"... 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."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:
"Each has freedom to do all that he wills provided that he infringes not the equal freedom of any other."
Herbert Spencer; Social Statics
"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!