Alerted by the venerable Dr Gabb, I discover George Monbiot's catty attack on libertarianism, published (where else?) in the Graun. It begins:
"Freedom: who could object? Yet this word is now used to justify a thousand forms of exploitation ... the word excuses every assault on the lives of the poor, every form of inequality and intrusion to which the 1% subject us. How did libertarianism, once a noble impulse, become synonymous with injustice?"
Libertarianism, he tells us, was once a 'noble impulse'. Not a political philosophy, refined out of the ideas which enlightened Western civilisation from the time of the Greek city states onwards, forged through reflection and debate, but rather, for Monbiot, a knee jerk, albeit a noble one, an altruistic spasm, but now it has become synonymous with injustice and roguery for Monbiot and gang, as dread liberty
has always been hated and feared by some. He continues:
"Rightwing libertarianism recognises few legitimate constraints on the power to act, regardless of the impact on the lives of others."
Now Monbiot is refining his attack. Libertarian may be too broad. He must introduce the qualification 'rightwing', to give the target the required designation as 'other', and to allow his readers to relax, safe in the knowledge that he's talking about someone else.
What does he even mean by 'few legitimate constraints'? As any libertarian could have informed him, the very first principle of the creed is non-aggression; live and let live. Liberty means that you have a right to do as you please with your own life, your own self and your own property, COMMA, provided, of course, you don't harm anyone else or their property.
The reason for the part after the comma is to make it that little bit more difficult for the meaning to be misunderstood or misrepresented. It should go without saying that you are not free to harm other people.
On top of this basic principle, libertarians, like most people, understand there are additional constraints of one kind and another, such as those dictated by the laws of physics and economics, moral principle and good sense, but leaving all others aside, and sticking only with the non-aggression axiom set forth above, it represents a considerable constraint.
After name-checking the IEA, ASI and TPA he states:
"Their concept of freedom looks to me like nothing but a justification for greed. So why have we been been so slow to challenge this concept of liberty?"
Ignoring the canard of greed, it is difficult to grasp how Monbiot has arrived at the view that no one have taken the trouble to challenge the concept of liberty, as understood by those groups he mentions. Did he sleep through the 20th Century?
If reality were allowed to intrude, the question would read:
how have we failed to extirpate the last remnants of economic liberalism?
Poor Georgie. The statue of Cobden still stands mocking him!
And on we go into the utter tedium of Isaiah Berlin and his tiresome 'positive and negative liberties'. I will be harsh. I have not read the man. He may have heen a thoroughly good chap, he may have stood his round and lit up a room with his presence, but his 'positive and negative liberty' concept is wrong from the very naming, misleading and unenlightening. We are under no obligation to doff our cap in his direction. The man has furnished intellectual weapons against liberty, whatever his intentions. As Murray Rothbard explains
Berlin's fundamental flaw was his failure to define negative liberty as the absence of physical interference with an individual's person and property, with his just property rights broadly defined. Failing to hit on this definition, Berlin fell into confusion, and ended by virtually abandoning the very negative liberty he had tried to establish and to fall, willy-nilly, into the "positive liberty" camp.
Back to Monbiot:
"As Berlin noted: "No man's activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. 'Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows'."
Pikes? Minnows? We are dealing with human society, not pond life. Freedom means nothing to the pike or the minnow. Libertarians do not claim the right to practice cannibalism. As the PM would say: 'I refer the honorable gentlemen to the statement I gave moments ago', as the non-aggression axiom deals with the matter.
But let us consider the first part of the statement, that we all 'obstruct' the lives of others in our daily lives. Monbiot continues by way of a poem to give an example of the kind of obstruction he means. It concerns a landlord cutting down a tree, that his tenant took pleasure in.
"The landlord was exercising his freedom to cut the tree down. In doing so, he was intruding on [the tenant] Clare's freedom to delight in the tree, whose existence enhanced his life... But rightwing libertarians do not recognise this conflict. They speak, like Clare's landlord, as if the same freedom affects everybody in the same way. They assert their freedom to pollute, exploit, even – among the gun nuts – to kill, as if these were fundamental human rights. "
Certainly libertarians do not recognise any conflict between the freedom of the landlord and that of the tenant in this case, because the tree belongs to the landlord, and this means he can do as he pleases with it. We can recognise that the tenant may be saddened by the loss of the tree, but this is immaterial. The matter is resolved on the basis of property rights, unless the tenant can peacefully persuade
the landlord otherwise. But by this stage, Monbiot is losing all sense and coherence, as evidence in his claim that libertarians claim the right to kill. Really, George? I'm aware we call for drugs to be legalised, but manslaughter too?
Argumentum Ad Arborum
Monbiot tells the parable of the tree-loving tenant and the mean old landlord. He talks of the tenant's pleasure in the tree's existence as a freedom, but it cannot be described as such under any definition used thus far.
This story cries out to be counter-couped with absurd parallel situations, of other things the tenant takes pleasure in, such as the landlord's wife sunbathing in a bikini.
- who knows? Maybe the tenant was climbing the tree to get a better look!
It's hard to see how far he'd take the argument on principle. Such as, what if the tenant cut down the tree? Would George refute that the landlord had a claim of damages against the tenant? Surely not. What is that claim based on, if not the ownership of the tree? Monbiot's attack here is not against libertarian theory, but simple common law, the means of settling disputes between individuals. His real message is to extoll the modern power of the state to order a man not to cut down his own tree.
Who is Monbiot writing for? Does he really think that libertarians believe we have the freedom to go round raping, looting and destroying with gay abandon? If not, does he instead think that it has never occurred to us to consider, when advocating liberty for all, that some people may wish to do harm to others? Is he really this ignorant of libertarianism, or is it more the case that he is writing for people who themselves are ignorant of libertarianism?
Finally (thank God) comes Monbiot's piece de resistance
, the apparent failure of Claire Fox, of the BBC's 'Moral Maze', to furnish a straightforward answer to his straightforward question about whether a factory is 'free to pollute'? I have not heard the dialogue, but clearly the answer is; no, the factory is not free to pollute the property of other people.
But, what good is such an answer to Monbiot, given his seeming contempt for property rights? What good is it to explain to him that it was the state, in the form of the courts during the 19th century which chose to repudiate property rights in cases regarding this very issue of pollution? It was his beloved, godlike state, which cast aside individual liberty and property in the interests of the purported common good.
Rejecting individual liberty, misunderstanding the inherent limitations on action which no libertarian denies, Monbiot throws himself down at the altar of the state, deluding himself that the state will protect him from these wicked creatures, Man
Who does he think controls, directs and administers this mysterious entity, if not individuals? Do they somehow lose their natural fallibility once brought together, and given power, uniforms and weaponry? Does he believe the Soviet Union to have been free from pollution, given that it was spared the scourge of libertarian individualism?
Monbiot misses. Rather than play to the tribal gallery, he could have challenged these rightwing ogres of his on libertarian grounds. By exposing, if it were possible, the contradiction between their political stance and the principles they claim to hold, he may even have won over a few of them to seeing his point of view. After all, I agree with him about the lead-smelting plant. The rest is very largely nonsense.Cross-posted at Libertarian Home