How to Fight for Liberty, Part Eight — Epilogue
By Duncan Whitmore
In closing this series on How to Fight for Liberty with this brief epilogue, I would like to spend some time elaborating on a distinction that was first made in Part One – that between libertarian theory on the one hand and libertarian political action on the other. We indicated that the purpose of the former is to define and to justify liberty whereas the objective of the latter is to motivate people towards respecting each other’s rights to self-ownership and private property. Much of this series was dedicated to explaining why the two are somewhat different exercises.
Another way of putting this distinction is to regard the endeavour of theory as making the intellectual case for liberty whereas the objective of our political action is to engage with the psychological and sociological requirements of sustaining a free society. While it is true that our theoretical arguments underlying the non-aggression principle furnish us with a basic guide to behaviour which one can follow consciously, it is unlikely to be sufficient. For instance, libertarians have already begun to recognise more explicitly that freedom needs an institutional basis in order to thrive – a common culture, language, customs, traditions as well as families and communities that grease the wheels of social co-operation. Hence, part of our argument in Part One involved the recognition that libertarians need to move away from building a universal, political movement towards seeding many, more localised movements that couch the case for freedom in terms of concrete priorities relevant to time and place.
Recognising this distinction should not mean that each endeavour is hermetically sealed from the other – as if abstract ideas are irrelevant for a political strategy while, conversely, more concrete realities on the ground are irrelevant for the discussion of theoretical matters. Theory is, after all, only relevant if it addresses actual problems while the latter can be resolved correctly only with a sound, theoretical outlook. Certainly when it comes to ideas, we should not be lulled into thinking that we must appeal to the lowest common denominator – as if our political messages need to engage with the most basic orders of logic in the simplest of terms. For one thing, the majority of people are followers rather than leaders (or, to put it pejoratively, sheep rather than lions); thus it is only necessary to convince a relative minority of the keenest, most influential minds in order to make significant progress. Indeed, a crucial reason for the waning of liberty in the West is that the bulk of intellectuals and opinion makers have not been on our side. I would add also that while we will have to accept the fact that most people are unlikely to follow long, complex chains of reasoning, such a circumstance should not be taken as an excuse for failing to encourage clearer, more rational thinking. One of the reasons why the moral and intellectual character of our societies has become as dumbed-down as it has been is precisely because of the state itself; the monopolisation of education and cradle-to-grave welfare policies have served to discourage qualities such as patience, prudence, and consideration in favour of impatience, impetuousness and laziness. We should not, therefore, overlook the fact that part our endeavour involves encouraging keener mental qualities, even if the extent of our direct accomplishment in this regard is limited to igniting curiosity and the questioning of spoon-fed assumptions.
In any case, while it is true that very few people are likely to take much of a keen interest in political philosophy, we need to avoid the assumption that engaging with complex questions of freedom and justice are not necessary. For freedom is unlikely to survive unless a majority of people can grasp the basic tenets of justice, even if that grasp is intuitive rather than one which they can articulate in erudite prose. In short, fundamental ideas are critical.
Providing a more solid foundation for this intuitive grasp is what I wish to focus on here. While specific elements of a given society such as time, place, cultures, customs, traditions and the institutions that support them may well provide the impetus towards liberation from states that seek to destroy them, ultimately they are reifications of fundamental values rather than fundamental values themselves – i.e. they are the results of our ideas, not the prerequisite. Given that we are all human, these localised crystallisations must spring from a common root if we are all to be free. Indeed, it is not inconsistent to say that libertarians, if they are to achieve their goal, must identify a universal, common root of time-invariant values on the one hand while also embracing local, provincial and heterogeneous values on the other. For while there are, of course, different fundamental values between different peoples (with such differences accounting for their varying levels of freedom and prosperity), it is also the case that what can appear as different values in different cultures are really different versions of the same, basic values refined for time and place.
While part of this common root consists of the questions of freedom and justice themselves, our quest must go much deeper towards values which are less procedural and more substantial – to a sense of meaning and to a sense of purpose. From where have we come? To where are we going? What is progress? What is advancement? What is a good life? These are, of course, questions which have preoccupied humans since the dawn of time. It is important to realise, however, that answering them is not as simple as the quest for facts and knowledge, and that, concomitantly, searching for them is unlikely to reduce itself to the demand for evidence and proof. For knowledge itself is value free – we can see what is there, but not why it is there. Meaning and purpose, on the other hand, are, by definition, values, and such values are often rooted in faith and reflection rather than just observation and logic. Moreover, while facts themselves may be value free, the process of discovering them is not; such discovery is a costly affair that consumes resources, and so we must have a framework for rationing those resources to the investigation of areas in which the knowledge will be of value to us.
Of course, one of the primary sources for this sense of meaning is religion. As we have examined before, it is no accident that the greatest extent of freedom and prosperity emerged from a chrysalis of Christianity. For instance, when there is only one God (and no human may claim to be God), when humans are created in God’s image, and when all humans from the mightiest king down to the poorest wretch are equal before God, then there is a clear foundation for regarding each individual as a unique gift from heaven. Such a notion that each and every one of us is a child of God may be a much stronger deterrent against, say, murder and theft, than intellectual arguments – or, at least, such a belief may furnish the non-aggression principle with resonance and illuminance. From this foundation of treasuring every person as an end in himself, no social theory that reduces individuals to the level of mere pawns or public slaves in a grand scheme of social engineering is ever likely to get off the ground. Moreover, belief in the fact that God loves us and sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us imbues the life of the Christian with something more than the depressing notion that humanity is but a transient speck in the vastness of time, marooned on a tiny rock hurtling through the infinity of space.
Without a general, metaphysical world-view that answers the questions of meaning and purpose in accordance with freedom of the individual, it is unlikely that liberty will flourish in any degree of permanence. For one thing, statists may well have the upper hand in distilling plausible conceptions on account of the fact that their universal nature can go hand in hand with collectivism. How often has some despot or demagogue appealed to the people’s sense of unity, to their destiny, or feigned a conception of their unique greatness, as if they have been chosen for a great crusade? Indeed, it is arguable that militant leftists today believe themselves to be knights in the ongoing war of vanquishing the oppressors (whites, straights, Christians, the “patriarchy”) so as to free the oppressed (non-whites, LGBTs, Muslims, women, etc.) from bondage. Similarly, environmentalists see meaning in the (to them) inherent goodness and beauty of nature, whereas humans are the cancerous growth destroying everything in their path. “Wokeness” too can be likened to a religious revival, an inquisition of dogmatists casting transgressors into the fire and flame in a fury that knows only judgment, never salvation. However absurd such stances may be, we cannot deny their motivational power.
More generally, the vacuum of moral and spiritual nihilism that the West has arguably become has destroyed any last vestige of stoicism by rendering people vulnerable, suggestible and utterly defenceless against false prophets or passing fads. To paraphrase a quotation attributed to G K Chesterton, if people don’t believe in something then they’ll believe in anything, even if – as many a statist experiment has shown – such a path ultimately leads to misery and destitution. In the absence deeper values, the importance of sensory perception (pain and pleasure) and of material self-preservation have been elevated. Given that the satisfaction of these priorities is, by their nature, more immediate than the fulfilment of longer term values, the human psyche is left susceptible to the most fleeting and transient of influences (real or imagined). In particular, the preference for total safety and security seems to have trumped all other values, whether it is from Soviet communism, Islamic terrorism, fabled weapons of mass destruction or from COVID. The past two years in particular have seen a remarkable shift in the burden of proof: the slightest whiff of danger permits the knee-jerk cancellation of basic rights and freedoms; getting them back again requires you to demonstrate that you are not a threat. In short, you are sick until proven healthy, guilty until proven innocent.
In regards to COVID, I disagree somewhat with the observation that, by having surrendered themselves to the bio-security state, people simply “don’t care” about their freedom. Rather, the situation is more complex: people want the immediately perceptible benefits of freedom as and when it suits them, but they have no framework for undertaking the responsibility that comes with true freedom – of determining what are truly good ends to be pursued in exchange for acceptable costs, and of dealing with risk, uncertainty and the possibility of loss. Thus, they see liberalisation not as the removal of arbitrary restrictions upon their lives imposed by others, but as the freedom from having to contemplate (and occasionally endure) bad consequences. Moreover, the very circumstance of not knowing – of possessing no convictions, no certainties and no sureties – induces the greatest psychological ally of the statist: fear. Indeed, it is not difficult to see that it is this fear of the unknown that motivates most of our supposed values today – for transparency, for accountability, for openness, and the demand for compliance with a “rules-based framework” for absolutely everything. For if it is the case that we know nothing then we need to see everything, and if we have no shared, concrete values from which to start then no one can ever be trusted to be left alone, in private, to act upon their own initiative.
The reason for raising these matters at this time is that, on the one hand, I tend to agree with optimists who believe that the descent of our world into some nightmarish combination of 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 is far from a foregone conclusion (which is not to say that the process of escaping such a fate will be plain sailing). Instead, it is more likely that we are enduring the last gasp of what I have referred to as the “century of socialism” – a political order of state control beginning approximately with World War One, upon which Soviet communism and western liberal democracy/welfare statism were mere variations. On the other hand, however, it is premature to assume that a golden age of liberty will rise, like a phoenix, from the ashes. The current drive towards globalist, technocratic regimentation of society may well be doomed to failure, but there is no guarantee that everyone will default to a paradise of freedom. For one thing, however tyrannous our own nation states are becoming, people still regard state governance in principle as both necessary and just – and there are a still a great many bad ideas out there that are competing for control of that governance. But even if that notion is shattered, we are still likely to be left with something of an ideological vacuum. Thus, it is time for libertarians to give a greater degree of thought to how to confront this much longer term challenge as much as worrying about the immediate, political situation.
In particular, although human progress and civilisation tend to oscillate in periods of ascent and decline, we cannot be satisfied with striving merely for a tentative new age of freedom that is susceptible to being swept away by the next radical idea. Certainly, we should want to avoid a rerun of the past two centuries in which an apparently golden age of relative peace and prosperity – when our newfound ability to strive for ever greater heights seemed unstoppable – gave way to decades of war, socialism, destruction, genocide and misery. Nor we can we ever expect that designing the “right” political system will ever be enough, for regardless of their elegance, any constitution or bill or rights is but a piece of paper which will be ignored if people are so minded. Instead, the victory of liberty in the governance of human affairs must be a permanent one that is secured from the bottom-up. Ensuring that permanence will likely require us to address the deepest matters of meaning and purpose that have been raised here, for only on such a deep foundation can we hope to secure a truly unshakeable conviction in the beauty of freedom.
Fortunately, one thing we can expect in the near future is a greater degree of decentralisation and decoupling from globalised, consolidated political structures as the beneficiaries of the latter attempt to tighten their grip in the scramble to retain their wealth and power. By its very nature, such a state of affairs will have a liberating effect, an effect which will provide a greater degree of breathing room for ideas and to flourish at the regional and local level. Hence, in the lifetimes of anyone reading this today, we can hope that we are in for a pre-renaissance rather than a dark age – an era of rediscovery and renewal of lost ideas and ideals.