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The unbearable lightness of clots

There really are some clots out there, nearly all of them collectivists, of one kind or another. You give them a debating point, they complain about the debating hall. You give them a nice hall, they complain about the expense of the hall. Whatever the point is, they avoid talking about this central issue, and stick to some peripheral soft target. They perhaps even convince themselves, after enough posts of gibberish, that they’ve won the debate, rather than had us laugh at them, in the very best style of Jeremy Paxman interviewing some New Labour ministerial half-wit. And then, when we do sometimes manage to press them to actually talk about the matter in hand, they start shouting, and screaming, as soon as they realise their childish threatening game is up.

But aside from these fun and games, what they’ve failed to realise, is that the reason most of us classical liberals are classical liberals, no matter what our starting position was — whether socialist, fascist, communist, Last Tory Boy, or whatever — is because we have been prepared to argue our case in a sensible calm fashion. This argumentative debate is often an internal one, too, arguing with ourselves, as well as an external one, arguing with others. And gradually, in my case as a socialist, our previous convictions get worn down, and argued logically away, until we are left with only one position we can consider valid. That of classical liberalism. It is the only system of human societal living which can bear close examination, and which has stood the test of time, and argument. All the rest crumble under close scrutiny, into emotion, and unreason. That is why we are classical liberals. Not because we are evil, not because we are stupid, and not because we eat babies on toast, for breakfast.

We’ve been forced into this position by the logic of argument, the same way physics scientists were forced into believing in a spherical Earth, then a Sun at the centre of the solar system, then Newtonian physics, and then Einsteinian physics. Einstein’s views will eventually be successfully challenged, and falsified, one day, and when they are, you’ll witness many physicists kicking and screaming, trying to retain them. But at first, one genius will hold against them, and then every other rationalist will let them go too, to adopt the new position.

This is similar to the process many of us classical liberals go through. Some of us may not have even wanted to be here, from where we started out, I know I didn’t, but if you try to rid yourself of irrationality, and emotion, when debating any topic, you end up as a classical liberal. Or you shout down your opponents, because the truth hurts too much.

If there were a better position, we would move to it. One may come along. And it is only classical liberalism that will allow it to develop, if it does. Yet another argument as to why it is the superior belief system!

But couldn’t every political position claim at least some of that above? No. Because classical liberalism is a position usually arrived at, after long reflection, whereas most other political leanings are often chosen first, and then the arguments are sought to bolster it afterwards, to make it fit. For instance, I may choose to be a socialist at 14, because some other 14 year-old, richer than me, steals the girl I was after, because he can afford to take her to the cinema, and I can’t. Therefore I choose to be a socialist, because of emotional reasoning based on the childish politics of envy. From then on, I apply my logical mind to locating all of the written arguments as to why it is good to be a socialist, and why it is bad to be anything else. I am a self-seeking missile, which is only capable of hitting one target; that of true socialism.

Whatever happens, whatever I read, I always remain a socialist. I am unprepared to change, possibly even become incapable of changing, because my poor teenage brain has been fixed at a young age, by an initial powerful emotion. So even if God himself comes knocking on my door, and tells me socialism is bunk, I will still cling to it. Even though it caused the Soviet Union to fail, even though the Gulag was caused by it, even though Cambodia was caused by it, even though Britain’s long decline after the war was caused by it, even though Africa’s modern poverty is caused by it, even though New Labour is failing because of it, whatever it is, we cannot shake it. The socialist disease of unreasoning emotion has us in its claws.

Whatever the evidence, we stick with socialism; we must make it work, it cannot be impossible, we will create a perfect socialist Utopia. The needle is stuck. It clicks forever in the same groove. And we only listen to, or accept, arguments, which leave us either comfortably where we are, or which convince us, even more, that we are already correct. So we may tend to become more, and more, extreme, in our socialism, until reason is left a long way behind, as a dim, distant memory of happy childhood. Some even go so far, of course, that they’ll blow themselves up in the collectivist cause, or murder others, or both – for the good of society! Try telling that to the relatives of the murdered victims.

So socialists get stuck, whereas classical liberals are both prepared to change their views, in the face of compelling evidence, and remain capable of changing their views. Until, after a long process of Popperian experimentation with ideas, they come to a general stable resting point, of Popperian objectivity, which cannot be shaken by further past arguments. Though if new arguments come along, to challenge the cosiness of classical liberalism, they are welcomed, and if accepted after debate, the position shifts again. For instance, Murray N. Rothbard found some of the monetary theories of his life-long guru, Ludwig von Mises, needed tightening up. He did this work, and the Austrian School moved with him, too, agreeing to the changes.

Even on our own pages, we are sometimes shaken by those collectivists, with freer minds, who push our weaker ideas to the edge. Which is good, because it helps to point out which of our ideas should be strengthened.

Hence, although virtually every classical liberal does hold certain basic principles to be self-evident (people have a right to life, and a right to property, for instance), good-natured argument and debate is allowed, indeed encouraged, between each person. For example, the debates between the Rothbardians, the Hayekians, the Popperians, and so on. In fact, it is almost impossible to classify any single group of classical liberals, into a strictly defined sect (except perhaps one hard-core one, described below). Because almost every single individual holds a different position, having arrived at this individual position independently, by themselves, helped with mixtures of the acknowledged Greats (Von Mises, Hayek etc), who helped guide them to their unique position.

However, most collectivists can easily get lumped together. In fact, if some lone collectivist is in a “lump”, and in some conversation says something not held by the rest to be “in line with the party”, they are quickly persuaded to change their views accordingly. Indeed they are often happy to do so, to get back on the correct path to a socialist nirvana; though without the unnecessary process of their own thought, on the matter, getting in the way. So all Socialist Workers hold one party line, all Trotskyite Militants hold one party line, and all New Labour spin-doctors hold one party line.

I remember a particular meeting, at Leeds University, many years ago, when I was flirting with Trotskyism. The group I was interested in was trying to subvert the Labour Students organisation. It didn’t matter what the issue was, or what we thought ourselves, we were encouraged to vote whichever way the leader of this Trotskyite cadre voted, on whatever issue, as it came up. I remember, to my eternal shame, being proud to do this bidding. This is the nature of collectivism. Blind obedience.

(This willingness to follow the herd is the major thing, which sometimes disturbs me about the Randites, and which, to me, brings them too close to collectivism. You sometimes hear whispers of debates among them, where they don’t know the “Party” line, because Rand didn’t write anything down about a particular topic. It is only when some Randite scholar discovers some obscure thing she might have said, in a sketchy meeting back in 1961, to clarify her position on this particular issue, that they seem to be able to relax. Because they have found out, from the one true God Rand, what to think!)

Getting back to socialism, these “party lines” are therefore always imposed upon the mind of the party-based collectivist. This is in addition to their original emotional impulse to adopt a position close to this particular line, in the first place, when their minds were still capable of change. So let’s say 100 individuals decide, usually in emotional teenage, to become Trotskyites. They start reading Trotsky, and come to a point where they hold 100 different views on what Trotsky wanted. At this point, they’re almost like classical liberals, in that they have independently arrived at an individual position (though a position they deliberately sought to reach, before they’d researched any evidence.) They then get serious, and decide to join a group, to further their noble aims.

Let’s say there are four groups, the Trotskyite Workers, the Trotskyite Activists, the Trotskyite Spartacists, and the Trotskyite Militants, and that 25 of our original 100 socialists all join each group. It will not take very long, before each group of 25 will hold identical views to all of the others in their particular group, regardless of what slightly diverse position they came from, and regardless of how different their individual minds are. It is at this point that they become true mindless slaves to socialism, and it becomes almost impossible, for most of them, for the rest of their lives, to shake off this mind-numbing infliction. They have, in effect, stopped thinking. And it is only if they can start thinking again, that they can be saved.

And it is sites such as our very own Samizdata.net, which can kick-start this re-thinking process. We draw them on, in their hope that they can shout us down, but we hold such a strong personal positions, based upon evidence long worked over, that we can sometimes, very occasionally, shake off these layers of socialist control, which hold these once-thinking minds trapped within. From under this deep layer of unreasoning fury, aggression, and emotion, a thinking person can sometime re-emerge. Or, at least, we can rattle them sufficiently so that their own awoken thinking processes can do this job for them, internally. They may then even challenge their group-held positions, cause socialist schism within their group, or even break away from it entirely, floating back gradually towards the light of reason.

And if they can maintain this attitude of thinking, for a decent period of time, something they abandoned at, say, the age of 14, we can even save them entirely. We can bring them fully over to the light side, where they may even learn to hold an individual position of classical liberalism, given luck, fair weather, and a good wind in their sails!

But isn’t collectivism strong? Isn’t strength good? Isn’t it right for 25 people to fight exactly the same battle, from exactly the same hymn sheet, with exactly one voice? No. It isn’t. I prefer disunity.

Some see this disunited individualism within us, the classical liberals, as a weakness. I see it as our major strength. Because what it means, is that we’re the only group who actually think for ourselves. And given the choice of being in another group, where we sheep are told what to think from some book, or from the inspirations of some prophet, I know which group I’d rather be in. Which is why I’m in it!

Free your mind. Vote classical liberalism!

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18 comments to The unbearable lightness of clots

  • Andy,

    I am pretty certain you may be challenged about classical liberalism being the only correct belief system. But then I never understood the fashion for Kundera.

  • Andy,

    I started reading this and thought ‘Good points’ continued and thought ‘Got to link’ to this, read to the end and checked the Author….”Oh No! Can’t link to him agaiiiin….so soooon”, but probably will later anyway.

    Who fufills the role of mouthpiece for classical liberals in France where they are so badly needed for the likes of Jospin et al?

    Would you define Gladstone as a classical liberal?

    Considering myself uniquely individual I shy from any label, Popperian I might accept although not having read large parts of his works (‘The Logic of Scientific Discovery lost me I am afraid) would cause hesitation.

    I would be interested to know what makes you content to so categorise yourself, might not others construe something from the lable ‘classical liberal’ which you might find unacceptable?

  • Theodopoulos Pherecydes

    Einsteinian physics is already tottering under the weight of the evidence that the speed of light is not constant.

    Indeed, it only takes a moment’s reflection to see that believing in constants of any sort (see Physicsweb’s “When is a Constant not a Constant?”) is theology rather than science.

  • Andy Duncan

    Guessedworker writes:

    I am pretty certain you may be challenged about classical liberalism being the only correct belief system.

    🙂

    But then I never understood the fashion for Kundera.

    I claim no high-brow high ground, on this. I just like Daniel Day-Lewis 🙂

    Martin writes:

    Who fufills the role of mouthpiece for classical liberals in France where they are so badly needed for the likes of Jospin et al?

    Isn’t there that formidable Sabine Herold, currently working through Hayek’s canon, who lunches with the great and the good, and who speaks to hundreds of thousands of sensible French people, about the stupidity of the French state? C’est magnifique!

    Would you define Gladstone as a classical liberal?

    I don’t know enough Gladstone, myself, to hold a valid opinion, I’m afraid. All I know about him, is that he had a beard, he was often prepared to change his minds on great political issues (which my theory would say, makes him one of us!), and he got into terrible trouble over Ireland. I’ve got to read up on Lord Acton, first, before I get to Gladstone; but I will get there. But any man who said Let the money of the people fructify in their pockets, can’t be all bad, in my book! 🙂

    I’m still only up to page 237 of my Murray N. Rothbard, ‘Man, Economy, and State’, so it’ll be some time before I get to Acton, and then Gladstone. Which is funny really, because this morning I managed to get 50 pages of Rothbard done, because Thames Trains left us sitting outside Acton Main Line, for ages. There’s got to be a joke in there, somewhere, trying to get out 🙂

    I would be interested to know what makes you content to so categorise yourself, might not others construe something from the lable ‘classical liberal’ which you might find unacceptable?

    You might want to read Mr De Havilland’s superb Social individualists of the world unite!. I see classical liberalism as being much more of a political “area”, than a distinct sect. You know what I mean by it, and I know what I mean about it, and if others want to construe something else from it, that’s up to them. To me though, it’s central figures are Hayek, Von Mises, Rothbard, Benjamin Franklin, Pericles, Milton Friedman, Popper, even Ms Rand, though she’s on the outer edge of the Venn diagram, and Hazlitt. Plonk me somewhere in the middle of that lot. If you want to call me an “Old Whig”, a “neo-conservative”, or even a “Marie Rosian”, to denote this area, works for me! 😎

    Rgds,
    AndyD

  • Dave

    Whatever the point is, they avoid talking about this central issue, and stick to some peripheral soft target.

    The problem with this argument is that it cuts both ways.

    A point raised in a thread can lead to topic drift on the net, in the same way that the subject can be lost in a verbal debate.

    If a point is not important, then that should be made clear. People can determine for themselves what the key issues are.

    Any alternative is walking away complaining that people don’t play fair. That, or doing something like deleting posts, isn’t the way to win a debate.

  • Dave O'Neill

    Damn it! Posted too soon.

    It reminds of the PM’s rather shifty performance on in front of the commons select committe, or, for that matter Hoon on the Today programme today.

    Sometimes it really is worth pinning people down, stripping out their perception of what are the facts and laying them open. Sometimes it can have surprising results.

    At the end of the day the Classical Liberal tag does work well.

  • Andy Duncan

    Dave writes:

    Any alternative is walking away complaining that people don’t play fair. That, or doing something like deleting posts, isn’t the way to win a debate.

    You make a fair point, and I’m as guilty as most, on going off-topic. And you’re right. Most sensible thread followers, I reckon, know the difference between a developing conversation, even if it does start straying off-topic, and a straight refusal to deal with the main point.

    I think we can let the jury of good men, and true, settle those ones.

    However, I do think there does come a point, with some comments, where walking away is a valid option. There’s only so many minutes in a person’s life, and if you choose not to waste some of them on some idiot, who has clearly demonstrated an inability to think rationally, or give straight answers, to straight questions, it’s walk-away time. Life’s too short, and too precious, to spend wasting it on non-productive tasks.

    I do wish there was some way we could El Tone, actually answer the question, though. Wouldn’t it be nice if God granted us the power, even if just for one day, to make Phoney Tony answer the question, and TELL THE TRUTH!!! 🙂

    Blimey. I’ve got a rollcall of questions, building up already; Granita restaurant, deal with Gordon, plans for tax rises, Bernie Ecclestone, sexed-up dossiers, flats in Bristol…..no, no, stop. On second thoughts, I don’t think we could take it! 8)

  • Dave O'Neill

    Wouldn’t it be nice if God granted us the power, even if just for one day, to make Phoney Tony answer the question, and TELL THE TRUTH!!! 🙂

    Watching the vascilating performance on the lunchtime news today I must admit I felt exactly the same way.

    In some respects I admire Paxman when he thinks he’s got somebody on the rack. It does take a lot of effort not to be deflected from the key point.

    The sad problem with Jury’s is finding good people for them 😉

  • digamma

    this morning I managed to get 50 pages of Rothbard done, because Thames Trains left us sitting outside Acton Main Line, for ages. There’s got to be a joke in there, somewhere, trying to get out 🙂

    I can top that: I went to pick up my girlfriend at an Amtrak station last December, and her train was delayed two hours. I spent that time in the station reading – you guessed it – Atlas Shrugged.

  • Andy Duncan

    Yep. That’s untoppable. She wasn’t coming in from Colorado, was she? 🙂

  • Andy,

    Dunno about the high-brow thing, mate, but thanks for the plug. I do remember William Waldegrave (do you remember William Waldegrave?) actually quoting from TILOB in the Commons. Obviously, he didn’t pick the bits about walking naked on a mirror and the best female body part to … look, OK thats it. Anyhow, Waldegrave is a ‘phile which must rule him in among your clots. What’s a Last Tory Boy. I didn’t know our Czech friend wrote about that sort of thing.

  • Andy don’t tell me you are taken in by that fraud Sabine as well?

    I have a hard time believing anyone would be stupid or ignorant enough to be a Trot/Marxist/Leninist or socialist. It is all rather illogical and daft.

    I agree with your point on Randians however. I congratulate you for not taking the attitude that those who have not come to libertarianism via collectivism somehow are lesser libertarians. I have encountered this attitude before and it befuddles me. Or that not being a socialist (or worse) when young means that there is something wrong with you.

  • James

    Andy

    I was disapointed John Stuart Mill didn’t warrant a place in your pantheon of classic liberal thinkers (though I haven’t read any of those you mentioned). His belief in individualism and his comment, this isn’t the precise wording, that “any belief that goes unchallenged for too long becomes a dead dogma and ceases to be a living truth” seem to chime perfectly with your reasons for eulogizing classic liberalism.

    (See Mill’s most famous essay On Liberty)

  • Joe

    Andy, good essay – one small point…

    When you wrote “I prefer disunity.”

    Would “harmony” not be what you are really after?
    A collection of individuals thinking their own thoughts in harmony would be totally different to disunity… which smacks of chaos and an inability to do anything together!

  • Andy Duncan

    Andrew Ian Castel-Dodge writes:

    … don’t tell me you are taken in by that fraud Sabine as well?

    Andrew (what a great first name you have, BTW! :), anyone who looks this good, after a long hot day in Paris abusing the French unions, tends to make the critical analysis portions of my brain, such as they are, wobble a bit:

    She reminds me a little, BTW, of an old Irish girlfriend I used to have (actually, she’s remarkably similar), so you’ll have to forgive me, I’m afraid; the emotional limbic portion of my brain, is dominating the cerebral cortex again! BTW, I’ve just got that Corrs album, “In Blue”, a band filled with women who also look remarkably like that old Irish girlfriend. C’est une albume fantastique! Not that I’m secretly in love, with every female member of the Corrs, of course. That would be a slur, sir, and an outrage!

    I know little more on Sabine Herold, than the two or three articles I’ve read on her, in the Daily Torygraph, which is why I phrased my original reply as a question, rather than a statement. But if anyone is interested in her, purely for political reasons, here’s some links:

    => Capitalism Magazine

    => National Review

    => Joan of Arc

    => Vive, la union basher

    => French tire of strikes

    I have a hard time believing anyone would be stupid or ignorant enough to be a Trot/Marxist/Leninist or socialist

    If we are to confront and defeat these people, we have to learn to accept this reality, even though it does seem bizarre. This reality, is that the majority of people in this country are socialists, of one kind or another, from hard-core Stalinists, the position I started at when I was 14, right through to the outer fringes of the woolly Liberal Democrats. Even many of the statist Tories (Kenneth Clarke, et al), approve of socialist policies (eg: the NHS). Socialism is a very persuasive doctrine, because it appeals to both to intelligence, and to base instinct; it is a superbly addictive combination. It appeals to the cerebral cortex of intellectuals, because it tells them they are capable of planning and controlling the world, better than the “chaotic” forces of the market. It appeals to the limbic emotional system, of all socialists, because it tells them as long as they obey the tribal leaders, they will be provided for, by the rest of the tribe.

    If you want to understand how anyone can be stupid enough to be a socialist, I thoroughly recommend Herr Hayek’s masterpiece:


    This book resolved many issues for me, that had troubled me for some years. Get a copy, today! 🙂

    James writes:

    I was disapointed John Stuart Mill didn’t warrant a place in your pantheon of classic liberal thinkers

    I’m afraid I’ve tried to read JSM several times, mainly attempting the Utilitarianism tome, but each time I’ve failed around the third paragraph of the first page. I’m very suspicious of anyone who thinks Utilitarianism is a good thing, but thanks for the advice. I will add ‘On Liberty’ to my book list, to read. Not, therefore, knowing enough about JSM, I’m not in a valid position to make any rational comment, on him.

    Joe writes:

    Would “harmony” not be what you are really after?

    Good point. However, I was more after trying to create an image of a group of civilised people all arguing constantly among themselves, albeit in a good-natured, calm, rational way, creating a hubbub of sound, a free market bazaar of ideas. The word harmony didn’t cross my mind, but if it had, I don’t think I would’ve selected it, because to me it gives too strong an image of a room of people singing different notes, but creating a single pre-directed song, being led by a single conductor. It’s a bit Newspeakish, but I’ll stick with disunity, for the moment, a non-unified grouping, or a lack of unity of purpose. Though maybe to annoy the socialists, I should’ve used the Wall of Sound Rainbow Coalition! 🙂

    Maybe we need to have a post, on the collective term for a group of classical liberals? In that case, I don’t think either of the following two things work:

    A disunity of classical liberals? => No, not quite right, too split up

    A harmony of classical liberals? => Hmmm. Not sure, too close together

    Let’s try some more:

    A free market of classical liberals? => Sort of getting there.

    A spontaneous order of classical liberal? => Now we’re talking, but a bit long

    A catallaxy of classical liberals? => Haha, Herr Hayek does it again. Bang on, I reckon.

    Shame very few know what Catallaxy means! 🙂

    The catallaxy is a spontaneous order, for which the Greeks had another word: kosmos. Oxford defines cosmos as, “The universe as an ordered whole; an ordered system of ideas, etc.; the sum total of experience.” “Catallaxy” and “cosmos” are synonyms for this self-organizing and self-regulating system, although “catallaxy” is more specific to human affairs, especially to market phenomena.

    So if God ever gives me the chance, in an alternative Universe, to write the essay again, how about:

    I prefer our catallaxy of ideas, and its spontaneous free market of competitive thoughts, all building towards a free trade bazaar of classical liberalism.

    Thanks for getting through to the end, of a very long post, and the comment. It’s made me think, and I’ll bear your point in mind, for the future.

  • Andy Duncan

    Mr Castel-Dodge, puhleeese let us indulge a little whimsy when it comes to stunning French ladies wont to find out about our classical liberal traditions. Sabine Herold supports the EU, but as someone commented a while back, she can learn.

    Andy Duncan, how about this for coincidence but Herold also looks a lot like an ex-girlfriend of mine as well!

    (BTW, I am hoping my current squeeze won’t take offence!)

  • Andy Duncan

    Oh no, it appears I’ve been genetically cloned, in the laboratories of Tom Hedley!

    Quick, write some regulations 🙂

  • Joe

    Andy, Catallaxy is too easily confused with Cataplexy! Especially if you stare at it too long 😉

    If its spontaneous order you’re after how about a “EUREKA! of classical liberals”…. surely thats the epitome of “it” finally coming together 🙂

    Though thinking along those lines my favourite choice would be to call it a “WEYHEY!!! of classical liberals” … sure you couldn’t get more friendly or positive sounding than that – could you 😉