Sunday, 27 July 2008

Libertarianism and Nationalism: some thoughts

If anyone asks me what my political views are, I tell 'em 'I'm a Libertarian Nationalist', which tends to produce a puzzled frown. So I explain further my core principles as: Individual liberty, sovereignty of the people, national sovereignty and limited government.

I believe in the sovereignty of the individual, and that a legitimate government derives its power from the people. Just as we are each individually sovereign of ourselves, collectively the people should be sovereign of the nation, as expressed so eloquently in the United States' Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…..

Thomas Rainsborough at the Putney Debates of 1647 said:

Really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under.

This is an argument for democracy, making the point that if a government does not have democratic legitimacy, then a man is not bound to that government, any more than a man is bound to the slave masters who dragged him into a boat to sell him into servitude.

As Thomas Paine states in Common Sense:

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamities is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.

Government being at best a necessary evil, it follows that its power should be limited, evil being wont to grow if left unchecked. The principle of limited government means that once instituted, the government should have a fence erected round it, so as to constrain its growth. All else outside this fence belongs to the people, that is to say the individual sovereign man or woman. This is the intention of the Bill of Rights, for instance in the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Here, we see the fence around government, preventing it from spilling out of its designated sphere of influence. When it comes to matters such as freedom of speech, the sign says: 'No trespassing'. All this is clear enough to a constitutionally-minded American, and to an English Libertarian, albeit one that grieves over this nation's failure to secure such rights in the clear and straightforward manner of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. Sadly, our would-be founding fathers were assassinated (such as Rainsborough), or died in jail or exile.

If the people are to be sovereign, they have to have something to be sovereign of, and if a government is instituted, it must be instituted to govern something. That something in both cases is the nation state. Throughout history, there has been no larger socio-political unit than the nation state that wasn't an empire. One could talk of federations and confederations, but the question is: where does the ultimate power reside? At the point that an association ceases to be voluntary, the individual components lose their sovereignty and become subservient; the sovereign nation becomes the province or satrapy.

The only way to avoid this loss of sovereignty would be through a true merging, or pooling of sovereignty, whereby the original sovereign entity dissolves into a new, and greater, sovereign entity. This was the model attempted in the Union of England and Scotland, and which is suggested by the supporters of the European Union, although they seem to wish to maintain the idea that such a pooling will not change anything much. On the one hand they will brush off Gaitskell's assertion that it will mean 'the end of a thousand years of history' as hyperbole. On the other, they tell us such a pooling is inevitable and already achieved in many areas through international treaty obligation.

On the latter point, this is no doubt the case, but when the sovereignty of England or the UK is being bartered away, the issue of our government's legitimacy becomes of the utmost importance. You cannot sell, barter or give away something that does not belong to you in the first place, and if the sovereignty belongs to the people, i.e. if this country is a democracy, the British government has no more right to sell our sovereignty than a school caretaker has a right to sell the playing fields – it can only be done on the express orders of his employers.

The British involvement in the European Union thus brings to a head the festering boil of illegitimate governmental power in this land. Even in situations when the EU offers better governance than our present rulers (and there are times when my own views are represented better in the stonewalling Frenchies than my own miserable representatives; e.g. GM food), such a hand-over of power is, by Rainsborough's rule, fundamentally illegitimate. Similarly, a vicious slave-master may sell a slave to a more kindly owner, which promises a little relief for the slave. Nevertheless it is the institution of slavery that offends and must be overthrown, not merely the bad master. It is not how sparingly the whip is used, rather that it can be used at all.

There is nothing in principle against the UK dissolving into the EU, as long as this is the express desire of the people of this land. However, the people have never successfully asserted their sovereignty. We live in a monarchy, with a few democratic trappings. You can take a Robin Reliant and stick a Porsche badge on the hood. That doesn't make it a Porsche. In the UK the power and sovereignty rests officially with the Crown in Parliament, and this is the problem to a libertarian nationalist (at least this one). It makes no sense to rail against the machinations of the EU, when every infliction is done with the consent, or at least the acquiescence, of the supposed sovereign Parliament of this land.

None of the above ramblings is likely to provoke much debate amongst card-carrying (or Gadsden Flag-waving) Libertarians, although my adherence to inalienable, God-given rights may be irksome to the atheistically inclined. No matter, I can usually throw them off the scent with a few Karl Popper quotes on critical rationalism. But the ramifications of national sovereignty may indeed put clear blue water between myself and others. For de facto national sovereignty, in other words the ability of a nation state to take unilateral action in its own perceived national interest leads to one thing that many libertarians hold to be anathema: protectionism. I will leave this subject for another day.



cisbio said...

God-given rights may be irksome to the atheistically inclined.

Not at all, we just call them 'human rights'

The principle is the same, excepting the fact there is no God, and there is no mention of 'rights' in the Bible, only commandments and threats ;-)

Trooper Thompson said...

Fair enough... as long as you accept that human rights are no more rational than natural rights or God-given rights.

However the problem with human right as defined in the Universal Declaration and its derivatives is that they can be taken away when the state finds them inconvenient, and they require a powerful state to bestow them upon people, and they don't include the right to self-defence. Give me the Bill of Rights any day.

Anonymous said...

TT, you might be interested in a post of mine on a similar theme:

Keep up the good work!

Trooper Thompson said...

I shall pay you a visit, friend.