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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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
Why we are Where we are – Part One
By Duncan Whitmore
Margaret Thatcher is supposed to have once said that “the facts of life are conservative”. An equivalent for libertarians is “the facts of life are Austrian”. We may well dispute the justice, inevitability or even desirability of the libertarian ethic of non-aggression, but one cannot escape the fact that the corpus of economic law, derived from the self-evident proposition that individuals act, is undeniably true. So however much you may yearn for some form of centralised economic planning or state management to abolish all “exploitation” before building castles in the land of milk and honey, this economic law cannot be defied for ever and, eventually, reality must come back to bite you on the arse. Amongst the myopia of COVID-19 and the furore of the culture war, a broader perspective of the era we are living through – and probably have been living through since 2008 at the latest – will reveal a culminating fight between a massive reassertion of economic law on the one hand and increasing attempts to continue the defiance on the other.
This essay, the first of two parts, will explore the paths that have been taken prior to our arrival at the political, economic and social situation in which we find ourselves in the early twenty-first century. In Part Two we will look specifically at the ongoing culture war before examining the consequences of all of these dynamics. From this, readers may be able to see how year’s this calamities – barely imaginable just six or seven months ago – have resulted from the choices that have been made in the past. Continue reading
…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