Saturday, 9 June 2012

Hitchens attacks strawman libertarian, quotes Marx

"... And on another occasion when he uttered some sentiment which was greeted with applause and saw that the whole assembly had accepted his argument, he turned to his friends and asked them, 'Can it be that I have been arguing on the wrong side without knowing it?"
From Plutarch's Life of Phocion (chapter 8)
I don't know why the above came to mind. There is no immediate similarity between Phocion and Peter Hitchens. The former was a great Athenian general who always sought peace and disliked democracy, who was scape-goated and executed by the mob following a military failure, and then, with a change of heart the mob executed his accusers and put up a statue to him. The latter, you know ...

After setting out a worthy critique of democracy, or rather the idealisation of it, he briefly turns attention to one of his pet hates: libertarians, or as he would put it, 'libertarians'. I shall quote it in full, as it is brief.
Next, a word on why I always put ‘libertarian’ in inverted commas. Most thinking humans, in our post-Christian world , yearn for a universal touchstone of goodness which will somehow substitute for the Christian faith. For some it is the market, for some it is ‘liberty’, for others it is equality. It is easily demonstrable that the market sometimes, even often, lays waste valuable things, destroys customs and taboos, tosses aside human feelings. It is obvious to the slowest thinker that ( as Karl Marx pointed out) the freedom of all is impossible, as it will lead to conflicts between groups who wish to be free to do something which tramples on the freedom of another. ‘No man fights freedom’, wrote the sage of Trier, ’He fights at most the freedom of others’. Well, exactly. The trouble with these ideas is that they simply lack the universal power over all humanity of the Sermon on the Mount and the Commandments, and that they are based on a desire for power, rather than on Christianity’s preference for love, and its central suspicion of power and the mob, as so graphically set out in the story of the Passion. And sometimes I think a little light mockery is the best way to make people think. After all, one day they may realise that it is possible they are mistaken.
It seems almost rude to interrupt Hitchens' reverie. He's not really talking about libertarianism, but rather his own faith in God, in comparison to which everything, be it football, French cuisine or political philosophy is but filthy rags. But libertarianism can only by criticised in this manner insofar as it seeks to substitute itself for faith in God, which it does not do, and besides anything else, faith in God is not the end of every dispute concerning the organisation of society, the economy and the size of the state. It certainly provides one with a set of guiding moral principles, but these principles will lead different people to very different conclusions, as they have done throughout the last 2,000 years.

If I accept Hitchens' term 'our post-Christian world', I must object that libertarianism is not an invention of such an era, but rather has its roots very much in the earlier, happier times of universal Christian brotherhood(!) - and the same could be said for communism.

I would not struggle to illustrate this point, but will throw out the names of Locke, Lilburne and Lord Acton and dare him to dispute it. But Hitchens passes over such names and choses for his supporting authority none other than Karl Marx, a man who didn't so much disbelieve as despise our Lord and Saviour! And what wisdom does he glean from this tainted source? That;
"the freedom of all is impossible, as it will lead to conflicts between groups who wish to be free to do something which tramples on the freedom of another."
Does Hitchens imagine that this apparent paradox has been left unexamined? Is his knowledge of libertarianism so cursory that he believes we can be so easily confounded? Thus, Peter, I'll see your Marx, and raise you two Spencers:
"Every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberties by every other man."

"Each has freedom to do all that he wills provided that he infringes not the equal freedom of any other."

Herbert Spencer; Social Statics
This above is referred to as the 'Law of Equal Liberty', and it can be found in many different forms throughout the libertarian canon, clearly indicating that, for liberty to indeed be a universally-applicable ethic, it cannot involve infringing upon another's freedom. To choose but one other source, and of a more Christian persuasion, here Richard Overton states the same thing:
"For every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety, else could he not be himself; and of this no second may presume to deprive any of without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature and of the rules of equity and justice between man and man. Mine and thine cannot be, except this be. No man has power over my rights and liberties, and I over no man's."
This foolish criticism of Hitchens is the only criticism he offers, and sadly it escapes him how these here principles of liberty form the strongest bulwark against the inherent flaws in democracy that he has only just expounded upon, because it is these principles which put a limit on state power, whether the state be governed by democracy or king.

Hitchens calls himself a conservative, but such a term is somewhat vague, as political terms often are. If we consider the key tenets of his philosophy to be a rejection of liberty, a dislike of democracy, and a strident and noisy faith in God, it strikes me that the most apt and fitting label to pin on the man is Cromwellian. Thus, as he ends his piece hoping that we libertarians may see the error of our ways, may I beseech you, Mr Hitchens, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken!


Peter Hitchens said...

How kind of you to care. I'm happy, of course, to pursue the point. What's more, I didn't consider my brief riposte to various contributors to be a definitive or complete argument. Like all good arguments, it could rage for months. But far more people wanted to discuss my thoughts on 'democracy'.

The real difficulty of the 'libertarian' is the elevation of a reasonable desire for liberty into a principle. This leads to absurdities such as the belief that the freedom to take drugs is comparable to the freedom of speech. It sort of is, but only in the rather useless sense that both are freedoms. It's easy to see where that goes.

Anyone who can see that liberty by itself cannot possibly be a principle can easily distinguish between the two things. My experience of 'libertarian' gatherings, where I ahve debated, has been dispiriting precsely because of the apparent inability of many of those present to see the difference, and to acknowledge that it is more important than the similarity.

Oh, and I do ralsie that 'libertarians' are aware of the problem. I just don't think they've solved it.

Peter Hitchens said...

Sorry about the literals in previous post. The most tangled of them should have been 'realise'.

But I've just noticed that I am accused of 'rejecting'liberty. On the contrary. I rather view myself as a defender of liberty against arbitrary authority and can produce evidence if asked. But I take the Burkeian view that liberty can only survive alongside a good deal of self-restraint, guided by conscience and revealed religion, hence the need for the noisy Christianity, There isn't really any other kind, for to keep quiet about it would be a betrayal of it. Hence also the sceptical view of people who make a dogma out of liberty. How can there be liberty without an unalterable morality to allow us to use it aright? And what other source of unalterable morals is there, apart from God?

I am equivocal about Cromwell, and I'm really a 1688 man rather than a 1649 man, but I've been called worse things.

Mister Damage said...

I should certainly hope that one who regards liberty as the refuge of murderers and rapists has been called worse than "Cromwellian"

As for morality, if you bothered to understand the philosophy of libertarianism, rather than the your own flimsy straw men you would be familiar with the non aggression principle and the underlying respect for the inherent humanity of others from which it is derived.

Peter Hitchens said...

Hang on a minute here. Who says I regard liberty as 'the refuge of murderers and rapists'?

Peter Hitchens said...

And where?

Mister Damage said...

Ask and ye shall receive: " It is obvious to the slowest thinker that ( as Karl Marx pointed out) the freedom of all is impossible, as it will lead to conflicts between groups who wish to be free to do something which tramples on the freedom of another"

Trooper Thompson said...

Welcome to my humble abode.

As to elevating liberty to a principle, it is certainly the case that libertarians do this; liberty in the sense of self-ownership, and the antithesis of slavery. I think this can be justified as principle, firstly because it can be universally applicable, and there is something (I believe) unalienable about each of us. Now, if you bring God into the argument as a refutation of self-ownership, I would first say that libertarianism is not concerned with God, but with the relationships between man and man, or else I may try to argue that the inalienable part of ourselves is the special part that God put in us that distinguishes us from the animals, and I dare say, if I root through John Locke or John Lilburne, I shall find something to back me up (or at least prove it wasn't my original thought).

What is very closely bound to this principle of liberty is that of property rights, in fact the two are almost synonymous. If you own something, it means you can dispose of it as you will, whether it be your body or some chattel you have acquired (honestly). It also means you are responsible and accountable for your actions.

Where I think your disagreement begins with libertarians, is over morality and law, and how these two are applied to individuals and property.

From my point of view, the law should concern itself with property and not with morality. Morality certainly has an important part to play, but not in determining whether something is a crime or not, which should be based on property rights, and whether they have been violated. Morality comes in a secondary position *with regard to the law*.

Regarding drugs, the bone of contention is whether the mere immorality of the act should be punished by the law. A libertarian says 'vice is no crime', with vice defined as something which harms only the person or persons who are committing the act.

If the case is that an act of robbery or theft is committed by someone under the influence of drugs, a libertarian says 'punish the crime of robbery. Let him be held accountable for his actions'. As long as judges consider drug addiction as some kind of mitigation, criminals will continue to claim 'it was the drugs wot made me do it'. A libertarian has no more time for such responsibility-evading nonsense, as you, dear sir.

But what of the harm that is done by the drug addict to his poor, suffering family? I don't deny that such behaviour causes misery to those closest to it. But what I think is imperative is to have a clear definition of the word 'harm'. If it involves any violence, any theft, anything which violates any law that neither you nor me would question, then the drug addict is indeed a criminal, and should be punished by the law. But if we allow the word 'harm' to be vaguely interpreted, we find the law spilling into areas, where it's best kept out of, or we find the rules on freedom of expression, for instance, being curtailed on spurious grounds, such that to offend someone is to harm them in some slight way.

Now, as I say I don't deny that a drug addict in the family can be a terrible thing, but no more than an alcoholic (of which I have more experience), and divorce, infidelity and a host of other things can leave a legacy of misery. These are issues of morality, which cannot and should not be solved through the application of criminal sanctions, absent of a provable tort.

(I will continue, but my garden is beckoning!)

Trooper Thompson said...

Mr Damage (et al)

no cheap hyperbole, please.

Trooper Thompson said...


"I rather view myself as a defender of liberty against arbitrary authority and can produce evidence if asked."

There's no need for you to produce evidence, I can reach to my bookshelf if required, and I know very well that you have defended our ancient liberties as embodied in Magna Charta, Habeas Corpus etc. against many recent assaults.

"I take the Burkeian view that liberty can only survive alongside a good deal of self-restraint, guided by conscience and revealed religion".

For all the above, you are, notwithstanding your personal view and perhaps an animosity born of numerous disputes, within hailing distance of the majority of libertarians. You may not be our friend, but you are often our enemy's enemy.

You ask; "How can there be liberty without an unalterable morality to allow us to use it aright? " But surely the morality is a product of the liberty, as, without the liberty, morality has no meaning or purpose. One cannot choose good over evil, unless first one has a choice.

Returning to dear old friend Nol Crumwel (as the contemporary pamphleteers would have it), I would say one of his flaws was his Burkean approach - there being little else to hem him in at times but his self-restraint and conscience, once he had cut down all the laws to get to the Devil.