What Happened to Libertarianism in Scotland?

Published in Economic Liberty .

Many core philosophies of today’s modern libertarianism have roots in Scottish history. Scotland’s enlightenment, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, set the country on course for enhancing the values of morality, self-improvement, and self-determination.

While the advancements during this period were both many and significant, the publication of Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” in 1776 was central in cementing the individual as the ontological foundation of a free society. Smith’s fundamental concepts of regulatory-free trade, market competition, and limited government interference provided the central pillar for the modern libertarian’s core ideological beliefs. 

Smith has cemented himself as one of the greatest economic philosophers of our time. His quest to understand the fundamentals of economics was driven by his desire to make people happier, wealthier and with a dignified sense of purpose. Smith’s ‘Theory of Specialisation’ created an efficient and skillful workforce; however, his concerns went beyond economics and focused on the individual.

Specialization left a workforce at risk of losing ‘meaning’ and it was up to the managers to place extra emphasis on the individual, remind them of their value and ultimate dignity of their labor. Smith’s uncompromising empathy for both the workforce and society mirrors a core philosophy in modern-day Scotland. 

Scotland today finds itself in a distant situation to the ideology proclaimed by Smith. If ever the “layered onion” analogy could be ever be applied in a political context it would be to governmental involvement in every Scot’s life.

The Scottish Parliament has the responsibility of devolved issues such as education, healthcare and some elements of taxation. The United Kingdom parliament is responsible for foreign policy, trade, immigration, and defense. The European Union has 7 institutions that have superiority over both the Scottish and UK legislature. The unelected European Commission has the superior authority to overrule decisions made in Scotland, by politicians elected by the Scottish electorate, by individuals that often have never set foot in the country.

The ever-encroaching collective hand of government is now more pronounced than Smith’s “Invisible Hand” of the free individual. Higher earning Scots now pay a greater percentage income tax than their UK counterparts and have reduced “higher rate” tax thresholds since it’s devolution in 2017.

The false pretense that higher taxation equates to greater empathy for others is an easy sell to a population that prides itself on its empathetic qualities.

“Higher taxation means more funding for our National Health Service” is the cry; gleefully proclaimed by the socialists. A £941m shortfall compared to expectations, is the sigh muttered by the pragmatists. 

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union on June 26, 2016, was monumental and, amongst other factors, as a result of the creeping powers of the European Union, through the arm of the European Court of Justice, into domestic affairs. The Leave vote was most pronounced in the communities where globalism had seen industries move abroad, local shops close and left communities that were no longer recognizable.

Individual freedoms were restricted, and the population no longer felt self-determined in their life outcomes. Brexit was a nod to the nation-state, self-government and direct representation. 

It provides the UK with the opportunity to move towards free trade, smaller government, lower taxation, philosophy proposed by the ‘Wealth of Nations’.  Leaving the European Union’s protectionist Customs Union provides the United Kingdom with the opportunity to re-forge old alliances with America and the Commonwealth. An increased choice in trade and movement of people where those that were left behind can have their voices heard.

Scotland marks the start of a new decade with a changing political climate. The lure of Scotland’s empathetic electorate towards socialism, in contrast to Smith’s moral capitalism, will be challenged by Brexit’s newfound opportunities.

What if the people can be convinced that free-market capitalism can raise more money for the National Health Service, education and policing? What if reducing tariffs, bureaucracy and red tape can improve the wealth of the individual more than governmental reliance?

Regardless of the direction of Scotland’s future, I have no doubt that Scot’s will embrace it.

For Smith’s fellow enlightenment theologian Robert Burns once proclaimed ‘Whit’s fur ye’ll no go past ye’.

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