Sunday, November 18, 2007

Libertarianism and blogs

The post by Paulie at DSTPFW that kicked off the recent debates about blogging 'right' libertarians did so for a simple reason: he had a point. Not everything he said was true, for example:

The bloggertarian exists primarily to criticise. They will almost never present a policy proposal of their own
This is wrong for two reasons. Obviously, solutions are often suggested by the targets of the piece. But more subtly, perhaps, in the point that if you think something ought to be a matter of personal choice, or in some other way should be in the personal rather than the public or political spheres, then of course you're not going to offer a 'solution'. Your solution is to leave it to others to decide for themselves.

But in other ways he was right:
For the bloggertarian, the term ‘libertarian’ is little more than a flag of convenience. It is a useful one as it is a position that appears to require no evidence in support of a statement.When bloggertarians are confronted with the consequences of a particular libertarian position, they will often rapidly retreat to either a standard set of Conservative Party prejudices, or occasionally, to the slightly ahistorical position of a lumpen intelligentsia Guardianista.

For the avoidance of doubt, the bloggertarian rarely has any real commitment to libertarianism.
There are far more people who are libertarian Tories - small-State conservatives with a liberal approach to social issues - than libertarians in the blogosphere. I recently debated the question of monarchy with DK. I'm actually incredulous that anyone could be a monarchist. But of course some people are. What this means, though, is that the individuals concerned are not libertarians.

The idea that someone who advocates personal freedoms and a small State could place at the head of it a hereditary autocrat with unlimited powers is completely ludicrous. The libertarian, as a rule, is willing to devolve some limited power to the State, but there can be no place for unlimited power, however it might be hogtied by constitutional arrangements. Most of all, people who take as the starting point for their politics the notion that we are the owners, the sovereigns, of our own selves cannot accept another, superior, sovereign.

What Paulie didn't point out is that the same problems exist, perhaps far more seriously, in the 'left' libertarian bloggers. David Farrer has been writing about this recently:
The trouble is that the enemies of liberty started to call themselves liberals. Why? Because people saw that liberty was good, so why not pinch its name? And now, in the English-speaking world anyway, liberalism means the opposite of liberty. It means government force.

Real liberals - faced with the theft of their good name - rebranded themselves as "libertarians". And people saw that libertarian ideas were good, just as the same ideas had been when they were called "liberal".

And now it's happened again. The enemies of liberty are increasingly describing themselves as libertarians. Or, rather, "left libertarians" - a completely meaningless concept under which force is freedom and coercion is liberty. Come back George Orwell.
Farrer is absolutely correct about this (though one of his colleagues at the Libertarian Alliance, Sean Gabb, is a declared conservative and monarchist, which I do find deeply odd and which, in my view, means that Gabb, despite his decades of campaigning, is a libertarian Tory and not a libertarian per se).

However, Paulie does also show what appears to be an inability even to conceive of some of the arguments he is confronting. He wrote:
it wouldn’t occur to the bloggertarian that a privatised replacement for a particular state function may establish intrusive restrictions of it’s own. For the bloggertarian, without government, there would be no such thing as CCTV and there would be no coercive forces that could intrude upon your privacy.
First, the replacement for a State function might be nothing. Nada. Zilch. Secondly, he doesn't explain how piecemeal private security and information gathering compares to the vast and legally-enforced apparatus of the State. Thirdly, and here I sympathise, even the bloggertarians he describes have their moments of unenthusiasm for big business. I sympathise because some of the libertarian Tories do need to go back to uncle Milton and remember that big business is just as much of a problem to the free market advocate as is the State.

And here's the irony. One thing J K Galbraith and Milton Friedman agreed on was that businesses try to subvert the market, are in fact enemies of the free market. And it is absolutely true that of their admirers it is the Friedmanites, the libertarians, who have forgotten this. The corporation that showed this pernicious trait most clearly in recent years, Microsoft, has a zillion 'libertarian' defenders. It's ludicrous, again.

Simply advocating a smaller State, especially if this is done purely because you don't like the policies of present State, is not libertarian. Advocating a smaller State because an all-encompassing one is plainly inefficient is not libertarian. Objecting to top-down 'managerialism' because it is inefficient is not libertarian. At heart, Libertarianism is what used to be called 'left wing'. As I wrote recently:
The left originally favoured laissez-faire economic policies and free trade, for example. Today, that's a Liberal or libertarian position, and people normally call libertarianism "right wing" - even though the Tories remain mercantalists at heart.
And in this lies the weakness of the libertarian position. It has its roots in the long tradition of dissent and radicalism that opposed the existing power structures of the day. While there is some acceptance of libertarian ideas within conservatism, on the whole and at root conservatism is socially prescriptive, hidebound, mercantalist, discriminatory and wedded to privilege. But the left has been colonised by Marxists and has become the principle fount of totalitarianism.

So, what do I mean by 'totalitarianism'? It is the system of thought that lays claim to the totality of my being - my possession, my freedoms (to drive what I want, eat what I want, have whichever type of sex I want with whoever I want), my speech and my thought. There's an overlap with authoritarianism, which is found in conservatism, for example with sexual habits. These are treated differently by authoritarians and totalitarians but the principle - that someone's private life is in any way their affair - is the same. So it has been conservatives who are most disgusting about, say, homosexuality and it is the present Labour Party that proposes to criminalise people who like a bit of bondage and like to look at pictures of the same.

Calling the left 'totalitarian' doesn't mean there are concentration camps and thought police. But while both conservatives and the left want to limit my speech, it is only the left that wants to limit my thoughts, with the concept of 'hate crime'.

So on balance, while the conservative right and the Marxist left are both enemies of freedom, the worst of the two is the left - the modern, Marxist left and not the radical ancestors of the politics of dissent. These ancestors, informed by struggles with Monarchs going back to Magna Carta, by the intellectual revolutions we call The Enlightenment, and by revolutionary Europe, realised that since power corrupts, the only safe way forward is to limit power. That remains true today, and it is why I consider myself to be a libertarian.


Trooper Thompson said...

Interesting. I'm pretty much in agreement - which may distress you if you read my blog!

I saw the recent tiff over at DK's, which I thought was funny, due to Paulie's furious reaction at being called - amongst other things - a 'fucktard'.

Paulie's attack seems to be part of a concerted effort (albeit not an organised one) by leftwing bloggers to seize hold of the blogosphere. The new 'Liberal Conspiracy' (sic) being one example. I think so-called libertarians have enraged them by staking a claim to the moral highground - which as they (think they) well know, belongs to them!

There does seem to be a massive blindspot amongst certain self-proclaimed libertarians the issue of corporations, and the dangers they pose to free trade and freedom in general, and across the political spectrum there seems to be an ignorance of corporatism - Mussolini's favoured 'third way' - so rightists call for privatisation, leftists call for government control, and we get the worst of all possible worlds.

Peter Risdon said...


Paulie said...

I'm going to be a bit preoccupied with other stuff this week, so I don't think I'm going to be able to reply to this at length for a while, but a few quick points:

1. The Tories are just as tied up in the electoral scrabble for ethnic minority votes in key seats - you can expect them to be largely as censorious about 'hate speech' as Labour for the foreseeable, I think? When politicians are pressed to be more specific at election times, they tend to feel compelled to grasp at illiberal lifelines. And power, these days, is largely a preparation for the next election on the same terms. The problem is a creeping direct democracy - not a creeping totalitarianism, IMHO.

2. My CCTV thing was largely a criticism of the Bloggertarians inability to cope with the idea of a counterfactual. They almost never bother with them.

3. Your version of 'totalitarianism' (and it *really* isn't the right word) seems closer to Marx's outline of the human condition in a capitalist society than to any other diagnosis I've come across.

4. Slightly off-topic, have you seen this splendid post from a while back - written by my fellow Popinjay:

Peter Risdon said...

Paulie, I'm censorious about most of what is called hate speech. That's my free speech. This isn't the same as wishing to legislate about it. But having said that, it's pretty clear from what I wrote that I consider the conservatives to be "enemies of freedom".

Ref the definition of totalitarianism, I'm in the mainstream with this. See Wikipedia: "Totalitarianism is a term employed by some political scientists, especially those in the field of comparative politics, to describe modern regimes in which the state regulates nearly every aspect of public and private behavior."

And Webster's: " 1 : centralized control by an autocratic authority 2 : the political concept that the citizen should be totally subject to an absolute state authority "

And Encarta: "Totalitarianism, in political science, system of government and ideology in which all social, political, economic, intellectual, cultural, and spiritual activities are subordinated to the purposes of the rulers of a state."

What I'm doing is saying that this claim to the totality of the beings and property of citizens (subjects would be a better word, actually) is totalitarianism even where there is little or limited violent state repression. That's where I part company with a couple of the sources linked to above. But it's a perfectly valid use of the word. Secret police are one of the methods by which some totalitarian states exercise power, but they are also used by other forms of government (authoritarian, monarchist, autocratic). What we now see is a newish development - benign totalitarianism. Nice, well-meaning totalitarianism.

It's still totalitarianism, and it's not going to remain so nice.

Trooper Thompson said...

"Bloggertarians inability to cope with the idea of a counterfactual"

What does this mean, exactly? (sounds like bolshy talk!)