How to Fight for Liberty, Part Two – The Nature of the Battle


How to Fight for Liberty, Part Two – The Nature of the Battle

By Duncan Whitmore

In Part One of this continuing series on how to fight for liberty, we explained the relationship between libertarian theory on the one hand and political action on the other. We determined that our endeavour as theoreticians is to build an intellectual movement which defines and justifies liberty as political principle, a movement which should then be used to inform a variety of (often imperfect) liberating political movements as they appear around the world.

Our next step is to build on this foundation by gaining a firmer grasp of precisely why it is that liberty is infringed and, as a consequence, to understand better the nature of the battles that we face. Many of the intricacies of this understanding we have explored in some previous essays, and so, to avoid excessive repetition, some of the below will be a necessarily truncated explanation, reserving elaboration for some fresher thoughts. Readers who are interested in some more detailed explanation on the basics can follow the links in the text below.

Liberty and Its Infringement

Liberty is the state of your body and accumulated property being devoid of physical interference (“force”) initiated by another individual to which you have not consented; conversely, your liberty is infringed when your body and accumulated property are subjected to physical interference initiated by another person to which you have not consented.1 The key to liberty thus lies in understanding why people cause this physical interference with others to occur.

We can rule out as a cause any kind of uncontrollable, biological urge which we are powerless to defeat. As far as complex social phenomena such as the state are concerned, inflicting physical interference upon others is always and everywhere a choice and, as such, is neither inevitable nor unstoppable. There may, of course, be reasons why people are always likely to want to make such a choice which will clearly be relevant for any strategy that seeks to minimise it. However – unlike a genuine, uncontrollable action – the existence of such reasons would not absolve an individual from the moral responsibility for the physical impositions he causes. People have the ability to choose an alternative and, as such, our problem consists of determining why this choice arises and how we can influence it.

As we know from “Austrian” economics, it is the human condition that we must each use our faculty of reason to devote means towards achieving ends. We each determine the best way to achieve what we want before proceeding to devote the means available to the chosen end. However, the category of means is not limited to inanimate objects and material such as wood, iron or coal; by virtue of their power to labour, other humans can also be useful in producing what we want, and so they too possess the ability to serve as means in achieving our ends. It is no surprise, therefore, that humans seek to use each other as means towards fulfilling their ends.

The question of how to fulfil this motivation vis-à-vis other humans (and their prior accumulated property) is a choice between two, basic options:

  • Voluntary co-operation – persuading other people to furnish voluntarily that which we want, usually by assistance or exchange;
  • Physical enforcement compelling them to produce what we want, or taking from them their prior possessions for ourselves.2

For instance, if I offer my neighbour apples in exchange for his oranges then we are voluntarily co-operating: I am using him as a means to procure oranges that I want and he, in turn, is using me as a means to procure apples that he wants. Such an approach is clearly compatible with liberty – nobody’s person or property is being subjected to any physical imposition without his consent. Indeed, there is nothing inherently sinister about wishing to use each other as means for fulfilling our goals – it is, in fact, the essence of what we call “society”, and the foundation of the division of labour which accounts for all of our material prosperity.

However, if I was to unilaterally take my neighbour’s oranges (or force him to produce oranges for me) then we are clearly now in the realm of the second category. Given that my neighbour’s person/and or property has now been subject to a physical imposition to which he did consent, I have infringed his liberty.

The two prongs of this basic choice have been referred to with different terms by different thinkers. Franz Oppenheimer, for instance, refers to the first option as “the economic means” and to the second as “the political means”.3 More technical terms reminiscent of biology would be the “symbiotic means” versus the “parasitic means”. We could also use “mutual benefit” versus “unilateral benefit” (or – more fittingly – “exploitation”). Whichever terminology we use, however, this dichotomy is, in fact, at the heart of all political philosophy and of all human social interaction. For however distinguished their credentials, and however erudite their tomes, all political and social theorists necessarily have to concern themselves with this choice, even if an explicit realisation of this fact escapes them.

Systematisation of the Choice

Clearly, human society is never a kind of casual free-for-all in which people decide on the spot whether to, say, co-operate or steal from each other. It isn’t usually the case that someone will lighten your load one day only to plunge a knife into your back the next. It would also be mistaken to assume that a choice between physical enforcement and voluntary co-operation is dependent solely upon technical feasibility or material cost. It may, for instance, be technically easier and materially less costly for me to steal oranges from my neighbour than it is to bargain for them with apples. However, the psychic weight of the injustice and immorality of such an act may prevent me from doing so.4 Similarly, “doing the right thing” might come at an enormous material cost, and yet a person may choose to do it anyway for the same reason.

However, whatever the impetus, complete haphazardness in the execution of this choice would actually render both voluntary co-operation and physical enforcement of limited use to anyone, with much of society disintegrating into atomistic groups and sects repelled from each other by seething distrust – a situation not unlike the Hobbesian state of nature. In Hobbes’ own, famous words:

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.5

Such an “anti-society” could only be the product of a people utterly devoid of fundamental values and their concomitant crystallisation into a framework of governing institutions. In such a state, human life would be characterised by its mere existence with little to distinguish it from that of lesser animals. Consequently, any kind of ethics – and with it, concepts such as liberty and oppression – would have little application, with all conflicts being resolved by might.

Rather, the providence of liberty in human society depends upon the level of systematisation that either voluntary co-operation or physical enforcement can accomplish – a systematisation not only in terms of form but also in terms of values that embeds them in societal institutions, achieving for them a widespread degree of acceptance, if not advocacy. With regards to the second option – physical enforcement – the modern nation state underpinned by the value of representative democracy has (thus far) been the most perfected form, having successfully usurped nearly every competing source of law, justice, morality, defence, security, and welfare. In contrast, a free society of voluntary co-operation has often been likened to a “spontaneous order” of largely decentralised institutions that nevertheless manage to mesh into a harmonious relationship. In fact, we might say that the process of systematisation here lies more in the uncovering of the extant nature of institutions (such as laws, rights, morals, customs, traditions, property, trade, exchange, money and prices) rather than it does in their conscious creation – the result of “rational reflection” rather than “rational construction”, to use Hayekian terminology.6

These kinds of systematisation, embodying and strengthening either voluntary co-operation or physical enforcement, are the subject matter of political philosophy. Each form of systematisation prevents the degeneration of society into that “war of all against all” we just mentioned, but in different ways.

The logical result of increasingly systematised physical enforcement would be a state of “perfect autocracy” – the complete subjugation of the entire world (and with it, all of the world’s physical goods) to the will of a single person, with no option but to obey this overlord. Although large, forceful organisations such as the state must maintain, internally, at least a temporary environment of peaceful co-operation vis-à-vis the organisation’s members, the power to inflict force is ultimately a zero sum game, and so increasing force, like a knock out tournament, must gradually eliminate more and more competitors until only one is left standing. Indeed, it is no accident that monarchy – a single de jure ruler of a defined piece of territory – has been one of the most prevalent systematised forms of physical enforcement throughout human history. The final result of increasing voluntary co-operation, however, would be a state of perfect liberty, with all human interactions governed voluntarily.7

From this it follows, quite obviously, that liberty is destroyed by the increasing systemisation of physical enforcement. In light of this – and given how much the state justifies its existence as the guarantor of “law and order” – it’s worth pointing out that lone, private criminals (such as murderers, rapists and robbers) are actually among the least important threats to liberty, however terrible their deeds may be for the individual victims. By definition, the criminal practices of these individuals are un-systematised with no foundation of a widely accepted framework of values, resulting in very high physical and psychological barriers to success. Thus, compared to the unparalleled levels of death and destruction that have been caused by the state, genuine, private crime is little more than a nuisance that must be dealt with from time to time rather than a serious threat to freedom. There is, of course, the phenomenon of so-called “organised crime”, but this usually emerges as a response to the state’s interference with liberty through the prohibition of services such as gambling, prostitution and narcotics. In other words, organised criminals are simply businesses fulfilling demand and earning profits for what should otherwise be legal (albeit morally questionable) goods and services. Their actual criminal activity – murders, turf wars, racketeering – results from the fact that competing providers (e.g. mafia “families”) cannot engage in open forms of competition for their services. Thus, organised crime cannot independently systematise the prevalence of physical enforcement, and should properly be considered as a product of the state.

Liberty and Conceptions of Human Nature

It is important to emphasise that the inherent truth of the choice that we outlined – between voluntary co-operation and physical enforcement – lies not in its conscious acknowledgment by political theorists but in the fact that it is derived from the nature of human beings as they are: that we are each an individual; that we think and reason as individuals; that we seek ends as individuals which can only be satisfied through our actions vis-à-vis scarce goods; and that ethics must take effect as resolutions to conflicts between individuals over these scarce goods, granting an exclusive right to one individual at the expense of another. Once we know this, we then know also that any political philosophy can take effect only as one (or some mixture) of these two options that we have outlined and, as a consequence, produce results that are fairly predictable either way.8

However, simply because we know of this nature and of the necessity of the choice that we have outlined does not mean that other philosophers have based theories upon an equal understanding upon this truth – or that their only concern is with, say, whether some people should be able to take goods from others, or profit at the expense of everyone else. There is a tendency amongst libertarians (and those on the right more generally) to assume that every statist and every advocate for some form of socialism is content to destroy the liberty of other people solely for his own personal enrichment or to benefit his particular cadre of cronies, feasting on caviar and champagne in the full knowledge that the masses are starving. True, enough, of course, there will be such “rent-seeking” leeches who explicitly wish to find legal methods of living off the backs of others. However, the phenomenon of concentrated benefits for the few is always the necessary product of increasing physical enforcement, not what is necessarily sought consciously. To assume that all of the threats to liberty are motivated in this way, starting from the same premises as we do, is to underestimate the problems that we face. In fact, the fight for liberty would probably be far easier if the sole fetish of every statist was to accumulate as much personal wealth for himself as possible in the full knowledge that he was heaping the cost onto other individuals.

In reality, the “ends” sought by any one individual – those that must be attained through either voluntary co-operation or physical enforcement – is actually a very broad category that encompasses both the material and the non-material. Many a political theorist has aimed not at the enrichment of either himself or a select few but at promulgating a certain moral code or the fulfilment of some cherished “vision” for humanity, a vision he may believe is truly good for everyone.

Austro-libertarians too have a vision, of course – one of peace, prosperity, and cultural enrichment that would benefit all human beings. Indeed, we have no desire for humanity to limit itself to measly subsistence on whatever nature has made immediately available to it; we know full well that humans can reach the stars if they so desire. The difference, however, is that Austro-libertarians build their vision from the bottom up on the nature of man as he actually is, anticipating the development of his progress and his institutions according to that nature and the nature of the world around him. This is true regardless of whether one’s enthusiasm for liberty is derived from the natural law or, like Ludwig von Mises, according to some form of utilitarianism:

The body of economic knowledge is an essential element in the structure of human civilization; it is the foundation upon which modern industrialism and all the moral, intellectual, technological, and therapeutical achievements of the last centuries have been built. It rests with men whether they will make the proper use of the rich treasure with which this knowledge provides them or whether they will leave it unused. But if they fail to take the best advantage of it and disregard its teachings and warnings, they will not annul economics; they will stamp out society and the human race.9

Mises’ lesson is clear: civilisation is dependent upon a grasp of economic truths, truths which derive from the fact that the nature of each individual human is to act purposefully.

Alternative visions, however, tend to aim instead at the realisation of some warped version of this nature, perhaps couched in terms of “escaping” man’s current predicament by moving him in ways above, beyond or contrary to his nature. Such a tendency – made often with abstract, amorphous and collectivising language – has a long history in political thought.10 It is especially clear, however, in the political Gnosticism of Karl Marx. His obsession to undo the capitalist “alienation” of man from the latter’s supposed “true nature” underpins the Marxist onslaught against the institutions of private property, the division of labour, the family and religion in order to achieve the “inevitable” establishment of the final state of communism: “the fusion of personal lives into one colossal whole, harmonious in the relations of its parts, systematically grouping all elements for one common struggle […] against the endless spontaneity of nature.” 11

In the twentieth century, this “transformation” became somewhat more reified in the form of the socialist “new man”, a kind of übermensch described in all of its absurdity by revolutionaries such as Leon Trotsky:

Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.12

and Ernesto “Che” Guevara:

The individual will reach total consciousness as a social being, which is equivalent to the full realization as a human creature, once the chains of alienation are broken. This will be translated concretely into the reconquering of one’s true nature through liberated labor, and the expression of one’s own human condition through culture and art. 13

In our modern secular and “progressive” political philosophies we see this tendency in guises such as the “original position” and the “veil of ignorance” of John Rawls – invented analytical tools that he uses in order to produce a desecrated, zombified version of human beings precisely so that they can be expected to “choose” the kind of societal structure that he wants, a structure that would then be superimposed onto human society as it actually is.14

A more familiar example is egalitarianism and the status that this has achieved in political discourse. While we all know full well that equality and equalisation have established themselves as political preoccupations, this underestimates their level of entrenchment. Committed egalitarians see equality not just as a mere goal that would be nice to have as part of a political manifesto; instead, they see it as the default status of humanity, i.e. the starting point from which any kind of inequality is to be considered an aberration of nature that must be either corrected or specifically justified. Rawls himself, no less, contributed much to this way of thinking through the suggestion that his lifeless wraiths behind the veil of ignorance would “acknowledge as the first step a principle of justice requiring an equal distribution. Indeed, this principle is so obvious given the symmetry of the parties that it would occur to everyone immediately.”15 The message is clear: equality is in no need of justification, and so if you are in favour of any inequality, you must be the absurd one in denial of the blindingly obvious. The repetition of this stance has had the unfortunate effect of placing anyone in favour of the kinds of inequality seen in the free market on the back foot. Instead of the egalitarians being tasked to justify why other people should get to take the wealth that we each produce, the burden of proof has somehow fallen upon us to explain why we should get to keep it (or why unequal outcomes generally are justified).16 Should these proofs fail then, conveniently enough, wealth is seemingly free to be distributed to the rest of “society” without further ado.

What we realise from these bastardisations of human nature is that, at best, they treat the individual (with his specific needs, wants and desires) as being not altogether important compared to the “loftier” goals and aspirations in the mind for the visionary. Indeed, we see this all the time in the global chess game of geopolitics in which the preoccupations of politicians on the so-called “world stage” are somehow translated into the “interests” of the entire countries which they lead. But at worst, such attitudes can assume that the individual doesn’t even really exist as an independently thinking, choosing and acting being. Instead, he takes his place as a mere cog in an amorphous blob of humanity which collectively has a direction, a drive and a purpose (a direction prescribed by the theorist himself, of course). Thus, in the mind of the visionary, the losses inflicted upon individuals when their property is confiscated (or their lives otherwise controlled) in order to fulfil his hair brained scheme are not considered to be losses as such, nor need they produce any significant consequences. Such an antithesis to methodological individualism has infected much of social scientific thought, which – in its eagerness to emulate the methods of the natural sciences – treats humans as akin to atoms or dead matter which respond to stimuli in a uniform, predictable and quantifiable manner. Needless to say this opens the door to all manners of social engineering, as if individual people are like girders that can be bent and shaped into a building or bridge of the theorist’s own design.

The difficulties that these visionaries always face, of course, is that – having pretended that the limits of nature do not exist when formulating their theories – they have to implement their grand designs in a world where this nature actually does exist. At the most basic level, if one believes passionately in a certain moral code then its advocates must choose between whether they will try to persuade people to adopt their social mores and way of life, or whether they will force them to abide by it. If, for instance, you wish society to adhere to a strict code of sexual ethics, will you try to educate people of the benefits of this code so that they may be encouraged to follow it voluntarily, or will you point guns at them as soon as anyone drops their trousers? More broadly, any scheme – whether its aim is material or non-material – must be implemented by way of the exclusive control of physical resources by some people in satisfaction of ends defined by them, to the exclusion of all other people. There is no way of escaping this fact of reality. Many times over it has been shown, for instance, that so-called “common ownership17” of resources or their devotion to a “common purpose” cannot literally mean that there is no disagreement or dispute between individuals as to how resources should be used (or that everyone can do whatever they want with a scarce good whenever he wants without running into conflict). Indeed, the very definition of a scarce good is that the supply is unable to fulfil all of the ends of every covetous individual. Rather, “common ownership” must take effect as some agents (i.e. a small oligarchy) controlling these resources and diverting them exclusively to the fulfilment of priorities defined by them, at the exclusion of all other competing wants and desires.

Rawls – by expunging from his agents all knowledge of their status, wealth, abilities and past history – demonstrates how easily a theorist can just assume away this reality of all conflicts and claims over goods and resources. For instance, let’s say that you have worked hard in order to produce a certain level of income in order to provide for the needs of your family. As you wipe the sweat from your brow in satisfaction of your effort, along comes Rawls to tell you that this income is no longer yours. Upon your demands to know why, our philosopher informs you that – had you been transported to his imaginary world of not having your needs, of not having your family and not having carried out all of that work – you “would have consented” to the redistribution of that income. But in the world as it is where you do have those things, are you likely to agree that justice has been served as Rawls’ goons snatch away the fruit of your labour to be gifted to some faceless Johnny-come-lately? The question practically answers itself. Indeed, the concept of choice is meaningless unless one assumes that an actor is in a real situation faced with a real dilemma. As one theorist explains:

Justification for imposing significant losses on someone cannot simply be that the loser would have consented to it behind the veil of ignorance. In no sense is it the loser’s choice; losers would not consent to that policy. […] It makes no sense at all to speak of choosing or consenting to something in the absence of knowledge of one’s personal social position, preferences, tastes, etc. The hypothetical choice of an ideal agent in ideal circumstances is in no sense any real agent’s choice, and therefore there seems to be no reason to talk about one’s hypothetical consent.18

Indeed, by positing an imaginary world, “losers” could be made to give “hypothetical consent” to almost anything. It would, for instance, be quite easy to suggest that a man should be stretched on the rack if we posit a world in which he feels no pain.

The similarly deluded egalitarians seem to believe that society consists not of purposefully acting individuals striving to fulfil their own goals; rather, to them, society is one, giant, amorphous being that labours to produce some kind of common “stockpile” which must then be distributed equally to its parts; or, if unequally, as a result of specifically demonstrable justifications for that inequality. But in the world as it actually is, individual humans unequal in terms of heritage, personal abilities and access to resources laboured for themselves and for their own ends under this state of inequality, accumulating wealth and property in a concomitantly unequal fashion long before any busybodying egalitarian turned up. Thus, it is actually inequality that is the default status of humans and the starting point for any conception of justice.19

Similar to egalitarians are those who believe that society and all social relations should be governed by pure altruism rather than by mutual benefit (or – shock, horror – by the motivation of “profit”). “From each according to his ability to each according to his needs,” one might say. Just as the egalitarian paints a world in which everybody is magically equal and content with his lot, the altruist posits an equally imaginary world in which everyone is flawlessly selfless and caring, motivated only by the desire to help others (or, at least, that they should aspire to such a state). In the real world, altruism as both a virtue and as a motivation towards action can, in general, thrive only at the very local level between people who are in each other’s immediate perception – i.e. family, friends, or the old lady whom you see needs help crossing the street. The closeness of these situations motivates the donor and the beneficiary towards a reciprocal relationship of generosity and gratitude, and, as such, altruism is really a personal and private matter more than a societal one. It can scarcely provide the impetus for the sustenance of a complex economy between many millions of people who will neither meet nor care each other. Indeed, the very genius of the marketplace is that it motivates people to serve the needs of countless others because, by doing so, they satisfy their own self-interested goals and desires simultaneously.

A final example more immediately relevant today is the pre-occupation of cultural leftists with the question of gender and biological sex, a topic that we have dealt with in more depth before. Suffice it to say here that the issue is similar to how egalitarians think that equality (instead of inequality) is the default status of humanity. If the very vast majority of people feel that their biological sex is determinative of their gender identity/role (and, as such, economic, social, cultural, and linguistic mores have crystallised around this fact for millennia) then we might say that binary gender identity is the default. If one accepts this, it leads to the natural conclusion that any other kind of gender identity/role is to be regarded as an exception to an otherwise general rule. In contrast, however, any attempt to a) sever biological sex from gender identify, b) blend or eradicate gender distinctions, or c) introduce other gender categories beyond the limits of male or female, suggests that it is gender neutrality (or gender fluidity) that is, in fact, the default from which all specific gender identities blossom. In other words, instead of being anchored by the physical sex of one’s body, every person is born in a kind of empty shell, or a genderless, blank canvas which can be gradually painted in whatever shade that individual desires. For anyone who takes this view it would seem obvious that one’s pronouns can simply be chosen (and must be specified), that we can refer to biological females as “people with a cervix” or “people who menstruate”, that “men can be mothers”, that a beautician serving women should wax testicles, that people can use whichever bathroom they desire, or that biological males can participate in sports events for biological females. But, of course, this attitude completely ignores the fact that traditional sex and gender distinctions are a reality for the vast majority of people, and thus – like the drive towards equality – it is attempting to impose on our world a conceptual framework that is suitable only for a very different world.

If political schemes display the kinds of ignorance of reality that we have outlined then we can see how likely it is for them to meet a wall of resistance fairly quickly. Thus, it is no coincidence that they have to resort to ever increasing bouts of physical enforcement which – if pursued without relent – will reach the level of terror and mass execution. Indeed, seers with warped visions are actually more dangerous than those who realise that they are, at base, just tax thieves living off the riches of others. It is no exaggeration to say that some of the most murderous regimes in history have been perpetrated not by those who thought they were doing evil but by zealots acting with the unshakeable conviction that they were a force for good. In their minds, a conception of morally justified ends (derived from false premises that they are convinced are true) in turn justifies any means to bring them about. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the saying goes.

How Liberty and Tyranny Become Manifest

What this exposition shows us is that social relations are determined by a plethora of competing visions and priorities with the result that liberty can either flourish or be crushed for many different reasons, and by peoples and movements who can appear in a number of different guises. In one era, the contest may be primarily religious or concerned with some other ideological battle; in another it may concern material welfare. While the basic choice between voluntary co-operation and physical enforcement is essentially a binary one, the consequence of this “competition” is that neither pure liberty nor pure tyranny is ever likely to be manifest. In other words, we are never likely to find pockets of total freedom neighbouring regimes of complete and utter despotism. Rather, any particular society will be weighed as being more or less of one than the other, as if we are looking at a spectrum on which extreme tyranny sits at the left and perfect liberty at the right, rather than at two, mutually exclusive options:

The competing forces or “visions” attempting to push a given society farther towards each end of the spectrum will have different degrees of success at different times. Surveying the whole of human history, there will be periods which we would place somewhere on the left hand side of the spectrum, such as the two World Wars; but there will be others where the co-operative spirit on the right hand side was dominant in tandem with physical enforcement having been reduced. The Industrial Revolution coupled with the relative peace and prosperity that was maintained in Europe between the Napoleonic Wars and World War One is probably the most obvious, recent example. Longer arching views may like to categorise the ascent of Western civilisation during pre-Reformation Christianity towards the Enlightenment as being predominantly on the right hand side of spectrum, while the subsequent decline into secularism, socialism and nation-statism as being on the left hand side (the present level of material progress notwithstanding). Similarly, we would also seek to categorise specific regimes – Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, British Hong Kong, the Holy Roman Empire, Revolutionary France or whatever – as being more or less towards one end of the spectrum than the other.

Such an analysis can also take place at both the de jure and the de facto levels. For instance, a small dictatorship may furnish its citizens with no legal guarantee of freedom whatsoever, stipulating that all persons and their property are subject to the dictator’s commands. Thus, we would be tempted to place such a regime on the left hand side of the spectrum. Yet, particularly in a small territory, the fact that it would take only a relatively small number of people to either leave or to exert pressure on the dictator may result in relatively few de facto infringements upon liberty. On the other hand, a large democracy may have all sorts of legal and constitutional protections of freedom, but the relative powerlessness of a single person out of millions of faceless and disconnected citizens means that liberty can, in practice, be infringed much more easily. Indeed, this is pretty much the state of affairs in the large, Western democracies.

It is also the case that competing forces are not necessarily trying to either save liberty on the one hand or to crush it on the other, as if the struggle could be defined as an easily identifiable group of “good” freedom fighters versus an equally easily identifiable group of “evil” despots. Rather, in addition to the rulers and the ruled, we also have to consider various other groups of those who wish to rule, with their aim being to displace the current rulers before crushing everyone with their own form of despotism. Indeed, the fact that the various factions who would destroy freedom are at odds with each other is actually a boon for libertarians, as they can often fight each other more effectively than we can fight them – and the more they have to do so the less time they have left to plunder everyone else.

Moreover, most of the ruled, in fact, consist not of anarchists trying to throw off every ruler but of people who wish to be ruled by at least someone. So even if these latter people happen to despise the current rulers they may be active champions of an alternative (even though they may be mistaken in this regard). In other words, most struggles – including those that are spoken of in terms of “freedom” vs “oppression” – will consist of contests between possible rulers and their supporters, with very few anarchists who wish to be ruled by nobody. This competition for rule can occur within states (various political parties and national movements); between the state’s donors and beneficiaries (who would each prefer for their own plans to be taken up ahead of someone else’s); and at the geopolitical level where it may be characterised more by trying to carve out global spheres of influence rather than a desire to rule directly each other’s territory (such as the rivalry between “capitalist” United States and the “communist” Soviet Union during the Cold War).

Unfortunately, what all of this means is that we have to keep an eye not only on the current regime but also on that which might replace it. For instance, while the dominant threat today appears to be globalism, establishment leftism and the digital dystopia of a “Great Reset”, these things actually represent an unpopular old empire that is collapsing and is desperate to cling onto power. Neither Joe Biden nor Klaus Schwab can fill an arena in the same way as Donald Trump can, and so this old cadre is likely to be swept away once people are finally no longer willing to tolerate its grip on power. Thus, in the long run, we may we may end up becoming more concerned with what comes to fill the resulting power vacuum than we are with the present power holders.

A final complication is that these competing factions can form tactical alliances or otherwise reach an informal congruence of interests at different points. Recently, for instance, what we refer to as “the left” in America – consisting actually of at least three groups: “establishment leftists” (Biden, Obama, Wall Street), “harder economic leftists” (Sanders, Warren, Ocasio-Cortez) and “harder cultural leftists” (BLM, Antifa) – was united against Donald Trump and the nationalist/populist/traditionalist fervour to which he gave a voice. Thus, until this year, it has been quite easy to regard these different factions as one big group. Such a view, however, would serve to mask the complex reality of different groups engaging in varying degrees of support for selected parts of their different agendas, producing a relationship of mutual exploitation rather than fraternal co-operation.

For instance, establishment leftists, i.e. the existing power holders, have co-opted various elements of the harder leftists (such as identity politics and the denigration of western society generally) in order to weaken people’s adherence to traditional, non-state institutions as well as to sow division and antagonism in a “divide and conquer” fashion. In turn, the harder leftists have been able to promulgate “cancel culture” and political violence knowing full well that they will be met with minimal resistance from the official state apparatus. Similarly, establishment leftists are unlikely to embrace the fundamentally anti-human and pro-poverty fervour of the hardcore rump of the environmentalist movement, but the promotion of that movement’s narrative of a “climate emergency” allows them to bring more of the world’s industry and resources under state control. Thus, different groups can “borrow” from each other’s ideologies in order to provide a veneer for an underhand goal – a tendency that is not unusual given that systematised physical enforcement can achieve sustained acceptance only through lies and deceit.

Of course, once uniting factors disappear (or when a group is otherwise no longer useful to another) the informal relationship can break down. But even before that point is reached one group has the ability to act in a way that threatens or undermines the interests of another group. As such, different groups can display between themselves a conflicting mixture of simultaneous empathy, admiration, support, hatred, distrust, and conflict which can often make it difficult to assess the political reality and where the biggest dangers lie. Or, at least, emphasising one danger at the expense of another may serve to divert too much attention away from the latter.

Recently, for instance, we have seen how Western politicians have emulated the Chinese state in imposing lockdowns, a fact which betrays a likely admiration for the kind of control and regimentation of society that the Chinese Communist Party is able to impose upon the Chinese people. This has raised an awareness of the danger of the Chinese state and its influence in Western institutions. At the same time, however, China’s geopolitical rise is a threat to American-led global hegemony, with the result that it is seen also as an enemy. Should the latter come to dominate the pre-occupations of Western politicians, it would be a disaster if our domestic regimes deflected attention from themselves by exploiting anti-Chinese sentiment and painting the major threat to Western liberty as being of Sino-origin.20 Unfortunately, this has happened at least twice before with communism and Islamic terrorism – external threats the exaggerated perception of which led to the bloated military and security state at home which has now become a far bigger threat than the problems they were intended to solve.

Conclusion

In Part One of this series of essays, we opened with a quotation from Joseph R Peden, a colleague of Murray N Rothbard in the 1970s:

[T]he libertarian revolution is not the work of a day – or a decade – or a lifetime. It is a continuous process through the ages. […] There is a tendency among many libertarians to look for an apocalyptic moment when the State will be smashed forever and anarchy prevail. When they realize that the great moment isn’t about to come in their time, if ever, they lose faith in the integrity and plausibility of the libertarian philosophy […] Such attitudes are naive and not [to be] expected from mature sophisticated men of learning […] libertarianism can quite easily become merely an adolescent fantasy in minds that are immature and unseasoned by a broad humanistic understanding. It should not be an idée fixe or magic formula, but a moral imperative with which one approaches the complexities of social reality.” 21

By showing how and why it is that liberty can come to be infringed (and by whom), we are in a better position to understand precisely what it is that Peden meant: that, far from being a grand, monolithic battle that will one day culminate in a decisive victory, the fight for liberty is fragmented, heterogenous and ongoing. For as long as we remain human there will always be a multilateral tug of war between the desire for systematised physical enforcement and the desire for systematised voluntary co-operation. Thus, while the “anarchistic paradise” of pure, voluntary co-operation should also remain in our minds as the goal (and the only justifiable form of social organisation), success or failure should not be judged according to whether we achieve it in full across the entire world. Indeed, even if we did, the temptation to relapse towards a regime of physical enforcement is always going to be there, and we can never guarantee that it will have been permanently defeated. In fact, it’s probably true to say that liberty is at its most vulnerable when it is at its height and, thus, taken for granted; conversely, it could be about to blossom into a renaissance after a nadir of despotism in which people have realised what they have lost.22

Realistically, therefore, we are probably destined to live through periods of greater and lesser freedom, oscillating between the extremes on the spectrum we depicted above. Our task as libertarians is to motivate people towards the freer end of the spectrum as much as we possibly can. This motivation and how it might be achieved will be the subject matter of the remaining parts of this essay series.

*    *     *     *     *

Notes

1The threat to use force qualifies also. However, in the same way that opening a door is the commencement of the act of walking into a room, a threat to use force is properly defined as the commencement of a forceful act rather than a separate, antecedent act. See our previous essay on legal wrongs in a libertarian society.

2A third option – leaving other humans alone entirely – is also a possibility, but, by definition, is a practice which has no impact on liberty and, in any case, is confined to a tiny minority of hermits.

3Franz Oppenheimer, Der Staat, Free Life Editions (1975), 12.

4The fact that systematised methods of exploitation such as the state allow their effects to be offloaded onto a myriad of people who are neither seen nor heard has served greatly to diminish, in people’s minds. the moral weight opposing the choice of physical enforcement. It is much easier to accept, say, a welfare payment when it is funded by “the rich” or by any number of anonymous people whom you will never meet; conversely, it is much more difficult to know that you are picking the pocket of your next door neighbour.

5Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan (1660), Chapter XIII.

6Indeed, given that the subject matter of social science is human society, its discovery of facts and laws should take the form of articulating that which people already know rather than the conveyance of completely fresh knowledge. The law that a fall in price raises demand, for instance, can be comprehended immediately as a result of our everyday experience of shopping for bargains.

7Interestingly, the essence of anarchy is the opposition to any kind of rule imposed by force, promoting instead order through voluntary co-operation. And yet a state of anarchy is typically regarded as chaos and lawlessness. If the latter was the case then anarchy would be better regarded either as the state of nature or as a subset of physical enforcement, rather than of its true category of voluntary co-operation. This mis-categorisation shows how successful statist rhetoric has been at denigrating alternatives to state imposed orders.

8Or, to put it another way, the implementation of every political programme is necessarily constrained by this choice, and the likely effects of such a choice can be determined in advance.

9Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, The Scholars’ Edition, Ludwig von Mises Institute (1998), 881.

10Murray N Rothbard, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Volume II: Classical Economics, Edward Elgar Publishing (1995), 299-313.

11Quoted in Ibid. 319; Cf. Frank van Dun, Natural Law, Liberalism and Christianity, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 15, No. 3 (Summer 2001), 1-36 at 16-19.

12Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution (1924), Ch. 8.

13Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Man and Socialism in Cuba, letter to Carlos Quijano (1965).

14Rawls is candid enough to admit that he defines the “original position” so as to achieve his “desired solution”: John Rawls, A Theory of Justice – Revised Edition, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (1999), 122.

15Ibid, 130.

16Rawls, again, entrenches this logic with his so-called “difference principle” – the notion that economic and social inequalities should be arranged so that they are of the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society.

17An oxymoron – “common” is inclusive whereas “ownership” is exclusive; a good cannot be both simultaneously.

18Mikko Wennberg, Modeling Hypothetical Consent, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 17, No. 3 (Summer 2003), 17-34 at 32 [emphasis in the original].

19As such, while there is benefit in justifying inequality explicitly, it is not advocates of freedom who should bear the burden of proof by, say, having to show that unequal incomes are in some way “deserved”. Rather, what must be justified is any attempt to interfere with the existing state of inequality.

20A factor which would also strengthen the CCP in China as a result of them, in turn, being able to paint the West as an external threat.

21Joseph R Peden, Liberty: From Rand to Christ, in Joseph R Peden (Pub.), Murray N Rothbard (Ed.), The Libertarian Forum, July – August 1971, Vol. III, nos. 6-7, 3-4 at 4.

22The rapid increase in prosperity during the nineteenth century – so rapid it could have been experienced during a single lifetime – would have left most people in 1900 feeling that human civilisation was on a permanent, upward trajectory. Few – among them Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, a leading anti-Marxist critic of the seeping socialism of the time – foresaw the horrors of world war and communism around the corner. Fast forward ninety years and few could have equally predicted the rapid demise of communist rule in Eastern Europe.

4 thoughts on “How to Fight for Liberty, Part Two – The Nature of the Battle

  1. Duncan,

    It’s interesting that you and I have both been thinking recently about John Rawls’ “original position” thought experiment. My take is that this thought experiment, used most commonly by enemies of freedom to argue for forced equality of outcome (particularly in the economic sphere), can actually be adapted in support of almost any kind of equality one chooses to posit. For example, I have used it as an argument for political equality; in John Locke’s words, “A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.” I’ve even adapted it further to argue for ethical equality, i.e.: What is right for one to do, is right for another to do under similar circumstances, and vice versa. The interesting thing about this kind of equality is that, by precluding any individual or group from having moral privileges over others (like a sovereign being privileged to make laws to bind the subjects, and not to be held accountable for what it does), it actually negates the basic principle on which the “Westphalian” political state is founded!

    One general point, which pervades the whole essay. You make the assumption that liberty is no more than not being coerced by physical force. I think it’s rather more than that. There are bad things the state does to us, which don’t involve physical force, or even threat of physical force. Setting up cameras all over the place to spy on us as we walk or drive around is an example. In my view, this is still a violation of our rights (I guess that makes me what some call a “thick” libertarian). This doesn’t make your arguments here any less compelling, by the way; but it means you have to restrict the subject matter to those violations of rights which do involve force or threat of force.

    And I agree with your point that it’s wrong to ascribe, to those that wish to take away the liberty of others, a motive of selfishness only. Just as often, if not more so, there is a desire to hurt people. I don’t think Pol Pot, for example, committed genocide out of a desire to enrich himself and his cronies! It’s important for well-meaning people to understand that those that want to restrict or destroy liberty are often fundamentally bad, in ways which go well beyond mere selfishness. Most of them, in my view, are psychopaths.

    • Re. Rawls, yes, it can be used to justify almost anything, even without redefining his criteria. It’s an unhelpful framework.

      “Setting up cameras all over the place to spy on us as we walk or drive around is an example.”

      Are these cameras not funded out of confiscated tax revenue? Has the state not installed them on public highways and paths, the provision of which is a state enforced monopoly which leaves you with little choice but to use them? Are these not all physical incursions?

      “Most of them, in my view, are psychopaths.”

      And megalomaniacs!

      • Good that we agree on Rawls, and on the essential characteristics of our enemies.

        My point on the cameras was that the spying itself is a violation of rights, over and above the violations they committed in order to get the spy-machines up there in the first place.

  2. Pingback: How to Fight for Liberty, Part Three – Inspiration and Motivation | The Ludwig von Mises Centre

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