How to Fight for Liberty, Part 6 – Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up


How to Fight for Liberty, Part 6 – Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up

By Duncan Whitmore

In the previous two essays in this continuing series on fighting for liberty, we discussed the value of radicalism and then of conservatism in contributing towards a political strategy. A suggested reconciliation between these two, apparently different approaches centred on the fact that, on the one hand, libertarians must be uncompromisingly radical in terms of their rejection of the state; on the other hand, we must be conservative by encouraging this rejection from the bottom-up rather than imposing it from the top-down.

This part will explain in detail why this bottom-up approach is essential, and why all attempts at a top-down restructuring of the societal order are unlikely to ever result in a permanent victory for liberty.

The Top-Down Failure of Statism

Austro-libertarians are well accustomed to explaining why top-downism fails when it is proposed by statists. Socialism, for instance, suffers from the economic calculation problem. If the state owns all of the means of production across the entire economy then there is no trade in machines, tools and equipment. Without trade in these factors then they cannot command market prices. If there are no market prices then it is not possible for a state controlled planning board to undertake any kind of cost accounting. Without accountancy, there is no way of determining profits and losses. And if there are no profits or losses then you can never know whether scarce factors of production are being deployed efficiently or wastefully. The result is economic chaos as the capital structure deteriorates into a quagmire of wasteful surpluses of some goods and chronic shortages of others. In the former Soviet Union, for instance, fields of crops were left un-harvested because as much as one third of agricultural machinery stood idle owing to a shortage of spare parts.

Ultimately, however, all kinds of top-downism fail because they are fundamentally at odds with the nature of human beings – that we are each individuals with our own ends and desires, and that we each act within a local, limited environment so as to fulfil those desires. In human society (and often, for that matter, in the natural world), anything that can be observed as a complete, harmonious system is not the product of any one individual’s design or action in the way that a single architect may design a building or a sole author can write a novel. Rather, social systems are the amalgamation of thousands of individuals striving to fulfil their individual ends in such a way that nevertheless manages to mesh them into a coherent whole. Institutions such as culture, language, market prices, customary legal systems and money are of this ilk. No one person ever invented any of these, and yet we can clearly define them as singular entities that exist to fulfil human purposes in a conflict-free manner.

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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

The Rising of the North?


The Rising of the North?

By Duncan Whitmore

In a recent essay, we suggested that one of the possible outcomes of the COVID-19 hysteria could be a greater push towards decentralisation of the British state:

[T]he provinces of the UK are beginning to assert more independence and have tailored their own responses to the COVID-19 outbreak. Both government and the mainstream media refer increasingly to “the four nations”. It would not be a bad thing if this was to drive us towards full political independence for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Moreover, the greater emphasis on tailoring responses to specific regions – such as “local lockdowns” as opposed to the London-centric uniformity that was imposed back in March – may create a demand for more regional governance over other areas of policy, particularly when the repercussions from the lockdowns are more keenly felt.

It seems that those repercussions are now starting to bite. The introduction, this past week, of the Westminster government’s “three tier” approach to COVID restrictions has led to a considerable degree of regional backlash, particularly in Liverpool and Manchester, which either are, or could be moved into, the highest tier of lockdown. Such a category is barely different from the general lockdown back in March, resulting in the closure of pubs and bars (unless they can operate as restaurants – a seemingly inconsistent exception), travel restrictions, and no household mixing either indoors or in private gardens. One amusing, but incisive response from locals was the re-branding of a forcibly closed Liverpool pub to “The Three Bellends” in honour of Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock and Dominic Cummings – a case, you might say, of a picture telling a thousand words. Continue reading

Why we are Where we Are – Part Two


Why we are Where we Are – Part Two

By Duncan Whitmore

In Part One of this two-part series of essays we explained how events in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries shifted Western society from a preponderance of the “economic means” to the “political means” characterised by a transition away from the tendencies on the right hand side of the following table to those on the left hand side:

Fig. A

In this essay, we will explore the moral and cultural gulfs that are now swallowing Western society (addressing the puzzling question of why the right has been so defenceless against it), before examining how Western liberal democratic polity over the past thirty years has produced the situation in which we find ourselves today. Continue reading

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

Hans-Hermann Hoppe on Brexit


Distinguished fellow of The Ludwig von Mises Centre Hans-Hermann Hoppe offers his thoughts on Brexit and the European Union during an episode of the Austrian talk show Hangar 7.

The dialogue has been subtitled in English by the original poster of the video on Facebook.