Oct 122009

After racist homophobic anti-semites, libertarians are the Left’s favourite whipping boy, as this post at Liberal Conspiracy confirms. The author has paraphrased the statements of a Tory MEP at the Tory conference and, because one or two of them had a libertarian bent, has asked, ‘Are all libertarians this childish?

Short answer: no, but I’ll allow you the question because it’s obvious you’ve never come within spitting distance of an actual libertarian.

The comments then devolve into an argument about labels and the nature of libertarian ideology. I don’t comment at Liberal Conspiracy, but happily I have my own blog.

Picking some randomer from some other part of the political spectrum who advocates a single vaguely libertarian idea and calling him a libertarian does not, in fact, make him a libertarian.

Meanwhile, spouting one’s interpretation of libertarianism as ‘Hands off my Lexus, hippy,’ or ‘only freedom from taxation’ does not, in fact, mean that is what libertarianism is. I don’t even own a Lexus, and the tax I personally pay is not overly onerous.

The truth is that advocates of freedom are found all over the political spectrum, but the only true libertarians are the ones who advocate it at all times in all circumstances, from the bedroom to the wallet – who believe that ‘freedom from’ is the only state of being consistent with the dignity and majesty of humankind.

‘Freedom from’ is the most important part of that ideology. Freedom from coercion. Freedom from interference. Freedom from oppression.

‘Freedom to’ is where the misunderstandings enter. People on the right think libertarians are advocating freedom to burgle, rob, rape, murder – because they read ‘freedom’ to mean ‘freedom to do whatever you please.’

People on the left think libertarians are advocating exploitation, pollution, callousness, and the primacy of making (and keeping) money above all else – because they read ‘freedom’ to mean ‘freedom to do whatever you please.’

And both sides think libertarians consider the laws we have prohibiting these activities to be a restriction on freedom.

When will they realise that they don’t understand?

Libertarians believe you should be free from coercion – and that you must not coerce anyone else. Libertarians believe you should be free from interference – and that you must not interfere with anyone else. Libertarians believe you should be free from oppression – and that you must not oppress anyone else. Because these are to be universal freedoms: what you do not wish done to you, you must not do to anyone else.

For the libertarian, there is no ‘freedom to.’ Freedom represents an absence, the absence of force and fraud. It does not represent a licence to do anything, or a right or entitlement, except the absolute human right not to be forced or defrauded.

‘Freedom to’ is where conflict enters the system. ‘Freedom to’ often becomes a right: a right to a family, a right to cheap healthcare, a right to a job, a right not to starve. In this way a person can argue that poverty constitutes a lack of freedom, because poor people are not, to use the most extreme example, free to eat. And so a non-libertarian may say, their right to eat must override someone else’s freedom from coercion.

A libertarian may say, are the poor victims of coercion, interference, or oppression? If so, it must stop – and then they may be able to provide themselves with food. Thus not only are the freedoms of the poor restored, they are helped without obviating anyone else’s freedoms. No conflict exists; the principles of freedom are not only maintained, they are extended.

And for holding this principle, for advocating it, and for trying to practise it in their daily lives, libertarians are ‘childish’ and vilified as ‘Hands off my Lexus, you hippy.’ We, who are concerned only with the heights of dignity and achievement all humans could reach if only they were freed from coercion, interference, and oppression, are called ‘selfish’ and ‘misanthropic.’

So be it.

  21 Responses to “That’s right, whip the libertarian”

  1. Children don’t understand all the complexity and subtlety of some grown-up things.

    There are a lot of political children in this country who don’t understand the complexity and subtlety of the political idea of Freedom. The idea of permissions they understand, because, as children, permissions to do or say were handed down by our elders and betters.

    As still-infantile adults they think the way to ensure everyones’ happiness is to regulate the permissions they enjoy. If you don’t play nice (how the current crop of pseudo-grown ups want you to) you get censured and punished. They’ve never made the leap to realising that proper adults respect one another’s autonomy of thought, speech or action.

    “Libertarianism: Shush, the Grown-Ups are Talking”

    • It’s really interesting that you should say that, because recently I’ve been reading about Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. I’d be willing to bet that most people are in the two middle ‘conventional’ stages, which is why criticisms of callousness and selfishness are so often levelled at libertarians. Few people are interested in actually trying to argue the philosophy; they are more concerned with trying to show we are ‘bad’ people or uninterested in alleviating the suffering of others.

  2. Well, you see, arguing philosophy is all well and good for you wine-sipping Lexus-drivers. You can afford your idealism and talk of freedom, but in the real world people need food and medicine and if don’t make compromises, people will die.

  3. I’m just playing dumb ass’s advocate.

  4. I’m afraid that you’re missing the point. This is how political debate proceeds in the UK (and in Bella’s native land) nowadays.

    You set up a straw-man; if you are an ‘intellectual’, it may be one loosely connected to one of your opponent’s policies – preferably one advocated by a fringe member of the party – Daniel Hannan plays this role for Labour supporters; you demolish the straw-man; work out a sound-bite; job’s a good’un.

    There are mainstream libertarians in the most unlikely places – Charlotte, for example. But there are no mainstream libertarian policies from the credible UK parties – which I attribute not just to creeping statism but to the inexorable advance of the Code Napoleon.

    But to get the required* ad-hominem in “LiberalConspiracy” is just a gang for people too dull to be asked to write for “LabourList”.

    *EC Directive 743/10 – New Media Authors, Publishers for Other Than Gain, Mandatory Inclusions Regulations (Supplementary)

  5. I really like your summation here; it responds quite deeply.

    I would make this simplistic supposition to:

    Libertarians = “freedom from..”
    Libertines = “freedom to”

    Am reading Theodore Dalrymple’s essays at the moment- one contains an interesting thesis on the alliance between social democracy fostering libertinism in the underclass being responsible for the rotten state of Britain. Interesting.

  6. […] Libertarianism. Do go and read. […]

  7. […] much of a habit, but another post elsewhere that really is worth going to read (via Long Rider): That’s right whip the Libertarian* by Bella […]

  8. The position you put, Miss Gerens (or is it Mrs Devil, I’m happy to use whichever suits you) reflects, of course, the very foundation of the US Constitution.

    For example, freedom of speech, as protected by that Constitution is not granted by The State. It is proclaimed to be a natural freedom, a part of the human condition. The Constitution does not give a right to freedom of speech, it prevents The State from impinging upon the ability of people to speak freely.

    “Rights” in the US Constitution are held by the people automatically from the moment of their birth. The State being a construct of the people, it can only do what the people allow it to do and the people do not allow it the power to interfere in certain aspects of life.

    It is all so different from the Continental European idea of “rights”. To them, rights are given by The State, there is no natural law element involved. What The State has given the State can take, so they came up with a Convention to circumscribe the areas in which the State can take back rights it has granted.

    “Freedom from” and “freedom to” sum up the difference between the US and Euro models perfectly.

    There is more to it than a mere difference of emphasis and structure. The emphatic and structural differences breed a difference in the very climate of how we live your lives. It is the difference between The State being the servant or the master. That necessarily means that it is also the difference between the little people being masters or servants of The State. This is not a matter of semantics, there is real substance to it.

    Many a former citizen of the USSR still lives in fear of the KGB because the atmosphere they grew up in required them to look over their shoulder all the time for fear that they were transgressing The State’s edicts without knowing it. The State was the master and the people were the servants.

    Americans display the opposite attitude. They do what they want subject to laws preventing certain behaviour and don’t live in perpetual fear. The people are the masters and The State is the servant.

    This exemplifies the difference between “freedom to” and “freedom from”. To my mind it is the most important exemplar of that difference because it shows how it affects ordinary people, even if they have been away from their home country for decades.

    You can label it Libertarian, Liberal, Conservative or, if you choose, Peach Melba. Labels don’t matter. What matters and what, I have no doubt, makes life better is living under a political structure in which The State is the servant and must justify everything it does and every penny it spends.

  9. Thank you bella! I really enjoyed reading this article. It sums up my own philosophy very accurately.

  10. It’s really rather a Hayekian point that a truly liberal society is the very antithesis of ‘freedom to’. He makes the point in The Constitution of Liberty that there is nothing anti-libertarian in a certain mode of conduct attracting social opprobrium to the extent that those who engage in it will suffer significant sanction. In fact, if we take away the option of direct coercion to influence people’s behaviour, it’s really the only weapon left. You do not have to approve of something to permit it. It is entirely consistent with the libertarian stance to utterly condemn a lifestyle or a practise, while simultaneously refraining from doing anything about it. I think smoking, drinking to excess, taking most drugs, promiscuity, over-indulgence in fatty foods, and vegetarianism are stupid, self-destructive habits, if pursued with too little restraint. But beyond a vigorous tut-tut, would I curtail anyone’s right to indulge in any of these habits? No, I would not. Hence, I am a libertarian.

  11. I class myself as a Libertarian but I am also a realist. Classic Libertarians will never get into power in the UK while the general public do not understand what we are trying to sell them. I’ve said before now that we need a Libertarian Lite. One that many in the LPUK will reject as against their beliefs but will resonate more with John Public. We need to define clear and reasonable policies and a plan on how to get there in a few years that would be clearly understood and acceptable to the public and would not expect them to take massive leaps of faith.

    Its all well and good having the highest standards and the best policies but if you are identified with anarchy and chaos you will never get the votes. There will never be a better time to put forward a Libertarian cause than now. It has to be one acceptable to the general public though not just us. Yet at this current time I hear nothing about the LPUK and many people I have talked to about it are acceptable to the theory but are unclear on what actually will be put in place. Better the devil you know seems to be the response the LPUK are too radical.

  12. Rightist libertarians do believe that stealing your lexus is an initiation of force against your property & thus it is defencive to stop them. Anarchists, believing that all property is theft think you have no right to prevent them taking your Lexus, nor that they have any right to stop you taking their bicycle. I think this is why libertarianism is practical & pure anarchism isn’t.

  13. […] get Libertarianism and I don’t want to talk about morons like Roger Helmer – Bella Gerens explains what a real Libertarian is to her. No, it is Charlotte Gore, our humble Devil, Mr […]

  14. Neil: I don’t believe that anarchists necessarily believe all property is theft. I don’t even believe thaat the coiner of that phrase (although it’s usually transalted as “robbery” rather than “theft”) Pierre-Joseph Proudhon believed that.

    In the essay from which it is quoted, “What is property?” it seems to me that a. he is talking about a particular kind of proprietorship, ie in the unreproduceable good, specifically land, in which proprietorship enables the unproductive proprietor to exploit those in need of that unreproduceable good for their production, and b. that sound, defensible rules about “possession” are necessary to prevent predation on productive users of those goods.

    There may be a particular strand of anarcho-communism that rejects all forms of ownership rights, but it is by no means all. Also the terms are interchangeable. Kevin Carson, for example, styles himself a Mutualist, and that tradition draws much of its thought from the “individualist anarchists”, yet he himself, as I do, regard our position as within the panoply of “libertarianism”.

  15. Are we free to go now?

  16. That’s a very nice post. Non-libertarians often do not understand that freedom is actually a very well-defined term in libertarian parlance and does not in fact include the right to do whatever you want. And liberals (using the US meaning of the term) love to put together positive and negative liberty into one inconsistent mash.

  17. “A libertarian may say, are the poor victims of coercion, interference, or oppression? If so, it must stop – and then they may be able to provide themselves with food.”

    Well what if they can’t? And even if they could, what if they’re so weak from being starved and subjugated that once they are un-subjugated they still can’t provide themselves with food?

    Besides, taxation isn’t as nasty as dying in the street from lack of food, so clearly it’s better to tax people who make money to provide welfare for people who don’t.

  18. When will you understand that the political arena is a stage-managed circus. It makes no difference who gets in, or what is said by whom, or any of this back and forth drama that so consumes your interest. Behind the scenes it is managed by bankers and their minions, who preselect all the supposedly opposed players, stage the false flag events, and direct the media along with the media’s embedded security services employees, to determine the unfolding of public events and guide us to wards the fate that they wish for us.

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