THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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For this, she pays council tax. There really is no escape from the British state

Can a libertarian be socially conservative?

The controversy about Suzanne Moore's "Brazilian transsexual" article is typical of much civil (and uncivil) discourse in Britain today. I have little to add to that discussion directly, but it set me thinking about the wider problems of tolerance in Britain and the way our political system now works.

It's hilarious to see Suzanne Moore, a thought policewoman par excellence, made to do the ideological perp walk by others of her authoritarian ilk, but there is also a serious issue. As a libertarian, my stance on this, as on every other, issue is "whatever works for you," provided you don't use force or fraud to get it and that you don't therefore hurt anyone else in any meaningful way. In this weak and lily-livered age, it is sadly necessary to add here that "meaningful hurt" does not include causing offence or, more precisely (as the offended always have a choice) presenting an opportunity for others to take offence. It might horrify your former spouse, for example, that you want to be surgically altered to approximate the same sex as him or her, but - sorry though I might feel for them in their injured pride - they have no right not to be horrified.

For me, this is as far as politics goes on this or any other subject. That there are legal issues to be decided on how to treat post-op transsexuals is merely a consequence of unnecessary legal distinctions between men and women. If our laws made no such distinctions, there would be no need to write "M" or "F" on birth certificates or other official forms. Transsexuals and even those unable to decide to which sex they really belong would then present no legal difficulties. As politics, properly understood, is just a debate about what our laws should say and how our institutions should apply them, there would then be no political issue either.

Many seem to feel that this is not enough. Not only should we tolerate others different needs and choices, we must actively approve them or face legal penalties. Conversely if others make choices we would never make ourselves, we should seek to change the law to penalise them. Worst of all, if we don't seek the enactment of such laws, we shall be deemed to approve their "wrong" choices. To me, this is the central error at the heart of modern politics. It seeks to deny the importance of everything in society except law, which is a fundamental mistake.

Law is a modest tool of limited application. Most good things in human society are the product of voluntary behaviours. If we are not assaulted as we walk down the street, it is not because there are laws against it. If that were so, it would never happen - and of course it sometimes does. We are usually safe because most people freely choose not to assault us; indeed have no desire to do so. Criminal laws are really only addressed to the nasty, violent minority who generally ignore them. Remove the relevant laws and crime would rise, not because more people would choose to be criminals, but because we would lose the basis to take criminals - the only true "causes of crime" - off the streets. As witness the results when, as in modern Britain, you leave the crimes on the statute book but fail to apply the penalties.

Social constraints, morality and intrinsic human goodness mostly make society work. The law is just there to pick up the pieces when they fail. Which brings me to my final point. Just because I don't think something should be illegal, does not by any means suggest that I approve of it. There are many behaviours that would exclude people from my social circle; many that would make me dislike someone and refuse to socialise, work with them or give them my custom. I choose mostly to associate with people who live their lives in a way that I find comfortable, safe and - ideally - pleasant. The fact that I tolerate people who live in other ways and decry any attempt to penalise them does not make me their friend.

I am a Libertarian. I am also a social conservative. But I am not a Social Conservative. Social conservatives live their own lives by traditional values and encourage their family and friends to do so, whereas Social Conservatives try to force others to do so. It is the Right's version of the Left's standard authoritarianism and is just as obnoxious. The relentless encroachment of law in our lives is because too many of us, regardless of our politics, are failing to distinguish between tolerance and approval and intolerance and disapproval. If you approve of my way of life, that's fine but it's also optional. You are free to disapprove, say so, and shun me. However you have no moral right to force me to change unless my way of life involves using force or fraud against you.

To put it another way, you are unlikely to become my friend if you don't approve of my way of life, but you will only become my enemy if you seek to use force to change it. All I ask of you is that you reciprocate.