, “right-conservative”, etc. Now, while I considered myself liberal back then (I’ve moved far more liberal on personal freedom issues since then), there was no way I could describe myself as “left”, since I’ve always been a free market fundamentalist. Finally I noticed there was something called “libertarian” in the dropdown, and assumed it might stand for my beliefs and chose that. In hindsight, it turns out I was right (no pun intended).

A year or two later, I got introduced to a “libertarian cartel” (I was never a member, so don’t know who were members). Presently, I was invited to join some of them in discussions, and my love for the libertarian philosophy grew (these discussions were instrumental in me moving far more liberal on personal freedom issues). Yet, looking around the political spectrum, you had few libertarian parties (going across countries).

You had the set of parties that can be broadly classified as “Republican” which allowed you to do business the way you liked, but sought to restrict personal freedoms. And there were the parties that can be classified as “Democrat” which promoted personal freedoms, but restricted how you could do business. And you had philosophies such as communism which sought to control both. The “fourth quadrant” was (and is) largely empty.

It is not hard to understand why this fourth quadrant is empty – in exchange for responsibilities of governing, politicians desire power, and this power can only come at the cost of restricting freedoms of the constituents. Different political formations choose to exercise this power along different axes, but little differentiates them – they all seek to control. While libertarianism is appealing for the constituent, it doesn’t make sense for politicians since it doesn’t compensate sufficiently for the responsibility of  governance. Hence you don’t find libertarian political parties.

Yet, we find that slowly but surely, reforms do happen. Over time, restrictions on freedoms (both personal and economic) do get relaxed, albeit at a glacial pace, and this is true across countries, despite there being no “libertarian” politicians. Why does this happen?

The simplistic answer is that politicians in functioning democracies have to face lengthy periods of time in opposition, when they are at the mercy of the party that is then in power. Since politicians tend to be vindictive animals, you don’t want to leave behind any laws that might be used to harass you while you are out of power. So the ruling party should tend to ease restrictions that can be used against its members when they are out of power.

Again, this is fine in theory, but why does it not always happen? The answer is that opposing political parties are not “orthogonal enough”. If politicians on multiple sides of the divide have broadly similar ideas on certain issues, there can be a tacit understanding (a “doctrine of no first use”, perhaps) to not use the laws that they agree on against each other.

When you have parties that have orthogonal philosophies, you can expect them to do their bit while in power to undermine the sources of their rivals’ control, so that their rivals might enjoy less control the next time they are in power. And citizens in such democracies are likely to enjoy greater freedoms.

As the old saying (paraphrased) goes, “when politicians from all parties agree to something, it is unlikely to be in the interests of the people”.