Finding the State’s Achilles’ Heel
By Duncan Whitmore
One of the consequences of the state’s insidious corruption of truth and knowledge – and, thus, a stumbling block in our efforts to make sense of the world – is the failure to identify relevant causes.
Causation is a difficult subject in both the natural and social sciences. For any one event there are thousands of preceding events that could be labelled as possible causes. Take, for instance, the falling of an apple from a tree so that it hits the ground. This would not have occurred without the ripening of the apple, the onset of summer, the watering of the tree, the planting of the tree, nor without the fertility of the soil. Technically, the creation of the universe is a cause of absolutely everything that has ever happened. But which of these, if we wish to understand the event, should be regarded as the relevant cause, the one from which we could truly deduce the existence of a relationship of cause and effect? Such difficulty can be compounded when there are multiple relevant causes, as is often the case with transportation accidents such as plane and train crashes – an unthinkable, but lethal combination of circumstances that unite to produce a catastrophic effect.
For humans, our understanding of cause and effect is praxeological, i.e. is intimately connected to our role as actors. Whenever we investigate causation, our primary interest is in what we would want to do in order to divert the course of history towards either bringing about or preventing a given event, and how such actions would affect the satisfaction of all of our ends with available means. As such, the identity of a relevant cause is heavily tied to the costs and benefits of a given action.
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.
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
Statism: Conspiracy or Incompetence?
By Duncan Whitmore
“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”
– Hanlon’s Razor
In some recent essays examining the factors that have brought us to the political, social and economic conditions in which we find ourselves in 2020, we mentioned briefly the role of conspiracies, concluding that it is not necessary to speculate upon their existence in order to explain our current situation. This essay will not examine the phenomenon of conspiracy theories in great detail. Instead, we will look specifically at whether the possible existence of a conspiracy among the global “elite” that aims to reduce the entire human population to enslavement offers a convincing explanation for major societal changes that tend towards a crushing of freedom.
The common theme of conspiracy theories is that certain key events are planned, directed or orchestrated deliberately by establishment figures in order to achieve a specific, underhand purpose while being passed off either as mere accidents or as the responsibility of other parties. Thus, it is essentially a form of historical revisionism that is antagonistic to those who have an interest in maintaining conventional historical understanding, and so the latter normally deploy the term “conspiracy theory” as a slur so as to dismiss any explanation of an event that differs from that of the official, approved narrative. Indeed, following the enormous increase in state power as a result of government responses to COVID-19, the term has been used to pigeon-hole opponents of “lockdown” measures, particularly after popular protests which were attended by well known conspiracy theorists such as Piers Corbyn and David Icke. Generally, however, such opposition is now being voiced in mainstream terms by those whose credentials make them more difficult to ignore, and so the “conspiracy” element has not received a great deal of attention. No Austro-libertarian can doubt, though, that the power of the state has increased many times over throughout the past century or so, often in response to specific events. It is, therefore, important for us to diagnose correctly the causes of this seemingly unstoppable trend if we are to have any hope of reversing it.
In spite of the fact that it is an unhelpfully pejorative label with a tendency to capture both the serious and the spurious within its ambit, we will continue to use the term “conspiracy theory” to denote revisionist theories which, unlike some proven or persuasive theories, have failed to gain acceptance as accurate historical explanations. 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
Church, King and State – Decentralisation and Liberty
By Duncan Whitmore
It scarcely needs to be said that life as a libertarian theorist and political activist is an often isolated and lonely existence. Even though we often have the evidence to illustrate that we are correct, our ideas are ridiculed, if they are ever listened to in the first place. While “free-marketism” from the point of view of generating “economic efficiency” enjoys a seat at the table of the mainstream and may, depending upon the circumstances, disseminate views which are taken seriously by the highest echelons of government, radical libertarianism does not. We are a bare minority of extremist nutcases, deluded by the romantic fairytale vision of the industrial greatness of the nineteenth century, the reality of which, we are told, meant spoils for the rich and destitution for the masses. Our intellectual heroes are derided as dogmatic crackpots who would do away with all of the civilising achievements of our social democratic world order and consign us all instead to a vigilante society reminiscent of the “wild west”.
Having said of all of this, the endeavour to justify libertarian principles is only a small part of the battle. In fact, the biggest difficulty in such justification is not in crafting high quality arguments that will consign statism and socialism to the intellectual rubbish heap. Rather, it is the fact that the die is so heavily weighted in favour of statism, and that the willingness to accept any kind of confirmation bias, however minute, for the status quo is so eager, that even if one was armed with a fortress of insurmountable libertarian arguments the debate could still be lost. No doubt many libertarian has been in the position of having taken a horse to water only to find that he will not drink – and that, sadly, we must be prepared to wait for him to realise that he is dying of thirst. Continue reading
I was idly scanning “Underdogs Bite Upwards” – as you do – earlier, and it says there that the Green Party actually want to do these things. If it was not scary – these are the kinds of people that truly believe what they say, just like we do – then it would be droll. But it’s not droll, for if they got anywhere near such a heavily-empowered State as this one, then they would really get started.