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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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. Continue reading



By Duncan Whitmore

The recent resurgence of the dollar price of Bitcoin in tandem with a steady decline in that of gold presents us with an opportune moment to assess the quality of cryptocurrencies (CCs) as a potential monetary medium of the future. The question becomes all the more pressing once we remember that the current order of state induced inflationary finance is likely approaching its end, a prime factor in governments seeking to assert greater degrees of control over their populations.

Although this essay will mainly be sceptical of CCs as a monetary medium, we should remember that the primary concern of libertarians is with unshackling monetary control from the state, and, thus, in promoting the freedom of money. This means that the most suitable monetary medium should emerge from voluntary trading in the marketplace, in much the same way as language emerged as a result of individual people trying to communicate. Precisely which commodity/ies will be selected as a result of this process is of secondary importance. There is, therefore, no need for libertarians qua libertarians to be particularly fixated upon, for instance, either gold or the gold standard, as many are wont to do. While gold would be far superior to state fiat money, it is not without disadvantages for the consumer. In particular, the relatively high value of very small quantities of gold makes it less suitable for day-to-day transactions compared to, say, silver or copper. In fact, this circumstance meant that the shift, during the nineteenth century, to the predominance of gold as the monetary medium at the expense of other metals necessitated a much wider use of money substitutes (e.g. bank notes) and the consolidation of the metal itself in bank vaults, well out of the public’s hands. This paved the way to the complete severance of the substitutes from the gold that backed them, leaving us with the 100%, state controlled paper standard from which we suffer today.1 Circumventing this state control is the priority. If this is achieved by CCs rather than by gold or by any other precious metal then no crypto-sceptic libertarian should cut off his nose to spite his face merely because his personally preferred alternative to state fiat money has failed to gain preference. Continue reading

How to Fight for Liberty, Part One – Theory and Politics

How to Fight for Liberty, Part One – Theory and Politics

By Duncan Whitmore

“[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.”

                        – Joseph R Peden1

If one was pressed to choose the words which have been the most influential to one’s personal commitment to liberty, it would, for me, be the passage from which this quotation was lifted. For one thing, the reality that Peden paints maintains a healthy balance: the struggle to achieve a freer world is a long and difficult one that will not be won in any quick victory, but such a long term view helps to insulate one from the myopia of frustrating day-to-day problems thrown at us by the twenty-four hour news cycle. Indeed, I have often returned to these words whenever the clouds of despotism have gathered in a particularly angry shade of grey – a not infrequent occurrence during the past year or so.

The main reason for their importance , however, is that they have been a consistent impetus towards thinking and rethinking about how a freer world will be brought about. Indeed, it is interesting to note that the passage comes not from one of the tomes of Austro-libertarian literature (Peden was not a great scholar) but from a 1971 article in The Libertarian Forum magazine, the publication initiated by Peden and Murray N Rothbard in the late 1960s in order to cater for the growing libertarian movement. Its aim at a popular, rather than scholarly audience is more than symbolic, because such an audience provides the key to so much about how to fight for liberty in the real world – and the key to why modern libertarians have struggled with this endeavour.

This is the first part in a series of essays which will attempt to challenge some (unacknowledged) assumptions with regards to the way in which libertarians think about their philosophy, its relationship to political activism, and the criteria for success. What will emerge is not a precise blueprint for political activism, but we can hope to re-orientate our thinking so that the groundwork for a more successful path can be laid. To avoid undue length, we will endeavour to deal with only one major topic in each essay.

In this part, we will deal with the fact that, while most libertarians realise that their philosophy is radically different from political philosophies which use/accommodate/excuse/justify the state, they have been comparatively slow to realise that this radical differentiation should apply also to their political activism. Continue reading

Speculation, Human Action and Financial Markets

Speculation, Human Action and Financial Markets

By Duncan Whitmore

Within the past two weeks, retail investors congregating on the social media site Reddit bid up the stock of ailing company GameStop at the expense of large Wall Street hedge funds, all of whom had significant financial stakes reliant upon the price of the stock falling rather than rising. Several of these hedge funds were thrown into serious financial difficulty as a result of the price rocketing from around $20 a share to a high of nearly $400 in the space of only a few weeks. At the time of writing, the day traders have apparently turned their attention to the manipulated silver market, which is also starting to see significant gains. Fed up with a rigged casino market in which all of the spoils go to large Wall Street banks and financial firms, the amateurs appeared to have beaten the latter at their own game – at least, that is, in terms of having forced them to reveal the corrupt nature of the system if not in monetary profit.

This latest round in the battle of the populists vs the elitists is part of the ongoing collapse and rejection of inflationary state corporatism (the Western form of socialism that was birthed by World War One) and political globalism. Every blow that is dealt to this odious, oligarchic system – such as by Brexit and Trump – is one to be welcomed. However, whereas outright socialism (such as that practised in the former Soviet Union) entails direct state ownership over the means of production, the corporatist system operates through capitalistic facades such as nominally private businesses, free trade and exchange, stock markets, and so on. As a result, the socialised elements of our economic system have, for too long, been able to get away with offloading the blame for the problems they cause onto “capitalism” or “too much freedom” instead of the root cause which is state privilege and state interference with genuine private property rights. Indeed, that was exactly what happened after the housing market crash in 2008, with the whole fiasco being blamed on “greedy”, private bankers instead of the state induced, inflationary financial system. The long run result of our failure to identify the state as the true source of the problems has been that state failure has been rewarded with state growth.

Unfortunately, therefore, it is not enough for libertarians to simply cheer on the demise of the current, rotten system. In addition, we have to ensure that the proper enemy is identified and outed as state force and fraud, not the capitalistic institutions through which they operate. We must keep an eye not only on the current crop of elites, but also the circling vultures of popular, hard left politicians such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will be poised to blame everything indiscriminately on “capitalism” before advocating for total economic socialism as the answer.1 It would be a complete disaster if we were to allow one form of tyranny to be succeeded by another. Indeed, even the so-called “Great Reset” – which, far from being any kind of “revolution” or “renewal”, is actually a repackaging and rebranding of the present system in a far more potent form – is being sold as a reset of capitalism, the latter of which has supposedly failed us. Continue reading

It’s Time to Stop Despairing

It’s Time to Stop Despairing

By Duncan Whitmore

It is difficult not to feel despondent when considering the enormous loss of liberty that has been inflicted by government lockdown policies in response to COVID-19. This despair has been compounded for many on the right by the final failure of Donald Trump’s attempt to challenge November’s presidential election result, together with the sudden, panicked attempt to remove him from office just days before his term expires, as well as the purging of him and prominent cheerleaders from social media. In this vein, the following quotations – all from prominent libertarians or conservative-libertarians – are not unrepresentative:

“2021 is going to be worse than 2020. Sorry”

“You ain’t seen nothing yet: the worst is yet to come”

“The lockdown is permanent, get used to it. It is all about political control. NOBODY HEALTHY IS DYING.”

It is true that any opponents of lockdown policies need to have a realistic grasp of why these draconian policies have been resorted to and how the situation is likely to pan out. Indeed, enough is now known about COVID-19 for us to be well past the point of lending the state the benefit of the doubt in its decision to continue with those policies. Thus, explanations other than the protection of health must be sought.

Nevertheless, the amount of time spent despairing is beginning to come at the expense of time that could be spent working out how to fight back. Happily, Sean Gabb has helped to buck the trend by offering some reasons as to why the past year has not been all that bad. While Gabb acknowledges that his personal circumstances have contributed much to his relatively sanguine view, it is, nevertheless, a refreshing counterbalance to the torrent of doomerism that seems to be erupting from the right. Continue reading