Guardian Readers Snarling through Bars of Their Intellectual Cage

The Guardian home

Taking liberties with the concept of freedom, Friday 23 December 2011

It was amusing to read Sean Gabb of the so-called Libertarian Alliance proclaim the need for “exposing your readers to genuine libertarian positions” (Letters, 21 December). If that were done, they would discover that libertarian was originally coined by a French communist-anarchist in 1857, over one hundred years before the propertarian right in America appropriated it for their hierarchical ideology. To quote leading propertarian Murray Rothbard: “we … had captured a crucial word from the enemy … ‘Libertarians’ … had long been simply a polite word for … anti-private property anarchists … But now we had taken it over.”

“Lefties, as a rule, only read other lefties,” Gabb proclaims. As a “lefty” who has had the misfortune to read many propertarian writers, I can confirm that George Monbiot is right. Yet Monbiot is simply repeating libertarian Peter Kropotkin on proto-propertarian Herbert Spencer’s ideas: “its practical solution of the social problem is miserable – so miserable as to lead us to inquire if the talk of ‘No force’ be merely an excuse for supporting landlord and capitalist domination.”

Genuine libertarians argue that the state exists to defend property and the inequalities in wealth and power it creates. Most propertarian writers, notwithstanding Gabb’s assertions otherwise, do likewise – but we do not agree this is a good thing. Unsurprisingly, libertarians have opposed both state and capitalism from the start. Iain McKay Black Flag magazine

• Sean Gabb doth protest too much. It is hardly the case that “big business in general is only big because of state-granted privilege”. Big business is big because, in a system of market competition, it is inevitable that there will be winners and losers and that the former should grow and flourish at the expense of the latter. It is equally inevitable that the state should then want to take due care of the goose that lays its golden eggs in the form of all that tax revenue. The idea that you can have a market economy without capitalism and its conjoined twin, the state, to underwrite the property rights on which a market economy is predicated, is frankly ludicrous. Robin Cox Granada, Spain

• To quote the admirable Gerald Kaufman MP on the same page, “rarely have I read such utter claptrap” as Dr Sean Gabb displays in his insulting letter. Unlike readers of the Tory-owned press, we take the Guardian for opinions with which we can agree or disagree and make up our own minds based on facts provided elsewhere in the newspaper or other media. Surprising as it may be to the good doctor and his 1% friends, we can read a piece by Norman Tebbit, just as we can Polly Toynbee, and make up our own minds. Perhaps he should have read George’s piece a bit more carefully, then he might have been able to offer a more lucid argument – or not. Ken Aplin Ampthill, Bedfordshire

• Dr Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance must realise that this ghetto’s very own resident libertarian, Sir Simon Jenkins, would beat him into a cocked hat any day in the libertarianer-than-thou stakes. Not only that, we have a fair idea who pays Sir Simon. Does anyone know who bankrolls the LA? John Smith Sheffield

• Sean Gabb says: “There is a difference between believing in free markets and supporting actually existing capitalism.” Funny, I remember that argument getting short shrift when applied to the difference between socialism and the Soviet Union. David Hart Chesterfield

• George Monbiot makes several good points (This bastardised libertarianism makes ‘freedom’ an instrument of oppression, 20 December). He rightly cites Berlin’s warnings that freedom is likely to be twisted to mean something very close to its opposite. The problem was recognised earlier by Condorcet (1743-94), who seemed to foresee the rise of Fox News. He asked his readers to imagine that “a troop of audacious hypocrites” managed to get control of the central power of a country and to create relays throughout its regions. It could lay its hands on the main sources of information and consequently be believed by “a people whose ignorance makes them prey to the phantoms of fear”. Alternating seduction and threats, it “will exercise under the mask of liberty” a tyranny that is in no less efficient than any other.

The “mask of liberty” is being worn by all those whom Monbiot rightly castigates and it needs to be torn off. Dr Graham Spencer Painswick, Gloucestershire

• George Monbiot is right to insist that some people’s (or corporations’) freedoms intrude on others’. However, one wonders whether the popularity of the narrow definition of political liberty espoused by the organisations Monbiot mentions (the Institute of Economic Affairs and Adam Smith Institute among others) owes something to their deployment of the word liberty in much the same way as the emergent 18th-century capitalists in the great age of revolution (ie as claims against a state controlled by aristocratic interests). Back then, “economic freedoms” were seen more as property rights than political liberties.

Adam Smith himself, although acknowledging the brutalising effect on the human personality of the division of labour “unless government takes some pains to prevent it”, nonetheless had full faith in a system of natural liberty to deliver the greatest amount of human welfare – as did Bentham and other “bourgeois” followers. The recognition of severe negative externalities was a 19th-century problem necessitating a broader interpretation of liberty that led eventually to the Factory Acts – one that today’s neoclassicists either ignore or abhor. Edward Robinson London


  1. That first paragraph could have been written by Carson or Knapp. The exact same sentiments have been expressed by them on this very blog, in particular that “right wing” propertarians aren’t “real” libertarians, and have recently expropriated the word from “real” libertarians on the Left.

    Just saying, y’know.

    Also, my answer would be, anyway, that libertarian is an ugly word and I would happily hand it back to its “rightful owners” if they’ll give us “liberal” back. It would be a fair trade, would it not?

  2. A friend comments:

    “The collection of comments on Gabb’s post reveals a common thread. “Leftys” share the moral assumption that outcomes ought to be equal. This is an error. Human nature includes the fact that each of us has free will. This being so, each person has personal responsibility to choose the values that will sustain his own life. Hence, the equality of nature is ones equal right to choose. When we enter the world of action. outcomes will differ to the extent that our values differ. This is true in the animal world, except for the fact that animals act on instinct rather than on reason. Rothbard, whom Lian McKay villifies for having suborned the meaning of the word libertarian, once called egalitarianism a war on human nature. He was astute in his observation. To complain that Rothbard co-opted the meaning of the word libertarian invites the reply that American socialists adopted the word liberal to suit their objectives. Capitalism is the only system that allocates resources in accordance with the wishes of each market participant. An uncoerced trade allows each participant to profit. Why? Because values are individually chosen. All values are subjective. It is this fact that provides a moral foundation for free markets, and it is this fact that makes central planning an impossible dream. No third party can set a price for a given good or service. Provided there is no fraud or other coercion, voluntary transactions result in profit for each participating party. Sometimes we assume that any thoughtful person would know all of this. Much of the response to Gabb’s commentary reveals an urge to carp and little understanding of the idea of individual rights.”

  3. Another friend writes:

    Dear Dr. Gabb,

    I haven’t written in ages for a number of reasons, and perhaps you do not remember me. As what we in the state’s would say, you really stirred up a hornets nest over there. I want to take your side, but a lot of them do have a point. I have yet to read Monbiot’s article, and while I worry my intellectual immaturity may lead me to prejudge, I’ll screw up the stomach to read it at some point.

    First, Mr. Mckay is correct; the word ‘libertarian’ did originate in the manner he described. It was, of course, gradually appropriated, starting in the US-though, the manner in which it came to be is fairly complicated. As much as it makes me ill, Mr. Hart does raise a point about the hypocrisy of dismissing those who made the same argument about socialism and the Soviet Union-one of the reasons I extend to socialists the same courtesy, and letting them make the claim that the Soviet Union was not socialism. This doesn’t mean I wholly endorse everything that has been said by them and the others, but I accept certain grains of truth. I mean, unless one is a mutualist, any free market anti-capitalist position is going to seem disingenuous.

    Second, I always think it is dangerous when libertarians stick their heads out too boldly; it is a hostile environment, where centre-right and far-rightists threaten to co-op and infiltrate while Monbiot his counterparts on either side of the Atlantic have finely honed rhetorical arguments. Then again, I am a fairly feeble wannabe scholar-I am not much cut out for activism except on specific issues of concrete importance. Plus, the libertarian movement was largely populated by cerebral types for a reason-all the philosophical and economic treatises don’t leave much time for marching in the streets.

    While it is inevitable at this point, I can only see it descending into a shouting match like William Gillis’s “The Freed Market”. In the end, only time may tell who was right and who was wrong. I sometimes wonder if they are right, sometimes I want to believe my own side. But, I am increasingly uncomfortable with my own movement. Sometimes I don’t recognize it, especially when I read things in the earlier part of the last decade.

    However, in the end, I leave your decisions to yourself. Thanks for reading, and take care.

  4. I also have never really taken to the word “libertarian”. I’m always attacked because it sounds like “libertine” and people are not fussy about trifles like that when they are angry with you for grinding the faces of the poor.

    We ought to recapture the word Liberal.

    That’s why I’m the first Principal Secretary of State for War in the first government (minimal statist of course) of the English Revolutionary-Liberalist Party.

  5. Well Thomas, I remember this thread… but as Sean says, this is the day of peace and goodwill to all men, so I won’t pursue 🙂

    David, I actually like the word “libertine” since it was coined to describe the enemies of the Calvinist heresy in Geneva, and I’m rather proud to be associated with that. I’m not a Christian, but if I were I’d rather be part of that strain which fostered the Renaissance, than with that which smashed stained glass windows because they believed that faith and beauty are incompatible.

    But, we do really need to get “Liberal” back.

  6. IanB,

    I’m not looking for a fight. I just think you’ve misunderstood where I stand.

    I don’t believe that “right-wing propertarians” aren’t “real libertarians.” I just believe that (to the extent that they conflate a free market with actually existing capitalism, etc.) they are libertarians in error.

Leave a Reply