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War and Peace

An earlier article by Gabriel Syme which was about the observations of a British Army Officer known to us, in which he relates his experiences in and around Basra, in Iraq, attracted a comment from one of our most thoughtful regular commenters. This gentleman argued that it was unreasonable for this officer to be able to enter and search houses of Iraqis without a search warrant. Now as this particular commenter is clearly a thoughtful fellow traveller with whom all the writers of Samizdata.net would find little room for ideological disagreement on most issues which vex us and whose past remarks were so interesting we used them as a ‘guest writer’ article on Samizdata.net, I thought his views deserved addressing with an article rather than just a comment. I think the core of my problem with the notion being suggested here is one of the most lethal aspects of libertarian thought and why it is so markedly unsuccessful in breaking into the mainstream, at least overtly… this error of which I speak is in fact the flip side of what makes socialism so monstrous… the complete inability to see the difference between normal civil society and society in an emergency situation.

For the socialists, they see how collective action in war works (in effect tribalising society) and try to apply the same logic to peacetime… a Labour Party slogan in post-war 1945 was “If we can achieve so much together in war, think what we can do in peacetime!”… which of course presumes there is no qualitative and material difference between a society at war and one at peace. For them, all economic decisions are subordinated to the collective, which makes some sense if you have to produce more aircraft than Nazi Germany in order to avoid mass annihilation or enslavement but none whatsoever if you just want more people to have more and better washing machines, a wider selection of flavoured coffee beans and responsive dynamic economy… not to mention such bagatelles as personal liberty. Statist conservatives are little better, declaring ‘war on drugs/poverty/illiteracy/whatever’ and trying to deal with the distortions of civil society they themselves are largely responsible for as issues justifying not just the language but the very underlying collectivising logic of war.

Alas so many libertarians make the same error in reverse. They cannot see the difference between when the network of social interactions we call markets and private free associations that characterise normal civil society are functioning… and situations in which large collections of people are trying to kill other groups of people that characterize wars and major civil disorder or serious crisis. Sorry guys, but at times like those, normal rules of civil interaction simply do not apply. Thermobaric explosions, plagues, rioting mobs and forest fires are not known for their propensity to respect even the most pukka of property boundaries.

For a more ‘local’ example… if a house is burning down and the only way for some fire-fighters to put it out is to run their hoses across the lawns of someone who does not wish them to do so, the extremist propertarian strand of libertarian thought would argue that as the lawn is private property, tough luck on the guy whose house is burning down. Well that is lunacy (and why I call myself a social individualist rather than a libertarian most of the time). Without a common law right to go where you must when faced with a clear and present danger, a “libertarian” social order will simply fall apart the first time it faces a collective threat (be it a war, forest fire or plague). People will not sit and watch their families burn because someone else has interpreted what Murray Rothbard or Hans Herman Hoppe wrote about the right to defend private property. I am all for private property and the right not to have people kicking down your doors in the middle of the night, but the reality is that much of the world does not look like the relatively tranquil civil societies of the First World. To see the peaceful and mundane logic that does and indeed should pertain in Islington, Peoria and Calgary as applying to Basra, Baghdad and Mosul in the violent aftermath of a war is not just wrong, it is perverse.

In the real world, a few weeks after a war in which a dictatorship that has been in power for over 25 years was overthrown, normal rules of civil interaction do NOT apply. It does not mean all notions of civilised behaviour goes out the window, but search warrants? Oh please. The mafia-like homicidal Ba’athist are deeply entrenched in Iraq and will only be completely destroyed if the occupying powers are willing to do whatever it takes, which means kicking down peoples doors in the middle of the night on little more than hunches and searching for weapons at bayonet point. The only legitimate use of force is when force can be used effectively… and tying up soldiers in such notions as search warrants during a counterinsurgency action means you would be better off just abandoning any pretence that you are using force to suppress Ba’athist remnants in Iraq and just replace the squadies with an equal number of unarmed American lawyers.

Hmmm… considering the likely outcome of doing that and the vastly excessive number of lawyers in the USA, maybe it is not such a bad idea after all.

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69 comments to War and Peace

  • Crosbie Smith

    Who determines that a state of emergency exists? Doesn’t this philosophy imply there’s an incentive to produce a state of emergency for anyone who finds the laws of civil society inconvenient?

  • Eamon Brennan

    Perry

    forgive me if I am misreading this, but is this not a self-defeating argument.

    It seems to suggest that collectivism works well in war and poorly in peace, whereas individualism works well in peace but not at all during war.

    Eamon Brennan

  • Crosbie: if you have a culture of liberty within which such decisions are made, then they will be made wisely… if not, no constitution or law or congress or court will prevent exactly that sort of thing happening. That is just the self-evident truth.

    Eamon: Clearly when facing mass annihilation, individualism is going to be somewhat constrained by the imperative not to suffer mass annihilation. If you have the bubonic plague, you right to go where you please can be reasonably constrained by others. Do you really find that surprising?

  • On the subject of lawyers, I am reminded of the words of Lord Salisbury: “The barrister is at best a tolerated evil. He derives his living from the fact that the law in unintelligible.”

  • e young

    All of which goes to show that in a civilised society no amount of ‘politicking’, philosophising or social training will constrain or prevent the more stupid among us from being either trouble-makers or whiners, or just plain ‘chancers’.

    No democratic society can ever set parameters wide enough to please everyone. The fact that the whiners and trouble-makers have a voice at all, proves that said society is a democracy, and that free speech is a reality.

    What we do not have to do, is to take any notice of these fringe dissenters when their braying goes beyond what the majority see as ‘common-sense’. By taking notice, we are condoning their behaviour.

    They should realise that the ‘Rules of war, are not the Rules of law’. and we, in turn, should ensure that said ‘Rules of war’ do not exist for long after the war has ended. Such things as Homeland Security and ID cards are valid in one situation, but not in the other.

  • What is most bothersome is that the instant-gratification crowd seems to be the only group getting any air-time, as it were. Their individual and collective memories only go back 45 seconds, it would seem.

    What’s needed is a longer back memory to how things went on for quite a while after WWII. Re-educating the populace about how to run a civilised society in country takes more than 10 days, which is just about how long it took the whingers to start yapping like persnickitty pekingese pups.

  • Jonathan

    Nice, and thought-provoking analysis, Perry. Thanks very much for sharing.

  • Perry: An excellent analysis, you clearly highlight libertarianism’s flaws. Your observations also pinpoint are the reason why I increasingly dissociate myself from libertarians. Common sense does not seem to feature in their discourse…

  • Joe

    Gabriel makes a good comment which I think applies to most people as soon as they join a named political group:

    “common sense does not seem to feature in their discourse…”

    In joining a political group you have to subordinate your thoughts to the will of the group – which is really the will of its leading thinkers. Individualism within a political group is usually frowned upon.

    This poses big problems for libertarianism – how can you behave as a group yet hold to individual ideas of liberty.

    The answer is you have to start off with a basic agreement of EXACTLY what rules are necessary and what liberties must be surrendered to “government” in order to give the greatest amount of liberty to an individual while maintaining a cohesive society that lives in harmony both in peacetime and in time of great upheaval.

    Without this agreement on the basic understanding of what is required to keep a society together – then the extremists will pull away from any attempt at compromise… and the whole group will take up various forms of extreme and often nonsensical ideals.

  • Lisa

    What happens if the guy whose house is burning down doesn’t have enough money to pay the fireman?

  • Return of ...

    That’s it my uglies, fall upon each other: “you clearly highlight libertarianism’s flaws. Your observations also pinpoint are the reason why I increasingly dissociate myself from libertarians. Common sense does not seem to feature in their discourse”! Ha ha ha ha!

    Cackling to one side, you’re still all crutch-dependent children. All this fuss over, ‘my theory “works” in peacetime, but is hopeless during wartime, whereas his ….’ – such silliness. What you can’t see, because you’re seemingly all intellectually hobbled by your [reaches for her lexicon of the absurd] meta-critique [gotta stop for a second, I’m laughing toooo hard] is: either have a theory that can cope with both peace and war, or, don’t spend the rest of your life vainly trying, yourself, to generate a pointless, unworkable total-answer-to everything. God knows, no one else is going to care.

    Try Toryism: it works. Unlike most libbos, but that’s a story about the wisdom of the free market we can come to some other day.

  • Ooh gosh, did I speak too soon?

    Is Giggles amongst us once more??

  • Gabriel,

    Perry: An excellent analysis, you clearly highlight libertarianism’s flaws. Your observations also pinpoint are the reason why I increasingly dissociate myself from libertarians. Common sense does not seem to feature in their discourse…

    It depends on whose common sense you speak of. If you ask most people on the left/right political axis, common sense tells them allowing individuals freedom from violence in order to pursue their own ends would lead to disaster. If you ask most US Republicans, common sense tells them that legalizing marijuana would lead to mobs of stoners on every street corner. If you ask most US Democrats, common sense tells them that wealth can only be redistributed, never created.

    Thus, ‘common sense’ is not a standard by which I make any ethical conclusions. Nor do I shy away from the “libertarian” label. I believe in individual liberty and am not embarrassed to say so. The reason I was initially drawn to this website is because it was one of the few that said, “We’re libertarians, and we’re damn proud of it. Here’s what personal liberty should mean, and here are the implications of that.”

    I would think that rather than concluding from Perry’s post that “Those libertarians have no common sense,” a better conclusion might be, “Perry points out why libertarianism requires collective action in emergencies.”

  • veryretired

    The difficulty with libertarianism, as with any and all “isms”, is that the definition of who is a libertarian, or the catechism of “what libertarians really believe”, is immediately hijacked by various self-appointed “true believers”. These purists then ruthlessly condemn anyone who disagrees with them about various issues, always claiming that theirs are the only valid positions, and everyone else are only pretenders to the true faith.

    I made this point a few weeks ago on Silber’s blog in response to another long diatribe about what “real” libertarians believe.

    The point I made then is that these true believers have only themselves to blame for the fact that libertarian thought, which should be a powerful, rational refuge for those stunned by the monstrous governmental slaughters of the last few centuries, is in fact a pitiable minor player in the marketplace of political philosophy, easily outdistanced at every level by the populism of a Ross Perot or Ralph Nader.

    I have long held the “fanatic” view of isms throughout history, whether religious or political. This idea says that, whenever a group of people start following or believing in a particular set of political or religious beliefs, the most fanatical in the group will often assume control, set the agenda, and begin to bend others to his or her will at the risk of exclusion. The Bolsheviks’ behaviour during and after the Russian revolution is the textbook example, although just about any religious or political upheaval seems to follow this general pattern.

    I have thought, argued, voted, and supported candidates for decades based on a firm belief that the principles of democratic capitalism practised in the framework of a constitutionally limited government offer the best hope for peace and progress.

    This is not utopian. I live in the real world, working and raising a family, trying to make whatever contribution an ordinary person can make, and be able to look myself in the eye each morning when I shave without having to hang my head. Those mornings when I had to look away are too painfully etched in my catalogue of flaws and mistakes for me to spend a lot of time throwing stones at someone else.

  • Eric the .5b

    While I agree with the basic point of this article, the conclusion is silly. The problem is not with libertarianism, but with irrational extremism by some libertarians.

    Frankly, I prefer Samizdata over a lot of libertarian blogs because of the general lack of fanatics unwilling to yield to the forces of the real world. There are far fewer nutty Christians and nutty anti-Christians. There are far fewer anarchists unwilling to deal with the irrelevance of the virtues of anarchy in a statist world. And there are far, far fewer stealth conservative statists.

    But I read Samizdata because it genuinely matches the minimal-state, maximum-personal freedom philosophy of libertarianism that I prefer. I don’t read Samizdata because I’m interested in a vague “freedom is nice, but we’re not libertarians, dear me, no!” stance.

    I mean, please. “Social individualist” sounds like like some hard left-wing European party with about 40 members. Not to mention the sheer silliness of being a member of a tiny political grouping and then abandoning it to form an even tinier political grouping. Didn’t the collectivists do that enough in the last century?

  • I would think that rather than concluding from Perry’s post that “Those libertarians have no common sense,” a better conclusion might be, “Perry points out why libertarianism requires collective action in emergencies.”

    That is exactly right.

    I do regard myself as a libertarian, but I often find the lable gets in the way, so I use it rather less than I once did because I am less interested in ‘preaching to the choir’. That is a purely tactical issue however.

  • Jacob

    Perry,
    There is no point in ridiculing libertarians with straw arguments like the trivial and silly fire brigade example.
    As to the more interesting point: is a commnad society, where government bureaucrats organize production under absolute coercive powers, more efficient at producing the planes needed to defeat the Nazis ? – I’m not sure about this – it’s a debatable point. If they are – why not organize the production of wash machines on the same basis ?

  • This article is yet another example of the rational libertarianism that makes this the best libertarian site on the interweb. There will always need to be debate about where the power of the collective should end and the rights of the individual should prevail. The very best we can hope for is that debate starts with the assumption of individual liberty and grudgingly concedes power to the collective when neccessary.

  • Jacob: There is no point in ridiculing libertarians with straw arguments like the trivial and silly fire brigade example.

    The reason this is by no means a strawman argument is that I have indeed been confronted by this contention in meeting in libertarian groups. I would not say it is a view held by all libertarians by any means (clearly not) but it certainly is by some.

  • Dishman

    People will tend to obey any orders they want to obey. If a commander shouts “No Prisoners!” to Berserkers, he can expect it to be followed without question or hesitation. When members of a social organization (such as a nation) perceive the organization and thereby themselves to be threatened, there is a much greater willingness to work together. Self-interest is still very much alive and dominating the scene.

  • Jacob:

    It’s not that government-directed manufacturing is more efficient. It’s that in an emergency, when there is one overarching goal that must be shared by most of the people in a society if they are to survive, government control of critical production can make sense.

    But the rest of the time individuals properly pursue their personal agendas, and in that case government organization of production toward central goals is by definition inappropriate (unless you are a collectivist control freak). It’s also inefficient in the sense that socialist industry tends to be uncompetitive with private industry producing similar goods.

  • Replace the troops with lawyers? Isn’t there something in the Geneva Convention (or perhaps the Hague) about inflicting undue suffering on the enemy?

    But seriously, you make a very good point. I consider myself a libertarian and I’ll defend my ideals to anyone. But I hope I’m also enough of a realist to appreciate the difference between the ideal world we wish and strive for, and the real world we live in.

  • Zathras

    I’m not sure about the fire brigade analogy either, at least when it comes to the quoted comment about British troops searching Iraqi homes for weapons. I’ll grant the distinction between normal and emergency environments, but there is a pretty big distinction between British homes and Iraqi ones as well.

    The requirement for search warrants in order to conduct searches is a matter of law. The reason it works in a country like Britain is that the people there have long agreed on the values that support the law. Intrusion into a private home without demonstrated cause is regarded as an affront because such demonstrated cause will be the exception rather than the rule, and further that the potential damage from the exception will be limited. If the values were not agreed on the law could not be enforced.

    In Iraq agreement on values may come eventually, or it may not (I am hopeful rather than optimistic on this point). It is very peculiar to hear someone insist that, nonetheless, it is reasonable for British troops to conduct themselves as if they were bobbies on the beat in their own country. Regrettably, a substantial number of Iraqis can not even agree that the war is over. This is not to say that because any home in Iraq may be searched that all will be or must be, but this is a tactical question for allied commanders, not a legal one.

    In short, you might call this an emergency situation, but if it weren’t the whole subject would be moot, because British and other coalition forces would not be in Iraq in the first place.

  • Scott Cattanach

    Who determines that a state of emergency exists? Doesn’t this philosophy imply there’s an incentive to produce a state of emergency for anyone who finds the laws of civil society inconvenient?

    Cold War: 1946 – 1989

    War on Terrorism: 2001 – ????

    Relative peace that couldn’t be used as an excuse for ever expanding govt: 1989 – 2001 (12 of the last 57 years).

    Elected once the voters felt they could relax about foreign threats during this time: Clinton (’92) and Blair (’97).

    Not a stellar track record for accepting more govt BS during an “emergency” and restraining it under “normal” times.

    For a more ‘local’ example… if a house is burning down and the only way for some fire-fighters to put it out is to run their hoses across the lawns of someone who does not wish them to do so, the extremist propertarian strand of libertarian thought would argue that as the lawn is private property, tough luck on the guy whose house is burning down. Well that is lunacy

    Cross the lawn, and pay for any damage you do. Otherwise, why not just force each neighbor to chip in “a bit” to buy the guy a new house after the fire?

  • Jacob

    Given that capitalism is such a messy system, with dozens of firms producing the same products and competing unnecessarily, with so many outright frivolous and utterly unnecessary products, like say, cosmetics or viagra or cigarettes, hoisted on consumers by the brainwashing advertising industry, given so many bancruptcies and wasted resources, I think we cannot permit ourselvese this luxury. In a time when millions (no, billions) are starving all over the world, and even in the most prosperous countries some 20% of the population lives below the poverty line- this is a time of emergency.
    We need to adopt rational and scientific methods of production. We need planning, allocation of resources according to the true needs of society, elimination of waste, we need efficiency like we had during the war. We cannot allow some romantic and utopian notions of individualism and private property to stand in the way of society in it’s quest to acheive true progress, and lift all people to a decent and equal standard of living.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Actually, Perry, the firefighter analogy could be looked at this way: Sparky Fire Service Inc offers clients cheaper rates if they are willing to let their hoses go across their lawns if a neighbour, using FAS’s services, requires it. Similarly, one can imagine other emergency services which offer their services in a free market doing the same thing.

    In other words, market forces can be used to make us better neighbours.

    However, I am not sure how this works when say, armed forces such as the British army are conducting widespread searches in a foreign country.

    I agree 100 pct though with the broader point about how emergency situations can bend the envelope of our libertarian world-view. However, I would want to be sure that those deciding whether an emergency existed were following clear-cut rules accepted by the vast majority.

  • Jacob: Sure, that is indeed the Socialist argument and that is indeed how they conflate war and peace into ‘war on want’. It is only the ability to look into exactly that argument and see two quite different states of being that enables us to avoid monstrous errors. War and peace are different quantum states regardless of how messy things might look at the margins.

  • Phil Bradley

    While Perry raises an important point, I think his analysis would benefit from an exploration of the underlying principles.

    I think the principle we need to examine is, to what extent to we extend liberties to, and protect the liberties of, those who would deny us our liberties. Within western societies we are used to denying liberties to individuals (the point of a legal system), but are queasy with the notion of doing so on a collective basis. I personally have no problem with denying liberties and protections to groups while I consider them collectively a threat to my liberties or the liberty of their fellows.

    As far as I am concerned, in Iraq the general principle of promoting liberties should be pursued but until they have a functioning civil society, any specific liberty can and should be restricted if it significantly promotes the security and liberty of others. Searching for weapons clearly falls into this category. I also see no point in formalizing this as law because it will unecessary prolong a situation that benefits by being as short as possible.

  • Try Toryism: it works.

    I have been to far too many get togethers with real Tories right here in the Royal Borough of Kennsington and Chelsea to fall for that horse shit. And then there is Edward Heath. and Chris Patten. and Ken Clarke. and Michael Heseltine. At the grandee end of the party people like them are mercantilists and no less statist than the socialists the Tories claim to to be different from. And then there is the life hating hang ’em and flog ’em prigs like Michael Howards and Anne Widdicombe. So, like them do you Giggles? Are they going to make the world safe for you and other Daily Mail readers from those beastly queers and ravers?

    I have met a few good Tories but they are not the ones running the party, so no… it doesn’t work. If it did, then why do Labour have a huge majority in Parliament? It seems the kleptocratic voting public don’t even love them very much.

  • Kodiak

    Sorry: I’m gonna be off topic.

    But here are the very first Samizdata Intellectual Business Assessment (related to “French Affairs”) ever made available to our kind readership.

    ******

    KEY FIGURES (from 6 February 2002 onto today)

    Threads related to France: 72
    Posts related to above-mentioned threads: 984
    Pots per thread: 14.

    Threads related to France with posting capacity: 47
    Posts related to above-mentioned threads: 984
    Posts per thread: 21.

    Thank you all for your interest in France.
    Our closest ally, Germany, just got 11 threads & 52 posts, that is 5 posts per thread.

    In July 2003 (21st days) France got 6 threads & 207 posts (35 posts per thread) whereas Germany got 1 thread with 13 posts.

    MORE RESULTS FOR FRANCE
    Posts for the ten earliest threads: 0
    Posts for the ten earliest threads with posting capacity: 44
    Posts for the ten latest threads: 320.

    ******

    SPECIAL ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

    MOST POPULAR AUTHORS
    1/ Guest Writer for “The fate of France” (116 posts)
    2/ Alex Singleton for “Boycott the French? Let’s not” (115 posts)
    3/ Perry de Havilland for “What Bastille Day is all about” (90 posts) >>> good inspiration, wasn’t it?

    LESS POPULAR AUTHORS (threads with posting capacity)
    1/ Gustave La Joie for “A Stalinist nightmare” (no post)
    2/ Antoine Clarke for “French filth” (no post)
    3/ Antoine Clarke for “Punishment to fit the crime?” (no post) >>> Antoine, are you Francophile or just lacking inspiration?

    ******

    PLEASE FORGIVE MY NARCISSISM

    Posts per thread (with posting capacity) with Kodiak’s posting: 41
    Posts per thread (with commenting capacity) prior to Kodiak’s appearance: 12.
    (“French Affairs” only)

    I started with “The fate of France” (116) & hit with “What Bastille Day is all about” (90) on my name alone.

    Samizdata: capitalistically speaking, I think I merit some compensation for having increased Samizdata blog turnout so much.

    Any idea ?

  • T. Hartin

    Kodiak, I suspect that the France-oriented postfests are so active because the current French regime has consciously put itself at the head of everthing that regular followers of this blog tend to despise.

  • Johnathan

    Kodiak, you have a point there – France is always guaranteed to get a lot of comments!

    You could probably do the same analysis on war. I have noted that any article with the word Iraq in it usually gets the comments blazing.

  • Scott Cattanach

    In a time when millions (no, billions) are starving all over the world, and even in the most prosperous countries some 20% of the population lives below the poverty line- this is a time of emergency.

    If you’re allowed to violate the neighbor’s rights w/ impunity because that house is on fire, then you’re saying you can violate someone’s rights to keep someone else from being homeless, but there’s no difference between being homeless because of last night’s fire and being homeless for any other reason. If you can be forced to chip in to save my house from fire, then all of you can be forced to chip in to buy me a house.

    Perry just nationalized the housing market.

  • She's baaaack

    Perry: of course Toryism ‘works’, and we know this because it has been tried and tested in the true market place of ideas. Compare and contrast that with the fate of the libbo’s ideology: which is in …. naddaville. Seriously, you can’t [unless you want to be giggled at] go round claiming that Toryism has historically been so much more successful and popular than libertarianism solely because – space aliens make it that way/people aren’t yet voluntarily wearing the right sort of tinfoil hats to be responsive to libbo drivel/or, and how could I forget, The Guardian censors you out of the public square.

    Face up to man: libertarianism is a vastly unpopular [ie supported by verrrrry few people] doctrine, not because mysterious conspiracies have denied people access to information about libbos and their craziness, but because libertarianism, like Marxism, quite evidently doesn’t work. People aren’t stupid you know, they’ve seen that.

    Now, on to the main point of my bimonthly mission to help libbos. Where your argumentative technique – and you’re no more guilty of this sin than any other libbo – falls down is that it invariably consists of pointing out things like, ‘people like them [Tory wets] are mercantilists and no less statist than the socialists’. Which is all very well and good, but tells us nothing beyond the fact that these Tories aren’t libbos.

    Invariably when a poster on Samizdata makes an argument of any kind, it follows a set pattern: “John Smith said this; this isn’t libbo auto-speak; ergo, it’s WRONG.” Believe it or not – and most people voluntarily choose to disagree with you, but hey, why should you pay attention to what the vast plurality of free-thinking individuals think, you’ve your religion to cling to – simply establishing that someone doesn’t think what libbos’ think, doesn’t make that someone wrong! You’d all, what with this preference for citing the authority of unexamined libbo holy writ against things you find challenging, rather than establishing through discussion the truth or otherwise of a proposition, be better off in the church. The church c.1487 that is.

    Libertarianism is never going to happen anywhere. It’s unrealistic, impractical and unpopular. Thank you for your help.

  • Scott Cattanach

    Libertarianism is never going to happen anywhere. It’s unrealistic, impractical and unpopular. Thank you for your help.

    Warlibbos are trying to show the rest of the world that they’re really OK by supporting the War on Terror, in the hopes that if they support that big govt program, people will think they are reasonable and listen to them when they talk about abolishing other big govt programs.

    The huge increase in govt size and power from the War on Terror will result in ultimate shinkage of govt in their eyes, just like Marx believed the state will “whither away” after achieving true socialism.

  • Coden Bright

    Perry – quite clearly wars and other emergencies present threats to groups of people, and require cooperation between individuals in order for the threat to be effectively resisted. No one disputes this, least of all any libertarian. What is disputed is that threats requiring collective cooperation somehow result in it being legitimate to infringe individual rights in order to *force* people to cooperate to meet the threat. Sorry, but if town X is threatened by a forest fire, and Mr Joe Bloggs doesn’t want to fight it, but is resigned to his death – well that’s his right, regardless of the wishes of the rest of the population. Under no circumstances is he obliged to help anyone in any way.

    I also have some problems with the claim that war is a quantum leap from peace. War and peace are a continuum ranging from a meeting of Jehovah’s witnesses in Switzerland, to a brawl at the local drinking establishment, through gang conflict on the mean streets of Hackney or South Central LA, to border skirmishes in Kashmir, to counterterrorism in Northern Ireland, to the Falklands or Culloden, finally ending with the total war of the Eastern Front in WWII or hellholes like Cambodia. There is no clear dividing line where the laws of morality, and the primacy of rights, are suddenly suspended – they simply become less likely to be *upheld*

    In addition, it is wrong to assume you can just coopt anyone into a “state of emergency” against their will. They may not see it as an emergency at all, or certainly less of an emergency than having their rights assaulted. They may simply view it as being “nothing to do with me”, and who are you to say otherwise?

    There is another problem with allowing infringement of people’s rights in emergency situations, and that is the question – “whose emergency?”

    If Joe Bloggs wanted to stop his house burning down, and Monsieur Martin 50 miles away in a foreign country happened to have a firefighting helicopter, would Mr Bloggs be justified in commandeering it to fight his fire? Surely not, since Monsieur Martin owns the helicopter, and has at no point ever agreed to help Mr Bloggs, regardless of the seriousness of the situation.

    If we grant this limitation, then it is clear that there is no rational place for it to stop. If it is illegitimate to co-opt the resources or infringe the rights of someone utterly unrelated to the state of emergency, then at what point does it become legitimate? Who is to say that Mr Al-Sharaf of Bazra is not a self-declared libertarian who admits no ties whatsoever to the state of Iraq or its civil society? Quite possibly he doesn’t give two hoots about what various social groups do to each other. In this case, it would be quite wrong to co-opt him or his property into any kind of group effort.

    To claim that it is legitimate to infringe the rights of asocial uncooperative curmudgeons is to believe that they are not sovereign individuals but ultimately collectively owned means, or subservient group members, to be used for the furtherance of whatever aims the people in power claim as “necessary”. Sorry, but I reject that position in its entirety, regardless of how high the stakes are. I am only a member of society in the sense that I interact with other people – I admit no moral claim of theirs on my person or personal possessions.

    Finally, you make an interesting point about property access (the “house on fire”). But what makes you think a libertarian theory of property must be so absolutist as to deny rights of way over land? Libertarian theories of property rights can be quite compatible with “emergency access” rights, or rights of way. It would be a curious decision to abandon the label of “libertarian”, let alone accuse the philosophy of being deviod of common sense, simply because you disagee with a dogmatic (and incorrect) position asserted by one or two of its proponents.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Giggler – or whatever unfunny nickname this bod is adopting depending on the cycle of the moon – claims that libertarian ideas have zero traction in the political realm. Yep, apparently, we are all different kinds of statist these days (presumably he is too).

    So let me get this right – the admittedly (partial) liberal counter-revolution against Big Government which was seen in Britain and the US and Britain under Reagan and Thatcher had nothing to do, in this person’s view, with ideas about capitalism, the market, etc.

    As for “Try Toryism”, that’s a laugh. Can he give a clear definition of what Toryism is?

    Sorry to rise to the bait but I find the abusive, schoolyard aggression of this guy’s comments (somehow I assume he is a guy) to be indicative of a sort of fear. If he really thought the libertarian take on the world was so pointless, why bother to inflict his mocking views on us?

    To quote Enoch Powell, to ask the question is to know the answer.

  • Actually it is folks like Scott who make me use the term less and less with fatuous remarks like ‘Perry just nationalized the housing market’. Alas he is quite typical of the strand of libertarian who makes absurd conflations and then gets upset if you decline waste time pointing out the absurdity of:

    If you’re allowed to violate the neighbor’s rights w/ impunity because that house is on fire, then you’re saying you can violate someone’s rights to keep someone else from being homeless…

    Thanks for providing a case in point for me, Scott. As I said, some libertarians like Scott cannot see the difference between emergencies (fires) and bad situations which are not emergencies (being homeless). Just like the socialists.

    As for the hilarious Giggles, due to her inability to see the world through anything but via the wacky prism of party politics and political interaction, just like her socialist partners, is oblivious to the fact the world is alive with social interactions and commerce that is outside the realm of Toryism or Labourism or Nationalism… to go ‘nyah nyah, there is no Libertarian Political Party in Britain’ to someone who decries all political parties is just a measure of how Giggles is a great deal less clever than she think. As I said earlier, if someone wants to join the ‘Stupid Party’ and try to nudge them back towards classical liberalism and away from Socialism-Lite-in-Tweed-Jackets then bless that brave soul and Godspeed. I wish them well. Likely they will fail but I will continue making my money and freely associating as remotely from the process as possible, something I do rather well in fact. Most people who can vote, elect not to do so. Ponder that when Giggles misses the point so floridly next time.

    Also when she says that calling the Tories ‘mercantilists’ only tells us they are not libertarian is rather disingenuous. They do not claim to be libertarian but they do, by and large, claim to be in favour of free markets. Calling them mercantilists is just my way of calling them liars.

    I’ll intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner. And I’ll get up the next morning and I’ll start all over again.

    Does that ring a bell? Hint… 1992 Tory Party Conference. The Tories are not a pro-capitalist party and they are not a pro-liberty party. Rather they just parrot the same old schoolsandhospitals claptrap as Labour and the LibDems, only with a bit more hypocrisy.

    Don’t vote. You’ll only encourage them.

  • Cobden Bright

    Perry writes – “If you have the bubonic plague, your right to go where you please can be reasonably constrained by others. Do you really find that surprising?”

    But surely this falls into the category of someone threatening your individual rights (by threatening infection), thus legitimising the use of force?

    Another question – would your view support collective actions such as conscription, internment without trial, and forced labour during a state of emergency, should the threat be large enough?

  • Scott Cattanach

    Thanks for providing a case in point for me, Scott. As I said, some libertarians like Scott cannot see the difference between emergencies (fires) and bad situations which are not emergencies (being homeless). Just like the socialists.

    The “emergency” is that someone is about to lose their home (and so become homeless). The emergency is an oncoming “bad situation”.

    What is the difference between being homeless due to fire and being homeless for some other reason that justifies actions to prevent one but not the other?

  • Johnathan

    Scott has half a decent point – the cause of X being homeless is often not that relevant. When an emergency breaks out, we need to have some kind of rule to give us grounds for saying, “ok, this is an emergency, we need to have the power to do X” (like put fire hoses across my neighbour’s lawn).

    As I said before, a lot of situations in a libertarian society could be dealt with through contractual terms. A fire service could give discounts to folk offering rights to let firefighters come into their property in the course of putting out a neighbour’s fire. And so on. I happen to think that self-interested property owners would not take a mulish stance and say their neighbours’ homes could go up in flames.

    I think with emergencies we need pretty tough guidelines or else we could have a problem. I don’t always like “slippery slope” arguments but I see the point of view of those who fear that “emergency powers” could be abused over time. Lord knows there are plenty of examples.

  • Scott Cattanach

    I don’t know how it works in the UK, but in the US, you basically can’t get a home loan w/o buying insurance. Banks won’t make loans for uninsured houses. If your house burns down, you’re therefore likely to be covered. If they reposess your house because you’re unemployed and cannot make the payments, no insurance covers that.

    Financially, therefore, you’re clearly better off w/ the fire than with unemployment. Given that, Perry, why is the fire an “emergency” that justifies what would ordinarily be a violation of someone else’s rights, but the unemployment is just a “bad situation”? Both wind up with you homeless, but the emergency grants you an insurance settlement that the bad situation doesn’t.

  • T. Hartin

    “Scott has half a decent point – the cause of X being homeless is often not that relevant.”

    To the contrary, it is entirely relevant, and is the root of the distinction between a societal emergency and something else. If X is homeless because fleets of aerial bombers have destroyed large swaths of the city, that is an emergency for society as a whole. If X is homeless because he is a drunk, or gambled away the mortgage money, that is in no way a societal emergency.

    I understand that X may feel that losing his home for any reason is an emergency for him, but we are talking about emergencies for society as a whole here, and how such emergencies require a different response from society.

    The inability to distinguish between the bumps and bruises of everyday life (individual crises) and a sucking chest wound (societal emergencies) has worked to the benefit of the statists, who sieze on the rhetoric of emergency to justify all sorts of things that have nothing to do with genuine societal emergencies.

  • Scott Cattanach

    To the contrary, it is entirely relevant, and is the root of the distinction between a societal emergency and something else. If X is homeless because fleets of aerial bombers have destroyed large swaths of the city, that is an emergency for society as a whole. If X is homeless because he is a drunk, or gambled away the mortgage money, that is in no way a societal emergency.

    Taking us back to my earlier point about only 12 of the past 57 and counting years (1989-2001 of 1946-2003) lacking a “societal emergency” (either the Cold War or the War on Terrorism).

  • T. Hartin rather eloquently answers for me.

  • Scott Cattanach

    T. Hartin rather eloquently answers for me.

    I don’t follow. Your emergency example was someone losing their home, and T. Hartin differentiated between an individual crisis (such as losing a home) and a societal one (being carpet bombed), saying collective action is justified for the second.

  • Cobden Bright

    Perry said – “As I said, some libertarians like Scott cannot see the difference between emergencies (fires) and bad situations which are not emergencies (being homeless).”

    Sorry to go on, but isn’t the definition of “emergency” simply an expression of what you personally find important to your self-interest? One man’s emergency may be another’s temporary hardship, “interesting times”, or even his utmost delight.

    Without a rights-based morality, how do you judge between the competing claims of the various individuals affected by a state of emergency? The whole point of rights is to *prevent* injustice occuring, to prevent one person being sacrificed to satisfy the interests of another. Allowing rights except in ill-defined “emergencies” is like allowing freedom of speech except when you are disgusted with what is being said.

    And this is in an idealised world. In the real world, where the arbitrator will inevitably be some government body, the prospects for rights only being minimally infringed when genuine emergencies prevail is practically nil. The whole concept, even if it were theoretically defensible, will in the real world just become a back door recipe for collective despotism, no matter how strong the culture of liberty. The situation in the US, where citizens can now be indefinitely held incommunicado without trial or charge, is surely a case in point.

  • Omnibus Bill

    The reason there isn’t really an effective libertarian party in Britain or the U.S. is because libertarianism is an idea or a method.

    Methods make lousy organizing principles. For example, the War on Terra-rism. Well, I have a cat, that terrorizes a slightly smaller cat. Has the U.S. declared war on the larger cat in the War on Terra? How about schoolyard bullying – that falls within the category of terrorizing? Etc.

    Moreover, ideas make pretty bad organizing principles because (1) most people don’t spend that much time leading the contemplative life, so lofty ideas don’t matter that much too them; and (b) philosophical schools are prone to schism. Just look at the Christian religious denominations. They all started from one church, and all of a sudden started splitting off, each contesting the legitimacy of the other sects’ ideas, as much as the other sides’ ideological purity.

    These horiffic splits are over the really big question for non-atheists: heaven or hell; salvation or damnation? If we can’t agree on that, how the heck can we agree on the point at which the marginal tax rate stops being reasonable?

    Good political parties are founded mostly on things that aren’t easily articulated, vague ideas subject to multiple interpretations. Your own Tories are organized around the sentiments of respect for the old things, respect of prescription, and distrust of radical change. Within these basic ideas, there is a lot of weasel room – and it’s hard to label somebody a “traitor” to the party when the party’s ideals are rather flexible and vague.

    At the same time, Labor is similarly sentimental. Sure, you can spout of Marx’s emotional axioms, but a typical laborite probably sees himself as a friend of the little man, somebody who makes the government take up cudgels against life’s unfairness, etc. The economic aspect of the party is probably a bit of an afterthought to most laborites. (Though I’m sure that the thought of looting businesses through the tax code holds a lot of appeal for them…)

    This is why non-sectarian libertarians have generally found a reasonably welcoming home in the Republican Party in the U.S. A lot of Republicans are statist conservatives, but many (especially male voters in the “red” states) are “off my back” voters. They will vote for the candidate who promises to get the gubmint off our backs and out of our wallets, and out of our bedrooms too. They usually get called “conservative” by the press, but Hayek would recognize these folks as sharing his core principles.

    Libertarian virtues – and even a good number of real-life hardcore libertarians thus flourish inside the Republican party because the tent is big enough to hold them, and they are sensible enough to settle for getting the camel’s nose under the tent flap. Sure, we have little luck with the current Nixonian statist conservative president, but there’s plenty of libertarian-leaning talent elsewhere in the party.

    Of course you can try to build the Randian Anti-Statist Party if you want, and I’ll cheer you on. But I’m not going to take any bets about where you will end up.

  • I think this discussion on whether British soldiers should or shouldn’t be able to enter houses without a warrant has missed a point. Why would anyone expect governments which are increasingly ignoring such niceties at home to honor them in a conquered territory?

    The US has some historical experience with British soldiers searching homes without warrants–we resolved that problem by shooting the British until they went away.

  • Jacob

    Coden Bright said:
    “I also have some problems with the claim that war is a quantum leap from peace. War and peace are a continuum ..”
    Perry said” “War and peace are different quantum states regardless of how messy things might look at the margins. ”
    I’m with Coden.
    Take Israel for example – it has lived for the 55 years of it’s existence (and other 40 or 50 years before independence) in a state of perpetual war, with interludes of fierce fighting between periods somewhat quieter. You can’t postpone the implementation of invidual rights for 50 years claiming a state of war, and we can’t wait another 50 years with those rights – no chance of peace sooner. War is part of normal life, allways has been, and should not serve as pretext for totalitarianism.
    I’m also surprised at the ease with wich Perry renounces ALL individual rights in an emergency. In a war – higher taxation, some regulation, etc. might be necessary – but you don’t throw out ALL individual rights and install a totalitarian regime, and tell the people: forget about your rights for the duration of the emergency. We must be vigilant and fight for our rights even during war, so that the government does not feel it has a free hand, and does not abuse its powers and abridge our freedoms more than strictly necessary for survival of our society.

  • Scott Cattanach

    How can war and peace be “quantum states” when Gulf War I and Gulf War II were supposedly really a single 12 year long war w/o most Americans or British knowing that during the interim.

    Were we at war w/ Iraq in, say, 1995, 1996, 1997…? How many American or British voters would have thought so at the time?

  • Scott Cattanach

    If Gulf War I (1991) and Gulf War II (2003) were one big war, and the war with Iraq was just “one battle” in the larger, ongoing War on Terrorism, wouldn’t that mean we had only 1989-1991 in relative peace since the start of WWII?

    That would be only 2 years w/o a govt-justifying crisis out of the last 60 or so.

  • The notion people must give up all rights during an emergency is wrong… it is just that certain niceties do indeed go out the window. A way to prevent that getting out of hand would be paying reconstitutive compensation to people after the fact (post-crisis).

    War and peace are materially different. They are two big steps,. But other forms of crisis break into smaller, but not infinitely small, steps. I would argue Israel is at war. Yet making the distinction between war and peace is so vital to avoid falling into the war-eternal mode of the socialists or suicidal-ostrich mode of the paleo-libertarians that some line has to be drawn between the two. We call a shooting in self-defence justified and one done in a fit of pique murder. The crisis justifies the act. It is the main reason I am a minarchist not an anarchist. Personally I lean towards some Kritarchist way of figuring when situations warrant emergency logic and when they do not… it is one of the reasons that the custom of ‘declaring war’ needs to be revived: to make it clear when a war does/does not apply. A series of jarring steps rather than a smooth slippery slope continuum is not just better socially/legally, it is a better representation of reality. After all, each self-defence shooting must be judged on its merits… yet in Britain, the process has decayed to the point almost no legally plausible situation allows a person to shoot another unless the shooter works for the state and shoot someone under orders from the state.

    But no system based on individual rights can survive in the long run no matter how carefully constructed, unless it is supported by a culture of liberty. I suspect only when that distinction is made can a society and its presiding state both function and survive in the long run without collapsing or being crushed by predators. Societies which make those sort of distinctions develop better that those which do not. Certainly the gradual trend for the executive branch in the USA to go to war more or less on its own judgement is just another sign that the heroically ambitious but flawed US Constitution is continuing to come unglued and a useful reminder that not everything wrong with it is rooted in excessive kleptocratic democracy.

  • Scott Cattanach

    We call a shooting in self-defence justified and one done in a fit of pique murder. The crisis justifies the act.

    No, your attacker’s actions justifies the act of shooting him in self defense. Your basic claim would mean that the “crisis” would justify you shooting an innocent bystander, since its the situation that justifies you instead of that specific person’s actions.

  • Wrong again. A crisis justifies shooting whoever it is appropriate to shoot within the context of the crisis. If a person elects to not stay off the streets during widespread rioting and looting and gets shot by a property owner or even a cop, they may indeed be an ‘innocent’ but within the context of a crisis they may well fall into the ‘it was a tragedy but shit happens’ category that would be completely unacceptable under normal curcumstances… the burden of proof that the use of violence is legitimate cannot possibly be as stringent with that sort of context as anyone in who has seen a war first hand will tell you. But again, let me thanks Scott for making my point yet again about how paleo-libertarians as well as socialists cannot see the difference between normal civil society and emergencies.

  • Scott Cattanach


    If a person elects to not stay off the streets during widespread rioting and looting and gets shot by a property owner or even a cop, they may indeed be an ‘innocent’ but within the context of a crisis they may well fall into the ‘it was a tragedy but shit happens’ category that would be completely unacceptable under normal curcumstances…

    “When the crusaders approached Beziers they offered to spare it the horrors of war if it would surrender all heretics listed by its bishop; the city leaders refused, saying they would rather stand seige till they should be reduced to eating their children. The crusaders scaled the walls, captured the town, and slew 20,000 men, women and children in indiscriminate massacre; even those who had sought asylum in the church. Caesarius of Heisterbach, a Cistercian monk writing twenty years after, is our only authority for the story that when Arnaud, the papal legate, was asked should Catholics be spared, he answered, “Kill them all, for God knows His own…” (Will Durant, “The Story of Civilization,” Vol IV, The Age of Faith, Simon and Schuster:New York (1950), p. 775)

  • Scott Cattanach

    Perry, your innocent man shot during a riot sounds more like an accidental shooting (at best) than justifiable homicide.

  • snide

    What the hell relevance is that, Scott? You seem to be disconnected from reality. An intentional indiscriminate massacre held up as the equivalent of a realistic vision of what happens when the shit hits the fan and people are forced to make terrible decisions. What a sheltered world you must live in if you cannot come close to understanding what is actually being talked about here.

  • Scott Cattanach

    snide, “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves” — William Pitt , 1783

  • snide

    “I wouldn’t wanna join any club that would have me as a member” (Groucho Marx)

    There you go, another meaningless quote from another person that has nothing to do with anything. All this ‘appeal to authority’ makes me think you must be a continental European, as that is usually how they tend to argue. Not that you are actually arguing, you are just bellowing out of context quotes.

    The way I see it, what the article was about is differentiating between when it is and is not necessary to do things that normal situations would not justify and as Perry keeps pointing out, you keep hammering home the fact you cannot tell the difference between someone not having a home because they are a junkie and having all the homes in a city flattened by a nuke. You are just trolling now so I will stop feeding you, but keep quoting into the static if you like.

  • Scott Cattanach

    you cannot tell the difference between someone not having a home because they are a junkie and having all the homes in a city flattened by a nuke.

    Your side keeps pointing to the difference between a “crisis” and normal life, without saying what specifically differentiates them. Perry’s two examples (one person being attacked or one person’s house burning down) don’t imply a crisis is limited to a general threat like a war. Emergency surgery involves just as immediate a threat as a physical attack, but I doubt either of you want nationalized healthcare because of that.

    Is a crisis like porn, you just know it when you see it?

  • jacob

    Perry,
    Emergencies and crises are so much part of normal life that you cannot create special categories of behaviour for them. Moreover – whatever rules of conduct you have aren’t complete of you don’t have contigent rules for varying circumstances. You cannot say: in normal times rule A applies, but in emergencies everything goes, with no rules.
    It is true that when circumstances change drastically, the rules must change too. But rules cannot be totally abandoned because of emergencies.

  • That is right, Scott. Sometimes times it is easy (250 German bombers overhead is a dead giveaway… sorry you do NOT have the option of not hiding your house’s lights at night when doing so could get your entire neighbourhood flattened one night), sometimes it is not so easy to tell,

    But if you do not realise there are material differences and act accordingly, you will either end up living in a tyranny which treats a lack of colour TV in some neighbourhoods as ‘war’ or watching society collapse into chaos because it does not treat actual war as the real thing or even allow that private form of war called ‘self defence’, none of which is desirable or conducive to liberty.

  • Jacob: I certainly agree they cannot be totally abandoned. That would be horrendous. One must do what the crisis requires but no more.

    But the fact is there are very real differences in the way you must treat people’s needs and wishes in a crisis. Socilaists justify healthcare rationing in their ‘war on inequality’ and that just results in a ghastly healthcare system and abridged liberties. Wrong on every count… but in the aftermath of a nuclear attack or major indistrial accident, applying triage to casualties when under ideal circumstances one would just treat everyone regardless, is the only rational way to respond. Different rules do indeed apply.

  • Scott Cattanach

    The guy with his lights on during the raid has the exact same rights as everyone else, and the exact same rights he had before. I’d be perfectly willing to take a BB gun and shoot out his bulbs, or tresspass and turn the damn things off. If my home and family are about to be carpet bombed, compensating him later for my actual damages isn’t a problem.

    That’s what differentiates anarchists on the one hand from minarchists and socialists on the other. A govt (minimal or huge and socialist) cannot exist if it has to pay punative damages on the tax money it takes (or even if it has to reimburse taxpayers in full), but I’ll gladly pay three times the cost of the light bulbs I break to keep the German bombers from finding us.

    Violating someone’s rights is one thing (if nothing else, accidents happen) – you just never get to say “if you don’t like it, tough, I needed to”.

  • And that is exactly why the anarcho-libertarian approach strikes me as not just utopian but suicidal. If that guy does not turn out his lights, and my family are going to get carpet bombed, I do indeed get to say “if you don’t like it, tough, I needed to”. Someone who gives willfully give aid to an enemy trying to kill me because he refuse to be told to turn his damn lights out… well he is not just an annoyance, he become the enemy too, with all that implies. When the stakes are that high, you cannot fuck around and reality is the people being put at risk will simply not tolerate it.

  • Scott Cattanach

    Someone who gives willfully give aid to an enemy trying to kill me because he refuse to be told to turn his damn lights out… well he is not just an annoyance, he become the enemy too, with all that implies.

    And y’all accuse me of living in a black and white moral universe…..

    When the stakes are that high, you cannot fuck around and reality is the people being put at risk will simply not tolerate it.

    Who said to tolerate it? Smash the bulbs, call him an idiot, and buy him some new ones later.

  • M. Simon

    Bits of this issue were covered a while back in a thread that was in part a discussion of eminent domain.

    The opposing forces were the right to travel sometimes requiring government taking of property for roads vs. the sanctity of private property against all other rights.

    Libertarians do not do well when rights are in conflict because they often have a hierarchy of rights where no lesser right can trump any greater for any reason.

    The common law is more sensible on these issues. Theft is even allowed to save a life provided the property is restored when the danger has passed. That is you can steal a boat to save a drowning man. Though doing so at gun point might raise some questions depending on circumstances.

    No set of rules can cover all situations in advance which explains the necessity of judges and juries in addition to laws.

  • M. Simon

    I want to restate again a very important point. We do have rules to fall back on in many cases of reasonable rule of law violations.

    Common law.

    Common law tells us when trespass might be legal. And a lot of other difficult situations besides.

    For the more difficult cases we have judges and juries.

    To make a rule for every situation just multiplies the rules without adding much clarity.

    No set of rules is going to give us the liberty we want if the spirit of liberty does not motivate the people.