Monday, April 30, 2007

Libertarianism (2) - way of life or waste of breath?

OK. More on the previous libertarian / anarchist post (if the blogger software will permit)

Both terms are, I reckon, worth another look, because I think that – in most cases, their application is either fairly nonsensical, or just plain archaic. I’d suggest that they are no longer of any use outside of a history of social movements.

I say this, because, while there are the more colourful elements of both of these that still have a tiny, slightly deranged following, other (sensible) elements have a wide and popular acceptance in public debate (without ever being categorised under the A or the L words).

To illustrate this, it’s worth looking at the work of Colin Ward. He used to write a weekly column in New Society (and later, in New Statesman & Society before the &S was dropped). Prior to this, he edited a journal entitled Anarchy throughout the 1960s and first published Anarchy in Action in 1973. Anarchy in Action* has a fair few doses of anarchist pepper in it, but, in parts, it also offers a very positive and level-headed account of anarchism’s prospects. It’s a terrific book.

So, reading Mr Plump’s excellent account of the English variant of 19th century anarchism …

“…systems of equitable exchange were as important as the ownership of the means of production … break the state monopoly of money.”

And …
“…both production and exchange were not seen as the actions of atomistic individuals but as intensely social acts …. Collaboration has to be voluntary rather than forced, hence the idea of contract replacing law…”

… in Colin's view, this scenario was, in some way, ‘actually existing’ (to coin a phrase). He argued that most human interaction, most day-to-day transactions, most of the forms of organisation that we consent to, have emerged and are maintained spontaneously. This happens without formal coercion from the state or reference to the law.

There are plenty of isolated examples that spring to mind. The Credit Union, the co-operative (consumer or producer), Microcredit, the concept of ‘partnership’, Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS) are the obvious ones. But there are other elements that Colin, in his columns, used to illustrate his point. For example, if you involve residents in the planning and development of their built environment, there is a consensus these days that it will result in less crime and more social capital.

Similarly, libraries or schools will work more effectively if they aren’t imposed, but instead, designed by a recognisable community.

In so many mundane ways, it is becoming clearer that good planning creates circumstances in which people behave co-operatively, whether it’s in housing / crime prevention or the 'shared space' compact between pedestrians and motorists.

It is also worth noting that lots of voguish individualist contentions (James Surowiecki’s case in 'The Wisdom of Crowds' that people can make better decisions if they aren’t tempted by groupthink is a good example) have anarchist antecedents.

All of these are powerfully libertarian ideas. But none of them need to exist within a framework of libertarianism. If Mussolini had wanted to keep traffic flowing more freely, he could have considered the ‘safer streets’ initiative. A less blimpish Tory council could involve residents in local design. Many of the positions listed above could be promoted by pure technocrats.

So, in the same way that anarchism / libertarianism have been largely asset-stripped by other political movements, it would also be fair to say that there are almost no actual libertarians left. Just opportunistic adopters of the mantle.

There are, of course, exceptions. I don’t know if he’d agree, but I believe that Mr Dillow is an authentic and persuasive 19th Century libertarian as described by Mr Plump, (I even suspect him of having a post in his drafts folder decrying the state monopoly on currency). Mr Worstall has the decency to offer his opponents a model that they can attack (Switzerland**) and Mr Fawkes wants this country to be run like Hong Kong is. No politicians - just a market.

But for the rest of us, we take sides in some elements of old arguments and ignore others. Aside from Mr Dillow, I don’t think that there is anyone alive who is arguing the kind of position outlined by Mr Plump.

So, with the honourable exceptions above, its time to just point and laugh at anyone who calls themselves either an anarchist or a libertarian. As I said in the previous post, there aren’t as many of them as you’d think.

*I write from memory here. I allowed most of my better books on anarchism to be … er.. liberated
** Can’t find it now - sorry. I remember him writing it somewhere tho' so I'm open to correction here.


Tim Worstall said...

I've certainly praised some parts of the Swiss system, yes. The basic political unit is the Canton and not much power is ceded further upwards to the State itself. Politics thus remains on a human scale, which is why they seem to have so little of it.
Hong Kong is interesting to me for other reasons, as it shows what can be done with an economy if no one consciously tries to do anything with that economy. No planning, no subsidies and it's also the closest to a Georgist economy that anyone's ever really got in its approach to taxation.
But as I said before, I wouldn't, in English, call myself a libertarian anyway, rather (classical) liberal. Campbell Bannerman's speech on hte man who is governed best is the man who is governed least is a useful shorthand of my basic beliefs. Not so much on philosophic grounds as the evidence of the past century: politicians and bureaucrats aren't really very good at doing things.

chris said...

I feel like that man who's just learnt he's been speaking prose all his life - you've called me right.
But I'm surely not the only person arguing for 19th C-style anarchism. Kevin Carson does too:
And don't discount the big Marxian argument against the state here; his analysis of primitive accumulation in Capital clearly identifies state brutality as a key foundation of capitalism. Capitalism did not emerge mrely as the result of consenting acts among adults.

Paulie said...


Thanks for that. I was sure that you'd written about it somewhere but I couldn't find it.

It's always a lot easier to respect a particular position when the person advancing it can point to an example of it in action.