Dec 032009

Charlotte Gore has written an insightful post about the challenge of taking libertarian political ideas, and the Libertarian Party, mainstream. As she points out, libertarianism is still more popular online than out in the ‘real world.’ There are a number of reasons for this, but she flags up two rather important ones: first, it can seem intellectually exclusive, given the complex character of libertarian literature; second, the online libertarian community consists largely of self-selecting, not to put too fine a point on it, geeks.

The combination of these factors can often result in accusations that libertarians act both superior and selfish, and in a perception that the community is either anti-social or misanthropic.

She uses DK’s election to the leadership of LPUK as an example of this:

So Chris Mounsey’s election to leader of the Libertarian Party is fantastic news for fellow “evil nerds”, but can Chris reach out to a more broad audience? Chris runs the infamous and fantastically sweary Devil’s Kitchen blog, and because he’s one of the naughtiest geeks (second only to the incredibly, incredibly naughty Guido Fawkes) he’s right at the top of the evil dork hierarchy.

Sadly political change doesn’t come from a small hardcore niche of political obsessives though – at least, it doesn’t end there. It starts there (and you can argue that the internet has made that easier) – but movements either go mainstream or they remain in the shadows like mental state socialist and communist groups of old.

So the challenge for Chris – and all libertarians – is to find a way to communicate a libertarian message to non-geeks, to ‘normal’ people. I know I’m stumped on this, and have been for some time – but still doesn’t change the fact it needs doing.

Obviously I’m biased, but I think this is an incomplete, and slightly inaccurate, view.

During the course of my time here in the UK, I have met any number of libertarians, some of whom are members of LPUK, some of whom are bloggers – and some of whom are one or the other or neither. And with rare exception, they are friendly, sociable, articulate, and down-to-earth. There is nothing inaccessible about them. They are fine people, and perfectly ‘normal’ in that they go about living their lives with as much practicality, robust good sense, and everyday concerns as anybody else. Libertarians are not freaks.

Chris is no different. As anybody who has listened to him speak, watched him on 18 Doughty Street back in the day, or met him in person knows, he is not a raving, swearing lunatic. The Devil’s Kitchen is a persona, the kind of irreverent ranting we do inside our heads but rarely share – and the fact that most of us have a Devil’s Kitchen version of ourselves in there does much to explain why his blog is so popular. It doesn’t mean that’s how we, or Chris, conduct ourselves in the usual course of things.

In saying all of that, I mean that libertarians (and Libertarians) are both ‘normal’ and entirely capable of reaching a broader audience of other ‘normal’ people. How to accomplish this was a topic of much discussion at the AGM last weekend. The problem is not the messengers; it’s the message.

And that’s because most people live in constant, low-grade fear of any kind of risk. The power and largesse of the state allow them to pool that risk, to shuffle it off onto others, to deny (usually quite legitimately) their own responsibility for the big things that go wrong and to absolve themselves of blame and the consequences whenever little things go wrong. The state is their protection from risk: because it is big, because it is distant and complicated and unfathomable, because ‘smart’ people are running it, but most of all because it has the power of compulsion. It can force people to help you when you fuck up, even if they don’t want to, and that means the state protects you from the biggest risk of all: trusting in the basic humanity of other people.

Because we all know people are assholes, right? A couple of weeks ago, DK was giving a talk at the ASI about friendly societies. There was a Tory chap there whom I was chatting with afterwards, and he said he thought it was a nice idea but it wouldn’t work – especially the charitable aspect – because people wouldn’t use their money to help others.

I found this hard to believe – people give to charity now, even though they have a lot less money in their pockets than they would do if the state didn’t take so much of it away – and asked him if he would voluntarily donate to help people in the absence of expensive state welfare. He thought for a moment and said, ‘No, I don’t think I would.’

This is not meant to bash Tories – I’m not suggesting this particular guy was in any way representative of that party as a whole – but to illustrate that even people who are sympathetic to the economic case for libertarianism don’t trust in their own basic humanity. I fear for libertarianism specifically, and the world in general, if what that guy believes about himself, and others, is true. Because it would mean that people want to avoid responsibility for their right acts as well as their wrong ones. That not only do they need the state to stop them from being evil, they need the state to force them to be good.

This suggests there is a profound flaw in the moral code of our society, wherein the highest social virtue is not doing what is good, but doing what is safe. As long as this flaw persists, no amount of personable, ‘normal’ libertarianism is going to sell the message.

  24 Responses to “Navel gazing”

  1. Hmm thanks for this. Sorry if you felt I’ve slighted your hubby! I’ve only seen one video of Chris and he came across as a completely normal guy – I sort of suspected that DK was a persona, and am curious as to how he’ll present himself (if at all!) if he’s running LPUK.

    • Not at all, m’dear! Actually I thought it was quite funny. I don’t think he’d consider ‘King of the Evil Dorks’ a slight, either. The two of you should definitely meet at some point, though; it’d be like a libertarian Olympus.

  2. Very interesting article and thoughts.

    I think the “Tory chap” has a point: when society was very different (a long long time ago), we can refer to Ebenezer Scrooge on how society dealt with the downtrodden.

    The welfare states that we are all part of (in different parts of the world), have eliminated that total dependency on the goodwill of others. As libertarian as I believe myself to be, I do think that an argument can be made for state imposed minimum standard of living, this can include such things as shelter, a portion of health care (e.g. keeping dangerous infectious under control), education and what have you. Not because all of this has to be provided by the state, but because society as a whole will benefit from having minimum standards.

    If people are as moral as we would like to think they are, then those imposed minimums (and corresponding taxes to pay for them, obviously) would be enough to make sure that the free market forces with the charitable nature of people in society, would provide far better standards for less money (which would lessen the reason to tax). The overall burden on society would be low or nonexistent (if people are highly charitable) and the benefits would be everywhere.

    It would be a good way to see if the tory chap is right or not.


  3. GJ,

    “I think the “Tory chap” has a point: when society was very different (a long long time ago), we can refer to Ebenezer Scrooge on how society dealt with the downtrodden.”

    Well, this isn’t entirely true: we have AScrooge as an example of how one individual dealt with the downtrodden; however, if you remember, one of the groups of people that Scrooge was rude to were those collecting for charities to help the poor.

    The point of the Friendly Societies was, in any case, that they did not rely on private charity: they relied on people realising that they might be incapable of working at some point in their lives and taking out insurance against that.

    As such, Friendly Societies pooled risk by appealing to self-interest—all very Adam Smith.


    P.S. Charlotte: no offence taken or anything. And the wife is right: we should meet one of these days…

  4. DK is spot on about Friendly Societies – they are a rational response to the fear that Bella mentioned.

    I also don’t think that Tory Man was speaking for more than himself. I give to charity now, both in terms of regular donations and a couple of quid to my local Big Issue seller when I see him. I very much doubt I am unusual.

    However, one of the side effects of the overbearing state is the fear of the ‘other’. We are taught to distrust those not endorsed by the state, and that makes it difficult for the likes of Friendly Societies, or indeed smaller charities, to operate. By forcing itself into the previously private world of individual charity the state has damaged the trust we have in each other. After all, we need Nanny to make sure we are giving appropriately and that we not being led astray by bogus asylum seekers or those beggars who choose to kip in the park in December.

  5. […] DK, the equally thoughtful bella gerens, picks up and mounts a sort of defence/agreement: Chris is no different. As anybody who has […]

  6. Hi DK,

    you’re the main reason that I sent in my membership app to the local Libertarian party (don’t worry, I don’t live in the UK). :)

    Well, this isn’t entirely true: we have AScrooge as an example of how one individual dealt with the downtrodden; however, if you remember, one of the groups of people that Scrooge was rude to were those collecting for charities to help the poor.

    True, but those charities weren’t altogether adequate, because you still needed the poor houses and orphanages, which represent the state imposed “minimum standard” that I was talking about.

    Anyway, I’m trying to figure out where a benevolent government (presuming that such a thing exists) could actually assist in making society better. I am skeptical about the Libertarian argument that human beneficence will automatically kick in when given an opportunity to do so, and as I become more active in my Libertarian party, I want to make sure that I have thought about potential migration scenarios that can’t be shot down like our beloved “tory chap” did.


  7. GJ,

    “I am skeptical about the Libertarian argument that human beneficence will automatically kick in when given an opportunity to do so…”

    As am I. Also, I have no wish to leave provision of welfare in the tender embrace of the bloody commercial insurance companies.

    As I say, the heavy lifting can be done by people providing for themselves—through Friendly Societies—and not relying on the charity of others.


  8. Libertarianism doesn’t require and trust in the basic humanity of others. I remember the idea that Libertarianism requires a positive view of humanity is debunked in “The Constitution of Liberty” by Hayek.

    The point of sensible Libertarianism is to deal with people as they are, not as they should be. It’s about creating a situation where “good fences” exist and that in turn creating “good neighbours”.

    • I wouldn’t necessarily say that libertarianism requires trust in others’ basic humanity, either. But the fact of the matter is that any ‘improvement’ in society or politics does tend to require that people stop being such massive assholes. And there is certainly widespread belief that that can’t be done.

  9. I’ve been reading Roissy’s blog all week, so I’m in a rather misanthropic mood.

    However, I don’t think any general improvement in human behaviour is really needed, or can be relied on. What’s needed is improvement in the ways we interact with each other. Improvement of social institutions. That can greatly improve how people behave as individuals.

    • As an anecdote, most of the individuals I meet, even strangers on the street, are perfectly nice people. I don’t think improvement in individual human behaviour is really needed. Rather, it seems to be when we act in groups that the claws come out. This makes me suspicious of ‘social institutions.’

      And yeah, I can see why reading Roissy might put one in a misanthropic mood. The level of constant self-analysis in which he indulges, and in which he encourages other people to indulge, must be a terrible strain on the psyche.

  10. By “institutions” I don’t really just mean groups. What I mean is overall schemes of social organization, which may involve groups.

    Property law is the best example. Let’s suppose that there is general agreement on a simple system of property law. In that case people know if they own something or if they don’t. Disputes can be resolved in predictable ways.

    However, suppose property law is vaguer and more open to interpretation. In that case disputes are much more difficult handle. That encourages corrupt relations between those administering the law and the rest of society.

    In the first situation people may be quite hostile to each other and defensive of their property. However, general agreement on the law, and its clarity mean that such a view isn’t necessary. However, if the law is more vague then it becomes more necessary to be personally defensive of property.

    The self-analysis Roissy advocates is very useful, though I certainly agree that it’s stressful. The misanthropic part is the evolutionary psychology.

    What Roissy says here is actually quite relevant. Greg Clark (in “Farewell to Arms” for example) describes how English society evolved to become less violent because of property law. In the terminology of Pickup-Artists and mens-rights-activists we became a society of “beta providers”. But now, of course, things have changed.

  11. The bloggers of Roissysphere give a much better explanation of why so many people are such “massive assholes” these days.

    Here, in brief, is the theory. Women are attracted to Alpha males. In prehistoric times that meant the leader of the tribe. The leader of the tribe would be assertive, and would command other men. He would be desired by other women (PUAs call this pre-selection). He would be violent towards those who disobeyed him. He would not necessarily be caring.

    Women are still fundamentally attracted to these traits, but mainly in sexual partners, not in life partners. What a woman’s genes tell her to do is to seek out a beta male to form a long-term relationship with, a provider. He must be caring and look after children, and so on. They seek to cuckold him by reproducing with an Alpha male without his knowledge.

    (Male sexuality is, of course, no less amoral.)

    Old fashioned sexual mores worked against this. A woman who had sex with an Alpha male risked a great deal. She risked being shunned as a slut and/or having no provider for her children. Her family would push her to reject relationships with unsuitable men. That doesn’t happen now.

    It is no surprise that male “Chavs” are so often aggressive. There is no reason to be a beta provider amongst them since that role has been taken by the state. The competition is to be Alpha. The problem with this is that Alpha behaviours are not well adapted for modern society.

    This sort of thing is slowly creeping across all society.

    • Hmm. I’m not entirely convinced by this ‘evo psych’ stuff. Just as our physical bodies (esp. immune systems) are quite different from pre-historic peoples’, so too might our minds and genetic drivers be. We’ve lived in ‘post-historic’ times for 11,000 years now, after all. The Roissysphere has some good ideas about male and female perspectives on sex, but this isn’t necessarily one of them. Women, by and large, seek as partners (of any kind) men who are not going to bore them to death or treat them as inferior beings. Whether a man is an Alpha male or a ‘beta provider’ has very little to do with this in reality. Unfortunately, in Roissy’s world, boring = beta and asshole = alpha, and his readers thus swing on a pendulum between supine tedium and aggressive fuck-wittery, hoping one or the other will net them pussy. This whole outlook is both self-absorbed and counter-productive, and reduces both men and women to stereotypical ciphers wherein men simply want plentiful sex from beautiful, eager-to-please women, and women want sex from alpha manipulators and provision from beta emo-slaves.

      Maybe he’s right and I’m wrong; but it doesn’t really matter, because each person is distinct in his or her needs and desires and should be treated as an individual. When you, or Roissy, or whoever, start tossing around this kind of group psychology, you perpetuate the very anti-individualism of which I’m so suspicious.

  12. I think your criticism are all pretty valid. Roissy does associate Alpha = Asshole too much. The folks who he has got his ideas from Mystery and so on do that much less.

    This is all a bit different if you’re a man, as I am, and you see how well this sort of stuff works.

    However I still think the groups that the Roissysphere discuss are useful simplifications. As you point out in an older post it leads to quite Libertarian conclusions anyway.

    As for the “anti-individualism”, I think it’s very necessary. Just as Libertarians often point out that humans are self-interested when dealing with economic analysis.

    Any rigourous case for Libertarianism relies on it being the Utilitarian thing to do (for some broad definition of Utilitarianism). I support Liberty only because I think it’s long term social consequences are better than other course, I am a “Consequentialist Libertarian”. I don’t think Freedom has any cosmic significance meaning that it should be valued, it should be valued for what it can provide.

    • That’s fair enough. I too am consequentialist, but not exclusively; I tend to think freedom is as much a moral good as a utilitarian good. When you get down to it, though, I’m not fussed about why people value liberty, as long as they do!

      And yes, Roissysphere simplifications can indeed be useful. If I were a man, though, I would exercise caution in putting them into practice, especially if I were not naturally flippant and manipulative. It’s hard to keep up an act for any extended length of time, and although the gains might be good in the short term, I’m not sure they outweigh the pitfalls in the long term.

  13. That’s exactly the problem from a mans point of view. If you want to get good a flirting then the act part is all that’s necessary. However, in any long run relationship it can’t be an act. That means you actually have to be an Alpha; you have to be manipulative and nasty. If you read between the lines in Roissy’s post that’s the problem he’s having at present. He’s clearly getting into a long-term relationship.

    I’m a beta, so I am, naturally, no good at this stuff. That means I’m probably destined for a life of short-term relationships or no relationships. But, despite Roissy’s obsession with sex I don’t think this is much of a problem. There are plenty of other enjoyable things to do in the world.

    • Well, but this is all very silly. Yes, flirting requires some skill and awareness, but you don’t have to be an ‘alpha’ to enjoy a long-term relationship. You certainly needn’t be manipulative and nasty. You just have to be pleasant, interesting, and be with the sort of woman who suits you. It’s really not that complicated.

  14. I think we’ll have to agree to disagree about that.

    Going back to what I said earlier about social institutions though, this is important.

    Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you are right and traditional ideas about attraction are more-or-less right. In that case little needs to change in that area of society.

    However, if Roissy is right then things are different and attitudes need to change. If that were to happen then attitudes to institutions, such as marriage, will change, as will those institutions. And that is what can really change the world for the better. Not just hoping that humans will change how they behave towards each other.

    It’s positively destructive to advocate that people believe in each other. Rather they should have to earn each others trust. The same is entirely true of the self. You should start each day from the presumption that you are a “pink robot” (in Scott Adam’s words) and so is everyone else, and attempt to make it untrue.

    • But I haven’t said anything of the sort! I think traditional ideas about attraction are more-or-less wrong. I just think Roissy’s wrong too. One must adapt and react to individual circumstances, not approach the opposite sex with a one-size-fits-all mentality. Traditional ideas, and Roissy, advocate that sort of mentality. So does the state’s involvement in social institutions like marriage. If it is vain to hope that humans will change how they behave towards each other, it is equally vain to hope that they will change their attitudes to social institutions. What will effect change to both is to treat each other as discrete persons rather than as more or less identical members of some sub-group.

      Take, for example, the institution of marriage which you mention. Many people believe this is a holy sacrament wherein two people pledge love everlasting and sublimate their separate uniqueness to the unity of two-becoming-one. I have never held that view, and I knew I could never have been happy married to someone who did. Probability suggested that sooner or later I would encounter someone who shared my own view; therefore I never felt the need to discard my view or insist that other people discard theirs. In effect, it matters little what the social institutions are or are assumed to be; what matters is how individuals approach their own actions and decisions. If everyone approached their behaviour with a bit of common sense, there would be no need to impose social institutions or change upon them.

  15. Well, I understand your view on traditional vs game ideas about attraction. I’d point out it isn’t very useful, but useful isn’t something we’re really discussing here.

    However, it isn’t generally vain to hope that people will change their views on institutions. Because they may do that for self-interested reasons. So, informing people of where there interest lies is very important.

    You view of marriage is actually a good example of that. You are skeptical of the older ideas about marriage, so am I. I’d argue that we are more realistic about it than those who pledge everlasting love. You see it as something more flexible.

    What’s more, your personal interest leads you to use it in that way. And because of many people doing that the institution changes and becomes more flexibly defined. This is what I mean earlier by improvement of social institutions.

    As Hayek says in “The Constitution of Liberty” humans are as much rule-following beings as they are rational beings. There are many problems that most normal people can never be expected to handle with reason.

  16. On friendly societies- 100 years ago that’s what we had- and they worked well. Don’t be too hard on the allegedly Tory gentleman- I suspect that he was just getting silly talking up his case. In my experience the ones who most loudly express a desire to help the unfortunate are least useful in this regard- and vice versa.
    In a sense most people I meet are libertarian- they want to run their own affairs and don’t want to harm others, which is basically the philosophy- though I doubt one in a hundred have heard of the word, never mind the party. But many are so used to having to put up with stupid orders that they imagine this to be inevitable.
    From what I can see the libertarian natural constituency is either self employed or working for a small business- and I would have thought that a leader who has worked with such and can certainly outswear them where needed would be an advantage- especially when he can also talk dead posh when that is needed.

  17. “There was a Tory chap there … he said … it wouldn’t work … because people wouldn’t use their money to help others.”

    Wikileaks is desperately short of money right now. I feel morally obliged to give them something, but I can’t promise I won’t be cowed into passivity by the size of my own credit card debts.

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