Fellow United Politics contributor Samuel Hamilton wrote a piece last week defending French authorities’ decision to warn a Muslim shop owner he has to sell alcohol and pork or face closure. Doing so, he argued, conserved “a relatively insignificant part of their life and identity – the cold beer after work, the bacon sandwich on a Sunday morning – as a means of conserving traditional values and liberty for a few ordinary French citizens.”
Leaving aside the idea of a bacon butty being a French tradition, my issue with Samuel’s arguments is his conflating conservatism with libertarianism, calling out the latter for defending the shop owner in this instance. “It seems that many conservatives have forgotten that our primary responsibility is to ‘conserve’ and that the pursuit of liberty and freedom of the markets is virtuous only after we have conserved the things that make them possible” he says. The problem with this analysis is that libertarians don’t see liberty and freedom of the markets as the goals to be achieved by the values Samuel espouses, but rather the very means to promote and secure those values.
He is right that the fundamental guiding principles of libertarianism, free trade and free speech, form the cornerstone – to varying degrees – of western civilisation, and that the biggest threat to those principles today is Islamism. But where Samuel falls down is in his assertion that “total ideological freedom is not and has never been desirable in a free country. And where an anti-libertarian religion spills into the bounds of ideological or political influence, we should see that it is curtailed.” Generally speaking he would be right, but in this instance he is calling on the state to do that curtailing, and that’s where he loses me. The only answer to bad speech, is more speech. We shouldn’t be calling on the state to limit the freedom of ideologies we disagree with. The danger in that should be self-evident. Only by ensuring complete freedom of speech, do we guarantee that bad ideas are effectively challenged, and that good ideas gain traction and win out. The marketplace of ideas should be a free trading one, not a protectionist one.
When it comes to avoiding political influence of ‘anti-libertarian religions’, the simplest way is to ensure that political institutions are entirely secular. It’s an area where we fall disappointingly short in this country. From having an established church and bishops in the house of lords, to the continuing state funding of faith schools, we have a long way to go if we want to lead by example and refute the notion that religious ideology should be conferred on us by our executives.
But when it comes to the public at large, if we believe in the free market and free speech, we should rely on them to provide the outcomes we desire. I abhor Halal slaughter and so try to avoid any shops or restaurants where the products sold are prepared that way. Similarly, if the residents of Colombes disagree with the ideology behind the store, nobody is forcing them to shop there. Being on the outskirts of Paris, I’m sure they can quite easily find their booze and bacon elsewhere. And if they do, in large numbers, eventually the store will no longer be a viable business and the problem goes away by itself, without state intervention. That is precisely the outcome that libertarians, and supposedly conservatives, are supposed to champion.