The argument takes place at Samizdata, one of the Web's more popular forums for libertarian and anti-state thinking. I rarely visit, because, much as I agree with most of its denizens' views on how big and powerful a government should be (really not very at all), and much as I know, having met a couple of them, that some of them are dead nice people, some of the others, well... basically, they suffer from exactly the same problem as the Communists. That is, they refuse to allow their theories to bend to fit the annoyingly wonky shape of humanity. In other words, they're batshit crazy.
The chief protagonists in this argument are named Johnathan Pearce and Ian B. Here's their argument, boiled down to its salient points.
If you were to circumcise an adult male without his consent, that would be assault.
Babies do not give their consent to circumcision, because they're babies and they can't.
Therefore, circumcising babies is assault.
Therefore, circumcision should be banned. In fact, it is already effectively banned by the law that prohibits assault, but that law is inconsistently applied. It should be applied absolutely consistently. Circumcising one's child should lead to arrest and prosecution.
This policy would in no way discriminate against Jews. Jews would be perfectly welcome to stay in the UK. All they'd have to do is stop circumcising babies. Which is hardly a big deal, is it? Besides, religion is stupid.
Anyone who says that this policy would discriminate against Jews is paranoid. Furthermore, religion is stupid.
If you suspect me of exaggerating to make them look worse than they really are — and, let's face it, I'm not above that sort of thing — please do follow the links and get it from the horses' arses' mouths. You might think they were just your basic Jew-haters in really bad disguises, but I don't think they are: they really don't see why what they're proposing is the expulsion of the Jews from Britain. They must be intellectuals: no-one else would believe anything so stupid. I said to them yesterday:
If you know what's important to people, then you either get rid of the Jews deliberately or you don't get rid of the Jews. It takes a libertarian to get rid of them by accident.
But anyway, I don't want to address all that nonsense here. I've done it over there, and you can go read it if you like. I want to make a more general complaint.
See, the thing is, some of us would like to see something like a libertarian state. We want the state to be less powerful and less intrusive, the government to be smaller, taxes to be lower; we'd like a government who'd go through the thousands of pointless laws passed as knee-jerk reactions to made-up crises and actually repeal some of them, rather than just mindlessly churning out more and more. We'd like the right to defend ourselves and our families and our homes; we'd like to see criminals picked on instead of the inanimate weapons they may use. We'd prefer not to be arrested for throwing out the wrong sort of rubbish. None of this is going to be delivered by the British brand of political Conservatism, sadly in no way related to the American variety. The only people interested in fighting for these things in this country are the libertarians.
Now, the Samizdata guys are, in libertarian terms, the elite. Quite a few of them get to meet influential people fairly often, they talk on the radio from time to time, they meet MPs at posh dos. Not all that much, perhaps, not compared to your average leader of the NUS, but then that's libertarianism for you: it just ain't that big a political deal at the moment. But what little bigness it does have, it has in the environs of Samizdata. These guys have devoted themselves to getting libertarian ideas out into the consciousness of the British public, and they do so, and not just via their website. Good on 'em.
Except... well. I'm sure you see the problem. "Oh, libertarianism?" says your average member of the public. "Isn't that that bunch of frothing maniacs?" And in comes another ten years of Labour Socialism or Tory Socialism, as if I give a damn which.
I had this argument with the awfully nice Brian Micklethwait once. He argues that the job of libertarians should be to constantly put forth their opinions in a polite and unashamed manner, in order to make sure that our ideas are thought of as the sort of things that nice ordinary people like us can think, and thereby we gradually change the context of the public debate and that gradually filters up to politics. He's very much against the idea of toning down our ideas to make them more palatable, as that road leads to the likes of David Cameron: make policy by opinion poll, give the public what they already think they want, never attempt to change their minds about anything — in short, political stagnation and all parties essentially the same. But I don't think he fully understood what I was talking about, probably because I was quite drunk.
I don't suggest that libertarians should claim they want taxes lowered to 20% when they really want them down to 2%. I'm not suggesting libertarians should publicly advocate a slight relaxation in weapons laws while secretly wanting complete freedom to bear arms.
What I suggest is simply the marginalising and enthusiastic stamping out of this absurd militant tunnel-visioned self-important empathy-free logic-fetishizing tradition-destroying intolerant hateful claptrap. That's all. Because, as long as libertarians keep striving so hard to maintain their reputation as people who are so completely bloody stupid that they can't even figure out why parenthood is important unless someone draws them a diagram with full footnotes, appendices, and explanatory accompanying video, we will be stuck with the encroaching state.
And bugger that, frankly.