Here is part of slide number one of Christopher Snowdon’s talk at LLFF14 yesterday afternoon, entitled “How the state finances the opponents of freedom in civil society”:
That is from The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, first penned, it would seem, in 1779, and actually passed in 1786.
Christopher Snowdon is described here as the “Director of Lifestyle Economics at the IEA”, which means he is their chief complainer about sin taxes.
His talk yesterday was based on the work he did writing two IEA publications, Sock Puppets: How the government lobbies itself and why and Euro Puppets: The European Commission’s remaking of civil society. Both those publications can be downloaded in .pdf form, free of charge.
Snowdon walked around a lot when talking, so although I took a lot of photos of him, only this one was any good:
Behind Snowdon is a long list of NGO’s which receive substantial funding from the EU. For legible versions, see Euro Puppets.
In the short run, all this money paying for leftist apparatchiks to lobby for more money for more leftist apparatchiks is good for leftism, but I wonder if in the longer run it won’t be a disaster for them. Another quote, about how all causes eventually degenerate into rackets, springs to mind. This is the kind of behaviour that even disgusts many natural supporters of leftism. As Snowden recounted, few people outside this incestuous world have any idea of the scale of this kind of government funding for “charities”, never mind knowing the extra bit about how the money is mostly used to yell and lobby for more money, and for more government spending and government control of whatever it is. In particular, Snowden recounted that when John Humphrys interviewed Snowden on the Today Programme, he (Humphrys) did not grill him (Snowden), he (Humphrys) mostly just expressed utter amazement at the sheer scale of government funding for “charities”, for anything.
What this means is that if and when a non-leftist politician gets around to just defunding the lot of them, just like that, he gets a win-win. He cuts public spending, even if only a bit. And he slings a bunch of parasites out into the street where they belong, who are then simply unable to argue to the public that they were doing anything of the slightest value to that public. Insofar as they do argue that they shouldn’t have been sacked, they do not further their own cause; they merely discredit it further and further prove that the decision to sack them was the right one.
One of the most encouraging things happening to the British pro-free-market and libertarian movement is the outreach work being done by the Institute of Economic Affairs, to students at British universities and in British schools. In this IEATV video Steven Davies and Christiana Hambro describe what they have been getting up to in this area. They are a bit stilted in their delivery and demeanour. Steve Davies in particular is a rather more relaxed, animated and persuasive public performer than this short video makes him seem. I get the feeling that there were retakes, as they negotiated car doors and seatbelts when on camera. But if any of this inclines you to be put off, don’t be, because the process these two excellent people are talking about in this video is definitely the genuine article.
They mention the Freedom Forum. This has, says Davies “rapidly become the biggest gathering of pro-liberty students and young people in the UK”. The latest iteration of this, Liberty League Freedom Forum 2014, is happening next weekend and its detailed timetable has just been announced. If this get-together was just a one-off annual event with nothing else related to it happening, that would definitely still be something, although I do agree with those who say that the title of these things is a bit of a mouthful. But LLFF2014 is a great deal more than just an annual event, being but the London manifestation of a much bigger program of intellectual and ideological outreach to universities and to schools throughout the UK.
Recently I dropped in at the IEA, where Christiana Hambro and her IEA colleague Grant Tucker made time to tell me in person about what they have been doing. I also picked their about people who might be good to invite to talk at my last-Friday-of-the-month meetings. For me, the most interesting thing that they said to me was in answer to my question concerning to what extent their outreach activities were piggy-backing on the earlier efforts of the Adam Smith Institute, efforts which have been going on for many years, under the leadership of ASI President Madsen Pirie. What Christiana Hambro and Grant Tucker said was that when it came to outreach to universities, then yes, their work does depend on earlier ASI efforts. University economics departments are tough nuts to crack open with contrary ideas, and the best way to get to universities is by working with free market and libertarian student societies, rather than relying on the intellectual hospitality of academics. The ASI has done a huge amount to encourage such groups over the years, and without such groups what the IEA is now doing in universities would have been harder to accomplish.
But in schools, it has been a very different story. The ASI has done plenty of work in schools as well over the years, but what Christiana Hambro and Grant Tucker said to me was that basically, in schools, the IEA’s outreach operation is basically operating in virgin territory, with economics pupils all of whom have heard of Keynes, for instance, but none of whom have ever heard of Hayek. Another way of putting that might be to say that when it comes to preaching free market economics to British schools, this is a town that is plenty big enough for the both of them.
Schools are also different from universities in often being much more open to different ideas than universities are. Universities are dominated by people who take ideas seriously, but this can have the paradoxical result that many universities and university departments become bastions of bias and groupthink, all about deciding what is true and then defending it against all heretical comers. Schools, on the other hand, some at least, are more concerned to persuade their often indifferent pupils to care, at all, about ideas of any kind, which, again rather paradoxically, makes many such schools far more open to unfamiliar ideas than many universities. A teacher may be a devout Keynesian, even a Marxist. But if these IEA people from London can help him stir up his pupils’ minds by showing economics to be an arena of urgent and contemporary intellectual and ideological conflict rather than merely a huge stack of dull facts mostly about the past, then he is liable to be very grateful to these intruders, even if he flatly disagrees with their particular way of thinking.
Present at this Liberty League Freedom Forum that is coming up next weekend, which I will be attending (just as I attended LLFF2013 last year), will be some of the products of all this outreach. Someone like me has heard most of the featured speakers before, some of them many times. But many of the people at LLFF2014 will be hearing talks from people only a very few of whom they have ever encountered before. Here are some of the topics which they may find themselves learning about: Public Speaking and Networking, Doing Virtuous Business, How To Be A Journalist, and (my personal favourite) Setting Up A Society (i.e. a school or university pro-liberty society).
As for me, no matter how many times I hear Steve Davies speak, I am always keen to hear what he has to say about something new, and this year, I am particularly looking forward to him answering the question: “But who will build the roads?” In my opinion, when Libertaria finally gets going, somewhere on this planet, defence policy (often regarded as a big headache) will be very simple. Just allow the citizens of Libertaria to arm themselves. But, building “infrastructure”, while nevertheless taking property rights seriously (instead of merely taking seriously the idea of taking people’s property from them to make infrastructure) will, I think, be much more tricky. I look forward very much to hearing what Davies has to say about this.
Too bad that his talk clashes with the one about Setting Up A Society. I’d love to sit in at the back of that one also, and maybe I will pick that one on the day. That such clashes will happen is my one regret about this event. But you can see why they want to do things this way. As well as big gatherings, they also want small ones, in which new talent feels more comfortable about expressing itself, and flagging itself up as worth networking with, by other talent.
I recall writing a blog posting here a while back, in which I described a talk I heard the IEA’s then newly appointed Director Mark Littlewood about his plans for the IEA. Right near the end of that piece, which I think still stands up very well, I wrote that: “there is now considerable reason to be optimistic about the future of the Institute of Economic Affairs”.
There still is, and even more so.
We’ve all felt that need to tell the hard truth. Assert the raw and unadorned core repeatedly and dogmatically. React with righteous anger and fury, even without elaboration, to the point of being downright offensive. There is a role for this. Injustice in our midst — and there is so much of it — cries out for it. I wouldn’t call this brutalist. I would call this righteous passion, and it is what we should feel when we look at ugly and immoral things like war, the prison state, mass surveillance, routine violations of people’s rights. The question is whether this style of argument defines us or whether we can go beyond it, not only to lash out in reaction — to dwell only in raw oppositional emotion — but also to see a broad and positive alternative.
- Jeffrey Tucker, whose recent essay on what he sees as being the less charming features of libertarian commentary has provoked quite a storm, thereby validating his point.
Charges dropped against Spurs fans’ Yid chants, reports the Tottenham and Wood Green Journal.
About bloody time. The charges were more than usually malicious and absurd. The usual level of malice and absurdity is to pretend that certain syllables – called “racial insults” among the illuminati – are magic spells infused with the irresistible power to turn any mortal that hears them into a raging savage. It was the rare achievement of these charges to be crazier, nastier and more insulting to the intelligence and decency of ordinary people even than that.
As reported by the Jewish Chronicle, although by shamefully few of the other reports of the case, the men charged had said “Yid” not as an insult but as a way to cheer on their own team. All three men are Tottenham Hotspur supporters. They may be Jews themselves; I could not find a source that stated whether any of them are or not, but given that they are Spurs fans it could well be the case. I found an interesting article in Der Spiegel (no need to say the obvious) that gave a brief but clear explanation of this phenomenon:
Tottenham Hotspur’s Jewish background is similar to the Ajax [a Dutch football team] story. The north London club was popular among Jewish immigrants who settled in the East End in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “The Spurs were more glamorous back then than the closer West Ham United or Arsenal,” says Anthony Clavane, a Jewish journalist with the tabloid Daily Mirror who published a book in August about how Jews have influenced the history of English football. Additionally, other northern London districts, such as Barnet, Hackney and Harrow, have traditionally been home to many Jews, which has also contributed to the Hotspur image.
So, for historical reasons the Tottenham Hotspur home stands sing of their own as the Yids, the Yiddos, or the Yid Army. For this it was proposed to put three men in jail. From the Jewish Chronicle link above,
Their arrests followed widespread debate late last year, after the Football Association issued guidelines in September announcing that fans chanting the word “Yid” could be liable to criminal prosecution.
The move caused anger among Spurs fans, who refer to themselves as the “Yid army” as well as the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust, which stressed that “when used in a footballing context by Tottenham supporters, there is no intent or desire to offend any member of the Jewish community” .
Following the example set by everyone from the Desert Rats to Niggaz Wit Attitude they have taken what was once an insult and turned it into a badge of honour. Tasteless? Possibly. Knowing nothing of the history of a Jewish link to Tottenham Hotspur FC, I recall once being shocked to see a blackboard outside a pub advertising a forthcoming match to be televised there as a contest between the “Yids” and whatever team were to oppose them. I mumbled an attempt at protest to a barmaid who had stepped outside for a fag. She didn’t know what I was talking about – in retrospect I’m not sure she even understood that “Yids” had any other meaning than a nickname for THFC – and I slunk off in embarrassment. One could certainly argue that it it is a poor memorial to the persecution and mass murder suffered by Jews over the centuries to make an insult used against them into a means to excite collective euphoria among people watching a game. But if you really want to contemplate great barbarities memorialised in plastic, turn your eyes to the attempts of the Crown Prosecution Service to charge Gary Whybrow, Sam Parsons, and Peter Ditchman with racial abuse, and smear them as anti-semites, for asserting the Jewish identity of their own team.
Sam Bowman’s talk tomorrow at the Rose and Crown has been causing worries for Libertarian Home organiser Simon Gibbs, on account of Meetup not working properly. Simon has become unsure about how many people are going to show up, but urges us all to come anyway. (I definitely intend to.) He ends his report on all this by saying that …:
… the capacity issue sometimes looks tricky on paper, but it rarely is.
My experience, with my last Friday of the month meetings, which take place in a living room which is only about half the size of the room upstairs at the Rose and Crown, is that it is almost mystical how exactly the number of attenders seems always to suit the space available for them. It’s a kind of benign spacial variant of the original Parkinson’s Law. Last Friday, for instance, Dominic Frisby looked like he might be stretching my infrastructure beyond its limits. But then I emailed people to that effect, and there was a bug going round, and the weather turned nasty, the upshot of all that was that the number who showed was just right to fill the room in comfort, and just not enough to cause any discomfort. Amazing.
It’s like we really do not need to be planned or coerced by a central authority, but can just sort things out for ourselves.
Mine was a fairly Bitcoin-savvy gathering, and several of the Bitcoin-savants present have said that they were surprised at how much more they learned, both from Frisby and from each other. I was not one of those experts; I was merely there. For me, the main message I took away from the evening was that Bitcoin, in the opinion of many people, does have real value, because it makes electronic economic transactions far easier. Although some doubts were expressed, nobody present dismissed Bitcoin as a complete fraud and a bubble waiting to just burst and vanish. In general the mood about Bitcoin was very positive, more so than I had expected, and of course even better about the general principle of encrypted currencies generally.
The big news item was that Frisby reckons he has cracked the identity of the founding genius of Bitcoin, a mysterious figure who is currently only known by a Japanese alias. Who is he? Read my Bitcoin book, said Frisby. This will be available some time around late spring or early summer, and I will keep Samizdata posted.
The other thing I will remember about last Friday was that, for complicated reasons involving an NHS kidney operation that suddenly became available (after a huge wait) to his usual back-up canine custodian, Frisby asked if he could bring his dog with him. You don’t want mere attenders bringing dogs. But since the speaker would be the main victim if a dog attended and spoke out of turn, I figured that Frisby’s dog almost certainly would behave exactly as well as promised, and so it proved. Frodo, despite being rather obviously hungry and eager to make friends with potential food providers, behaved impeccably throughout the entire evening. Not a single bark, not one. Again: amazing.
Picture of Frisby and Frodo:
Sam Bowman’s talk tomorrow will be about the idea of a legally fixed minimum wage. The libertarian orthodoxy is that, just as we don’t want or need the government to be organising our social lives or our healthcare, a government-ordained minimum wage is a really bad idea. When I met Sam earlier in the week, this orthodoxy is what he told me he would be reinforcing in his talk, citing some recent evidence.
We also discussed the idea of Sam addressing one of my last Friday of the month meetings later in the year, on the far more contentious subject of “Bleeding Heart Libertarianism”. He is, or such is my understanding, and no doubt with various reservations and qualifications, for it. I am not now totally against Bleeding Heart Libertarianism but am strongly inclined that way. I am far less inclined to leave the definition of Bleeding Heart Libertarianism as the sole property of those now calling themselves its supporters. I also have a very high opinion of Sam Bowman. That should be another good gathering, as and when it happens.
Many of us libertarians complain about how our anti-libertarian adversaries seem to do so appallingly well in attracting support from celebrities, and most particularly from showbiz performers. I agree with what Johnathan Pearce said here about this yesterday. Showbiz people are and should most definitely remain entirely entitled to express their opinions about politics or about anything else. But, they must then be willing then to be criticised by those who don’t agree with what they say, just like any other opinion-monger. JP makes a point of mentioning by name some showbiz people whose thinking he admires, which is also good. But I often hear other libertarians indulging in blanket condemnations of the thought processes of all showbiz people, declaring them to be inherently less capable than others of thinking clearly and arriving at wise political ideas. They then go on to curse the world for paying so much attention to these terrible people.
Quite aside from the obvious fact that many showbiz people are very smart, this is a tactically very silly way to think and talk. Showbiz people have at the very least demonstrated their expertise in communicating, in engaging with audiences. Many of the curses aimed by libertarians at showbiz people whose political views they do not agree with sound to me more like sour grapes than serious argument. Most such complaints would surely cease if we libertarians were to start attracting showbiz people to our cause in serious numbers. Meanwhile, if we think that showbiz people typically proclaim bad political ideas, then our task is to persuade such people to think better and to proclaim better ideas, rather than us merely moaning that such people somehow have no right to be heard opining at all, about anything except showbiz. Maybe it is in some ways true that celebrity opinion-mongers shouldn’t be paid attention to, as much as they are. But they are, if only because being paid attention to by lots of people is the exact thing that these people specialise in being very good at. Maybe people are foolish to get their foolish political ideas from politically foolish showbiz people. But many do. Whether we like it or hate it, recruiting at least a decent trickle of showbiz people is a precondition for us achieving any widespread public acceptance of our ideas.
I also believe that showbiz people may have quite a lot to teach us about how to present our ideas persuasively.
The above ruminations being all part of why I find Dominic Frisby such an interesting and appealing individual. He is an all round actor and entertainer and voice-over guy, and he is in particular an experienced and successful stand-up comedian. He is also a libertarian, and he has recently written a book called Life After The State, which I have recently been reading. I think it is very good, and I have already given it and its author a couple of admiring mentions here.
On the back cover of Life After The State, Guido Fawkes says:
Things are so bad that in our time only a comedian can make sense of an economy based on printing money.
This makes Frisby sound like a British P. J. O’Rourke, which is to say a writer who uses politics to get laughs, and laughter as a way to think about politics. But although it is true to say that Frisby is a comedian who writes about politics, he does not write about politics to get laughs, or even make much use of laughter to get attention for what he writes. The comedy experience that Frisby has brought with him to this new and distinct task is the experience of having to make himself clear and to hold the attention of an audience. If a comedian’s audience loses track of or interest in what a comedian is saying, it won’t get his jokes and it won’t laugh. But what Frisby wants with this book is not laughter, but to be understood. There is plenty of wit. There are plenty of felicitous phrases and nail-on-the-head, SQotD-worthy sentences. But a laugh a minute this book is not.
So, if Frisby is no longer playing the comedian when writing his book about the state of the world and about why the state of the world would be better if there was less statism in the world, what kind of arguments does he present, and how does he present them?
There was a big clue in the talk I recently heard Frisby give at the Institute of Economic Affairs, the one I mentioned here in this earlier posting. In the course of this talk, Frisby described himself as a “bleeding heart libertarian”.
Now there’s a phrase to raise Samizdatista hackles, to cause rats to be detected, red rags to be charged at. The suspicion here will be that anyone who self-identifies as a bleeding heart libertarian is not really any sort of libertarian at all, and probably more like a traitor in our midst. I have not read enough from other self-identified bleeding heart libertarians to know how true or fair such accusations are. (That link is to a piece at Counting Cats, but it is by a regular commenter here, “Julie near Chicago”.) What I definitely can report is that the particular bleeding heart libertarian who is Dominic Frisby is definitely not guilty in the way that this label might here cause him to be charged.
Frisby starts out, in Life After The State, by describing what is wrong with the world, the kind of sufferings it contains, the kind of wrongs in it that ought to be righted. There is huge inequality, not just in matters of what people get paid for the work they do, but in things like healthcare and education. What the wrong kind of bleeding heart libertarian presumably argues, or is accused of arguing, is that because poverty is terrible and because poor people ought to get better healthcare and education than they do now, and because all decent people want the best not just for themselves but for people generally, and especially for the poor and the unlucky, well, that means that we need to soften our line on such things as state welfare, state education, the national health service, and the like. But what Frisby says is that because people at the bottom of the heap ought to get better chances in life than they now get, that is why unswerving and principled libertarianism is the absolute right thing, no ifs no buts. He doesn’t word it quite as belligerently as that. He does not constantly italicise, the written equivalent of banging the table. He is Dominic Frisby. I am merely me. But I trust I am clarifying the distinction that I am trying to clarify.
All of which is central to the project of persuading people generally, and showbiz people in particular, to become libertarians. Showbiz is full of people who want all that is best for everyone, but who are, as part of all that, very wary of aggressively eloquent rationality. (Typically, this is how their villains talk.) What they want to know is whether your heart is in the right place. Do you even have a heart? If you do, does it ever bleed? Yes, yes, we hear what you think. But what do you feel, and what do you feel about what others feel? Do you want the best for everybody, or do you merely want the best for your nasty, boring little self and your nasty, boring friends?
For well over a century now, that particular brand of collectivists called socialists has done a brilliantly successful job of convincing people generally and showbiz people in particular of socialism’s niceness. Socialism, say the socialists, is about wanting what is best for everyone. Socialism’s opponents may be all very clever and rationalistic and skilful at advancing their own arguments and interests, but they are all of them heartless, uncaring bastards, at best deluded. As a result of this relentlessly successful line of argument, millions of people who really do want the best for everyone have flocked towards socialist banners. Yes, many socialists have been cynical and manipulative, and more like the kind of people that most socialists complain about. But, say the other socialists, bad socialists like that are bad because they betray socialism, they fail to do socialism. They are traitors to the cause. Socialism could never have had the colossal and colossally damaging impact that it actually has had, if the leading socialists had all come across as mere schemers and contrivers and arrangers with no hearts, and still less if all the other socialists attracted to the cause were like that also.
Dominic Frisby’s father was the noted playwright Terence Frisby, and Terence Frisby was himself a socialist. But the thing that is wrong with socialists like Terence Frisby is absolutely not that their hearts bleed. They want a kinder, more generous, more fair, more comfortable and more entertaining world, especially for those who are now very poor and very unlucky, and good for them. Their folly is in supposing that the way to contrive these outcomes is for socialism to be inflicted upon the world, and for freedom to be done away with.
In short, Dominic Frisby is both a nice guy and a clever guy, and a notably effective and significant contributor to the libertarian cause. When some of his many showbiz friends take a look at his book, as some of them surely will, they may find themselves surprised at how much they agree with what it says.
Learn more about Frisby and his ideas by exploring his website, by reading his stuff, and watching some of his video performances and creations.
Or, be at my home in a week’s time, on the 28th of this month, when Dominic Frisby will be giving a talk on the subject to which his second book will be devoted, namely Bitcoin, crypto-currencies, etc. Confusingly, a lady called Dominique was to have been my speaker that evening, but she had to postpone and will now be speaking at my last Friday gathering on May 30th. Meanwhile, February 28th turned out to be a date that was just right for Dominic, because he is now eager both to find further readers for his first book and to sign up members of the crowd which will be crowd-funding the publication of his second book.
The crowd-funding of books, especially of books intended to persuade rather than just to entertain, being a subject that deserves an entire posting to itself.
“But what is it about my argument that they find so objectionable?” I’ve often asked myself. “What exactly is so evil about arguing, say, that schools should teach kids rigorously, or that climate scientists should do more science and less political activism, or that bigger government only perpetuates the power of a corrupt elite at the expense of ordinary people?”
And the conclusion I’ve long since reached is that there are some people out there who you’re simply never going to reach through logic or sweet reasonableness or basic courtesy. These people will always hate me – and those who think like me – as a matter of fundamental principle. It’s an ideological clash of total opposites: tyranny v liberty; poverty v prosperity; hysteria v reason; the state v the individual; misery v happiness.
So in what way, may I ask, would it be a sensible policy to halve the difference between those two extremes in order to reach some kind of “reasonable” consensus?
It’s what I call the ‘Dogshit Yoghurt Fallacy’.
On one side of the argument are those of us who think yoghurt works best with a little fruit or maybe just on its own. On the other are those who believe passionately that what yoghurt really needs is the addition of something more earthy, organic, recycled – like maybe a nice scoop of dogshit.
Now you can call me a dangerous extremist if you like, for refusing under any conditions to accommodate the alternative point of view. Or you could call me one of those few remaining brave souls in a cowardly, compromised world still prepared to tell it like it is: that dogshit into yoghurt simply doesn’t go, no matter how many expert surveys you cite, nor how eco-friendly it shows you to be, nor how homeopathic the dosage.
- James Delingpole, in a piece entitled Andrew Breitbart’s War Comes To Britain, explains why he has become the new Executive Editor of Breitbart London.
Also recommended, by Delingpole for Breitbart: 10 Lefty Lies About The Floods Which Have Devastated Britain.
As I often like to say and to write, if I don’t regularly quote me, who else will? And once upon a time, I wrote (on page 4, left hand column, of this), in a paragraph about the many different ways there are to be an effective libertarian, this:
Or perhaps you contribute crucially to the cause simply by (a) calling yourself a libertarian when asked what you are but not otherwise, and (b) being a nice person in all other respects. By merely proving that libertarianism and decency can cohere in the same personality, you will be a walking advertisement for the cause, as I might not be.
Now I don’t want to accuse Frank Turner of regarding himself as a member of any sort of political team, any sort of promoter of a “cause”. He is first and last a musician and an artist, not “a libertarian”. But the more I learn about this man (and thanks to Google sending me emails whenever anyone mentions him I have been learning quite a lot about him lately), the more he strikes me as the living embodiment of the above notions. It’s not that he is incapable of arguing his political corner. Merely that, on the whole, he prefers not to, and just to get on with his work and his life.
Consider this Frank Turner interview piece by Anna Burn, published today by Cherwell.
Near the beginning, Burn writes of the “clear tension” between Turner’s “old, anarchist politics and his new libertarianism”. And at the end of her piece, she writes this:
“People have historically been quite rude about rock and roll as serious art,” he says. “To me rock and roll is proper art, but it’s also disposable art, it’s adolescent art. What’s great about rock and roll is that it’s music about being young and pissed on a beach and getting your first kiss and then dancing until dawn. Sometimes people want to make rock and roll into this high art and I love it because it’s low art. It’s almost a sort of Liechtenstien thing. It’s pop art.” He grins wryly, seeming pleased with the pun. “All my influences are rock and roll.”
And with that last declaration, we’re done. As we’ve been talking he’s been putting his coat back on so that he can dash down to catch a train to London and film his tribute to Pete Seeger for Newsnight. For a man who’s on his longest break from touring in seven years, he’s still remarkably busy, and yet he can still spare a few minutes to chat to a student newspaper.
As he runs down the stairs, I realise that this is why he is a true folk singer – he’s open to everyone prepared to engage with his work, and he makes it worth their effort.
Note the Pete Seeger reference. This is not a man who allows a thing like politics to get between him and an admired fellow musician. See also Billy Bragg.
A few weeks ago, when the weather was crap – as it still is – and I knew I’d be spending some evenings at home, I opened a box-set of DVDs to watch that classic Sixties TV series, The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan. Many things have been written about this series, which in my view represents one of the best such shows ever made. Chris R Tame , the late UK libertarian activist, mentor and friend of mine, wrote a fine essay about this show in the early 1970s and I agree with every word of it. The show is intelligent, profound, thought-provoking, and now thanks to the wonders of digital remastering, looks as fresh today as when it was first produced. (So much so that it seems almost better than if it were made now.) I was born in 1966, roughly time the show was conceived, written and shot. Some Sixties series can look very dated today, however much fun they are (like the old Avengers with Diana Rigg, etc) but The Prisoner doesn’t. And boy, is it on-target now. In the age of surveillance cameras, nanny statist health campaigns, the Leveson recommendations on state regulation of the UK press, unaccountable quangos, the NSA, and the like, much of what is lampooned in The Prisoner is all too believable.
Some time after he made The Prisoner, and had gone back to live in the US, the country of his birth (he spent a large amount of his adult life in the UK), McGoohan had these thoughts about the show and why he made it. I wonder what actors are as emphatic in stating such a viewpoint today:
“I tried first of all to create a first-class piece of entertainment. I hope it rings true because here, too, I was concerned with the preservation of individual history….If I have any kind of drum to beat in my life it is the drum of the individual. I believe that to be truly an individual, mentally clear and free, requires the greatest possible effort. And I seek this individuality in everything I do – in my work and in my private life. It is not easy.”
It isn’t. The other day, I had a bash at UK journalist and controvertialist Peter Oborne for his claim that a game such as cricket should not be primarily about people having a fun time, of doing something that makes them happy as individuals, but because it helps obliterate the self, that is about a “duty” to a nation, or some Other. I don’t know much about McGoohan’s explicit political views, but something tells me he would have regarded Oborne’s bullying anti-individualism about something like a ball game with bemusement, if not contempt.
Yes, incoming from Simon Gibbs of Libertarian Home saying that the video of Aiden Gregg’s talk, that I earlier flagged up here as being on its way and worth a watch, is now there to be watched. In his accompanying commentary on the talk, Simon (after quoting me – thanks mate) lays out a lot of the data detail that I merely alluded to.
Says Simon in his email to me:
It could use some upvotes on reddit. Are you registered there?
Me? No. But maybe some readers are, and could oblige. And while they are about it, tell me more about reddit. I am starting to get the same feeling about the social media that I got about email, when I delayed bothering with that, way back whenever that was.
Commenting on my posting yesterday about the Alex Singleton book launch, “RogerC” said:
PR, marketing and in general the how of getting ideas out there and into people’s heads is an area where I’ve always thought we’re weak. Conversely, the left is very, very good at this stuff. They’ve been making a conscious effort to do it and to develop the techniques for a hundred years now, and their position has advanced immeasurably as a result. …
Agreed. There is a lot that we can learn from the statist left, whose success in spreading their ideas has been all the more remarkable when you consider how bad their ideas are and how much havoc these ideas have long been known to cause. Aiden Gregg brings his expertise as an academic psychologist to this same terrain, of how to present ideas in such a way that they are more likely to win widespread acceptance.
On Thursday 9th of this month, exactly a week ago, I mentioned here a Libertarian Home meeting due to take place that evening in the Rose and Crown, Southwark. It happened, I went, and I wrote most of what follows the following evening. But then life got in the way, and I am only now posting what I then wrote.
The first thing I want to say about Aiden Gregg’s talk about the psychological foundations of differing political beliefs, libertarian and otherwise, is that I greatly enjoyed it. And I got the strong impression that most others present did also.
Much of what Gregg said was based on a book by Jonathan Haidt, entitled The Righteous Mind (now on its way to me via Amazon). Haidt looks as the contrasting ways of thinking and feeling of three big categories of American political people – in descending order by size: liberal, conservative and libertarian. (It’s an aside, but straight away, that itself strikes me as a big win for the libertarian movement. A generation ago, would “libertarian” have been in the mix, as a distinct big category? I wonder how greenies feel, if they read Haidt’s book, about not being included as a distinct big category. Also, as was asked during the Q&A, what of non-Americans?)
My immediate reaction to Haidt’s various different ways of thinking and feeling was to wonder exactly what these are. Are they notions relating in any way to the biology of the brain? Are they, that is to say, “real”? Or are they merely things that Haidt has found that political people like to think about? Are they just questions which, if you put them to political people, seem to reveal and illuminate differences of deeper attitude? Are they, as Perry de Havilland might say, questions about contrasting meta-contexts? This is the perpetual problem of the social sciences. What exactly are you observing? What are you talking about? I will perhaps have more to say about such things, and about exactly which people score exactly what on which variable, once I have had a closer look at Haidt’s ideas in written form, although I promise nothing.
Memory plays tricks – definitely mine now does – so others might describe this talk very differently to the way I am doing. But, what I heard as Gregg’s main conclusion was that nature, when it comes to political affiliation (religion was hardly mentioned) is not destiny. You are not doomed, because of the sort of person you were born as, to be any particular sort of political animal. The main thing to learn from such work as Haidt’s is not that most people are beyond hope when it comes to converting them to Righteousness (in my case, to libertarianism), but that you have a better chance of converting someone to Righteousness if you understand their psychological dispositions better. What “moral foundations” (to quote the words on my scribbled notes) do they consider to be most important?
As to what these moral foundations are, we were offered six variables of concern, so to speak, to consider important, rather more or rather less than others: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, freedom/oppression. If, like most libertarians, you are more exercised about freedom/oppression than, say, about sanctity/degradation, but are arguing with a conservative whose cconcerns are the opposite of yours, then you just banging on about how freedom/oppression is what matters most, and that libertarianism scores well on this variable, will not get you very far. It will be a dialogue of the deaf.
It was a lively meeting, livelier than usual. Partly this was because of Aiden Gregg’s relaxed and low key demeanour. When the room erupted with interruption, as it did from time to time, his attitude seemed to be that this was amusing, rather than any kind of insult to him personally. I guess if you are an academic psychologist, a group of people is interesting to observe no matter how disruptively it behaves, and perhaps the worse the better. You look on with amused detachment, as if observing baboons. Especially if they are libertarian baboons and this the sort of behaviour you expect from such baboons.
But there was, I think, another reason for the lively response to this talk, which is that all of us were, but not in a bad way, taking it personally. We were – certainly if my own response was anything to go by – thinking things like: how do I score on these various variables? What do I think is most important? And: I wonder how my scores differ from other people in the room, from other libertarians generally, and from other people generally.
I have always felt myself to be, psychologically, a lot more like (compared to other libertarians) many of the ideological opponents of libertarianism, of the softer, kinder, better-meaning sort. I just think that the way to get a softer, kinder, better world is through a policy of radically diminished state activity and greatly increased freedom compared to what we live with now. I don’t favour the free market, despite it being rather red in tooth and claw but simply because it is free. It is free, and that’s very nice. But I do not think that it is actually very red in tooth and claw. And I think that the statist alternatives to it are much redder in tooth and claw than those proposing such alternatives typically suppose, or pretend. Socialism, for instance, and especially the sort of state-imposed socialism that is actually capable of being done in a big way, doesn’t strike me as at all egalitarian, at all fair (to allude to variable 2 in the Haidt list). It merely installs a different and far more toxic sort of unfairness.
On another variable, authority, I also perhaps dissent a little from others in my libertarian tribe. For me one of the great glories of freedom is that it creates authority of the good sort. It only undermines authority of the undeserved sort. Ditto loyalty. In general, a free society makes people nicer. It makes people (Randians: look away now) more altruistic. One of the most significant shortages that afflicted the Soviet Union, throughout its baleful history and especially when it collapsed, was a shortage of public spirit, that is to say, of the willingness of people to put themselves out for each other, and especially for strangers.
My point here is not just that I now have all these clever things to say about authority and niceness and the USSR and so on and so forth, on the back of having attended this Aiden Gregg talk. It is that I believe I was not the only one thinking personal thoughts in response to what he was saying, while he was saying it. We were all, I suspect, doing this. This was a talk that got us all, as the say goes, going. It got us all thinking.
It was, in short, very good, just the sort of thing that such talks should be.
As is usual at Libertarian Home events, there was a video camera running, as I mentioned when commenting on this rather blurry set of photos that I took at the event. In a comment he has just attached to that posting, Simon Gibbs apologises about the lighting, following me moaning about it. But I think, if you take photos, that it’s your business to work around such things. That I did not do this very well on that particular night is partly because I was distracted by finding the talk so very interesting.
I’ll end by saying that, if what Aiden Gregg was saying sounds like the kind of thing that interests you, keep an eye out for that video. Libertarian Home videos take quite a while to emerge, but emerge they always seem to do, eventually. (A previous Aiden Gregg performance for Libertarian Home, in the same venue, can be watched by going here.)
About a week ago, “Devika” posted a very interesting piece at Libertarian Home, about a man called Arvind Kejriwal, an Indian anti-poltician who is in the process of becoming an Indian politician.
I don’t have much to say about this piece, other than that any British libertarians who think that there is much to be learned from the success of Kejriwal’s Anti Corruption Party in India to the problems faced by libertarians in Britain in getting that noticed politically would probably be making a mistake. Although I am sure that Indians disagree a lot about what causes it and whose fault it is, almost everyone in India detests the corruption that is rampant in India and in Indian politics, probably even a great many of those who practise corruption. Perhaps some of them most of all, because they feel forced to do terrible things. None of the regular political parties can convincingly argue against such corruption, because, as Devika explains and as everyone in India knows, they are all part of it. So, a new anti-corruption party, run by people with very public track records of honest and persuasive campaigning against corruption, was always liable to be a runaway success, unless and until it too succumbs to the same corrupting pressures that corrupted all the other parties. Here’s hoping that does not happen any time soon.
Libertarianism is Britain is in a very different position to the anti-corruption tendency in India. Almost everyone in India is anti-corruption, divided only in whether they think anything can be done about it. Almost nobody in Britain is a libertarian. A British libertarian party will accordingly only pick up a tiny number of votes and cause a tiny little stir, no matter how capably lead and well publicised.
Devika notes how the Indian anti-corruption party did very well by asking its members to guide its direction and policies. This works well, because all concerned are united against corruption. The only argument is about how to diminish it, which corrupt processes to attack first, and so on. A British libertarian party that allowed anyone who joined to influence its policies would very quickly cease to be libertarian.
I want to be clear that at no point in her piece does Devika herself make an explicit connection between what Kejriwal and his anti-corruption party are doing and what British libertarians should do. I do not know if she thinks any of the things I have just been criticising. But I do sense this implication, a bit. More to the point, whatever Devika thinks about such things, some of Libertarian Home’s readers may draw just the sort of conclusions from her piece that I am criticising. Certainly, discussions at the Rose and Crown about libertarianism and libertarian politics are now saturated with the frustration of wanting to bring libertarianism to the attention of a wider public, but of not knowing how to contrive this.
There is another such discussion taking place this evening. This will be lead by Aiden Gregg, who is both a libertarian and an academic psychologist. Gregg will be talking about the psychological dispositions of libertarians in particular and of politically active people generally. I think this is a fascinating subject, full of lessons for libertarians to learn about how to be more effective libertarians. So, I will definitely be there.
In my opinion, one thing that libertarians can definitely now do (as opposed to trying to copy too directly the activities of Arvind Kejriwal) is to tell people like Aiden Gregg how important and valuable they are to the libertarian cause, and to encourage them to stick at it. We need our people everywhere, especially in the universities, and especially in faculties which are not economics faculties.