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The ideological war: Alex Singleton on the significance of individuals and of small teams

Being a rather lazy person about everything except thinking, I love to think about how to ensure that the few feeble bursts of libertarian effort I manage to put in every few days actually have some beneficial impact. The well known link between fondness for strategy and fondness for sitting in armchairs is no mere coincidence.

So I was delighted when Alex Singleton chose, for the talk he gave at my most recent last-Friday-of-the-month meeting in my London SW1 home (email me if you want to be notified of future events in this infinite series), the subject of libertarian tactics and strategy, winning the ideological war for libertarianism, etc. etc. (Like me, Alex continues to use the L-word.)

Despite the word war being in the title it was a relaxed and good humoured evening, and not just because Alex is a relaxed and good humoured person, although that helped. More importantly, Alex is optimistic about the difference that free, self-controlling and even self-funded individuals or tiny groups of individuals can make to the libertarian cause. Because of that, he felt no urge to lay out a master libertarian strategy which all must be commanded, which in practice means begged, to sign up to. We were presented with no Big Central Plan for Libertarian Success. Which makes sense, given that we are so suspicious about Big Central Plans for other things.

Alex made much of that familiar scenario where there exists a universal statist consensus, which one individual then breaks. Peter Bauer breaks the consensus that Foreign Aid is an automatically Good Thing. Terence Kealey breaks the consensus that in the modern world Pure Science must be funded by the government in order to proceed satisfactorily. E. G. West breaks the consensus that The State was responsible for the rise of mass literacy and mass education in the now rich world, and that without State funding for mass education, mass education would cease.

In his own recent line of business, Alex and his small group of collaborators at the International Policy Network have been busily helping to chip away at the widely held belief – nothing like universal in this case (thanks e.g. to Peter Bauer) – that “globalisation” in general, and international free trade in particular, is a bad and scary thing, and that the only answer is a gigantic global tax system. (Not all globalisation is bad, it would seem.) A huge number of delegates can assemble for some international drone-fest in some First World enclave in the Third World, but it only takes a quite small number of cunning activists to piss very visibly into the consensual soup that is served up on such occasions, if only because the media do so love an argument. Free Trade bad? Just find a handful of local Third World farmers who love Free Trade and whose only complaint about it is that there isn’t more of it, tell all the media about them, and take some good photos of them and stick them up on the Internet.

The Internet has helped all this tremendously, as I surely don’t need to say here but will anyway, by putting professional presentation and idea-spreading into the hands of individuals and small groups, who now need only to be canny operators with the gift of the gab. Appropriately enough, Alex is about to start another job with another quite small group of schemers, namely the Adam Smith Institute (he’s already their blogmeister), who are likewise regularly assumed by those familiar with their ideas and impact but not with their working conditions to be a whole lot bigger and grander and better funded than they really are.

Plenty more of interest got said by those present, but that will do as a first reaction to a most convivial evening. I meant to stick this up on Saturday morning, but got diverted from doing that by not doing it. Luckily, there are some ideas in this world that are good enough to last a few days, the significance of individual and small team action definitely being one of them.

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9 comments to The ideological war: Alex Singleton on the significance of individuals and of small teams

  • Alex’s talk sounds as though it was excellent, from what I have read of his views on various websites and blogs he seems to be a brilliant and rising star of the broad libertarian movement here in the UK. I hope he stays here and doesn’t slope off to America as so many do. Unfortunately my attendance at the Royal Institute of Philosophy Conference at Durham University at the weekend prevented my hearing Alex’s talk so thanks to Brian for summarizing it here.

    I am glad to hear that Brian and Alex are continuing to call themselves libertarians, is this word not fashionable now? Although Brian has never struck me as a man overly motivated by consideration of fashion although he was very much ahead of the game in being bold enough to sport the open toed sandal. Perhaps there has been a disinclination among some libertarians who have been (in my opinion misguided) supporters of the recent war in Iraq to associate themselves with those of us who take a more radically peaceable line on such matters. If so then I think that this is a mistake and feel that there is much more to be gained by continuing to remain in ‘alliance’ with one another – not, of course, that this should give any of us cause to say less than what we think about such things, disagreement is intellectually fruitful in ways that sterile agreement can never be.

    To stretch an analogy, I see that Brian describes Alex’s talk as being on how to win the ‘ideological war’ for libertarianism. This is one way of looking at things and I am certainly guilty of indulging in a bit of ideological sabre rattling and inflammatory rhetoric when the mood takes me (as it quite often does). However I think that ‘war’ is not generally a good analogy for argument. It should not really be about winning or losing in a zero sum game it is much more like trade on the free market. The truth is out there and it is only through debate that we might approach it. When our arguments are refuted by others we should rejoice that we can leave behind some old false dogma by which we were deluded and enjoy the gain we have made in exchanging error for truth. When our ideologies die we should make sure that we don’t die with them.

    I look forward very much to hearing more of Alex Singleton in the future, his is a voice of elegant inspiration in the libertarian firmament.

  • Brian Micklethwait

    Open toed sandals are now fashionable?

  • “Open toed sandals are now fashionable?”

    Indeed they are, see Andy Duncan’s piece on this posted in the summer. All the most beautiful men are now sporting flip flops and open toed sandals, I’m hoping the sacfree will similarly catch on in a big way next year.

    Perhaps you are leading the way forward on this too?

  • Charles Copeland

    BM writes:
    Peter Bauer breaks the consensus that Foreign Aid is an automatically Good Thing. Terence Kealey breaks the consensus that in the modern world Pure Science must be funded by the government in order to proceed satisfactorily. E. G. West breaks the consensus that The State was responsible for the rise of mass literacy and mass education in the now rich world, and that without State funding for mass education, mass education would cease.

    Breaks the consensus? Perhaps this applies to some members of the scientific communities in question. But you cannot speak of “breaking a consensus” as long as 99% of the educated public still believes the statist mythology.

    Has anybody got an answer to that big, agonising question. If we libertarians are so smart, why aren’t we richer (in terms of popular support and the percentage who vote for libertarian parties, I mean)?

    We don’t know what makes most people tick — perhaps that’s the problem.

    Let’s go home and teach ourselves more about human nature. Adam Smith’s ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments” might be a start. And you can read it for free at:
    http://www.adamsmith.org/smith/tms-intro.htm

  • Perhaps consensus is the wrong word. (Am I becoming repetitive in this line of thinking?)Consensus always implies a certain degree of active support for a particular set of ideas/views/concepts whereas most of our conceptual architecture is accepted because people have grown up with it and have probably never entertained alternative viewpoints. Those who do latch on to conspiracy theories and the wider lunacies of the left.

    Friday was a good evening. There is certainly a ‘questioning constituency’ out there who can be persuaded that libertarianism/free market liberalism or just liberty is a good thing, especially if it saves them from the insanity of anti-globalisation.

  • Charles,

    With one bound he was free and, having at last understood the nature of the beast, suddenly socially responsible!

    Well, nice going, Charles – very neat. Bet they won’t buy it though. Far too much invested in freedom of choice, I suspect.

  • why aren’t we richer (in terms of popular support and the percentage who vote for libertarian parties, I mean)?

    I doubt I would vote for any party, even a libertarian one. For me the most encouraging trend is less and less people actually do vote.

  • What a dunderhead Charles Copeland is, he would do better in his contributions if he just let a monkey play with his keyboard. Does Charles think that any virtues of an idea are contingent on the level of public acclaimation beyond that of mere popularity. Popularity matters not one whit to the truth or social utility of an idea. Instead of having us follow the example of Socrates and try to say what is right irrespective of popularity, he would rather we follow the route of Hitler and pander to the base instincts of the masses.

    Libertarianism will yield massive social benefits, all the libertarian advocate can do is to tell this simple truth as often and effectively as possible. There is much in the literature which offers explanations for why libertarianism is not currently more popular (See Mises ‘The Anti-Capitalist Mentality’ for a start) but its lack of popularity is no refutation of the rightness of its propositions or the smartness of its advocates. Indeed it is not necessary for one to be smart in order to be a libertarian, a simple refusal to aggress against others or to countenence such behaviour is all that is required.

  • Charles Copeland

    Paul Coulam writes:
    Does Charles think that any virtues of an idea are contingent on the level of public acclaimation beyond that of mere popularity? Popularity matters not one whit to the truth or social utility of an idea.

    True enough — but while popularity has nothing to do with truth, it has a lot do with winning elections. That’s my point.

    PC continues:
    Libertarianism will yield massive social benefits, all the libertarian advocate can do is to tell this simple truth as often and effectively as possible.

    Presumably easier said than done, since libertarian advocates have been doing this for a couple of centuries now, but they still haven’t conquered the world.

    One problem is that not everybody will benefit from the ‘massive social benefits’ of libertarian policies — civil servants like myself would have to sing for our supper instead of pushing papers and doing other pleasant things and they wouldn’t like it at all. Not many civil servants vote for libertarian policies. And there are an awful lot of such servants, unfortunately.

    Personally, I believe that civil servants should not have the right to vote at all.

    But try finding a majority who will espouse that view.