I have some sympathy with what James Rigby wrote the other day under the title ‘Smith, Hayek, Ron Paul and Things That Actually Matter‘.
James is correct to call us to action. He is right that hanging around pubs discussing philosophy is not in itself enough. He is right to focus our attention on how to market libertarianism to the majority who are not interested in the exotic delights of Rothbard, Mises and the rest of that great Pantheon. If we are to offer a critique of the status quo, we should indeed be pragmatic, as he suggests.
However, separate to political activity in the wider world, there is a need for like-minded people to meet and discuss, to learn from one another and to gain through such contact the reassurance that they are not the only ones who think the way they do. This is the starting point for any political action.
Many come to libertarianism not from a rational process of deduction, but rather from that part of their character which believes in freedom and resents coercion. They are libertarians before they ever hear the word, and the benefit of learning from others, be they friends and acquaintances or the great intellectuals of the liberal tradition, is that you don’t have to start from scratch to work your way through the many paradoxes and pitfalls of applying this initial pro-libertarian sentiment to society, politics and the economy. If our libertarianism does not advance past an inchoate belief in freedom and a rejection of coercion, how are we to argue with a socialist who claims to be the champion of these same principles?
As for Smith and Hayek, I am sorely tempted to object in the very way James would most resent: namely by stating “I’m more a Bastiat, Mises kinda guy”, which would not, I am sure, escape the original criticism. So, let it be accepted that there are ways and means to discuss the economy, and that parading one’s bookish, received wisdom is not necessarily persuasive. Nevertheless, we cannot wholly shirk economics, even with the most unengaged minds.
The risk if we don’t is as follows. The narrative which the masses are being fed is this: the economic problems have been caused by capitalism, free markets, greed and a lack of regulation. We have arrived where we are through the now discredited doctrine of ‘neo-liberalism’, and that, if only we had remembered the sage advice of John Maynard Keynes, or if the government had done more, we would have been spared. The crisis has even breathed new life into the dry bones of Karl Marx, again proclaimed as a prophet. This is what the ‘intellectual’ chattering classes and BBC pundits are passing off as considered opinion, and meanwhile the masses harbour superstitious attachments to socialism, even if they would never use that word. If we sit back and say nothing, we will not be able to complain when every last Keynesian fallacy or New Deal non-sequitur is retrieved from a dusty corner and announced as the medicine our sick economy needs.
Not everyone has the time or the inclination to read deeply into the subject, nor the eloquence to set forth our contrary position in a convincing manner, especially when disputing with a scholarly adversary. But a grasp of the rudimentary basics is imperative, and if all else fails, common sense will take you a fair distance.
Attack central planning; it can never be as good as everyone planning for themselves. Attack regulation; point out how the process is driven by the big corporations, in order to hamper their smaller competitors and raise the bar for potential market entrants. Attack the bail-outs; point out how they cannot be blamed on free markets. Defend the very concept of the market; it is us – i.e., just as society is a collective term for a group of individuals, the market is a collective term for our individual actions. Attack the government’s inability to live within its means, that they tax us as much as they can, then borrow the rest.
People have economic opinions, whether or not they could put a label on them. The libertarian, free market message has, amongst others, one advantage: it has novelty. They haven’t heard it on the BBC. It is based on simple principles that align with one’s experience of life, rather than grand macro-economic aggregates which are largely meaningless. To what extent such arguments are to be employed on any particular occasion, is a judgement to be made at that time.
We live in an age of targeted marketing, to such an extent that our internet activity is monitored to enable individually-tailored adverts to be sent our way. If we are discussing our views with someone who is not political and takes no great interest in current affairs, then our approach should take this into account. But if we are arguing with someone who does have strong views on the economy and on politics, we would do well to be prepared. The philosophy of liberty does have something for everyone, and in getting that message across, we must shrewdly seek the common ground. It may well be that economic discussions will serve no useful purpose, and that other issues, such as privacy or the onward march of the puritanical nanny state will be the means to get across the libertarian message to the person you are speaking to. It’s all good.
So, let it be said that James Rigby makes a fair point, but to even talk of a libertarian movement in this country seems premature, and although, indeed, we will not get far if we do nothing else but sit around drinking and discussing our favourite philosophers, to build that movement, a strong intellectual foundation is needed.
James: your round!