Review Article by Sean Gabb

KN@PPSTER's Big Freakin' Book of Stuff:
Essays, Articles, Rants and Ruminations, 1995-2014
Thomas L. Knapp
Various Formats and Prices

As its title indicates, this book is a collection of essays written during the past twenty years. Some of them are very short – often, in my opinion, too short for a proper discussion of the issues raised, or to show their author’s excellence as a writer. Some are longer. One or two show a measured firmness of mind that I hope will one day be more generally admired than is likely now to be the case. But all show a view of the world, as it is and as it ought to be, that is distinctively Thomas Knapp.

For a summary of what is distinctively Thomas Knapp, take this, from his essay on 3D printing and guns:

A new, free society is building itself in the shell of the dying authoritarian society. Technologies of abundance, with all those technologies imply, are an inescapable feature of that new, free society. The sooner you begin availing yourself of your continuously expanding options, the faster and less violent the transition will be. [p.382]

I take a less optimistic view of the future. But Thomas may be right. At the beginning of 1914, hardly anyone realised that the twentieth century had not yet properly begun, and that it would, over much of the world, be ghastly beyond imagining. Equally, it may be that the twenty first has not yet begun, and that this will flatten the assumptions of the twentieth just as the twentieth flattened those of the nineteenth.

And there are grounds for optimism. Fifty years ago, both in America and in England, being found in bed with another man could get you into prison. Women were legally inferior. Non-whites were decidedly unequal. For all we may deplore the excesses of the gay and feminist and black lobbies, and the legal privileges they are unwisely heaping up for themselves, we live in societies where people are far less despised than at any time in history for their innate differences. Perhaps the breakdown of the old centralised media, and the crisis of legitimacy this has created, will take us forward into a world where the newer forms of persecution – mostly of dissenting opinion and of freely-chosen lifestyle – will also be swept away.

In the meantime, there is much to be denounced, and Thomas thunders away like an Old Testament prophet reborn in the American mid-west. See him on the moves ot ban e-cigarettes:

When they're not banning tobacco they're banning trans-fats. When they're not banning trans-fats they're banning large soft drinks. And when their soft drink ban gets quashed, their next target is electronic cigarettes. ‘For the public health!’ is the new ‘I saw Sarah Good with the Devil! I saw Good Osburn with the devil! I saw Bridget Bishop with the Devil!’ [p.373]

Or see him on the American national debt:

At no point have I authorized the Congress of the United States to borrow money in my name or on my behalf. Nor have I at any time co-signed said loans, guaranteed said loans, or agreed to repay any portion of said loans. [p.291]

Or see him on his government’s partiality for endless war:

From an anarchist standpoint, war (and preparation for war) is one of the primary instruments which the political class of every country, and their ‘transnational’ partners, use to savage the freedoms and empty the pocketbooks of their subjects for their own benefit. 99% of the time, that's its only purpose. The other 1% of the time is when one particular clique of the political class is in real existential danger from another clique or cliques, and wants their subjects to bail them out. So, get back to me if the war you’re selling is revolutionary. [p.293]

Now, whole Thomas is a friend, and while I wholeheartedly agree with the three quotations given above, and while I do earnestly ask that you should read his book, and even pay him for it, my general approval does not mean that I am in full agreement with all that I find in his book. Indeed, probably one of the reasons we are friends is that we have agreed on a whole range of issues not to agree, and not to think ill of each other for our disagreement.

What I believe, and I think Thomas agrees, is that libertarian is procedurally different from most other ideologies. Unlike with Marxism-Leninism, for example, or Roman Catholicism, or Sunni Islam, we have no orthodoxy. You are, for the most part, a libertarian if you call yourself one. I make the reservation only because there are some limits. You are expected to have some regard for life, liberty and property. If, to fight the war on “islamofascism,” you support biometric identity cards and the state abduction of children, you need to be deluded or lying if you say you are also a libertarian. But if you are for or against intellectual property rights, or big business corporations, or if you make a reasoned case for certain restraints on liberty in the short term – or if you deny the case for such restraints regardless of the likely consequences – you do not, in my view, place yourself outside the libertarian movement.

As Director of the Libertarian Alliance, of course, I might be expected to say this. But, if mine were a belief more widely shared in the movement, much of the time we give to anathematising each other could be put to making the various kinds of libertarian case.

I am not saying that we should avoid argument, when we find that we do not agree on something. Indeed, we are obliged – for the sake of reaching a better understanding of truth, and of advertising that we are a living movement – to argue out our disagreements to the best of our ability. What I do say is that we should avoid any temptation to fall out when we disagree, or to start trading accusations of bad faith or stupidity.

This being said, I will explain one of my points of disagreement with Thomas. He regards it as a mistake bordering on folly to have anything to do with what may be called the political right. As one of the directing minds of the Center for a Stateless Society, he is happy enough to reach out to “the left.” But he is suspicious of everything represented by the Ron Paul movement. He says:

I don't dispute the possibility that there might have been a point in time when the libertarian and paleoconservative ideological trains found themselves sharing a short section of political track. But that the putative heirs of Ludwig von Mises were possessed of such utter hubris as to attempt not only a long-term hitching together of those trains, but a fueling of the hypothetically resulting powerful locomotive with the worst material they could find ... well, that just creeps me out. [pp.175-76]

Without endorsing anything that was said, or that may have been said, by Ron Paul and those round him, I disagree with Thomas. I will note that "left" and "right" are slippery words. For a long term, I tried to avoid using them, but they are embedded in our way of thinking about the world, and cannot easily be avoided.

As I see it, the “left” has four parts:

1. There are the more or less Orthodox Marxists. For the sake of brevity, I include the Trotskyites. Never mind what Karl Marx may himself have said – and there is some ambiguity here – these people are defined by their level of agreement with the practice of the Soviet Union. They are not coterminous with libertarians. Outreach to them is useful, so far as they are often clever, and they make good converts.

2. There are the old-fashioned state socialists. These are people like Douglas Jay, who was a Minister in the post-War Labour Government, and whose most quotable utterance was: “In the case of nutrition and health, just as in the case of education, the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people know themselves.” I rest my case.

3. There are the cultural leftists. These are people who have no objection to corporatism at home and militarism abroad, so long as the bombing is "humanitarian" and so long as the oligarchs wear pony tails and give their workers time off to attend gay weddings. They often look libertarian, and some of them can be turned. Also, the corporations they dominate - things like Apple, Google, FaceBook, etc - are essential for the promotion of libertarianism. But your hard core cultural leftist is politically a fan of people like Tony Blair and the two Clintons. He is not a libertarian.

4. There are the syndicalists, the anarcho-communists, the mutualists, and so on and so forth. I accept these are our people, or are potentially ours, and I admire the C4SS outreach to bring them to a better view of market relationships.

So far as I am correct, any outreach to the “left” must be to a small minority of leftists. It is worth trying, but is unlikely in itself to build the critical mass that we do not currently have.

The problem with the “right” is that it is, for anyone on the outside, one great Terra Incognita. But I have spent many years exploring it, and can speak with some authority on its geography. To drop the metaphor, its main common denominator is opposition to the "left" and to the established order. Beyond this, its main groupings may have little in common. We can easily do business with some of them.

We can expect nothing of the hard core anti-semitic or other conspiracy theorists. Giving people like David Duke the time of day will not bring him over in any meaningful sense, and will cover anyone who approaches him in terminal disrepute. Ditto the skinheads. But there are some traditionalists – a very loose term, I agree, and I am mostly thinking of English traditionalists – some mystics, some white separatists, some biblical fundamentalists, and many others, who are worth engaging in dialogue. The best line of argument with them is to show how the actually-existing State is inherently leftist, and that, while they might put themselves on top of this in some kind of electoral or violent coup, they cannot hope to run it. Therefore, they should embrace a conditional libertarianism. Since they have no hope of constructing the police state of their dreams, they might as well settle for a massive scaling back of the police state we have.

There are several benefits to this approach:

1. When people become conditional libertarians, they may eventually come to believe the propaganda they write – that is, they may be brought over.

2. When the current order of things does collapse, we may find them useful allies in making sure there is no further collapse into naked totalitarianism. Somewhere in his book, Thomas says that there may be only about a hundred thousand market anarchists in the whole world. We do need allies and fellow travellers.

3. Since there will be mystics and traditionalists and the like, some of them might as well be persuaded to incorporate some elements of libertarianism.

The danger to be avoided is that mixing with such people will pull us more in their direction than they are pulled in ours. The best way to avoid this is to make sure that our evangelists are secure in their own beliefs. I think that includes me. As a possible model of this approach, see the speech I gave last year to the Traditional Britain Group.

Therefore, we need a double strategy of outreach. Reaching out to the “right” is just as legitimate as reaching out to the “left.” Again, I do not align myself with anything that he may have said, or that was said in his name. But the broad strategy of Ron Paul is no less legitimate than that of the C4SS.

I should say that I have had this argument in private with Thomas, and his response was that libertarianism is itself a leftist ideology, and all socialists not amenable to libertarian arguments are on the “right.” I find this an unhelpful use of taxonomy; and it avoids a response to the substantive points that I made.

Doubtless, this argument will continue. Rather, however, than say more here, I will end by repeating that this is a fine book, and that you should click on the link at the head of my review and buy a copy.