The Old Lie

The Old Lie

Left to our own devices we can become farmers and bakers, tailors and cobblers, plumbers and engineers, astronauts and programmers. Our possibilities are limitless as we cooperate to help ourselves and each other. “What a piece of work is man”. It takes a state to turn us into soldiers and sailors to make us kill and maim ourselves and each other. On Remembrance Sunday we should take time to think on all those that died or were injured during war and pledge never to be fooled again, by the old lie, that it is sweet and honourable that we die for our state.

 

Dulce et Decorum est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep.  Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod.  All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas!  GAS!  Quick, boys! —  An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. —
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie:  Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen 1920

 

 

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The problem of nationalism.

The problem of nationalism.

As committed internationalists, Libertarians often have problems with nationalism. Nation states are often seen as barriers to free movement of people and free exchange of ideas and trade.  States are often coterminous with nations, such that, to many libertarians, the nation is in fact the state and thus viewed as the problem. Indeed, national governments erecting barriers at their boundaries, imposing tariffs of trade and, in the most extreme cases,  waging war for the nation’s benefit are all factors which confirm many libertarians opposition to nationalism.

However, as Murray Rothbard and others knew :-

“The nation, of course, is not the same thing as the state, a difference that earlier libertarians, such as Ludwig von Mises and Albert Jay Nock understood full well” 

Often, through accidents of history, the nation-state has been the recognised form of the state but, through centralisation nations have in many areas been subsumed into bigger groups with more powerful, and more centralised, states. This would be the pattern in the United Kingdom, in the historical empire building of the past, and more recently in Soviet Russia and the eastern block and in the European Union. Now a number of nations could be subsumed under one larger state.

Our nations are not simply our states. Our nations are formed from our ethnic groups, our religious and cultural associations, our shared languages and experience, our traditions, many things which are more important to us as individuals than the state. It is the reason that ideas of nationhood do carry personal significance to many people. When nations have been gathered together to create supranational states then nationalism can help break up these superstates and weaken the power of the state. Nationalism can also make it harder for fixed markets and  crony capitalist corporations to line up so effectively with the state to secure large rent payments from the public’s purse. We saw this beneficial effect of nationalism, when the collapse of the communist regime in the east was hastened by the rediscovery and creation of smaller national groupings.

The Benjamin Franklin’s  old joke that “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch” contains an important kernel of truth, which is the danger that John Stuart Mill called the “tyranny of the majority”. Libertarians stress the independence and importance of the individual, and rightly make individual liberty the highest goal, to minimise this problem, However, another factor which reduces this danger of tyranny is to make democratic units increasingly smaller. As the units are smaller the minorities as proportionately larger. To reduce this to the absurd; in an electorate of one there is no minority and the individual’s vote is always successful.

But joking aside, when nationalist groups are able to reduce the power or larger states the libertarian will find themselves on the side of the nationalist. We support those who throw of the yoke of empire and those who reduce the size and power of the state. Smaller states are more visible, the individual is clearer on the powers that are yielded, and the individual’s power in a smaller electorate is improved. Further smaller states hopefully give the option of voting with your feet. In a state the size of Europe or America it is difficult to move to seek life in a state more compatible your views. If our nations were smaller, or even better were we to consider communes, then we could participate effectively in our municipal politics with less imbalance in the power between the state and the individual and, at the same time, the our mobility might allow us  to decide where we will participate and which state we might  tolerate.

Unfortunately sometimes nationalism has been used as a cloak to gather power for the state, or has been the cloak that has been used to obscure racist and illiberal ends. All too often calls for national greatness are the siren call of the totalitarian and we should be clear about this and reject it. But when nationalist groups threaten to weaken the state and increase the power of the individual, libertarians should support them. Historically this has a great tradition; the American republic, with its liberal outlook and respect for the individual, was born out of nationalist feelings and hopefully Brexit, and the various celtic nationalist struggles, will start the break up the European super state.

I am an internationalist, I see all men as my equal, but when the state has grown larger than nations, I will support national independence struggles which try and reduce the size and scope of the state.  Remember the words of Sun Tzu :-

“Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.”

In defence of the floating voter.

In defence of the floating voter.

I have become aware that sometime during the last decade I have become a ‘floating voter‘. Prior to this I had always identified myself with one or other of the main parties, either Labour or the S.N.P., and cast my vote loyally for their local candidates. I was aware that floating voters were always looked on with a degree of derision; as poor fellows lacking any political philosophy and being politically un-engaged. The quote below, by Ann Coulter the right-of-centre political commentator pretty much sums up the common impression.

Swing voters are more appropriately known as the ‘idiot voters’ because they have no set of philosophical principles. By the age of fourteen, you’re either a Conservative or a Liberal if you have an IQ above a toaster.

However, despite this statement being witty , is it accurate and reasonable ? Taking first the idea that floating, or swing, voters do not have a political philosophy; is this really likely to be the case ? If one has a well developed sense of political principles then it is quite unlikely that these will line up neatly with those of a single political party. While my desire for people to have the ability to determine their future might tally nicely with the SNP’s plans for and independence referendum but not with the Labour Party’s opposition. My internationalism may find favour with those pursuing worldwide class solidarity in the Labour Party but would jar with the nationalism of the SNP. My recognition of the importance of freedom of speech might be welcomed in the Conservative Party but cause consternation to those in left leaning parties who place greater emphasis on the dangers of “hate speech”. However, if I have well developed opinions I am going to have to drop some of these and compromise if I want to be a loyal party voter (though I suppose I could establish my own party !). If I have political principles I am going to have to weigh these up against the offerings of the political parties at any given time, as priorities and situations change, and decide which party looks the best recipient of my vote at that time. In short, if I am principled I’d be better being a floating voter.

I remember when I was active in political campaigning how little respect the parties had for their loyal voter. Their votes were “in the bag”, all that we needed to do was “get the vote out, in some of our more certain constituencies we’d joke that we could put a red, or yellow, rosette on a dog and it would win handsomely. In essence we knew that these votes were loyalty votes, unthinking votes, knee jerk votes that we didn’t have to work for as they were not forged out of discussion or principle but because “I’ve always been Labour/SNP”  or they were voting “like my father and his father before him”.Even when parties acted against their best interests (Labour has neglected the fate of the white working class, the SNP has ignored the best interests of the youth in Scotland, and the Conservatives are ignoring the economic havoc they are about unleash on the business community) the loyal voters keep coming back. Like store loyalty cards, even though you can get a better deal elsewhere, it coaxes you back to the same old fare.

Secondly there is the idea of intelligence, that floating voters are in someway a bit more dumb than those who have made up their mind. For the reasons above this is unlikely, but there is a further reason. The world constantly changes, the challenges we face differ, and our priorities need to change to match this. Intelligence comprises recognising change and adapting to it, changing our responses and dealing with it. It is stupidity to continue to try the same approach no matter what the problem. The old adage that when you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail  comes to mind. Consider the problem facing loyal Labour voters, their conference has just jubilantly proposed harsh measures which will  undoubtedly worry large businesses (they know this because they have started to plan for a run on the pound should they win). Now this is quiet understandable in the light of their general principles but, with Brexit just around the corner when everyone’s main priority will be to maintain business in the UK and try and avoid its flight to Europe, the smart labour voter might recognise priorities have changed (at least temporarily) and feel that they need to put their vote elsewhere – it would be the intelligent thing to do.

Indeed, being a floating voter requires more intelligence and more involvement. Voting on party lines means you are leaving the decisions to others, you are abrogating your democratic duty to consider the arguments and make a choice. It is more work being a floating voter but you can feel better knowing that your vote was actually a considered one and is more likely to have had an effect on the outcome (Floating votes are disproportionately important in election results). Our system with its reliance on political parties damages our democracy.  The tendency of political parties to try and develop these “loyal voters” has lead to increasing pork-barrel politics with the right trying to expand its power by promising tax relief or advantage to its crony capitalist friends, or the left promising increased benefits in the welfare state to bribe its followers to keep in line. All of this concentrates political power and influence into a small number of hands, it reduces the choices we are given and influence of our opinions, and it weakens the flexibility and efficacy of our subsequent government.

 

The limits of tolerance

The limits of tolerance

There has been much talk over recent weeks about the potential threats to our tolerant society and concern about the possible threats from growing fascist groups. However, much of this has been both wrong and counter-productive.

It has been wrong as there has been no real growth in neo-nazi numbers, no true rise in racist beliefs and generally we are a more mixed society which doesn’t have real concerns that its people come from any various backgrounds. Our past history, often dreadful on account of its racist biases and bigoted attitudes, has not been undone but there has been general steady progress. What modern society considers appropriate and acceptable behaviour now is greatly different to a generation ago. To imagine that a few dregs, washed out from under stones, indicates we are heading back to the 30’s is puerile and wrong. It is also counter-productive for the simple reason that it magnifies the effect that this small group of odious people. They have made a mark much bigger than they could ever have hoped for on their own, and this is largely due to the work of the, so called, “Antifa“.

But Antifa have not just acted as the publicists for these loathsome groups they have also advanced the very cause that they purport to oppose. The best way to counter odious ideas is to demonstrate that they are wrong, to make those undecided aware that those ideas are erroneous and to make the convinced aware that most people do not share their opinion and find them despicable.  The chubby young man below now knows this and also knows he is a figure of ridicule. The likelihood of him being a successful recruiting agent for his views have been destroyed by the expression of counter opinion.

599329463d1d1.image In the UK it is arguable that the thing which stopped the National Front (a local extreme right racist and fascist party) which had been gaining popularity in elections (local and national) was the appearance of their leader, Nick Griffin, on the BBC’s “Question Time“. When he, and his party, were exposed to scrutiny and tackled in debate their bubble burst and they faded away from significance in UK politics. Defending and promoting free speech is the best safeguard against fascism.

Karl Popper, in “The Open Society and Its Enemies was aware of the “paradox of tolerance“. He knew that” We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant”  recognising the great dangers that can sometimes exist in a tolerant society :-

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant

He was clearly aware that there were lines that could not be crossed in a tolerant society if we wished to keep it tolerant. That line was the refusal or denouncing of argument – the blockage of free speech – and the use of violence (fists or pistols) to answer arguments. Antifa’s actions cross these lines, they do not permit other groups to state their ideas and use violence to suppress their expression, they strike at the core of our tolerant society. They also do this so inexpertly that they give ammunition and succour to the enemies of the open society. When Antifa attacks groups simply because they are on the right, not because they are fascist (as happened in Boston for example), they give strength to their enemies who can claim moral superiority and they also alienate their natural supporters (such as Noam Chomsky ).

These activists really should think about their actions. If you find yourself dressed in a black-shirt, in a militaristic gang, waving banners, and making threats of violence in order to intimidate your political opponents  and silence their arguments then you are not part of the solution – you are the problem, the fascist is staring back at you from the mirror.

antifa-berlin.jpg

 

Pope Francis and the “invasion of libertarians”

Pope Francis and the “invasion of  libertarians”

The Pope’s recent foray onto the political stage has been rather disappointing.  I had been heartened over the first few years of his Papacy that he seemed to be the man required to rejuvenate the Catholic Church and to reconnect it with the  people. He seemed to be able to recognise areas of public life that were problematic and also to be able to see ways to counter these. His comments on issues such as war, hatred, and greed were both welcome and wise. However, his recent attack on the philosophy of libertarianism was thus both a surprise and a disappointment.

This is firstly a surprise because he has previously been well informed and accurate in analysis but on this occasion he has revealed himself mistaken.  Secondly it is a disappointment as it is likely to neither help the Church nor the people.

It is apt that Pope Francis  was not speaking ex cathedra as on this occasion he is clearly not infallible. He fears that libertarians will fail to work for the “common good”. As he is reported to have said :-

“A common characteristic of this fallacious paradigm is that it minimizes the common good, that is the idea of ‘living well’ or the ‘good life’ in the communitarian framework,” Francis said, while at the same time exalting a “selfish ideal.”.. ..

…. ..”because on the one hand he supposes that the very idea of ‘common’ means the constriction of at least some individuals, and on the other hand that the notion of ‘good’ deprives freedom of its essence.”

He labours under the common misconception that libertarians reject society and, as individualists, wish an atomised existence. This is wrong as all libertarians see the value of associations and communities and encourage their development as long as they are voluntary arrangements.  Most libertarians see the development of the capitalist society as one of the great successes of humanity  as it lifts so many out of poverty and want. This is a system clearly based on trade and agreements between individuals so that all parties can benefit. People trade as equals and both parties benefit, subjects obey because they must and only the ruler consistently benefits. Though self-interest guides the arrangements that people make this is not the only motivation people have. Our desire to assist our fellows is also a serious motive for our actions and as Adam Smith mentioned in the first sentence of his book :-

“No matter how selfish we suppose man to be, there is obviously something in his nature that makes him interested in the fortunes of others and makes their happiness necessary to him, even if he derives nothing from it other than the pleasure of seeing it.”

The main focus of libertarianism is to set the individual free so that he, or she, can make the arrangements that they wish.  Adam Smith reminds us that  “man is an animal that makes bargains, no other animal does this, no dog exchanges bones with another” . We exist in order to, and by reason of, making  alliances and exchanges with other people. We do this in order to improve our own lot and the lot of those we  cooperate with.  As Thomas Paine stated in “Common Sense”  :-

Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one; for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer…”

Libertarians wish to allow people to make their own societies not simple to follow the diktat of those who have cornered power. From a Christian viewpoint this is important: we have free will to allow us to live our lives as we wish. In doing so we may become good people or we may not. If we simply do as the state commands us, we are not good, we are simply disciplined. We are only good when we, ourselves, make the choice. I have no choice but to pay my taxes to ensure the welfare state runs (as well as paying forthe military machine unfortunately), my payment was not a good act, simply a necessary one. I paid my taxes primarily to avoid suffering on my part (jail or other penalties)  rather then to benefit others (though that is a happy side-effect). Leaving people free to make these arrangements themselves allows us to be good rather than obedient. If I want to be good then I need to be charitable or, possibly, pay extra taxes. Though the latter system may not, on balance, work as while you may give more to support the welfare state you may also be contributing to fund wars abroad,political initiatives at home you disagree with, or to fund corporations as they use government legislation to stifle free trade through competition.

We should recall that this is not a minor point. Of the many virtues that we may aspire to exhibit the greatest of all is charity, as we demonstrate our care for our fellows. All the writings are clear that, of all the gifts, charity is to be preferred over all others. Taking this options away from us, doing it on our behalf whether we wish to or not, and distancing us from our fellows would cause serious problems to many Christians who see, in libertarianism, a manner in which to practice faith and recall the first letter from Paul to the Corinthians :-

If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.  And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.  And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity is patient, is kind: charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely; is not puffed up;  Is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth;  Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.  Charity never falleth away: whether prophecies shall be made void, or tongues shall cease, or knowledge shall be destroyed.  For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.  But when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child. We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known. And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.

As individuals we have to make choices and stand by these. The sum of the choices we make and the associations we form are what defines us as an individual. In libertarianism we don’t have the luxury of a relative morality we are obliged to be responsible for ourselves and our morals. Mathew 7 is quite clear; people will know us by our actions.

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Rather then being a risk to the ‘common good’, libertarianism is a way to increase it. A mercantile society with free trade has increased the number of people free from poverty. Libertarianism promotes the ideas of personal responsibility, moral behaviour and freedoms in association and thought. Perhaps, the Pope has mistaken libertarians for libertines but he should be aware that personal responsibility is a very effective antidote to unrestricted hedonism.

The Pope is in a difficult position. His church is associated with a history that is often far from glorious, his church is mired in present scandals and his church operates in increasingly secular societies.He should see that perhaps the growth of libertariansim might actually be associated with a growth of interest in issues of morality and responsibility. While this may not benefit the church it may be very valuable in helping people find their own faiths and morality and this is probably the greater good.