How to Fight for Liberty, Part Five – Conservatism


How to Fight for Liberty, Part Five – Conservatism

By Duncan Whitmore

In Part Four of this continuing series of Fighting for Liberty, we explored the nature of radicalism and its value for the fight for freedom. In this part, we will do the same for conservatism before concluding with some final remarks on reconciling conservatism with radicalism as part of a libertarian political strategy.

While a precise definition of conservatism is debatable, it seems reasonable enough to summarise it as a preference for traditional customs, conventions, cultures, and morality in addition to the institutions which uphold them. Contrary to the popular view of conservatism as rigid and uncompromising, it is not averse to change; the dedicated conservative is not trying to trap humanity in a time warp. He does, however, recognise that existing institutions – standing on the shoulders of centuries of human experience – must provide the starting point for any prospective change. In the words of Edward Feser, paraphrasing J L Austen: “[T]hough tradition […] might not always give us the last word, it must always give us the first word.”1 As such, change is likely to be relatively slow and undertaken within an evolutionary “arc of continuity”, with each new building block placed carefully upon one underneath instead of demolishing the entire foundation in revolutionary fervour. Another, more explicitly pro-freedom way of describing it, is a preference for “spontaneous” or “organic” order generated gradually by millions of individuals as opposed to consciously engineered order from the centre.

In the last part, we noted that libertarians – in contrast to Marxists and social engineers – simply do not have the option of demolition, of wiping the societal slate clean before merely “hoping” that liberty will prevail as the dust settles. Thus, adherence to conservatism in the manner described may assist the libertarian movement in two ways:

  • It can help to nourish the non-state institutions that would be necessary to support social co-operation in the absence of the state, sensitising us to the level of cultural diversity that a given society can sustain;
  • Given that liberty has flourished in the Western world more extensively than in any other, we should look to the specific cultural and institutional history of the West to determine why this is so.2

To at least some extent, therefore, we can see that libertarians need to adopt conservative attitudes.

However, it is abundantly clear that any efforts of modern conservatism to preserve freedom have been an abysmal failure, and if such conservatives today identify with freedom at all then it is either residual or in name only. In the UK, for instance, we are saddled with a governing Conservative Party that has not only implemented the greatest peacetime power grab in history as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns, but is seemingly committed to vast state spending, the rampant greening of the economy, and the authoritarian policing of speech and censorship. While, therefore, such conservatism cannot be our model, it is useful to understand how it arrived at where it is so that libertarians can avoid its pitfalls if they are to adopt conservative attitudes as part of their strategy.

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Review: “Say No to Racism: Tips and Advice on How to be Anti-Racist” by Rasha Barrage


Review: Say No to Racism: Tips and Advice on How to be Anti-Racist by Rasha Barrage1

By Duncan Whitmore

Note: Unless specified otherwise, numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers of the reviewed text.

Libertarians are likely to groan at the title of this short book by Rasha Barrage. Surely, we can surmise, this will just be the product of another race baiting shill reminding us of the uniquely evil and oppressive nature of predominantly white, Western civilisation? However, Say No to Racism (SNR) should not be dismissed quite so lightly; for although this reviewer cannot agree with the conceptual framework with which Barrage approaches questions of racism, her intellectual integrity together with her general approach towards achieving the resolution of a social problem is something from which all of those who seek social and political change (including libertarians) could learn a thing or two.

For one thing, the author is sincere in her attempt to achieve reconciliation resulting in peaceful co-existence and social harmony. In contrast to those whose aim is to exploit, rather than to resolve, alleged racial injustice, Barrage is not interested in stirring up hatred and antagonism, nor is there any hidden, cultural leftist agenda.

Bolstering this is the fact that the book puts some of its own advice (72, 102) into practice directly through Barrage’s exclusion of both herself and her own experiences from her message, nor does she make any attempt to establish her own credentials as an activist. This is not unimportant because ‘fashionable’ social justice causes today seem to be something of a lucrative cottage industry in which thinkers can be paid multi-thousand dollar speaking fees, elevated to professorial fellowships at Cambridge, or attract the ear of large corporations – a far cry from a life of persecution, ostracism, isolation, bouts of imprisonment, or (at worst) assassination endured by, say, Martin Luther King Jr or Nelson Mandela. Not only does this circumstance undermine directly the narrative of under-privilege and injustice, but there is an obvious conflict of interest if continuing activism is needed to sustain one’s livelihood or status. By avoiding this, one can be confident that Barrage’s thoughts are firmly centred on ideas which she has considered rationally and, thus, deserve to be taken at their word. Moreover, although, as the title suggests, the book is a brief ‘digest’ intended for a lay audience rather than an academic shelf-bender, the author is clearly well informed on the theories that she summarises, and so I trust it is not out of place to scrutinise them at this higher level.

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Finding the State’s Achilles’ Heel


Finding the State’s Achilles’ Heel

By Duncan Whitmore

One of the consequences of the state’s insidious corruption of truth and knowledge – and, thus, a stumbling block in our efforts to make sense of the world – is the failure to identify relevant causes.

Causation is a difficult subject in both the natural and social sciences. For any one event there are thousands of preceding events that could be labelled as possible causes. Take, for instance, the falling of an apple from a tree so that it hits the ground. This would not have occurred without the ripening of the apple, the onset of summer, the watering of the tree, the planting of the tree, nor without the fertility of the soil. Technically, the creation of the universe is a cause of absolutely everything that has ever happened. But which of these, if we wish to understand the event, should be regarded as the relevant cause, the one from which we could truly deduce the existence of a relationship of cause and effect? Such difficulty can be compounded when there are multiple relevant causes, as is often the case with transportation accidents such as plane and train crashes – an unthinkable, but lethal combination of circumstances that unite to produce a catastrophic effect.

For humans, our understanding of cause and effect is praxeological, i.e. is intimately connected to our role as actors. Whenever we investigate causation, our primary interest is in what we would want to do in order to divert the course of history towards either bringing about or preventing a given event, and how such actions would affect the satisfaction of all of our ends with available means. As such, the identity of a relevant cause is heavily tied to the costs and benefits of a given action.

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Liberty and Truth – Why Statists should Bear the Burden of Proof


Liberty and Truth – Why Statists should Bear the Burden of Proof

By Duncan Whitmore

During the admittedly few years in which I have been writing on Austro-libertarian topics, one matter on which I have not put pen to paper is the justification for liberty as a fundamental political principle. I have spent much time pointing out the effects and implications of liberty (and of alternative orders) on a wide range of issues from free trade to sound money, from law to culture, and from immigration to the NHS; for many readers, these will, I hope, be persuasive. But what is the one, big reason that elevates liberty head and shoulders above all forms of statism and socialism as the just cause towards which we should strive? Which argument would blow out of the water any attempt to establish tyranny and despotism? Why have I never attempted anything of this magnitude?

One reason for this apparent omission is that I am yet to think of something that I could say on the topic that has not been said elsewhere, and better. Rather than wasting the reader’s time by repeating what has been written before, I prefer to confine my own writing to matters on which I feel as though I am making at least some kind of new contribution, however small.

To be frank, though, the overriding reason derives from an intuitive sense of repulsion triggered by interfering do-gooders and busybodies: that is, if I am getting on with my life peacefully and quietly, my instinctive reaction to the appearance of some prying meddler is that he should mind his own business. Moreover, I do not see this as a one sided obligation: I am quite willing to return the favour by minding my own business when it comes to the affairs of other people. In fact, I couldn’t care less about what other people are doing with their own lives so long as it isn’t bothering me. Such an instinctive “live and let live” attitude is, no doubt, the initial impetus that drives most libertarians towards the philosophy of liberty.

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How to Fight for Liberty, Part Four – Radicalism


How to Fight for Liberty, Part Four – Radicalism

By Duncan Whitmore

In the previous instalments of this continuing series on how to fight for liberty, we have been emphasising the fact that our political strategy needs to focus on motivating people away from sustaining social structures which rely on physical enforcement (such as the state) and towards those which are generated instead by voluntary co-operation.

Based upon what we learnt in Part Three, the essence of this task is captured in a quotation attributed to G K Chesterton:

We do not need good laws to restrain bad men. We need good men to restrain bad laws.

In Part One, we drew a distinction between libertarian theory on the one hand and libertarian political action on the other. We determined that the province of libertarian theory is to define and justify liberty. For instance, a private property order defines a polity in which liberty is the overriding principle of justice; the non-aggression principle determines which acts do and do not infringe upon liberty; and “free market capitalism” defines the economic condition of liberty. However, neither repeating these definitions nor delineating the institutions that could form a free society – the latter of which we explored in Part Three – is enough to make them a reality. For this, the purpose of libertarian political action is to achieve this critical aspect of motivation.

Applying this distinction to Chesterton’s words, we might say that the purpose of libertarian theory is to determine good laws; the purpose of libertarian political action, on the other hand, is to encourage good men. By this, we do not mean the creation of some kind of idealised, libertarian “new man” as the equal opposite of the socialist “new man” envisaged by the kinds of statist philosophy we discussed in Part Two. Rather, it simply means that liberty, and the sustenance of just laws, is ultimately dependent upon the fervour of the people to preserve their freedom.

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In Defence of the Bright Line – Aggression and Harm in the Digital Age


In Defence of the Bright Line – Aggression and Harm in the Digital Age

By Duncan Whitmore

In a recent discussion concerning the regulation of so-called “Big Tech”, Jeff Deist has raised the question of whether the proliferation of digital technology requires us to reconsider the traditional, libertarian conception of unlawfulness:

The larger question for libertarians is whether their existing conceptions of property rights, harms, torts, and free speech still work in a thoroughly digital era. Principles may not change, but facts and circumstances certainly do. Rothbard’s strict paradigm for what ought to constitute actionable force, especially as discussed in part II of The Ethics of Liberty, requires some kind of physical invasion of person or property. In doing so, Rothbard necessarily distinguishes between aggression (legally actionable) and the broader idea of “harm.” The former gives rise to tort liability in Rothbardian/libertarian law; the latter is part of the vicissitudes of life and must be endured. Theorists like Professor Walter Block and Stephan Kinsella have expanded on this “physical invasion” rule, applying it to everything from blackmail to defamation to (so-called) intellectual property. Aggression against physical persons or property creates a legally actionable claim, mere harm does not.

But Rothbard’s bright-line rule seems unsatisfying in our digital age. If anything, the complexity of modern information technology and the pace of innovation make the case against bright-line tests. For one thing, the sheer scale of instantaneous information ought to inform our view of aggression vs. harm. A single (false) tweet stating “famous person X is a pedophile” could reach hundreds of millions of people in a day, ruining X’s life forever. This is a bit worse than a punch to X’s nose in a bar fight, to put it mildly.

To avoid taking these remarks out of context, it should be noted that the main purpose of Deist’s article is to reject the option of a “sclerotic federal bureaucracy” resolving problems created by digital technology, in favour of evolutionary regulation arising from the adjudication of real cases. As such, one suspects that Deist is thinking out loud so as to raise possible issues rather than constructing a carefully considered argument regarding the scope of actionable harm. Nevertheless, he does reach an unqualified conclusion:

Libertarians and conservatives should broaden their conceptions of tort and contract remedies, and support the evolution of what constitutes harm in a digital era.

Given such certainty, a detailed examination of the matters that Deist raises is warranted.

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How to Fight for Liberty, Part Three – Inspiration and Motivation


How to Fight for Liberty, Part Three – Inspiration and Motivation

By Duncan Whitmore

“From all these indignities, such as the very beasts of the field would not endure, you can deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free. Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces.”  

                   – Étienne de la Boétie1

In this third part of our continuing series on how to fight for liberty, we will build on our conclusion in Part Two that liberty depends primarily on people being motivated to reduce systematised forms of physical enforcement (i.e. the state), and to turn instead towards systematised forms of voluntary co-operation. Our task here is to try and orient ourselves onto this factor as the focus of a political strategy.

One of the questions that any advocate of a free society is asked time and time again is “how can a free society work?” What the enquirer wishes to know is, absent the state, which institutions will guarantee law and order, how will they be sustained, and how will we know that they will succeed? Often implicit, of course, is the presumption that a free society is a hopelessly impossible experiment doomed to failure – a presumption that is usually deemed to be confirmed if, no matter how good his argument otherwise, the libertarian is unable to furnish a satisfactory answer to a just a single part of this enquiry.

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