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Libertarian socialism?

Whilst perusing Harry’s Place, I discovered a reference to an essay written by Labour MP Peter Hain in 2000 about ‘libertarian socialism’ over on the Chartist website called Rediscovering our libertarian roots.

The whole notion of this alleged form of libertarianism is something I have commented on before, but I have probably never seen a more clearly written explanation of the true thinking that underpins ‘libertarian socialism’ than this article by Hain.

It is very important to understand what Hain’s essay is and is not. It is not a philosophical paper making logical links between socialism and libertarianism. What it is is a tactical paper very much along the lines of the one I wrote called Giving libertarianism a left hook, only with the opposite objective.

Rather than fisking Hain’s article, I will just quote what I think are the most illustrative sections:

The key elements of libertarian socialism – decentralisation, democracy, popular sovereignty and a refusal to accept that collectivism means subjugating individual liberty.

[...]

Discredited by its association with statism, socialism’s rehabilitation can only be achieved through a recovery of its libertarian roots, applying these to the modern age through Labour’s Third Way.

[...]

Underlying libertarian socialism is a different and distinct notion of politics which rests on the belief that it is only through interaction with others in political activity and civic action that individuals will fully realise their humanity. Democracy should therefore extend not simply to government but throughout society: in industry, in the neighbourhood or in any arrangement by which people organise their lives.

[...]

However, power can only be spread downwards in an equitable manner if there is a national framework where opportunities, resources, wealth and income are distributed fairly, where democratic rights are constitutionally entrenched, and where there is equal sexual and racial opportunity. This is where socialism becomes the essential counterpart to libertarianism which could otherwise, and indeed sometimes is, right wing. It means nationally established minimum levels of public provision, such as for housing, public transport, social services, day-care facilities, home helps and so on. The extent to which these are ‘topped up’ and different priorities set between them, is then a matter for local decision.

[...]

Most individuals need active government to intervene and curb market excess and distortions of market power. For choice and individual aspiration to be real for the many, and not simply for the privileged few, people must have the power to choose.

Nevertheless the old left nostrum that markets equal capitalism and the absence of markets equals socialism, is utterly simplistic. As Aneurin Bevan argued, the extent to which markets are regulated or subjected to strategic intervention by government is not a matter of theoretical dogma, but a practical matter to be judged on its merit. That is why a Third Way Labour government is not passive, but highly active, working in partnership with business and investing in the skills and modern infrastructure which market forces and the private sector do not provide

There are so many problems and manifest contradictions that leap off the page it is difficult to know where to start. The core of what makes this so wrong lies as usual at the meta-contextual level. The problem is one of the distorting lens of the writer’s world view, based as they clearly are on utterly utilitarian principles. Hain says libertarian socialists are characterised by a “refusal to accept that collectivism means subjugating individual liberty”, whereupon he follows with an article which lists the many ways in which his socialist system would in fact do precisely that.

The core of Hain’s view is that politics, which is a euphemism for ‘the control of the collective means of violence backed coercion’, is the essential core around which ‘society’ exists and interacts. Thus when he says society must be ‘completely democratic’, he means society must be completely political. Yet the argument that it is only by this that individual liberty can be realised falls at the first fence by virtue of the fact you cannot opt out of a political society and particularly a democratic political society: if my neighbour gets to vote on all aspects of “any arrangement by which people organise their lives”, then clearly my individual wish regarding what I may do with my own life is by no means my choice unless that choice is quite literally a popular one.

Secondly, if democratic rights are to be ‘constitutionally enshrined’ and the society is completely democratic in all its aspects and therefore completely political, then how can the individual rights of people be insulated from the democratic political process which may seek to abridge them? You can either have complete democracy enshrined or, as the American founding fathers tried with limited success, you can have individual rights enshrined and placed outside the reach of democratic politics, but you cannot logically have both.

The notion that a completely politicized democratic ‘society’ of the kind advocated by Hain could by its very nature allow any personal liberty whatsoever in a meaningful sense is manifestly absurd. If you cannot opt out of something you have not previously agreed to, in what manner are you free? If society is totally political, then you may have ‘permissions’ to do this or that, won by the give and take of democratic political processes but you do not have super-political inalienable rights at all. Politics can in theory make you ‘free from starving’ perhaps (in practise of course it tends to do the opposite), but what about being free to try or not try, some course of action? When every aspect of life is subject to the views of a plurality of other people, there is no liberty to just try anything at all on your own initiative. What Hain is arguing for is by his own words collectivism.

It seems to me that one thing all forms of collectivism share is that individual choice is always subordinate to The Group, be it the fascist volk or a local soviet or an anarcho-syndicalist people’s council or whatever other fiction of ‘society’ the state decides to use. So talk of individual rights within the context of a collectivist ‘society’ is either incoherence or if not it is nothing more than a tactical ploy to conflate a violence based system of total governance with its antithesis in a manner well understood. As I wrote in a recent article, unlike a collectivist kibbutz, which is a voluntary collectivist commune, you cannot just walk out of the door of a collectivist ‘society’ and start setting up private arrangements with other willing people if the majority do not want you to do that: they will in fact deputise the use of violence to prevent it.

The logical flaws in the ‘collectivist society replacing collectivist state’ notion are so obvious that they have been pointed out a great many times by a great many people, but I will add my voice to the throng anyway. Hain, like Marx before him, clearly sees libertarian socialism as working towards the ‘withering away of the state’ as a true collectivist ‘society’ comes to replace it. But to maintain such a condition of total political governance will require the use of force to prevent any consensual but not democratically sanctioned acts between willing individuals. To maintain this suppression of spontaneous several relationships, a collectivist socialist ‘society’ must be organised and structured in certain ways that make it indistinguishable from a collectivist socialist state.

So if for a collectivist ‘society’ to function there must be a high degree of politically imposed non-spontaneous behaviour from its ‘citizens’ (such as preventing a person selling their own labour for less than the political community will allow them to), and those mandates must be backed with the threat of violence (i.e. law) if they are not to be ignored, then what we have a political State by any reasonable definition of the word ‘State’, much as Rousseau would have defined one. In fact, socialism must be the most ironic use of language in the history of human linguistics: it is the advocacy of the complete replacement of social interaction with political interaction, the very negation of civil society itself. ‘Politicalism’ would be a more honest term.

Now of course all societies have laws, be it polycentric law or state imposed law. Even the most libertarian society plausibly imaginable will have force backed prohibitions against the unjustified use of violence, which is to say (in very crude and simplified terms) libertarian law deals with ‘that which you may not do without consent of the person to or with whom you are doing it’. You may not cause me harm with dioxin from your factory because I have not given you leave to put your chemicals in my lungs. This law is based on the principle that the individual’s rights to his body (and property) are his own.

However the collectivist places the protection of the political collective as more important than the individual and thus collective law is whatever the political collective says it is. If the political collective says ‘a factory may not put dioxin in Fred’s lungs because we want a more environmentally safe place to live for all of us’, then that is the law because the political collective has said so, not because Fred has the right to control the contents of his own lungs.

But if they say ‘a factory may indeed put dioxin in Fred’s lungs because we want a better economy and more stuff for the rest of us’ then that too is the voice of the collective. And Fred? If he does not like it, well, it is “only through interaction with others in political activity and civic action that individuals will fully realise their humanity”. And if Fred finds himself in the minority? Now Fred has a problem because as the society is ‘totally democratic’, we will have none of this nonsense of independent and politically neutral courts stepping in to support the objective and several rights of Fred against the collective, as if that could happen in our libertarian socialist paradise, we would no longer have our totally democratic society.

So as Hain says it is only through trying to control the means of collective coercion, the means to use force to make people do things, that Fred can ‘fully realise his humanity’, how is this ‘libertarian socialism’ going to protect the individual called Fred’s rights? What if the majority in Hain’s total democracy don’t like Fred? And who will define these ‘individual’ rights? The political collective, of course. Forget constitutions which constrain democracy because those are anti-democratic (which is rather the point). Forget consensual several relationships because everything is democratic, meaning no politically unpopular relationships will be allowed. Forget custom and culture as a means to moderate interactions because that is not political. If Fred is not popular, Fred is just out of luck.

Fascist collectivists try to prevent mixed race sex, socialist collectivists try to prevent ‘undemocratic’ private trade, but the principle of collectivism is always the same. If an individual does something he wants to do in a collectivist ‘society’, it is because the political collective allows him to do it, not because it is his right to do as he pleases with those who are willing participants.

Clearly this democratic ‘society’ of Hain’s is willing to use force to prevent free trade between willing individuals unless they happen to be acting in a manner which is politically favoured. Much as most states currently use force to try and prevent free trade in drugs between willing individuals, the same will be done to any relationship the political collective dislikes. Put another way, this democratic society is in fact a state which will be organised to enforce the political will of the plurality on an epic scale, given that this would be a totally political society. Any time some tried to opt out, they will quickly discover just how ‘withered away’ the state is under ‘socialist libertarianism’.

Of course just as modern states may be more repressive or less repressive (running on a continuum from, say, Switzerland to North Korea), some implementations of so-called ‘socialist libertarianism’ may be more or less savage in their interpretation of an unfettered total political democracy at a given point in time. An individual who shares the views, aspirations and prejudices of the majority may well think that life seems equitable and good. After all, if he is allowed to do the things he wishes to do, why complain? But as the democracy advocated by Hain is total, what if he wants to do that which not popular?

I have long thought that supporters of collectivism (be it of the socialist, nationalist or conservative kind) who are homosexuals or who are people with other lifestyles that will never be popular (in the literal sense of the word) are unwise in the extreme to advocate anything that does not reserve rights to individuals before collectives. Socialism is by Hain’s own words seen as “…where socialism becomes the essential counterpart to libertarianism which could otherwise – and indeed sometimes is – right wing”. Of course by ‘right wing’ Hain means individualist. Libertarianism puts the rights of the individual as the first of all virtues. Libertarian socialism is individualist collectivism, ergo libertarian socialism is an oxymoron.

So what is Hain’s total political ‘society’ in reality? It is locally organised totalitarianism with Big Brother based in the local town hall rather than in Whitehall.

41 comments to Libertarian socialism?

  • They’ve turned the word ‘liberal’ upside down. I suppose ‘libertarian’ is next.

  • Byron

    Kudos Perry, for wading through that muck and picking it apart. I wouldn’t have had the patience. What a crock.

  • Mike

    A number of the most prominent far-left wackos at my university refer to themselves as “left-libertarians” or something similar. Yeah, they won’t be satisfied until they destroy that word, too.

  • Liberal/Conservative simply means the split between those that advocate change vs status quo… Left/Right is the philosophical spectrum between collective (left) and individual (right) solutions to social problems.

    eg… Communists in Russia are Conservative Leftists, FreeMarketers are Liberal RightWingers while in the USA where individual liberties have Constitutional protection Conservatives are RightWing.

    Libertarians by definition hold individual liberties supreme and are the most far RightWing of all…

    I know… knee-jerk lefties hate the fact the National Socialist in Germany rose to power rivaling the leftist Communists for the votes of the unemployed and constantly claim nationalists are ‘RightWing’ Nazi’s… this is a lie… NAZI is short for National Socialist Worker’s Party…

    If you consider the platform of racial supremacist groups for a moment consider that they are subjugating the individual to the ‘state’ which is clearly socialist and left wing…

    How can you advocate individualism when you are myopically advocating superiority because of some group attribute?

    Libertarians are supreme individualists and any proposed collective solution to social problems is going to be antithetical.

  • cardeblu

    If not “Libertarian Socialists,” how about this one: Christian Anarchists

    It appears to take all kinds… ;)

  • Props to you, Perry. I think the most astute comment you made in your very astute article is this: “…when he says society must be ‘completely democratic’, he means society must be completely political.”

    I have, on occasion over the decades, debated with “libertarian socialists,” and I can tell you that, without exception, their arguments led inexorably to the conclusion you have deciphered.

    I can also tell you, as someone who has worked at businesses that tried to operate “democratically,” such things simply do not work, at least in any fashion that is sustainable over the long-term. The form of democracy that best works in business seems to be the form that we already have: those with greater shares have more votes. Suggest that such an approach be taken in the political arena, of course, and you are immediately pilloried, and for good reason: how are “shares” in a nation to be fairly determined, when investment in a nation is so much more than the amount of real property owned? One-man, one-vote seems to be our lot in the political arena, and that being the case, we need to be sure that government is neither so big nor so powerful that the sins of one-man, one-vote decisionmaking can lead to tragedy.

    “Libertarian socialism” is an oxymoron. Socialism constrains liberty in so very many ways that the liberty that is left seems to me to be an echo of the original idea…

  • Byna

    Here’s my example of how this “libertarian socialism” would fail.

    Quite obviously there would be minimum wage laws. In addition, there would be laws governing hours per day and week and overtime.

    I own a large apple orchard. I am allowed to sell apples for $1.00 a pound. At minimum wage I can make a profit. At overtime wages I lose money. I have 4 full time employees plus myself. Migrant laborers aren’t trained on the equipment, and I would lose money if I hired them to pick apples by hand. I can’t afford to employee more than 4 workers year around, and I’m not allowed to lay people off (see also migrant workers).

    The apples are ready for picking for 4 weeks. Any apples left on the trees are over-ripe and worthless. It would take 1400 hours of labor to pick all of the apples. I can work 80 hour weeks during harvest, but I would lose money if I paid my employees overtime wages. The result is apples left on the trees to rot.

    Sam would like some extra money to buy his wife a present, and he is willing to work extra for normal wages. But I can’t have him work extra because it would be illegal to pay him normal wages.

    As a result, there are too few apples to go around. And the prive is artificially low, so lines form when the apples are due to hit the shelves. Sound familiar?

  • Isn’t this a case of preaching to the converted?

    Hain’s piece on ‘libertarian socialism’, which also formed part of his book, if I recall, forms part of the current battle over political discourse in Britain at this time. This battle is partly lost as newspapers already refer to state socialists who mouth contradictions on civil liberties as ‘libertarian’. Tony Benn would be categorised as such, exposing this oxymoron as nonsense.

    The great danger is that Hain and his ilk will be considered the voice of libertarianism in the media as there are no voices in the Tories willing to take on that role. When the media wishes to have a libertarian contribution to a debate, they instantly select Old Left dissent, providing another voice for the collectivists.

    It may be that libertarians should actively seek a higher public profile in Britain to combat the adulteration and debasement of their views in the media.

  • Malcolm

    This just goes to show that “Liberal” isn’t the only that has been stripped of all real meaning: “Democracy” has followed it.

    Perry’s analysis that a dioxin plant could potentially enjoy the “democractic” support of the plurality is valid assuming a meaningful definition of the term democracy, but this is far from Peter Hain’s position. Hain does want to see certain allegedly basic rights placed outside the realm of acceptable controversy: he prefers schooling, medication and a minimum wage to freedom of speech, association and contract, but that’s because he’s a socialist; he does not want the plurality able to remove these minimum claimant rights, and will view a court-imposed reinstitution of these in defiance of (e.g.) Parliament quite cheerfully.

    What’s this got to do with “democracy”, let alone “a totally democratic society”? Nothing at all, at least not in the sense of direct or representative government. In Hain’s mind “democracy” is a vacuous “tick” word, with no tangible definition but readily applicable to whatever he considers good, just or idealised. Nor is Hain alone in this; the usage is increasingly common; long used by the American Left, New Labour has been able to adopt it without blushes now that the public’s memory (and derision) for a similar usage by Sov-Bloc countries and fellower-travellers has faded.

    If anyone doubts me, turn on the TV and wait for Hain to pop up and deny the need for any kind of referendum on a replacement for the constitutional architecture of the nation.

  • Richard Garner

    Brilliant analysis, utterly destroy this collectivist tripe. And definitely a good example of your “giving libertarianims a left hook” tactic as well, I note, what with counter examples to this closet state socialism being the Kibbutzim that left-wing anarchists love so well, and the example of rights violations not being interference in the right to make a profit, but over the issue of pollution, again, so dear to the hearts of the left. I’m gonna forward this to all my anarchist communist friends. And Tony Benn!

  • Andrew Duffin

    Great article, Perry, well done, but you might like to undertake a little more research on the subject of Switzerland. I do not think you will find, in fact, that it is a very free place at all. I’ll leave it to you to come up with some juicy examples…

  • I am more than passingly familiar with Switzerland, Andrew. As nation-states go in 2003, whilst it is certainly not some libertarian paradise it does have many things to commend it. Swings and roundabouts.

  • Kit Taylor

    It’s funny how good ideas are absorbed into the bad. For instance, how can one be a christian and a socialist?

    Perhaps I’ve spent too much time over at WorldNetDaily.com, but the New Testament is full of good arguments against collectivism. If you haven’t done so lately read the Gospel of Mark* from a libertarian perspective. You might find a few surprises.

    Xtianity recognises that you can’t free the oppressed and feed the starving without empowering individuals. Republican democracy, capitalism, free speech, all these “worldly” systems are in fact machines for killing evil. Indeed, having lurched through life from agnosticism to Xtianity to atheism, I’m now wondering whether God and liberty aren’t the same thing.

    The fundamental point of Xtianity is that truly healthy society can only be born of individual citizens choosing to do the right thing. “Nothing defiles a man save that from within him.”

    Thus my worry about the various forms of collectivism is that by weakening individuals, it actually promotes the very immorality and disorder they seek to contain. Chaos begets fascism, fascism begets chaos, and we’re locked into the same cycle of anarchy and tyranny the teachings of Christ are supposed to undo.

    Christ poured a great deal scorn on bureaucrats, mob rule, false prophets, the valuing of comfort above all else, stupid rules, arbitrary authority and loads of other things that irk good libertarians. Considering the susbsequent buggering up of his church I bet he wishes he’d never bothered!

    *I have the King James version, I don’t know how much “spin” may have worked it’s way into other translations. The author was burned at the stake, which is probably a good sign.

  • Kit Taylor: Yes, the self evident argument that morality cannot be divorced from free will and several choice is the clincher. Christian morality as all about moral choice and the consequences of that choice to the soul of an individual. There are no collective souls and so there can be no collective Christian moral choices, just lots of individual ones.

    Christian morality is about what you ought to do for the several good of your immortal soul.

    Politics on the other hand is about using force to mandate things. Moral notions may occasional enter into the equation of what individual lawmakers do but the people who comply with the resulting force backed imposition of the political community (i.e. law) are being told what they must do in order to avoid violence from the political community, not what they ought to do because it is right.

    Christian socialism is a bizarre mixture of completely unrelated values.

  • What about “Libertarian Environmentalists”?

    I would like to hear a conservative/libertarian (C/L) critique which even attempts to deal with issues of environmental quality/urban development in a serious and thoughtful manner. I wonder if it exists. Even rumors of such a critique have not surfaced in the mainstream literature on the subject, which I have been following for a while.

    godofthemachine.com

    For some reason, conservatives/libertarians have little useful to say on cities, urban design etc etc. except denial.
    Even when one ultimately may disagree with C/L perspectives, at least they offer serious and thoughtful critiques. But in land use (writ large) they appear to be baffled. Which is odd, as conservatives (at least) appear to have a fair sensitivity to landscape.

    Perhaps there answer is that there canNOT be any serious C/L response except fine-tuning of the system we have now and so that’s why there isn’t.

  • Kit Taylor

    David

    One doesn’t hear a lot of libertarian commentary on landscaping bacause unless I’m creating a danger to the public, whatever I do with my private property is my business alone.

    Libertarianism is not an end point but a political framework, it inherently doesn’t have a lot to say about development that doesn’t cause death or injury. There’s not a lot to add to “sustainable development = sustainable profit.”

    Also, the whole “no art censorship” thing leaves many libertarians with a curious fear of snobbery and elitism, so they keep schtumn about culture.

  • veryretired

    Instead of indignation at the use of the term libertarian by socialists, step back and see what this strange grafting accomplishes. The most obvious flaw of socialism is its well deserved reputation for being inimical to individual liberties. If, however, one can redefine the term “libertarian” to be synonymous with “egalitarian”, as the author of the piece cleverly does by equating political democracy with a citizen’s economic status, i.e., extending democracy throughout the economic sphere also, then the socialist’s main hurdle in selling this snake oil to the West is cleared. The rest of the argument is nothing more than the routine call for victimhood status for everyone in the imaginary conflict between the “soulless corporation” and the poor, downtrodden consumer. The glaring fact that enormous corporations routinely go bankrupt, or have to modify their products to sell them to people whom they cannot force to buy as much as a toothpick, is blanked out. This would be too inconvenient to mention when one is attempting to sell the idea of “political” economics, where a business would seemingly have the right to ban all competition by economic vote and engage the power of the state to coerce any potential adversaries. That this sometimes now happens in our deformed mixed economies is a comment on the misuse of political power which inevitably occurs when voluntary economic choices are contaminated with the coercive action of the state. As in many things, the answer to seek is “Qui Bono?”

  • snide

    Qui Bono? He is the singer from U2, dude! :-)

  • I feel obliged to make some kind of reply to all this socialist-bashing, so here is a brief expression of the view of an actual socialist.

    I don’t claim to be a libertarian – I’m certainly not what seems to be your definition of the term. I do however believe in respect for most individual liberties. As far as I am concerned you can do what you like with your life, but what I do not believe in is the freedom to exploit people by making excessive amounts of money out of their hard work.

    It is simply not right that while millions of children grow up malnourished, a few people possess vast personal fortunes – money that could be used to save lives and alleviate terrible poverty.

    Socialism tells us many things, but one of its messages is well illustrated by this example:

    If people are hungry because there’s someone who’s got more food than anyone could possibly need, the starving people are perfectly entitled to go round and take away the excess for themselves.

    You may well disagree with that. Maybe you think it’s people’s own fault if they are trapped in poverty, their lives dominated by those who wield economic power, their personal liberties utterly non-existent because that’s what suits whoever finds themselves at the top of the tree.

    Maybe you do believe this – I don’t know and I wouldn’t claim to speak for you. But please be clear about where socialists stand on personal liberties. In my view, their importance cannot be underestimated.

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    David:

    As a libertarian, I’d argue that it’s not useful to talk about the concept of urban “design” in the first place. It smacks of a statist attitude towards ordering society, and if we want more liveable cities, we need to do away with such attitudes.

    Portland, Oregon is an excellent example of this — it used to be one of the more affordable large cities in the US, until it became in thrall to the advocates of “smart” growth (“smart growth” being one of the more irritating terms out there, since it’s inevitably not smart due to its backfiring). Now Portland is much less affordable, and there has been all sorts of “sprawl” outside the limits of the planning areas.

    Left-statist ideas on public housing and forced busing have also done quite a bit in influencing people’s decisions towards wanting to leave the cities. And it’s also the left-statists who are in denial of the libertarian critique. Look at the opposition to the “dollar vans” in NYC.

    I guess if you’re looking for a libertarian slogan regarding urban planning, I’ll give you one: “Government-driven urban planning is just as flawed as government-driven economic planning.”

  • Actually I was hoping for thoughtful conservative/libertarian critique (or references to it) rather than a slogan. :)

    For example

    http://www.2blowhards.com

    does not deny the wicked legacy of more than 300 years of racism but provides an “affirmative action” based on income rather than race. That’s constructive.

    I am searching, I hope not in vain, for a C/L approach to making cities a better place to live. Denying that there is any role for common action in creating public space, or even going further to deny that there is anything such as public space or a public interest, strikes me as futile.

  • Brian

    I’d call Jane Jacobs’ book soundly libertarian: The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Contra planning, pro spontaneous order. Good stuff.

    For environmentalism see Terry Anderson’s Free Market Environmentalism and the relevent parts of The Noblest Triumph by Tom Bethell (tragedy of the commons and externalities being the big issues of course).

  • Black Man With A Modem

    But please be clear about where socialists stand on personal liberties. In my view, their importance cannot be underestimated.

    Just words. Their importance can indeed be underestimated. Sorry to sound harsh but if you are a socialist, then personal liberty is just what the state allows and the truth is that just because you do not like to think your views are inimical to personal liberty does not change the fact the collective always controls the personal under socialism. You claim to help people but the causal link between having a free economy and prosperity not just for the few but the many is too obvious to enuerate. Tell me Chris, how many governments in Africa are capitalist? I mean how many really allow free use and ownership of private capital, labor and land? And now how many are socialist? Please spare me the routine about how much you people ‘care’ for us. For decades you have cared millions of us to death.

    If the state is strong, it is either a socialist tyranny resulting in poverty or it is a regulatory kleptocracy in which the state may be too weak to plan the economy but it is strong enough to plunder it with corruption again resulting in poverty.

  • Gringo Bandito

    David says “Denying that there is any role for common action in creating public space, or even going further to deny that there is anything such as public space or a public interest, strikes me as futile.”

    Common action is fine, just so long as it is not the coersive common action you probably have in mind, which is just a polite way of saying having the state shake people down. I certainly reject the notion of ‘public interest’ apart from that expressed by markets for anything not related to the only legitimate function of a state, which is to say it’s nightwatchman functions. Arguing this is indeed futile of course, because the state is going to take my money to pursuit your alleged public interest regardless, which is why I divert so much effort that would otherwise go into creating wealth, keeping my money away from the taxman via trusts, off shore companies and other annoying crap so I do not end up financing your frigging ‘public interest’ more than I have to.

  • Chris: “It is simply not right that while millions of children grow up malnourished, a few people possess vast personal fortunes – money that could be used to save lives and alleviate terrible poverty.”

    James: I’ll agree that “it is simply not right,” to the extent that the vast personal fortunes may have been acquired by coercive force or fraud. But if done through non-coercive means, through numeous voluntary transactions between the wealthy person and others, involving no small talent, skill, or know-how on the part of the wealthy person, how is the accumulation “wrong?” Why is it wrong for someone to have sole decisionmaking power over his honestly acquired property, whether the few bucks in his wallet or the millions of pounds in a numbered swiss bank account? By focusing on an egregious, extreme scenario, socialists and “progressives” get laws passed that have significant adverse effects on the everyday affairs of EVERYONE, not just the alleged, greedy fat-cats that are the ostensible targets of the laws.

    Chris: “If people are hungry because there’s someone who’s got more food than anyone could possibly need, the starving people are perfectly entitled to go round and take away the excess for themselves. You may well disagree with that…”

    James: I certainly do disagree. Who determines the point at which someone is “starving,” or the point at which another has “more than anyone could possibly need…”? Although the line may seem clear to you, others will invariably disagree; ultimately, the line will be drawn and redrawn in the sand through a never-ending political process. As an example, the US income tax was initially to be a tax on the rich, affecting just the top 1% of earners. Over the decades, the political process mutated the tax until it applied, more or less, to nearly anyone who was making any kind of income at all. The effective tax-definition of “rich” has been stretched so thin that now, I believe a combined household income of around US$70,000 per year lumps one in with the hated fat-cats. When politics determines the distribution of wealth, even the not-so-well-off will find their wealth being redistributed.

    Charity for those less fortunate must always be a decision of individual conscience. If it is institutionalized through government programs and the tax code, the results are often as ugly as the original problems of poverty and starvation — which themselves are NEVER ERADICATED by the wealth redistribution schemes, anyway.

    Theft is wrong, whether done by the rich, the starving, or anyone else in between (especially the government). The moral thing for a starving person to do — other than ask for charity — is offer to trade something of value (property, labor, knowledge, etc.) with someone who has food. Very few people in the world will ever be so totally lacking in resources that they have absolutely nothing to trade in exchange for the things they need to live. The value of the economic system — the measure by which we judge it as “successful” — lies in its ability to facilitate mutually advantageous, voluntary trade between willing participants, so that wealth ends up being created, discovered, and redistributed (via job creation, e.g.) through a volitional process, rather than a coercive one. When you say that “starving people” are “entitled” to seize food from those who “have too much,” you effectively endorse redistribution of wealth through coercion and theft, a policy that has innumerable bad, anti-freedom consequences. Although our sympathies are certainly with the starving people (I’ve been without means and hungry myself often and long enough in my life for the sympathy to be genuine), the adoption of a general societal principle endorsing theft is a profoundly wrong way to approach the problem, precisely because it establishes an invariably exploited precedent for coercion and theft to become business-as-usual throughout the system. Can you think of a way to address the starving people problem that does not involve coercion or theft? If you can, you’ll probably end up at least a little more libertarian and a little less socialist. I have volumes more to say on this particular subject, but I’ll leave it at that.

  • Brian: “I’d call Jane Jacobs’ book soundly libertarian: The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Contra planning, pro spontaneous order. Good stuff.”

    James: Is that an expansion or follow-on to her great book, “Cities and the Wealth of Nations”? Back in the 1980s, I found the latter to be one of the most readable and sensible books on real-world economics and urban development that I had encountered up to that time; indeed, I haven’t really encountered anything MORE readable or sensible since, but a sequel by the author herself might fill the bill. Years before I had ever read anything by Ayn Rand, Jane Jacobs was a key influence on my evolving libertarian sensibilities, even though, like Rand, I doubt she would ever call herself a “libertarian.”

  • If Jane Jacobs qualifies as a libertarian, then we are all libertarians now, (just as Nixon said that “we are all Keynesians”) and the term libertarian loses any significance and bite.

    Jane Jacobs is a skeptic and abhors cant and BS. That means that she is likely to be dubious of large governmental & corporate programs.

    But I would doubt that one can find anything in her magnum opus ‘Death & Life…” which indicates that she is against government programs and regulations per se, as one would expect a libertarian to be.

  • Mark Alger

    Libertarian socialism: another definition for cognitive dissonance.

  • Innocent Abroad

    I can’t sleep for worrying about Byna’s damned orchard.

    What her/his extremely restrictive conditions mean is simply that large orchards are uncompetitive compared with small ones.

    But there is no particular reason to suppose that a libertarian socialist polity would fix the price of apples in this way.

  • Long experience has taught me a hard truth:

    When it comes to people like Chris (“obliged to make some kind of reply to all this socialist-bashing”), there will only be one stand to take, and that is well-armed at the gate. He will not be reasoned out of his position.

  • Good work, Perry.

    In the most recent decades, the Left has largely pushed its agenda by corrupting the language in which we discuss political fundamentals. “Rights” and “liberalism” are only the most egregious examples of words whose meanings have been distorted beyond recognition.

    To make this tactic work, the Leftist must identify the preferred concepts of the day and co-opt the words used to refer to them. This only works if: 1) the co-opter can fake sincere agreement with the concepts, and 2) people pay insufficient attention to the change being wrought upon the meaning of the words, as with “rights” and “liberalism.”

    Our most pressing need is clarity of thought and expression. But then, isn’t it always?

  • What Byna’s hypo (about the orchard) means to me is that Byna created a hypo which supports the point he/she wishes to make.

  • S. Weasel

    Of course, David. Why would anyone create a hypothetical that didn’t support her point?

    The question is, how likely is this one to be accurate? What does the law of unintended consequences teach us about meddling with the marketplace, well intentioned or not?

  • Well S. Weasel, one reason to have an unbiased hypo might be to enable a fair and thoughtful discussion.

    Hypotheticals are used in law school in series i.e. one shifts asssumptions in a progression with the continual refrain of “what result?”

    A an obviously rigged hypo simply has no oomph, offers no reason for the listener to rethink his/her assumptions.

  • Francis Poretto understates the case, in saying, “In the most recent decades, the Left has largely pushed its agenda by corrupting the language in which we discuss political fundamentals.”

    Corrupting the language has indeed been the left’s business (a process Orwell illustrated all too clearly in “1984″ and “Animal Farm,” for example). But it has been going on for quite a bit longer than the past few decades. For instance, back in the heyday of the US “progressive” movement (i.e., early decades of the 20th century), the word “regulate” was transformed in a way that had profound consequences for the growth of government. Before the progressive era, “regulate” meant “to make regular, predictable, dependable.” One wouldn’t, for example, think that someone was “regulating” an engine by simply shutting it off and walking away, or by turning off the spigot connected to a hose. The notion of regulation was one of smoothing out an ongoing flow or process.

    During the progressive era, the word came to mean “to establish and enforce official rules of conduct; to exercise control, up to and including prohibition of the regulated activity.” This shift in meaning expowered various congresses and supreme courts to extend federal control over a broad spectrum of activity, by asserting the constitutional power to “regulate commerce.” (The meanings of “commerce” and “interstate” underwent similar changes.)

  • S. Weasel

    Yes, thank you, David, I know what a hypothetical is. And the fact that Byna’s supports her point is no indication that it’s “obviously rigged”. It’s like complaining if she uses statistics that somehow, mysteriously underscore her argument, without providing evidence that those statistics are incorrect or that other equally valid statistics point in other directions.

    In fact, her hypothetical — where wage controls and regulation of working conditions run into a time- and cost-sensitive project to the detriment of absolutely everyone, especially the workers it was intended to protect — is more than merely plausible.

  • All good points, James. Understatement is just my natural metier. (And if you believe that, I have a wonderful opportunity for you. No checks, please. Cash only. In small bills!)

    No, seriously, you’re perfectly right. I was commenting on the portion of my life wherein I’ve been politically engaged.

  • spork

    see this for “libertarian socialism” in action, not very libertarian at all!

  • Tim Butler

    1. Someone (I cannot recall the name) said that the difference between a civil law system (i.e. France) and a commone law system (i.e. England/U.S.) is that in the former, everything is forbidden unless permitted, while in the latter, everything is permitted unless forbidden. This is the essential division between libertarians and socialists and the reason why the two terms cannot be used together.

    2. Can anyone out there reproduce a political graph I recall from Analog (the science fiction magazine0 about twenty years ago. Instead of a left-right spectrum, it had the more traditional lef-right/up-down graph familiar in mathmatics (Is that a cartesian form??) I recall that on one leg the spectrum was from a state with total power to a state of anarchy. I can’t remember the spectrum on the other leg. I do recall it as being far more accurate in placing groups in connection to their beliefs. For example, the Nazis and communists ended up in the same quadrant.

  • M A

    Nazi is short for National Sozialist Deutsche Aktion Partei (German National Socialist Action Party or some such thing).
    >NAZI is short for National Socialist Worker’s Party…
    (Posted by: DANEgerus on May 26, 2003 02:29 AM)
    It doesn’t anger me the least to recognize that, statist ideologies as the Communism (in Stalinist form to reduce the discussion) and Nazi movement are almost the same thing. But, in which way are they collectivist? I can argue about the massive USSR stalinist purges as a means to totally atomize society and destroy any civil society organization or group solidarity that could contend with central Party – controlled State. To call this practial developement “collectivism” is, in my opinion, misleading.
    You people seem to have a problem separating private property, which needs some way or another of cohercion, and libertarianism. The libertarianism that focuses so much on private property as we now it now (lands, assets, money…) is for me dependant of the “metacontext” of burgeouise liberalism (no offence intended).

    OK, here are my thoughts after reading the first few posts…

  • burgeouise liberalism (no offence intended).

    Spelling aside, why on earth would people like us, who are enthusiastic advocates of bourgeois liberalism, take offence at being labelled as… bourgeois (classical) liberals? The way we see it, bourgeois liberalism has the unfair advantage of having reality on its side :-)

    But as to “how are communism and fascism collectivist”, how can they not be? Both assign political value in a total manner (as in ‘totalitarian’) based on the group membership of a person (be it ‘class’ to a communist or ‘class’ & ‘race’ to fascist) and thus they are the antithesis of individualism.