We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Straw men

Having been involved in British libertarian circles since I was in my late teens about 18 years ago – god that makes me feel old – I have gotten used to the charge that the likes of us are crazed dogmatists. In Britain’s notoriously anti-intellectual culture, being interested in ideas, and worse, ideas which question the need for most of what governments do, is to be branded as a dangerous nutter. (Mind you, having read abusive comments directed at yours truly by various LewRockwell.com types, I feel almost quite moderate and middle-of-the-road these days.)

Step forward Aidan Rankin, who in The Spectator magazine, charges that eurosceptics within the Tory Party and among libertarian circles are the “new Trotskyists,” every bit as militant and dogmatic as the old left. In a way, that is a backhanded compliment of sorts because it shows that folk like Rankin are at least becoming aware of our existence, even though they prefer to construct straw men for the purpose of easy knock-down pieces rather than describe us more accurately. Anyway, let us fisk:

On Europeans and other issues the Tories are still impeded – not by indecision as in the recent past, but by an insidious ideological rigidity, a right-wing version of political correctness.

Huh? Really? Has the Tory Party, in recent years, called for, say, total withdrawal by this country from the EU? No. But to read Rankin you would assume that to be the case.

Public scepticism about the single currency is matched by the lack of public support for Eurosceptic campaigns. This is because even to sympathetic observers such campaigns appear so often to be bitter and bigoted.

He has half a point. I think the eurosceptic lobby would do better to focus on the essentially illiberal nature of the EU rather than on the fact that is being run by vile Frogs, etc. He then turns his gaze from Europe to other issues. Here we go:

“Libertarians, whose influence in conservative circles is growing, are free market fundamentalists.

We think that the market, which is a place where sovereign individuals freely transact and deal with one another, is better than any other form of human order devised, such as state planning. Fundamentalist is a boo word.

Like Marxists of the most dogmatic kind, libertarians reduce the individual to homo economicus: the man or woman as a mere unit of production or consumption, without any cultural reference points.

Complete Bull. Many libertarian thinkers, of which Ludwig von Mises was an outstanding example, did not reduce Man to a “mere” economic being. Rather, he used the insights of economics to help show how human beings behaved. Libertarians understand that people seek to acquire and keep values, including non-material ones, and that in an open society, such action will produce things like markets.

Libertarians combine economic purism with a naive commitment to counter-cultural values.

Speak for yourself, ditto. A perusal of the literature should show Rankin that libertarians often value things like marriage and other institutions, which are the opposite of “counter-cultural”, presumably in the way Rankin means it. What of course he objects to is the fact that libertarians insist that membership of institutions be voluntary.

Like the politically correct Left, libertarians believe in open borders and the abolition of immigration controls.

I take it Rankin believes in immigration control. And anyway he overlooks the fact that libertarians like me would only support totally open borders if the Welfare State were to be abolished first. I would also support the right for states, or even better, private communities to sell rights to citizenship for a price and even trade them on an open market.

At its most extreme, it (libertarianism) celebrates family and community breakdown as forms of liberation, or drug dependency as consumer choice.

Speak for yourself, ditto.

They [evil libertarians] oppose with revolutionary ardour any public money for faith-based institutions, single-sex schools or regiments, or anything not “open to all.

By George, I believe this man has been paying attention. Actually, I am even more extreme than that. I oppose spending of public money on schools, be they co-ed or whatever. Let schools of any type exist, funded by consenting adults. Libertarians do of course differ between minarchists who favour some kind of tax-funded spending on courts and the armed forces, and anarcho-capitalists who do not.

I could Fisk some more but you get the general drift. Aidan Rankin is a conservative, I would guess, and obviously deeply alarmed at the libertarian meta-context.

He should be.

39 comments to Straw men

  • This is a more insidious bit of drivel than one might conclude after a quick reading. Its menace arises from the recognition by Mr. Rankin, who is clearly an opponent of freedom, that he can score a gain by coloring libertarian postulates and convictions negatively in his readers’ minds.

    “Define or be defined!” says Michael Emerling. It’s not enough merely to react to this sort of thrust. We must seize the semantic initiative, and the high ground. Not only must we insist on freedom-centric definitions of libertarian ideas; we must also make those ideas the sole reference point from which competing political scholia are defined and described.

  • Guy Herbert

    The general point well taken. It is an absurd and insulting article. (Most of the worst articles I can remember in recent Spectators seem to emanate from serving Tory MPs. Maybe letting them write iis a sort of tax Boris pays to the whips office.)

    However I have to depart from the final suggestion that libertarians are necessarily either minarchist or anarcho-capitalists. There’s much more scope for variation than that, I’d suggest.

    Libertarianism is a name for a tendency rather than a creed, in my book, and all those who oppose collective impositions on individuals can count themselves as libertarian. Or at least libertarian-hyphenated. And one can still contemplate a significant role for the state, and be a long way from minarchism, while being so far out of the political mainstream that there are no other available labels but libertarian.

  • I have to disagree with you about one of Rankin’s points: being governed by the Frogs is a perfectly good reason not to join the EU, whether liberal or illiberal.

    What made me chuckle was Rankin’s assertion that the Conservatives (quite clearly the most innocuous and ineffective wets outside the U.S. Republican senators) are eeevil.

    If they were Trotskyites they’d at least have a plan… but they don’t, the poor dears.

    Rankin needs a swift kick in the balls, but I think that’s against some Brit law or other.

  • Liberty Belle

    Guy Herbert – “a sort of tax Boris pays to the whips office.” V funny!

  • Kit Taylor

    Someone write an angry letter to the Spectator or the MP in question!

    Libertarianism is more an area of philosophical pondering than anywhere else. Libertarian politics is about the pragmatic application of moral truth to real world situations. The author seems to have concocted some absolute truths himself and forgotten the pragmatism.

    Religion (perhaps Christianity in particular), family and marriage strike me as key elements of libertarianism. The Founding Fathers set out the terms of the Constituition on the premise that these should hold America together rather than the government.

  • My name is Giggles: fear me

    Well my oh my, but isn’t that just the most open-minded and tolerant of posts above? Ah, libertarians, don’t you just love them? Of course, you don’t, in the British context, have to pay any attention to them – and that’s, obviously, the core flaw to Rankin’s argument (as, at any rate, it touches upon our own dear libbos). British libertarians have zero influence inside the Tory party, and because they have none there, they have no political influence in this country whatsover. It is difficult to conclude – certainly if this blog is in way representative [aka ‘the unimpeded market-driven product of the free interchange of libbo ideas in a competitive context’ etc etc] – anything other than that this political irrelevance is a profoundly good thing for Britain.

    Not, mind you, that libertarians can [most precious of libbo words] logically believe in Britain ;)

  • Giggles again

    My apologies (I started my comment above, then became distracted by a copy of Chronicles, before finally finishing it off, and in between times, several other comments were evidently posted) – the ‘post above’ I was referring to was Mr Porretto’s tart offering.

  • Hi Johnathan,

    What I find amusing about Aidan Rankin’s article is that it seems to ignore the results from the last two general elections. He states:

    For conservatism is not an ideology at all but a continuous balancing act between tradition and change, individual and community

    He implies the great goal of re-acquiring this “lost” conservative mission of muddling through, has been undermined by we evil libertarians. It never seems to enter his head that the reason the Conservatives got wiped-out in 1997, and 2001, to a lying, deceitful, useless government full of statists, is because the people of this country considered the Conservatives to be an even worse bunch of lying, deceitful, and useless statists.

    Because they appeared to stand for nothing but the status quo, whatever the status quo happened to be at the time, even if miserable, dire, and hopeless. (But always a status quo with plenty of lucrative favours for those with friends in high Tory places.)

    You can say many things about Tony Blair, some of them even publishable, but at least he looked to the ordinary British punter like he was trying to improve things, and didn’t just sit there like a jellyfish muddling through soup.

    (Though now, of course, he does. Ha ha, Tony, I give you six months or less! :-)

    So why didn’t the Tories abandon the NHS in the 1950s? Why did they let the 1945 Labour government’s dreadful welfare system endure? Why did it take until El Thatch, in 1979, to even begin to start tearing the state down? Why did the Europhile Tories assassinate said Thatch, in order to let statist wobblers like Major and Heseltine take over? Answer: Because the Tory party is full of brainless fools who just want a quiet life, with guaranteed privileges for themselves, and their friends, ahead of the general population.

    Well I’m sorry Aidan, but this game finished forever in 1997.

    It is this lack of spunk, this complete spinlelessness, and lazy feudal attitude, which led to the Conservatives’ complete and deserved destruction in 1997.

    And now, as New Labour fall apart, and the Tories grasp a glimmer of hope for 2005, there is a simple reason for this which is rattling old Tories.

    It is because statism is beginning to be perceived, even by Joe Public, for the complete canard it is. The Tory leaders are also beginning to adopt sensible policies driven in the background by these same evil libertarians (eg: Putting the patient first in the NHS, Abolitioning the LEAs, Putting parents first with direct pupil funding, No to the Euro, No to the Euro Constitution, and No to yet another blood-sucking layer of “regional” politicians).

    To accelerate this restoration of liberty, ethics, and the rule of law, what we need is MORE libertarianism in the Tory party, not LESS. And the sooner Aidan Rankin and his status quo friends get out of the way, the better for the future of this country.

    Still, like you say, it’s nice that they’re rattled. They should be. Their day is over. They are only just beginning to realise it! ;-)

    Rgds,
    AndyD

  • D Anghelone

    I’ve thought of this site as being something of a sanctuary for disaffected libertarians who’d agree with Rankin.

  • Andy Wood

    British libertarians have zero influence inside the Tory party

    Adam Smith? The IEA? The Adam Smith Institute?

  • Yet more Giggles

    Dear old ‘I’m New Labour now’ [1997] Madsen’s ASI? Influence inside the Tory party? None. John Blundell’s IEA? Zip. You couldn’t point to a single Tory policy today which stems from anything the IEA is either doing, or has done in the last 10 years. And, indeed much like both the IEA and the ASI, Adam Smith was nothing so anachronistic or absurd as a libbo: that, in part, is why he is a great man.

    Again, I repeat (you have to with British libbos): show me the ‘influence’. There is none. Not an intellectual sausage. Libertarianism in Britain is completely politically irrelevant. For pity’s sake, socialism is of far greater intellectual account in this country’s politics!

    I guarantee: not one comment to follow will in any shape or form credibly demonstrate anything like an even slightly serious influence exerted by British libertarians in British politics. Their political failure is total. They blog.

  • Giggles seems suspiciously tetchy about something. Do I detect a slight, squeaky raising of the voice in those 2 closing lines “Their political failure is total. They blog.”?

    Methinks the Giggler doth protest too much.

  • Andy Wood

    And, indeed much like both the IEA and the ASI, Adam Smith was nothing so anachronistic or absurd as a libbo

    None of these are libertarians? Why not?

  • Cheerful Giggler

    Mark: Nahh, I’m alright: I just want to help libbos. And the place I’ve decided to start is by explaining to them that they don’t (politically) matter, it’s not their fault, stuff just happens. But I’ll repeat [see libbo commentary passim please], British libertarians are of no political consequence. Maybe they ought to be (can’t say I’m convinced myself …), but the plain fact is that they’re not. And thus we’re one-and-zero with posts subsequent to my challenge [.11] that, as yet, have failed to illustrate the vast, albeit obscure, political signifigance of British libbos.

  • “Vast…significance”? No of course not, Giggler – wouldn’t disagree with you for a moment there.

    But some folk here wish to change that, I sense, and come to have significance.

    Your point is that a political idea can never go from being ignored to having influence?

  • Giggling on

    Mr Wood: there was a dear old man called John Wood who used to work at the IEA (and died almost 15 years ago). An expert historian of ideas, he would have, with horrible skill, traced the intellectual evolution of both the IEA and the ASI for you, let alone of poor abused Adam Smith, and demonstrated the gulf that has separated them from anything that could meaningfully be called ‘libertarianism’. On this one, though, I suggest you ask your more ardent libbo sisters why theyvcertainly wouldn’t consider either the IEA or the ASI to be ‘institutionally libertarian’, to MacPherson a phrase.

    Two-and-zero.

  • Andy Wood

    Is Milton Friedman a libertarian?

    And, why do you believe I’m a libertarian?

  • Dear Mr Giggler,

    There’s some idiot using your name on http://www.samizdata.net/blog/. You may want to check out the above to see what he’s been saying. He really is making you look like a fool.

    Let us know your real name, and we’ll be able to flush him out for you.

    Rgds,
    AndyD

  • G-g-giggled!

    Mark: I will explain all to you. I find the Blogosphere’s use of the term ‘Fisking’ to invariably be the prelude to much pomposity, pedantry and politically obsessed posing. Mr Pearce ‘fisked’ Dr Rankin: in the process, he, to my mind, missed – for reasons of self-esteem we can well understand – the central error to Rankin’s essay. Namely that it was predicated upon British libertarians having, to whatever degree, an influence on Tory party policy. I no longer can remember quite what-and-zero the score is now, but as I think we are working towards agreeing, libertarians do not exert an influence on the Tory party. And therefore they possess no influence to speak of in our lovely parliamentary system. Hoorah!

  • S. Weasel

    The recent polls (I’ve got to start jotting down URLs) which indicate that nearly a third of the British population would want out of Europe entirely rather than surrender sovereignty give the lie to his claim that Euroskepticism lacks public support. If only the Tories really were pushing such an idea.

    There’s an obvious danger in letting anyone move the goal-posts in the middle of play. To claim that the Tories contain a significant proportion of rigid right-wingers is high silliness, when the party is currently desperately squishy and galloping leftwards and any breakaway attempt to wrest control seem to be coming from left of that.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I think Giggler is fairly accurate in seeing no great influence of libbos (I assume he is being derisory) on the Tory Party.

    The Tory Party has not made much of a stink about the wholesale assault on civil liberties, and indeed was part of the problem in the Thatcher years, as Sean Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance made clear. The IEA and ASI do not, as far as I can see, exert much influence on the Tory Party these days.

    Quite how we change things around is a difficult point. But making tart remarks about us “libbos” skulking away in blogs rather than doing something else is not much help. And cheer up sir. Have a drink.

  • Giggler sounds increasingly nervous. After all, given the total lack of libbo importance, why would Dear Old Giggler care about “helping”?

    I suggest you sit down with a nice cup of tea, and have a bit of a rest, Giggler.

  • I have to say that I think Mr.Giggler has got a good point (being his only point, it ought to be good). I think that the influence of libertarian ideas on the body politic of Britain is as close to zero as makes no difference.

    Which leads me to wonder just why it is that both he and Mr.Rankin feel it necessary to go to the effort of denouncing us. Why bother?

  • Giggles wins! Giggles wins!

    [dancing Anime characters shoot past, with smiling faces and jet-packs: dunno why, they just do]

    Thank you Mr Pearce: mission accomplished: we can all go home now: politically, British libertarians don’t matter. You lot say Badddd! I say, tip top! Diversity, huh?

    Many-and-zero (and more to come)

  • Giggle go soon. Giggle say goodbye.

    Carrbaby, who’s denouncing you? I’m certainly not, mon over-sensitive sunflower: I like libbos. And as for all my other newfound libbo friends who have variously inquired this afternoon after my nerves/cheerfulness/need for restfulness/lack of drinkness, thank you all so very much. Keep playing for the man, not the ball, you’ll become relevant one day.

  • S. Weasel

    I suppose, having charted the wrong course, they’d like to have an absolute unanimity of wrongness. Party politicians often do.

  • Andy Wood

    How disappointing.

    I’m still in the dark as to why the IEA, the ASI and Adam Smith aren’t libertarians.

    Anyone?

  • Oh do come off it, Giggles. If anyone has been playing the man, not the ball round here it is you. I am rather more impressed with the Nulabourites who fetch up here from time to time in an attempt to challenge our ideas.

    They fail but at least they make a game out of it. If only they realised just how irrelevant we are they would, perhaps, spare themselves the pain of the public humiliation they endure.

  • Hi David,

    How dare you!

    We’re not entirely irrelevant. Some days my own wife even knows who I am! :-)

    (eg: “You there, could you take the bins out please?” :)

    Rgds,
    AndyD

  • Eamon

    Jesus Andy

    That woman sounds scary. Imagine just assuming that you will jump to obey her centrally planned rota for household waste disposal.

    Surely it would be better for a entreprenurial third party, to apply free market thinking to the problem of “the bins”, thus ensuring prosperity for all and more surfing time for you.

    Eamon

  • Giggles, beside the stupid name, you also don’t know what your are talking about. Libertarians are more influential in the Tory Party than you believe. If they weren’t why would you find lug-nuts like this twit bleating about them. The statist breed of Tory is scared shitless by the libertarians in the party.

    I have been to many meetings in the HoC where almost everyone under 40 is being very radical and libertarian. There are quite a few libertarian minded Counsellers, Constituency Chairman and PPCs. There is even an informal “Liberty Caucus” in the Party.

  • Andrew Giggles-Castel de la Ian Dodge au Patrick Robertson

    Dodge: I’m sorry you object to my name: I have renamed it your honour.

    But crikey, I have been wrong all along. There are research assistants who call themselves ‘libertarians'; libertarianism triumphs; libbos run the Tory party; they are setting the agenda of British politics; they are supremely relevant; they blog.

    Back to reality: a gabazillion-to-none sez, libbo influence in British politics? Nadda.

  • “Back to reality: a gabazillion-to-none sez, libbo influence in British politics? Nadda.”

    Yes and Mr.Giggles just has to keep coming back here to remind us again and again.

  • Phil B

    The idea that Libertarians have little or no influence in the conservative party and are hence irrelevant, is false.

    Political parties (and its particulary marked in 2 party systems such as the UK) exist to get themselves elected. This necessarily means subscribing to a position in relation to some real or perceived orthodoxy.

    The issue is therefore to change the orthodoxy. If the Internet and blogs are any indication of where orthodoxy (in political thought) is going (and I think they are) then Libertarians and similar are disproportionately influential as a list of the most popular blogs shows.

  • Doug Collins

    This argument over whether libertarians blog or have influence in the Tory party is missing the point. In all political parties, the people who have the immediate influence are the ‘men of action’, people who concentrate their attention on tactics and personalities. Lyndon Johnson said that politics is the “Art of the Possible”. His mentor, Sam Rayburn, said that “All politics is local”. Both these ideas encapsulate the concept of political action as being essentially apolitical. They have nothing to do with theories of power or liberty, Hobbs or Locke.

    Trotsky, Margaret Thatcher, George W. Bush, Oliver Cromwell, Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln and a host of others could all sit down and have a very amicable discussion of techniques and their application as long as no one brought up the rude question of purpose.

    It is in the area of purpose – the reason for taking political action in the first place- that libertarians (or socialists, or euroslavers or any other political philosophers) have their influence. For the ‘men of action’ are to a very large extent, void of any thoughtful consideration of purpose. For them, power is the immediate purpose. The British Tories and American Republicans both have an unfortunate tendency to fall into the hands of men with no vision beyond getting elected. When an occasional Thatcher or Reagan comes along, having taken time for study of both technique and theory, their sense of direction enables them to run rings around the ‘practical’ politicians.

    But even Thatcher and Reagan did not do much original theorizing. That remains for institutions such as Samizdata. And that is where libertarians will have their influence on the Tories – who seem from this far side of the Atlantic to have lost their way. I only hope you can show them the path in time.

  • Leroy

    Ya know, if Britain has to give up independence to join a federal structure, why not get rid of the royal family and join the USA. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would make four perfectly fine states. Politically there is much more common ground with ties across the pond, than there is across the moat. Ah well, I know that no one is paying attention, but I would rather see the Mother country re-united with us, than see the EU gain your land.

  • Theodopoulos Pherecydes

    I think Giggles is overstating her case. The Daily Telegraph took – and continues to take – a quite libertarian path. They even announced they were going to do it beforehand. Surely the Torygraph has some influence on the Conservative Party.

  • Junior

    Boy-oh-boy!, didn’t that over educated, sarcastic, arrogant little ‘dick-head’, (Gig….s), rattle your collective cages.

    Calm down, the clue to dealing with that sort of comment is in the saying, ‘love me, or hate me, but please don’t ignore me.’

    Not every itch has to be scratched…

    The speed of his ripostes would indicate that he was sitting at his computer all day, just waiting for whichever of you rose to the bait of his juvenile observations and comments.

    After reading a few comments, I was getting a picture of a little boy with a long stick, poking at whatever he could find.

    Re his assertion that ‘libbos’ were of no consequence. Didn’t Christianity start with just a small following of twelve, and suffer from the same sort of short sighted jibes?.

  • Reasons to be cheerful, if not exactly a la mode of the laughing jackass above:-

    1. Libertarians most definitely want influence within the Party of freedom – and will get it if they work out the right strategy. But our friend is right about blogging. It is too self-indulgent to qualify as serious politics. Something more tangible would help, I think.

    2. Economic libertarianism still has a cherished place among Tories. Furthermore, the corporatist alternative is utterly discredited. Remember TINA.

    3. One or two Tory MP’s do now acknowledge that the PC-induced silence on matters affecting our civil liberties will not last forever.

    And that – the area of perfectly free speech – is where Libertarians can make an immediate, decisive and leading contribution. Speak out on everything – everything – that the left has shut down. Don’t use the PC vocabulary. Grow a thick skin, and to hell with their name-calling.

    The future must not belong to the politically correct.