We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

We need a classical liberal ‘Resistance’ movement

James Waterton of the Daily Constitutional sees the need for more hardcore activists to spread the word for classical liberal values… and he also sees the need for more people to read his excellent articles. We agree with him on both counts

I was having a chat today with two friends about the nature of a market society. Both guys are intelligent, open minded and lacking ideological zeal. After talking about this and that, the discussion turned into me defending the free market of commerce and culture. Neither of them are heavily interested in politics, however they both articulated their positions with cognisance and we had a good discussion.

Because of the above discussion and the assumptions my friends held of the free market, I came to realise that – as enthusiasts of the free market – we do very little to actively promote the cause and its benefits. We hope our continually improving lives do the talking for us. Trouble is, these benefits can be twisted by people who do not agree with us. We are getting rich, says Green Left, at the expense of those in the third world and/or in our underclass. This is rubbish, of course, but it is an easily grasped concept, no matter how misguided. A group like Resistance goes out to a lot of schools to talk to students about the beauty of socialism. It is rich pickings for them there, because the simplistic truths of socialism appeal to minds that are neither sullied with the realities of human nature nor self-supporting adults. It is not hard to make a teenager feel bad about our society. Ask them if they lead a comfortable life. Show them a few pictures of starving African children. Let them join the dots. Child’s play. Trouble is, as we all know, widespread socialism was a dismal failure, and the few countries that continue to fly the banner are collapsing failures. However kids – especially compassionate kids – are still easily conned. Okay, maybe conned is the wrong word. They are just not offered an alternative point of view, and what they are being shown by our leftist friends is easy to understand and makes sense prima facie. I was a high-minded socialist back in the day, and I believed a whole manner of things that I find utterly repugnant today. For example, I considered that an absolute majority was always right. Someone backed me into a corner once and posed the following scenario – if an absolute majority decided that it was okay to kill me, would I have a problem with that. I sacrificed sanity for consistency and answered, no, I would not, if that is what the majority wanted.

I have found that this kind of woolly thinking is common in politically aware teenagers, and I believe it is because they are never offered an alternative. Socialism appears to make sense. No one tells them how it produces undesirable outcomes. Even when the aforementioned teenagers embrace adult reality and do away with socialism and the chimeric solutions it offers, most still retain a general distrust of free markets into their adulthood, even though they more often than not have trouble justifying their position if prodded. In regards to my friends, I was presenting a model that they did not know a great deal about. They knew its ostensible failings, but knew little of its strengths. They would possibly never considered, and certainly never accepted, the moral argument for a free market. They knew my case was logical, however the conditioned response of the average young adult to free markets made them still suspect that “something was wrong” with capitalism, free markets, individual responsibility etc. even though more often than not they could not put their finger on what it was. This syndrome is politically important, because when multiplied across society, it has implications on policy and how far the remaining vestiges of the socialist state can be rolled back – for the good of all.

If someone had have presented me with the case for free markets when I was in high school, I would have probably dismissed it out of hand. However, planting the seed is half the job done. As it happened, I changed my stance a couple of years after graduation. It took about one and a half years of a relentless bombardment of logic from a bunch of Objectivists to bring me round. I am not an Objectivist myself, however they certainly influenced my current liberal outlook. The people I was talking to earlier today are probably where I was when I encountered the Randroids. Those guys took a year and a half to convince me; I wouldn’t have even started to turn my friends around. On the whole, people do not radically alter their views easily. However, this process would be a lot easier and quicker if the pre-existing cynicism towards the free market that my friends held was not there.

Which is where we free market enthusiasts come in. The morality of Adam Smith’s invisible hand is more sophisticated and is not as easily digested as the ostensibly moral “perfect equality” socialist model, however Free Marketeers should debate Green Left, Resistance and those of their ilk at schools or wherever they appear. Just taking a quick peek at their publications and arguments, it is quite obvious that anyone with even a thimble of debating flair could wipe the floor with these lefty halfwits and their demented, unreal truisms. Their creed is barren, it lost its dynamism long ago. However, it could rear its ugly head again with enough support. There are signs that it’s happening already with governments across the world reversing the Thatcherite/Reaganite trend towards smaller government. I believe this has something to do with the fact that socialism’s pallbearers are much better at spreading their message than the unknowing footsoldiers of capitalism toiling in banks, brothels, barnyards or any business large and small. The beneficiaries of the free market – that is pretty much everyone, even though realistically I could only expect enthusiasts to rally – need to understand that their right to trade freely is not inextinguishable. We should be making a stronger effort to communicate the superior free market message to the youth, if only to ensure that our way of living continues. The free market system is the hope of the world. Those who understand that should spruik its benefits to the neutrals and unbelievers. We should try much harder to sign up the former and sway the latter.

21 comments to We need a classical liberal ‘Resistance’ movement

  • Mark

    Aaah yes, the wonders of childhood socialism. Trying to debate with a youngster today does however, fill me with despair. They are either wristband brandishing BBC pawns or they don’t care.
    On the other hand, we can always have faith in “the common man” (excuse the leftie phrasing) to get rather upset when the government interferes in his privacy and he starts to notice. Nor do the hardworking honest, yet easily swayed British public like it when their money is stolen as taxes and wazzed away on expensive white elephants or African tinpot dictator support funds. Perhaps there is still hope.

  • GCooper

    “I believe this has something to do with the fact that socialism’s pallbearers are much better at spreading their message than the unknowing footsoldiers of capitalism toiling in banks, brothels, barnyards or any business large and small.”

    Well, yes. Very wisely, the Left had the sense to turn the media and education into virtually wholly owned subsidiaries. They have also annexed much of the law, too.

    These are the battlefields on which we need to fight and a good start on the media has been made, it has to be said, by blogs.

    But there is still the proverbial mountain to climb!

  • Robert Alderson

    I received some quite effective capitalist propaganda in my school courtesy, I think, of the Institute of Directors. Who came into our 6th Form and had us found pretend companies with the prize going to the one who made the most money. It was great fun!

  • Chris Harper

    I never did read Ayn Rand as a youngster, and by the time I reached adulthood I found her characters to be just cardboard cut-outs and gave up after a few chapters.

    Science Fiction is a very good start though, my initial influence was Heinlein, speaking through the mouths of Manuel O’Kelly and Prof Bernardo de la Paz.

    Maybe promote Atlas Shrugged as science fiction?

    However, it may be a mistake to promote markets per se. I don’t see them as a fundamental, but rather as a secondary emergent property of that true morality, a society of free people, each cooperating as they see fit.

    Who knows, TANSTAAFL may then become blindingly obvious to everyone.

    A subsidiary view – this is why a structure of ‘internal markets’ can never work in something like the NHS. If the market is a result of free cooperation then imposing it as a superstructure from above in a highly controlled environment is to impose it without the necessary foundations and support structures. An unworkable form without content.

    That absurdity set back the cause of a market in health care by maybe a couple of decades. We will have to wait for institutional memories of that mess to fade before we can make a proper restructuring.

  • Bernie

    This is an important issue that I tend to ponder over quite frequently. I do disagree with a couple of points. I don’t see the problem as statism or socialism is being taught but free markets aren’t. It is true that these conditions exist but I think the problem is that kids aren’t taught logic and aren’t able to think. They are indeed being conned. Their whole education is a con if they aren’t taught to think because if they don’t analyse data they can’t evaluate it so they don’t have judgement. Even if everything taught them were perfectly true they wouldn’t know the difference.

    I’ve been toying for some time with the idea of some kind of theatre group going into schools and demonstrating some principles of free enterprise vs force. I think it would have more workability than lecturing or debating. Even better would be something like Robert mentions above with the IOD getting the kids themselves to figure out how free enterprise works. If they were helped to figure it out themselves they would probably have more certainty on it than pretty much anything else they have been lectured about.

  • Patrick

    Mate, I do debate this kind of stuff, often and at length. With some people, I do win some points – I recently explained (in half a friggin hour) to my ‘corporations are evil’ student newspaper acquaintance why the comparison between GDPs and market capitalisation was nonsensical (I am a long way anything like ‘corporations are not evil’!).

    But by and large it is a damned thankless task, and that is with the small majority of relatively receptive people. A big obstacle is that in many cases one cannot even imagine where to start – nearly every singly premise needs to be justified and proved before you can move on to the next premise, let alone the conclusion. And no, apparently a syllogism is not always a syllogism.

    I think that teachers are a big part of the problem – you should hear the frustration of my young french friend who just became a teacher recounting some of her discussions with colleagues who care only for their half a day’s work and vacations: ‘merde à la fin, quoi!!’

    So, privatise education. Introduce vouchers for all students of eg £5,500 for every child with a household income under eg £75,000, and eg £3,500 for every child in a household between that and eg £150,000 and nothing after that, or a flat eg¨£6,000, or whatever – mais merde, quelque chose, quoi!

  • Bernie – as Patrick said above, part of the problem is the teachers themselves. They are quite an ideological bunch in the state school system, and they aren’t likely to give free market ideals much of a run. My old history teacher, quite a wonderful man but an incorrigible leftie, couldn’t help but sneer every time he mentioned the words laissez faire.

    As I’ve mentioned in the article, I was lectured to at school assemblies by various lefty propaganda groups – and this was at a private school. It would have been a much more entertaining – and worthwhile – spectacle had there been a group of advocates of individual liberty to rebut them. Most teachers I’ve come across trend soft left, but are generally fair minded and can see the value in competing ideas. I’m sure they would allow that kind of debate. It’s just that there are no groups that operate at a grassroots level. I think the theatre group idea could definitely be a goer if done in a way that would get through to the kids. Happily, we can rely on Saatchi & Saatchi types who should understand the demographic. Are you thinking what we’re thinking, kids? Now you are!! *cue Karl Rove’s entrance with his mind-altering ray gun*

    I noticed a while back that The Economist debated Naomi Klein in New York after No Code was published. There needs to be much more of this kind of thing.

    I sacrificed sanity for consistency

    Ah, I knew I pinched that from somewhere! Just couldn’t remember where. Thanks Adriana…

  • We are getting rich, says Green Left, at the expense of those in the third world and/or in our underclass.

    I should have said “at the expense *yadda yadda* underclass AND the environment! How could I forget that. Usually, even when you’ve completely demolished a lefty’s argument, and pointed out to them all their silly mistakes, and how the poor aren’t getting poorer, they’re actually getting richer etc etc etc… they always fall back on the environment.

  • Sylvain Galineau

    The appeal of socialism to many, especially among the younger crowd, seems to hinge on the largely emotional, intuitive nature of the arguments proposed. Alex Tabarrok over at Marginal Revolution recently elaborated on the intuitive trap.

    And that is the hard part for classical liberalism. It can often be counter-intuitive and requires work and reasoning. This relative handicap could also reflect the decades of experience accumulated by socialist and communist activists the world over in reaching out to uneducated masses to use and leverage them. Not only did the message and the packaging have to be intuitive for the target audience, but the latter formed the very core of ideology. No such thing with classical liberalism.

    Which makes Waterton’s general point even more relevant.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    James, very interesting article and the comments ditto. I would agree with Bernie that one of the fundamental problems is that youngsters are not taught the art of reasoning. The laws of logic need to be taught pretty much as the Greeks did. To some extent learning the Classics did this, even though studying ancient Latin was a form of torture.

    My admittedly scattered impression is that most young people in Britain have a sort of mushy left/liberal outlook, not necessarily a hard socialist one. No wonder the rants of Michael Moore or Naomi Klein sell so widely. Some of this is “peer group” pressure. For example, if a school teacher haranges a class about Third World debt, it takes a lot of guts for a sceptical pupil to call the man’s bluff since he/she may be desperate to “fit in”.

    On a brighter note, I am not quite so alarmed at the state of “youth” opinion that I think we are fighting a losing battle. I think a lot of folk out there smell a rat about much of the cliched bullshit they see on the BBC and read in parts of the media and would like something more intellectually satisfying. Our job is to cater to that and in particular, hit the universities and colleges.

    There is a lot to be done.

  • Ron

    Norman Tebbit’s article today is worth a bookmark.

  • RAB

    Well said GCooper. My great grandfather came from Yorkshire to Caerphilly in Wales, in the 1850’s , to open a school. It was fee paying, but discressionary. That was down to the discression of Gramps. Those who could pay did, and those that couldnt didn’t. They all got taught to the best of his ability, and he made a living.
    In 1870, when the Education Act was passed, the literacy rate of Britons was 97%. Now what is it? In the 80% region.
    Socalism has seconded everything it can in the relentless pursuit of making us all the same. Our education has got steadily worse since it was made compulsory and anodynly standardised, and left slanted.
    You not only get what you pay for under capitalism, you respect it more, hence the higher figures for 1870 than today.

  • I think you’re probably right, Johnathan. I should have made the distinction between hard leftists of organisations like Resistance, who talk up the wonderful democracy of Cuba and its amazing healthcare/education system, and the soft leftists who became so due to the message spread to them through Resistance.

    Even if the soft leftists dispense with their lefty sentiments when they move into adulthood, most of them still retain a strong suspicion of classical liberalism and the market in general – a hangover from their flirt with socialism. This, multiplied across society, is probably the main factor hindering the construction of a more liberal state.

  • Stephan

    I wholeheartedly agree with Patrick above on one thing he said:

    A big obstacle is that in many cases one cannot even imagine where to start – nearly every singly premise needs to be justified and proved before you can move on to the next premise, let alone the conclusion.

    There is so much to explain that it becomes a bloody quagmire! It’s not merely a matter of the left believers having reached false conclusions from good premises, for the most part their premises themselves are completely flawed! its like fixing the cracks in a house built on a foundation of putty. If your trying to explain socialism versus free markets as a whole its fairly well easier, since then you can start right from the start. But when it comes to arguing one particular point of a typical socialists beliefs, a free marketeers argument is usually based on entirely different foundations that also need to be explained. Most people do not have the patience to listen to such a thing! Recently I was at a heavily leftist festival of political activism and music; everywhere misinformed idiocy abounded and, due to the above problem, I was totally at a loss for how to argue it. I kept my mouth shamefully shut.

  • I tend to not argue politics too much any more, though as an activist lawyer I sometimes get the opportunity to stray from arguing specific issues, and to instead argue first principles.

    Most people won’t come around to an oral argument. You have to show them, or in the case of learned (but misguided) people, give them a good book that spells it out.

    For that reason, I keep a few paperback copies of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom around. It is useful for precipitating an intellectual crisis on the part of those on the left who read it, after which they are open to more subtle arguments. I’ve never led anybody to staunch libertarianism that way, but I’ve helped a number of people crawl out of the leftist mire and into a more realistic and rational center-right position, which is good enough for me.

    If they really give me crap, and are smart enough, I’ll throw them a copy of Constitution of Liberty. That makes a definitive case for right/libertarianism. This approach has been working slowly with a fellow attorney who has a PhD in Economics. I don’t think he’ll ever be completely in touch with reality – he’s from that branch of the sciences that starts with the premise, “imagine we had a product to sell” – but it seems to be helping.

    What we really need, in addition to constant, strong public writing on the subject, is political leaders who have drunk the kool aid and who can make these arguments chapter and verse. The advantage of both Burke-ian conservatism and Hayekian libertarianism (Kirk saw them as close philosophical kin) is that they are based on experiential observation. Both schools of thought look to history, and to how human beings act in the real world, to provide a basis for a successful political theory. In contrast, most of your lefty thinkers start from the premise, “We can re-create the world, and, what the world should look like, is:…”

    Ron Reagan knew all this. His collected radio addresses and personal writings testify to the deep thinking he put into his speeches and policy choices. So did Maggie Thatcher. Her presence and influence in a couple prominent libertarian groups, and her constant work to re-establish the markets testify to the degree to which she internalized this. Now not all politicians can become fountains of libertarian thought. One problem is that the revolutionary thinkers tend not to be great leaders once the revolution is won. And make no mistake, it has been won in Britain and the U.S. Nu-Labor and the statist Republicans are taking back some ground, but the fundamental battle over nationalization has been won; even Tony Blair is a Thatcherite on many economic issues, even if he doesn’t realize it yet. Basically, between 1975 and 1995, our revolutionaries stormed the walls. The election of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, lefties that embraced substantial chunks of free market philosophy, tells us we won that fight and slashed and burned many tired old leftist orthodoxies. We now need consolidators, pols and thinkers who can figure out how to actually govern, how to hold on to power without letting it become a license to raid the treasury.

  • I am not so disheartened as some of the commenters here about the basic assumptions of today’s youngsters. Just look at the popularity of programmes such as South Park, and in a more gentle way, the Simpsons. With South Park, the idea of free markets being good and personal liberty being a positive thing is fundimental to many of the story lines.

  • Matt Devereux

    Excellent article, James.

    Jonathan’s right – we do have a lot of work to do. However now that UK voter apathy is at an all-time low and the young seem to be losing an interest in politics we also have quite a long time in which to act.

    By the turn of the next election it’s not too idealistic to think that we could promote the benefits of a free market society against the incumbent political system.

    Because although the young seem bored by politics, they’re paradoxically animated about the political. 16 – 25 year olds especially.

    This probably isn’t the time or place to conspire to get someting moving over the next four years. Or maybe it is. If we can make libertarian ideas fashionable (and sustain that initial interest) there’s really no limit to what we can do.

    To the future!

  • The Wobbly Guy

    The premises for classical liberalism may be too tough to figure out for most people. A person needs to read Machiavelli, Hobbes, then Locke and John Stuart Mill, finally followed by Adam Smith to even begin to understand why the system works as well as it does, and why any other option on offer(monarchy, theocracy, socialism, whatever) is simply one big mistake.

    How many people are willing to do that? Adam Smith is the most well known of the five men above, though he was describing mostly the mechanisms, not the premises. Most high school students barely know of the other four, though some might recognise the word “Machiavellian” as originating from the Italian.


  • pommygranate

    Think you’re all being way too pessimistic. The last thing that young kids need is exposure to Wealth of Nations or other riveting texts such as Road to Serfdom.

    Capitalism and the free market are all around them. And they are cool. They just need someone around to join the dots.

    i) rap music is the ubercool of the young – it celebrates the attainment of material goods, it is elitist, it champions success (watch MTV Base for 5 mins) and it is totally politically incorrect. No “deferred success” here.

    ii) when they’re not listening to 50 cent, they’re watching Frank Lampard. Football is the ultimate capitalist business. Adam Smith himself could not have invented a more purer and freer market.
    Spectacular rewards for success, a genuine meritocracy (no jobs for the boys here), a brutal punishment of failure (relegation increasingly leads to administration) and minimal regulation.

    However champions of the free market must also be aware of the various aspects of their creed that turn away potential recruits;
    i) the rise in average pay differential between the highest and the lowest paid workers in the US from 30:1 to 300:1 in just 25 years.
    ii) the cronyism of most Boards
    iii) the constant rewarding of failure
    iv) the repeated failure to tackle white collar crime (are the FSA the most inept amateurs of all time?)

  • Rather than elaborating on the great virtues of the free market which, as has been noted, is a very complex and sophisticated economic/philosophical body of thought, it is far more efficient to offer crisp refutations of any socialistic ideas someone one encounters may have and to answer directly any specific criticisms of the free market that they may offer.

    This approach has the great virtue that it gets straight to the specific errors that any particular person has that is preventing them from understanding the truth of libertarianism. The discussion can develop to whatever degree of complexity is required and even when it ends, as it inevitably will, without the person having made a conversion some small errors may yet have been purged.

  • Paul – a problem is the Environment(c). Socialists have discovered this new rebuttal to our social organisation after it rained complete destruction over their political and economic system. You can right all their misguided opinions on economics and politics, but they will always fall back on what free markets and free will “do to the environment”. They have no proof of the supposed damage free markets are doing, however it’s a lot harder to refute because the science is so imprecise and subject to manipulation.