How to Fight for Liberty, Part One – Theory and Politics

How to Fight for Liberty, Part One – Theory and Politics

By Duncan Whitmore

“[T]he libertarian revolution is not the work of a day – or a decade – or a lifetime. It is a continuous process through the ages. […] There is a tendency among many libertarians to look for an apocalyptic moment when the State will be smashed forever and anarchy prevail. When they realize that the great moment isn’t about to come in their time, if ever, they lose faith in the integrity and plausibility of the libertarian philosophy […] Such attitudes are naive and not [to be] expected from mature sophisticated men of learning […] libertarianism can quite easily become merely an adolescent fantasy in minds that are immature and unseasoned by a broad humanistic understanding. It should not be an idée fixe or magic formula, but a moral imperative with which one approaches the complexities of social reality.”

                        – Joseph R Peden1

If one was pressed to choose the words which have been the most influential to one’s personal commitment to liberty, it would, for me, be the passage from which this quotation was lifted. For one thing, the reality that Peden paints maintains a healthy balance: the struggle to achieve a freer world is a long and difficult one that will not be won in any quick victory, but such a long term view helps to insulate one from the myopia of frustrating day-to-day problems thrown at us by the twenty-four hour news cycle. Indeed, I have often returned to these words whenever the clouds of despotism have gathered in a particularly angry shade of grey – a not infrequent occurrence during the past year or so.

The main reason for their importance , however, is that they have been a consistent impetus towards thinking and rethinking about how a freer world will be brought about. Indeed, it is interesting to note that the passage comes not from one of the tomes of Austro-libertarian literature (Peden was not a great scholar) but from a 1971 article in The Libertarian Forum magazine, the publication initiated by Peden and Murray N Rothbard in the late 1960s in order to cater for the growing libertarian movement. Its aim at a popular, rather than scholarly audience is more than symbolic, because such an audience provides the key to so much about how to fight for liberty in the real world – and the key to why modern libertarians have struggled with this endeavour.

This is the first part in a series of essays which will attempt to challenge some (unacknowledged) assumptions with regards to the way in which libertarians think about their philosophy, its relationship to political activism, and the criteria for success. What will emerge is not a precise blueprint for political activism, but we can hope to re-orientate our thinking so that the groundwork for a more successful path can be laid. To avoid undue length, we will endeavour to deal with only one major topic in each essay.

In this part, we will deal with the fact that, while most libertarians realise that their philosophy is radically different from political philosophies which use/accommodate/excuse/justify the state, they have been comparatively slow to realise that this radical differentiation should apply also to their political activism.

Libertarianism, Statism and Political Movements

The essence and logical outcome of statist political movements is that they are centralising and homogenising; their aim is to encourage the entire citizenry towards embracing the movement’s values, enforced by the state. Thus it makes sense, say, for socialists to build a mass movement of as many of the “exploited” workers as possible so as to smash capitalism before controlling all production according to a central plan which will govern everyone’s lives.

With libertarianism, it similarly makes sense to build a unitary intellectual movement that espouses the philosophy of liberty. However, once this intellectual movement leaves its ivory tower and attempts to actually bring about a freer world, it will see that the essence and logical outcome of liberalising political action is that – in contrast to statist movements – it is decentralising and de-homogenising. In other words, such movements are encouraging people to break away from the singularity of a large, consolidated mass so that people can organise their affairs in ways which they prefer rather than in ways preferred by the leaders of the mass. But if the goal is to decentralise and de-homogenise, then we can see at an instant how taking a centralised and homogenised approach is likely to be counterproductive. Thus, the libertarian activist who believes that his task is to win as many “hearts and minds” as possible – creating, as Peden indicated, a mass revolution that will overthrow the state before ushering in an anarchistic paradise – is probably trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

The most naïve form of this view is the belief that the key ingredient for liberty to thrive is the strict enforcement of the non-aggression principle while everyone lives their lives as they see fit within the confines of their private property boundaries, ultimately across the entire world. The problem with this is not just the unlikelihood of a cacophony of different morals, tastes and values being able to co-exist within the same proximate space; it’s the fact that the entire suggestion is a tautology, the equivalent of saying that what is needed to eat an apple is to eat it. The non-aggression principle simply tells us which actions infringe upon liberty unlawfully and which do not. Thus, demanding adherence to and enforcement of the principle is just another way of stating the goal – that people’s lives should be free. But simply repeating that the goal must be achieved says nothing about the method that will take us towards that achievement. In particular, merely stating the non-aggression principle provides no motivation for people to avoid inflicting aggression upon others.

For several years now, prominent libertarians, such as Hans-Hermann Hoppe, have been explaining that such motivation must come not from the repetition of mere abstractions such as “non-aggression” but from a shared set of positive values embodied by a common language, culture, customs and traditions, providing not only common habits and behaviours that grease the wheels of social co-operation but also a foundation for informal and/or consensual methods of regulating behaviour and resolving conflicts. As a consequence, people are imbued with the desire to respect each other’s liberty. Rather than, therefore, the cacophonic co-existence of multiple cultures and customs in the same space, a freer world is likely to consist of relative social conformity amongst peoples living in close proximity, with major differences existing only between communities and at a distance.2

Nevertheless, our basic error has been the failure to break out of the statist mould – of trying to unify the whole of humanity under one umbrella of “liberty” instead of realising that liberty consists of many separate umbrellas co-existing peacefully. This does not mean to say that the fight for liberty, wherever it is across the world, will not rely upon some factors that are common to everyone by virtue of their status as human beings. The difference is simply one of focus: where the statist demands unity, the libertarian should be trying to achieve harmony.

A failure to realise this means that many libertarians have clung to that “idée fixe” or “magic formula” view of libertarian activism at the expense of accumulating a “broad humanistic understanding” of the “complexities of social reality”. In particular, a focus on building a unitary political movement of ideological purity has come at the expense of realising that a passion for liberation can spring up amongst different peoples for different motivations in different places at different times, and in a variety of different forms that are not necessarily underpinned by consistent and coherent understanding. In Peden’s words:

The focus of the struggle [for freedom] changes from time to time and place to place. Once it involved the abolition of slavery; now it may be women’s liberation; here it may be a struggle for national independence; there it may center on civil liberties; at one moment it may require electioneering and party politics; at another armed self-defense and revolution.3

In other words, liberating movements could consist of anything from campaigns to lower taxes for farm workers in Iowa to freeing Britain from the European Union; it could be anti-war rallies or demanding the rights of women in theocracies; it could be protecting the rights of cannabis users on one side of the planet or the protection of religious minorities from state persecution on the other side; and so on. This is not to imply, though, that contemporaneous movements are not united by a common theme. For the latter half of the twentieth century, such a theme was “capitalism” vs. “communism”; today, the fight seems to be predominantly categorised in terms of nationalism/populism vs. globalist elitism. Under this “macro” umbrella, the fight for Brexit in the UK, for instance, was a cousin of the “America First”/”MAGA” movement led by Donald Trump.

Of course, it should not be assumed that assessing whether a given movement will, on balance, help or hinder the cause of liberty is a straightforward task. How to handle disagreements in this regard is something that we will discuss later. But what has certainly been counterproductive is for libertarians – while congratulating themselves for being “above” the traditional dichotomy between Conservative and Labour, or Republican and Democrat – to have failed to notice and to latch on to broadly but imperfectly liberating trends that are right under their noses.

A simple case to illustrate this is Brexit. Most libertarians supported Brexit because it is difficult to envisage any scenario in which remaining a member of the EU would be, on balance, a positive factor for liberty. Thus, it would have been ridiculous for libertarians to refuse to support Brexit because the majority of Leavers were not themselves committed libertarians dedicated to restoring the sanctity of private property rights. In fact, much of the Leave campaign was permeated by quite un-libertarian promises and ideas, such as the infamous suggestion by Vote Leave that £350m per week could be diverted from funding the EU to funding the NHS. But for the most part, these kinds of “aberration” failed to serve as distractions from the general, liberating nature of ridding Britain of the Brussels bureaucracy, and nor should they have done so.

A more complex case, however, is Donald Trump and the “America First”/”MAGA” movement. We all know that Donald Trump, like most of the Brexiteers, is not a libertarian. He is no Ron Paul. He mistakenly believes that tariffs and trade wars are good things. I very much doubt that he would view secession and the dismemberment of the United States as a palatable option. It is unlikely that he ever really wanted to dismantle the gargantuan state apparatus in Washington as opposed to simply – and naively – trying to orient it towards serving the people rather than an established oligarchy. His administration sought the prosecution of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange for espionage, and he failed to pardon either Assange or Edward Snowden. Thus, it is unlikely that he ever grasped the magnitude of what would have been required to fulfil any ambition of returning power to the people, the rhetoric of which permeated his 2016 campaign and his Inaugural Speech.4 However, in ways that status quo candidates did not, his nationalist, populist and traditionalist approach has served to awaken people to the true nature of the globalist/corporatist oligarchic system that is governing them. Whatever his method, whatever his emphasis, whatever his concrete intentions, he gave millions of people a voice that had never been given the chance to speak by mainstream politicians.

Libertarians may well have honest disagreements over the extent to which this is likely to be helpful towards liberty in the long run, and this is a perfectly reasonable debate. What is not reasonable is rejecting Trump for reasons of purist, technical detail, or as a result of measuring his achievements in conventional ways such as how much of the US government he personally managed to shrink during his time in office (especially as even a serious attempt at “draining the swamp” would have been doomed to failure when one considers the enormity of the self-interested federal bureaucracy which has the power to isolate even the President). Such an approach fails to miss the fact that the broad direction of people finally rejecting the odious state system that rules them is itself a cause for celebration if it is a step forward to bringing down the great behemoth. Indeed, Trump himself is far less important than the movement he leads, a movement that actually precedes him if you consider the earlier presidential candidacies of Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan and – to go back even farther – Barry Goldwater. Trump just happened to take the lid off of the cauldron right at the moment when things were finally starting to boil over.

In fact, as I noted recently, Trump’s failure to be re-elected – as well as the subsequent wrangling over the election result – may well be a boon for liberty in the long run if the notion that he was fraudulently removed from power persists. Whether by design or mistake, the fact that he left himself as an open target to be taken down by manipulated polls and scrubbed off social media has forced the establishment to reveal the gargantuan effort to which it was willing to go to rid themselves of the man beloved by half of the electorate. This has probably done far more to strip the Emperor of his clothes than a decisive victory ever could have, particularly as the establishment has been forced to compromise the integrity of the one element that legitimises all power in the eyes of the people: democracy.5 Thus, whether Trump wins or loses in conventional terms is largely irrelevant; what matters is the resolve of the movement he leads in pushing itself towards rejecting the Washington power base and withdrawing its consent to be governed by them. I suspect that the manner of Trump’s loss has served to strengthen this resolve.

Anyhow, regardless of the detail of how one assesses Donald Trump, the point is that by trying to replicate the kind of purity and homogeneity that is appropriate for their intellectual moment, libertarians could be missing the bus when it comes to identifying liberating tendencies in the real world. It is worth pointing out that, conceivably, this includes overlooking factors that tend push in the opposite direction also, i.e. increasing state power and decreasing liberty. However, this is a failure that applies to the right as a whole. For instance, to the extent that libertarians have effectively ignored the importance of cultural aspects in preserving societal cohesion, they must take some of the responsibility for the rise of cultural leftism. However, it was the post-War conservative or “mainstream” right that acquiesced in (or otherwise enabled) the proliferation of mass democracy, inflationary finance and welfare statism, all of which served to distort prior political and economic relationships and so dissolve societal bonds. Without these underlying aspects – to which libertarians, for the most part, were opposed – cultural leftism is unlikely to have achieved its current level of ascent. Conservatives may like to think that they are more in tune with the cultural dimension of Western civilisation but they are the ones who have demolished the rock upon which it is built.6

That qualification aside, however, one unfortunate result of this general perception of libertarians forever “sitting on the sidelines” has been that people who are quite committed to the principle of achieving liberty have abandoned libertarianism in favour of other movements which are a) able to credit themselves with at least the appearance of making progress (and thus appear more “realistic”); and b) embrace more positive values that provide a greater unity and purpose (the attraction, for many former libertarians, of conservatism).

The main danger here is that these people end up throwing out the baby out with the bath water. Frustrated with libertarians’ method for achieving liberty, they end up discarding also any theoretical foundation for liberty for the reason that other movements to which they may be attracted do not necessarily have as sharp a grasp on what liberty is and its fundamental importance. Conservatives, for instance, have a tendency to confuse liberty with libertinism and, thus, to regard liberty as being somehow at odds with socially (rather than legally) enforced duties, customs, cultures and traditions that hold societies together.7 Such a view means that individual liberty actually becomes not a fundamental principle but, rather, one of many ideals which need to be “balanced” with each other, the result of which is that conservatives are much more likely to view the state as a tool for achieving this balance rather than as the enemy to be vanquished. This, however, can only ever lead to the growth of the state in the long run and – ironically – to the gradual strangulation of both liberty and conservatism.

For instance, the growing furore over big tech censorship has led many on the right to call for government regulation of powerful social media companies or for a round of “trust busting” that would see these companies dissolved into smaller, allegedly more “competitive” entities. This is underpinned by the (more than implicit) belief that free speech needs to be defended from large, private “monopolies” exercising their private property rights just as much as it needs protection from states.

The kernel of truth here is that whether a given action infringes upon liberty depends upon the nature of the act, not upon the status of the actor. Murder, for instance, is wrong regardless of whether it is committed by Joe Bloggs, the CEO of Twitter or the President of the United States. Thus, it is no answer to say that, as private entities, these big companies can “do whatever they like”. But it is equally mistaken to think that the power wielded by these “private” social media companies is a creation of the free market, resulting from nothing more than their exercise of their private property rights. Instead, as we have explained here and here, corporate power is a product of state power, and is entirely dependent upon state privilege. Thus, the extant leftist/liberal bias that permeates the established state will govern the priorities of the corporate sector at the expense of genuine consumer demand. Expecting the state to regulate these entities purely for the immediate and attractive goal of protecting free speech is like pleading to the devil to rein in his demons. Even if this was to be temporarily successful, the devil, his demons and all of their hellish powers will still be there, ripe for future corruption. Indeed, we have to remember that every power that is lent to the state in order to do something “good” is a boot that will one day end up on the other foot, at which point it will be turned on us to give us a brutal kicking. In short, if we rely upon the state to protect free speech then we should not be surprised if it takes it away again.8

Unfortunately, this isn’t mere speculation on my part. In the US, the “Old Right” of small government and foreign non-interventionism (pejoratively dismissed as “isolationism”) lost out to the post-war, “New Right” championship of the bloated “military-industrial complex” in order to combat the supposed communist threat. The 9/11 attacks in New York City – which were themselves blowback for foreign meddling – not only created the replacement bogeyman of Islamic terrorism as a successor to communism, but also bequeathed to us the spying and security state and the concomitant erosion of due process and privacy. Warning of the dangers of this massive growth of the warfare state was given as far back as 1960 by Dwight D Eisenhower during his “farewell” address as President:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognise the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. [Emphasis added].

In their effort to arrest supposed, largely external threats to Western civilisation, the right failed to heed Eisenhower’s warning, creating a monster within their own walls. Fast forward to 2021 and the left’s aspiration to now target “domestic terrorists” – which will probably mean Trump supporters and anyone else who happens to question state sanctified orthodoxy – is simply this existing state apparatus turned inwards. In other words, those on the American right have created the very means which will be used to destroy them.9

A further problem caused by the failure to identify the state as the true source of our problems is that it risks sustaining an illusion that has, thus, far, been extremely beneficial to the state at the expense of liberty. For decades, so many catastrophes caused by state privilege and state interference have been wrongfully ascribed to the capitalistic facades behind which the corporate state operates – namely, nominal private ownership, free trade and exchange, the stock and other financial markets, etc. Thus, capitalism is continually seen as the problem rather than as the solution. The most recent example of this was the 2008 housing market crash and the subsequent bailout of the banks, all of which was caused by state induced inflationary finance but was easily passed off as the result of the unregulated exploits of “greedy” private bankers. In the near future, we can expect that the concentration of asset ownership in a handful of super rich oligarchs – exacerbated by the lockdown restrictions – will continue. Particularly if it becomes obvious that this oligarchy is using its wealth to force upon us some kind of digital dystopia and impoverishing lifestyle choices in the name of “saving the planet” (or whatever) then confiscation of the wealth of the super billionaires will one day become a popular political objective.

This is all well and good from a libertarian point of view: we do not want any “Great Reset”, “Green Industrial Revolution” or any kind of digital police state, nor should we want those who have profited from the use of power and force to keep their ill gotten gains. But the more that these rich oligarchs are identified as “capitalists” the more likely it is that full, economic socialism, rather than a genuine free economy, will be seen as the antidote.  Given that all socialist regimes must eventually progress to a similar kind of oligarchy, instead of sweeping away the vile regime of control and corruption we would just end up with another one. The only thing that would change is the particular priorities of the new regime.

Unfortunately, this is not a trivial risk, as the popularity of “harder left” politicians such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates. It is a mistake to believe that all enemies of the rulers are champions of the ruled. Instead, they can easily form a third category of people who do not currently rule but who wish to rule. They live in hope that the current crop of elites will one day be dislodged from the pedestal of power not so that freedom may be returned to the people but in order to elevate themselves to the top spot before forcing upon us their own grand plan. Thus, it is not enough to set our sights on killing the dangerous animal; we have to be mindful too of the circling vultures who would feast on the spoils. It is vital that the true source of our current problems is identified as the state if freedom is to be rescued and one form of tyranny is not to be succeeded by another. Only a thorough dismantling of the corporatist inflationist state at its foundation will do; using the power of the state to solve the problems at the surface will not.

A more general problem resulting from the loss of a firm, theoretical foundation for liberty is a corresponding diminution of one’s ability to assess the quagmire of modern political discourse – to sift out truth from falsehood, to interpret where certain events may lead, and to suggest liberalising solutions. Indeed, the cause for freedom would probably be much better served if more of those who detest the “statist quo” sought their influence from quiet study of the Austro-libertarian literature rather tweeting furiously or otherwise wading through the vagaries of social media and the internet. As political outsiders, it is immensely difficult for us to steer a path between “conventional” ways of thinking as propagated by the mainstream, and the assortment of cranks and extremists who – while they may have their hearts in the right place – fail to base their diagnoses upon any kind of rigorous understanding. For instance, from amongst the ranks of “conspiracy theories”, trying to filter out what might be true, what is plausible and what is abject fantasy is a task that can only come from an understanding of the nature of human action, of power and of the state. In short, one’s mind has to be open enough to reject the status quo but it cannot be a gaping hole through which reason and common sense end up falling through.

This kind of problem has become exacerbated in the last year or so given the draconian responses to COVID-19. In a little under a year, lockdowns have swept away freedoms that have taken centuries to win, previous trends of censorship and persecution of dissent have accelerated, and there is now the real possibility that we are on the cusp of a dystopian future of regimentation and control. Whereas previously the dominant attitude amongst freedom lovers towards the state was one of annoyance, today one senses that it has morphed into palpable fear, and, thus, a heightened sense of urgency in the effort to arrest the direction in which we seem to be travelling. However, such a perception of urgency has a tendency to lead to poor judgment, and this case has been no exception.

For instance, during the twilight of the Trump presidency, the prospect of a Biden/Harris administration that looks set to restore the globalist/leftist/green hegemony led many on the right to mistakenly regard Trump as the very kind of “idée fixee” or “magic bullet” that Peden warned against – that his continued administration was the only thing standing in the way of the destruction of Western civilisation. Such a fixation on a single man, ascribing to him views, characteristics and ambitions he probably does not hold, is as ridiculous as failing to notice what he is capable of and what he has actually achieved. This view reached heights of absurdity in the run up to the Biden inauguration with the notion – apparently initiated by the “QAnon” conspiracy theory – that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act, launch a military takeover of the US government, and arrest all of the top Democrats and deep state traitors before establishing the paradise of his second term. Even if such a fantasy had been likely, military-enforced rule clearly would have been a complete disaster for the cause of liberty. But several prominent and normally clear headed members of the right known to me paid it more than lip service in the days prior to January 20th.

Anyone who wishes to influence every fight for freedom – regardless of where and when it emerges, for what, and amongst whom – must build this commitment from the bottom up on a foundation of serious understanding of the philosophy of liberty. Every proposal, every action, and every alliance sought must be in service of this unflinching goal. In the near future, we can expect more and more people to seek alternatives to mainstream narratives as state power tightens its grip as a result of the existential crisis which it is now experiencing. If this growing number of dissidents is to be truly won over, then we want them to discover something that is built on a bedrock of truth rather than a cacophony of quackery.

Theory and Action

Our big question, then, is how do we maintain this bedrock of truth while, at the same time, fighting for liberty in the decentralising and dehomogenising manner that we explained earlier?

The answer is that libertarians must cease thinking of libertarian philosophy on the one hand and libertarian activism on the other as being a unitary endeavour. Rather, we should think of libertarianism as a theoretical/intellectual movement whose task is to define and justify liberty as a goal. Libertarians must then use that intellectual framework in order to interpret and explain events in the world as they unfold. But this understanding must then be taken not to form a singular political movement, but to inform and strengthen a variety of political movements (with a variety of different names and motivations) across the world, each of which has some form of liberalisation as its goal.

Building and protecting the intellectual movement requires us to maintain a relative degree of purity within its ranks. If the philosophy of liberty is not to succumb to corruption, the movement must be keen to expel outsiders who – regardless of whether they personally regard themselves as “libertarians” – would dilute its critical tenets into being something that they are not. This, unfortunately, is not a minor risk, as schools of thought often suffer from gradual redefinition by failing to protect their core principles. For instance, what today would be called “liberalism” is almost the complete opposite of what it once was.

The basic requirement should be that a person must commit to liberty as a fundamental principle, recognising as its essence the notion that individuals should be able to live their lives according to values that they regard as important. In other words, the committed libertarian believes that each individual person is an independent moral agent. Disagreements over when liberty is or is not infringed (e.g. abortion, immigration, voluntary slavery) or over how it is justified (e.g. utilitarianism, natural law, argumentation ethics) should not be grounds for dismissing a certain theorist from the circle. Instead, these matters should be considered as part of the healthy course of development of the philosophy.

Among the excluded, however, should be the many “beltway” libertarians and “free market think tank” libertarians who have a tendency to remain close to government circles and influence. Although they often have many good arguments when it comes to the low hanging fruit matters of, say, taxes and regulations, the difference is that these theorists tend to view liberty neither as a fundamental principle nor as a right to live your life as you see fit. Rather, they view freedom as a tool to be switched on and off so long as it produces outcomes that are acceptable to them (such as “more wealth”). Thus, they view individuals not as independent moral agents; rather, your moral agency is ultimately subject to curtailment by the state in accordance with its preferences. As a consequence, these theorists have no qualms whatsoever in endorsing redistributive efforts or certain programmes of socialisation so long as they don’t, say, harm the economy “too much” or so long as they provide some kind of social benefit of which they personally approve. Moreover, much of their productive effort is devoted not to freeing people from the shackles of the state but to explaining how “market reforms” can execute government priorities more “efficiently” (such as introducing school vouchers and contracting out the operation of government funded services to private firms).10

What we can see, therefore, is that these “libertarians” differ from statists more in degree than they do in kind – they’d just “allow” you a little more freedom than the lefties whom they feign to oppose. Such an approach is likely to leave liberty defenceless precisely at the moments when it is most under threat, such as in the wake of COVID-19 restrictions. While challenge to these restrictions from this camp has not been silent, they have tended to focus more on the utility of the government’s approach towards dealing with the virus than they have on the inherently unjust nature of locking up healthy people. In fact, we can now see how utterly devastating technocratic and utilitarian approaches to policy making can be to freedom: not only has the assumption that the government “needs” to fight COVID-19 gone largely without question, but the flimsiest of “data” (i.e. projections and computer models churned out by those with disastrous track records) has been used to justify assaults on liberty more severe than those encountered during wartime. Commitment to the notion that people should have a fundamental right to be free – and that freedom is not the gift of any government to be weighed in the balance with the government’s competing objectives – must be an essential quality for anyone claiming to be a libertarian.

Thus, libertarians are unified by their intellectual commitment to defining and justifying liberty as a fundamental principle. But when it then comes to the task of actually bringing about a freer world, we must be prepared to act in a more scattered and heterogeneous manner, seeking out promising, liberating movements which will appear in a number of different guises across the world. We should then seek to support, inform and strengthen these movements, preferably with a view to making them more coherent and consistent. As we have indicated already, this has the capacity to cause much disagreement amongst particular libertarians for the reason that assessing the liberating quality of events and movements is not straightforward. Any such clashes must, however, be recognised as disagreements over how to best to bring liberty into the world, not – as they sometimes currently seem to be – over the goal of achieving liberty itself. Two doctors may disagree over how best to treat a patient but such a disagreement, however vehement, should not be taken to be mean that they are not committed to restoring that patient’s health. Compromise over and flexibility in strategy, tactics and alliances that will be necessary to exploit the actual conditions in the real world cannot ever translate into any compromise over and flexibility of the principle of liberty itself.

The remainder of this series of essays will be dedicated to outlining a framework in which libertarians can proceed with this task.

*    *     *     *     *


1Joseph R Peden, Liberty: From Rand to Christ, in Joseph R Peden (Pub.), Murray N Rothbard (Ed.), The Libertarian Forum, July – August 1971, Vol. III, nos. 6-7. 3-4 at 4.

2This does not rule out the possibility that a shared commitment to openness and experimentation could, in and of itself, create a stable community, nor does it attempt to demote tolerance of other lifestyles as a virtue. Moreover, the importance of cohesiveness at physical locations could also diminish if people continue to seek social contact and communities online. But even the members of the most open and tolerant of societies (as well as those online) must have at least some substantively common characteristics if social co-operation is to function, the most obvious of which is a common language.

3Peden, 4.

4Though it is worth nothing – especially amongst all of the leftist howls that Trump is a “dictator” with scant regard for democratic norms – that he wielded the power of his office with relative restraint, a remarkable feat given that some of his more principled predecessors such as Thomas Jefferson failed to immunise themselves from power’s corrupting influence. For instance, Trump is the first President since Jimmy Carter not to have initiated a new, foreign war, and he resisted the siren song of swelling his executive power following the emergence of COVID-19, preferring to leave it largely as a matter for the states.

5This was true also of the Brexit referendum in the UK; the Remainer establishment’s attempt to reverse the result did far more to discredit the British state in the eyes of the electorate than an immediate departure from the EU in 2016 ever could have. Sometimes painfully drawn out processes have to be endured if we are to achieve a better, long term outcome.

6For a more detailed explanation of this, see here and here.

7Some naïve libertarians may also hold this view, except that they regard it as a good thing. Every movement has to suffer association with its vulgar adherents.

8In fact, the left itself is currently experiencing something similar. Having praised “cancel culture” when it affected only the right, they have been left dumbfounded now that the censors have started coming for them.

9The right is also at risk of making the same mistake with China in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns which mimicked or repeated China’s response to the emergence of the virus. However much influence the Chinese state may have, and however much Western politicians may admire and seek to emulate that state, the odious regimes in both China and the West will simply be strengthened if their populations come to view the primary threat as being external.

10To its credit, the Adam Smith Institute, one of Britain’s most influential free market think tanks, has recognised that its general philosophy can no longer be described as “libertarian”, preferring instead to be regarded as “neoliberal.”


  1. An excellent article, Duncan. Thank you. I wish I could have given six stars!

    You make many fine individual points, too. For example (the wording is mine in each case):

    (1) Don’t try to play our enemies at their own game.
    (2) The non-aggression principle is not enough. We need a comprehensive theoretical basis of core principles for liberty.
    (3) Each individual is an independent moral agent.
    (4) Individual liberty must be the fundamental principle of all liberty work.
    (5) We must seek harmony, not unity.
    (6) We must clearly make the distinction between true capitalism and crony capitalism.
    (7) The state has got to go.

    My one disagreement was with your point about liberty needing social conformity in one space. I think that train has already left the station – we are already in a world where people from different cultures live cheek by jowl. Which means, to me, that we have to adapt our philosophy of liberty so it can deal with that fact. I think your note [2] is moving towards some of the ideas we may need to consider.

    As it happens, I myself am working on a comparably large program of essays about the principles of liberty and the making of liberty. I plan three of these; I finished the first draft of the second one (more than twice the length of your essay here!) yesterday. But I don’t want to let any of them go until I have the third well on its way. I am coming at the issues from a somewhat different direction from you, so it will be interesting to see how our expositions relate to each other.

    • Thank you Neil, I look forward to reading your work. If you’d like any review of your drafts before you complete them I’d be happy to oblige!

  2. Very good point. You mirror my own intellectual development after having engaging in and been frustrated by party politics. I’m looking forward to reading your further thoughts.

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