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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Libertarian Manifesto: The Socialist View of Libertarianism, Part II

This is a continuation of the examination of George Monbiot's December 21 opinion piece in the Guardian.

Monbiot continues:
"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."
The only issue I will take with this paragraph has to do with the possibly unintended implications in the use of the words "positive" and "negative" as subjective definitions of freedom, but my beef here is with Isaiah Berlin, not Monbiot.
"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."
Again, the use of the term "rightwing libertarian" is incorrect and my guess is it is being used here to demagogue to his audience. The parsing of freedom into 'positive' and 'negative' is troubling to me, but it is an accepted terminology in spite of the implications. The green movement, certainly in America, is a movement away from private enterprise toward statism and so therefore, libertarians and the dreaded Right Wing, have a healthy fear of greens. One only needs to look at the loss of freedom -- economic and personal -- Americans have been subjected to since Richard Nixon gave us the EPA. Social justice campaigners would be well advised to separate themselves from the green movement as the two are not mutually exclusive. Lest anyone think otherwise, even us people who believe in personal freedom believe in social justice. We just don't think the bureaucrat is the answer to social injustices. In fact, it's quite the opposite, I firmly believe the cause of most social injustice is the state.
"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 minnow." 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.
This is a bit confused here. Humans are not fish, and although I get the metaphor, it's a bit simplistic and it plays only to those who refuse to think about their own place in the world. While no one will argue with the fact that my rights end where your's begin, the Occupy movement has proven that it is not interested in protecting personal rights, but that it is rather more interested in dismantling private enterprise. I also don't believe the green movement is interested in individual liberty and progress. History has proven the green movement is indeed closely tied to statism and the dissolution of the private sector. Certainly a social campaign to protect the rights of those who require protection is something to be lauded, but when the campaign becomes the domain of the state, the state necessarily has to choose winners and losers and that is an affront to personal liberty.
"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."
As an academic statement, Berlin's words cannot be disputed, but in the laboratory of the real world the problem theorists like Berlin and Monbiot have is they disregard the constant and certain growth of the state. They naively believe the state will be good-hearted to all it is charged with ruling without taking into consideration that the people who run the state will invariably be the same people Berlin and Monbiot are afraid of giving 'negative' freedom to in the first place. This oversight of reality is dangerous. How can those who prefer statism honestly believe that a government made up of people who (as they believe) cannot handle freedom will be able to handle power over other people. It simply is doesn't make sense.
"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 freedoms 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. 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."
In the preceding paragraph, Monbiot uses 'landlord' and 'powerless man' to describe a person who owns property and someone who doesn't own the piece of property in question, and who we are left to assume does not own any property. What Monbiot is actually saying is that personal, or private, property is bad because someone might not like the way a person uses it. This is the ultimate in statism, which is commonly referred to as communism. His simplistic statement that "rightwing libertarians ... assert their freedom to pollute, exploit, even -- among the gun nuts -- to kill" would be laughable if it weren't for the fact that this kind of demagoguery is being bought whole cloth by an entire population of disenchanted people. The very same people who do not realize that it is the state that is propagating their disenchantment, not the guy who owns the land the tree is on. As far as the "gun nut" bit goes, I'll just leave that an argument between divergent cultures for another day.

I would also like to know why Mr. Monbiot believes the rights of the man who didn't own the land the tree resided on should trump the rights of the man who did.

There is a bigger problem here that saddens those of us who believe in the individual. Mr. Monbiot calls anyone who has not found their own personal path to prosperity a "minnow." What an incredible insult. An incredible insult that unfortunately gets misunderstood by the very same people he is referring to.

More than any property owner, evil banker, or corporate shill, making people believe they are helpless minnows is the greatest attack on freedom I can imagine.

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