Feb 062011

Unlike DK, who thinks it all boils down to pointless questions of semantics, I have a great respect for philosophy. Perhaps too great, in that I have always understood its purpose to be the examination of stuff, any stuff, with the goal of reaching enlightenment, or just understanding, or even just theoretical solutions to theoretical thought-problems.

In simplest terms, I think the purpose of philosophy is to examine with intent to reveal, rather than obscure. If that means delving into pointless semantics, so be it. Words, after all, have meanings. And if it means spending a lot of time examining something and ultimately getting no further toward a conclusion than, ‘Well, I guess it sort of depends,’ I’m cool with that. Stuff has many facets, and people have many perspectives. Sometimes agreement can be reached, and sometimes it can’t. And when it can’t, that’s often more interesting, because then you can examine why, which hopefully leads to more enlightenment, or just understanding, or whatever.

So it pains me to read stuff like this from supposed champions of philosophy.

According to La Wik, Alain de Botton has had an elite education which, presumably, trained his mind in the ways of examining stuff, including a master’s degree in philosophy and an unfinished PhD in same. He is credited with making philosophy accessible to a wider audience, though not without some accompanying criticism.

I recognise that a first-rate education and some degrees is no guarantor of quality of thought, but I would have liked to hope these can permit a man’s thought to rise at least fractionally above that of the common herd.

But there is no point of view or argument in this article that I have not seen a hundred times before from all types of people, even from the keyboards of that most reviled and aphilosophical species, the blogger.

There’s the underlying theme of ‘people are so selfish, they actually think they have nothing to learn from the government about how to live!’

There’s the crass comparison with religious rules and taboos, observers of which ‘libertarians’ are said to pity often—a necessarily unfounded statement, and one that entirely fails to examine the question of consent.

There’s the assertion that the existence of advertising makes us unfree and mass consumption has turned us away from morality.

And then finally, there’s the blanket belief that ‘we’ (speak for yourself, Alain) lack the strength to resist temptation and could all do with reminders to be nice and act like good grown-ups.

We may begin to wish that someone could come along and save us from ourselves… Complete freedom can be a prison all of its own… It is not much fun, nor ultimately even very freeing, to be left alone to do entirely as one pleases.

To paraphrase a rather greater thinker than I: is this language which philosophy may properly speak?

Is it part and parcel of making philosophy accessible to the masses to obscure meaning with meaningless contradictions? Freedom can be a prison, indeed.

Is it the task of philosophy to perpetuate misconceptions such as equating libertarianism with absence of moral judgment, when in fact libertarianism contains very robust concepts of what constitutes right and wrong?

Perhaps so; I, after all, am a product of state education and have no degree in philosophy. Who am I to judge?

But all the same, I feel desperately sorry for the real philosophers out there, when the man popularising their discipline to the proles is a real-life version of Dr Floyd Ferris.

Jul 042010

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

John Demetriou suggested another blogging challenge the other night, the topic to be: whether it is best to create a libertarian state by means of democracy, or by means of revolution. It seems rather appropriate to address such a question on this particular day, the anniversary of the only occasion in which the creation of a liberal state was attempted by both means at one and the same time.

Two initial problems present themselves when I consider this question. The first is that revolution is historically successful at changing the form of a government, but is usually violent and therefore illegitimate, and rarely creates a more liberal government in place of the one overthrown. The second is that democracy is non-violent and therefore legitimate, but where it successfully changes the form of government, it rarely creates a more liberal government in place of the one overthrown.

What these problems suggest to me is that changes of government are rare, sometimes violent, and usually for the worse. This presents a great difficulty to your average liberal or libertarian, for even though we may believe we have the right, as above, to alter or abolish a form of government that is destructive of our liberty, we are terribly reluctant to exercise that right—and as a result, never actually remove the destructive government from power.

A third problem, of course, is that the form of government currently destructive to our liberty is a democracy itself. And the idea of democracy is today so untouchable, any suggestion that it might be the democratic system which is destructive of our liberty, rather than simply the people in charge of it at the moment, is met with a sort of outrage.

Or else it’s met with a patronising smile and a statement to the effect that if libertarian government was at all desirable, the demos would desire it and vote for it—and the fact that they haven’t isn’t a fault in democracy, but a fault in libertarianism.

As much as I loathe the patronising smile etc., I’m beginning to believe that point of view may, indeed, be the correct one. It’s certainly true that the demos are rarely presented with a libertarian party or candidate to vote for, but even when, on occasion, they have that alternative, the majority of them don’t choose it. Libertarians and liberals, I conclude, are therefore a minority in democratic nations, and don’t have the option of democratic overthrow of the government even if they wanted to attempt it. We could, as the patronising smilers are wont to say, try to convert others to our way of thinking and thus grow to become a majority, but that’s difficult as well.

Most people can agree, roughly, that governments must not infringe the life and liberty of their citizens. (The disagreement usually regards criminals.) Libertarians would have no problem generating a majority with that view, because here at least, that majority already exists, and is why the government is not judicially murdering its opponents or locking them up in gulags. The ‘unalienable right’ libertarians can’t get a majority agreement about is property (coyly omitted from the excerpt above).

Oh, the government cannot (does not) come and take your stuff willy-nilly, sending in soldiers or policemen to boot you out of your house or snatch your family silver or raid your stash of cash under the mattress. Your property is, for the most part, protected from such predation—because you possess it.

But the government does take a certain category of your property, which it conveniently defines as property you’ve never legally possessed and thus has never actually been ‘yours.’ This is what the government calls ‘taxes.’ And, in Britain at least, most people never actually possess most of the tax money the government collects. It flows straight from their employers into the government coffers without ever passing through the fingers of the taxpayer. There are other types of taxes which do pass through taxpayer hands first: road tax, car tax, VAT, council tax. But that money never actually belongs to the taxpayer either, as evinced by the fact that if the taxpayer tries to keep it in his possession, he is charged with criminal activity: to wit, theft.

So the government declares that a certain proportion of the property within its jurisdiction belongs to it, regardless of how that property is generated or allocated originally. In practice, anyone who is employed (i.e. engaged in the production of property) is also employed by the government, by definition. In return for generating property for our employer, we receive a cut; in return for generating property for the government, we receive services. Quite naturally, the cut we receive from our employer is smaller than the amount we produce for him, and so it is reasonable to assume that the services we receive from our government are worth less than the property we produce for it.

In our chosen employment, however, all of our colleagues are in the same boat. Their cut is also less than what they produce. In our government employment, though, it’s a different story. Some people receive much more in services than they provide in tax—and some people receive services for which they provide no tax at all! In fact, the more tax one provides, the fewer services one receives, and the less tax one provides, the more services one receives!

There, then, is the source of the disagreement, and of the libertarian minority: most people, under our current form of government, perceive that the value of the services they receive is greater than the value of the tax they pay. For some people, this is factually true, and for others, it’s nothing more than perception: but as long as the majority perceive that they are receiving more than what they pay for, the libertarians (who generally perceive the opposite) will remain a minority.

And as long as most people think they’re pulling the wool over the government’s eyes in this way, they will neither (a) consider their property rights infringed, nor (b) support any change in government that eliminates that state of affairs. I submit that this must be the case, simply because whenever the government has moved in a general libertarian direction, it’s been because people have perceived, for a time, that government services are no longer worth vastly more than the tax contributions that pay for them. That was the case in Britain in the eighties, and that’s the case in Britain now.

You see the difficulty, no? Joe Bloggs can go into the store and pay 50p for a plasma television. It’s not a great television, but it works most of the time, and hey, he’s not going to get better anywhere else for 50p. Now you try stopping him outside the store and saying, ‘Hey, man, doesn’t it bother you that you can’t choose not to buy the television? That you pay the store 50p whether you take home the television or not? That I pay the store £50 but I’m not even allowed inside?’

Joe isn’t going to say, ‘Hey, you’re right. Screw that television, and screw this store.’

He’s going to say, ‘Well, I paid my 50p, so I’m entitled to the television. And if it could get £50 off you, the store must think you can afford to buy your own television for full price somewhere else. And if this store didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be able to have a television at all, whereas you would—so this way is only fair. See ya!’

All of which leads this cynical libertarian to conclude, ultimately, that most people don’t want a libertarian state. They don’t think the current form of government is destructive to their rights, and they don’t think it’s destructive to libertarians’ rights either. After all, if we’d just shut up our bitching, we could be busily defrauding the government, too. Or at least believing that we are.

As long as these perceptions prevail, nothing short of violent revolution has a chance of producing a libertarian state. And libertarians, I like to think, don’t do violence.

So if democratic change isn’t possible, and revolution is abhorrent, how do we arrive at a libertarian state? The only method I can imagine is to become so prosperous, as a society, that people no longer need some of the services the government provides, and can purchase the others more cheaply elsewhere. [UPDATE: For what it’s worth, I think the rise of the pernicious ‘inequality’ meme is proof that we’re really close to achieving this level of prosperity.] The best way to become that prosperous would be, of course, to have a libertarian state; but I think it’s possible to get there without one. It’s just going to take a hell of a lot longer, longer than I or my children or my grandchildren will live. In the meantime, the best thing I can do to help bring about a libertarian state is never, ever to shut up my bitching.

Read Obnoxio the Clown’s answer here.

John Demetriou weighs in at last here.

Jun 122010

Great words from Mr Civil Libertarian:

Politics and ethics aren’t easy bedfellows. That’s because there’s nothing ethical about politics. Politics as we know it consists entirely of: Using the force of the state (which is unethical) to coerce (which is unethical) otherwise peaceful citizens into a) giving up their preferred way of life (unethical), b) giving up their justly acquired property (unethical), c) obeying the rules of a small section of society under threat of severe punishment (unethical), and also d) committing violent, coercive acts against citizens of other Nation States that they can claim no possible right over (VERY unethical).

There’s very little politics can do that is ethical, since ultimately, the power of politicians comes, not from namby-pamby “social contracts” (which you never knowingly signed, cannot rescind, and cannot see the terms of) or from any sort of “God given right”, but ultimately from the use of, or the threat of use of, violence against you. What Lucas, as a Member of Parliament, does, is work as yet another embodiment of this established violence. That’s her job. That’s her role. To claim she is “ethical” makes a mockery of ethics.

May 192010

[NB: This post was inspired by a Twitter discussion with @obotheclown and @John_Demetriou. There was a time-limit involved, so please excuse any errors.]

There is a stream of thought out there in the political troposphere that goes by the name of left-libertarianism. This flavour is usually summarised as supporting civil liberties while advocating economic redistribution in some form or manner so as to even out the material unfairnesses in society.

For the time being, let us dispense with the nomenclature and consider first principles. (I’ve been reading Mencius Moldbug lately as you all know, so I’m very much in the mood for thought experiment and first principles.)

Political thought can be summed up as the set of philosophies, opinions, and practices devoted to the question of how people should be governed or should govern themselves. By discussing politics at all, we are addressing the needs and concerns of society or other large and similarly defined groups of humans. We are automatically moving outside of the realm of the individual, which is problematic for the libertarian, of course, but as the population of the earth is not one libertarian, this is simply a pragmatic attitude.

Also, generally speaking, political thought revolves around two central questions: (I) what is good for people both as individuals and as groups? and (II) once we’ve identified the good, what methods or mechanisms do we employ to achieve it?

Despite seeming insurmountable, answering question (I) is generally pretty easy. Almost all humans, when asked, will conclude: (a) I wish to go about my business in the absence of violence or coercion, and (b) I wish to fulfil my material needs in the absence of same, preferably without damaging myself, and preferably without sacrificing (a). Of course, you find that the extent at which people define ‘needs’ and ‘damaging’ and ‘business’ differs from person to person, but this is where the maligned inequality thesis comes in. As long as people feel their effort does not exceed their compensation, and that other people’s business does not impede their own, they tend to be satisfied.

Of course you will always find people who disagree with our answer to (I) for some spurious Calvinist reason, typically either that wanting to go about one’s business is selfish and therefore evidence of evil, or that privation is a moral virtue. I discard them, because they are clearly insane.

Now we are left with question (II), namely, how do we achieve personal freedom from coercion and violence, as well as personal freedom from making ourselves miserable in the pursuit of sustenance? (All the ‘civil’ freedom in the world does not compensate for the mental and physical drain struggling for sustenance, contrary to Patrick Henry etc., but in fact true civil freedom has never been achieved anywhere, so this is more or less a moot point.)

Pace Rothbard, but I think it would be very difficult to achieve either of these things without some kind of overarching authority. Thus I am a minarchist rather than an anarchist. However. As a right-libertarian, I suppose, I see the role of the authority as defending the territory from external aggressors, and enforcing a set of laws that prohibits internal aggression and contract-breaking. These roles, in my view, are sufficient to maintain my civil freedom. I doubt your average left-libertarian would disagree with me on this.

So in the left-right libertarian struggle, we can actually agree on what we might call (II).1.

But what about (II).2, i.e. material freedom?

Your reasonable left-libertarian (thought I don’t presume to speak for such people, obviously) takes the position that just as the authority must enforce the conditions that preserve civil freedom, it must enforce the conditions that preserve material freedom.

(Again, keep in mind that neither of these has ever actually been achieved.)

As it happens, I agree with him on (II).2 as well.

Here’s where it breaks down. In my political schematic, all parts of question (2) are achieved by the same measures: that is to say, defending the territory and enforcing laws and contracts. You will note that my view does not require any particular type of authority–simply some entity with the authority to defend and enforce. It could be a parliament. It could be a dictator. As long as defending and enforcing are what the authority does, it could be the Slime Beast of Vega for all I care. And while I would like for everyone to be materially free, I recognise that the great variety of skills, talents, and needs may preclude this. Thus, for me, it is sufficient that everyone has the opportunity to be materially free, and no one is prevented from seeking material freedom (except with regard to everyone’s civil freedoms), and no one is assisted by the authority in achieving material freedom. In this way, the pursuit of material freedom is at least fair, if not equal in result.

This attitude is not shared by left-libertarians. For them, the authority has a role in ensuring that people achieve and maintain material freedom. Those whose talents and skills are accorded value on the market insufficient to providing material freedom must receive some support from the more talented and more skilled. Some of this support will be voluntary, of course, as there are still people who retain a conscience about this sort of thing. But history and demographics have shown us that the number of skilled people who possess a conscience is always smaller than the number of unskilled and low-skilled people, so the left-libertarian will refuse to rely solely on the voluntary action of people with conscience. He will insist on endowing all of the skilled with a faux conscience, and deploy the authority’s monopoly on force to make sure enough people are endowed with faux conscience to provide for the full support of all of the unskilled and low-skilled.

The left-libertarian will see no conflict in this, as almost by definition he does not believe that property ownership beyond body and mind is an aspect of civil freedom.

And frankly, if material freedom operated on the same basis as civil freedom, this would be entirely sensible.

Unfortunately, although he is consistent in his aims, this is where the left-libertarian becomes inconsistent in his methods: for while civil freedom consists of individuals refraining, a left-libertarian’s material freedom consists of individuals acting. Refraining requires only personal self-discipline and sensibility; acting requires deliberate intention if it is voluntary and deliberate force if it is involuntary. Moreover, civil freedom consists of everyone refraining from aggression, while the left-libertarian’s material freedom consists of some people acting or being forced to act, and is thus inherently unfair and unequal. To achieve civil freedom, everyone has the same personal responsibility; but to achieve the left-libertarian’s material freedom, only a certain portion of the population has a personal responsibility.

And in fact the left-libertarian position imposes a double responsibility, for not only must those with skills provide for others’ material needs, they must provide for their own as well. To the left-libertarian, this is only just, for anything else would condemn the unskilled to starve in the streets and the low-skilled to suffer a life of toil that greatly exceeds its rewards–damaging both body and mind.

The left-libertarian position, just like mine, demands no particular type of authority, nor is it inherently redistributive.

But in practice, his method of pursuing economic freedom requires redistribution. For unlike civil freedom, which depends upon individual acts of reason and will, material freedom is contingent upon the supply of goods and services, the demand for goods and services, the supply of labour, the demand for labour, and people’s willingness to enter into mutually voluntary transactions. It is also contingent upon the identification of some minimum level of material comfort below which is unfreedom and above which is freedom. And as material comfort is relative to both immediate neighbours and prevailing conditions, this is not an absolute and can only be determined by the subjective judgment of those with the power to enforce it.

Because of this, the left-libertarian position also requires an authority that is prepared to wield force against its own citizens or subjects, and there is a name for authorities like that.

So while I might find left-libertarian goals both humane and righteous, and in agreement with my own, I find left-libertarian methods to be internally inconsistent with regard to freedom as a concept and incompatible with reality.

But then, non-libertarians say that about all libertarian philosophy, left or right. And given that neither left-libertarianism nor right-libertarianism has ever been implemented, let alone successfully implemented, they may have a point.

Obnoxio the Clown’s case of left-libertarianism can be found here.

Jock Coats, a self-labelled left-libertarian, weighs in here.

And you can find John Demetriou’s assessment here.

Apr 192010

Libertarians, by their nature, are wont to bang on about liberty, and that it is desirable, and that it is the mother of Order. In the mind of a libertarian, this is all correct and proper, for liberty is the blank slate of the individual; only when he exists in a state of freedom may he pursue those ends which he deems appropriate and suitable for himself.

Thus libertarians take a critical view of those who claim that liberty is an end state, rather than a means – a philosophical ideal to be reserved for a time when material needs have been fulfilled. A person is not free, say these terminal types, until he no longer need struggle for food, clothing, a roof over his head, healthcare, education, employment, transportation – in short, until his physical integrity and livelihood are assured by minimal effort on his part. Western society has, in fact, become so progressive that ‘liberty’ is sometimes defined as ‘possessing sufficient time, money, and energy to expend on leisure rather than sustenance.’

This is, to be sure, a wonderful development in one sense. Rarely in human history has daily toil been considered an irritation to be minimised in favour of pleasure, rather than an essential and all-consuming necessity for survival. Peasant farmers in early medieval Europe had, on the whole, much more liberty than we do today: being unimportant, they suffered little interference from the state, especially those who only farmed enough to feed themselves; being poor, they suffered little interference from others, as they were both inoffensive and had nothing worth stealing. But on the other hand, they had to struggle for food, clothing, a roof over their heads, and had no healthcare at all, or education, or employment, or transportation – therefore they were not free, in the sense that they spent all of their time ensuring their survival and virtually none of their time or effort on leisure.

In essence, then, we have two conflicting modern interpretations of ‘liberty.’ Let’s call them liberty-as-means and liberty-as-ends. Liberty-as-means is a basic state of being in which coercion and unwanted interference by others or the state are absent. This will unfortunately mean that an individual may have to struggle for physical integrity and livelihood. Liberty-as-ends is an advanced state of being in which the struggle for physical integrity and livelihood is absent. This will ideally mean that an individual may therefore focus primarily on the pursuit of that which gives him pleasure.

Enders take a critical view of meansers (libertarians), claiming that those advocating liberty-as-means are able to do so because they are not on the margin of struggling for physical integrity and livelihood. I cannot say with any certainty whether this criticism is valid for all meansers; it may indeed be the case that material comfort breeds libertarianism. On the other hand, it may be that people with a libertarian mindset drive themselves to achieve material comfort. We may never know the answer – counterfactuals can’t be proved – but it might be interesting one day to survey the backgrounds and material circumstances of libertarians.

In any case, we have this situation of liberty in opposition to itself. Meansers cannot have their basic state of liberty because it nearly always has to be infringed in order for the enders to achieve their advanced state of liberty. Enders cannot achieve their advanced state of liberty because meansers are always resisting their methods.

This raises some understandable questions.

First, can liberty-as-means result in liberty-as-ends, and if so, over what sort of timescale?

Second, if not, can liberty-as-ends result in liberty-as-means – and if so, over what sort of timescale?

Finally, if our two conflicting interpretations of liberty are mutually exclusive, which is objectively better and thus more worthy of pursuit?

Stay tuned.

Apr 142010

So. After two years of slowly building itself in the wilderness, crafting press releases that media outlets file carefully in the bin, organising speeches, events, and awareness campaigns, and spreading the libertarian word to individuals bit by bit (from giving party cards to shopkeepers to chatting with taxi drivers and barmen), the LPUK has finally appeared on the national scene, doing two television appearances in one week. It never rains but it pours, eh?

Publicity bite number one came this past Sunday, when LPUK leader Chris Mounsey was invited to debate the question, ‘Should the drink-driving limit be dropped from 80mgs to 50?’ on The Big Questions.

As a matter of fact, he was not being asked to form part of the panel – a detail which the producers failed to mention until he actually walked onto the set for the live broadcast. In reality, he was to present a single point of view, in company with a doctor from the BMA, a grieving mother whose son was killed by a driver over the 80mgs limit, and a representative of an auto association. He also discovered when he walked on set that the question was not, ‘Should the drink-driving limit be dropped from 80mgs to 50?’ but rather ‘Should drivers drink?’

Now, it is not for a political actor to complain that the media do not play fair; when he realised his carefully researched data were going to be useless in context, Chris manned up and did his level best to demonstrate that there is no statistical benefit to prohibiting drivers from drinking at all. Unfortunately, he ran straight into:

Maxim 1 of Political ‘Debate': Your opponent will always lie.

The doctor from the BMA had come armed with her own ‘data’ to prove that, hey, a tiny bit of alcohol slows reaction times by 12.5%, and with 80mgs of drink in the blood reaction times are 10 times slower than with 50. Subsequent research has shown these claims to be rather dubious.

Furthermore, he encountered:

Maxim 2 of Political ‘Debate': The victim (or his mother) is always right.

Never mind that only a tiny proportion of people are killed in drink-driving accidents; never mind that only a tiny proportion of drink-driving journeys result in accidents at all. Anyone who does not utterly oppose the conjunction of alcohol and driving, however limited, is essentially an advocate of manslaughter – and, incidentally, a total monster for making a grieving mother cry.

That said, he did at least have the opportunity to say one or two things about libertarianism, and it was encouraging to find the audience applauding rather less enthusiastically for the bansturbators than they had done earlier for those guests who averred that priests abusing children was a disgrace. If banning drivers from all alcohol consumption was such an obvious no-brainer, surely the audience would have given it the same acclamation they gave to the many other no-brainer statements made on the programme that day.

Publicity bite number two occurred this very morning. Again, LPUK leader Chris Mounsey was invited to speak about the party, this time on The Daily Politics. The producers contacted him to say the interview would be part of a segment on the ‘small parties’ and their policies – as if to suggest that, alone of all media outlets, The Daily Politics was responsible and engaged enough to tell its viewers that there actually are more than three political parties in the United Kingdom. Again, Chris agreed to appear.

And again, he found himself wrong-footed. The ‘interview’ would turn out to be a two-and-a-half minute segment during which Andrew Neil actually did most of the talking. Outliers of all types have to be kept in the liminal spaces, of course, and with small parties, there is a distinct danger that if the media actually report their actual views in any kind of detail, those parties might cease to be quite so small.

Andrew Neil obviously entered the ‘interview’ with that in mind, and ensured that every one of his questions reinforced that marginalisation. He asked not one single question about the party’s policies, manifesto or activities during the course of its two-year existence; instead, he asked, ‘Why are you so small?’ and ‘Why are you standing only one candidate?’ These are not invalid questions, per se, but they have as much relevance to what the party advocates as why they chose blue and gold for the party colours, or a gryphon for its logo.

Maxim 3 of Political ‘Debate': If your position is generally perceived to be marginal, your opponent will focus solely on marginalising you.

During a general election when the media is prepared to demand ridiculous levels of detail about main-party policies, they are certainly not going to waste valuable time asking what is the general goal, outlook, or most prominent policy of any small party. It might suck up the time they’d rather spend reporting on Sarah Brown’s wonky toe.

But fair enough. Chris was there to answer Andrew’s questions, and he did a good job. He explained that the party is young and not well enough funded to pay deposits for many candidates, but that the membership is growing steadily.

Then, perhaps unsurprisingly, Andrew asked about Chris’s blog. And thereby made a colossal tactical error. First, Andrew named the blog, breaking:

Maxim 4 of Political ‘Debate': Never give your opponent free advertising.

Then, he repeated several times that he was not permitted to articulate the blog’s content on television! He made it forbidden fruit, thus also breaking:

Maxim 5 of Political ‘Debate': Never make your opponent’s position look attractive or intriguing.

Unfortunately, Chris was not prepared for a fuck-up of this magnitude on Andrew’s part, and found himself rather at a loss. Should he apologise for the unrepeatable content, or should he remain unrepentant (and thus raise his danger appeal even more)? In the end, because he is a gentleman, he plumped for an non-committal statement of regret. One wonders whether he regretted writing ‘inappropriate’ remarks about public figures, or whether it was simply that he regretted Andrew felt the blog was at all relevant to the LPUK manifesto.

The LPUK, and libertarians in general, have now learned some valuable lessons.

First, Chris was right to go and speak on these programmes. Most of the speaking engagements we libertarians do tend to be in front of other libertarians, which is great but is also preaching to the choir. Although these appearances will not have enlightened anybody about libertarian views, they have nevertheless made a lot of people aware of the existence of a libertarian party. We on the series of tubes lose sight of this sometimes (pace Boaty & D), but there are lots of libertarians out there who aren’t bloggers or blog readers, but who do watch television. Now some of them will know there is a substantial, organised community of libertarians out there that they can be part of.

Second, our assumptions about the media have all been true. They are not interested in reporting, nor are they in any way responsible holders-to-account of public actors. They are a business, and like all businesses they exist to sell their product. Consumers of news media enjoy both outrage and scandal, which unfortunately run-of-the-mill public figures do not provide in great supply. Liminal public actors, therefore, must take up the slack by submitting themselves not to questions designed to elucidate, but to statements designed to confront and incite. There is nothing necessarily wrong in this, but it does require the we liminal types adjust our own strategy accordingly. If the media want shocking interviews, we must shock unapologetically. If the media want to focus on what makes us marginal, we must learn to wear those marginal views with pride. After all, we have nothing to be ashamed of. Pity and guilt have no place among libertarians.

We often wish that public figures did more straight speaking during interviews – the constant diet of pabulum fed to us by the news outlets is so wearying. This criticism still applies to print news, of course, but I think we can all recognise now that live interviews are very different. Whether you’re a shady MP or a total nub, your interviewer’s goal is the same: to ask you only questions that put you on the back foot. I guess that’s why MPs have obfuscation techniques drummed into them from the second they join the party. We, at least, don’t have to obfuscate, so I suggest a different strategy. Instead of assuming that such questions are meant to draw us into a discussion, we should realise their purpose is to back-foot. And instead of stepping neatly into this trap, we should refuse to play – by answering the question, and nothing more.

So that when Andrew Neil says, ‘So you’re a five-man band?’ we don’t explain. We simply say ‘No’ and wait courteously for the next question. So that when he says ‘Do you think this kind of unrepeatable language is appropriate?’ we don’t qualify. We simply say ‘Yes.’ Because that’s the honest answer. And if Andrew Neil wants to call us unmitigated monsters, then the only appropriate response to such idiocy is an insolent shrug. That’s the only response it deserves.

Finally, we know that preparation is pointless. For a twenty-minute speech to other libertarians, we come armed with facts. In such company, we expect to be asked to justify our views with reference to reality. Well, plainly facts and reality are not wanted by media hosts and audiences – and even if they are wanted, the host will negate any you’ve gathered by changing the question at the last moment. So no more data, no more evidence, no more statistics. Why bother? Even when people do listen, they have no idea whether or not you’re telling the truth. If our integrity is such that we can’t permit ourselves to lie outright, then we simply emphasise over and over whichever single statistic most powerfully proves (or supports) our point. Otherwise, extemporise. Then we’ll be flexible enough to respond to the questions we actually end up facing.

After his appearance this morning, Chris offered his resignation to the party. The LPUK refused to accept it. Libertarians, we are who we are. Chris’s only mistake was assuming his hosts actually wanted a calm, logical defence of libertarianism. He was nevertheless magnificent. And the LPUK were right to refuse his resignation. What they need is a leader who is fearless, unapologetic, and completely certain of the rightness of his position. As we all know that’s exactly what the Devil’s Kitchen is, Chris Mounsey need only be himself to succeed.

And lest you think my point of view is biased, allow me to direct you to other apologia here and here and here and here.

UPDATE: And here. And here and here and here and here (sort of) and here and here.

UPDATE 2: And here and here and here and here.

On the other hand, if self-congratulatory I-told-you-sos are more to your taste, go here. With what horrific vocabulary is the Devil’s Kitchen accused of crimes against decency! Bad Conscience is tearing into first place in this contest of the vapours: ‘Highly offensive’ – ‘frequently deliberately outrageous’ – ‘heinously and wilfully offensive’ – ‘personalised, pornographic, narcissistic, grievously offensive invective and vitriol’ – ‘heinously offensive [again]’ – ‘disturbing’ – ‘nasty vitriolic crap.’

Please, dude. Don’t make yourself such a Victorian lady. I bet you’re the first to proclaim what a magnificent satire of the selfish Thatcher-and-Reagan era is Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. And the Devil’s Kitchen has nothing on him.

Apr 112010

John Demetriou has responded, with equal reasonableness and clarity, to my post from earlier today. I wrote before that I have a lot of sympathy with his position, and after his response, I find that I have even more. I feel I understand better what is driving his actions on this question of libertarianism, libertarian bloggers, and the public image of the Libertarian Party. In fact, after reading his post, I find I understand my own position somewhat better, and that is one of the reasons why, despite our arguments, I continue to have a lot of time for JD.

And so there is a further point I wish to make.

In his post, JD says:

What is important is that libertarianism, for the first time, became sort of ‘incarnate’ once the [LPUK] came into being. The day the party was formed, it was like the soul and future purpose of libertarianism was hoisted up off the ground and placed upon the shoulders of this vehicle.

Well, why else would it form? It must have had a purpose? This purpose was surely to seek out electoral popularity and success, in the long term. Libertarianism does not really exist in other parties (I do believe that for a fact), and so people like me and other like-minded liberty lovers look at the LPUK and think ‘please succeed and please advance our philosophy’.

Since this is his view of the LPUK, his position on Old Holborn and other libertarian bloggers and everything else is perfectly justified. If I shared this point of view, I would be behind JD one hundred per cent.

But reading his words, I realise that I don’t share this. I’m not saying he’s wrong; just that I don’t feel this way about the LPUK.

Partly this is because I think political parties, to a very real extent, inhibit true democratic representation. Parties, because they are large, necessarily have to moderate their policies and make compromises in order for their candidates to get elected. They promote a handful of generalised, core values that are broad enough to appeal to large numbers of voters and vague enough not too put too many voters off. In practice, they end up chasing the ‘centre ground’, and in practice end up standing for nothing in their pursuit of populism and inoffensiveness. I would much rather see individual candidates lay out their individual views and intentions and for the voters to choose based on the merits of those individual candidates. But because of the way the British government is structured – in which the party with the majority of candidates elected to parliament forms the Government and controls the business of the legislature – what I would like to see is not practical. So although I understand the practical necessity of having a Libertarian Party, especially as none of the other parties promote anything remotely like libertarianism, I have no great faith in the concept of political parties in general.

Moreover, as an American I have witnessed the evolution of the Libertarian Party there, and it does not inspire much confidence. I’m not saying the same will happen to the LPUK; I hope it doesn’t. But the Libertarian Party in the US has endured several regrettable developments. For a time, it was popularly known as the Party of Stoners because of its capture by single-minded advocates of marijuana legalisation. I am entirely in favour of marijuana legalisation, of course, but their harping on the point to the virtual exclusion of all other aspects of liberty made them appear to be fringe cranks who cared only about their desire to smoke a doob. More recently, they have fallen victim to the ‘populist and inoffensive’ trap, to the extent that their presidential candidate in 2008 Robert Barr, a former advocate of drug prohibition and one-man-one-woman marriage who voted for the Patriot Act in Congress, was widely believed to be so un-libertarian that many LP members absolutely refused to campaign for him. He is also a total moron. Here he is in Reason talking about why he voted for the Patriot Act:

Carlson Meissner Hart & Hayslett, P.A. discussing criminal defense in Tampa, gave us personal assurances that the provisions in the PATRIOT Act, if they were passed and signed into law, would be used judiciously, that they would not be used to push the envelope of executive power, that they would not be used in non-terrorism related cases. They gave us assurances that they would work with us on those provisions that we were able to get sunsetted, work with us to modify those and to look at those very carefully when those provisions came up for reauthorization. The administration also gave us absolute assurances that it would work openly and thoroughly report to the Congress, and by extrapolation to the American people, on how it was using the provisions in the PATRIOT Act. In every one of those areas, the administration has gone back on what it told us.

No intelligent libertarian would be this stunningly naive.

Quite apart from the inconsistencies of the US Libertarian Party, I also see that most of the real progress of the libertarian movement in the US in the last five years has been achieved by people who are not members of the party. Ron Paul has won hearts and minds for libertarianism all over the United States, especially in that all-important ‘young voter’ group who were unengaged in politics. In late 2007 it was not uncommon to see first-time voters at Ron Paul rallies bearing signs that read ‘Ron Paul Cured My Apathy.’ To my total bewilderment, he received a lot of criticism from the higher-ups of the LP for, of all things, being a Republican. That only served to reinforce my view that political parties do more harm than good: for who cares what party a libertarian is in, as long as he is a libertarian?

The Tea Party is another entity that has out-libertarian’d the LP in the United States. They’re not a political party (yet), they have only the most basic shared ideology, and they do not call themselves libertarians; but the vast majority of what they advocate is libertarianism by the back door, slipped into public discourse without the terminology that has become so tainted by faction and party hypocrisy, such that millions of people have rallied around them and so become libertarians without even realising it.

Given all of this, then, I do not hold the idea of a Libertarian Party in the UK in quite the same hopeful regard as John Demetriou. I support them in the ways that I can, I believe in them so far, I hope they win electoral success by the bucketload, and I would vote for them if I could. But if the LPUK fails, or splits into factions, or becomes associated with fringe nutjobs, I don’t believe it will necessarily set back the cause of libertarianism. For failure, factionalism, and fringe movements are exactly what has happened to the Libertarian Party in the US, and yet libertarianism as a politico-philosophical position is more popular and more successful there now than it has been in my lifetime.

In short, I want the LPUK to enjoy tremendous electoral success while maintaining their ideological integrity. But if they don’t, well… no biggie. Libertarianism abides.

Apr 102010

I am told that the blogger known as Old Holborn intends to stand as a parliamentary candidate for the Jury Team in the forthcoming general election.

I say ‘I am told’ because I know nothing other than the fact that Boaty & D keep banging on about it. My understanding of the source of this beef is basically zero.

But because Old Holborn has historically called himself a libertarian, John Demetriou is (perhaps understandably) concerned that non-libertarians might make inferences about the rest of us based on Old Holborn’s very public campaigns and his well-known online presence. JD has called on the UK Libertarian Party, despite not being a member, to sever its links, whatever their nature, with Old Holborn, and on libertarians in general to distance themselves publicly from Old Holborn, certain of his attitudes, and certain of the Jury Team policies he is obliged to support as one of their candidates – all in an effort to demonstrate as clearly as possible that Old Holborn is not representative of libertarians as a group. Indeed, Demetriou does these things himself, so he is not demanding from anyone else what he is not willing to do himself.

A couple of evenings ago, he and I had quite an instructive conversation on the matter, in which he outlined the basics of his position and made various suggestions. My response, however, was evidently unsatisfactory, as he mentioned on his blog this afternoon:

None of the other top 20 libertarian bloggers have any issues whatsoever with OH and his campaign. It’s ‘ends justify the means’ ‘so what?’ all the way to the bank.

The hypocrisy and inconsistency inherent in the lack of questioning going on here about OH and these others is incredible.

And when I press the issue home, certain other bloggers make out like OH is nothing to do with them, the LPUK or libertarianism.

This, despite the fact that the Treasurer of the LPUK is OH’s mate and fellow blogger and the leader of the LPUK and his wife went on a London demo at Parliament together.

But no, no, no links at all, OH is nothing to do with this cause at all.

I’m obviously mad or deluded. Yeah.

It is not my intention to get into a blogwar, or to take personally these remarks. I understand entirely where JD is coming from and I have a great deal of sympathy for his position. It is not enough for me to say that I am not one of the top 20 libertarian bloggers, and that I am not a member of the LPUK. It is not enough for me to say that I speak only for myself, not for libertarians in general or LPUK members, when I refuse to do what he thinks I should do. He is a fellow libertarian, and he deserves a better answer. And as there are probably many who share his view, they deserve a better answer from me too. And I deserve better than what JD’s comment implies about my views.

In the first instance, I will not question OH’s campaign or policies because I know nothing about them. I have not informed myself of the matter. Politically, it is an irrelevancy. I do not live in the constituency where OH is standing, and even if I did, I could neither vote for him nor choose not to vote for him.

Not so with the Jury Team. Some of their 30 key policies are attractive; some are not. As I feel this way about most political parties, I am hardly going to go out of my way to make a particular attack on the Jury Team on that basis. However.

JD feels that the Jury Team’s participation in the Alliance for Democracy taints it, because its partners the Christian Party and the English Democrats are proposing some truly unsavoury stuff. He points out the Christian Party’s commitment to upholding lifelong marriage between one man and one woman, and the EDP’s belief that the public culture of England should be that of indigenous English. The Christian Party also advocates the death penalty, banning abortion, prohibition of drugs, censorship, and public health campaigns to ‘discourage’ homosexuality.

Not only are these policies un-libertarian, as JD says, they are personally repugnant. They are not the policies of the Jury Team, but although it is cunningly buried, the Jury Team’s official website does state that they are a ‘full member of the Alliance for Democracy’ and the leader of the Jury Team, Sir Paul Judge, is also the leading spokesman for the Alliance. Although I cannot find it explicitly stated, it appears that members of the Alliance have agreed, as they did for the 2005 election, not to stand competing candidates in the same constituency. From this, I infer that Jury Team members and candidates are comfortable enough with CP and EDP policies to be satisfied with CP and EDP electoral victory.

And it is for that reason that I do not like the Jury Team, would not vote for them (if I had the vote), and find it utterly puzzling that a self-professed libertarian would stand as a Jury Team candidate. But nobody has to share my views, or even sympathise with them, and if OH believes he can support the Jury Team without supporting its allies, who am I to say he can’t, even if I couldn’t?

But there is more, because JD clearly objects to Old Holborn himself in addition to the Jury Team and its allies. Something about Old Holborn himself is obviously poisonous enough to corrupt the image of the UK Libertarian Party because its treasurer happens to be his personal friend and its leader (and his wife) went on a ‘demonstration’ he organised. Moreover, the very fact that Old Holborn calls himself a libertarian is sufficient to taint libertarianism in general and all libertarians everywhere unless they publicly state that they don’t agree with his poisonous views.

I am not entirely clear on what, exactly, JD doesn’t like about Old Holborn. I do not know the man personally, despite having spent an afternoon in his general vicinity and participated in a short conversation with him. I have little familiarity with his personal or political views; some of what I know, I agree with, and some I don’t agree with. He may not be an anti-Semite, but I do not agree with what I understand are his opinions about Israel or Jewish influence in politics. But because I do not really know the man or his views, I allow for the fact that I may be wrong about what he thinks, and I will not go on the attack or make public assertions about him when my knowledge and understanding are incomplete. Nor will I advise anyone else to do so.

I think these are all good explanations for why I will not do as JD suggests. But the ultimate reason, really, is that libertarianism is about principles, not personalities. Either the principles are sound on their own terms, and will remain sound no matter what sort of person advocates them; or the principles are unsound, and not even an army of saints urging people to adopt them will make them right. JD, I think, would argue that libertarian principles are more likely to be given the fair hearing they deserve if their public advocates are reasonable people, and probably he is right. But that is not a good enough justification, for me personally, to attack an individual from a position of ignorance. I want the libertarian movement to succeed, and I want its members to be well thought of, but I will not join a public crusade against an individual to achieve that.

This may be hypocritical, given that I denounce people like Ed Balls left, right, and centre with equally imperfect knowledge. Maybe JD is right and I’m permitting my tribal libertarianism to overcome my good sense. Maybe I just don’t want to get on Old Holborn’s bad side. These things could all be true, and my ‘reasoning’ just rationalising some base, gut unwillingness to go against another libertarian, especially one who is more well-known and more ‘powerful’ than I am.

But maybe it’s just that, deep down, I would not respect myself if I jumped on this bandwagon, however justified it might be. I hold libertarian principles to be right and good, and I try to persuade others of their rightness and goodness, and I try not to discredit the movement in my personal behaviour. But that is the only contribution to the ’cause’ I am willing to make, because the only person whose views and actions I’m responsible for is myself. I don’t place the libertarian ’cause’ ahead of my self-respect, and my personal code of integrity tells me it is not appropriate for me to follow JD’s course (although I do not say it is not appropriate for him). And so Old Holborn may be ‘something’ to do with libertarianism, but he is nothing to do with me.

Feb 172010

The epilogue to Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty leaves me very sad. Published in 1978, it expresses his optimistic view that the cause of libertarianism was rapidly gaining ground, and true liberty would soon be in sight. He says:

The case for libertarian optimism can be made in a series of what might be called concentric circles, beginning with the broadest and longest-run considerations and moving to the sharpest focus on short-term trends. In the broadest and longest-run sense, libertarianism will win eventually because it and only it is compatible with the nature of man and of the world. Only liberty can achieve man’s prosperity, fulfillment, and happiness. In short, libertarianism will win because it is true, because it is the correct policy for mankind, and truth will eventually win out.

I’m not sure Rothbard expected that, because of the climate change movement, prosperity, fulfilment, and happiness would take a backseat to eradicating atmospheric carbon dioxide at any and all costs on the basis of what looks increasingly to be at best very imprecise and at worst mostly contrived science. Meanwhile, he goes on:

But the long run is now here. We do not have to prophesy the ruinous effects of statism; they are here at every hand. Lord Keynes once scoffed at criticisms by free-market economists that his inflationist policies would be ruinous in the long run; in his famous reply, he chortled that “in the long run we are all dead.” But now Keynes is dead and we are alive, living in his long run. The statist chickens have come home to roost.

Again, an unfortunate assumption on Rothbard’s part that once Keynesian economics had been shown to fail, or at least to cause as many problems as it solved, people would reject it as a solution to fluctuations in the economy. To the contrary, Keynesian economics has been shown to fail on numerous occasions, and to intensify some of the problems it purports to solve, and yet thirty years after Rothbard believed it dead, here we are again employing Keynesian solutions for problems Keynesian economics has never been able to fix.

The enormous success of Karl Marx and Marxism has been due not to the validity of his ideas – all of which, indeed, are fallacious – but to the fact that he dared to weave socialist theory into a mighty system. Liberty cannot succeed without an equivalent and contrasting systematic theory; and until the last few years, despite our great heritage of economic and political thought and practice, we have not had a fully integrated and consistent theory of liberty. We now have that systematic theory; we come, fully armed with our knowledge, prepared to bring our message and to capture the imagination of all groups and strands in the population. All other theories and systems have clearly failed: socialism is in retreat everywhere, and notably in Eastern Europe; [American-style] liberalism has bogged us down in a host of insoluble problems; conservatism has nothing to offer but sterile defense of the status quo.

All true, and yet the so-called ‘failure’ of statism has certainly not resulted in either less statism or more liberty. In fact, few people are now admitting that it ever failed at all. The continued popularity in some quarters of the Labour government in this country, along with the high levels of approval the statist President Obama enjoys, suggest that, in fact, more people than ever in the West think statism is the right idea.

As always, liberty has few devotees but many fair-weather friends. People are happy to agitate for liberty when control is costing them dearly, and this is good; on the other hand, the very same people are happy to agitate for control when they perceive the costs of liberty. For too many individuals, liberty is a utilitarian construct rather than an abstract value, and principle that is good when its consequences are favourable to them and bad when its consequences are unfavourable. Freedom is the first principle to be sacrificed in the face of any kind of need, be it financial, material, environmental – freedom is viewed as a luxury to be enjoyed only when we have supplied the physical wants of all people everywhere. One man’s right not to be coerced is not even to be considered in the same class of importance as another man’s need for food.

Frankly, it’s a wonder we lock up thieves at all, given this near-universal acceptance that a person’s need gives him the right to another person’s property.

I’m not sure Rothbard was considering these trends as he looked into the future so confidently and saw great gains for liberty being made in the near future. It’s now thirty years since he wrote For a New Liberty, and not only has the state everywhere only grown, more and more people have invited it with open arms, happily trading their own liberty for the security the state offers, which can only be guaranteed by its monopoly on theft, backed by the metaphorical point of a gun.

Dec 202009

DK has tagged me to do this meme; I turned sixteen in 1997 and was, frankly, a bit of a jackass. Receiving this letter probably wouldn’t have changed that, but hey, you never know.

My dear,

Having been invited by others to advise you about the twelve years to come, please find below a few tips and reassurances. I won’t say too much – time paradox and all that – but I hope you’ll find the general thrust of my advice useful.

My first tip: broaden your ambitions. I know you harbour vague thoughts about going to a small liberal arts university and becoming an English teacher. Abandon those. You’ll realise soon the virtues of anonymity amongst the hordes and warm weather – not to mention that, just in the nick of time, you’re going to realise that it’s not the ‘literature’ part of English literature you enjoy. Go with that instinct – it’ll make you happy.

You also see ahead of yourself, whenever you bother to think about it, a pretty unremarkable lifestyle, living the American dream. Well, you’re living it at the moment; think about how much you enjoy it now, and imagine what it’ll be like when you try it on your own in a couple of years’ time.

My second tip: avoid becoming materialistic. I hate to break it to you, but you’re destined for the life of a nomad. I won’t horrify you with the details of how many times you have to pack up your shit and move it. Just take my word for it that acquiring more stuff than you need is going to cause you more trouble than it’s worth.

My third tip: when, in a few years, you decide to pursue your further academic career, ignore the cost and do it. It’s not going to turn out the way you think, but it’s going to lead you to interesting places. There will be ups and downs, but persevere through the downs: the ups are more than sufficient reward.

My fourth tip, which follows on from the third: when you encounter other obstacles to your wishes, don’t give up. This isn’t an inspirational platitude; I’ve seen time and again that when you bust your ass, you succeed. In time, you will come to regard this quality of yourself as a kind of mystical power. Just remember the converse is also true: when you don’t bust your ass, you fail. And you will fail. More than once. The greatest of those failures will come in November 2000. Ride it out: it’s your threshold to adulthood, and between you and me, you dodged a bullet there.

Finally, a word about men. You go out with anybody who asks, and you aren’t afraid to be the pursuer. People will frown on this, but keep it up. Every loser you date because you like the look of his cheekbones, or because he made an intellectual remark about philosophy, is going to provide you with valuable learning experience. And one day, via a series of random and unlikely-in-retrospect events, you’re going to come across a man who combines the best in cheekbones, intellect, and various other qualities you’ll come to value. When circumstances bring you to his attention, remember my fourth tip.

Oh – and in 2002, keep your eyes open for a conjunction of Latin and libertarianism. You’ll know it’s coming up when a total stranger insults you gratuitously in public. That incident will change your life.