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Anarchy, State, and Utopia

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Anyone who wants a free copy of Robert Nozick’s philosophical work can get a pdf copy here.

Don’t forget the comma before the “and” in the title!

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Written by 20000miles

October 9, 2009 at 5:16 am

Posted in philosophy

False and True Connections Between Libertarianism and Conservatism

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An analysis of the dispute between Walter Block and Hans-Hermann Hoppe regarding the relationship between libertarianism and conservatism, with a proposed solution to the problem.


In 2007, Walter Block published a piece in Reason Papers (pdf) defending what he calls “plumbline libertarianism”:

In brief, plumb-line libertarianism is the view that human actions are justified only if they are consistent with private property rights, which are themselves, in turn, defended on the basis of homesteading or voluntary acts such as purchase, gifts, etc.

Plumb-line libertarianism may be defined in terms of pure libertarian principle: It does not compromise this political-economic perspective, not to curry favor with leftists or rightists. As stated above, it is entirely consistent with this view to make alliances with advocates of these other views, but the plumb-line libertarian will never confuse his own philosophy with either of these two others.

This is in contradistinction to the Hoppean views that “Conservatives today must be antistatist libertarians”, and  “Libertarians must be conservatives”, where we have the following definition (extracted from Democracy: The God that Failed):

“Conservative” refers to someone who recognises the old and natural through the “noise” of anomalies and accidents and who defends, supports and helps to preserve it against the temporary and anomalous. Within the realm of the humanities, including the social sciences, a conservative recognizes families (fathers, mothers, children, grandchildren) and households based on private property and in cooperation with other households as the most fundamental, natural, essential, ancient and indispensable social units…

Conservatives (or more specifically, Western Greco-Christian conservatives), if they stand for anything, stand for and want to preserve the family and the social hierarchies and layers of material as well as spiritual-intellectual authority based on and growing out of family bonds and kinship relations. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Graham

February 11, 2009 at 1:22 pm

The Proper Use of “Rights” Concepts

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A psychologist and criminologist has published a book wherein he explores the prohibition of drugs from a very critical perspective. Of great interest was his proposal for how change could actually be brought about.

“What is required to achieve a tipping point, a revolution in thinking, is a bold, inspirational idea to which people can subscribe as a matter of self-evident principle.

“Only the concept of a human right to use drugs can fulfil this role of providing a meaningful, inspiring and unifying idea which can guide the transition to a fully non-prohibitionist system.”

How fascinating. We use the concept of a “human right” to engage people’s moral passions, to inspire them to join the movement and to help them cut through complex arguments which often leave out the bigger picture.

My interest in philosophy does not prevent me from using this post to make a conjecture on this strategic point, not just from the anti-prohibition stance of this particular academic but from the anti-state perspective of a radical libertarian. Firstly, it remains true that many libertarians do not believe in the existence of an absolute morality: Ludwig von Mises was utilitarian, David D. Friedman arrives at anarcho-capitalism using newer economic techniques, and the debate rages on as to in what senses, if any, these arguments are sufficient.

But leaving aside this question for a moment, is it conceivable that libertarianism (or indeed any other political philosophy) could actually ever become popular without resting itself on some type of moral foundation?

Broadly speaking, the statist Left has never been shy about promoting itself on moral grounds. “Free” state services are often defended on the basis that people have a “right” to the service in question. It has recently become common for people to talk about governments taking “rights-based” approaches to the provision of public services. The terms “social justice” and “equity”, so often used in a left-wing context, themselves are clearly meant to concern one’s moral sympathies.

In contrast, libertarianism is frequently equated with the non-aggression axiom. Ron Paul focussed mostly instead on the US Constitution, which acted for him as the shorthand of what he advocated. For his supporters, upholding the Constitution “fulfilled the role of providing a meaningful, inspiring and unifying idea”. But for libertarians in general, non-aggressionism is our “bold, inspirational idea”. It provides a simple tool by which we can measure any political proposition.

Going further back in time for another example, the idea of the divine right of kings long provided legitimacy for monarchs. It summed up the view that the authority of ultimate decision-making and absolute power ought to reside in the head of a single family and in their extended relations.

A complication arises in the libertarian example because not everyone thinks that the non-aggression axiom actually exists as a moral imperative. Some of us think that it is merely an approximation of what we believe, a rule we created to summarise how we feel that society should be organised. It is the result of merely connecting our desire for human satisfaction with our conclusions from nonmoral analysis, and does not itself influence our desire for human satisfaction or our analysis of nonmoral topics. The most it can do is help to motivate those actions we take to bring about a more libertarian future.

On the other hand, even for those whose analyis is mostly based in theories of rights, the non-aggression axiom is not more than the shortest possible summary of their view. There is a substantive body of thought backing it up, with non-aggressionism being only the statement of their most important theorem.

At this point I can fully state the problem I’m concerned with here. Does a political position require some easily-digested hook in order to become popular? Or can it become popular as a purely intellectual movement which gradually influences the climate of ideas?

With reference to my examples above, could Marxism spread without the belief by non-experts in normative shorthand rules such as that material equality is a moral necessity? Would Ron Paul have succeeded without being able to summarise his views for the masses by advocating constitutionalism? And could libertarianism become more popular without promoting the non-aggression axiom as the moral ideal?

I suspect that political movements do need rallying cries to succeed, for a straightforward reason based on the division of labour. Clearly the vast bulk of any given population is not going to consist of specialists in politics, economics, history or law, and so their political beliefs are necessarily going to be based on summaries of expert opinion. This being the case, with limited means of communication open to the political activist, simple moral hooks appear most likely to succeed. In a 30-second soundbyte, it makes more sense for the libertarian activist to declare the non-aggression axiom than to explain half of a definition from his framework.

Furthermore, motivating people to actually listen to and support your position is not such an easy task. For this reason, those “hooks” which carry with them clear and urgent moral prescriptions seem most likely to succeed.

As is clear, I am assuming that a large majority of the people will not be experts in the relevant fields. If this is true, then it appears likely that the most popular political philosophy will not be the one most likely to serve the achievement of what most people would otherwise consider to be appropriate objectives. They simply do not have the time to become experts in the fields which would allow them to answer the question satisfactorily, and the summaries handed down to them from experts will necessarily be imperfect and corrupted by the particular political and cultural environment they are in. We note that it is unrealistic for an enterprising expert to expect that the general population should have a similar perspective as he does, and equally futile for him to be disappointed in them for not doing so.

But what I feel is the significant conclusion of my article is that we should be cautious when using shorthand rules such as “human rights”, “individual rights” or the non-aggression axiom as the core position which we explain to those not yet introduced to these ideas. While it may help to provide a flavour of libertarianism for them, and this can certainly be a useful exercise, we should diligently point out that the justifications for our positions are far more substantial than the rule which is the end product of our analysis. This holds true just as much for utilitarians as for moralists. Both have credible bodies of work to defend, work which should not be reduced down to a slogan.

The danger is that we would be seen to advertise simple hooks and catchphrases just as statists of left and right do. Non-aggressionism would become just another party line. The point is that so long as we are not actually engaged in statist political campaigning, we have no need for the modes of partisan support which mainstream political activists receive. For the sake of our intellectual integrity, we would do well to avoid that kind of support completely.

Therefore we should use concepts of rights in situations where only the briefest of explanations is possible, and where we insist that we are not selling merely another outlet for political partisanship and petty conflict. We are offering ideas which we have thought about most seriously, are based on substantial analysis, and which we feel genuinely provide solutions to major social problems.

More generally, this should teach us that there are very real problems when it comes to advocating liberty to a wide public audience. Those of us who wish to remain apolitical still face the problem of competing with rivals who are explicitly and proudly political, and who are unafraid to use any kind of tactic to broaden their support base. Stooping to their intellectual level does a disservice to the quality of libertarian scholarship, yet not doing so may risk being completely left out of public consideration. Given the choice, I would much sooner choose the latter. But where it seems possible to spread the message widely without compromise, I will do so.

(Also published on Polycentric Order)

Written by Graham

June 21, 2008 at 5:47 pm

Lisbon Redux: CCCTB (And Why The EU Is So Dangerous)

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Libertas has correctly pounced on comments from the French finance minister that the CCCTB would be pushed ahead in the Autumn.

No doubt there will be consternation in Government buildings this morning at Ms. Lagarde’s remarks. She’s gone and given the game away!

On a more serious note, the fact of the matter is that a common corporate taxation base is the number one item on the agenda for the European Union after the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.

A Common corporate tax base would destroy the Irish economy. In a challenging economic environment, the stakes could not be higher.

I agree that this is very worrying, but I can’t help feeling that it’s already too late; that we’ve already been “sold down the river”, as it were; in the words of Peter Hitchens, that Ireland, like Britain, is already a “subject province of a European superstate”.

I remember, years ago, reading “No Logo” by Naomi Klein, in particular Chapter 7, “Mergers and Synergy”, and being genuinely convinced of the threat posed by corporate mergers. It took me a while but I eventually recognised that the power concentrated by merging businesses was as nothing (and of a very different kind) to the power concentrated by merging governments.

An applied comparison would be as follows: ABC and Disney use their merger to enjoy productive synergies from their combined media products on the one hand, while on the other the European governments use the EU to strengthen their monopolistic power of “continual, institutionalized property rights violations” (Hoppe) over European citizens. Are these equally fearful?

The centralised European superstate which we are rapidly approaching will, by abolishing national governments, remove the incentives these have to compete with each other and with other governments around the world.

This crucial idea is something that statists never seem to deal with. They don’t seem to understand (and I don’t blame them – it took me quite a while, and it’s not the sort of thing that gets explained frequently) that a government is really just a type of business: it provides “services” (legal, policing, security, health, education, etc.) to “consumers” (citizens). The only difference between a government and any other kind of business is that a government achieves its objectives through physical force. This is the simple reality: the government is just a special kind of business – one that successfully exercises violent monopoly powers over the people in the territories it controls.

For example, I explained in a comment at Cedar Lounge that the notion of competing governments I have been describing could be used to interpret “the emergence of European civilisation from the Holy Roman Empire, economic growth in a decentralised US through the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the high levels of wealth found today in relatively small, independent countries such as Luxembourg, Switzerland, Ireland, Iceland and Hong Kong (and havens Liechtenstein, Monaco, etc.)”

One reply I got was that “the most powerful agent of centralisation in the modern world is international capital. Given the choice, I think global and regional democracy is better than a dictatorship of such vested interests.”

Obviously this person is approaching the question from somewhere closer to Naomi Klein’s perspective than my own. I believe that my logic stands, but perhaps it’s worth asking the question: whose perspective has the greater interpretative power?

Consider the 2000 merger between Time Inc. and Warner Communications, a huge concentration of power resulting in Time Warner Inc. and ranked as one of the biggest mergers of all time. The new entity had a 2007 revenue of $52.5 billion. Pretty big, right?

Yes it is. But the most recent Irish government budget was bigger than that, at $53 billion. And this is a budget that is obviously miniscule compared to the budgets of other European governments. A merger of all of these governments, as we are witnessing with the EU, is then hundreds of times bigger in sheer monetary power (never mind legal and military power) than even the largest kind of corporate merger. So how does this fit with the idea that “the most powerful agent of centralisation in the modern world is international capital.” Unless we are talking about government capital, I don’t see how it fits at all.

The reasons to oppose the advancement of the EU project are profound and not merely nationalistic or conservative. They are grounded in fundamental truths about the nature of politics, our experience of history and our understanding of political economy. If you have any sense at all of the dangers of centralised power, you should recognise the EU for what it increasingly looks like: a serious threat to our freedoms and prosperity.

Written by Graham

April 8, 2008 at 10:15 pm

Posted in economics, Europe, Ireland, philosophy

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This Is What Counts, Not Politics

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Some readers may have expected commentary here on the big political news of last week. It’s true that I was busy but, to be completely honest, it seems questionable to me to be overly concerned about which individual is leading the government.

Is it not true that the government’s source of power is our own willingness to be governed? Is it not true that, given the prevailing mainstream opinion, no ruling politician or political party can stray from it very far? Is it not true that, to the extent that decision-making is democratic, politicians are obliged to obey the majority? Therefore, the real battleground is not in the Dáil or Seanad but right here, in the blogosphere and traditional media, where arguments and opinions are put forward.

It’s the ideas which matter most. The people form a consensus and the politicians convince us that they are the ones most capable of implementing it. Politicians may attempt to guide public opinion but they must eventually submit to our vision of how things should be organised.

And it goes further than this. If we want to, we can force the government to relinquish its power. We can “alter or abolish it, and institute new government.” Where we do not wish to be ruled, we will not be ruled.

Obviously, the obstacles are immense. It’s not a fair fight between idealists and thinkers on the one hand and monopolists of law, currency, policing and education on the other. It’s not a fair fght when elected representatives, the only ones directly accountable to the citizens, abdicate their responsibilities and transfer their power to the unelected and the unaccountable. And yet it is still true that no government could survive a complete loss of moral authority. Their perceived legitimacy evaporates with it. and they can hold power no more.

So to bring this back and apply it to the question Bertie Ahern’s resignation, should we be concerned? Not at all. He was only a servant, a man whose job was to satisfy the opinion of most of the people most of the time. It will be the same for whoever comes after him. While we can enjoy the drama and humour of his story for whatever it’s worth, it’s but a tale of sound and fury – it signifies nothing!

The real significance can be found in public debates, letters to newspapers and blogs like this one. We hold the key to power. So if you feel emotionally invested in the affairs of state, I suggest you redirect your energies to your fellow citizens. Without their compliance, government is impossible.

Written by Graham

April 5, 2008 at 11:23 am

Some Observations from the Centre

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This is a post I’ve been intending to publish for several weeks, but finally got motivated to finish editing this morning, after some recent commentary on the Workers Solidarity Movement. It originally got started when one of my counterparts at the Cedar Lounge Revolution kindly linked to us, abbreviating the output here as “right libertarianism”, and I got thinking about about what sort of label I’d be most happy with.

Not speaking for Dermot or for others who will be writing here in due course, I wanted to commend “right libertarianism” as being very close to the mark. If people prefer to use that description for my views, it wouldn’t actually bother me too much. But, being who I am, I can’t just leave it at that! I have some observations which I feel should be made.

Firstly, it should be noted that the classic liberal tradition which inspires modern libertarianism includes among its most important figures the French economist Frédéric Bastiat, whose placement in the French assembly is rather illuminative:

The terms [left and right] were apparently first used in the French Legislative Assembly after the revolution of 1789. In that context those who sat on the right side of the assembly were steadfast supporters of the dethroned monarchy and aristocracy — the ancien régime — (and hence were conservatives) while those who sat on the left opposed its reinstatement (and hence were radicals). It should follow from this that libertarians, or classical liberals, would sit on the left.

Indeed, that is where they sat. Frédéric Bastiat, the radical laissez-faire writer and activist, was a member of the assembly (1848–1850) and sat on the left side along with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the “mutualist” whose adage “Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order” graced the masthead of Liberty, the newspaper of the American libertarian and individualist anarchist Benjamin Tucker.

This is important. If it is true, as I would argue, that nearly all government actions are in the aid of entrenched and already powerful interests, and if libertarians (depending on how radical they are) oppose at least a large chunk of government actions, then it appears to follow that libertarianism really should be seen as left-wing in the original meaning of the term.

That said, as someone who doesn’t vote and who has come to look on the politial process with disdain, (indeed, as mentioned to Stephie, I now view politicians as useful mostly for entertainment value), I would prefer not to be associated with parliamentary geography in general. But my point holds: if I was forced to choose a wing (and most people will probably put you in one whether you would like to be or not) I can say with a clean conscience that I would sooner take my historically accurate position with the left.

In truth, there is barely more justification for me to sit with the right in the context of the 21st century then in that of the 18th. The modern right establishment is just notoriously poor when it comes to protecting freedom.

For example, despite the conversion of some modern libertarians to the ideals of nation-building in the form of neoconservatism – and my own willingness to share a stage with them for the sake of our similarities on other issues – the modern Right in the US as epitomised by George W. Bush’s leviathan welfare-warfare state is something that would hardly have received support from many influential thinkers who helped to develop the classic liberal tradition. The US government of 2008 is the most powerful government in the history of human civilisation, and in many ways a shocking monument to the failure of libertarians to spread their message.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, the perceived right-of-centre parties have always been irredeemably conservative and statist, with the sole exception of the Progressive Democrats, whose influence, despite whatever it may have done for the Irish economy, has waned dramatically along with their radicalism. And while it is true that the Conservatives in Britain maintained at least some of their classic liberal credentials for a time, David Cameron surely heralds the final nail in that coffin.

For all of these reasons “right libertarianism”, if it means that I must be associated with the right, is in many ways an uncomfortable description. I am sure that left and right-wing labels made sense in the past, perhaps in battles between republicans and monarchists, or socialists and fascists, but those are not struggles which interest me, and in any case the debate has moved on, particularly on the internet.

The obvious example here is the unprecedented internet and youth-driven campaign by Ron Paul, the US constitutionalist. His grip on the internet failed to convert the mainstream media or the majority of Republican primary voters, but there is some clear potential now for the defining struggle in coming years to be not between left and right, but between libertarians and interventionists.

And, if the older paradigm is on it’s on the way out, I certainly don’t want to stand in its way. What I’m advocating is a philosophy of peace and freedom. Can we just leave it at libertarianism or (classical) liberalism?

Written by Graham

March 28, 2008 at 10:46 am

My Kind of Debating Partners: The Libertarian Socialists

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So I was browsing the website of the Workers Solidarity Movement this morning, prompted by posters around Dublin announcing their upcoming march and rally for a decent public heath service, when I found a pamphlet, complete with footnotes and a bibliography, arguing for universal healthcare.

Radical health reform, in terms of creating equality and accessibility, and stopping the agenda of privatisation and for-profit medicine, is one of the great challenges facing Irish society. In this pamphlet, anarchists explain the reasons why such change is needed, give examples of important first steps in creating change, and describe the type of struggle that is necessary if we are going to win.

It’s really quite an impressive pamphlet, both in its detail and research, though I didn’t didn’t quite have time to read it all. I wanted to find out some more about their overall perspective.

I discovered that they are in fact a very interesting group. For example, they say that they support individual freedom, socialism, and democracy; they see themselves as building a “broad libertarian movement” comprised of anarchists and libertarian socialists. They are influenced by Mikhail Bakunin.

I have read about this philosophy before, though not from the WSM, and my rather rough suspicion is that these folks are attempting to square some circles with only a compass and a straightedge. Perry de Havilland has written a fairly combative article on libertarian socialism, in response to another by Peter Hain, which explores some of the conflicts inherent in the conception:

The notion that a completely politicised democratic ‘society’ of the kind advocated by Hain could by its very nature allow any personal liberty whatsoever in a meaningful sense is manifestly absurd. If you cannot opt out of something you have not previously agreed to, in what manner are you free? If society is totally political, then you may have ‘permissions’ to do this or that, won by the give and take of democratic political processes but you do not have super-political inalienable rights at all. Politics can in theory make you ‘free from starving’ perhaps (in practise of course it tends to do the opposite), but what about being free to try or not try, some course of action? When every aspect of life is subject to the views of a plurality of other people, there is no liberty to just try anything at all on your own initiative. What Hain is arguing for is by his own words collectivism.

I need to reflect some more on this, but I imagine that the contradiction of describing libertarian socialism as compatible with individual freedom is basically wrapped up in the collectivist view of class which is retained by its proponents. It seems to me that any ideology which views people according to their membership of a perceived collective, be it the class, nation, race or religion, is doomed to struggle with incoherent notions of liberty.

Having said all of this, I hope that WSM members who read this will take it in the spirit in which it is intended – that of constructive criticism. I clearly agree with them that radical and fundamental change in our mode of social organisation is required. I agree with them that entrenched interests are due most of the blame for holding this back. And I agree with them on some substantive issues, most notably in global affairs (e.g. my strong opposition to war and military adventurism).

Nothing can hide the fact that I think libertarian socialism would lead to the end of civilisation wherever it was attempted. But people like these are clearly interested in exploring alternative points of view, so I think they have some potential, if not to show me where my classical liberalism is wrong, then to evaluate it and agree that it accurately explains political and economic reality.

Written by Graham

March 26, 2008 at 9:26 am