“So, libertarians don’t believe in government. Why don’t you go and live in Somalia then?”
How often have we heard that one? [OK, perhaps not that often but it does hover there at the back of your mind.] And how often have we been able to come up with a decent response beyond some coughing and spluttering?
So, it was good to see Robert Murphy giving it a go. He starts by making a good point:
The Rothbardian doesn’t claim that the absence of a state is a sufficient condition for bliss. Rather, the Rothbardian says that however prosperous and law-abiding a society is, adding an institution of organized violence and theft will only make things worse.
He then quotes the stats which apparently show rises in life expectancy and adult literacy. Which alarms me. How sure can you be that these statistics bear any relation to reality? Hey, I’m not convinced by our own government’s stats. But in a war-torn country with a multi-sided civil war? At very least they have to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Me? I would give them on credence whatsoever. My test is have any (of the surprisingly many) Somalis I know or have known in recent years expressed any desire to go back? Answer: no. Not on your Nelly.
Murphy then says this:
Farah and other advocates of a central state might retort that right now security costs are particularly high for Somali businesses because of the fighting between rival factions ("warlords") in their attempt to control the government.
So, there are rival factions/armies/gangs are there? And what, precisely, is the difference between a gang and a state? I suppose it’s to do with predictability but my guess is that after a few years any gang - so long as it is unmolested by the state - will start to establish rules and thus predictability.
Or, to put it another way: Somalia does not want for government.
This all feeds into my worries for this country. It is not difficult to see the central government collapsing but while libertarians may hope for a golden age of liberty my suspicion is that they will get gangs roaming the streets. So long as people believe in the state they will continue to create them.
I was having a chat with Brian Micklethwait the other night about anti-war libertarianism - no, still haven’t come up with a better term for it - and particularly the role of Murray Rothbard. Brian reckons - and I hope I am not misrepresenting him here - that much of Rothbard’s motivation was down to his study of Lenin.
You see, Rothbard wanted to instigate a revolution - a libertarian one but a revolution all the same. So, he looked around for successful revolutionaries. And the most successful of all was Lenin. Rothbard noted that in the biggest war in history to date, and despite the fact that his country was a whole-hearted participant, Lenin refused to take sides. So Rothbard - according to Brian and the faulty logic is plain to see here - drew the conclusion that when it comes to war the libertarian revolutionary should always back the opposition to his “own” side.
Rothbard was a New York Jew. And Brian got used to the idea that in any given dispute Rothbard would inevitably support the side that least resembled New York Jews.
Of course, none of this means that Rothbard’s published views on war are wrong - just highly suspect.
I am currently rather pre-occupied with what I would rather not call libertarian anti-war theory. Examples of this include this podcast by Ralph Raico on the First World War, his piece on the Blockade of Germany and this article by Murray Rothbard.
“If you have a right to fight you have the right to win.” is for the time being my riposte.
A few weeks (days?) ago, Chris Mounsey, aka The Devil’s Kitchen and leader of the UK Libertarian Party (or is it Libertarian Party UK?) appeared on Andrew Neil’s TV programme and got torn apart. As a direct consequence he announced that he was going to give up swearing and that the Devil’s Kitchen was no more.
Brian said: “I told you so.” Or words to that effect. Meaning that you can’t mix swearing and party leadership. But I do find myself wondering if Mounsey could have done better even with the hand he held.
He was asked two main questions. The first was about the size of his party. Mounsey immediately went into defensive mode: “Oh we’re growing all the time etc.” and ended up sounding like a dodgy saleman. Why not say: “Yup we’re tiny at the moment I would like us to be much bigger but we’ve all got to start from somewhere.”?
Or to put it another way: be honest. Or to put it another other way: you’re not so far in with the Establishment that they’re prepared to ignore your lies yet.
But then came the knock-out blow. Neil started asking about the swear blogging. He dug up a particularly choice example most of which he couldn’t repeat but included some line in which Mounsey hoped a trade unionist would bleed to death.
You know what I can’t even remember what Mounsey said in reply but it didn’t come across well. Yes, I know I could go back and look at the tape but to be honest, I can’t be bothered. It’s too painful and anyway, I think my impression is far more important than what was actually said. Anyway, I think Mounsey backed down. But he may have been just evasive. But he looked terrible and the knock-on effects are there for all to see.
But what should he have said?
Again I think he should have been honest. Which is easier said than done. The thing they never tell you about honesty is that it is hard work. Our real motivations can be far from clear.
For instance, I don’t think Mounsey thinks that statists should all be killed. Not even a substantial minority. Not even that particular trade unionist. I think he was simply using colourful language to express his disagreement. It was not to be taken seriously. And he should have said so. This is how the conversation should have gone:
Neil: You’ve said these terrible things.
Mounsey: I was joking.
That is after all, (I hope) the truth.
Neil: Well, I didn’t laugh.
Mounsey: You’re wrong.
Neil: About not laughing?
What Neil is wrong about is the idea that jokes are supposed to lead to laughter. Some jokes are unserious but not funny. This is an example. But there’s no need to tell Neil that. He’s being the belligerent. There’s no need to co-operate.
Or perhaps the conversation could have gone this way:
Neil: You’ve said these terrible things.
Mounsey: Had it ever occurred to you that I wasn’t being entirely serious?
Mounsey: Then you’re a moron.
In the end I suspect Neil did Mounsey a huge favour. Better to have your disasters early on rather than later.
I may follow this up with Crozier’s compleat guide to dealing with the media. But I might not.
Now, I am not really interested, here, in the normal response: “Oh, we all do. It provides, education, health, law enforcement...” Libertarians know this to be nonsense and there’s no point in rehearsing those arguments here(1). I am more interested in what we libertarians tend to say:
“Oh well, lots of people: welfare beneficiaries, civil servants, politicians...”
But the point is: do they?
I mean, take Tony Blair. There he was, Prime Minister for a decade, but was it really worth it? Sure, you can dwell on the trappings of power: the fame, the central London address, the foreign trips, all those people being nice to you, ruining perfectly decent people just because you can etc, but you’ve also got to remember the hours spent in boring meetings and tramping the streets, having to say things you don’t really believe in and, in the end, the public revulsion. Oh, and I might add having Gordon Brown as a neighbour.
OK, so what about the ones at the bottom of the food chain - the welfare junkies? Now sitting on your arse and getting someone else to pay for your housing, food and everything else sounds like a pretty good deal. But the state extracts its pound of flesh condemning you to a neighbourhood full of chavs with an anti-work culture and a crap local school. What if there were no state? Sure you’d have to work for a living but you’d almost certainly end up better off, living in nicer surroundings and with better education options.
Well, if top and bottom are rubbish, what about the middle: the civil servants? Rubbish pay, good pension. You might manage to wangle some cushy number with next to no work but you might not. There are plenty of civil servants who have to work pretty hard.
So, who does win?
I first came across Professor Bruce L Benson when reading his excellent paper on the history of toll roads in England. So, when I learnt that he was to be addressing the Liberty 2007 conference, organised by the Libertarian Alliance, I very much wanted to see if I could get him to agree to do a podcast. Luckily, he did.
We decided to talk about private law enforcement. While we managed to cover areas like how it would work and how you would prevent next door turning into a pub, time prevented us examining some of the other issues, like how the courts would work and what would prevent the re-emergence of the state. But even so, I think it works pretty well.
This was my first attempt to conduct an interview with a handheld mike which accounts for some of the rustles and for the difference in the loudness of our respective voices. I think it’s one of those cases where you live and learn. I just hope it doesn’t spoil the listener’s enjoyment too much.
I mentioned Stefan Molyneux’s Free Domain Radio a few times last year. I gave up listening to the anarchist libertarian’s podcasts after they started to get a bit samey and because of the difficulty in referencing them. So, I was pretty glad when he took up blogging.
For the most part I am a minarchist - if the state could just confine itself to matters of national defence, keeping the streets safe and running the courts I would be happy. But I appreciate the contradiction here. If I accept that the state is useless and immoral everywhere else shouldn’t I also accept it in these areas?
I don’t because I am not aware of any precedents for it. To abolish the state would be a huge leap in the dark. So, it helps when someone offers to light the way. This is why I am particularly grateful for two Molyneux pieces on dispute resolution and private defence. I think I should probably also add in his piece on why non-state defence organisations wouldn’t re-create the state.
All these pieces are well-argued, thoughtful and (most importantly) answer my questions and objections. And yet… I still can’t quite bring myself to embrace them. I suppose the reason is that if it were true that if the state were abolished it wouldn’t come back then why doesn’t it collapse right here and now? To which, I think, the answer is that the vast majority of people continue to believe in it. Now, if that’s true, then if the state were to be abolished tomorrow those millions of people who still believed in it would probably find a way of re-creating it. So, if we want the state to disappear we have got a lot of persuading to do.
One, excellent way of persuading people would be to create some experiments. As I understand it there were a number of attempts at this in the 1970s, in which free-market anarchists would attempt to settle on some remote unclaimed island in the Pacific. On every occasion one state or another stepped in to crush it.
What were they scared of?