On the Libertarian Who Got a £16 Billion Bailout

This article by George Monbiot, “Libertarians are the True Social Parasites,” is priceless. It illustrates the sort of behavior discussed in longer form in Dean Baker’s book, The Conservative Nanny State, namely, of diehard critics of government intervention who nevertheless want a handout when their enterprise goes bad. Note I refrained from including the extensive footnotes.

From Monbiot:

“The little-known ninth law of thermodynamics states that the more money a group receives from the taxpayer, the more it demands and the more it complains.” Thus wrote Matt Ridley in 1994(1). He was discussing farm subsidies, but the same law applies to his chairmanship of Northern Rock. Before he resigned on Friday, the bank had borrowed £16 billion from the government and had refused to rule out asking for more. Ridley and the other bosses blamed everyone but themselves for this disaster.

I used to read Ridley’s columns religiously. Published by the Telegraph in the 1990s, they were well-written, closely-argued and almost always wrong. He railed against all government intervention and mocked less enlightened beings for their failure to understand economics and finance. The right-wing press loved him because he appeared to provide a scientific justification for the deregulation of business.

Ridley’s core argument, which he explains at greater length in his books, is that humans, being the products of natural selection, act only in their own interests. But our selfish instincts encourage us to behave in ways that appear altruistic. By cooperating and by being perceived as generous, we earn other people’s trust. This allows us to advance our own interests more effectively than we could by cheating, stealing and fighting. To permit these beneficial genetic tendencies to flower, governments should withdraw from our lives and stop interfering in business and other human relations(2,3). Ridley produced a geneticist’s version of the invisible hand of the market, recruiting humanity’s selfish interests to dole out benefits to everyone.

Dr Ridley, who has a D Phil in zoology, is no stranger to good science, and his explorations of our evolutionary history, which are often fascinating and provoking, are based on papers published in peer-reviewed journals. But whenever a conflict arose between his scientific training and the interests of business, he would discard the science. Ignoring hundreds of scientific papers which came to the opposite conclusion, and drawing instead on material presented by a business lobby group called the Institute of Economic Affairs, he argued that global temperatures have scarcely increased, so we should stop worrying about climate change(4). He suggested that elephants should be hunted for their ivory(5), planning laws should be scrapped(6), recycling should be stopped(7), bosses should be free to choose whether or not their workers contract repetitive strain injury(8) and companies, rather than governments, should be allowed to decide whether or not the food they sell is safe.(9) He raged against taxes, subsidies, bail-outs and government regulation. Bureaucracy, he argued, is “a self-seeking flea on the backs of the more productive people of this world … governments do not run countries, they parasitise them.”(10)

I studied zoology in the same department, though a few years later. Like Dr Ridley, I am a biological determinist: I believe that much of our behaviour is governed by our evolutionary history. I accept the evidence he puts forward, but draw completely different conclusions. Ridley believes that modern humans are destined to behave well if left to their own devices; I believe that they are likely to behave badly. If you belong to a small group of intelligent hominids, all of whom are well-known to each other, you will be rewarded for cooperation and generosity within the group. (Though this does not stop your group from attacking or exploiting another). If, on the other hand, you can switch communities at will, travel freely, buy in one country and sell in another, hire strangers then fire them, you will gain more from acting only in your own interest. You’ll have an even stronger incentive to act against the common good if you run a bank whose lending and borrowing are so complex that hardly anyone can understand what is happening.

Dr Ridley and I have the same view of human nature: we are inherently selfish. But the question is whether or not this nature is subject to the conditions that prevailed during our evolutionary history. I believe that they have changed: we can no longer be scrutinised and held to account by a small community. We need governments to fill the regulatory role vacated when our tiny clans dissolved.

I can offer nothing more than speculation, but Ridley has had the opportunity to test his beliefs. He took up his post – which was previously held by his father, Viscount Ridley, in 2004. Under his chairmanship, the Economist notes, Northern Rock “pushed an aggressive business model to the limit, crossing its fingers and hoping that liquidity would always be there”(11). It was allowed to do so because it was insufficiently regulated by the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority. When his libertarian business model failed, Dr Ridley had to go begging to the detested state. If the government and its parasitic bureaucrats had not been able to use tax-payers’ money to clear up his mess, thousands of people would have lost their savings. Northern Rock would have collapsed and the resulting panic might have brought down the rest of the banking system.

The £16bn bail-out is not the end of the matter. Last week the Treasury granted Northern Rock’s customers a new tax break(12). Now one of the north-east’s leading businessmen, Sir Michael Darrington, is calling for the bank’s full-scale nationalisation in order to prevent further crises(13). So much for the virtues of unregulated free enterprise.

Wherever modern humans, living outside the narrow social mores of the clan, are allowed to pursue their genetic interests without constraint, they will hurt other people. They will grab other people’s resources, they will dump their waste in other people’s habitats, they will cheat, lie, steal and kill. And if they have power and weapons, no one will be able to stop them except those with more power and better weapons. Our genetic inheritance makes us smart enough to see that when the old society breaks down, we should appease those who are more powerful than ourselves, and exploit those who are less powerful. The survival strategies which once ensured cooperation among equals now ensure subservience to those who have broken the social contract.

The democratic challenge, which becomes ever more complex as the scale of human interactions increases, is to mimic the governance system of the small hominid troop. We need a state that rewards us for cooperating and punishes us for cheating and stealing. At the same time we must ensure that the state is also treated like a member of the hominid clan and punished when it acts against the common good. Human welfare, just as it was a million years ago, is guaranteed only by mutual scrutiny and regulation.

I doubt that Dr Ridley would be able to sustain his beliefs in a place where the state has broken down. Unless tax-payers’ money and public services are available to repair the destruction it causes, libertarianism destroys people’s savings, wrecks their lives and trashes their environment. It is the belief system of the free-rider, who is perpetually subsidised by responsible citizens. As biologists we both know what this means. Self-serving as governments might be, the true social parasites are those who demand their dissolution.

For the curious, here is a bit more on the denouement for Ridley from the BBC and the Guardian.

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  1. Anonymous

    Matt Ridley’s call for intervention may not be libertarian. It is, however, entirely rational. Unlike anything George Moonbat ever wrote.

  2. Yves Smith

    Anon of 12:23 AM,

    This site takes a dim view of ad hominem attacks. If you can point to errors in Monbiot’s piece, or in previous works, that would be helpful. He documented his argument extensively, and his point, that Ridley was a polemicist who then acted in direct contradiction to principles he promoted loudly and consistently, is well proven. If you are going to take issue with him, it behooves you to do more than simply call him bad names.

  3. Brock

    No libertarian (or classical liberal, in non-American speak) would ask the state for a handout.

    Also, libertarianism isn’t anarchy. Anarcho-capitalism isn’t what most of us advocate for. I’d like the state to remove itself from my social life and not stand in the way of transactions between consenting adults. I don’t want the government to disappear into thin air. I’d like my country to be free of no-knock drug raids, however.

    Individual rights legislated in law would hardly facilitate the kinds of exploitation GM is talking about. That is nonsense. You can’t define a whole idea by the example of the most radical wing.

    What makes most of us classical liberals really agitated are abuses by the state and abuses by the state-corporate complex. The drug war (which is nothing more than granting a monopoly on intoxication to alcohol firms), prohibition on adult behaviour (gays apparently make baby jesus cry), group preferences (affirmative action is racist) and so on. And yes, the government wastes money. And builds bridges to nowhere. And spends 4-600billion on “defense” spending. And a trillion a year on empire. I’m sorry if my cynicism is loud, but faith in government to save the day is as naive as faith in Jesus to come home on day “x”.

    I do not think it is a fair piece. I don’t look at the democrat party and define it as a whole by the actions of the communist few who do support it. Nor do I look at the repubs and define it by the few fascists that support it. If you want to know what libertarians think about various issues, ask them. Ask about immigration, gay rights, individual rights, womans rights, abortion, separation of church and state, empire, taxation, waste, corruption. I hardly think we are the crazies. Take a walk around London sometime and see if you can’t feel the liberal democratic love oozing out of the millions of cameras (coming to an American city near you!)

    I really dig this blog but unfortunately think this post is silly.

    By the by, libertarians oppose our monopoly-money system that was the underlying problem that led to the financial meltdown.

  4. Yves Smith


    I suggest you read the piece again. The only thing that you can fault Monbiot for is the headline he chose. The text focuses on Ridley and the disconnect between his philosophy and his actions.

    I don’t expect readers to agree with everything I post. Lucy Kellaway, one of my favorite writers at the Financial Times, admits to writing about her prejudices and asserts that that is a good thing:

    “In my experience, prejudices make for good reading. They either confirm your own, or make you cross, either of which is better than nothing in these bland times.”

  5. Anonymous

    I’m not defending anybody who claims to be a libertarian then cries out for state intervention, merely pointing out that the rational response of the individual facing a crisis is to seek any way out, including rent-seeking. My problem is that people like Monbiot & others of his ilk also preach one thing then practice another – eg Monbiot’s recent acquisition of a C02-spewing car, his refusal to fly “except to campaign on climate change”.
    Other Monbiotisms I take issue with include “beyond a certain point, hardship is also caused by economic growth” & his proposal that most sports be abolished & replaced by ultimate frisbee… I could dig up references if I had the time, most are found via the grauniad / CIF though.

  6. Anonymous

    By the way, I don’t mean to be negative, I enjoy reading your blog, I just disagree with you when it comes to C02. And George Monbiot.

  7. Brock

    Gm’s point is that without government we will skin each other alive. I agree. So do the vast majorities of CLiberals. This idea that we want people to be free of all legal or social constraints is absurd.

    I’ve never before heard of this Ridley. But we are all hypocrites. All of us.

    Social parasites is a pretty powerful phrase. And using the words “libertarians are” instead of “Ridley is” is simply partisan hackery that would make Stephen Colbert blush.

  8. Yves Smith

    In fairness to those who may paint libertarians as extreme, Milton Friedman was arguably the highest-profile libertarian and most people would regard many of his views as extreme. He wanted to abolish the Food and Drug Administration, product safety laws, public education.

    There are some of his proposals to which I am very sympathetic (negative income tax; decriminalization of most drugs). However, simply as a buyer of dietary supplements, where I know there is no certainty that I am getting what the label claims I am getting, I miss having some oversight. As someone who has lived in financial market, I think he underestimated how much regulation it takes to get market to function well. I am also the first to grant that is it difficult to get those regulations right.

  9. Brock

    I am sympathetic to MF’s ideas about the FDA and product safety laws. However, the idea of abolishing the department of education in your country is essentially your last chance to keep up with the world. I live in Asia, and have for 4 years. When I compare the quality of our junior employees here in Singapore with those that I worked with in America, well, there is simply no comparison. America will not be able to keep up with the world if her education system does not have a 100% change. And that is leaving aside for a moment the truth that 50% of all non-white non-east asian kids don’t finish high school. Sao Palo levels of income inequality following racial lines are the only outcome of this. But yeah, no (white or east Asian) child left behind.

    MF wanted the market to respond to the educational needs of students. The state can still pay for it, but the market must supply the product. This is hardly crazy or radical.

    I’m not at all concerned with the FDA and when my crazy CL friends and I sit around talking on a Friday night the conversation never touches the FDA or product safety. Those are such minor things. Personal liberty is #1. An end to empire is #2. Taxation is #3.

  10. Anonymous

    yves smith said:

    However, simply as a buyer of dietary supplements, where I know there is no certainty that I am getting what the label claims I am getting, I miss having some oversight.

    Get serious, Yves. If the FDA had its way completely, you would not be able to obtain any supplements at all! This is the fundamental nature of having a single source of power in society.

  11. Yves Smith

    Anon of 9:02 AM,

    You overstate your case by a considerable margin. Australia has a very tough Therapeutic Goods Administration (their FDA), and you can get pretty much everything there you can here supplement-wise, except hormones (melatonin and DHEA) and frankly, they have a point on restricting use of them. Supplements there must be made to pharmaceutical grade standard (which BTW includes being able to track each lot sold) and guess what, they are better than what we get here. I still order some herbs from Australia because the Australian ones are of strong enough potency to work, while the US ones I have tried (multiple brands, supposed high quality) don’t.

  12. Anonymous

    Actually, what I said was precisely correct. Review what the FDA attempted to do to supplements in the early-mid 90s.

    I am very happy for you that you have found an alternative source of supply that meets your needs. The existence or lack thereof of alternatives is exactly my point.

    The FDA is currently in the process of attempting to eliminate the availability of prescription drugs of long standing use, well known to be effective and safe, such as natural thyroid. Many people, such as myself, have found through experience that natural thyroid works better for us than the synthetic products. If the FDA succeeds, these products will disappear, since no one will be able to afford the studies demanded by the FDA.

    I believe that I am quoting you when I state “Be careful what you wish for.”

  13. Bernard

    I tend to have a right-leaning philosophy, but I have to say that article by Monbiot was brilliant.

    The issue is the relationship between the state and society.

    The organization of society has changed (from small rural communities to large impersonal cities). This has changed the way that human beings relate to each other. There are much fewer restraints on self-interested, self-centred behaviour. We have become amoral and purely money-driven.

    Monbiot is saying that we should adapt the role of the state to compensate for this change in human behaviour. This definitely makes sense. Tocqueville’s America no longer exists.

    Allowing government to regulate these inherently self-destructive tendencies of society makes sense.

    However, unfortunately this “solution” is only treating the symptoms and not the root cause.

    The root cause of the problem is the change in societal behaviour (a problem of culture). I don’t pretend to have an answer for that, but any real solution must address that. Government laws and regulations are only a makeshift “fix” to restrain the inherently self-destructive tendancies in society. The state can NEVER become a replacement for a genuine community.

    Remember this wise ancient Chinese saying:

    “When empires fell, there were many laws”

    PS: I just read that the SEC says insider trading is rampant among Wall Street professionals

  14. piglet

    Oh, the libertarians come out to protest how unfairly they are being treated. You break my heart. Milton Friedman is high in your libertarian pantheon, isn’t he? Well he was so “libertarian” as to back the Pinochet dictatorship. What with liberty and autonomy and all that. You will no doubt start crying again. Oh how unfair to fault MF for supporting that worthy experiment in “government reduction”, including using the football stadium to execute political opponents (oh that is nothing – George Monbiot wants to “abolish” sports, how outrageous is that!). At the mises.org site, one of your favorite libertarian sites, there are to this day articles defending Pinochet. I even wrote some comments at the time, desperately asking, “is that really what you libertarians stand for”. There was not a single libertarian voice asking to be dissociated from the dictator. What do libertarians think about abortion, sexual liberty, gay rights etc.? Ask some of your most vocal representatives, like Charles Murray (a conservative moralist) and Ron Paul. Paul (whom I respect for his anti-war stance, which is unfortunately hardly representative for the majority of libertarians) is suggesting allowing the states to criminalize whatever they believe to be immoral. How libertarian!

    Where are the consistent libertarians who actually care about individual liberty more than about lowering taxes and freeing Big Business from any regulation? There must be some, somwhere in the woods, but they never seem to come out. Which is sad. If you would like to improve the reputation of your movement, start by severing your ties to authoritarian conservatives.

  15. piglet

    The drug war (which is nothing more than granting a monopoly on intoxication to alcohol firms), prohibition on adult behaviour (gays apparently make baby jesus cry), group preferences (affirmative action is racist) and so on. And yes, the government wastes money. And builds bridges to nowhere. And spends 4-600billion on “defense” spending. And a trillion a year on empire. I’m sorry if my cynicism is loud, but faith in government to save the day is as naive as faith in Jesus to come home on day “x”.

    Brock, doesn’t it occur to you that Monbiot agrees with you on all of these points, except possibly affirmative action? As a liberal progressive, he is not preaching “faith in the government”. He is one of its loudest critics. Just read a few of his columns. But he also lacks faith in “free markets” and “free enterprise” that most libertarians profess so naively. Many of his columns deal with the results of privatization and deregulation, which usually result in indecent profits for Big Business and deteriorated services for the people. He is also observing that those who cry loudest against government regulation are often the same ones who profit handsomely from corporate welfare. You may say those are not libertarians, they are merely abusing libertarian arguments for their purposes. But then I am wondering why the “true libertarians” are not speaking up against those impostors. Where are the “true libertarians” who don’t call for privatization at any prize, tax cuts at any prize? You have to answer for yourself whether this is the reputation you would like the libertarian movement to be associated with.

  16. Anonymous

    I’ve been reading GM for awhile now since he’s been in the UK papers and interviewed on Democracy Now!.

    His views are right on target. Especially in the The Fat Cats Protection League, summarized as Wherever you hear the words “free market”, you’ll find massive state handouts to corporations .

    Another thing to consider is that corporations are amoral, which means they will use any label (ex: Republican, Libertarian, Conservative, etc) to justify their actions, and any excuse when they screw up and need bailing out.

    The generation today has lived by the credo that anything goes when it comes to money. They’re starting to figure out they’ll also sink as a result of that too.

    The question is, will society learn anything from this, or will it be forgotten in a few years, as has been the case in the US.


  17. Anonymous

    The overarching problem with the conservative ideologies so dominant in the USA, libertarianism included, is that they all share the characteristic of being a rigid stance.

    This precludes learning from experience.
    Thus we have the same aversion to regulation after the subprime crisis as before. The same willingness to go to war on skimpy intelligence re: Iran as for Iraq.

    A recipe for endless disasters!

    The sure sign of an ideologue is that when you point out hypocrisy or a failure to learn from experience in a situation which was guided by the application of their ideology, they argue that the ideology was misapplied.

    I think in this presidential contest, Hilary signals ‘learning from experience’ and Giuliani signals ‘confusing strength with rigidity’. I feel pretty sure Giuliani will win. That is why I’m preparing docs for dual citizenship: time for an exit strategy.

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