Thursday, December 27, 2007

An unfinished revolution

The discussions about libertarianism, left and right, have rumbled on. In the comments to a post here, Paulie suggested I read a post on libertarianism by Peter Ryley. So I did.

I found myself having an interesting internal struggle. While what he was saying flatly contradicted things I've been confidently declaring for years, he seemed to be absolutely right. A ten minute intermission with Google proved that. I took myself to one side for a quiet talking-to. "Listen, bud," I said. "If this were physics, you wouldn't be reacting like that."

"No," I replied. "I wouldn't."

And I wouldn't. So what on earth is it with politics that makes us (I'm extrapolating here, I admit) get so possessive about political ideas? Isn't it more important what's true?

Not to me it wasn't. That's why it was an interesting internal struggle.

Because I'd formed the idea that so-called left libertarians weren't libertarian at all. They just liked the sound of the word, in the same way as they liked the sound of the word 'Liberal' even though they weren't liberals. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the 'right libertarian' use of the word dates back just to the early 1970s, the left can claim it back to the 1850s.

Originally the word meant "one who holds the doctrine of free will". That was in 1789. But half a century later the ancestors of modern day people-with-giant-papier-mache-heads emerged, and they called themselves Libertarians (emphasis added):

Anarchists have been using the term "libertarian" to describe themselves and their ideas since the 1850's. According to anarchist historian Max Nettlau, the revolutionary anarchist Joseph Dejacque published Le Libertaire, Journal du Mouvement Social in New York between 1858 and 1861 while the use of the term "libertarian communism" dates from November, 1880 when a French anarchist congress adopted it. [Max Nettlau, A Short History of Anarchism, p. 75 and p. 145] The use of the term "Libertarian" by anarchists became more popular from the 1890s onward after it was used in France in an attempt to get round anti-anarchist laws and to avoid the negative associations of the word "anarchy" in the popular mind (Sebastien Faure and Louise Michel published the paper Le Libertaire -- The Libertarian -- in France in 1895, for example). Since then, particularly outside America, it has always been associated with anarchist ideas and movements. Taking a more recent example, in the USA, anarchists organised "The Libertarian League" in July 1954, which had staunch anarcho-syndicalist principles and lasted until 1965. The US-based "Libertarian" Party, on the other hand has only existed since the early 1970's, well over 100 years after anarchists first used the term to describe their political ideas (and 90 years after the expression "libertarian communism" was first adopted). It is that party, not the anarchists, who have "stolen" the word. Later, in Section B, we will discuss why the idea of a "libertarian" capitalism (as desired by the Libertarian Party) is a contradiction in terms.
To quote Mr Plump (emphasis added):
[Marxism and Libertarianism] emerged from critical responses to early industrialism. They drew on radical liberalism, and both had a class analysis based on the division between the ‘productive and unproductive classes’ - in other words, between owners and workers. Not only that, but they both saw the relationship between workers and their employers as a servile one, a form of modern slavery. The idle lived off the produce of those who actually did the work and, as all wealth was the product of labour, this was an act of robbery with violence.

The main accomplice in this larceny was the State. The State was the agent that protected a legal ‘artificial right of property’, ownership by the ‘unproductive classes’, against the ‘natural right of property’, the right of workers to own the means and products of their own labour. But it was here that a divergence occurred. Marxists and State Socialists felt that this could be resolved through collective ownership by the State if it was, in turn, controlled by the ‘productive classes’, even if the State would eventually wither away to leave a free and property-less society. Anarchists rejected the State and so Anarchist Communists talked of the immediate revolutionary abolition of property as well as the State. However, Individualist Anarchism came to a different conclusion and the origin of Libertarianism is to be found here.

Maybe this is why the accusation of being 'ahistorical' has been levelled at the right wing 'bloggertarians'. But... but but but...

But Ron Paul is making waves as a libertarian candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination. So he's the inheritor of a Marxist, anarchist, socialist tradition?

Of course not! He's an interloper, one with a stolen name. In fact, his politics of limited government, personal freedom and personal responsibility should be called...

Well? What should they be called? Liberal? Paul upholds the American Constitution, which limits the powers of government. Even with issues where he has a strong view, as with abortion, he upholds the Constitution and declines powers for the Presidency that have not been granted by the Constitution.

Paul doesn't think the President should be able to declare war, because the Constitution expressly reserves that power to Congress, and he's impatient of sophistries about police actions or emergencies - too much so, he forgets Pearl Harbor and 9/11 when he says America has never been attacked unexpectedly. And this is where his biggest appeal and biggest weakness lie. But that's another post.

This post wants to know what Paul's platform owes to anarchism or the Marxist left. And it reckons: nothing.

The first of the list of Paul's ideas is the most important. The idea that government should be limited is amazingly, bizarrely controversial. Or maybe it isn't. Rousseau was right: Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Almost all human lives have been lived in conditions of servitude. I think that might be a statement behind which both left and right libertarians could rally, although there the harmony would end.

But servitude being the normal state of humanity, the idea that government might not be entitled to do some things seems distant to the point of irrelevance.

It is, after all, often an issue of principle rather than outcome. An unlimited-government person might think that the state should not make it illegal for people to have certain forms of sexual contact. A libertarian, or perhaps even liberal, view might be to agree with this, per se, but to add that in fact the state should not have the power to make such laws. Same outcome, different approaches.

[It's hard to say what a liberal, in the 'Classical Liberal' sense might have made of issues like homosexuality because such things were not at the forefront of political debate in the early and mid nineteenth century.]

And even if that weren't the case, so what? Does that mean that if I get tortured by a government that isn't entitled to torture me, then it's been a very naughty government? Is that supposed to help?

Well, no. The idea that government is limited is the outcome, not the starting point, of an argument, or of a line of reasoning. And we have that line of reasoning laid out for us, in reasonably modern English.

For what it's worth, I think the choice of the name 'Libertarian' by the US movement in the 1970s was unfortunate. It has created a car crash of ideas. The obvious lineage of the political term 'libertarian' is clear enough. But it doesn't follow that someone walking in the footsteps of Jefferson has anarchists, minarchists (or objectivists) in their family tree. Endless confusion has been created by attempts to reconcile entirely unrelated, even mutually exclusive, ideas because of the bogus shared history that an ill-advised choice of name gave two entirely unrelated systems of political thought.

The line of reasoning went as follows:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary[1] for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind[2] requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.[3] — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed[4], — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form[5], as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
And here is the line of reasoning:

1. People have the power of self-determination. People are autonomous.

2. There is such a thing as society, and you should explain yourself to it.

3. Autonomous individuals have rights that are beyond the reach of legitimate government.

4. Governments get their power from the consent of the people, and from no other source.

5. The people can change their form of government if they choose.

That seems right to me. Governments should not be surrogate monarchs. They work for us and they have limited powers. Or at least, they should have limited powers.

If anyone has managed to get to the foot of this post, they will, I hope, realise that I have tried to understand and engage with other people's arguments. I just ask for the same courtesy. Because in all the posts on this, nobody, not even those who have linked to me, have taken up my central argument. If you believe the government should have total power, but use it in ways you agree with, then you're a totalitarian - even if you don't like the sound of the word. If you think the powers of governments should be limited, then you're not a totalitarian, be you conservative, liberal or social democrat.

That's the issue. I think the right-libertarians are going to steal the brand, and I think the Marxist left will continue to use the stolen word 'Liberal'. Evens. We'll all have to live with it.

But the issue remains. There's an unfinished revolution. And its name, now, is Libertarianism.


dearieme said...

I think you nail it at the end. "Liberal" in the US means people of big- government/socialist/fascistic tendencies. So those against it need another name, and they've lighted on "libertarian". Logically, they could have used "conservative" but then they'd need to explain that it was their Constitution they wanted to conserve, and people would anyway muddle them up with quite other folks, so that's a non-starter. "Freedom-loving" would make them sound like Stalinist propagandists.

dearieme said...

P.S. I don't think that Jefferson's pompous spin-doctoring amounts to much more than "We want our British Rights but we can't phrase it like that because we plan treason agin the British Crown, so here's some high-falutin' flannel in justification."

Peter Horne said...

So "Libertarian" no longer means what it did 200 years ago. If the lefties want it back perhaps we can have "Liberal" back in its old meaning, rather than its modern sense of socio-fascist.
While we're at it maybe we can have some other words back too, such as
1. Equality, to mean equality before the law rather than its apparent modern meaning of homogeneity.
2. Individualism, to mean independence and self-reliance rather than the present sociofascist meaning of ant i-social selfishness.
3.Liberty as freedom from coercion
rather than some kind of spurious concept that can be trampled on at will by the ruling class at their whim.
As redefinition of language is central to the lefty project, in order to stifle dissent, there is a delicious irony in their complaining that true liberals have purloined the word "Libertarianism".
If they agree to return to the true meaning of words, they can have it back, as far as I am concerned.

Trooper Thompson said...

Interesting stuff. Good to have you back among the bloggers.

Some thoughts:

I recall Friedrich Hayek's essay 'why I am not a conservate' in which he discusses the hijacking of 'liberal', but says he doesn't care too much for 'libertarian' which strikes him as a bit phoney-sounding.

Tom Paine's 'Common Sense' gives an excellent description of society and the state, the latter of which he calls 'a necessary evil at best'. I think one of the fallacies of these times is to see the state and society as the same thing.

I think libertarians must abandon the left/right paradigm once and for all. Some give and take is necessary on both sides of this.

A barrier to overcome is fixing a definition of 'capitalism', I think on the right the word has a positive association with 'economic liberty' (e.g. a self-employed plumber going about his business) whilst on the left it means 'monopoly capitalism' (e.g. Rockefeller's agents firing on striking miners).

Although it's important to get a sound foundation for political ideas, there's so much to fight back against, coming at us thick and fast, it would be easy to occupy one's time merely reacting to the latest authoritarian measure, without ever pondering the deeper philosophies. Thomas Sowell and Karl Popper I think both counsel for an incremental, piece-meal approach, and ideological purity doesn't have too good a track record (Robespierre et al). Furthermore, the job can never be done once and for all, vigilance being the price of liberty. Even the great US Constitution doesn't help if it is ignored and subverted without comeuppance.

wildgoose said...

Very interesting.

Perhaps the Libertarian Party should have chosen the name "Constitution Party" seeing as they would have been just as well served by making clear their desire to return to the original roots of the U.S. State.

It might also have struck a louder chord with the American public as well.