Flats“The Virtue of the Labour Government.” Now there’s a sentence I never thought I would write. Those who have followed our musings for even just a little while will have seen our denunciation of much of what the Labour government has done. But they’re not all bad. Most them are as rotten as a bucket full of putrid eggs, dirty nappies and my unwashed socks, true, but there was a glimmer of hope last week.

Caroline Flint, the housing minister, suggested that perhaps unemployed people living in council and housing association houses should face the choice of trying to find work or losing their homes. Apologies for using the term “their” a little loosely in the last sentence; of course these homes are not “theirs” at all – they belong to the government, and thus to each and every taxpayer. The deal could be made by requiring new tenants to sign a “commitment contract” agreeing to look for work or face life without a roof over their head.

There is a lot in Ms Flint’s speech that I must gloss over: for instance her constant references to “social housing” was the proverbial fingernails down the blackboard for me every time I heard it. It sounds like the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a hippy commune. Or her underlying assumption that the issue is about how “we” [who’s that?] can best “serve” [what century is this?] the “needs of people” [I’m a person, I have needs too – why don’t I get a house?]. If the Labour Government would really like to serve my needs they could do it better by leaving me alone. Anyhow, gritting my teeth and holding my breath for 10 seconds I can let it go, for now. She rightly pointed out that there are far too many unemployed people who could be in work but aren’t. I could go on about how this government has created a “give me give me give me” culture through it’s insane social welfare system that actually traps people on benefits and thus has largely created the very problem that Ms Flint now bemoans but I’ll grit my teeth once more hold my breath for 10 more seconds and let it go, for now. The bones of what she said is true: many people claiming unemployment benefits, disability benefits, housing benefits, and other lazy-fucker benefits could find jobs if only they’d get up off their arses and try to find one [my words, not Ms Flint’s]. I agree.

Scandalous! Wouldn’t this be breaching the fundamental rights of every human being to have a home? Well, no it wouldn’t; at least not on a proper understanding of property rights. Everyone should have an equal right to property – true. But what does this mean? The only sensible and defendable understanding of property rights is that if you legally acquire property (buy it from someone at an agreed price, inherit it from your insane uncle Ned, win it in a bet from Gambling Greg, or receive it as a gift from some kindly individual) then no one can take it from you by force. You can choose to sell it, leave it to your nephew, gamble it away in Vegas, or give it up to a charity for homeless cats if you wish but no one – not even your government – should be able to deprive you of it. We don’t currently have full property rights in Britain: the government (and the Queen!) retain the right to cease your property if they want to build a new refuge for homeless people, or a new motorway, or some other worthy pursuit. My own parents lost their house to such a vesting order a few years ago – the government wanted to build new houses on the land, largely for unemployed people who won’t look for jobs. But full and proper property rights would mean that not even the Queen herself, or even the Messiah should he appear, could rightfully take your property without your consent. What a right to property certainly doesn’t mean is the right to be given property – since no one is under any obligation to provide and pay for property for any other person. In other words, why the hell should I be forced to give up a portion of my hard earned cash to provide property for someone else?

The government – and its largely socialist base – tends to see thing differently. They tell us their policies are “compassionate.” Really? Is it compassionate to take money forcibly from lots and lots of other people and give it to those who won’t bother even trying to fend for themselves? It’s not as if the cast of the unemployed is full of blind and deaf people with one arm and half a leg. Most benefits-suckers I have met – and I’ve met quite a few – see it as easy money. They’re comfortable nestling in the bosom of Nanny. In many cases it’s not even a case of an unemployed person: it’s generational – an unemployed grandfather, father, and now son following in daddy’s footsteps. Moreover statistics indicate that the number of unemployed people living it up at taxpayers expense is on the rise. To rephrase a Dire Straits song: “Money for nothing and a house for free.”

I must admit there are a whole host of problems associated with the practical implementation of Ms Flint’s proposal. The conservative party rightly questioned how workable or legally enforceable it was. After all, local councils have a statutory duty to house homeless families with children so they wouldn’t be able to legally evict them without giving them another house, which kind of defeats the purpose of eviction in the first place. There would also be the added problem of what to do with all the extra homeless people whose chance of a job without a postal address would become on a par with Britney Spears chances of regaining her sanity.

Critics have pointed to a number of other fairly serious problems. So, if Flint is still using the language of socialism, if the problems she wants to address are largely of her own government’s making, and if her suggestions are almost laughable at the practical level, why am I talking about the virtue of the Labour Government? Simply because it’s a step in the right direction. It signals a chance of moving from the current norms of government “handouts for lay-abouts.” It’s a small nod in direction of making people responsible for their own lives; that is, responsible for supporting their own life and well-being without expecting the nice hard-working people of “society” to do it all for them. Us libertarians are often labelled as ideologues: brutally pursuing an idea to its logical conclusion (perish the thought, eh!). And that’s true. We do that. But we’re also realists and know only too well that society isn’t going to libertarianise any time soon. So, unless we decide to go the route of being apolitical entirely we need to engage and even support policies we don’t fully agree with – simply because they represent that all important nod in the right direction, that one policy that might just make people think and change their minds about what society is, what individual rights are, the nature of personal responsibility, and entitlement.

Becoming a libertarian for me was like a religious conversion. At the time it seemed to happen in an instant. There’s a story in the Bible after the resurrection of Christ when he appears to two of his disciples on the Damascus road, but they don’t recognise him until suddenly “their eyes were opened” and they saw. That was like my conversion to libertarianism: it suddenly became obvious to me after all my years mind-washed in the collectivist thought that we are spoon fed from the cradle. It was like suddenly breaking free from a prison into light and fresh air where things started to make sense.

As I reflect back on those days (featuring endless conversions with my compadre John Wright on matters political and religious and everything else you’re not supposed to talk about) I realise that although my conversion to libertarianism seemed sudden at the time – like a Damascus road experience – it was the result of processes of thought that had begun long before it with little bits gradually slotting into place until I was ready to be awakened into a new way of thinking about society and politics. There is a school of thought that argues that we don’t get people to accept the foundations of our systems by arguing for them. Instead we do so by persuading on issues which are built on these principles. By doing so they inadvertently swallow the principle without knowing. I’m not a big fan of such methods. I’ve always favoured the philosophy of Star Wars’ Hans Solo: “I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around.” But the truth is undeniable: people do get persuaded of fundamental principles by being persuaded on matters based on these principles as much as by arguments for the principles themselves.

This all has application to the Labour Government’s proposal. They might well unleash forces opposed to their socialist philosophy through policies and proposals such as these. People might finally come to see that property is theirs – by right. That their life is theirs – by right. That others cannot leach off their efforts – by right. That we must support our own lives through our own productive efforts. No-one will turn to libertarianism through reflection on this proposal alone. But through raising these issues and asking these questions the seeds of revolution may be sown in a few hearts and minds, and a few links made in the chain that will ultimately lead to the freeing of others from their statist caves.

We can delight in the irony of a collectivist philosophy helping to sow the seeds of its own destruction. But this is what the Labour Government proposal can help to achieve.

Therein lies its virtue.