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

Defining Liberty

Defining Liberty

By Duncan Whitmore

In a previous essay concerning the nature of the libertarian movement, we stated that the purpose of libertarian theory (in contrast to libertarian activism) should be to define and justify liberty – to tell us what liberty is and why it is a good thing. It is to the first of these tasks that this essay will be devoted.

Some readers may regard defining liberty as something of a redundant exercise. After all, we have had many definitions of liberty from libertarian and proto-libertarian thinkers, most of which say more or less the same thing: freedom from harm (J S Mill1); freedom from coercion (Hayek2); freedom from “restraint and violence by others” (Locke3); “Absence of opposition” or “externall [sic] Impediments of motion” (Hobbes4); “unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others” (Jefferson5). Although modern libertarian theory has successfully refined these concepts – Mill’s harm principle was, for instance, notoriously vague – descriptors of liberty used by libertarians today (such as “self-ownership”, “private property” and “non-aggression”) still suffer from lacking several important clarifications. This is not to imply that libertarian scholars have failed to properly define these principles in the past; more that libertarians (myself included) have become so used to reciting them without further thought that a review of what they actually mean would not be out of place. Moreover, as we shall see below, very different consequences can flow from what appear to be relatively minor disagreements or misunderstandings.6 If this is the case within the community of libertarian scholars how much worse can it be outside of it?

One initial problem is that such concepts are themselves reducible to further fundamentals. What precisely, for instance, is aggression? Why are some acts aggressive whereas other acts are not? Does it have anything to do with intended hostility or are motivations irrelevant? What, also, does it mean to have “self-ownership”? Precisely what is the “self” and what does my “ownership” over it allow me to do? Continue reading

Against Lockdown – The Libertarian Case

Against Lockdown – The Libertarian Case

By Duncan Whitmore

Although I have written on the topic of how libertarian property rights can be applied to the situation of viruses in two, previous essays, it is useful to summarise this again for a clearer picture. Such an endeavour seems necessary now more than ever, for in spite of increased opposition compared to the first round of lockdowns earlier this year, the various nations of the UK are again heading into some from of lockdown mode as the winter draws near.

Most sceptics of lockdown and restrictive policies designed to “curb” the onset of COVID-19 approach the matter from a utilitarian or technocractic angle – i.e. whether the measures that states are pursuing are an effective and/or proportionate response to the spread of the virus. While this is an invaluable exercise, it does not challenge the principle that the state has the prerogative to obliterate rights and freedoms in the manner that it has. In other words, the notion that, ultimately, our rights could be infringed on a future occasion when someone deems that it is “effective” and “proportionate” to do so is left untouched. Equally intact, therefore, is the notion that our rights are not immovably tied to our status as individual human beings, but are little more than privileges enjoyed at the sufferance of the state. This is not to imply that the principle of liberty has been ignored – former Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption has been a notable high profile critic of the government in this regard. But the general opposition to lockdowns and other restrictions seems to assume that their only problem is that COVID-19 is simply not a big enough crisis to justify the present level of state intrusion. Thus, there is still a need to emphasise the fact that our rights exist not only in fair weather but in storms and hurricanes also – in fact, it is precisely in exceptional circumstances when rights need the most protection for it is always on these occasions that the state exploits fear and anxiety of unknown dangers so as to achieve greater incursions upon our liberty. Continue reading

Could Liberty Rise Again?

Could Liberty Rise Again?

By Duncan Whitmore

“I would feel safer if the coronavirus held a press conference telling us how it is going to protect us from the government” 

                  –  Anonymous meme

For those with a passion for liberty and freedom from the state, it has been difficult not to feel a sense of despair at the COVID-19 hysteria. A mere nine months ago it seemed as though Britain was at the dawn of a bright new era as it adjusted to life outside of the European Union. Now, however, our fellow Britons seem to have sacrificed, with little resistance, whatever vestiges of freedom remained in this country all so the state can keep us “safe” from dangers that are no more serious than what we are used to.

Such despair is likely to be intensified when stumbling across something like the following pair of tweets by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins:

Continue reading

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

An Open Letter to my MP about Climate Change and De-Carbonizing Transport

I have just sent an e-mail to my Member of Parliament (Jeremy Hunt) regarding the submission I made two weeks ago in response to the UK government’s consultation on “de-carbonizing transport”.

Here is the covering e-mail, which also draws his attention to a long, complex article I have written on lockdown actions taken against the COVID-19 virus, and how appropriate and effective they have been.

Dear Mr Hunt,

Please find attached, for your consideration as my MP, two documents on the subject of climate change and the UK government’s plans to “de-carbonize” transport. The first is a two-page letter, with a number of questions on these matters, whose relevance I very much hope you will appreciate. The second is a 56-page PDF, which I submitted two weeks ago as my response to the recent government “consultation” on these matters.

While writing, I would also like to take the opportunity to give you a link to an article I have recently written and published on the subject of lockdowns against the COVID-19 virus. The article is here:

This is, of course, an area in which as a former health secretary you have almost unrivalled expertise. My researches have led me towards the conclusion that the lockdowns, as implemented in the UK (and many other countries), have been way over the top compared to what was actually necessary. I realize you might personally disagree; but I am sure you will be aware that the longer all this stuff goes on, the less inclined ordinary people will be to give the government the benefit of the doubt.

Yours sincerely,

Neil Lock

And here is the two-page letter, with the questions:

<Address redacted>

Jeremy Hunt MP

(South West Surrey)

House of Commons





13 August 2020


Dear Mr Hunt


Climate Change and De-Carbonizing Transport


Twelve years ago, on July 14th, 2008, I wrote you a nine-page letter urging you find out the facts regarding climate change. And, having done so, to take the strongest possible stand against the UK’s Climate Change Bill. You never bothered even to acknowledge my letter, let alone reply to it. Even though I prompted you about it when you phoned me to solicit my vote the day before the 2010 election. I was, to say the least, disappointed in you.

Now, twelve years later, here we are again. But things have moved on, since you voted for that dreadful bill on that snowy night in October 2008.

Two weeks ago, I submitted a response to the government’s recent consultation on “de-carbonizing transport.” It is a 56-page PDF, and I include it in the attachments to my e-mail. I would ask you please, Mr Hunt, to read what I have to say, and to give full consideration to it. You are, after all, my one and only representative in a parliament, many of whose acts over the last year and more I consider to have gone well beyond the bounds of reasonable behaviour. By its actions the parliament has, as far as I am concerned, brought itself into disrepute. And as a result, I have now lost all respect for it.

I would like to know your views on some of the issues I raise in my document. But I won’t expect you to dig into any of the scientific detail. Your liberal-arts education, and your many years of experience with government bureaucracy, should be sufficient for you to be able to address my questions.

  1. Do you agree with the quote from Bertrand Russell, with which I begin my Preface?
  2. Would you agree that government exists to serve the people, not to rule over them against their interests?
  3. Do you agree with me when I say: “you should expect government always to be reasonable towards the people it governs?”
  4. Do you agree with me when I say that MPs: “ought always to support the interests of the people they represent against encroachment by other political interests. For example, MPs in rural areas ought to champion the car as the best means of transport for people in their areas, even when it is pooh-poohed and threatened by the big-city slickers.”
  5. Would you agree that government, and those whom it funds, should always behave with honesty, integrity and good faith towards the public?
  6. Would you agree that government must never make costly commitments on behalf of the governed without rigorous justification?
  7. Would you agree that, in a case such as the allegations that human emissions of carbon dioxide are leading to catastrophic climate change, the burden of proof should always be on the accusers to substantiate their case beyond reasonable doubt?
  8. Would you agree that the UK Interdepartmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment’s 2002 re-formulation of the precautionary principle, which I link to from my document as reference [5], was dishonest and done in bad faith? Would you agree that it had the effect, in matters such as the “climate change” allegations, of negating the presumption of innocence, inverting the burden of proof, and requiring the accused to prove a negative?
  9. Do you think that the BBC likening allowing climate change skeptics to speak to “letting someone deny last week’s football scores” violated their own guidelines on impartiality?
  10. Would you agree that the UK government’s 2009 abandonment of the social cost approach to valuing carbon dioxide emissions when considering policies, which I link to from my document as reference [6], was dishonest and done in bad faith?
  11. Do you think that the UK government’s 2010 “Climategate” inquiries were entirely honest and done in good faith?
  12. Would you agree that Extinction Rebellion is an extremist organization, and should never have been allowed to influence UK government policy?
  13. Do you think that the Committee for Climate Change is an independent, impartial body?
  14. Do you agree with me that setting arbitrary collective targets and limits on what people may do, for example “carbon budgets,” is unjust and tyrannical?
  15. Do you think that the UK government’s plans for implementing “zero carbon,” their costs, and the consequences to the people affected by them, have been fully thought through?
  16. Would you agree that the arrogant tone of the “setting the challenge” document, in particular in its use of words and phrases like “interventions,” “behaviour change” and “accelerating modal shift,” is inappropriate to the way in which a democratic government ought to treat its people?
  17. Would you agree with me when I say: “The UK government must commission a thorough, independent, scrupulously honest, unbiased audit of its own conduct, and the conduct of those it funded, in environmental matters over the period since 1970?”
  18. And finally, if you had known in 2008 that the policies resulting from the climate change agenda would eventually have such large negative consequences for the standard and quality of living of your constituents, would you have voted for the climate change bill?

I have put my case, as fully and eloquently as I can, in my PDF document. I hope that you will feel able to take Bertrand Russell’s sage advice, and seek the facts of the matter – just as I asked you to, twelve years ago. When you have done so, I think you will find that most, if not all, of my concerns on this matter are justified. What you decide to do then will, of course, be up to you.

Yours sincerely




Neil Lock

P.S. I will publish this letter as “An Open Letter to my MP about Climate Change and De-Carbonizing Transport” on my own small blog, and on another blog where I am an author. I will publish your reply on my own blog when I receive it.

Enclosure: “Response to Consultation on ‘De-Carbonizing Transport’ in the UK,” July 31st, 2020.

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.

Continue reading