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Aiden Gregg at the Rose and Crown last week

On Thursday 9th of this month, exactly a week ago, I mentioned here a Libertarian Home meeting due to take place that evening in the Rose and Crown, Southwark. It happened, I went, and I wrote most of what follows the following evening. But then life got in the way, and I am only now posting what I then wrote.

The first thing I want to say about Aiden Gregg’s talk about the psychological foundations of differing political beliefs, libertarian and otherwise, is that I greatly enjoyed it. And I got the strong impression that most others present did also.

Much of what Gregg said was based on a book by Jonathan Haidt, entitled The Righteous Mind (now on its way to me via Amazon). Haidt looks as the contrasting ways of thinking and feeling of three big categories of American political people – in descending order by size: liberal, conservative and libertarian. (It’s an aside, but straight away, that itself strikes me as a big win for the libertarian movement. A generation ago, would “libertarian” have been in the mix, as a distinct big category? I wonder how greenies feel, if they read Haidt’s book, about not being included as a distinct big category. Also, as was asked during the Q&A, what of non-Americans?)

My immediate reaction to Haidt’s various different ways of thinking and feeling was to wonder exactly what these are. Are they notions relating in any way to the biology of the brain? Are they, that is to say, “real”? Or are they merely things that Haidt has found that political people like to think about? Are they just questions which, if you put them to political people, seem to reveal and illuminate differences of deeper attitude? Are they, as Perry de Havilland might say, questions about contrasting meta-contexts? This is the perpetual problem of the social sciences. What exactly are you observing? What are you talking about? I will perhaps have more to say about such things, and about exactly which people score exactly what on which variable, once I have had a closer look at Haidt’s ideas in written form, although I promise nothing.

Memory plays tricks – definitely mine now does – so others might describe this talk very differently to the way I am doing. But, what I heard as Gregg’s main conclusion was that nature, when it comes to political affiliation (religion was hardly mentioned) is not destiny. You are not doomed, because of the sort of person you were born as, to be any particular sort of political animal. The main thing to learn from such work as Haidt’s is not that most people are beyond hope when it comes to converting them to Righteousness (in my case, to libertarianism), but that you have a better chance of converting someone to Righteousness if you understand their psychological dispositions better. What “moral foundations” (to quote the words on my scribbled notes) do they consider to be most important?

As to what these moral foundations are, we were offered six variables of concern, so to speak, to consider important, rather more or rather less than others: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, freedom/oppression. If, like most libertarians, you are more exercised about freedom/oppression than, say, about sanctity/degradation, but are arguing with a conservative whose cconcerns are the opposite of yours, then you just banging on about how freedom/oppression is what matters most, and that libertarianism scores well on this variable, will not get you very far. It will be a dialogue of the deaf.

It was a lively meeting, livelier than usual. Partly this was because of Aiden Gregg’s relaxed and low key demeanour. When the room erupted with interruption, as it did from time to time, his attitude seemed to be that this was amusing, rather than any kind of insult to him personally. I guess if you are an academic psychologist, a group of people is interesting to observe no matter how disruptively it behaves, and perhaps the worse the better. You look on with amused detachment, as if observing baboons. Especially if they are libertarian baboons and this the sort of behaviour you expect from such baboons.

But there was, I think, another reason for the lively response to this talk, which is that all of us were, but not in a bad way, taking it personally. We were – certainly if my own response was anything to go by – thinking things like: how do I score on these various variables? What do I think is most important? And: I wonder how my scores differ from other people in the room, from other libertarians generally, and from other people generally.

I have always felt myself to be, psychologically, a lot more like (compared to other libertarians) many of the ideological opponents of libertarianism, of the softer, kinder, better-meaning sort. I just think that the way to get a softer, kinder, better world is through a policy of radically diminished state activity and greatly increased freedom compared to what we live with now. I don’t favour the free market, despite it being rather red in tooth and claw but simply because it is free. It is free, and that’s very nice. But I do not think that it is actually very red in tooth and claw. And I think that the statist alternatives to it are much redder in tooth and claw than those proposing such alternatives typically suppose, or pretend. Socialism, for instance, and especially the sort of state-imposed socialism that is actually capable of being done in a big way, doesn’t strike me as at all egalitarian, at all fair (to allude to variable 2 in the Haidt list). It merely installs a different and far more toxic sort of unfairness.

On another variable, authority, I also perhaps dissent a little from others in my libertarian tribe. For me one of the great glories of freedom is that it creates authority of the good sort. It only undermines authority of the undeserved sort. Ditto loyalty. In general, a free society makes people nicer. It makes people (Randians: look away now) more altruistic. One of the most significant shortages that afflicted the Soviet Union, throughout its baleful history and especially when it collapsed, was a shortage of public spirit, that is to say, of the willingness of people to put themselves out for each other, and especially for strangers.

My point here is not just that I now have all these clever things to say about authority and niceness and the USSR and so on and so forth, on the back of having attended this Aiden Gregg talk. It is that I believe I was not the only one thinking personal thoughts in response to what he was saying, while he was saying it. We were all, I suspect, doing this. This was a talk that got us all, as the saying goes, going. It got us all thinking.

It was, in short, very good, just the sort of thing that such talks should be.

As is usual at Libertarian Home events, there was a video camera running, as I mentioned when commenting on this rather blurry set of photos that I took at the event. In a comment he has just attached to that posting, Simon Gibbs apologises about the lighting, following me moaning about it. But I think, if you take photos, that it’s your business to work around such things. That I did not do this very well on that particular night is partly because I was distracted by finding the talk so very interesting.

I’ll end by saying that, if what Aiden Gregg was saying sounds like the kind of thing that interests you, keep an eye out for that video. Libertarian Home videos take quite a while to emerge, but emerge they always seem to do, eventually. (A previous Aiden Gregg performance for Libertarian Home, in the same venue, can be watched by going here.)

12 comments to Aiden Gregg at the Rose and Crown last week

  • Excellent summary Brian.

    Rather annoyingly, I was looking forward to getting this video out quickly and made a point of alloting a certain amount of time over the weekend to get it out on Saturday. The delays in video production produce a stop-start conversation and I also consider it to be somewhat impolite to the speaker. Anyway, just as that timeslot came into being a prat reversed into my car (which my wife and I were in at the time). The only particularly dramatic outcome of that collision was to my timetable because reporting people to the police for failing to stop is a time consuming process, and likewise dealing with insurance companies (my wife suggested a private police service might have helped matters along, good on her).

    Anyway, I can only imagine the fellon to be most lacking in empathy and with little regard to the harm he caused and quite deficient in caring to look in his mirrors while reversing. I didn’t get much of a look at him but if I had to hazard a guess I would say he voted Labour, but the speed at which he drove away suggests a fondness for speed reminiscent of Jeremy Clarkson who I take to be a Tory.

    Go figure.

  • Rich Rostrom

    “A generation ago”?

    That would be the 1980s, and yes, libertarians were a distinct political tribe then. IIRC, of course. I doubt if they are any larger today. Maybe a little.

  • Tedd

    My first reaction was, “Of course libertarianism is a bigger ‘tribe’ now than in the 80s.” But when I thought a bit more about it I realized that the only libertarian I knew in the 80s is still the only libertarian I know today, in the flesh. The internet has created a powerful cognitive bias for me, but I have to acknowledge that when I factor that out it looks like Rich is right.

  • Laird

    Tedd, if you really don’t know any libertarians “in the flesh” I suggest that you either don’t get out enough or simply aren’t aware of people’s political leanings. I run into people all the time who say either that they are libertarians or that they have libertarian leanings. And I mean ordinary people in local businesses, not just online acquaintances or libertarian activists.

    I firmly believe that there are more avowed libertarians today than there were 30 years ago, and that very many more people today are aware of libertarianism and have at least a vague understanding of what it means (and this notwithstanding the deliberate misinformation being purveyed by certain politicians and commentators). We are having an impact.

  • Mr Ed

    There are those who are apolitical, those who actively loathe politics, and libertarians. I believe those who loathe politics vastly outnumber those who believe that politics – the formation of conspiracies to steal and to bully – is a proper and decent course of action. Libertarians are surely a sub-set of those who loathe politics, but who do not see it as inevitable.

    The problem is that it is almost* like asking the zebra and wildebeest of the Serengeti to join together against the hyenas, jackals, leopards, lions and cheetahs to eliminate them, those content to ‘graze peacefully’ are just warm slabs of meat for the pestilent political host, and their bones and flesh make tasty treats for those who cannot produce for themselves, or those who simply are destructivist in nature.

    * There being no ‘natural balance’ in political predation.

  • Laird, I’m sure it also greatly depends on where you live – IIRC, Tedd is in Canada?

    Tedd, I wouldn’t dismiss ‘internet bias’, as it were. The people you and I talk to here and on other forums are real, their thoughts are real, and our mutual influences are also very real. The fact that most of us are spread around the globe is certainly a downside from a certain point of view, but I’m sure that it also has its uses. One very obvious upside for me is that thanks to the internet I can read something that you said here, and if I find it interesting and insightful (which I always do, BTW), I can tell about it not only to someone else who lives thousands of miles away from me, such as say in Australia, but also to someone who lives next door. For centuries we have been inured to think within the boundaries of our physical locations, geographical and political borders, countries and states, etc. These still do exist and will likely continue to exist, and they are still important and have their uses too. But they are no longer the only game in the global village. So when there are more libertarians in SC, the impact in Canada or Australia will probably be felt much sooner than it would only three decades ago. Same for socialists, of course, and it will remain a constant struggle. But the rules of the game have certainly changed, forever.

  • CaptDMO

    I too must consider what libertarian implies in various parts of the US, as well as various parts of the world.
    I see political “parties” as stupid/stupid/my own personal evaluation on the way the entire world should be, and those who entirely agree with me.

    I MAY be biased.

    Usually, MY first response to “new” “L” or “l”ibertarian promotions is
    “Gee, where in world history have I read of this “idea” before?”
    I have little personal issue with “If you call yourself libertarian, then you are THIS….”
    Such pronouncements are easily dismissed, but I TRY to avoid throwing the baby out with the tepid bathwater as well.

  • Rich Rostrom

    I knew (or knew of) a fair number of libertarians in the 1980s; I know (or know of) a fair number today.

    What I didn’t see then and don’t see now is anyone paying any attention to libertarians as a political force or voting constituency.

    There was then (as now) talk of people with “heart on the left and pocket on the right”, but this group has always been projected, not identified, and never seemed to have any strength.

    The key (to me) is that 90% of the talk about libertarians was by libertarians or the more theoretical pundits. One rarely saw any mention of libertarians in “horse-race” discussions, the way pro- and anti-abortion, or pro- and anti-gun voters are.

  • Tedd


    Yes — specifically, the Left Coast of Canada, where pockets of Canadian-style conservatism are firmly ensconced in a foundation of quasi-labourist social democratism. There are probably some libertarians of the left-leaning persuasion scattered about, but I don’t move in the same circles they do. I do not know anyone “in the flesh” that I would describe as libertarian. Laird could be right that I’ve missed a few. The people I have talked politics with around here have made it clear that they hate people like me, they just don’t know I’m one of those people. So I’m pretty circumspect about what I’ll discuss with them.

    But I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I dismiss libertarianism on the internet. I agree with what you said about the importance of the internet in helping ideas like that spread. It’s doubly important to me because I have nowhere else to discuss such things, not wanting to piss in the pickles around here.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Brian asks of one subgroup of sociologists:

    “What exactly are you observing? What are you talking about?”

    That, of course, is the 64-dollar question. It’s the same one that plagues climatologists insofar as both rely on statistics as one of their basic tools. Climatologists, though, are way ahead of the sociologists, in that various of the phenomena which interact to produce climate (whatever that is: another statistical-cum-categorization problem) are matters of physics and are, at least in isolation, understood to some degree or other.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Now now, Brian, a true Randian* would hardly disagree with you! 😉

    *A “true Randian” is one who, among other things, actually grasps Miss Rand’s understanding of altruism: what the word meant to its coiner and, therefore, to her, and, so understood, what it implies and to which it must lead if any attempt is made to realize it.

    (And if your aside was tongue-in-cheek, it was a *grin* not a *groan*, and in any case I meant nothing downputting.)