How we can Make 2018 a Libertarian Year

In 2016, the Overton window of British politics became unjammed. The window is now free to move. How can libertarians best capitalise on the new opportunities presented? Where are we now, who and what are we, and what are these opportunities? What are the threats?

I don’t presume to say who is and is not a libertarian, if that is even a useful question. It is easy to get diverted by attempts to draw a precise boundary around a definition rather than identifying what clearly lies within the boundary. You could say we are people who believe in the Non-Aggression Principle or those holding a general presumption in favour of individual freedom. Perhaps we are followers of Hayek, Rand or whoever. In contrast with socialism and communism, libertarianism is not dogmatic: there’s no defined set of policies such as ‘total nationalisation’ or ‘abolish private property’. Instead, it is more like conservatism: a set of habits of mind and attitudes about policy, rather than a set of policies themselves.

It is therefore perfectly possible for libertarians passionately and sincerely to disagree about important policy matters (e.g., Brexit, anti-trust) as well as more fundamental philosophical questions (e.g., natural rights, which were controversial even as early as Benjamin Tucker and Max Stirner). In the long term, there are threats to one of the primary units of analysis in libertarian thought: the autonomous, law-abiding individual.

There is no reason to suppose, a priori, that the rule of law will continue to exist. The first steps towards privatising quasi-legislative power in favour of machines were made in the 1990s in relation to copyright enforcement technologies. If you can implement a restriction on someone’s behaviour via software, anticircumvention laws will protect the behaviour of your software against their hacking. Even if your software’s behaviour violates their most fundamental rights such as freedom of speech. It is not hard to imagine an unregulatable world of software, robots, and drones which enforce the will of their owners, or their hackers, in a broad range of public and private areas of life. The prospects that the owners will all have libertarian views are slim.

Deeper than the attack on law, our concept of what is a human individual and our confidence that we have free will are both coming under more sustained scrutiny due to advances in medical science and philosophy. Advancing the notion that we lack free will in some important sense is the project of John Brockman, an influential literary agent who has drawn to himself many famous scientist authors, or authors whom he has made famous, and many authors of whom libertarians would tend to approve.

The best example of libertarian democratic success today is Senator David Leyonhjelm, recently re-elected a libertarian to the Australian federal parliament, where he has shared the balance of power in the upper house with various other minor parties. This necessarily entails compromise: he has the ability in limited cases to trade off his support for one measure against another. There is no room in such calculations for purism; all that is available is some of what libertarians want, or none of it. Not all of it.

It is my belief that it is worthwhile focusing both on theoretical goals and practical goals. We should know where we’d like to go, and the direction in which we should take our next step towards that destination. How we got where we are should matter less to us than that we are on the same journey.

One Comment

  1. It is hard to see how libertarians could “sincerely disagree” about “anti trust” – there are no real legal principles involved in “anti trust” or “competition policy”, it is government seeking to impose its will (by violence) against what people voluntarily do in economic life. “The structure of this industry should be X, and remain X, – or we will use violence against you” is not something any libertarian could support.

    As for software undermining Freedom of Speech. I despise the leftist politics of the managers and staff of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so on – but they do not need “software” to censor posts, they could do that manually (and they do). They are private companies and they have a right to do what they do – as long as they are open about it and do not pretend to be “unbiased” or “open to free expression and debate” – if they make such claims whilst doing the opposite then they are engaged in fraud.

    The danger is not from “technology” – the danger is from government regulations undermining alternatives to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so on.

    As for Copyright and other IP matters – here than can indeed be “sincere disagreement”. But surely technology (making it physically difficult to copy something) is better than government regulations.

    For centuries there were (in many areas of economic life) “trade secrets” – there being no effective means of protecting IP (whether or not one thinks IP is legitimate) producers kept HOW they did something a secret – the attitude being “if you can work out how I created this then you can profit as well – but I am under no obligation to tell you how I created this” and there is nothing unlibertarian in that stance.

    Of course the state sometimes got involved – making learning the secrets a “crime”. This meant that some things (such as “Greek Fire”) could be kept secret for centuries – but it also strangled further development (new people coming along with ways to improve things) and led to some inventions being lost (for example the secrets of how to make “Greek Fire” appear to have been lost in the chaos and bloodshed after the death of the Emperor Manuel II in the late 12th century).



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