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.

Continue reading

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.

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

Statism: Conspiracy or Incompetence?

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.

Revisionist History

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

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

Statism and Judicial Activism

Statism and Judicial Activism

By Duncan Whitmore

In a previous essay concerning the Supreme Court’s judgment against Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament1, we noted that several commentators had criticised the judgment for its “political” nature, calling for greater scrutiny of the judiciary and the judicial appointments process.

It will be argued here that castigating the case as the moment when the judges crossed over from law to politics is wide of the mark, and that a politicised judiciary is a necessary and unavoidable outcome of the growth of democratic statism. As we shall see, this is a trend which Britain has endured for around a hundred years (with an acute acceleration in the post-war era). Consequently, the only way to ensure a relatively impartial, apolitical judiciary is to roll back the size and scope of the state.

The Judiciary in Political Theory

The state’s power of adjudication receives relatively little attention in everyday political discourse. Nearly all of the headlines are attracted by what the executive and the legislative spheres of the state – Presidents, Prime Ministers, parliaments, and so on – are up to rather than the wigged magistrates presiding over dark, dusty courtrooms.

One reason for this is that the non-judicial state institutions have a greater scope to act unilaterally. The government can announce initiatives and Parliament can enact laws without the need for any outside stimulus. The courts, on the other hand, are in the position of having to wait for a case to come before them, i.e. for people to find themselves in an active conflict with other people. The direct outcome of such a case may impact upon only a handful of participants and, even if the principles under scrutiny are far reaching, the judges may rule only on a single specific point at any one time. Moreover, the prevalence of democracy focuses discussion of your political rights on your ability to vote in elections which, in most cases, is not the method of selection for the judiciary. Participation as a jury member is, to be sure, viewed as a civic duty also, but this may occur only a handful times during a person’s life, and direct involvement in a court case as one of the litigants is even less likely. Thus, the perception that the judiciary has a relatively diminished ability to touch everyone’s lives has lent them a degree of remoteness compared to other organs of the state. Continue reading

What about the Poor?!

What about the Poor?!

By Duncan Whitmore

When discussing the virtues of a free society libertarians are able to expound with enthusiasm the benefits of private property, free exchange and non-violence. Most of the nagging questions – “how would policing work?”; “how would we regulate unscrupulous companies?”; or the clichéd classic “who will build the roads?!” – can be dealt with fairly straightforwardly as it is not difficult to show how such a free society would deal with these matters in a vastly superior way to one that is imbued with statism. Indeed, the struggle in this regard has less to do with formulating convincing arguments and more to do with tackling an inherent unwillingness to consider radical solutions.

However, there is one question that always presents a seemingly insurmountable difficulty – what would happen to the poor? By this, we do not just mean the accusations of a free economy being “sink or swim” or “dog eat dog”, which, again, are relatively juvenile sound bites that can be disposed of fairly easily. (Indeed, it is social democracies that are the true zero sum games as any redistribution of wealth or gain of power to the benefit of one must necessarily come at the expense of another). Rather, what we mean is the fact that a free world has no means of “caring” for the poor. In particular, there would be no “official” institution or “social safety net” to help those who were genuinely less fortunate. A libertarian might mumble a few words about the importance of charity but, with an outright declaration by one’s opponent that such a system is necessary, one may be tempted to concede that this is the Achilles’ heel of a libertarian society. After all, statists excel at conjuring the illusion that all of the care and compassion is on their side while they are able, quite easily, to paint proponents of the free market as little more than selfish money grabbers.

It is high time that libertarians (and their free market oriented fellow travellers) took the offensive against this problem by turning an apparent weakness into an advantage. By offensive, we mean not just constructing adequate rebuttals to the charge that capitalism cannot care for the poor. Rather, we need to set ourselves the more ambitious goal of proving that capitalism benefits the least well off as its primary effect, and that the poor do not benefit merely as an incidental consequence of making the rich richer. Continue reading