Introducing the keynote panel featuring philosopher Anders Sandberg, politician Douglas Carswell and university vice-principal Terence Kealey, chaired by Dominique Lazanski
I thoroughly enjoyed my day at this event. Realising it was meant for students, I decided to keep uncharacteristically quiet. In consequence, I had a charming time listening to bright young people and was both edified and encouraged.
Sandberg sounded the darkest note of the day. He spoke of government's weakness for "policy theatre" (like the security theatre at airports, it does you no good but shows that they care). He countered the general optimism about the impact of technology on government, showing a scary graph that suggested that a mere 0.01% of GDP will buy the state "total surveillance" by 2030. He was also interesting on the subject of "social antibodies". These are nerds who pay attention to details of institutional behaviour and draw them angrily to the attention of citizens with lives. They might not be much fun at a picnic, but they help a free society to function. I think this group might include quite a few political bloggers.
Douglas Carswell was very optimistic, despite opening with the confession that - having gone into politics to reduce the size of government - he must consider his career a failure. He believes that Western social democracies have "reached their limits" and that this is the cause of the West's crisis. He reported happily that MPs, even in "safe" seats, now live in fear of internet activism and predicted that technology, by making it easy for the people to organise, will destroy the claim of political elites to speak for the collective. His most optimistic observation was to deny the dispiriting notion that big government is driven by voter demand. His analysis of history suggests that elites, not voters, drive the growth of the state. In consequence, he believes that new technologies that allow "the collective to speak for itself" will lead to more phenomena like Beppo Grillo's "Five Star Movement." This will steadily undermine elites already struggling to perpetuate themselves as the failure of the big state model becomes clear.
Professor Kealey was bullish about the future of freedom too. In an era in which voters can, via Google, be as well informed as their leaders, the sort of "rubbish" routinely spouted by politicians to justify their hijacking of private resources can be challenged. He gave the example of President Obama's "nonsensical" claims in his recent "state of the Union" address of a 14,000% return on public capital invested in the human genome project. Not only is that a vast overstatement of the return on investment, most of the cash was anyway provided by private institutions such as Britain's Wellcome Trust. He said that we had lived in an "extraordinarily benign" economic environment for more than 200 years and that there was no reason to expect that to end. He advocated more direct democracy, such as in Switzerland, pointing out that it typically resulted in government consuming at least 10% less of GDP. He even commented that the Swiss model forced all political parties into permanent coalition against their one true enemy; the people. Without that coalition they would never be able to resist further downward pressure on public spending.
Sam Bowman in full flow
The two other sessions I attended also provided much food for thought. Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute suggested that the standard libertarian approach to presenting our ideas appealed only to ourselves. If we wanted to win hearts and minds, we needed to reason from public benefit - even (shock, horror!) "social justice", in order to justify ourselves. He had no personal problem with this, as he was a libertarian only because he believed it would lead to the greater good of the greatest number and would benefit the poor. I found it disturbing that he kept arriving at the "right" conclusions from the "wrong" direction but could see a lot of sense in what he said. Besides, there's no point in being right if you can't convince your fellow men to act on it.
I discovered from this session that my own views are rooted in the morality of "natural law." I would defend them as ethically correct even if they resulted in social costs. His "thought experiment" to shock me out of this (apparently) Rothbardian stance did not work. I simply don't believe it's justified to take others' assets by force, even if failure to do so could be proved, for example, to increase poverty. This stance is easier for me to hold because I simply don't believe such violence ever does a better job of reducing poverty than would charity and philanthropy.
The most disturbing moment of the day was in Bowman's session when he mentioned in passing the "standard" justification for welfarism; one that I had never heard before. If, he said, a baby was drowning in a puddle not only would a passing stranger have a moral duty to rescue it, but he would also have a moral right if, perhaps because of disability, he couldn't do it himself to force someone else to do so at gunpoint. This utilitarian remark passed without comment or challenge, but left me distinctly chilled. I don't dispute a moral duty to save the child and I would shun forever someone else who failed to do so. But the idea that I would be justified in pulling a gun on the shunworthy one - or even killing him - if he failed to do his duty struck me as obscene.
Interestingly, in some Civil Law countries the law requires a citizen to save another in danger. English Law has never done so. When the PCSO's in this notorious case failed to try to save a drowning child because they had not been given the necessary health and safety training, not only were they not liable they were not even disciplined. In our system this moral obligation has never been made law. An armed passerby who tried to make them show some courage would have been prosecuted - not least if he had pulled the trigger. Yet on such an analogy, apparently, is the violence of the state justified.
Rara avis indeed; Libertarian Sociologist, Tim Evans
The most fun of the day was had in the session led by "libertarian sociologist" (whatever next, "vegetarian slaughterman?") Tim Evans. Evans is a good, amusing speaker who is better versed in his subject than his casual style first suggests. He also gave grounds for much optimism, telling the assembled students that when he studied anarcho-capitalism decades ago, it was "interesting but not relevant". Now, he feels, it's both. Like Douglas Carswell, he feels the social democratic state has hit the ceiling and pointed out that private companies are already taking over duties once reserved to government.
There are now two private security guards for every policeman in Britain. The Royal Navy's latest warship is leased from a private consortium. He saw no reason why the private sector could not provide other services that "politicians, elite businessmen and moral-minded cretins" believe should be reserved for government. He suggested that the private "Societies for the Prosecution of Felons" that were replaced by state police forces were far more efficient in detection of crime. Indeed, he said they were not replaced because they didn't work, but because the elite of the time was annoyed that they ignored (in good libertarian style) such "victimless" crimes as buggery and prostitution.
I enjoyed listening to the speakers but even more to the earnest young libertarian students who grappled manfully and womanfully with difficult ideas. All in all, it was a fascinating day. I am here to tell you that my occasional gloom is unjustified. The future of liberty in Britain is in good hands.
Few men have done their fellow countrymen greater service than Dr. Ron Paul. In making his farewell speech to Congress, he articulated his vision and expressed his hope that, despite all his worst predictions having come true, the next generation will rebuild America. Apart from his repeating the common misconception that the Great Writ of habeas corpus originated with Magna Carta, I can find no fault with what he said.
You can watch the video or, if you find his oratory a little lacking (he's a gynecologist, not a lawyer), you can read his speech here. Either way, I urge you to take the time for, though he would laugh at the idea, this is an important man.
Violence, or rather the avoidance of it, is at the heart of his thinking;
The immoral use of force is the source of man’s political problems. Sadly, many religious groups, secular organizations, and psychopathic authoritarians endorse government initiated force to change the world. Even when the desired goals are well-intentioned—or especially when well-intentioned—the results are dismal. The good results sought never materialize. The new problems created require even more government force as a solution. The net result is institutionalizing government initiated violence and morally justifying it on humanitarian grounds.
This is the same fundamental reason our government uses force for invading other countries at will, central economic planning at home, and the regulation of personal liberty and habits of our citizens.
It is rather strange, that unless one has a criminal mind and no respect for other people and their property, no one claims it’s permissible to go into one’s neighbor’s house and tell them how to behave, what they can eat, smoke and drink or how to spend their money.
Yet, rarely is it asked why it is morally acceptable that a stranger with a badge and a gun can do the same thing in the name of law and order.
This is only his final speech in Congress. We shall hear more from him yet. He may even run for Governor of Texas in 2014. But it's not too soon to thank him for all the unsung work he has put in for what - for most of his life - has seemed the lost cause of liberty. I also thank the people of the great state of Texas who have given him the opportunity to defend the US Constitution to Congress (and by extension the principles of liberty it enshrines to the world) for twenty-three years out of the last thirty-six.
Libertarians, classical liberals, whatever you choose to call us accept that others differ in their lifestyles and opinions. Whether we approve of their choices or not, we respect their right to make them. Unless that is, and until (and to the precise extent), they impede those of others. So why do so many of us come over as harsh, inflexible and rude? Why do we play into the hands of our political foes who love to depict us - with no shred of justification - as misanthropic?
Socialists and other statists are of course annoying. They accept no limits to their claim to tell others how to live. Living under the tyranny of their thought, as we do, it's not surprising that we bridle at their constant hectoring interference in every aspect of our life. But if we resort to angry condemnation, abuse or even the witty swear blogging that many have come to identify us with, perhaps we are missing a trick?
When your child is a child you embrace, protect and defend him. You shield him from all threats. It's a wonderful, satisfying time but its true goal is to get that child to the point where he no longer needs it. The true test of parental love is not the fierceness of the protection, but the trust to let it go when it's no longer needed. Statists say we do not care for our fellow man because we resist their use of state violence to protect him from himself. In fact we love him enough to let him live - and screw up - in his own way.
Reading statist newspapers and blogs every day what strikes me hardest is how very rude these people are. The sneering, carping, superior tone of The Guardian is particularly offensive and upsetting. Statists' contempt for other views is boundless in its ferocity. They do not descend to name-calling when their patience runs out. Oh no, it is their first and often only resort. Great swathes of the country think "f******g Tory c**t" is an unanswerable political argument. The notion of dancing (or worse) on the grave of a dead opponent when a frail old lady dies is seen as "right on" humour. Firmly in the Nye Bevan tradition of regarding those who argue peaceably for a different political view as "vermin", these are not only misguided but deeply unpleasant people. They are the political descendants of the witch-burning puritans of old.
If we fight fire with fire however we do our cause no favours. Consider affable, dishevelled Boris, for example. Hanging laughably from a stuck zip wire he is able, as the unloved boy David ruefully observed, to do well from it. Is it perhaps because he does not stand on his dignity or bemoan his plight but chats affably with his amused onlookers, even as they film the makings of numerous YouTube pisstakes? The man's invincible because he displays no obvious killer instinct. He appears to pose no threat. And when he criticises an opponent's view he is taken all the more seriously because he does not attack for attack's sake. He is every bit as posh, rich and privileged as Dave or Gideon, but he is loved. They are obviously Macchiavelli's children and are not.
More widely-read libertarian bloggers may say, with some cause, politeness is not working for you, Tom, why should we try it? But they, like me, are mostly preaching to a choir as small as it is tuneful. If we want to reach Boris's audience, maybe we should all take a leaf from his songbook? In the end, our argument is based on loving and trusting our fellow-men. We except only those who use force and fraud to deny others the fruits of their labours or their civil rights. Socialists on the other hand propound a hate and envy based ideology (National Socialists hating whole races and International Socialists hating whole classes). It shows on their clenched and angry features and in the shrill keening of their discourse. Why distract from such helpful self-condemnation? Brits instinctively distrust fanatics. Can we not let that work in our favour?
We "real liberals" judge others solely on the content of their characters as evidenced by their behaviours. We seek individual justice, not social justice. We hold people accountable for their acts and omissions, not for being part of a group they didnt choose to join or for having gone to a school they had no part in selecting. Not for us then mass condemnation by class, race or sex. So can we perhaps accentuate the unpleasant fanaticism of our statist, authoritarian opponents by differentiating ourselves - not just by our arguments - but the way we present them?
I am troubled by the German court decision on circumcision (and relieved that the Bundestag is apparently going to over-rule it). Yet I don't really understand why? My libertarian principles certainly don't allow parents a free hand to mutilate their children on any pretext, yet there's something unsettling about prohibiting the practice. The Jewish friend I asked about it didn't help me much. He just said the hygienic reasons for male circumcision were long gone and had sympathy with the court's view. If Jewish men want to be circumcised when they are adult and able to make their own choice, then so be it, but he wasn't sure it was right to impose it in childhood. HIs reaction doesn't seem to be very typical, judging by press reports.
This is a long discussion, but I found it fascinating. Not, you understand, that it produces any answers. It is hard to persuade people who are only familiar with living under a powerful state that there is a better alternative. They simply can't imagine it and begin to be afraid. The problem is that if we can't persuade them we are all going to get there in the worst possible way, by the uncontrolled collapse of the current system.
A woman was in full niqab at my local Tube station today. That I respect her right to dress as she likes, is for most libertarians all that there is to say on that subject. In truth, of course, there is much more. A wise friend of mine said recently that libertarians are wrong to treat such issues as cut and dried. We give the impression that we are uncaring, cold and more unlike other people than we really are.
This post of mine was a good example. My friend rebuked me for saying that "I don't care" if people want to enter into polygamous/polyandrous marriages, when I would actually be very concerned for any family member or friend embarking on one. He has a point. As witness the conventional lives that most of us lead, libertarians generally have a similar range of ethical scruples to everyone else. In a sense, we just have an extra scruple about interfering in the lives of others.
I would never advocate interfering with that young lady's right to dress as she does. That doesn't mean I don't have any other response. In truth my reaction was the same I would have to seeing her paraded in public on a leash. However much she and they might deny it, I feel it's degrading that her menfolk claim the right for her to be seen only by them. I feel her garb is the sign and symbol of misogynistic subjection.
Other libertarians might have different responses. We are not an army of liberty-minded robots. We are diverse, mostly rather ordinary humans with a range of views.
Why then do I feel so uncomfortable in expressing such a personal view? I am not afraid of being accused of islamophobia. As used in public discourse in Britain, I regard it as a bogus concept designed to close down discussion. Rather like racism, sexism and homophobia, it is usually no more than an incantation; a magic spell to shut opponents up.
Nor do I recognise the lady's right not to be offended. Someone is offended by any point of view. I am very offended by those who advocate enslaving their fellow-men on a time share basis; making them work for the state for months before permitting them to earn for their families. Yet I don't claim the right to suppress their foul views. There is no free speech without offence - real, imagined or bogus. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but if we want to live in a free society we can't ever allow mere words to hurt us.
My wise friend is right. If we don't talk about the many concerns we share with non-libertarians, we make it harder to win them over. We sound like cold, hard people lacking concern for our fellow men. It's not enough to say the lady in the niqab is entitled to wear it. We also need to say that, like our fellow citizens, some of us at least feel sorry for her and disgusted by the misogyny her garb represents.
In modern Britain, libertarians inevitably spend most of our time arguing against the increasing intrusion of the state into private lives. We need also to make clear that we only do so as a matter of ethical principle. It's not because we approve of whatever "evil" the state pretends it is trying to cure. We would oppose a hijab banà la française in England for example, but that doesn't mean any or all of us are happy for the women concerned. Just because we claim no right to interfere doesn't mean we lack a moral response.
Perhaps the confusion arises from the fact that, in a radically statist society like ours, where government accepts no boundaries on its right to interfere, moral criticism is almost always the precursor to an attack on liberty. We used to separate the immoral (to be avoided in oneself and discouraged in others on ethical grounds) and the illegal (to be suppressed for the protection of others from genuine harm). That distinction has somehow been lost.
The loss is no accident, in my view. To advance their cause, statists have - in a cynical agitprop exercise - sought out "oppressed" groups and offered them the state's protection. They have given the right to those favoured groups (selected for the sympathy they evoke in a population of generally decent people) not to be offended and not to have hatred expressed against them. In doing so they have chilled free expression so effectively that it's hard not to imagine that was their objective. And they have caused a clamour from other groups to be added to the list of the elect.
The British media demonised the Polish and Ukrainian peoples as racist bigots in advance of UEFA 2012, for example. I am familiar with both countries and don't believe racism is more prevalent there than here. I simply think we have suppressed its expression here and in doing so may even have increased its incidence. Does that really make anyone's life better? Does it increase the chance of different communities growing together; learning to understand each others' concerns and to build trust? I think not.
The lady on the platform today may, as most human communication is non-verbal, have detected my unease. She may speculate as to its causes but she will never know the truth. Unless it's possible to talk openly to each other, how can we progress? How can we explain to those who are taught to assume we are hostile by our racist, sexist, homophobic and islamophobic natures, that we stand by the old English principle of "handsome is as handsome does?" That we really just want people to stop calling for us to be controlled like dangerous dogs and for all of us - citizen familes old and new - to sign up to the standards of tolerance and mutual respect that we think should define our society?
The key question is, as always, cui bono? I don't think it's the young lady in the niqab, who might well enjoy having me as a neighbour if not taught to fear me. I don't think it's the black and brown football fans who missed out on two wonderful countries. The only beneficiaries of this moral panic agitprop are those who seek ever more control over our lives. Every time we edit our speech for fear of PC "offence" we are losing the battle for our freedom.
I am on the road today, visiting the old haunts of the original and best Tom Paine. I am unlikely to post anything substantial, so I merely recommend you to the linked article described by Cafe Hayek as "The greatest blog post ever written". Almost as much as the post itself, I enjoyed the debate in the comments and particularly this observation by one Terry Mcintyre;
It is not enough to point to "market failure" - the proposed solution must actually be an improvement; it is not logically permissible to wave a wand and say "a miracle happens, and a politician emits the Perfect Solution which Fixes Everything."
The discussions here at The Last Ditch are generally (our friend and active contributor Mark excepted) informed by a broadly classical liberal view. LearnLiberty.org has an interesting series of short video lectures by Dr Nigel Ashford of the Institute for Humane Studies explaining five different schools of thought in modern classical liberalism.
I confess my own ideas are a muddle of them all; a muddle that is never tested because my own society is so far down the road to totalitarianism that the distinctions don't matter now. The ideas of the five schools are different road maps to where we should be, but we are so far away from there that we can all (even conservatives and more moderate socialists) head in the same direction for many miles before our roads diverge. Sadly, I don't expect to live long enough to need to sort my muddle out. It's more important to play whatever miniscule part I can in persuading people to set off in the right direction.
I am a practical man, not an academic. My concerns are for my children and (I hope one day) grandchildren. I hope they will need to sort their views out much more precisely one day.
Here is the introduction to the series. At the end you will find a menu that will lead you to the others. Or you can just relax and wait to see them here, as I will post them all in the coming days.