THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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July 2013

Guest Post: The Limits of Democracy - an (the!) answer.

Tom, Thank you for allowing me to respond. You raise a very good question; to which, fortunately, there is a very good, and simple, answer: the natural law!

At the risk of acting like the dinner guest who offends his host, I fear this is why I can not support completely your libertarian outlook, as it neglects the primacy of natural law. There are some laws that are not bad (meaning they do not contradict natural law, such as prohibiting murder), but sadly there are a great many, and in particular recently, that are contrary to the natural law. We are therefore in agreement that these laws are bad laws, although you reject them as a libertarian, and I reject them as they are contrary to the natural law. The fact we are in agreement so often only reinforces the number of bad laws….

It is difficult to swiftly summarise what I mean by natural law, so I will rely on St Thomas Acquinas (with thanks to Wikipedia:

natural law is the rational creature's participation in the eternal law, yet, since human reason can not fully comprehend the eternal law, it needed to be supplemented by revealed divine law; therefore all human or positive laws were to be judged by their conformity to the natural law. An unjust law is not a law, in the full sense of the word. It retains merely the 'appearance' of law insofar as it is duly constituted and enforced in the same way a just law is, but is itself a 'perversion of law’

Or in my own clumsy words – natural law is grounded in God’s law, so the true measure of a validity of a law is not the libertarian outlook supporting only laws prohibiting violence or fraud; but rather that a valid law must be consistent with natural law, meaning God’s law.

I would also agree with you and extend this to argue that laws made by a democratically elected parliament are not of themselves ‘good’ laws unless they also comply with natural law – therefore democracy does not, of itself, validate a law as ‘good’. The same applies to the common law (when I studied jurisprudence my strong favourite was not realism, but Hayek’s common law theory) which I much prefer to statute.

With that in mind, I think I can answer your question about the Top Gear Act 2013 : Would killing one of the hosts in pursuance of the Act cease to be morally wrong? The answer to the question is a resounding "no". As you state, that is the answer you need, and (I think) you know it to be right. This leads me to make two bold suggestions which may offend my host – you know it to be right because, ultimately, we are created to seek and require the natural law (which also suggests or proves the existence of God), and secondly, that libertarianism, where it ignores the natural law, is the wrong way to look at things!!

The limits of democracy?

Oliver Wendell Holmes “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.”
When I studied jurisprudence at university, I was - I discovered - an American Realist. In executive summary, American Realists define law as nothing more than a prediction of what rules the courts in any given jurisdiction will enforce in any given case. There is no moral dimension to it. Law is an entirely practical matter.

As a radical young man, that seemed sensible to me. Now I am not so sure.

Perhaps it was because, as a naive and optimistic young intellectual, I could not imagine the mother of all Parliaments enacting immoral laws. Or the mother of all electorates authorising it to do so. There is no excuse for that youthful lack of imagination because both had already done so on numerous occasions. I make no excuse. As in so many other respects, I was simply not paying enough attention during my studies. 

One notable example of an immoral law was the Transport Act 1947, which seized (amongst other things) my grandfather's transport business. He and his brothers had built it from their own savings from honest employment, supplemented with a small loan from my great grandfather to help buy their first truck. They had committed no crimes (apart from speeding) in the process. They had delivered useful services to the benefit of their fellow men. They had created employment. They had created wealth.

They were also loyal citizens who volunteered to fight for their country the first day after World War II was declared. Their trucks had already been commandeered for military use and returned to them in poor shape. Yet on their own return from the war, their livelihood was taken from them for token compensation, corruptly assessed and paid over decades in inflation-debased coin.

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My grandfather, my great-grandfather and the company's first employee
My grandfather, an untutored American Realist it seems, simply accepted it as "good law" (in the sense of valid law) and got on with his life. As a native of a solidly Labour area, he said if he was going to hate the Attlee Government, he would have had to hate all his relatives, friends and neighbours who had voted for it. This, he rather nobly (or perhaps just practically) declined to do. Later in life, with the arrival of Thatcherism in Britain and the fall of Communism in Europe, he was happy to have lived to see the ideology behind his expropriation exposed as an unequivocal failure. It is perhaps as well he did not live to see Socialists regroup under other flags.

Was the Transport Act "good" law in the moral sense? Parliament, so British Constitution textbooks used to tell us for hyperbolic effect (though whether they still do so now Parliament has actually done it I haven't checked) "...can turn a man into a woman..." But can Parliament turn wrong into right; evil into good?

If Parliament voted to legalise the killing of everyone who had ever presented Top Gear, for example, and the Queen gave her Royal Assent (as I predict, based on Her Majesty's conduct to date, she would) would that make it law? For American Realists, the Top Gear Act 2013 would introduce a new defence to the charge of murder and therefore change the correct prediction of what a court would rule if you were charged with killing Clarkson, May or Hammond. So yes, it would be good law. I assert rather shakily (with no philosophical justification to hand) that it would not be "good" law in the moral sense. I sense it's wrong, but I have the same sense about much current law and my sense seems to be out of line with that of my fellow-citizens. They have no moral issues with theft, murder or kidnapping as long as they are blessed by Parliament.

If Parliament can't make bad good, why not? In this democratic age, who else can define what is moral but the representatives of the people? Certainly not the men of religion, who now change their views weakly (if not weekly) with the social tides. If God ever told them what to think, He seems to have lost His voice. Nor do the Philosophy Departments of our Universities offer any useful guidance. On the contrary, they - like other academics - seem now to be mostly paid apologists for the men of power.

Leftists, other statists and their fellow-travellers tell us that expropriation of "the rich" to redistribute their wealth to their chosen corruptees is justified by democracy. Without that justification it would simply be theft. So with such justification would Clarkson-killing cease to be murder? No question, but would it cease to be morally wrong? I need the answer to that question to be "no", but I lack the philosophical equipment to say so. Can you help? Suggestions in the comments section please.

The madness of youth writ old

When I was a naive youth of sixteen years, my headmaster called my father in for a discussion. I had been suspended from school for distributing revolutionary materials on the premises. I was the Vice Chairman in Wales of a Marxist-Leninist school students organisation; an offshoot from a Maoist splinter group several splinters removed from the party then recognised by Moscow as "the" Communist Party in Britain. Even by the 1970s, every creature with any aspiration to humanity had already left that.

The world seemed so unfair and I wanted to do all in my power to change it for the better. As a young male, of course, I vastly over-estimated that power. It's amusing now, but that miscalculation is a feature not a bug in humanity's software; a key engine in human progress. Young men are meant to be unrestrained by any sensible appreciation of their limits - even their mortality. We would all be living miserably in caves without that irrational self-belief.

I also wanted to be liked; not an easy thing for a bright, unsporty, boy in a bog-standard comprehensive. My peers - by and large - were reliably anti-intellectual. Loudly proclaiming my intent to build a better world was my alternative to being the class clown. As a means of endearing myself, revolutionary communism was a limited success. It did attract Mrs P., who told me later that - though she had no appetite for revolutionary violence herself - she thought "at least he's thinking, not like the other boys." Who knew?

Called into the interview with a headmaster who was as much a better chap than I thought at the time as my embarrassed dad, I asked defiantly what was wrong with wanting the world to be a better place. The answer, of course, is nothing - as long as your proposed solutions do not involve, as mine did, violence. I don't think it's too much to say that I was a little bit crazy at that point. I am not much embarrassed by that. Most 16-year old boys are crazy about something. Girls, football, drink or drugs perhaps. Politics was an odd choice from such a menu of delights, but there you are.

Over the years that followed, I progressed from believing myself capable of setting a path for all humanity to a more realistic appreciation of my limits. Most days, for most of my adult life, I was doing well if I could see a way forward for my clients, for myself and - in consultation with my wiser other half - for my family. People don't become older and wiser because they become more intelligent. The young man I am remembering was a lot sharper than I am now. We become wiser because all our mistakes teach us that a young man's boundless self-belief is a bit barmy and very dangerous - to himself and others. 

So what then to make of those who never lose that belief? Every politician who proposes the use of limitless state power to shape the actions of his fellow-humans is as barmy as that young man of long ago, without the excuse of youth. The ones who try to use it to shape their fellow-humans' speech or even thoughts are, in fairness to the young me, a lot barmier. They must know, in their hearts, that they are prone to mistakes in their own lives. What kind of insanity makes them think they can tell others how to live?

Democracy, the State and Libertarianism

Democracy, the State and Libertarianism :: A Very British Dude.

I commend this post to you. Jackart and I don't agree on everything - he's far too anti-automobile for us ever to be buddies - but he writes good, practical sense here. While I take the view that the state is such a flawed concept that its use must be kept to a minimum - his consequentialist approach is much more likely to appeal to voters afraid of the unknown. Indeed, I am not at all sure why he would label his middle-of-the-road views as "libertarian"; given how much opprobrium that word attracts!

He and I could agree, for example, on moving to the model of state-funded health care he proposes - essentially that currently used in France. He might regard that as his final objective. I would regard it as a step on the road to freedom. His only problem with being allied with me is that the defenders of the lethally-Soviet NHS might accuse him of being secretly on the same road as me. Frankly they have already proved that they will lie, cheat and desecrate graves in its defence, so I can't see that's a huge problem.

Our state is so powerful and invasive at present that an alliance could easily be built across the whole political spectrum - including more reasonable members of the Left. Jackart is certainly right that there's no point in purists fantasising about a libertarian utopia. Our freedoms have been lost yard by yard. We will be lucky to win them back inch by inch.

Missing comments - an apology

I have been looking into the complaints about missing comments and the error was mine. They were simply held up in my spam filter. Please accept my apologies. As a long-standing user of the Typepad platform, I should have been better aware of how it works.

Please click on the email link in the sidebar to let me know if you have such problems in future.  I promise that I will liberate your words of wisdom as rapidly as I can. I shall also be checking the filter every 48 hours. 

I give up on giving up

I've tried. I really have. I have taken a break from the blogs and most conventional news media since Google Reader stopped working. I thought I might feel better about the world. I aspired to the blissful ignorance if not the shameful indifference in which most of my fellow citizens wallow. I just can't hack it.

If I am going to worry about the British body politic and the future of Western civilisation I need at least to be well informed. So I have fired up a new RSS reader and added a few of my old reads from memory. What should I be reading, dear reader, in order to equip myself to blog intelligently?

Housekeeping request

Cascadian has written to me to say his comments here are not appearing. Is anyone else experiencing problems? If so, please email me by clicking on the link in the sidebar. I would like to have as much information as possible when taking the matter up with support at Typepad, my blogging platform.

The future

Quite a few readers have kindly told me how much they missed my trip updates since I returned from the USA. Some of them however only started to read this blog to follow my American journey and would be surprised and perhaps even shocked if I returned to my old subjects.

I rather embarrassed myself at dinner at a friend's house last week. Another guest was a retired senior civil servant and now a substantial London rentier on his savings from the money extorted for him over decades from taxpayers. Predictably, I laid into him about how out-of-control the British State has become.There was some satisfaction, when citing the scandal of the wasted billions at the Ministry of Defence, to find that he had been in a responsible position there - perhaps even (though he was reticent on that point) at the time. However, it's always bad manners to talk about religion, sex or politics at a British dinner party and I spoiled the evening for my hosts. I wrote a sincere apology to my hostess and have felt much chastened since. I like to think I am a pleasant enough chap, but it seems I have become unfit for polite society.

Some of the ex-mandarin's arguments were routinely ridiculous. The "social contract" and "consent to taxation" are the crumbliest of political figleaves. It's a simple lie to describe as "a contract" something even one party never chose to be bound by. His suggestion that I consented by not fleeing these islands did not help. That's just smug leftist code for '**** off if you don't like it' and that's all I hear when they say it. To say my living in Britain is itself 'consent' is like saying the stag I saw being devoured by a flock of vultures in Louisiana consented by not running away from the truck that had hit him.

He had no answer to my simple thought experiment of asking, if legal obligations to pay tax were suspended for a year, whether takings would go up or down. Statists never want to answer that question because it exposes the myth of "consent". The only material group of people who consent to taxation are those - like him - whose loot from others' contributions exceeds any they make themselves. The vultures, in short. No matter how many more vultures there may be than stags, it's never going to make it right.

He was right though when he said that there is no appetite among the majority of my fellow-citizens for scaling down the state. When I blogged from Russia and China I felt sorry for the British people as I thought they were being exploited by cynical politicians. Since I have returned to live amongst them, I rather feel sorry for the politicians. Their voters don't want to hear truths, even arithmetical ones, and their careers therefore depend on palatable lies.

I was also affected by the arguments of another new acquaintance I made last week; a businessman friend of a friend. He told me he aspired to make a billion because that would allow him to make a political difference. Money changes its nature when it is owned in such quantities - as the power of a state with a budget of many billions darkly demonstrates. It ceases to represent pints of beer yet to be bought and becomes raw power. As I was not successful enough to accumulate transformative amounts, why should I mess about fruitlessly arguing for change? Better perhaps to cash in my beer tokens happily in the company of friends, while hoping my ambitious new acquaintance needs a speech writer when he achieves his goals.

As you may have detected, I was a happier man on my US Tour. I was fully enjoying my life for the first time since Mrs P. died. Not because justice and reason had returned to Britain, but because I was thinking about something else. I accept a duty to oppose error for the good of my fellow-man, I really do. But only if my opposition has some hope of making a difference. There is no point in complaining powerlessly as smug, arrogant bastards like my dinner party companion - cheered on by would-be parasites like our resident statist Mark - continue to rape us economically, destroy our liberties "for our own good" and laugh at those of us who see through their claims of benevolence.

There is certainly some demand for a libertarian political rant as witness the 20 places The Last Ditch slipped in the blog rankings while I was happily chirruping about the fun I was having in the States. But there's nothing in it for those of us meeting that demand. The social-democratic state will collapse eventually under the weight of its debts. Those debts must mount if you punish those who create wealth and reward parasitism - as Britain has done since 1946. I would love to spare my fellow-citizens the horrors that will attend that collapse, but nothing I can say or do will achieve that. So why not, as the USAF Chaplain I was talking to in New Jersey recently has done, invest on the worst assumptions and just enjoy life while awaiting the inevitable?

I don't want to stop writing, however. I enjoy the process and the mental stimulation it brings. I also enjoy the social aspects of blogging and have missed my readers' contributions as they fell silent during my trip. So perhaps I should just blog about other things?

I have started to write a book about my tour; a frothy travelogue with a magical realist twist. It will have some political commentary because that's in my nature, but I will keep it as light as my skills permit. I also have seriously in mind to make other such trips in future, especially if I can secure some sponsorship to cover the considerable costs.

I could blog about writing, about photography, about my trips or about travel in general. I could blog about things I love, in short. That was really what I intended when I started The Last Ditch, but the things I loved were liberty, the rule of law and the economic democracy of the free market. Most of what I have actually written has been about things I hate; the vile forces destroying those treasures.

Life is short and I don't have the genes reasonably to expect many more active years of it. I have spent most of mine so far serving the interests of others - either for love or for money. Maybe it's time to serve my own?