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 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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Liberty and Truth – Why Statists should Bear the Burden of Proof


Liberty and Truth – Why Statists should Bear the Burden of Proof

By Duncan Whitmore

During the admittedly few years in which I have been writing on Austro-libertarian topics, one matter on which I have not put pen to paper is the justification for liberty as a fundamental political principle. I have spent much time pointing out the effects and implications of liberty (and of alternative orders) on a wide range of issues from free trade to sound money, from law to culture, and from immigration to the NHS; for many readers, these will, I hope, be persuasive. But what is the one, big reason that elevates liberty head and shoulders above all forms of statism and socialism as the just cause towards which we should strive? Which argument would blow out of the water any attempt to establish tyranny and despotism? Why have I never attempted anything of this magnitude?

One reason for this apparent omission is that I am yet to think of something that I could say on the topic that has not been said elsewhere, and better. Rather than wasting the reader’s time by repeating what has been written before, I prefer to confine my own writing to matters on which I feel as though I am making at least some kind of new contribution, however small.

To be frank, though, the overriding reason derives from an intuitive sense of repulsion triggered by interfering do-gooders and busybodies: that is, if I am getting on with my life peacefully and quietly, my instinctive reaction to the appearance of some prying meddler is that he should mind his own business. Moreover, I do not see this as a one sided obligation: I am quite willing to return the favour by minding my own business when it comes to the affairs of other people. In fact, I couldn’t care less about what other people are doing with their own lives so long as it isn’t bothering me. Such an instinctive “live and let live” attitude is, no doubt, the initial impetus that drives most libertarians towards the philosophy of liberty.

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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

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