Why libertarian groups should not take government money

EU_enlargements_map 150x150 It is difficult to think of anything more hypocritical than libertarian groups taking state money. But worryingly the vast majority of organisations in continental Europe that style themselves as ‘free-market’, ‘libertarian’ and ‘classical liberal’ are funded with money appropriated from taxpayers. And given that libertarians in the US and UK spend a great deal of time arguing against foreign aid, it is rather ironic, to say the least, that many of these groups have been willing recipients of aid money from the US, EU and other governments.

This is not just a matter of principle. The government money has typically been tied to particular research projects and events programmes. These have promoted policy agendas that a high proportion of libertarians would find deeply objectionable and that bear little relation to genuine free markets.

Unsurprisingly there is a close correlation between such output and key priorities of the European Commission and US economic/foreign policy. Thus one observes a plethora of reports and events on deepening European integration and harmonisation; on strengthening the protection of ‘intellectual property rights’ – a particular focus of US lobbying; on cracking down on the informal economy (Konkin must be turning in his grave); on introducing pseudo-markets, coercive welfare systems and sham privatisations; and on entrenching the special privileges of large corporations through rigged-trade agreements such as TTIP.

Needless to say, senior figures at these organisations have frequently been prominent apologists for US foreign policy, even if this has meant completely betraying basic libertarian principles. Many of these state-funded bodies have also enjoyed an unhealthily close relationship with political elites, particularly in some of the smaller central and eastern European countries. Staff have often gone on to assume senior positions within governments, while some organisations have engaged in detailed policy engineering in cooperation with state bureaucracies.

Such politicisation is tempting – concrete examples of political influence make it easier to attract donations from special interests. But it’s also very dangerous. It increases the temptation to sell-out on principle and distorts research priorities towards those areas most helpful to political elites, while deterring organisations from criticising their political patrons. Worse still, it can do serious long-term damage to the libertarian/free-market movement when initially sensible policies are captured, distorted and rendered dysfunctional by state agencies, politicians and vested interests. Take the numerous botched privatisation programmes that resulted in crony capitalism and/or inefficient rigged markets. Fed through the government grinder, they have brought immense discredit on libertarian ideas.

This is not to say that the overall impact of these government-funded groups has necessarily been negative. Often they have been effective at raising awareness of the dangers of heavy taxation and high inflation, for example. Their agenda may well be preferable to many of the other statist traditions in the region. Perhaps the main objection is therefore their use of terminology – how they describe themselves as libertarian and free-market, pepper their literature with the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, when in reality they are promoting a particular model of state-capitalism that largely serves certain special interests in the West. And given their prominence, there must be a danger that potential libertarians in Europe will be led astray. Students may not realise that the ‘libertarian’ events they attend or websites they visit are funded by the EU, German government or USAID, and accordingly promote worldviews that differ markedly from genuine libertarianism.

Finally, it should be noted that it is unlikely to be in these organisations’ own interest to continue taking government money. Their dependence on state funds undermines their credibility, not only with the wider libertarian/free-market movement, but also among ‘opinion formers’ in their own countries. At worst, they risk being viewed as sock puppets for the US and EU, particularly as the rise of the internet and social networking makes it increasingly difficult for them to keep their state-funding secret.

These groups have important lessons to learn from organisations that have enjoyed sustained, long-term success in the US and the UK: don’t take government money, stick to your principles, and keep politicians at arm’s length.

Unless otherwise stated, all articles on this website are written in a personal capacity.

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