Sean Gabb in The Guardian – “Free Yourselves from the Lefty Ghetto!”

Free yourselves from the lefty ghetto

Letter from Sean Gabb, Director of the Libertarian Alliance

Lefties, as a rule, only read other lefties. This seems to be the case with George Monbiot. His attack on libertarianism (This bastardised libertarianism makes ‘freedom’ an instrument of oppression, 19 December) is the usual mix of unwillingness and inability to understand anything outside the intellectual ghettoes of the left. He claims to have asked: “Do you accept that some people’s freedoms intrude upon other people’s freedoms?” – as if that were some knock-down refutation never made before. Of course we do. Our difference with him isn’t that we are against courts and the other modes of dispute resolution. What we deny is that social peace requires an enlarged and omnicompetent state run by his friends.

He claims we “pretend … that only the state intrudes on our liberties. [We] ignore … the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free.” Not quite. We do believe that the state is the foremost violator of our right to life, liberty and property. But we also observe that banks are licensed and regulated creatures of the state, and that big business in general is only big because of state-granted privileges like limited liability, infrastructure subsidies, and tax and regulatory systems that cartellise costs and flatten competition from outside the magic circle. There is a difference between believing in free markets and supporting actually existing capitalism.

You could have published an attack on libertarianism that didn’t border on misrepresentation. Or perhaps not. That would have meant exposing your readers to genuine libertarian positions. And that might, in a few cases, have opened the gates of their intellectual ghetto.
Dr Sean Gabb
Director, Libertarian Alliance


  1. Very good response.
    George Monboit is clever with words, but not as clever as he thinks. A veiled and unwarranted attack, maybe because of the rise of Ukip of late.
    Any way you look at it they are getting worried.

  2. The revealing thing about Monbiot’s article is that he doesn’t answer his own question about rights. He sets up a rights conflct- between one man who owns a tree and cuts it down, and another who admires the tree, and did not want it cut down. He then (correctly) asserts that the one man’s right to cut down a tree has reduced the happiness of another man. But then offers no method to resolve the conflict.

    What he does instead, which is standard for Calvinist-Romantics, is simply to implicitly assert that the second man’s opinion should override the first. He does not enter into his equation the loss of pleasure to the first man in being prevented from cutting down the tree, which he might have done for economic reasons, or just to free himself from tree maintenance duties, or because it was blocking his bedroom window. Monbiot’s bias is so natural to him- in favour of trees over people- that he doesn’t even recognise that he is biased.

    What galls the likes of Monbiot is that Libertarianism has a consistent answer to who has rights to do what. In libertarianism, my right to swing my fist explicitly and inviolably ends at your nose. Under authoritarianism, particularly anglo-socialist calvino-romanto-gramscofabianazism, we have to enter into an endless debate about whether the common good would be served by me breaking your nose, and whether your assertion of the right to an intact nose is selfishly denying black muslim unmarried gay mothers their community fist-swinging rights. Monbiot’s fury is at the fact that Libertarianism is logical, consistent and denies him the mechanisms he wishes to use to tyrannise his fellows in the name of “The Common Good”.

  3. Monbiot does answer the tree question- do the words “tree preservation order” ring any bells? In other words a dispute resolution process where the tree is assumed to be protected, but where it can be felled if the axe man wins an appeal

  4. No, he hasn’t answered the question. He’s just shuffled the responsibility off to a third party, without answering how an objective decision as to the tree’s fate can be ascertained.

    That of course is because he doesn’t want one, he wants a committee of persons biased like himself to overrule everybody else. But the point stands, which is that he has no answer to the basic question of the tree’s proper fate.

  5. The interesting point here is that Monbiot is using the argument that the tree admirer, let’s call him Bob, has a “stake” in the tree owner’s property, let’s call her Alice, because he likes it. He feels enriched by the presence of Alice’s tree, and thus he loses something if it is removed. Therefore, Mobiot is arguing, Bob has a “right” to a say in the fate of the tree.

    We can see the problem of this with a slightly different scenario. Let’s say Alice likes to sunbathe in her garden, and Bob likes to watch her sunbathing. One day, she gets tired of this and puts up a fence to block Bob’s view.

    Now again, Bob has lost his aesthetic pleasure provided by Alice’s property (in this case her body, rather than her tree). So, does Bob have a right to prevent her putting the fence up, since he has lost this aesthetic pleasure which enriched his life? It is an identical situation, is it not? If she is not allowed to cut her tree down without Bob’s permission, is she allowed to put her fence up without Bob’s permission?

    Answers on a postcard, please.

    • I have no opinion to offer on the psyche of your made-up person. You offered a false dichotomy. If we instead propose a fence built to stop Clare enjoying the tree, we can see that the fence does small and limited damage compared to cutting down the tree. If you can’t see the difference between hundreds of years of shade, food, enjoyment and carbon sequestration, etc, and a brief glimpse of a bare midriff, I don’t see much point in discussing this further.

  6. I brought the point up because you seem to think that admiring a pretty girl is perverse. Whereas admiring a tree isn’t. So that must be the criterion you are using for judging the balance of rights.

    If you can’t see the difference between hundreds of years of shade, food, enjoyment and carbon sequestration, etc, and a brief glimpse of a bare midriff, I don’t see much point in discussing this further.

    Okay, this is a classic moralist argument here. The “if you can’t understand…” is a declaration of superior moral virtue which justifies an imposition. Compare, “if you cannot see why sodomy is despicable…”

    But this was George’s argument not mine. And he couched it entirely as a matter of individual loss of the right to appreciate the tree, not as “shade, food, enjoyment and carbon sequestration”. He was attempting to demonstrate a rights conflict. But there isn’t one. Bob had no right to the tree at all; Alice by providing it is giving him a freebie. He is then demanding that the freebie continue against Alice’s desire.

    We could use another example to illustrate; Alice builds a treehouse for her children, and lets Bob’s kids play in it too. After some time, she no longer wants the treehouse (maybe her kids were older than Bob’s and have lost interest in it). She decides to dismantle the treehouse. Now Bob says he and his children are “losing something” and thus has a stake in it, and gets the council to force her to keep the treehouse.

    So the point is, Bob only has something in the first place- a tree, a nice ogle, a treehouse- because Alice chose to provide it. If anything, Bob should be compensating Alice for growing the tree that he has enjoyed for free.

    So we see, that in fact it’s just Bob’s selfishness at issue here. And George is prepared to use state force to support that selfishness, rather than to support an equitable outcome. Monbiot has the datum in the wrong place. Shift it to its correct position, and the conflict vanishes.

    • I think that admiring her to the point that she had to put up a fence to avoid the admiration is perverse, and damaging to Alice to the cost of the fence, if nothing else. Ownership of trees is obviously important, but ownership is based on taking stuff by force if you follow it right back- ie all freehold in Britain dates to William 1’s seizure of the country and parcelling it out to his supporters. Should we really honour such a claim?
      If you want to get the state out of everything, who enforces property rights? Is it just the person with the biggest stick?
      If you disapprove of morals too, what’s to stop powerful selfish people from dominating others? Do you believe in some kind of innate moral code that will come out regardless of what’s going on around?

  7. Creating a dilemma which only some agent of the state can resolve is typical of the left’s extending power grab. To take the scenario of the tree,some one has to decide. Common sense says it’s up to the owner of the tree. But that’s too simple and also cuts out the socialist agenda of control and deprives a lot of people of a spell at the gravy train.

    You see, we have to be made to need the state to justify its existence and interference. Think of all the money to be made from concocted dilemmas;conflict resolution meetings,headed by a ‘specialist,’ trained and funded by the council through various community programme grants.Not to mention lawyers,appeals, more appeals,’academics’ specialising in the relationship between trees and social harmony,community cohesion blah blah blah. Personally I’d get swampy to counsel the tree and find out what it wanted before deciding any custody order.

  8. Hello? …… Hello?…….anyone there?
    Ho hum…………….
    *turns out light and closes door*

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