low angle photography of spiral stair

How to Fight for Liberty, Part 6 – Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up

How to Fight for Liberty, Part 6 – Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up

By Duncan Whitmore

In the previous two essays in this continuing series on fighting for liberty, we discussed the value of radicalism and then of conservatism in contributing towards a political strategy. A suggested reconciliation between these two, apparently different approaches centred on the fact that, on the one hand, libertarians must be uncompromisingly radical in terms of their rejection of the state; on the other hand, we must be conservative by encouraging this rejection from the bottom-up rather than imposing it from the top-down.

This part will explain in detail why this bottom-up approach is essential, and why all attempts at a top-down restructuring of the societal order are unlikely to ever result in a permanent victory for liberty.

The Top-Down Failure of Statism

Austro-libertarians are well accustomed to explaining why top-downism fails when it is proposed by statists. Socialism, for instance, suffers from the economic calculation problem. If the state owns all of the means of production across the entire economy then there is no trade in machines, tools and equipment. Without trade in these factors then they cannot command market prices. If there are no market prices then it is not possible for a state controlled planning board to undertake any kind of cost accounting. Without accountancy, there is no way of determining profits and losses. And if there are no profits or losses then you can never know whether scarce factors of production are being deployed efficiently or wastefully. The result is economic chaos as the capital structure deteriorates into a quagmire of wasteful surpluses of some goods and chronic shortages of others. In the former Soviet Union, for instance, fields of crops were left un-harvested because as much as one third of agricultural machinery stood idle owing to a shortage of spare parts.

Ultimately, however, all kinds of top-downism fail because they are fundamentally at odds with the nature of human beings – that we are each individuals with our own ends and desires, and that we each act within a local, limited environment so as to fulfil those desires. In human society (and often, for that matter, in the natural world), anything that can be observed as a complete, harmonious system is not the product of any one individual’s design or action in the way that a single architect may design a building or a sole author can write a novel. Rather, social systems are the amalgamation of thousands of individuals striving to fulfil their individual ends in such a way that nevertheless manages to mesh them into a coherent whole. Institutions such as culture, language, market prices, customary legal systems and money are of this ilk. No one person ever invented any of these, and yet we can clearly define them as singular entities that exist to fulfil human purposes in a conflict-free manner.

Moreover, as Leonard Read pointed out in his essay I, Pencil1, all complex economic processes involved in the production of goods and services, whether its food, clothing, construction, automobiles, etc., are of exactly the same nature. In building each of these economic systems (or industries, as we tend to call them), each individual producer acts within his own sphere of understanding with means available to him. However, no one individual has a grasp over the whole system, nor can he comprehend all of the relevant information that is required to be known at each stage of the process – a factor which, from the point of view of economic planning, we usually summarise as the Hayekian knowledge problem. Indeed, the great accomplishment of the science of economics is to explain how everybody’s individual goals and desires need not lead to zero-sum conflict over a limited supply of nature-given goods, but, instead, to positive-sum, peaceful co-operation in the production of new goods without the need for a controlling arbiter.2 A failure to appreciate this and to assume instead that such systems can be built or refashioned in a top-down manner is likely to lead to disaster, as the failures of socialism have already demonstrated. But today’s wealthy billionaires and philanthropists – if we assume that they are acting with good intentions – seem equally convinced that in order to make a positive difference in the world one must think big and act big, making radical, far reaching changes to whole economic and social systems in the way that an inventor can take apart a machine and start over. Thus, we get attempts to revolutionise and control “farming”, “the housing market”, “transport”, “the climate”, “the internet”, “sustainability”, or even human society as a whole.

If, however, you wish to make a contribution to human progress, this is precisely the wrong path to take. Rather than trying to make gargantuan, wholesale changes, you should focus instead on a small area where you can make a specific improvement, the effects of which you can control in a limited environment that you can understand. If you are successful, you will enhance one small part of an economic system, but at no point does your attempt to do so threaten the integrity of the entire edifice. And once everybody strives to make the same kinds of localised improvement then the system as a whole improves as well in immeasurable strides.

So, for instance, in improving the production of Leonard Read’s pencils, the sawmill may employ a more efficient machine in cutting the wood; the shipping company may purchase a more capacious or speedy freighter in which to transport the wood; the pencil factory may devise a process that saves money on electricity or on packaging materials. The success or failure of these innovations will be determined ultimately by the profit and loss test, with those employing successful innovations profiting ahead of those who employ less successful innovations. These examples may be multiplied many hundreds of times for each and every factor of production involved, and are not (as is commonly supposed) confined to the practice of inventing new technology – simply improving an existing process, or finding a way to market an existing solution better would suffice, as would simply gathering existing factors of production and combining them in a better way. The final, singular result that can be appreciated by the consumer is a greater number and variety of cheaper pencils. It shouldn’t necessarily be assumed, however, that such small improvements are always, on their own, insignificant, consigning their proponents to obscurity. Some of them – such as pneumatic tyres, the Ford assembly line and the jet engine – represented great strides in the progress of humanity.

On the other hand, truly big plans – whether it’s the so-called Great Reset, the UN’s Agenda 21, the Green New Deal, or Bill Gates’ bizarre proposal to block out the sun so as to cool the Earth – will be disastrous, as their attempts to remake or refashion the world in a certain basic image through making drastic and far-reaching changes will have ramifications on systems and processes that simply cannot be foreseen by any one person. Such effects are often referred to by economists as “unintended consequences”, outcomes that would occur even if we were to assume that the planners are employing basic premises that are correct. But if (as is more often the case) they were to adopt demonstrably false premises – for example, Malthusian overpopulationism, the dubious conclusions of so-called “climate science”, or Neil Ferguson’s modelling – the effects will be even worse. In fact, it is the gradual accumulation of unforeseen problems coupled with the belief that it is the state’s responsibility to solve all problems that, in the long run, leads to the growth of the state and the strangulation of liberty.

Top-Downism and Liberty

While libertarians are likely to readily comprehend these problems with top-down statism, it may be more difficult for them to realise how the top-down method can fail just as miserably when trying to spread freedom. In fact, the prospect of such failure may even seem puzzling, for in contrast to the statists (whose aim is to re-fashion people in accordance with a pre-ordained image), aren’t libertarians simply trying to unshackle people from their chains? How can offering to set people free fail in the same manner as imposing upon them an entirely prescriptive way of living? Unfortunately, however, it is not that simple.

When defining a top-down, political strategy, what we chiefly have in mind is libertarians (and their right-leaning, fellow travellers) engaging in the existing political process, swaying a mass of voters to the libertarian message so as to win elections and snatch power from the hands of the leftists. Pro-liberty politicians would be installed as presidents or prime ministers who would then – with the backing of an equally pro-liberty coalition of cabinet ministers and legislative representatives – embark on a radical programme of rolling back the state: mass repeal of legislation, cutting taxes to a bare minimum, selling off state owned assets and state controlled industry, restoring sound money, and slashing welfare entitlements. In other words, liberty will be restored by the actions of a handful of people wielding power at the very top – more or less the mirror image of statists gaining that same power so as to implement their liberty destroying schemes.3 A bottom-up approach, on the other hand, would consist of finding ways in which to motivate people towards decoupling or seceding from the existing state apparatus – in other words, of encouraging them to govern their own affairs either through states with smaller territorial jurisdictions and/or through more local, voluntary institutions.

Even if such a programme could work to restore liberty in the long run, merely describing the top-down process is probably enough for the reader to gather that shifting the balance of power in this way is likely to be a fantasy, at least in the present political climate. But the fact that the political winds are presently unfavourable is far from being the biggest hurdle.

The most basic problem is that the top-down method fails to demolish the fundamental, statist presumption – that power can be won and used to shape society in ways desired by the power holders. Instead of taking control of their own lives, liberty lovers are lulled into the false sense of security of believing that some Messiah-like figure will descend from heaven into political office before vanquishing all of the enemies of freedom with a few strokes of his legislative pen. If these kinds of fantasy are embraced, the door is still left open for power to be used in ways utterly inimical to liberty. In other words, even if this top-down method of rolling back the state was to be achieved in the short term, the institutional apparatus of the state, as well as the acceptance of its basic legitimacy, would be left untouched. We would still have a centralised, sovereign parliament that can pass whichever laws its likes; we would still be having mass, countrywide elections to that parliament; electoral candidates and political parties will still be able to bribe voters with their own (or other people’s) money in order to secure victory. In short, the libertarians could easily be booted out of power as soon as the left is able to parachute in its own Messiah, undoing all of the libertarians’ good work in shrinking the state down to size.

Worse still, we probably would not have to wait for the libertarian statesmen to succumb to electoral defeat before things started to unravel. Experience throughout history has told us time and again that the state apparatus cannot be left for long in the hands of even the most ostensibly trustworthy of politician. Thomas Jefferson was an infinitely worse president than he was political theorist. The UK’s present Prime Minister, prior to his ascendance to the premiership, was outwardly the most “libertarian” leader we could have hoped for – seemingly miles away from the slick salesmanship of Blair and Cameron as much as from the authoritarian streaks of Brown and May. And yet Boris Johnson has undertaken the largest peacetime assault on liberty in British history, an assault that has shifted us onto the cusp of social credit systems, digital currencies and zero carbon impoverishment. When inflicted by a politician such as Johnson, the sting from assaults on freedom can be more painful than if they were to come from avowed socialists and leftists, for at least the latter are true to form in their efforts to enslave us. It is far worse when you realise that the perpetrator is fully aware of the value and precedence of liberty, and yet proceeds to destroy it anyway. In sum, it is not enough for us to cling on to the hope that specific people will use state power wisely. Rather, power itself is the enemy that must be vanquished so that nobody can wield it.

Second, even if libertarians managed to capture some kind of electoral victory through the prism of a particular voting system (or managed to win a revolution or civil war), there is no guarantee that a critical mass of people is prepared to fully embrace the economic, cultural and spiritual consequences of liberty.

The best way in which to visualise this is to recall the utter failure of Western foreign interventionism, its crusades for democracy, and attempts at nation building – a reminder of which has been granted to us recently with the US retreat from Afghanistan. This and similar failures have shown us that you cannot impose upon a people an economic, political or social system that they themselves are not prepared to embrace. Of course, any domestic crusade for liberty will not present to Western populations the kinds of drastic social and cultural changes that foreign crusades have attempted to impose on populations in distant lands. We are, after all, striving to regain a degree of freedom that we once had rather than impose something entirely new. The West has, however, disappeared far enough down the statist rabbit hole so as to make the restoration of liberty reliant upon a significant cultural shift – a shift that may be unwanted in much the same way as a long term prison inmate isn’t always keen on having to adjust to the outside world at the completion of his sentence.

If people are so resistant in undertaking this shift willingly, then liberty will have to be “granted” by the libertarians who have, for now, captured state power: instead of a jailbreak, the jailer merely unlocks the cell. This, however, makes liberty meaningless. Any kind of freedom which still relies on the state for its cues is not liberty but licence, like a child allowed to play outside so long as he is home for tea by six o’clock (or like a prisoner on day release). As long a “libertarian” government remains in power, the semblance of liberty may be there in the same way that some semblance of orderly government was present during the US presence in Afghanistan, but it will be an empty shell. Unless people are prepared to demand their freedom and to keep it, the licence can one day be revoked in the same way as the child can be grounded or the prisoner’s cell door relocked. Indeed, people may even wish for liberty to be revoked if they revert to demanding the state’s paternalism. Liberty fundamentally requires people to accept responsibility for their own lives, and to embrace decentralised, autonomous institutions to govern their interpersonal relationships. It cannot survive unless they reject the governance of the centralised state and the legitimacy of unilateral, state force.4

Third, in the absence of any willingness to accept this responsibility (together with a concomitant absence of decentralised institutions), the rolling back of the state will leave in its wake a cavernous, regulatory vacuum, stranding people with no institutional basis with which to help govern their lives – a factor we explored in Part Four. In the past, such a role would have been filled by the Church, by families, civic institutions and strong communities, all of which the state has helped to decimate. With these gone, sudden “liberation” from the state would be analogous to “liberating” a child from abusive parents by throwing him out onto the street instead of finding for him an adoptive family.

The problem here is not so much the possibility of social, moral and cultural chaos; rather it is the fact that if people have nowhere to turn for moral guidance, then libertarians who gain power – even if they remain faithful to the cause of freedom – are likely to have to maintain a centralised, institutional grip on the nation in order to “guarantee” that conflicts are resolved in a manner that preserves freedom for everybody. Amongst other things, this will probably take the form of bills of rights and constitutions that are overseen by centralised state courts and regulatory bodies.

On the face of it, such documents are likely to sound rather attractive, as we can expect them to enunciate all of the basic rights that libertarians hold dear – to free speech, to due process, to freedom of assembly, and so on. However, to expect the institution whose very existence is inherently inimical to liberty – the state – to preserve these rights and freedoms is little better than expecting the fox to guard the hen house.5  Not only, as we said, will the reins of power one day fall to those whose political persuasions are inimical to liberty, but even if this was not to be the case, the long term result will be the regulatory capture of all local and regional affairs and, thus, the demolition of all local autonomy. This is likely to be even worse in the UK where local governance has an exceptionally diminished role compared to that in other developed countries.

An instructive lesson in this regard is the history of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted in the wake of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. The effect of this provision was to equalise and centralise the protection of rights of all United States citizens, which included greater Federal oversight of the actions of state and local officials to ensure that these protections were not violated at any level of government. Once again, on the face of it, this may seem rather good. State and local officials can violate rights as much as federal officials. Shouldn’t they all be prevented from restricting free speech and from overriding due process? Why should all of the wonderful freedoms enunciated in the Bill of Rights apply only to the Federal Government? Or why should citizens of a more authoritarian state be denied the same kinds of freedom enjoyed by those residing in the more laissez-faire?

However, in the long run, as libertarian author Laurence M Vance explains, such expansion of central oversight will merely end up unleashing a far greater evil:

In vain does one look to the federal government to check its own power or protect the rights of the citizens in the states. The federal government is ever seeking to increase its power and is the greatest violator of citizens’ rights. If the federal government can’t be counted on to follow its own, admittedly imperfect, Constitution, there is no stopping its hegemony. Although outrages and injustices are no doubt perpetrated on the citizenry every day by states and localities, it is the federal leviathan that is by far the greater evil. We don’t need the federal government to police the states; we need the states to police the federal government.


Intervention by the federal government in the affairs of the states under the guise of protecting rights is intervention nonetheless, and should be opposed because, in the long run, it destroys the very principle that limits the power of the central state.6

In trying to spread freedom as far and wide as possible, libertarians cannot fall into the trap of confusing goal with method. We may want every village, every town, every country, every region and every nation to have low taxes, few regulations and the protection of rights. But if a local government imposes a high tax or attempts to socialise industry within its region, we can at least console ourselves with the fact that such odious infringements on liberty are confined to that one area – and that the citizenry of that jurisdiction have comparatively greater power to influence their local rulers.7 It is far worse for a more centralised and much larger jurisdiction to impose these odious things on tens of millions – and far worse for them to do so under the guise of protecting rights and freedoms. Indeed, one of the gravest dangers of enunciating rights and freedoms in hallowed documents – as, again, demonstrated by the US Constitution – is that even the clearest of language can be tortured into meaning its precise opposite through centuries of interpretation and reinterpretation, as well as through conflicts over the method of interpretation that should be deployed.8 The sad result of the Fourteenth Amendment is that the gradual dilution of rights by successive court decisions down the years has infected all levels of governance to the extent that there is no longer any safe haven from central government.

A similar example of top-downism designed ostensibly to protect freedom but has, nevertheless, utterly failed to do so, is human rights legislation. In Part Four I noted that the entire edifice of “human rights” has replaced the role of non-state institutions such as the Church and family in regulating culture, behaviour and lifestyle choices. As such, human rights are a symptom of the erosion of freedom rather than of its protection. Suffice it to say here that, while, over the past twenty years, such rights seem to have been invoked fairly easily when it comes to dealing with criminals, illegal immigrants or terrorists, they have proven absolutely powerless against lockdowns, mass house arrest, the force closure of businesses and – thus far – the erosion of medical freedom and consent to treatment.

Top-Down Decentralisation

Given that we have mentioned the matter of local and regional governance, it should not be assumed that any of the foregoing problems associated with centralised, state power could be solved by “forcibly” decentralising a state into smaller territorial units. For while decentralisation must, again, be the libertarian goal so as to make it more difficult for anyone to wield consolidated power, this also cannot be implemented from the top-down.

In order for local governance to better preserve the freedom of local citizens, at least three, related conditions are essential:

  • The local government must be the sovereign unit;
  • The central government (or a body representing a union of local states such as the EU) must derive its authority from the local government rather than vice-versa; central government may not legislate on any matter not expressly granted to it by the local government;
  • Local powers and responsibilities must be funded from locally sourced revenue; local government cannot be reliant upon central government for its funding.

Given this, the ideal method of a secession (or quasi-secession) from a larger state unit would be something similar to Brexit. The citizenry of the seceding territory themselves should demand a decoupling from the larger jurisdiction. The smaller unit regains its full autonomy and negotiates its continuing relationship with the larger unit as a free and equal partner. This ensures that the resulting political structure is more in accordance with the needs of the citizens of the seceding territory. If, however, local and regional governance is implemented from the top-down, it will be the priorities of the designers rather than the citizens of the regional territory that will be most influential upon the resulting structure of governance.

The devolution arrangements of the UK were not, of course, fashioned by libertarians, but they are a good example of what happens when the above conditions are violated. Far from being truly independent, regional governance in the UK is a mere subsidiary of central governance. The UK Parliament remains the sovereign entity, and can legislate directly on devolved matters, or even amend the entire devolution arrangements unilaterally. Further, central government holds many of the purse strings for the devolved governments. Not only does this make the latter less accountable to their citizens, but it allows greater scope for ruinous local government intervention as every failure can be attributed not to devolved government incompetence but to lack of funding from Westminster – a favourite tactic of the SNP. Further, if the financial health of the devolved governments was more dependent upon the health of their regional economies, it is unlikely that the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales could have engaged in the kinds of COVID one-upmanship we have seen for the past eighteen months – i.e. imposing somewhat more restrictive lockdowns than those imposed by the Westminster government on England, purely for the sake of winning plaudits from the pro-lockdown coalition (the Australian states suffer from the same problem).

How Libertarians can use the Political Process

None of what we have said means that the existing political process is completely off-limits for libertarians. However, as Austrian economist Mark Thornton has suggested, its utility is tightly circumscribed:

Based on my experiences in political campaigns, which are seemingly the most direct path to liberty, I think most of them are of limited value, with the important exception of dealing directly with the general public and engaging in the battle of ideas, especially Ron Paul’s campaigns. At some point in the future, possibly the near future, such engagements will bear fruit.9

Thus, if libertarians run for political office or form political parties, their priority – as odd as it sounds – should not be to actually win an election. Rather, it should be to use the campaign platform in order to air our ideas and to influence public opinion and, thus, mainstream parties.

Initially, standing on the soap box will give the libertarian an outlet in order to educate the public directly and popularise his principles. Whether anyone listens or not, he has, at least, had access to the forum in which ideas are exchanged. However, if he, or his party, is lucky enough to gain some significant momentum to the extent that he becomes a credible electoral threat, this will begin to exert pressure on the main political parties that will prove increasingly difficult for them to ignore. At the very least, these parties may respond by watering down some of their more hyper-statist policies; at the best, they may even adopt some of the liberating ethos. In Britain, we saw this recently with how the popularity of UKIP was a major factor in persuading the Conservatives to hold the EU Referendum; and once we had voted for Leave, the Brexit Party pushed the Tories to a “harder” Leave stance than they might otherwise have had. According to US conservative commenter Steve Turley, right wing, populist parties overseas – such as Jobbik in Hungary, the Freedom Party in Austria and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France – have also managed to exert this kind of influence on the mainstream parties in their respective countries.

We can be fairly confident of attaining these kinds of indirect influence upon the political process if our rhetoric resonates with the general public. If, however, a libertarian is fortunate enough to actually win an election to so-called public office, then he will be presented with a host of new and more difficult challenges.

In the first place, it will be critical for him to remember that the basic purpose of spreading ideas and influencing other parties does not change in the wake of electoral victory. Rather, he can simply undertake these tasks at a more elevated level. As an elected official, he can expect to have the ear of colleagues in government and in more mainstream parties so as to spread ideas more directly. With this advantage, a libertarian holding public office should try to gain a reputation for “telling it as it is” – for never compromising on principle and for never distorting narratives for short term, political advantage. At the very least, he may be trusted by colleagues for his frankness and honesty, and thus could succeed in tilting some of the balance away from politicised posturing and towards principle.

However, the more influential our elected libertarian becomes the more he will succumb to the trappings of power, and so it is vital that he bears a number of things in mind so as to insulate himself from these temptations.

First, having won a single election, he must vanquish any ambition to be re-elected, viewing his current term of office as an end in itself. This will immunise him from the influence of lobbyists and donors.

Second, he must resist all offers of elevation to prestigious posts or offices if the condition is that he compromise his principles or otherwise provide political favours in return. Similarly, he must never use either his voting power or his influence as a bargaining chip in the usual wheeling and dealing of politics – for instance, by offering to vote, say, for an increase in regulation in one place if he is promised a tax cut in return somewhere else. This would give the impression that liberty is mere a commodity to be traded by politicians here and there. Any increase in influence or prestige must be in the service of spreading the message of liberty, not in neutering or corrupting it.

Third – and possibly the most difficult – he must be extremely resistant to the siren song of pragmatism, and to the attraction of making short-term “improvements” to state functions.

To some, this may seem unduly rigid; assuming, for instance, that abolishing the welfare state in toto is a political impossibility, why should an elected libertarian not strive for the lesser goal of improving the existing system so as to remove bureaucratic waste and reduce the cost to the taxpayer? Surely ameliorating these kinds of burden would be a good thing?

The problem, however, is that such apparent achievements are more likely to have the inadvertent effect of streamlining and legitimising state functions. Not only does the deployment of freedom-friendly epithets such as “consumer choice” and “competition” in service of the state distort the message of liberty, but the power of the state in the long run is likely to be increased to the detriment of freedom.

To see why this is so, it must be borne in mind that, in contrast to wholly voluntary exchanges in the market place, state functions are inherently bad, and thus, making them better is likely to improve the “bads” rather than the “goods”. Imagine, for instance, an initiative suggesting the introduction of “market reforms” or “contracting out” in order to facilitate the production of more and deadlier nuclear weapons, or better spying and surveillance technology to keep the population under tighter control. Obviously, any libertarian would rightfully recoil from such a proposal. For here we can see quite clearly that not only do inherently evil endeavours fail to become good simply by making them more “efficient”, they actually become worse because doing them better only makes their bad effects more potent.

Exactly the same applies to the welfare state. The welfare system may well be broken, but to reform it by making it simpler or less “bureaucratic” is to ignore the overarching fact that welfare itself is a state enterprise that mulcts funds from the taxpayer. Thus, if the process of redistribution from Peter to Paul is made simpler, quicker and less wasteful, then Paul is likely to want to rob Peter more often, not less. There will therefore be increased efforts at securing more wealth redistribution rather than less, and the welfare state will grow. Similarly, contracting out parts of the NHS to be operated by private companies may well indeed cut costs and improve patient care, but it loses sight of the fact that the NHS as a whole is an unjust confiscation of some people’s money for the benefit of others. Thus, a more “efficient” NHS will exacerbate, rather than reduce, the inevitable effects of socialised medicine: the incentivisation towards ill health and the proliferation of expensive, laboratory concocted pills to the benefit of the pharmaceutical industry. The long term result will be more illness, a bigger NHS, and an even more bloated “Big Pharma”.10 All of this is amplified by the fact that any saving in state expenditure achieved through reforms is unlikely to translate into tax cuts for the citizenry. Instead, it will simply free up spare cash for the state to deploy in predations elsewhere, decimating even more freedoms that would otherwise have been spared. Thus, improving state functions isn’t akin to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic – it’s more like burning the lifeboats.

All in all, therefore, it is in the interests of libertarians for state functions to be as wasteful and as inefficient as possible so as to limit the destruction that they can cause. Once the state has extracted a given sum from the taxpayers which the latter will never get back, we should want the state to sink as much of that money into its existing functions as possible, and for these functions to be executed as hopelessly and as inefficiently as they can be.11

In fact, more widely, it would be better if the libertarian politician puts to the back of his mind the hope of making any direct legislative achievement at all, using his vote instead to always send a principled signal, even if at the cost of an apparent, short-term improvement. Such a commitment to always voting against legislation led to Ron Paul, during his Congressional term, being referred to as “Dr. No” on Capitol Hill. And yet his lasting influence and legacy is likely to be all the more better for it.

Obstacles to Overcoming the Top-Down Method

In spite of the strength of all of these objections to the top-down restoration of liberty, the inability to realise the futility of this approach is probably the most formidable obstacle to the victory of not only libertarians but the right more generally. As Thomas DiLorenzo notes with regards to the US:

Most conservatives (and libertarians) seem to believe that if only “our guy or gal” could be elected president, or placed on the Supreme Court, or put in charge of some large federal bureaucracy, then we will be on the road from serfdom. Well, we’ve been trying that for over 250 years now, and it just has not worked out that way.

Many on the right are probably under the misapprehension that the foundation of their state is still basically good and beneficial to everyone, and is presently “under attack” from the left. Thus, in the wake of the Biden presidential “victory” and the seeming triumph of the left in America, conservatives are still looking forward to a resurrected Donald Trump or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recapturing power for the right in the 2024 Presidential election. Here in the UK, the gravest threat issued by many anti-lockdowners is to “never vote for the Conservatives again” in the hope that all MPs who support lockdown, compulsory jabs, vaccine passports etc. will be magically booted from their seats (to be replaced by whom, one wonders?). Concerning specific rights and freedoms, proposed solutions to cancel culture and censorship are still reliant upon the state to “rein in” big tech and protect the freedom of speech – without realising that it is state privilege of Silicon Valley that has made the latter so powerful in the first place.

But if the state is inherently inimical to liberty, then anything that appears nominally good about the state is likely to be a mere façade. Indeed, if the existing constitutional structure – however wonderful it may appear on paper – has permitted the present extremes of leftism to ascend without having visibly undergone any kind of fundamental revolution, then what is the value in that structure that we are trying to save?   

A recent report on the freedom of speech published by the UK Reclaim Party – founded by former actor turned political activist Laurence Fox – also focuses on top-down legislative solutions. Yet its author, barrister Francis Hoar, is judicious enough to realise that this is not enough, recognising that ultimately a bottom-up, cultural shift is needed if the freedom of speech (and liberty more widely) is every to claim victory:

What is needed is a revolution in public outlook. A country whose citizens have become used to seeking the instruction of the state before deciding whether to leave their own homes needs to re-acquaint itself with the freedoms that are its greatest heritage; and its citizens need to learn that the more they rely upon the state as a protector, the less control they will have over how and in what way they are protected. Because, while freedom of expression is the gateway to all freedom, it is no more than that. The British people must walk through the gate.

Part of the reason why people fail to “walk through the gate” is the victory of statist intellectuals in placing the extant nature of the state beyond question, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe explains:

The overwhelming majority of state supporters are not philosophical statists, i.e., because they have thought about the matter. Most people do not think much about anything “philosophical.” They go about their daily lives, and that is it. So most support stems from the mere fact that a state exists, and has always existed as far as one can remember (and that is typically not farther away than one’s own lifetime). That is, the greatest achievement of the statist intellectuals is the fact that they have cultivated the masses’ natural intellectual laziness (or incapacity) and never allowed for “the subject” to come up for serious discussion. The state is considered as an unquestionable part of the social fabric.12

We can also cite the sunk cost fallacy we discussed in Part Three: an unwillingness of people to accept the fact that all of the values with which they have been brought up to believe – democracy, representation, etc. – are still fundamentally good and have merely been corrupted by leftists. It is very difficult to accept that these elements, over which great wars have been fought, are themselves the enemy of freedom. Continued faith in democracy as a solution, rather than part of the problem, is a particular stumbling block. Indeed, the idea that democracy could ever bring real change is laughable, for the essential ingredient of loser’s consent leading to a peaceful, uncontested transition of power implies that those who really benefit from the state are unlikely to be losing much at all. All that has been accomplished is that a couple of pieces have been moved about on a narrowly constrained chessboard. As soon as people start voting for anything that seemingly has the chance of making a real difference – e.g. Brexit or Trump – heaven and earth are moved so as to nullify, reverse and, in the case of the latter, cheat the way out of the result.

However, there is also a far deeper problem: the difficulty of disentangling the culture, history, and ethos of the nation from that of the governing state. The history of Britain, for instance – its kings, its wars, its glories, its follies, it industry, its pride, its purpose, its identity – is intimately tied up with the history of its state. This naturally leads one to believe that if you were to destroy the British state you would simultaneously be destroying the British people, their culture and their values. This may well prove to be an even bigger problem in the United States, whose constitutional structure was founded for the very purpose of preserving freedom and the pursuit of the “American Dream”. Even though American history is equally acquainted with the concept of secession, accepting that the American experiment in limited government has been a failure, and that dissolving the present union is the only solution, is going to be a bitter pill to swallow.

A related obstacle is one that we have mentioned a few times in previous parts of this series – a tendency of the right to view apparent, external threats as being graver than the threat of state growth at home. As soon as the spectre of a foreign bogeyman is raised – whether it is communism, or Islamic terrorism – there is still too much of a tendency to regard the domestic state and its people as being one and the same thing who are desperate to preserve “Western values” from foreign usurpation. Time and again, the people have willingly handed over greater power to the domestic state, engorging it at the expense of the very rights and freedoms that are supposed to be protected. As I have also warned before, the right may well make the same mistake again with the rise of China under the impression that Chinese-style communism and Western leftism represent some kind of monolithic foe of freedom. Doubtless Western leaders admire and seek to emulate the Chinese state, but China is also a threat to Western global hegemony under the aegis of liberal democracy. Thus, naïve and misdirected opposition to whatever the Chinese state is doing is likely to end up as useful idiocy, helping rather than hindering the Western globalists which the right despises.13

While there is certainly a greater awareness of the dangers of the domestic state than there was even twenty years ago, we still have quite some way to go in overcoming these obstacles before people start to realise that a bottom-up decoupling or seceding from the central state apparatus is the only way to preserve liberty. I have no immediate answer to this question, but our next and final part in this series will explore some general ideas that can be used to form a political strategy.

*    *     *     *     *


1Leonard E Read, I, Pencil: My Family Tree, Foundation for Economic Education (2019).

2In the words of Ludwig von Mises:

What makes friendly relations between human beings possible is the higher productivity of the division of labor. It removes the natural conflict of interests. For where there is division of labor, there is no longer question of the distribution of a supply not capable of enlargement. Thanks to the higher productivity of labor performed under the division of tasks, the supply of goods multiplies. A pre-eminent common interest, the preservation and further intensification of social cooperation, becomes paramount and obliterates all essential collisions. Catallactic competition is substituted for biological competition. It makes for harmony of the interests of all members of society.

Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, The Scholars’ Edition, Ludwig von Mises Institute (1998), 669.

3Of course, such attempts at liberation could also result not from utilising the existing political process but through overthrowing it via the means of revolution or civil war. The essence of the top-down approach would still be the same: the capture of power at the top.

4More specifically, we are unlikely to see an end to all COVID-related restrictions unless businesses themselves choose to stay open, individual people refuse to wear masks, and everyone shuns compliance with any kind of vaccine passport system.

5In fact, it is worse, for we can at least surmise that hens don’t want to be eaten by the fox, whereas people seem easily enticed to the slaughter.

6Laurence M Vance, The Kelo Decision and the Fourteenth Amendment, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 21, No. 2 (Summer 2007), 69-100 at 96 and 98.

7Moreover, if a small state gets into a skirmish with a neighbouring small state, the problem will remain as just that – a skirmish. Conflicts between vast state powers, on the other hand, can elevate even trivial issues into global war, and, historically, wartime has inflicted upon us the greatest leaps in state power.

8Cardinal Richelieu, one of the most fanatical statists of all time, is alleged to have once said: “Give me six lines written by the most honest man, and I will find something there to hang him.”

9Mark Thornton, Libertarianism: A Fifty-Year Personal Retrospective, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 24, No. 2 (2020), 445-60 at 456 [emphasis added].

10Bruce L Benson explains in more detail:

If government provides services, whether through direct bureaucratic production or through contracting out, individual “buyers” (taxpayers and/or voters) have virtually no influence as to what they buy. Indeed, government can coerce them into buying something they may not want. The demands that concern political decision makers are those of powerful organized interest groups rather than those of unorganized individual voters and taxpayers […] Thus resources are allocated to generate benefits for members of powerful political groups […] Furthermore, because the consumers of most government services do not pay a unit price (or at least a price that reflects the full opportunity cost of the resources), the resulting excess demand leads to crowding or congestion whether the product is provided by private firms or public bureaus […] [T]he misallocation of resources due to interest group demands and non-price rationing could be far more significant than misallocation due to bureaucratic production inefficiencies […], and this could easily mean that the “gains in production efficiency” are not better than no gains at all – they may actually be worse. Indeed, in the political arena, improvements in technological efficiency through contracting out could even lead to a reduction in allocative efficiency and in individual liberty.

Bruce L Benson, Third Thoughts on Contracting Out, Journal of Libertarian Studies 11:1 (Fall 1994), 44-78 at 46-7 [emphasis added]. Cf. Murray N Rothbard,  Man Economy, and State with Power and Market, Scholars’ Edition, Ludwig von Mises Institute (2009), 1260-72; Idem, The Myth of Efficiency, Ch. 13 in Economic Controversies, Ludwig von Mises Institute (2011), 253-60.

11These truths tend to escape beltway, free market think tanks for whom state efficiency rather than genuine freedom often seems to be the priority.

12Hans-Hermann Hoppe, The Role of Intellectuals and Anti-Intellectuals, reprinted as Ch 1. in Idem, The Great Fiction: Property, Economy, Society, and the Politics of Decline (Second, Expanded Edition), Ludwig von Mises Institute (2021), 3-8 at 5 .

13Nor, for the sake of completion, should it be assumed that all of the enemies of freedom within the West are a united bunch, even though their goals may overlap and they may engage in mutual exploitation of each other’s ambitions – a factor we explored in Part Two.

One comment

  1. […] Readers familiar with my work on this blog will know that I place little faith in the mainstream, political process as the primary means of achieving a freer society in the UK. There is no point in trying to grab control of the system when it is the system itself that is rotten. […]

Leave a Reply