"This bastardised libertarianism makes 'freedom' an instrument of oppression"

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Niccolo and Donkey
This bastardised libertarianism makes 'freedom' an instrument of oppression

Guardian UK

George Monbiot

December 19, 2011


Freedom: who could object? Yet this word is now used to justify a thousand forms of exploitation. Throughout the rightwing press and blogosphere, among thinktanks and governments, the word excuses every assault on the lives of the poor, every form of inequality and intrusion to which the 1% subject us. How did libertarianism, once a noble impulse, become synonymous with injustice?

In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws; big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.

Rightwing libertarianism recognises few legitimate constraints on the power to act, regardless of the impact on the lives of others. In the UK it is forcefully promoted by groups like the TaxPayers' Alliance , the Adam Smith Institute , the Institute of Economic Affairs , and Policy Exchange . Their concept of freedom looks to me like nothing but a justification for greed.

So why have we been been so slow to challenge this concept of liberty? I believe that one of the reasons is as follows. The great political conflict of our age – between neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support on one side, and social justice campaigners and environmentalists on the other – has been mischaracterised as a clash between negative and positive freedoms. These freedoms were most clearly defined by Isaiah Berlin in his essay of 1958, Two Concepts of Liberty . It is a work of beauty: reading it is like listening to a gloriously crafted piece of music. I will try not to mangle it too badly.

Put briefly and crudely, negative freedom is the freedom to be or to act without interference from other people. Positive freedom is freedom from inhibition: it's the power gained by transcending social or psychological constraints. Berlin explained how positive freedom had been abused by tyrannies, particularly by the Soviet Union. It portrayed its brutal governance as the empowerment of the people, who could achieve a higher freedom by subordinating themselves to a collective single will.

Rightwing libertarians claim that greens and social justice campaigners are closet communists trying to resurrect Soviet conceptions of positive freedom. In reality, the battle mostly consists of a clash between negative freedoms.

As Berlin noted: "No man's activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. 'Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows'." So, he argued, some people's freedom must sometimes be curtailed "to secure the freedom of others". In other words, your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. The negative freedom not to have our noses punched is the freedom that green and social justice campaigns, exemplified by the Occupy movement, exist to defend.

Berlin also shows that freedom can intrude on other values, such as justice, equality or human happiness. "If the liberty of myself or my class or nation depends on the misery of a number of other human beings, the system which promotes this is unjust and immoral." It follows that the state should impose legal restraints on freedoms that interfere with other people's freedoms – or on freedoms which conflict with justice and humanity.

These conflicts of negative freedom were summarised in one of the greatest poems of the 19th century, which could be seen as the founding document of British environmentalism. In The Fallen Elm , John Clare describes the felling of the tree he loved, presumably by his landlord, that grew beside his home. "Self-interest saw thee stand in freedom's ways / So thy old shadow must a tyrant be. / Thou'st heard the knave, abusing those in power, / Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free."

The landlord was exercising his freedom to cut the tree down. In doing so, he was intruding on Clare's freedom to delight in the tree, whose existence enhanced his life. The landlord justifies this destruction by characterising the tree as an impediment to freedom – his freedom, which he conflates with the general liberty of humankind. Without the involvement of the state (which today might take the form of a tree preservation order) the powerful man could trample the pleasures of the powerless man. Clare then compares the felling of the tree with further intrusions on his liberty. "Such was thy ruin, music-making elm; / The right of freedom was to injure thine: / As thou wert served, so would they overwhelm / In freedom's name the little that is mine."

But rightwing libertarians do not recognise this conflict. They speak, like Clare's landlord, as if the same freedom affects everybody in the same way. They assert their freedom to pollute, exploit, even – among the gun nuts – to kill, as if these were fundamental human rights. They characterise any attempt to restrain them as tyranny. They refuse to see that there is a clash between the freedom of the pike and the freedom of the minnow.

Last week, on an internet radio channel called The Fifth Column , I debated climate change with Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas , one of the rightwing libertarian groups that rose from the ashes of the Revolutionary Communist party. Fox is a feared interrogator on the BBC show The Moral Maze . Yet when I asked her a simple question – "do you accept that some people's freedoms intrude upon other people's freedoms?" – I saw an ideology shatter like a windscreen. I used the example of a Romanian lead-smelting plant I had visited in 2000, whose freedom to pollute is shortening the lives of its neighbours. Surely the plant should be regulated in order to enhance the negative freedoms – freedom from pollution, freedom from poisoning – of its neighbours? She tried several times to answer it, but nothing coherent emerged which would not send her crashing through the mirror of her philosophy.

Modern libertarianism is the disguise adopted by those who wish to exploit without restraint. It pretends that only the state intrudes on our liberties. It ignores the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free. It denies the need for the state to curb them in order to protect the freedoms of weaker people. This bastardised, one-eyed philosophy is a con trick, whose promoters attempt to wrongfoot justice by pitching it against liberty. By this means they have turned "freedom" into an instrument of oppression.
Niccolo and Donkey
Start some of your research here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_federal_legislation

And then come back to me in 6 months and tell me that everyone was free of regulation.

How do the banks, corporations, and rich make us less free? Possibly through the use of government power?

The conflict boils down to the following:

Tree owner worked for the tree, or it was given to him (presumably) in a peaceful manner. Great societies are built and sustained on this principle. The non-owner of the tree believes he is entitled to whatever pleases him. Society can not work this way.

If you knew anything about libertarianism, especially the concept of negative rights, you'd realize that you're not bringing to light some unknown trade-off, but something that has been known and talked about for at least decades, if not longer.

What do you mean "regulated"? Can't there be protection based in property rights? What about class-action lawsuits?

Alright there... I'll just keep that tree alive and you just keep enjoying it. Otherwise, I'm exploiting you.
Bob Dylan Roof

The article is very bad - typical of the journalistic type of knowledge that everyone assumes is sufficient to be an expert on a topic. Isaiah Berlin may have been a good intellectual historian, but he was a second-rate political thinker. The negative-positive "liberty" dichotomy oversimplifies a complex phenomenon in a way that ultimately guarantees a left-liberal victory in the argument.

Class-action lawsuits are, at best, a solution in situations after the injury has occurred, and even then a solution to the problem is not guaranteed. If an industry increases the cancer rate by .1% across an entire population, no single cancer patient could successfully bring suit against the industry. A profit-oriented litigator might aggregate such claims and secure damages that could, theoretically, remove the incentive to increase the cancer rate by .1%. However, since the litigator is only interested in turning a profit and not in eliminating the negative externality (he may even be interested in preserving it in order to ensure the creation of new claims), a class-action suit does not guarantee that the incentive will be destroyed by the awarded damages.

In such cases I can't imagine a more efficient system than one that proscribes negative externalities before they generate injuries. Although I'm not convinced that a public legislative body is necessary to create such proscriptions, some sort of sovereign property-owner would have to be empowered to promulgate and enforce laws against other property owners (the factory) within his sphere of influence.
Niccolo and Donkey
Dionysian SweetLeftFoot SteamshipTime Don Johnson IT Wizard Asterion Bronze Age Pervert Mike

The standard line I would receive when asking such questions at LibertyForum was that "rights cannot conflict" because in the libertarian realm, individual rights are the only rights that exist. Collective rights such as community or national simply do not exist.

I used a similar methodology when questioning the extent of their philosophy. The first was the "neighbour who stores radioactive waste in his backyard". The second was of course "the guy who masturbates in full public view on his own lawn".

The answers I got were that his property rights are paramount, so the solutions were:

1. pay him to stop storing radioactive waste or masturbating
2. build a fence around his property with other property owners so that he wouldn't be able to masturbate in public view (this didn't solve the radioactive waste problem)
3. we should have thought of a covenant to prevent such an occurrance from happening and put it into place before he purchased the land (still not a solution)

The "Covenant" approach is funniest because it would mean the "tyranny of the minutiae" as Polichinello put it, making all of us our own lawyers or drowning us in legal bills and tying up the courts, most likely competing private courts :)

Monbiot is of course defending the state's monopoly on force here as leftists are wont to do. They won't tolerate other sources of loyalty. The solution would be to have competing centres of loyalty as previously was common in Europe but he certainly wouldn't support that.
Bob Dylan Roof
This type of asinine answer is typical of the muddled thinking that characterizes pop political ideologies like libertarianism and liberalism. Since the positive-negative right framework that both camps promote incompletely describes the molecular structure of "rights," proponents end up making meaningless claims like "rights cannot conflict."

The most obvious example to the contrary is a situation where an individual owns the only well in a desert and his privilege to make use of the well and his claim that others not interfere with his use of the well directly conflict with the "rights" of an individual whose life depends on immediate access to water in the desert. In this case, the property right over the dying individual's body, which implies the privilege to do what he wishes with his body and a claim against others not to interfere in his use of his own body, is incompatible with the well-owner's property right over the well. Since the continued enjoyment of the dying individual's right over his own body is exclusively dependent upon access to the well, the well-owner is compelled to provide water to the dying individual, lest he violate the dying individual's claim against interference in his enjoyment of his property right over his body. However, since the well-owner is compelled to use his well in a specific way, his property right has been impinged upon by the dying individual's property right over his own body. This is a conflict of rights.

These are good examples. Libertarians confuse the possibility of avoiding conflicts of rights through private contract with the non-existence of conflicts of rights.

right, this is all "morality is based in property rights" thinking. It can't be taken as absolute, or you come to absurd prescriptions for courses of action.

Niccolo and Donkey
That was the common position held by the anarcho-capitalists at LibertyForum. I recall John Deere stating that property ties are absolutely to individual rights and buttress it. Polichinello and I of course tested the limits of this philosophy as I described up above.

I have said it before and I will say it again - 21 century ultra libertarianism is like communism. It works fine in theory. And inevitably anywhere on a decent scale where libertarianism was tried would end up like Somalia (as communism produces Stalin). But the adherents to the theory then screech, just like Commos, that IT WASN'T DONE RIGHT SO THAT EXAMPLE DOESN'T COUNT!

In reality, the modern version of ultra libertarianism isn't even a theory, it is a form of faith. An uplifting one in that it essentially believes we're good people who won't wank on the lawn when kids are around, but fatally flawed.

Monbiot's piece isn't perfect but it does point the glare on the key gaps.

All defences against his attacks are theoretical and refer to the IT WASN'T DONE RIGHT model.

It's a utopian dream just like Marxism.

Sure, you could probably get a community of about 200 like minded souls living under this model pretty well, just as many similar sized communes thrive.

But as a means by which millions of people on a continental landmass would live, more chance of a wedge tailed eagle flying out of my arse.

Team Zissou
Somalia is Somalia because it's full of Somalians. If the residents of Copenhagen woke up tomorrow to discover that all government officials had disappeared, do you really think Copenhagen would end up like Mogadishu?

The author displays muddled thinking. A negative right is the right to be let alone; a positive right is the right to exact something. The author's hysterical pants-wetting about 'right-libertarians' is fear that the proponents of positive rights can't force people to tolerate and subsidize things like gay marriage, blasphemy, unbridled promiscuity, public access laws, lewdness, etc.