Right after the elections of 22 May 2014, in which UKIP made significant headway, I resumed catching up on Harvard’s course on justice. It is available to anyone who has access to the internet; the material usually stays online after a course has finished. (Register for EDX and then sign up for the course, even if it took place in the past.) It discusses various principles and moral ideas and their connections to the application of justice.
I was not highly aware of what UKIP is, other than that it is a nationalist party. I think that essentially, all parties promote the idea of sticking together, except that some apply it only to their own small circle and others to a much larger whole, sometimes including those with different views and different backgrounds.
I became curious.
Then I noticed something that seems peculiar to me. In its constitution, according to Wikipedia, UKIP describes itself as a democratic, libertarian party (Objective 2.5).
The word ‘democratic’ stands for ‘of or according to democracy’ and ‘supporting or constituting democracy’, according to my Oxford Reference Dictionary. It describes ‘democracy’ as ‘government by all the people, direct or representative’ and ‘a form of society ignoring hereditary class distinctions and tolerating minority views’.
But what does ‘libertarian’ mean? The word is not in my dictionary, but libertarianism and its ideas happen to be part of Harvard’s course on justice. I am sure that my current understanding of libertarianism is much too simple, but in spite of that, it puzzles me that UKIP calls itself libertarian and that its views have become so popular.
Libertarianism is a political philosophy, one of the theories of distributive justice. It is better than an outright feudal aristocracy, and it’s also better than utilitarianism (in which people can be used for the greater good, and are not so much seen as individuals to be treated with dignity and respect).
But libertarianism appears to accept that those who are born to wealthy families have advantages in society. Libertarianism does not appear to feel that any unfairness deserves measures that help those that are less well off and, for example, start life at a disadvantage for no other reason than that they were accidentally born in a relatively poor family and hence have fewer opportunities.
Libertarianism appears to accept that pupils who are from a wealthy family are much more likely to go to top colleges and universities and, for example, also that the wealthier people are, the better their health tends to be.
The image on the right shows economic diversity at top colleges in the US. On the left are the richest and on the right the poorest. (I don’t know what year this refers to, but it was accurate a year ago.)
The situation won’t be vastly different in the UK, as the UK and the US have comparable degrees of inequality. To be specific, the UK has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the developed world.
I looked for UK data and found a 2009 study of diversity at British medical schools, which says, among other things: ‘The majority of students still come from professional and managerial backgrounds’ and ‘An important factor in the under-representation of other socio-economic groups seems to be their low rates of application – a phenomenon that is likely to be due to a complex combination of factors – and a consistently lower acceptance rate’.
If libertarianism has no problem with this, then similarly, libertarianism would also accept a situation in which justice naturally favours those from wealthier, more knowledgeable families as libertarianism does not support a fair equality of opportunity.
Libertarianism seems to shrug at unfairness.
That said, libertarianism comes in many varieties, and I don’t know which particular libertarian philosophy UKIP is founded on. It’s time to print UKIP’s constitution and read it thoroughly, to see if I can make more sense of this apparent riddle.