Mises 2018: Sean Gabb on “Libertarian Toryism”

Libertarian Toryism
Speech to the Mises UK Conference
at the Charing Cross Hotel in London
27th January 2018
Sean Gabb

Though ultimately about the future, this will also be a speech that dwells on the past. The first past event that I wish to discuss is what happened in June 2017. When I stood down as Director of the Libertarian Alliance, I was asked if I had taken leave of my senses. I was not visibly broken down by age and ill health. I had evidently not run out of things to say. Why, then, was I steeping aside in favour of a young man who was nearly forty years my junior?

The answer to this question it to look about you. I ran the Libertarian Alliance for several years on life support. I did so with considerable success. One thing I could never do, however, was to arrange a conference – certainly not of this quality nor on this scale. As I stand here, I am more convinced than ever that Keir Martland is the right person to give the British libertarian movement a new start.

My second past event takes me back to April 1981, when I first spoke to a gathering in this Hotel, I was younger than many of the young men now sat before me. It seems not a very long time ago. It was not a long time ago. But that is the nature of our individual existence. You pass, let me assure you, in almost the blink of an eye from enfant terrible to Grand Ageing Man. It may be that, after another 37 years, one or two of you will come here with similar reflections. If, against all my gloomy forebodings, I am still here to watch you, I will endeavour to welcome you to the club.

But let me return to my own earlier speech. It was given not to the Libertarian Alliance, but to something called the Free Trade and Anti-Common Market League, which was what it said it was. My speech was a case for legalising all drugs that currently existed, had existed, or might one day exist. Excepting Chris Tame, the audience was of men even older than I now am. One of them had known Richard Cobden’s daughter. Being good liberals from the early twentieth century, they agreed in a languid manner with my speech, though said afterwards they were more impressed by the enthusiasm with which I had argued for rights that they hoped I would never be mad enough to exercise. So was born my reputation as an outspoken and uncompromising libertarian.

This has always been, I must confess, a reputation that I do not deserve. Yes, I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of association – freedoms to which I place very few limits, and greatly fewer limits than the British State places. Yes, I believe in leaving people alone to enjoy their drugs and porn and kinky sex. I believe in free markets. I am therefore a libertarian. Anyone who says I am not is imposing a definition on the word that would rule out virtually the whole of the English and American liberal tradition before about 1970.

At the same time, I am and always have been a peculiar kind of libertarian. I am not an anarchist, I regard the non-aggression principle more as an aspiration than as a guiding principle. If any of my listeners in 1981 had questioned me closely about what I really believed, he would have heard that I wanted its people to be free to live as they pleased, but that I also had no objection to the customs and institutions of my country, that I was proud of its history, and that I wanted my country to last unruined into an indefinite future. The case I was arguing in this Hotel were placed on the joint grounds of abstract rights and utility. What I did not think to add was that they were, in some degree, part of our immemorial tradition. Any viable society must be a compact between those who lived, those who live, and those yet to live. Part of what bound ours together across the generations was an unusual concern for leaving each other alone. It was never perfect. There was no point on a chronological table when England had been a libertarian paradise. But I was arguing from within our immemorial traditions. Put me in front of a different gathering, and I might easily have passed for a mystical Tory

That was then. It still is now. But what I bring now to an unchanging body of principle is the saddening experience of what I hope has been less than half a lifetime. The last time I was here, we had a constitution that, in its essentials, the Victorians would have recognised. Indeed, compared with the disasters that had fallen on other peoples, our institutions and general way of life had almost miraculously weathered the storms of the twentieth century. There seemed no more need for me to praise our continuity than to praise the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. It was something to be taken for granted – a background against which I could argue over matters of detail. They were important matters of detail, to be sure – but, if I were to be ignored, England would without close compare remain the best country in the world.

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Looking back, I now see this unbroken continuity as rather like a piece of fruit that, outwardly still fresh, has long been rotting from within. Regardless of who won which particular election, or of the promises made to win that election, the next thirty years were to be an age of rapid and confusing destruction. Institutions and habits of thought were swept aside that had evolved unbroken since the middle ages. They were swept aside, or they were turned to new and alien uses. Indeed, I feel, as often as I can bring myself to switch on the television, or open a newspaper, or just set foot outside Deal, that I am living in a foreign country.

There was a time when I might now have proceeded to a close examination of these changes. But, since you are all broadly familiar with what has happened, I will stay with my general theme; and I will say that the revolution that began with Margaret Thatcher has killed traditional English Toryism. In its essentials, Toryism is a prejudice against radical change. It is a defence of the established order inherited from the past. If it must be recognisably ideological, it will roll out a theory of social change according to which customs and institutions evolve in the light of their hidden rationality. Let me quote from Sir John Davies, writing in 1612, for a good summary of what may be called the Tory ideology:

For a Custome taketh a beginning and groweth to perfection in this manner: When a reasonable act once done is found to be good and beneficiall to the people, and agreeable to their nature and disposition, then do they use it and practise it again and again, and so by often iteration and multiplication of the act it becometh a Custome; and being continued without interruption time out of mind, it obtaineth the force of a Law[1]

This archaeological approach is no longer possible. The threads of continuity have been snapped. If a government of committed Tories were to come to power on Monday morning – and that is some hope! – they could no more put the old order back together than the French conservatives after 1815 could restore the Ancien Régime. You cannot call a dead man back to life. You cannot revive a set of traditions that you need a History degree even to know existed. Some of the young men I know mutter approvingly about Throne and Altar Conservatism. A nice phrase – it once had meaning enough to sway election results. But what throne now? What altar? The Church of England is an embarrassing joke. The Monarchy has reconceived itself as leading frontman for the revolution. Our Government of Tories might announce that the present order of things was established, and therefore in need of defence – though I do not think any real Tory could look at modern England with anything but horror. Or they might try for radical change of their own. I will come to this shortly, but first must deal with libertarianism.

If you are a libertarian – even my sort of libertarian, you will, in some degree stand outside tradition. You will reason from first principles to a desirable order of things. You may then work for some compromise with the institutions and habits of thought of the country you are trying to change. In this respect, the experience of the past forty years or so has been less destructive. You believed in liberty then. You believe in liberty now. The targets of criticism may change now and again. The final object remains the same.

But, if less destructive, the experience of these years has not left us unscathed. In 1974, when Margaret Thatcher took over the Conservative Party, and still in 1981, when I spoke here, it was possible to believe that the mass of ordinary people wanted to be free. It was a matter of providing them with the right vision, and of clearing aside various misconceptions they might have formed since the 1930s about the desirability or the feasibility of at least a smaller state. I do not think I make any controversial point now if I say that there is no evidence whatever that the mass of ordinary people want to be free. Or, if they do want to be free, it is only in the sense that a teenager might want to be free to change the shape and colour of his hair, or to stay in bed when he ought to be somewhere else. Give them that, and the rest will be greeted with at best a bored sniff. So far as I can tell, most people like the police state that England has become. They like omnipresent video surveillance and a weakened rule of law. They like state regulation of everything in sight. They have no principled objection to censorship and the harrying of dissidents. Increasing numbers are happy to sign the loyalty oaths, and to denounce – and even to sniff out – those who break the oaths.

This makes us, as a movement, completely without relevance – now and probably into the future. As evidence of this, let me state the obvious. The Traditional Britain Group is a collection of Tories who are thinking constructively about the impossibility of Toryism. Some of their proposed answers to certain questions are feared likely to be popular if ever exposed to a wide audience. The Traditional Britain Group cannot advertise its meetings, but must hold them in venues publicised at the last minute. It is infiltrated and then pilloried in the media. Mises UK advertised this meeting long in advance. I have seen no pickets. No one tried to photograph me as I walked into this building. All things are possible, but I doubt we have been infiltrated. One possible reason for this is that the Traditional Britain Group is an organisation notorious for spreading hate, and we are libertarians. The most obvious reason is that we are too irrelevant to be thought worth disrupting. For all the impact it is likely to have on the political culture of England, this meeting might as well devote itself to a discussion of why the Earth is flat, or why it has only existed for six thousand years. We are tolerated because hardly anyone is listening to us. We are irrelevant.

I come, then, to the question of what is to be done. Some of you may argue that nothing needs to be done. We are right, and tough luck for the rest of the world if it disagrees. We may decide to stay within our own intellectual ghetto – even pushing each other out from time to time, if we think they are insufficiently pure in their belief. I find this an unsatisfactory answer. Going back to the earlier age of which I speak, we could believe that the Conservatives were doing, or might do, roughly what was needed to sort things out. Our job was to spread a purer form of the right message. This was never the case, and is certainly not the case now. The Conservatives have been in office for seven years, and they are no better than Labour. If we are not to resign all opposition to the present order of things to the Alt Right, we really need to think of some compromise that will let us spread our message to a wider audience.

I am not suggesting intellectual compromise – only compromise in the application of what we believe. Take these three propositions as a loose summary of the synthesis that I propose:

First, our nation is a kind of family. Its members are connected by ties of common history and language, and largely by common descent. We have a claim on our young men to risk their lives in legitimate wars of defence. We have other claims on each other that go beyond the contractual.

Second, the happiness and wealth and power of our nation require a firm respect for property rights and civil rights. It is one of the functions of microeconomic analysis to show how a respect of property rights is to the common benefit. All the various sects of libertarianism show the benefit to a nation of leaving people alone in their private lives.

Third, the boundaries between these first two cannot be fixed by any process of reasoning from first principles. Indeed, they often suggest different answers to the same question. There was a time when they could be discussed and reconciled in the light of tradition. I may be wrong when I say that tradition no longer provided this light. If I am not wrong, we are left with our common sense – in itself, I suppose, a kind of tradition – and a regard to our present and our long-term convenience.

Now, this looks rather like the One Nation Toryism of Benjamin Disraeli and his followers. It looks like it because that is what it is. The weakness of the One Nation Conservatives Margaret Thatcher squashed lay in their misunderstanding of Economics. After the 1930s, they had trusted too much in state direction of the economy. But, rightly understood, the doctrine does seem to express what most people want, or can be persuaded to want. It is an alternative to the present order of things that does not take us into the somewhat alarming, and generally anti-libertarian, territories of the Alt Right.

I have so far been vague in the points I have made. On the one hand, I have limited time. On the other, I have seen no reason to be specific. I will now take up the rest of my allotted time in spelling out a meaning for my propositions as they can be given effect in our present circumstances.

I will begin by saying that we must accept the existence of a pretty generous welfare state. When I was younger, I used to read hundred day plans for a new libertarian government in England or America. They always began by shutting down welfare, or “privatising” the National Health Service. They were a complete waste of paper and ink, and later of pixels. Almost everyone believes in some kind of welfare safety net. Almost everyone believes in some collective provision of healthcare and education. This is not because people have been corrupted by a century or two of socialism. Every territory I know settled and governed by Europeans has had some kind of welfare state. Victorian England – the epicentre of classical liberalism – had both workhouses and outdoor relief. A large part of the reason why we are so much more generous than the Victorians is that we are immeasurably richer.

This is not to endorse the actually existing welfare state that we have in England. Its main function is to provide salaries and pensions and legitimation for a revolutionary priesthood that should be the first target of any cuts we make to the State. That, or it is designed to give a livelihood to people who should not be here. But, once the mass of sinecures has been stripped out, and once the relevant professions have been deregulated, and once various illegitimate interest groups and laws have been sent packing – why, we should be left with a lean and efficient, and a generous, welfare state that relieves unavoidable want and that gives everyone the comfort of knowing that a heart attack or a broken leg will not be followed by bankruptcy.

We must also be flexible about the protection of certain domestic sectors of the economy. I know my Economics. Now and again, I teach them with fair success. I know that any protection imposes costs, and that these may be hard to locate. At the same time, we do not live in a world of Cobdenite free trade. We live in a world of managed trade – of trade that is managed in the interests of malign élites. I do not say that we must accept it. On reflection, we may find ourselves better off without it. But I do say that we must have the flexibility of mind to accept some protection – protection for the sake of raising up and maintaining a new industrial working class, and protection to ensure that we can, at a pinch, feed ourselves.

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I turn to the second of my propositions. I have said that most people do not want to be free. But it is in the national interest that all should be free, so that some people – probably unknown in advance, even to themselves, should be able to bless us with new knowledge and new things. If England in the century before last had been fitted out with our own police state laws and institutions, it is probable that Charles Darwin and his followers would have been driven from public life, and perhaps hounded through the courts for preaching “hatred.” You could say the same of Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century. Each of them challenged an established paradigm. Each one of them caused great offence. The degree of offence each caused would easily, given our present laws, have amounted to the legal definition of “hate.” Instead, they were left alone, and the cause of truth was advanced thereby. Where new things are considered, or new ways of making things that already exist, I doubt if the Industrial Revolution could have happened in our own regulatory framework – that, or it would have been much more than it was to the advantage of those who were already rich.

The benefit of this approach is that it gives everyone in the nation who is not a Cultural Marxist or an irremediable parasite something he thinks valuable. It involves compromise. It requires a loss of intellectual consistency. Even so, very much more freedom than we now have comes wrapped in the flag of a restored nation. Given time, it can grow into a new immemorial tradition, or be reconnected with the one we have presently lost.

Bring the me of 1981 forward and put him in the audience – I believe he would nod approvingly at what I have said. That, however, is less important than that enough of you will do the same, and think for yourselves about the idea of a libertarian Toryism, or perhaps a grown-up libertarianism.


[1]  Sir John Davies, Irish Reports (Les Reports des Cases & Matters en Ley, Resolves & adjudges en les Courts del Roy en Ireland. Collect & digest per Sir John Davies, Chivaler, Attorney del Roy en cest Realm, written 1612, published 1674, quoted, J.G.A Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1957, p. 33.


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