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All you need is a few nuts

I had been mulling over the reiteration, last week, of our dear leader’s approach to political parties. It occurs to me that while Perry’s prescription – don’t vote and have nothing to do with political parties – is tempting, it is ultimately flawed. It is possible to affect a weary disdain for politics if you are fortunate to live in a country where some liberties remain. It is, however, dangerous to assume that this situation is static.

In any election – and for the purposes of argument I refer to a two party system such as the US or the UK – one is inevitably offered what appears to be Hobson’s choice: Two sets of control freaks who share the same basic statist assumptions. That this is barely palatable to the libertarian doesn’t alter the fact that there are bound to be differing outcomes depending on whom is elected and that one of those outcomes would be worse than the other. Thus while it is true to say that one’s individual vote will not make any difference to the outcome, the libertarian should have an interest in that outcome.

There remains the question, if one chooses to engage in mainstream politics, of how to improve the choice offered to the voter. There is no prospect, under the UK’s first past the post system, of a government being formed by any party other than Labour or the Tories. It may seem, at first, like a daunting task to convert either party towards any kind of libertarianism. How does one persuade an entire party of committed statists away from statism? Surely by the time everybody was on board, the “libertarianism” would be watered down so much so as to be unrecognisable? One possible answer to this conundrum was suggested to me while reading the Observer Food Monthly.

Heston Blumenthal, chef-proprietor of the 3-Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant, takes a uniquely scientific approach to cooking. One of the concepts which informs his thinking is Flavour Encapsulation. This describes the strength of flavour imparted when elements of contrasting flavour remain whole and unblended. Blumenthal explains it thus:

Make a cup of coffee with one ground coffee bean – it will taste horribly insipid. Now take the cup and fill it with hot water; just before you drink it, pop a coffee bean into your mouth, crunch it and then drink the water. This time, the coffee flavour will be far stronger and last in the mouth a lot longer. The experiment shows that a coffee bean delivers a far greater flavour eaten whole than when ground up in a cup of hot water. Effectively, the flavour is encapsulated in the whole bean but dispersed in the water.

This is the culinary principle behind such things as marmalade, fruit cakes, spaghetti carbonara, even something as naff as sun-dried tomato ciabatta and explains why significantly more flavour is required for ‘smooth’ food such as a souffle or pureed soup than ‘chunky’ food. If your objective is to create a nutty chocolate bar there is an efficient method and an inefficient method. The reason why smooth textured praline is more expensive than a chunky ‘choc and nut’ bar is because far fewer nuts are required for the latter to achieve an equivalent flavour. To convert a party such as the Tories towards libertarianism it is not necessary to puree and blend with the mass, all you need is a few whole nuts.

14 comments to All you need is a few nuts

  • Andy Wood

    How does one persuade an entire party of committed statists away from statism?

    I have a suspicion that your solution will fail. Political parties choose their positions to maximise votes. If you persuade a party to abandon statism when statism is popular, it will simply lose the election and the party which retains statism will win.

    The task should surely be to change the minds of voters and the parties will duly follow.

    Have a read of this essay by Bryan Caplan.

  • A few nuts eh? I’m thinking gunpowder plot, and get a whjole new slate of pols.

    But I like the building.

  • Andy,

    Thanks for the article.

    I think you overstate the enthusiasm for the entire boiled frog of a statist apparatus. In any case, there is no need to present an explicit anti-statist message.

    The point about the flavour encapsulation theory is that you can maintain the statist “chocolate” mass so long as you have a few “nuts” who actually implement targeted reductions of government intrusion. Here in Ireland, our governing party is the soggiest, statist “one big tent” Fianna Fail, yet the FF Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, is about as ideologically free-market as it gets here.

  • Here is where parliamentary and presidential systems diverge. For you lot in the UK, you are doomed to vote for either the next tyrant or next lame duck. We have the option, at least, of voting for divided government and have our president spend his days veto-ing various legislation and otherwise inspiring gridlock – which is better for liberty than the other.

    Of course, I suppose with more multitudes of parties your system (as well as mine, I suppose) could also be seized by inability.

    That’s how I vote. I count up who’s most likely to prevail in the House and vote the other for Pres.

  • toolkien

    To convert a party such as the Tories towards libertarianism it is not necessary to puree and blend with the mass, all you need is a few whole nuts.

    But, given this example, can one cashew be detectable amongst pureed macadamias, unless of course you are right up against it? One cashew in a 100 gallon drum of puree is an outlier at best. It is this very issue that has me likely to exit being a part of the Republicans here in the States. There aren’t near enough ‘cashews’ amongst the puree to make much difference.

    In fact one can see this in almost any of the associations we have, the larger the association, and the more removed it central core, to more likely there is going to be shoulder shrugging complacency and very weak line between being wanting to be a cashew or part of the puree. Being a cashew becomes essentially useless unless the other nuts are willing to remain whole as well. Individualism will only truly succeed when everyone buys into it, otherwise the individual is a nut to be avoided by the slurry mass.

    Which gets us back to the main point that is it necessary to convert to ooze back into whole nuts to make the sytem work right, and perhaps is it even possible to put the various humpty-dumpty’s back together again into ‘wholes’.

    Now I’m hungry for nuts and eggs….

  • Richard Thomas

    The solution is not to not vote at all but to vote your conscience. If the compass always points ahead of you, as it does in a lesser-of-two-evils scenario, there’s nothing to correct your heading, if, on the other hand, the needle starts to deviate and continues to deviate more strongly, you know you’re going wrong and can act to correct it.

    Lesser of two evils is never a choice. Staying at home is valid if there is no-one acceptable but generally, voting for your conscience is the way to go. Of course, voting against absolute evil would be a good idea but despite the propaganda of the left and right, this is rarely the situation. Neither leftism nor rightism can do much damage on their own but the current two party hegemony is leading to disaster.

    Of course, this is why I prefer approval voting, it vitual eliminates this faux tactical voting and the effectiveness of using propaganda to make the voters work agaisnt their own interests. I just wish it could get a fair shake.


  • Julian Morrison

    I won’t vote. For two reasons. First, it’s unethical. Second, it’s misdirected effort. Your “flavor encapsulation” metaphor is sensible – it’s why libertarianism exists at all; disperse it proportionately and it would be lost in the statistical noise. But “official” politics is not the place to excercise this to best advantage.

    This is because IMO the official political system has two purposes. Overtly it’s a means to power for the popular. But at least as much, it’s also a tar-pit to trap and declaw the less popular. The prize is power, but the bar has been set so high (“win an election”) that nearly all party political effort is totally wasted. Even were libertarianism to become as electorally popular as LibDem-ism, it would be as powerless in parliament as the LibDems.

    The target to aim for is control of the zeitgeist. This rules the rulers, everywhere and everywhen.

  • Hi Frank,

    I agree with the necessity to participate electorally. Quite apart from the opportunity to elect a government that is the lesser of two evils there is, as you say, the opportunity to influence, however slight that may be..

    But – there’s always a but – influence is mighty hard to obtain, especially if one is opportunistic and short term in one’s strategy. Every snout is deep in the lobby trough. Even established political forces can find themselves cut adrift from influence. For example, the old left has tried in vain to steer Blair towards their goals. He is fire-proof because of his majority, of course. He has stood aloof until the recent top-up fees vote when, faced with the certainty of defeat, he made concessions.

    Even at such a moment, though, there are no guarantees that influence can be wrought. Remember John Major: subservience to the Unionists yet prepared to fight the anti-Maastricht crowd to the death.

    Those looking for a longer term, more ideological impact – whereby, perhaps, the drift of politics and history itself is set upon a fresh and radical course – really require some form of general systemic decay for their opportunity. Two such instances have arisen in my lifetime. The first brought Margaret Thatcher to power, the second Tony Blair. In these magical scenarios one’s particular political prescription becomes by default the receipe for change. One is a beneficiary of the times and the work involved is not so much persuasion as organisational. The very levers of power, formerly beyond all reach, are suddenly right there before you, undefended.

    This is how real political revolutions happen, and that thought brings me to a perverse conclusion. Voting for decay may be more benefical than voting for influence. Voting Labour and thereby advancing the despicable culturally marxist project might actually hasten a Libertarian corrective.

    Pity I lack the courage to go with that, and will most certainly vote for my new Welsh jewish hero.

  • Blair and his New Labour cadre took over a socialist party and made it social democratic.

    It took a few smart, hard nuts and good luck – the Tories imploding.

  • John Harrison

    The target to aim for is control of the zeitgeist. This rules the rulers, everywhere and everywhen.

    It usually does but then seismic changes occur when there is a convergence of zeitgeist and political will. For any ideological movement to sucessfully influence the course of history, the ideas have to be out there as part of the political discourse even if only embraced by a small minority. They have to be expressed in fairly uncompromising terms of a sort that elected politicians usually avoid. Then there has to be sympathy for those ideas among those who are in power or come to power. Again, these need not be majority views but I think Frank has a point about the embedded nuts. They are also a necessary condition for an ideology to gain a hold. With Libertarians in mainstream political parties they may or may not move in a libertarian direction. Without them, why would anyone be surprised if their illiberal tendencies remain unconstrained? If libertarians go further and declare that whatever politicians do then they won’t vote for them then any rational self-interested vote-maximising politician will calculate that it is not even worth gesturing in a libertarian direction. By not only refusing to vote but loudly declaring a belief in not voting you encourage politicans to move in a more authoritarian direction.

  • This is a question I keep kicking around in my head… over and over again. The problem with voting Tory (or in many states in the USA, voting Republican) is that it rewards both outright lying and does little more than slow the rot rather than reverse it. If they know you will just hold your nose and vote for them regardless just to keep Labour or the Democrats out, what possible motivation do they have to actually pander to your views?

    I am inclined to see things more Julian’s way: go for control of the zeitgeist. But although many of the things I have written seem to suggest otherwise, I would never rule out voting ever if it seemed to make sense or if the alternatives were between slow rot and utter evil.

    It is not an easy question, but it is not one that is going to go away either.

  • limberwulf

    Guessedworker, you almost have me convinced to vote Democrat. Only I, like you, dont have the guts to lead the country to a revolution, not yet, I dont think its bad enough and Im too optomistic to cut the wires holding the government back. On the one hand, it would lead to unveiling the socialists in all their rotteness. OTOH, even tho I think the reaction in America would be of the proper horror level, I cant vote for a second civil war.

  • Alexander Crawford

    Very interesting posts on a potential Libertarian strategy in the UK. Although the downside of the UK electoral system is that a Libertarian organization would certainly never hold real power, I think this is less of a problem than it is a blessing. Whereas in the US the LP is basically a “thinktank” party, in the UK a Libertarian organization would probably be closer to what our general political philosophy is best suited for. Loyal dissent, reasoned positions, and the ability to raise the level of policy debate above empty promises.

    In UK politics the three party balance allows the New Labourites to have it both ways. Gordon Brown is hard to figure, but has big spending instincts and appeals to the LibDem spectrum (statist progressive whathaveyou). The Tories seem to be merely waiting for Blair to drop. A Tory Party with new ideas? naaa. Nor are they willing to discard their old prejudices nor even to muster the energy to plan five years ahead. Thus they manage a right wing so Conservative Blair can hold off the Old Labour faction from the Center.

    This creates an ideal position for a UK Libertarian Party to enter parliment and exert a disproportionate influence due to Tory dullness and LibDem/Labour interchangability. There’s already a vacuum, already a core philosophy, already center right MPs like Portillo who aren’t happy. Already a BBC itching for the absolutely essential and perfect political gimmick…. sincerity.

    The other three parties ooze cynicism and cronyism, or in the LibDems case: nanny statism. When Blair is right, be honest and support him, as opposed to kicking his knees. Tell people unpleasant truths. Be proud of Britain as opposed to knocking it, and call for an over- overhaul of the education system to return to quality and classics (export your middling university students to the US NYS or Cali State Uni systems, cheaper). BE ELITE (but not aristo). What’s the point in being a Libertarian if one can’t be honest about thinking one’s smarter than everyone else? Be Alpha males to the LibDems Beta’s.

    Be the Party of the Enlightenment. Don’t begin with the expectation of having power, and it’ll be fun.

  • Guessedworker:

    The problem with “the worse, the better” is that it is possible for things to get progressively worse but taper off before they ever reach that crunch point. The other aspect is that I don’t think Libertarianism needs a crunch point, it lends itself to incrementalism in a way that few other political philosophies do.

    Socialism, in order to demonstrate its dubious “benefits” requires complete control. It is no use the government buying up one company, it must nationalise the whole industry. Nationalising one industry is insufficient without also taking control of all “means of production”.

    This is not the case with Libertarianism, benefits can be seen straight away with individual reductions on government power.


    “Taking control of the zeitgeist” has an air of wishful thinking about it. In any case agit-prop and “ordinary” politics needn’t be mutually exclusive.


    Try to think of it in reverse. Nobody is getting rewarded by your vote but somebody might be punished by it. As for incentives to pander, surely a less-than-enthusiastic, nose-holding voter requires some sort of encouragement to get to the polling station, encouragement which would be wasted on a professed non-voter.