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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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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Liberty and the Swedish Example


Liberty and the Swedish Example

By Duncan Whitmore

“Many are irresistibly attracted to liberty as an intellectual system or as an aesthetic goal, but liberty remains for them a purely intellectual parlor game, totally divorced from what they consider the ‘real’ activities of their daily lives. Others are motivated to remain libertarians solely from their anticipation of their own personal financial profit […] The consequence of the narrow and myopic vision of both the gamester and the would-be profit maker is that neither group has the slightest interest in the work of building a libertarian movement. And yet it is only through building such a movement that liberty may ultimately be achieved.”

                  –  Murray N Rothbard1

In the five decades or so since these words were written, we have been able to come to a more precise conception of what the “libertarian movement” should be and what it should do. As we have explained before, efforts to bring about a world in which a greater degree of freedom prevails are unlikely to be successful if we rely solely on the promotion of abstract concepts (such as “non-aggression”) – indeed, it is difficult to think of a more insipid rallying cry than “leave people alone”. Although there are particular moral propositions and personal qualities that are likely requirements for the sustenance of any free society, freedom is synonymous with self-determination – that different individuals, families, communities and nations will pursue their own goals based upon their own values. It is these varying pursuits themselves (embedded in the culture, custom and traditions of differing peoples throughout the world) which are likely to be the motivating factor, with liberty being the vehicle for their achievement rather than the end itself. Indeed, when we look to the inspirations that motivated some of the greatest authors, poets, artists and composers, they often chose to capture the essence of their homelands in their works: the “Sceptred Isle” speech of John of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s Richard II; Blake’s Jerusalem; Monet’s Sunrise; Smetana’s Má Vlast; Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony, to name but a few. In contrast, we might be waiting a very long time for “A Non-Aggression Symphony” or the “Ballad of Private Property”. Or, to give a sporting metaphor, we can look upon liberty as the pitch, but not the game. The turf needs to be laid and the grass watered and mown, but the motivation to do these things is the thrill of the match that will be played. Continue reading

The Left’s Exploitation of Race


The Left’s Exploitation of Race

By Duncan Whitmore

Nearly two years ago, the present writer published on this blog an essay concerning how gullible leftists are whipped up into frenzies of hysteria for the purposes of fulfilling a political agenda often only loosely connected to the problems of which they complain. An example we gave was the leftist outrage at Donald Trump’s supposed racism and misogyny, allegations which are raised solely because of the wider threat that Trump poses to the mantra of globalisation and a US hegemonic world. Absent that threat, none of the 45th President’s alleged affronts against women and other races would have seen the light of day. Fast forward to today and the protests, riots, and looting following the killing, by a Minnesota policeman, of a black man whom he was apprehending, have demonstrated this useful idiocy – fuelled also, no doubt, by the economic frustrations of younger, university educated middle classes whom the COVID lockdowns may have driven over the edge – to an even wider extent.

Regardless of the specific images of rioting and violence with which we were greeted last weekend, it is probably the case that the vast majority of those who took part in the protesting feel that they care, quite genuinely, for what they perceive to be the plight of African-Americans. It is typical for libertarians, and the right genuinely, to paint all leftists as dyed-in-the wool Marxists hell-bent on destroying Western civilisation, but we should remember that many of them are themselves victims of years of indoctrination by their schools, universities and mainstream media which presented them with a wall of unbridled, hegemonic leftism. Indeed, we have to hope that they are not all committed fanatics immune to reasoned rebuttals of the leftist monologue, for if they are then our cause may well be lost. A handful of personal acquaintances of mine who drift around the left but who have, other than minor mutterings about Brexit and Boris, scarcely uttered a political statement in their lives, have, within the last few weeks, unloaded a deluge of social media condemnation of police brutality and decrying “institutional racism”, all with the “#blacklivesmatter” hashtag. A few even donned placards and took part in the protesting. True enough, most will be content to merely virtue signal rather than do anything that actually makes a real difference, and most have already reverted to posting “selfies” and worrying about the fact they cannot get a haircut during the COVID-19 lockdown. But they are not fundamentally bad people. Continue reading

Liberty and Society – a Reply to Ben Lewis


Liberty and Society – a Reply to Ben Lewis

By Duncan Whitmore

In a recent post on this blog, the present writer offered an explanation as to why the intellectual accomplishments of Austro-libertarians have been disproportionate to their relatively meagre success in effecting real world change. We concluded that the attempt to merely spread ideas of the justice of non-aggression and the truth of “Austrian” economics is, in spite of its importance, not enough. Libertarians must also learn how to mould these ideas so that they speak to people’s aspirations within the prevailing conditions in which they live.

In a short post on the blog of Bastion Magazine – a relatively new publication which shares similar intellectual and political priorities to those of Mises UK – Ben Lewis has chimed in with something similar, addressing what he calls “the inconsistency of libertarian consistency” – that while conservatives, according to him, concede that libertarianism is a more logically consistent philosophy, this feature does not necessarily make the latter a superior system of thought should it be also inconsistent with “the real life nature of man and society”. These sentiments are in the same vain as three of his earlier blog posts where he discusses voluntary social relations, social duties and his reasons for being a conservative.1

To be fair to Lewis, not every view examined in this essay is necessarily one that he has stated explicitly and it would be wrong to ascribe to him a belief in every matter that is subjected to criticism. However, in the interests of thoroughness, we will examine not only what Lewis has actually said but also that which could be reasonably interpreted or inferred from what he has said.

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What Libertarianism Is…


…and What it Must Do

 By Duncan Whitmore

Anyone who has taken the time to study in depth the wealth of scholarly literature of Austro-libertarianism cannot help but be enthralled by the intellectual treasures provided by our school of thought. Not only have we uncovered a body of knowledge which – especially in comparison to mainstream social science – is rigorous, scientific, coherent and interdisciplinary, but, as the true successors of classical liberalism, we have an inspiring vision of the future that can sweep away war, conflict, strife and poverty while propelling the human race to unheard of heights of peace and prosperity. Indeed, for many of us Austro-libertarianism has been the most joyous and rewarding discovery of our lives, providing a sheltered harbour in a world which would otherwise leave us adrift in a sea of chaos.

Unfortunately, we are forced to admit that the intellectual accomplishments of Austro-libertarians are disproportionate to our achievements in effecting real world change which, by comparison, are almost miniscule. Although most forms of direct socialism have been discredited by the disaster that was the Soviet Union, we are today living in a world of unprecedented state power which the majority of the population, buoyed by a sense of control instilled by their occasional visits to the ballot box, views as entirely legitimate. It is bad enough that the modern nation state has accreted to itself power and functions that ancient kings and emperors could only dream of; but we are confronted also by a pervasive attitude that any difficulty, problem, error, injustice or whatever that life may choose to throw at us – including our own personal foibles and failings – is always the state’s responsibility to solve. The problems of paper money, the welfare state, boom and bust, public “education”, crippling regulation, disastrous overseas wars and all of the other ills bred by the state are not going to be vanquished when the majority of the public regards this institution as the magic carpet that will whisk us all away to the land of milk and honey. Continue reading

Globalisation – the Baby and the Bathwater


Globalisation – the Baby and the Bathwater

By Duncan Whitmore

If the liberal-left was hoping that the recent state visit to the UK by Donald Trump would provide the perfect opportunity to (once again) castigate him for his supposed “racism”, “misogyny”, and a fervour for “nationalism” that apparently puts him on par with Hitler, they have probably been left disappointed. In fact, the visit seems to have come off rather well for the 45th President. Sadiq Khan, London’s leftist mayor, succeeded only in burying himself in a Twitter spat that began before Air Force One even touched down on the tarmac. The anti-Trump protests in Parliament Square – at which, for want of imagination, the Trump “baby blimp” was re-deployed (and subsequently burst by a Trump sympathiser) – failed to attract the anticipated attendance. Instead, news reports of Trump being received warmly by the Queen, behaving graciously and courteously at the state banquet, and delivering a positive and optimistic joint press conference with the Prime Minister about the future of the US-UK relationship, have most likely lent him an air of statesmanship that he has previously lacked. Even the BBC was forced to concede that the trip has, somehow, “normalised” Trump, and that, rather than banishing the orange-faced “fascist” from our shores forever, we should probably recognise that he is “here to say and [so we] had better get used to him”. Continue reading