In Defence of Drunken Philosophising

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!

  6 comments for “In Defence of Drunken Philosophising

  1. James R
    Mar 6, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    Thanks Richard,

    In summary, I beleive we need to be more outward looking. Yes, let’s talk theory to each other, but lets talk to the outside world too. A boss of mine once observed “If people in this company spent as much time talking to customers as they do in meetings with each other, we’d all get bigger bonuses”.

    In your final paragraph you say that any movement needs a strong intellectual foundation. If people are waiting for that to happen, they will be waiting forever. Libertarianism is a very broad church from out-and-out anarchists to those who just want a moderately smaller state. We can not wait for consensus to emerge about theory – because it never will. The only possible consensus that could be achieved is a practical one – how do we grow the movement?

    You’re right, it’s my round. I’ll buy it next meeting and we can discuss this at length.

    • Mar 6, 2012 at 10:36 pm

      I agree that we shouldn’t be waiting for a consensus amongst any kind of self-appointed intellectual elite, and certainly agreement can be found on practical matters, despite disagreements in theory. This applies amongst libertarians as well as between libertarians and others who agree on particularly issues. However, if you look at the Occupy movement, I think their main short-coming is that they don’t have any clear idea of what they stand for, only a few slogans about what they are against.

      I guess my point is that the libertarian movement needs to develop its sense of identity, in a sort of ‘know thyself’ way. I think in this country it is quite young. It has not been handed down from previous generations, but owes its spread more to the internet. As such, it is very influenced by America. This is not in itself a bad thing, but it does cause some of the problems you perceive, such as banging on about gun ownership, which doesn’t play quite as well this side of the Atlantic.

      What I think is necessary is to re-connect the modern movement with the old liberal heritage that was almost wholly extinguished in the course of the 20th Century. I believe it is the people who consider themselves liberals who are the key to transforming libertarianism from its current hobbyist position to becoming a political force to be reckoned with.

      I’ll leave it at that for now, as I haven’t quite managed to say what I’m driving at.

  2. Mar 6, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    Top post Richard, prob the best thing I’ve read on Libertarian Home thus far.

    • Mar 6, 2012 at 3:02 pm

      Agreed, great post, Richard.

      • Mar 6, 2012 at 3:17 pm

        I think a large portion of people are already fairly susceptible to libertarian thinking, possibly more than you may think. I believe that the general feeling of the masses is not that they think government is capable of solving the problems it has created, rather they don’t see any obvious alternative.

        Speaking to a few friends privately, some traditional Labour, some traditional Conservative etc and when discussing with them the very basic idea that the government has caused more problems that it solves by putting it in an historical context, it is like a switch in the minds of the listener. They almost instantly see that the problem is the government and accede that the only way is to reduce the size of the gov.

        Another problem I have commonly faced is that Libertarians are generally seen as Tories in the sense that we love the rich and hate the poor. But in times of such economic difficulty, this is damaging to our libertarian message, and one of our priorities should be how we can adjust that mentality by pointing out that it is not a case of Rich v Poor, rather it is a case of individual autonomy v government coercion, with the former being preferable.

        Sites such as Libhome are a start, and writing about the philosophy and broadcasting it to a wide audience is also beneficial too. The curious thing about the public mentality is that some people are simply stuck in a rut when it comes to their political thinking. A former school friend once came up to me and said “I’ll never admit this openly, but what you say is so true, and you make some really good points.” When I pressed her as to why she would not admit that openly she responded that all her family and friends (bar me as it turns out) were hardcore Labourites and she’d get a really hard time from them about it (sad isn’t it really).

        I agree with Richard in the sense that, rather than philosophise amongst ourselves, we need to concentrate more on how we can make libertarian thinking more accessible and acceptable to the wider general public.

        Anyway, hope my rambling made sense. Now I must go shower.

      • Mar 6, 2012 at 10:38 pm

        Gentlemen, you’re too kind.

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