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Life and Liberty
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Liberty and the Social Order – Part Two

[An article from Free Life]

In Part One of this series on liberty and the social order, we explored some difficulties which discussions of this topic are likely to face. In this second part, we will move onto to exploring the complex issue of cultural compatibility in a free society.

*     *     *     *     *

Any complex social phenomenon – whether it be law, money, the state, the nation, the family, or a given culture – is neither random nor does it appear by chance. Human beings are thinkers, choosers and actors. Our behaviour is not pre-determined in the same way that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. Rather, we select a particular action from an array of available alternatives.

These choices, in turn, are influenced by ideas that motivate action in a particular direction – ideas that may concern either the boundaries of technical possibility or how we should form a particular world-view. The application of these ideas and values to the particular conditions with which we are confronted are the building blocks of a way of life – building blocks which are refined in the form of ethics, tastes, customs, conventions, art and institutions.

Thus, the precise reifications of any particular culture are a product of the unique economic conditions presented to a people by the opportunities, challenges, resources, climate and environment of their specific location, together with the choices they make in order to confront those conditions.[1]

Of course, cultural elements taken as a whole are scarcely the product of any one individual’s action. Moreover, every person alive today was born into an existing culture and an existing civilisation, the cumulative accomplishments of which predate and, seemingly, outweigh our mere, individual fripperies. Such circumstances can often induce the illusion that civilisation is mystical, its development the product of an unconscious, “evolutionary” force of nature. (For conservatives, such thinking can result in an uncompromising deference to “tradition”; for leftists and social reformers, civilisation is simply an object which can be taken for granted – even to the extent that it can be reshaped, remoulded or discarded at will without much ado). But the fact that each of us has to deal with our existing culture as a starting point does not invalidate the proposition that it is still, ultimately, the product of our choices and actions and, furthermore, of the choices and actions of people alive today.[2]

As a consequence of this, when different societies and communities emerged in different parts of the world, they would, as a result, have developed cultures, traditions, ethics and values different from those of other groups. Moreover, in this setting, owing to the limitations of travel and communication, it is possible for these cultural elements to be pretty much entirely coincidental with race and ancestry. In that instance, it would make sense to speak of concepts such as race and culture – and, concomitantly, societal cohesion – interchangeably.

Thus, to the extent that any of the differing cultures were incompatible with one another on account of contradictory and irreconcilable ideas and values, it would have been the case that peaceful co-existence in close proximity would be impossible and, moreover, for such impossibility to have been spoken about in terms of race. Moreover, such thinking is likely to be especially true if these societies fail to adopt an idea that is critical for the generation of peaceful, social co-operation: the primacy of the individual’s rights to his own person and property instead of a tendency to regard these things are mere tools for expropriation and/or devotion to some fictional “collective” purpose imposed by some individuals upon others.

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Life and Liberty
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Liberty and the Social Order – Part One

[An Article from Free Life]
The twilight of the Cold War – which had largely seen the question of freedom framed as a purely economic debate between “capitalism” versus “socialism” – led to a resurgence of the importance of cultural matters in libertarian thinking. A noted effort from around this time was the paleolibertarian movement, the aim of which was to restore the governance of individual freedom to traditional culture, customs and institutions as an antidote to the un-tethered, culturally relativistic, “libertine” influence of the counterculture in the preceding decades. Right-leaning libertarians today continue to press for the avoidance of hollow, abstract, cosmopolitan, universalist messages in favour of focussing instead on the importance of time, place, culture, custom, tradition, family and community.
In other words, there is greater awareness today that – in spite of their foundational importance – the mere legal application of libertarian principles (e.g. “non-aggression”) to the governance of social relations is not the last word to be said on the composition of a free society. Additionally, the sociological and psychological requirements of sustaining such a society must be given greater attention.
While I agree entirely with these efforts, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that grasping the nature of the (often) unwritten values, morals, traditions and cultural elements of a free society – much less how these things can be recruited as part of a political strategy – is likely to be straightforward. As such, this is the first of a series of five articles which will seek to address this complex subject matter in detail.
To introduce this series, we will devote this first instalment to some clarifications that will dispel a number of confusions and illusions I have seen dog these kinds of issue in discussions elsewhere – confusions which could lead libertarians down a wrong path. This effort will also serve as an indicator of some of the intricacies that we will hope to unravel during this series.
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Life and Liberty
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The Libertarianism.UK Podcast: Duncan Whitmore

I chat to Andy Duncan about one of my recent articles, Toward a Libertarian Political Strategy.
  • 0:00 – Intro
  • 3:05 – Why do libertarians need a political strategy?
  • 6:05 – Leonard Read and pushing a magic button on removing the state
  • 10:46 – The end of East Germany
  • 12:54 – Duncan Whitmore’s central political strategy for libertarians
  • 13:58 – What is decentralisation?
  • 16:22 – The consequences of Brexit
  • 19:10 – The problems of Boris Johnson
  • 20:26 – How do we persuade people to give up the state?
  • 23:07 – Should we retreat and wait for the collapse?
  • 27:42 – A summary of the strategy
  • 28:56 – Do we seek allies?
  • 30:37 – Jeff Deist and “Better, Not Perfect”
  • 30:49 – How can individuals help push the strategy?
  • 32:59 – The compliance demonstrated in lockdowns
  • 34:52 – Wrap up

Some quotes from the Podcast:
“You’re asking people to still have faith in this institution [the state], to give them their liberty, even though this institution is the biggest threat to their liberty.”
“People have to want their liberty. There’s no way of getting around that.”
“The reason we’re bombarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with so much propaganda, is because they [the state] know they have to win the ideological war.”
“The actual reason why the [Berlin] wall came down when it did, is because some bureaucrats mis-announced a new travel policy.”
“As Murray Rothbard said in the anatomy of the state, [the state] is a separate institution. The state is not us.”
“I think [decentralisation] is probably the most realistic way of going forward.”
“The people have to want to take power [back] for themselves.”
“[In the UK], last year was the year of two queens, two monarchs, three prime ministers, [and] five chancellors.”
“Boris Johnson should be the final lesson to anybody who’s even modestly in favour of greater freedom, that trying to elect the right people is not going to really work.”
“[We must] try to decentralise political power as far away as possible from their existing concentrations.”
“The motivation for Brexit was not to create a libertarian paradise.”
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Life and Liberty
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Toward a Libertarian Political Strategy

[An Article from Free Life]

In my most recent article for Free Life, I discussed a number of ways in which libertarianism differs from many statist philosophies at the fundamental level. One of these ways is the fact that it is more accurate to regard libertarianism as a behavioural ethic rather than as a grand, political system. This present article will echo and develop this particular theme in order to lay some basic groundwork for a libertarian political strategy.
Can we “Push the Button”?
The dedicated libertarian should want to see an end to statism in the quickest manner available. For those who adhere to more of an “anarchist” philosophy, such a desire would mean consigning as much of the state as we can to the dustbin of history in the shortest possible time; for those who lean more towards minarchism or to some other level of tolerance of a “nightwatchman” state, it would entail confining the state’s functions to the provision of defence, law and order, and to one or two minor roles.
A fitting example of this kind of fervour came as early as 1946 in a lecture given by Leonard Read entitled I’d Push the Button. Read imagined that, if there was a button in front of him that would release all wage and price controls immediately so as to restore the genuine free market, he would push it, without question. While Read’s preoccupation was with the specific kinds of state interference he specified, the symbolism of a giant, red button bringing about instant, radical change was likely to make a lasting impression during an era in which the very real spectre of the nuclear button was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Decades after Read’s lecture, Murray N Rothbard advocated extending the notion of button pushing beyond wage and price controls, demanding “the instantaneous abolition of all invasions of liberty”.
It is true, of course, that any form of injustice should be removed by the quickest means possible, taking precedence over any other consideration. When confronted, for instance, by the institution of slavery, it is difficult to argue that the emancipation of those toiling in bondage should rank below the welfare of the slave masters, or the “practical” concerns of transitioning to a new labour system. Moreover, twentieth century examples of where free markets have flourished, such as in Hong Kong under John James Cowperthwaite, and in New Zealand under Roger Douglas, succeeded precisely because they were radical and uncompromising in sweeping away socialistic rot.
In stating this, however, we should remember that the adjective possible is as operative as the word quickest. Thus, while the notion of “pushing the button” may serve as a useful symbol, or metaphor, for keeping our eye on the ultimate goal, we cannot allow a literal interpretation of it to blind us to the realities of working towards a freer world. To analogise, a lottery win would very much “push the button” on one’s own lifestyle, delivering untold riches in an instant. But if the lottery player was to eye only the glittering prize, whiling away his days spending all of those millions in his head, then he would end up discarding all reasonable and practical steps towards becoming wealthier over time. Given that the cold, hard reality of probability all but guarantees his loss in every draw of the numbers, this kind of gambler consigns himself to the status of a romantic dreamer rather than that of a practical person.
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Life and Liberty
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Why Libertarianism is Different

[An Article from Free Life]
A recent article of mine concerning the libertarian approach towards rights over land was written in response to the raising of the topic on a discussion forum. A separate, recent thread on the same forum has brought up another interesting discussion concerning the nature of libertarianism itself. I will attempt to address this in full here.
The specific question posed by the original poster of the thread was whether libertarianism amounted to a “step towards collectivism” for the reason that, in a free society, everyone would have to adhere to a small, but nevertheless universal set of common rules (specifically to the non-aggression principle).
Framed in this manner, an affirmative answer to this question would be ridiculous. The fact that people may adhere to the same set of social rules has nothing to do with whether a given society might be described as “collectivist” on the one hand or as “individualistic” on the other. “No one should murder or rape another” is a norm which applies to every individual, but it is pretty obvious that I wouldn’t be goose-stepping towards authoritarianism by pointing it out.
Indeed, once we consider norms such as these, we realise that every social order requires adherence to at least some common rules. Thus, if one was to follow the view set out by the original poster, the only possible order which could not be described as even remotely collectivist is the complete, atomised existence of every individual – i.e. no social order at all. Such absence of any societal anchors would condemn a person either to the life of a hermit or, more likely, to the disintegration of society into the law of the jungle: an orgy of mass thievery in which each individual seeks to wrest whatever he can get from anyone else, with no attempt whatsoever at establishing any kind of long term relations.
Clearly, however, social order has always been the empirically relevant form of human interaction. As such, concepts utilised by social thinkers to categorise the different ways in which humans can relate to each other are likely to refer to distinctions within this overall arch of social relations. They are unlikely to pertain to the much more basic gulf between order and no-order.
This is precisely the case when it comes to the difference between “individualism” and “collectivism”. Properly understood, collectivism refers to a political system in which individuals are forced to adhere to certain, positive values, ostensibly for the benefit of “society” or “the public”, but in practice for the benefit of some individuals/groups at the expense of everyone else. While obedience of these rules may result in something resembling a peaceful order, such rules and values as the regime demands are a net burden to each individual – i.e., the sacrifice of having to adhere to them does not result in something more highly valued in return.
For example, the state may enact a law demanding that every citizen refrains from drinking alcohol on a Sunday. Such an edict may be justified by the need to improve the temperance and piety of “the nation” for the “common good”; but it is clear that the only demonstrated benefits accrue to those specific individuals eager to see a culture of reduced inebriation. If everyone else expected to benefit, they would have refrained from alcohol consumption voluntarily.
In a free (or “individualistic”) society, having to abide by common rules may be an irritation for the individual at a given, particular instance. But in contrast to the stipulations of a collectivist regime, such rules are a net benefit to each individual, because here, the initial cost of having to abide by a rule is very much rewarded. The prosperity of our individual lives from our own perspective is utterly dependent upon social co-operation under the division of labour. However, social co-operation is unable to flourish without our adherence to at least some generally accepted rules, morals and values; if a given set of mores is successful in facilitating this co-operation, then they are, too, a benefit to each of us in turn.
For example, it is a benefit to me as an individual that no one, including myself, should be allowed to steal; for if this norm was disregarded, then social co-operation, the division of labour and capital accumulation would be far less advanced than they presently are. If that was the case, then I, and everyone else, would suffer from a drastically reduced standard of living. But norms that are not legally enforceable are just as important. If I want people to form mutually beneficial relationships with me, and to help me accomplish my goals, it is to my personal benefit that I make outward displays of politeness and kindness, adhering to a basic code of manners. Who, for instance, is going to offer me a job if I am persistently rude and obnoxious?
The only people to whom any such societal rules will prove to be a net burden are criminals and sociopaths. However, even these people – unless they are truly irrational, insane or otherwise blinded by some anti-human “vision” – are likely to exempt only themselves from societal mores. A thief may well want to steal a car, for instance, but the car itself cannot be produced without an extensive division of labour. Such division of labour, in turn, is reliant upon the willingness of the majority of people to conform to social rules. If everyone was thieving, looting and plundering, the entire apparatus of economic production would break down: nobody would have any cars, television sets, or smart phones – there would be nothing much worth stealing at all. Thus, even thieves hoping to profit from others are unlikely to support the blanket, or uniform abolition of rules that facilitate social co-operation.
In any case, however, as I explained recently, it is a mistake to assume that the main benefit of private property rights in a free society is to deter people from committing criminal acts; in fact, those who are motivated in that regard are likely to be so few in number that they will amount to little more than a minor irritation in the social order as a whole. Rather, the real benefit of adhering to such rights is the avoidance and resolution of conflicts between people who want to co-operate (or otherwise maintain peaceful relations) with each other. After all, we cannot engage in any kind of trade or exchange unless we are first agreed on what is yours and what is mine.
In short, simply because everyone has to adhere to the same rules does not mean that the collective is taking primacy over the individual.
That aside, this discussion does raise a wider, interesting point: are we libertarians as guilty as any other set of political philosophers in wanting the whole of humanity to adhere to the same set of common rules? Are we “enforcing” some kind of “vision” or “world-view” which we think is important onto everyone else? Why should people value liberty at all? Freedom has certainly flourished in the West on the basis of Christian ethics and Enlightenment thinking, but can we be so sure that it is suitable for other cultures and traditions?
As we shall see, however, to think in this way is to completely misunderstand how libertarianism differs from other political theories, especially those that argue in favour of a strong state.
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Life and Liberty
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Optimism for Liberty

Browsing through a single day’s worth of articles on the libertarian website is enough to confront one with a smorgasbord of despair:
  • The bankruptcy of Western nations and their collapsing economies;
  • Increasing wars and overseas intervention;
  • Desperation to maintain Western-led hegemony;
  • Increased state censorship and invasion of privacy;
  • The dangers of state-sponsored medicine and disease control;
  • Digital enslavement;
  • The lack of integrity of the political class; official lies and corruption.

The website – amongst the best read of all libertarian websites in the world – is almost unique in its unfailing commitment to draw attention to many of these important aspects. But it is difficult to quell a swelling of pessimism when faced with this kind of line up.
Nevertheless, it is vital not to lose optimism in the face of such adversity. And while it may seem that the noose of retrogression into tyranny and oppression is tightening its stranglehold on the average citizen, there are several key reasons for us to remain optimistic.
The first is that – in spite of the increased efforts of censorship and “cancel culture” – it is far easier to disseminate alternative ideas and information today than it was just a generation ago. True enough, the dominance of “big tech” and traditional media outlets may mean that such ideas seldom come to the direct attention of the masses. But they can can be obtained within seconds from any corner of the globe by those who are prepared to look for them.
We must remember, of course, that technological development is not the be all and end all. After all, digitisation and instant communication in particular are in the process of being deployed in the service of regimentation and control as much as freedom. Moreover, a specific problem with the internet is that people can go looking for the answers they want rather than for the truth. Ultimately, whether technology is beneficial depends upon whether the people that use it are motivated towards good or towards ill.
Nevertheless, now that it is out of the bag, it is unlikely that the relative increase in the freedom of information will ever be brought entirely back under the thumb of the establishment/mainstream in quite the same way as it was before. Indeed, the very reason that the state and its big tech minions have had to resort to beavering efforts at censorship is because the truth is now something that they are struggling to keep a lid on. In fact, these efforts often have the opposite effect from that intended. For instance, anything debunked by a comical “fact checker” is fast becoming a marker for something that the state doesn’t want you to know.
The second and more important reason, however, is that – in spite of an accelerating cost of living crisis – we are still enjoying an extraordinarily high standard of living. In spite of the plunder and pillage of more than a century of marching statism, we are clearly not living in the Stone Age. Indeed, it is reasonable to characterise the relative descent of Western civilisation as being one into a state of “luxury barbarism” – cultural and spiritual depravity in a milieu of relative, material prosperity.
The achievement of this level of prosperity is unique in human history. Whereas pre-industrial generations could only accept their meagre lot in life, it is difficult to comprehend how this attitude could be repeated today. For the average Western citizen in 2022 lives far more luxuriantly than did a king of the Middle Ages. Not only is our time that of the PC, the iPhone, and other gadgets but also of such "humbler" wonders such as cars, refrigerators, supermarkets stacked full of food, clothes shops, and an almost endless array of products that can be bought from some outlet somewhere for a relatively modest (if now increasing) price. Critically, however, these items are not viewed as luxuries. Rather, they appear to us almost as a phenomenon of nature, a given. Indeed, the common suggestion that people should have “rights” to food, housing, healthcare, clean drinking water and so on is, however misguided, a demonstration of this attitude.
This standard of living requires the maintenance and growth of its underlying capital structure – all of the machines, tools and factories that are used to produce everything that we want to a buy at a high enough volume to make them affordable. As we know from "Austrian" economics, this structure can be produced and nurtured only under a regime of private property and free exchange. In spite of an assault from all sides, both practically and ideologically, it is because this order has remained relatively intact that its productive tendency has often been able to mask much of the statist rot. During the 1920s, for instance, productivity was so high that prices still managed to decline in the face of excessive increases of the money supply. And even today the fact that the world still holds together suggests that capitalism and freedom are, for the most part, still working as best as they can.
The upshot of this is that the elites’ room to manoeuvre in effecting grand, societal transformations towards some kind of different order may be altogether rather limited.
For one thing, it is doubtful that building and maintaining the infrastructure required to run their own digital gulag could be accomplished without leaving the productive capacity of the economy relatively intact.
Second, their own standards of living are now dependent on goods and services which, in turn, rely on a high degree of capital accumulation stretching back through many stages of production. Corporate jets aren’t assembled out of nowhere (Leonard Read’s I, Pencil shows how even the simplest of goods relies upon a fiendishly complex chain of production). It cannot simply be the case that they could achieve a transition to a more centrally controlled economy while guaranteeing that their own luxuries would remain easily available. Indeed, one of the reasons why socialism has always been born out of capitalism is because it is only when free individuals are able to become so productive that the state has a source of wealth for it to confiscate. Once that wealth runs out, even the state’s apparatchiks can become disillusioned with the system.
And finally, when people have become accustomed to living as they do, then it is difficult for the power hungry to tread a path that would severely diminish that standard of living. This does not mean to say that such a policy will be not be pursued, nor does it suggest that people will not clamour to the existing elites for “solutions”. But it is an extremely risky path to tread, not because people will necessarily storm the parliament buildings with pitchforks and torches, but because it makes people receptive to other ideas that could solve the problem. As such, the elite control over the narrative becomes vulnerable, particular if people are willing to search for other answers. Indeed, we have seen this happen twice already before the present crises even got going: with the vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US President.[1]
In fact, it is each of these events that likely led to elite panic, waking them up to the fact that they are not as in control as they thought they were. There is no reason why, as things get worse, these kinds of victory cannot be repeated. It may be the case that these elites have a stranglehold over the top echelons of government, industry and commerce so as to ossify the official business of public policy making. But in the long run, every regime, at any time and place, cannot survive without at least the passive acceptance of the majority of the population it claims to rule.
For this reason, therefore, I remain a relative, if cautious, optimist for the cause of freedom and prosperity in the long term. Cautious because, even though any plans for global socialism will not succeed in the long run, the attempt to make them work can cause a terrifying amount of damage in its own right. But I am optimistic in that the capitalistic structure of the Western world is still mostly all there, and that - fingers crossed - our "leaders" will be forced to abandon plans for any radical transformation long before any major collapse.

[1] Such a search is not limited to alternative economic ideas. It is quite possible that the entirety of secular liberalism will be brought into question, prompting something of a religious or spiritual revival. Indeed, such a revival may be essential to secure a firmer foundation towards the rejuvenation of a freer world.
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