In Response To George Monbiot

Guardian journalist George Monbiot recently published an article attacking Libertarianism:

I will go through the article and highlight the misrepresentations, errors and lack of rational argument, ignoring those paragraphs that contain nothing but hot air!

George writes:

“In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy.” 

As with so many on the left, George has little grasp of economics. It was not lack of regulation of banks that wrecked the economy. It was the State spending more and more  money, running up larger and larger debts promising people an unearned, higher standard of living at somebody else’s expense.

Lack of bank regulation is not a problem in a free market. Banks that take high levels of risk, go broke. The investors and saver’s lose money and lessons are learned. Investors and savers pay more attention to risk. Banks in the future do not behave irresponsibly because if they do they scare off savers and investors. This is the creative destruction of capitalism at work.

It is the socialist intervention in the markets that allows this to continue, we have socialised the losses of the banks, and created moral hazard. The reckless behaviour of the banks is not the result of a lack of State interference through regulation it is the result of too much State interference through bail outs.

“In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut.”

The Libertarian view is that all taxation is theft. There is no distinction between taxes for the super rich and taxes for anybody else. The idea that the rich don’t pay their fair share is dealt with more fully here.

“In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours.”

Of course freedom for employees and employers to negotiate their own terms of engagement is something that Libertarians support. The idea that enforcing a minimum wage benefits employees is economic nonsense as explained here.

“In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare;”

Libertarians do think that nationalized healthcare is a bad idea, explained more fully here. 

“the government rips up our planning laws(1); big business trashes the biosphere.This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.”

Libertarians have one unifying principle called the Non Aggression Principle (NAP). This states in simple terms that people should be free to do whatever they wish with their own lives as long as they do not use violence or the threat of violence towards another person or their justly acquired property. The idea that people can be exploited by entering into voluntary agreements with each other is nonsense.

“Right-wing 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(2). Their conception of freedom looks to me like nothing but a justification for greed.”

Libertarianism recognizes property rights and the right not be subject to coercion via violence or threat of violence. These are the only legitimate constraints on freedom. This may look like a justification for greed to Mr Monbiot, and most socialist policies look like a justification for envy to me, but that is hardly an argument in favour or against either.

“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.”

It is certainly true that Libertarians reject positive freedoms and support negative freedoms. It is also true that most Socialist ideology rests on the premise of positive freedoms. Unfortunately George is a bit confused about the difference between the two as he goes on to reveal:

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 swung 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.”

Libertarians agree that freedom must be curtailed, by the non aggression principle. They would be the first to support the idea that you have a right not to be hit on the nose and that is a legitimate curtailment of anyone’s right to swing their fist.

However this is NOT what “social justice” campaigners demand. They want to exert a positive right to a standard of living.

They want to pay for it by taking the production of others via taxation under threat of violence if the others do not comply. A more clear example of asserting a positive right is hard to imagine ?

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(4). “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 upon Clare’s freedom to delight in the tree, whose existence enhanced his life.

Here George is asserting the positive right to continue enjoying the existence of a tree that was presumably purchased, planted by and on land owned by another.

The Libertarian view on this is simple. The tree is the property of the Landlord and he should have the freedom to cut it down as long as in doing so he does not violate the non-aggression principle.

What is Monbiot’s alternative principle ?
That people may not do as they wish with their own property if in doing so they upset somebody else?

So if Clare liked to see long grass then the Landlord may not cut his lawn ?
If Clare is a vegetarian than the Landlord may not kill and eat the sheep he farms? Perhaps the landlord’s wife liked to garden in a bikini and Clare delighted in watching her and her existence enhanced his life. Is she to be forbidden from wearing a coat in the winter, because this infringes the right of Clare to enjoy her bikini clad form ?

I can imagine what Mr Monbiot would say if one of his neighbours demand that he refrain from re-painting his house white, because the current colour delighted him and enhanced his life !

(Likewise, I am sure that Mr Monbiot would support progressive taxation, but doubtless  fails the coffee test.)

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.

This is not an example of the powerful man trampling the pleasures of the powerless.
The example of Tree Preservation Orders is certainly not something the state applies only to the rich and powerful.

Change the parties involved and see how the socialists view changes:

Now there are tall trees surrounding an area of poor housing which have TPO’s on them preventing the residents inside from getting light into their homes and stopping their guttering getting clogged with leaves, just so that the rich, powerful neighbours can enjoy looking at the nice trees from their expensive homes up on the hill !

This is not an issue about rich or poor, powerful or weak, it is simply an example of the owner of the tree exercising his legitimate property right.

There is no conflicting right for Clare. He was lucky to have received enjoyment from a tree planted and grown at the expense of another, he was an economic free rider with no right to complain when the free ride stops.

(As an aside, when the state interferes things tend to back fire. In Conservation Areas where every tree effectively has TPO protection what happens? People are reluctant to plant trees, because they know that the maintenance and removal of them may be a problem. So in future nobody will get to enjoy trees in these areas, neither the property owners, nor their free riding neighbours, but the socialists will be happy because the important thing is that we are all EQUALLY miserable)

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.”

Libertarians do not assert a freedom to pollute. An act of pollution violates the NAP it is an act of aggression against the property of another and the perpetrator would be liable to punishment and to pay compensation to the owner of the land polluted.

Libertarians do not assert a freedom to exploit. For Libertarians exploitation is only possible through coercion and coercion is against the NAP. If somebody offers you an opportunity that is better than any you have available without the offer and you accept it voluntarily then it is nonsense to say you have been exploited.

Libertarians do not assert a right to kill. Libertarians assert the right to protect themselves, their family and their property against aggression and may use reasonable force to do so. If a man breaks into your home with a gun  intending to murder your family then under Libertarian principles you have the right to kill him in defence. However shooting somebody  stealing a plant from your garden would still be murder and punishable accordingly.

Monbiot is very confused about Libertarian views on freedom and on the difference between positive and negative rights. Libertarians would be the first to support the minnow against the pike. The attack of the pike is a clear violation of the Libertarian non aggression principle!

Last week, on an internet radio channel called The Fifth Column(5), I debated climate change with Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, one of the right-wing libertarian groups which rose from the ashes of the Revolutionary Communist Party(6). Claire 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(7). 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.”

For a Libertarian this is simple. The pollution is an act of aggression against the persons and property of the neighbours. It is a violation of the NAP and forbidden. The neighbours are entitled to prevent it and to receive compensation. In a Libertarian system this would be through private courts similar to our current binding arbitration system. However the neighbours would not be committing a crime if they took direct action to sabotage the plant to prevent the ongoing violation of the NAP.

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

How do banks, corporations or the rich make us less free ?
Does the bank that provides finance for business or give us a mortgage make us less free?
Does the corporation that manufactures our consumer goods at prices we can afford make us less free ?
Does the entrepreneur or the footballer or the rock star make us less free simply because they are rich ?

Freedom is the ability to live your life on your own terms to the best of your ability without fear of violent intervention by others against your person or property. The only groups who do this are criminals and the state. (For the avoidance of doubt, if a corporation, bank or rich person does this, then they are a criminal)

This bastardised, one-eyed philosophy is a con trick, whose promoters attempt to wrongfoot justice by pitching it against liberty.

Libertarians are supporters of justice even when it is not popular with many on the right.
Speaking out against the shooting of Osama Bin Laden
Speaking out for the residents of the Dale Farm gypsy camp

By this means they have turned “freedom” into an instrument of oppression.

On the contrary, the sophistry belongs to the socialists who have turned “justice” into a slogan to justify organized robbery.

For any who still doubt that Libertarianism is exclusively concerned with freedom read this article “Libertarianism welcomes non violent Socialists, Islamic Fundamentalists and Fascists!”

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  • Pabs

    Unfortunately these points do not manage to refute George Monbiot’s main allegations. On balance, I stay with Monbiot because it feels justice is on his side.

    • Roger Thornhill

      What “main allegations”, outside of his irrational, disingenuous and psychologically-projected slurs, are they?

    • Murray Rothbard

      What main allegations ?

    • Steve Tierney

      Well, if it “feels” like it, just go on ahead and believe it.  It’s not like you need to debate, or argue rationally or anything.  Maybe everything should just be based on your “feelings?”

  • Paul Marks

    Of course the high cost of American health cover is caused by the very subsdies and regualtions that George Monbiot supports. And Obamacare ADDS to those subsidies and regulations and so will add to the cost.  Monbiot follows the policy of a lot of leftists – spit out lots of claims (“deregulation” caused the economic crises and a hundred other claims) knowing that to refute them all requires a lot of time. He hopes that people simply will not have the airtime (or the space in print) to refute all the false clams he makes.

  • Anonymous

    “In conclusion, we have found that in numerous cases the libertarian doctrines of social atomism, unfettered free markets, and unconfined personal liberty, bear morally atrocious and practically unmanageable implications.  In contrast, these implications are avoided by the liberal assumptions: (a) that human beings are essentially social creatures, (b) that morality and justice are independent of, and indeed the foundations of, ideal market mechanisms, (c) that in readily identifiable instances, advantages to each result in ruin for all, (d) that, conversely, advantages to all exact sacrifices (e.g.  taxes) upon each, and finally (e) that, accordingly, optimal social policies are assessed from “the moral point of view” – from the perspective of the “ideal disinterested spectator.” (John Rawls’s “Original Position”).  Accordingly, the liberal concludes, human excellence, social harmony and, yes, personal liberty for all, can best be accomplished through the agency of a government answerable to the people, and through the rule of law, applied impartially and equally to all.

    Admittedly, the liberal democracy and regulated capitalism that I would recommend is not perfect — nor is any human institution under the sun.  But an anecdotal inventory of the shortcomings of public regulation does not, by itself, constitute a repudiation of the existing system..  What is required is a clear and persuasive presentation of a better alternative.  This the libertarians have not offered us.  Nor can they, so long as anyone pays more than casual attention to human psychology, ecological necessities, and the lessons of history.”

    • Murray Rothbard

      Libertarianism  does not imply social atomism or deny that human beings are essentially social creatures. Voluntary social interaction is at the heart of Libertarianism and free market economics. It is Coercion that Libertarians reject.

      Even if I accepted fully points b,c,d & e (which I don’t) as a set of premises they do not lead to the conclusion of government by coercion. If a group of people wish to live under these principles, (or any other principles) they would be free to organize themselves in that way in a Libertarian society. The ONLY thing that they would not be allowed to do is FORCE others to live this way. 

      At its most fundamental level, Libertarianism is simply for voluntaryism and against coercion, it does not seek to force anyone to live in a certain way.

      Democracy is not freedom it is coercion of the minority by the majority: 

      The phrases Liberal Democracy and Regulated Capitalism are contradictory oxymorons.

      • Anonymous

        “Individualists unite!”

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  • Single acts of tyranny

    As I may not be looking at too many blogs over the festive period, may I take this opportunity to say thank you for an excellent body of thought over this past year, I greatly enjoy reading libertarian view
    It is amongst perhaps two dozen that I look at more or less daily, so thank you and Merry Christmas

    • Murray Rothbard

      Thank you and Merry Christmas to you!

  • Redintheface

    I have recently identified my personal beliefs as libertarian, and I am still new to the whole area of discussion, so please bear with my perhaps naive questions…

    I fully agree with the libertarian viewpoint put forward here, although it is never as straightforward as one can make out in a few paragraphs! Essentially, everyone needs to think very carefully about the consequences of their actions with regard to the possible negative effects on any and every other person in the world [NAP] (and in fact, that would by definition then apply to animals as well, else we would find ourselves guilty of selective NAP).

    One sentence stood out with which I found difficulty separating the libertarian viewpoint from standard mainstream thinking:”Libertarians would be the first to support the minnow against the pike. The attack of the pike is a clear violation of the Libertarian non aggression principle!”
    Mainstream thinking employs a maxim that aggressors are guilty and victims are innocent. This thinking has flaws in it. Both have contracted on some level to the experience of aggressor/victim. [I personally have been in a situation where I was “offered” the opportunity to be a victim (someone plainly stated they were going to fight me for my bike), I declined comprehensively, and kept the bike as well.] We saw the exact opposite point of view employed by the Nazis – aggressors are innocent and victims are guilty. Neither point of view is right. Both need help to stop their involvement in aggression. Without a potential victim, the aggressor has nothing to fight. Without an aggressor, the victim has nothing to fear. This doesn’t help the minnow, nor the pike, and to remove one or the other is to destroy the balance of nature. Clearly something else is going on here. The pike has chosen to experience life as an aggressor; the minnow who is caught, life as a victim. This is their nature, they have no choice once born.

    Although I realise that we are talking about humans here, as a libertarian, I would not be the first to support the minnow, but neither would I support the pike. If they were human, I would suggest educating them both regarding their aggressive/victimisation habits, hopefully with the result that they both eventually cease “buying into it”.

    I welcome comments on this, because I never think things through as carefully as I could, and I may well have missed important points here.