The Power of Ideas
By Duncan Whitmore
A fundamental misconception concerning the cause of social and political upheaval is that the masses are driven down to such unbearable depths of exploitation and poverty that they rise up to overthrow their masters. In truth, most political revolutionaries, movers and shakers were not peasants storming the palaces with torches and pitchforks. Instead, they usually hailed from the comforts of the aristocracy or the middle class – i.e. the social layer not at the very top but just below it. Given such a circumstance, their motivation was usually a sense of iniquity inflamed by frustrated aspirations rather than grinding poverty. Moreover, while, in principle, it is conceivable that an absolute majority of people will be active and passionate in the demand for political change, it has seldom been necessary. The ruling class is always, at any one time, a minority that can be unseated by an equally small but motivated minority. Indeed, as many a military coup has shown, it’s often enough to gain the support of the “working class” elements of the state such as the army – or, as in the case of the Russian Revolution, to have them neutralised. While, of course, it helps to have the masses on your side in the long run, their only necessary role in this process is to stand on the side-lines.
Another common feature of these movers and shakers, however, is that they were intellectuals or were otherwise under the influence of intellectuals. Amongst the reams of tripe spewed by Keynes in The General Theory he did manage to slip in one nugget of timeless wisdom:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.1
Such “madmen” included not only all of those politicians hypnotised by Keynes himself; the Founding Fathers of the US grappled with the questions of natural law and individual rights; Lenin and Trotsky devoured Marx and Engels; Lenin, in turn, influenced Castro and Mao; Margaret Thatcher slammed on the table a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty at a Tory Party policy meeting; socialism in modern Britain traces most of its influence to the insidious Fabian Society, the past and present membership of which reads like a roll call of Britain’s most prominent leftist politicians, authors and intellectuals. More recently, it has been pointed out that most Western leaders seem to be in thrall to the World Economic Forum’s proposal for a “Great Reset” or “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, initiatives largely orchestrated by its founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab, a professor from the University of Geneva.
It is likely also that most aspiring and active politicians, journalists and pundits that reach the broad public are well-read in political theory, or at least influenced by a variety of think tanks and institutions that are so. Freedom lovers are, of course, largely pushed to the fringes, and must make do with alternative channels of exposure. But this area is hardly infertile. For instance, popular classical liberal/conservative YouTuber Mahyar Tousi, (who has more subscribers than leftist Novara Media) consistently betrays a Misesian influence, while the advent of GB News has seen figures such as Godfrey Bloom and Dominic Frisby being granted greater exposure on national television.
It happens to be the case that nature furnishes us with relatively few options if human civilisation is to flourish. Any society that wishes to rise above the level of bare subsistence much have at least some adherence to private ownership and to voluntary trade and exchange under the division of labour. For an advanced, complex economy such as ours, such a commitment is indispensable. The laws of economics are as true as the laws of physics. People will vary in their willingness to listen to this truth, but the truth itself remains constant, and so people will, at some point, feel the effects of their ignorance. If that ignorance remains in times of pain and crisis, it generates a fear of the unknown – the breeding ground for “strong” leaders who offer an easy way out through submission to control. Truth and understanding, on the other hand, renders such demagogues impotent.
Given, therefore, this overwhelming power of thought and ideas, it is vital for libertarians to regard the study, development and preservation of their intellectual tradition as their highest priority. Continual refining of this knowledge is not a wasted effort for the reason that important differences cannot always be summarised as a fight between freedom and tyranny. Over time, significant societal ramifications can flow from what appear to be relatively minor errors, disagreements and omissions. For instance, it is arguable that the relative decline of the United States can be traced back to the powers ceded to the Federal legislature in Article I of its Constitution. As I’ve suggested before, a notable omission of most charters of rights (the US included) is the freedom of money, a failure which paved the way to our present state of worldwide inflation. Imagine how much better off we could have been if the freedom to reject paper money aroused as much passion as the Second Amendment does in the US. The question of open borders turns partly on whether so-called “public property” should be construed as owned de jure by domestic citizens or as effectively ownerless and open to resettlement by foreigners. As some commenters on this site have told us in abundance, the difference could be critical to the sustenance of a free society.
Moreover, the burden of intellectual rigour falls disproportionately on radical or heterodox ideas than it does upon those that sit more comfortably within the mainstream. Most of the conclusions that libertarians have reached are a direct affront to assumptions that are taken for granted by everyone else – that the state is universally beneficial, that democracy guarantees freedom, etc. Thus, we are far more vulnerable to being dismissed as mere cranks or conspiracy theorists if our understanding of events is unable to explain the logic on which it is built right down to the core.
It is vital, therefore, that we continue the effort to develop and refine this body of knowledge. Given that our financial and institutional resources are vastly diminished compared to those that can be lavished by mainstream and state funded institutions, much of this burden will fall on the shoulders of amateurs or those otherwise willing to commit their spare time. Our only obvious achievement may be that we are each better informed when discussing matters of politics with our families, friends and, for those teachers amongst us, our students, or when making decisions that affect our lives. But change is probably going to come only through such apparently mundane activities rather than through some grand victory. Indeed, as I have said several times before, it is unlikely that any kind of top-down revolution or the gaining of political control from the centre will fertilise the ground for liberty in the long run, nor do I have any grandiose delusions as to what my own little contributions can achieve. But I would be happy enough if a future communist revolution was prevented because a potential usurper, having stumbled across a Misesian blog or Twitter account, decided to pick up Human Action rather than Das Kapital.
Clearly, this commitment requires us to be able to exchange ideas in open forums. But we should bear in mind that the obligation of our hosts and moderators to lend us a platform to say what we think must be matched with our responsibility to properly understand the views of others, and to tolerate differences of opinion. Truth exists, but Mother Nature has not been kind enough to gift any one of us as the oracle. The notion that she has is the mantra of the woke left; organisations devoid of dissent are cults, not communities; their product is cancel culture. The most distinguished of libertarian scholars hold honest disagreements concerning what liberty entails, with even wider divergences on how it can best be achieved. So, therefore, will we. Moreover, all libertarians see themselves as victims of the state seeking to break free from its yoke; not only should that common bond between us be of greater value than our differences, but those differences themselves should be thought of as strengthening our ties. For it is only the hard and bitterly contested cases that provide the biggest test to our assumptions and, thus, a greater degree of surety that we are on the right path.
Ideas and Culture
The nature and value of cultural cohesion in a free society (and its intersection with race and immigration) I plan to address in more detail in a forthcoming essay. For now, I wish to urge some caution against any notion that a focus on theoretical matters (such as property rights or economic theory) comes at the expense of devoting attention to the cultural degradation of Western societies.
It is true that cultural cohesion does indeed provide a self-reinforcing mechanism for greasing the wheels of social co-operation, thus making the sustenance of freedom possible. However, it is a mistake to believe that the reifications of a particular culture – i.e. its values, its tastes, its customs, its conventions, its art, and its institutions – are antecedent to the more basic values that underpin a free society. The specific demands of any particular culture are neither random nor do they appear by chance; rather, they are a product of the unique economic conditions presented to a people by the precise opportunities, challenges, resources, climate and environment of their specific location, together with the choices made in order to confront those conditions. Those choices, in turn, are motivated by ideas, and so, ultimately, it is ideas that will influence a society’s cultural superstructure. If these ideas are not themselves conducive to sustaining freedom then neither will a society’s culture.
Thus, as I have written before, the reason why leftists have achieved the level of cultural erosion that they have is because people have embraced thoroughly wrongheaded ideas. For instance, it is their belief in the justice and efficacy of the welfare state that has shattered traditional institutions such as the family, while the state’s protection of people from the natural consequences of their actions has infused society with moral permissiveness. It is their ignorance of the nature of state-issued, paper money that has destroyed economic and financial discipline, and with it, the qualities of patience, prudence, planning, foresight and judiciousness in favour of a consumerist society revelling in orgies of instant gratification. It is their prioritisation of openness, equality and inclusion ahead of the exclusivity of brilliance that has robbed cultural aspiration of its elitist nature; the worth of merit and talent has been neutered while any appeal to deep seated emotions has been displaced in favour of mere entertainment or psychobabble masquerading as profundity. If lax immigration policies are morphing Britain into a multi-culturalist melting pot devoid of cultural harmony, they would have been impossible had people rejected the concept of so-called “publicly owned” property, or if they were otherwise better equipped with a sounder basis on which to challenge open borders. Further, most of these fundamental policy errors have always been opposed by libertarians, whereas those who talk the talk in celebration of culture and tradition (such as mainstream conservatives) either champion them or regard them as settled matters.
True enough, libertarians are unlikely to motivate people towards political action through the repetition of mere abstractions such as “non-aggression”, “property rights” or “prosperity”, and it would, of course, be absurd to expect everyone to spend their time devouring shelf-bending tomes of political philosophy. But neither will people fight for their homes, their privacy, their families, their communities, their jobs, their income, their wealth and their borders unless they are equipped with at least some basic rationale that explains why these things are, indeed, theirs, not the communal playthings of the state or of “global society”. Localism, decentralisation and self-determination have no hope of getting off the ground unless people become convinced that their affairs belong to them and are their responsibility, instead of sitting within the purview of some distant, faceless bureaucrat.
Thus, to view cultural degradation as the destroyer of freedom laying waste to the nation, or to focus only on its proximate causes of moral relativism, multiculturalism, mass immigration, etc., is to confuse cause with symptom. Without addressing the problem at its root by instilling in people a basic conception of justice and (preferably) a rudimentary understanding of economic cause and effect, then a free society will die, and its culture with it.
However, I am keen to stress that this observation should not be taken to mean that there is some kind of “winner takes all” contest between the logical and the sociological requirements of liberty. In fact, plenty of recent content concerning the importance of the latter is available on this blog and elsewhere. It should be clear from the above that the two aspects are not mutually exclusive, with both likely to be necessary arrows in our quiver. Yet, occasionally, it seems to me that a kind of false dichotomy is leaking into libertarian/conservative thought (e.g. here and possibly here) – as if the effort to foster a freer society consists of a clear choice between addressing matters of justice, property rights and non-aggression on the one hand, or looking to culture, custom, tradition, time and place on the other. Coincident to this is the question of whether abstract values on the one hand or something more concrete on the other is needed to capture the essence of a people or nation. It is, of course, reasonable to disagree on the relative weight that should be assigned to each in a particular instance; but we should guard against inadvertently convincing ourselves that one of the two must be the silver bullet that can dispense with the other.
The Purpose and Impact of the Libertarian Movement
It is difficult to deny that libertarians have had relatively little direct success in rolling back the tide of statism in the recent past. We were, of course, afforded some brief joviality at the collapse of Soviet communism, but this was soon overshadowed by the progression of a different kind of statism that took hold in the West: “state capitalism”, “corporatism”, “crony capitalism” (or whatever you want to call it), a creed which itself learned to find direct socialism unfavourable. Our successes against this far more insidious monster have been increasingly circumscribed.
It is understandable that such a state of affairs may lead many of us to despair, anger and, especially after the last nineteen months, fear. However, if these feelings are to be overcome, then this apparent “failure” must be put into some kind of perspective, the understanding of which should be used to refocus and reinvigorate our sense of purpose.
For one thing, although theoretical work is an endeavour with relatively limited appeal, its direct impact is likely to be even more limited for libertarians than for most socialising movements. As I have explained in my recent series on “Fighting for Liberty”, the aim of a libertarian intellectual movement is to define and justify liberty, using that knowledge to assess and inform a variety of broadly (if imperfectly) liberalising political movements – as Neil Lock did recently with his visit to the Reform Party. It should not be the aim to become a mass political movement itself. The ethical scope of libertarianism is extremely narrow, focussing on a small core of values that are common to everyone by virtue of our status as human beings. Particular liberalising movements, on the other hand, are likely to be motivated by more concrete values and aims specific to people, place and time. Such a circumstance, coupled with the fact that the sociological tendency of liberalisation is towards de-homogenisation and decentralisation, renders the imposition of universal aims and motivations through a single political movement self-defeating. So, with regards to any particular liberalising movement or event – whether it’s Brexit, some of the smaller political parties, the MAGA phenomenon, etc. – neither the lack of any explicit “libertarian” stamp nor the absence of ideological perfection should necessarily be interpreted as a sign of the irrelevance of libertarian ideas.
Second, it was never very likely that libertarians had much of a chance of countering the underlying, intellectual rot that was responsible for the degradation of public ideas. While classical liberalism has a much longer history, the full fruits of Austro-libertarianism are less than one century old. That is not a particularly long time in the history of human thought. New ideas nearly always take at least a generation to achieve widespread acceptance, and that is assuming that they are swimming with the general, intellectual tide. For instance, Jörg Guido Hülsmann notes that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) had a practical impact only “from the 1840s, after many years of vociferous and strong support from outstanding economists such as David Ricardo, James Mill, and Jean-Baptiste Say.” 2 Karl Marx was dead and buried for thirty-four years before the Russian Revolution secured his (still lingering) reputation as an intellectual deity. Gary North observes that, even as late as 1901, just a single paragraph of a philosophy textbook published that year was devoted to the work of Marx and Engels.3
If, like Austro-libertarianism, one’s ideas run contrary to the prevailing zeitgeist, the period of waiting could be much longer. Carl Menger’s hand in the marginal revolution of the 1870s came too late to prevent the socialist and communist victories of the twentieth century that were wedded to the labour theory of value. Statism was well entrenched in political, financial, educational and media institutions (as well as the popular psyche) long before Human Action, Man, Economy and State and The Ethics of Liberty were published. Contemporary monetary theory hasn’t even caught up with Mises’ Theory of Money and Credit, which first appeared in 1912. (Mises’ personal recollection was that “by around 1900, most people in German-speaking countries were either etatists or state socialists […] The future belonged to the state.4) There are libertarians still with us today who can recall the days when the entirety of the US movement fitted into Mises’ seminar or Rothbard’s living room; it is ridiculous to have expected the ideas of such a nascent cadre with their pitiful resources to have overthrown mighty empires within the intervening fifty years or so. Moreover, some thinkers – for instance, Hoppe in Chapter 11 of Democracy – The God that Failed, and the blogger “Bionic Mosquito” – trace our current predicaments even farther back to the errors of Enlightenment and classical liberal scholars; Frank van Dun has pointed out the intersection between classical liberalism, natural law and Christianity, the rejection of which has led to the secularist, progressive quest for social utopias.5 If all of this is true, it would make the degree of entrenched falsehood in this Godless world of scientism even more difficult to unseat.
It should be expected that people will be unwilling to entertain ideas that challenge the institutional status quo to which they are accustomed when there is no pressing impetus for them to do so (and even when there is they often cling onto their last remaining certainties). At the height of its power, a Roman citizen would have shuddered at the possibility of life without the Roman Empire. Had you attempted to explain to a medieval serf the intricacies of the capitalist economy – in which he was no longer bound to the land but was totally free to sell his labour to the highest bidder – he would have laughed. So too, today, are people scarcely able to comprehend order without the state, even though its modern guise is a relatively recent phenomenon.
As such, the march of history often tends to be cyclical rather than linear, oscillating with periods of ascendance and decline. As statism has now pushed us so far down the road of the latter, it is unlikely that its trajectory will be abated any time soon. Recent events such as Brexit, the Trump phenomenon and some of the (actually quite extraordinary) pushback against medical tyranny are, of course, promising demonstrations of the fact that all is not lost, and everything should be done to nurture and support them. Indeed, such efforts may well be laying the groundwork for a future, better social order. In general, however, there are now too many interests concentrated in an ever dwindling number of epicentres of wealth and power for an unforced climb down to be likely, while the basic legitimacy of the state itself remains firmly embedded in the public consciousness. Thus, we will probably have to reach a crisis point before there is any realistic prospect of fundamentally alternative ideas being taken seriously – an event which will probably include some combination of financial collapse and war. As discomforting as this prospect may be, a failure to accept it as a likely outcome is to bury one’s head in the sand. To hope instead for a calm, collected winding back of the clock to a bygone era is where our efforts are likely to be wasted.
If our chances of much direct success are, for now, limited, then our priority must be to preserve our intellectual tradition as best as we can – a task that is now becoming all the more urgent. Truth and knowledge have long been the biggest casualties of the ongoing rise of statism. In the social sciences, we have suffered this for generations, but we can now see the full force of its corruption destroying even the “harder” sciences in a blinking of an eye. In the past nineteen months alone, decades of accumulated wisdom on how to understand and respond to infectious diseases have been junked in favour of ideas and methods more conducive to government control. Moreover, it isn’t merely the case that particular ideas have become unfashionable; the standards of truth and knowledge themselves are under threat, with reason and objectivity being trashed by the cultural leftists for their supposedly “racist” and “white supremacist” nature. Our history is, quite literally, being rewritten, while our art, music and literature are being purged in a frenzy of so-called “decolonisation”.
Given, therefore, that this trend of intellectual debauchery is likely to continue, the greatest, long term threat to Western freedom isn’t necessarily what the current power holders have planned for us – it’s that, after decades of intellectual degradation, we will have forgotten what to do when it all collapses. Arguably, there has already been one wasted opportunity. To the extent that the fall of communism in Eastern Europe gave us the chance to fully de-socialise the liberated republics, nothing much was going to be achieved by Keynesianism, monetarism, welfare statism or outright apologias for the Soviet system, and yet these are what the bulk of Western intellectuals had to offer. Even if our current system was to vanish as peacefully as the Soviet Union, there is no reason to suspect that this will automatically put us back on the path to prosperity. There will still be plenty of bad ideas out there with which we will have to contend, a struggle which will not be helped by the fact that so many of the despised elements of our present order are believed to derive from the free market. History is littered with the ashes of once great civilisations that failed to regain their former glory. There is no reason to believe that this could not happen to us.
Thus, the preservation, clarification and defence of knowledge for better days when it may receive a warmer reception – even if this is the effort of just half a dozen, like minded people – must be our first priority. Moreover, as the rising temperature of cancellation and censorship approaches a digital Fahrenheit 451, there is a realistic possibility that our endeavours may one day be forced out of all officially sanctioned channels.6 In light of this, if our efforts sometimes seem like they are “preaching to the choir” it’s probably because we are trying to keep the choir singing. Such a responsibility lies with all of us, as we are few in number. In particular, to those whose only offering is to bemoan the present efforts of others as too little, too limited or otherwise proceeding down a wrong path, the power to change that lies partly with you. If you wish for your ideas to be heard and for minds to be changed then you must be prepared to put in the time crafting your own original contributions and critiques so as to open the matters you believe to be important up for a fuller discussion. I, for one, would support you in seeing that such work is posted, either here or elsewhere.
With apologies for its length, I will leave you with a fifty year old quotation of a relatively minor figure in the libertarian movement, Joseph R Peden – words I have cited several times before for the timelessness of their lesson:
The libertarian revolution is not the work of a day – or a decade – or a life-time. It is a continuous process through the ages. The focus of the struggle 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 […] 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 libertarian philosophy. Like a Christian awaiting the Second Coming of Christ when the reign of Justice shall be established and evil men receive their just punishment, the libertarian awaits the coming of the rational and anarchic age. But to lose one’s faith in the validity of Christianity because evil continues to thrive in the world makes as much sense as losing one’s faith in libertarianism because the New Order has not yet triumphed over the Old. Such attitudes are naïve and not to be expected from mature, sophisticated men of learning […] [L]ibertarianism 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.7
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1John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, Harcourt, Brace (1936), 383-4.
2Jörg Guido Hülsmann, Introduction to Idem (ed.), Theory of Money and Fiduciary Media: Essays in Celebration of the Centennial, Ludwig von Mises Institute (2012), viii.
3Gary North, The Marx Nobody Knows, Ch. 3 in Yuri N Maltsev (ed.), Requiem for Marx, Ludwig von Mises Institute (1993), 120.
4Ludwig von Mises, Memoirs, Ludwig von Mises Institute (2009), 11.
5Frank van Dun, Natural Law, Liberalism and Christianity, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 15, No. 3 (Summer 2001), 1-36.
6On this point in particular, libertarians should consider devoting some time to the private storage of books, articles and essays, either on paper or in an easily retrievable electronic format isolated from the internet.
7Joseph 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.