Sean Gabb, Brian Micklethwait, and the Debate over Libertarian Strategy, 23rd September 1999

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment published on the Internet

Issue Number 36
23rd September 1999

Sean Gabb, Brian Micklethwait,
and the Debate over Libertarian Strategy
by Sean Gabb

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The purpose of this article is to explain the grounds of my dispute with Brian Micklethwait, the Editorial Director of the Libertarian Alliance, and to try justifying my own side in this dispute. It is a more regular and extended version of the argument reported in issue 34 of Free Life Commentary.[1]

Now, in using the word “dispute”, I do not wish to give any impression of the rancorous, brawling arguments that divide people into a state of permanent hostility. I have the highest personal regard for Brian, and am sensible of the trust and kindness that he has always shown me during the past 18 years of our friendship. Though we believe our dispute is over matters of great importance, we have so far conducted it as friends; and now that it is emerging into print, I have no doubt that this will continue.

We are arguing over the best political means of advancing libertarianism. There are, broadly speaking, four main strategies. First, there is setting up a libertarian party and trying to get elected to office. Second, there is developing policies that enable or extend markets and that also suit the interests of those already in power. Third, there is savage and often negative abuse of the whole political class, holding up every failing and those responsible for it to public revulsion. Fourth, there are attempts to convert the politicians to libertarianism—by assuming that they act in good faith, by praising them when they do right, any by patiently explaining the nature and consequences of error when they do wrong.

On the futility of the first strategy, Brian and I are entirely in agreement. Libertarian political parties are a waste of time—about as sensible a way of getting what we want as playing the lottery is of getting rich. On the second, we are also at least broadly agreed. In two issues of Free Life Commentary written last year, I argued that the marketisation strategy had tended to increase rather than diminish the oppressive powers of the State.[2] In arecent pamphlet, I find Brian arguing much the same: [There] is the ‘efficiency experts for the state’ objection to many apparently libertarian policies. Somewhere between spreading enthusiasm for life, liberty and property and applauding when businesses compete for the contract to supply poison gas to the government’s Population Purity Department, lines must be drawn.[3] Our dispute lies over the merits of the third and fourth strategies listed above. Brian disagrees with my insistence that the politicians are all conspiring in various ways to make the world into a unified slave society with them and their friends on top. Since I am not aware that he has written any of this down, I must gather his views from snatches of argument and conversation over the past few years. But it does not seem unfair to say that Brian prefers a gentler approach. He would rather be able to sit down in a television studio and put Tony Blair through a Socratic dialogue, in the course of which there would be agreement on the nature of the Good and how it should be pursued. My tendency to revile every politician I come across is not considered very helpful to this calm, dispassionate intercourse of minds. It lets me collect a fan club of paranoid Americans and British eccentrics. It entertains large numbers of people on the Internet and on television and the wireless. But it fails to engage the mighty in a debate from which they might emerge as converts to libertarianism.

My reply to Brian—assuming this is his argument—is in two parts. First, his strategy will not in itself succeed given the nature of the politicians who currently get into power. Second, there is more to my strategy than accusations and abuse. Let us take these points in order.

First, I have yet to see the smallest sign that anyone in the British political class is acting in good faith. Every member of the present Government is an obvious hypocrite. Those old enough to have done so supported unilateral nuclear disarmament in the 1980s and the Alternative Economic Strategy. Robin Cook used to write articles in The New Statesman opposing the purchase of Cruise and Trident missiles. He also used to oppose British membership of the European Union. In government, he has said nothing against the nuclear deterrent, and has just made a speech praising the Euro as good for creating jobs. Clare Short spent the Gulf War of 1991 crying up the sufferings of the Iraqi people. She has said nothing against the continued bombing of Iraq by the Government of which she is now a member.[4] Jack Straw opposed the Michael Howard proposals to limit the right of Trial by Jury. He is now pushing ahead with those proposals. Labour used to oppose identity cards and controls on encryption. It has changed its mind on the second, and has already introduced a new Driving Licence that is plainly intended to achieve the first. Let us ignore the matter of Labour’s economic policies. It would need more than a paragraph even to list the differences between Old and New Labour.

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Let us also ignore the lies and hypocrisy of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians. It is enough to say that every politician currently in or near power is interested in ideas just so far as they will advance his own career. This is true of the politicians we see in the newspapers and on television; and it is true of all the young men and women scurrying about them, hoping one day to succeed them. It will not reform their behaviour to explain to these people how they are acting against the public good—because the public good is not on their agenda. The public good is simply two words used to justify politicians in getting what they want. And what they want is power and money and status. Of course, this has always been so to some extent. But there is something new about the lack of regard shown this generation for the interest or even the wishes of the governed—and especially something about the barefaced lying and use of a controlled media to suppress both facts and comment about what is happening. This is because what is happening cannot be justified in any liberal or democratic sense. The money and power and status all come nowadays most securely by promoting a New World Order, in which politicians will be freed from the constraints of democratic politics and legal norms, and big business will be freed from the burdens of market competition.

There is no point in assuming that Jack Straw and his people want less crime, and then trying to convince them that making the country into a police state is not the best way of getting this. They want a police state, and whatever they say about crime is a set of disposable excuses—knock down one, and they will switch to another. Tell them, for example, that identity cards are not needed to stop personation in driving tests, and they start talking about terrorism. Tell them that terrorists abroad always have perfectly forged identity cards when needed, and they raise the matter of underage drinking. Deal with this excuse and then with half a dozen others, and they go back to the driving test argument. The only value of such arguing is to show the genuine reason why identity cards are desired —this being to give our rulers absolute knowledge of and therefore control over our actions.

If I have heard him right, Brian thinks that sweet reason is enough to stop the imposition of Corpus Juris and roll back the money laundering laws. This will not work. If we ever are to stop the drift to global despotism, the people in charge of this and the other participating countries will need stronger pressure than Brian can supply from a television studio.

This brings me to the second part of my reply. My purpose in writing as I do is not to argue with those in power. Arguing to convert the other side is normally a waste of time. It works with people who have a commitment to truth that overrides personal interest, and with people who are only feebly convinced of their own case. But these are a minority—especially among the apparatchiks who get ahead now in politics, business and the media. The proper aim of arguing is to convince third parties and thereby to build a majority in favour of one’s own case. Brian tells me that if I were to meet and argue with a Cabinet Minister, there would be no constructive debate. The Minister would think me mad or dangerous or both. This is true, but it is not my wish to argue with these people; it is instead to argue about them. I am not trying to persuade them from their agenda of total control, but rather to draw attention to it and to show just how our liberties and our identities are marked for destruction. I am self- consciously part of a movement that is mostly American, but that includes many in this country. My purpose in writing is to help delegitimise the existing order.

It is not enough for an establishment to have power and wealth. Authority and status are desired as well. Its members want not just to be obeyed, but also to be accepted as the natural, rightful leaders of a society. To have this, they must govern in at least the vague interest of the governed. They do not need to be liberal democrats. They can run a chaotic, highly incompetent state. They do not need to give very good security to life and property. But they must show some regard for the interests, or perhaps the passions, of the majority. When they begin to define their interests as both separate from and opposed to those of the nation as a whole—when they set about abolishing established liberties and customs, and seeming to put the country under some kind of foreign rule—the acceptance of their right to govern becomes questionable. And it unsettles them when this acceptance comes seriously into question. It unsettles them to be called traitors and fools, to have their motives doubted—and doubted even in those instances where no deception is intended—to be made fun of, to have rooms fall silent as they walk in, to hear suppressed sniggers behind their backs, to hear praise from their inferiors that might come as easily from fear as from respect, to be regarded as a burden on the nation; to be suffered and obeyed only so long as they have the force to maintain themselves in power.

Once it has started, it is impossible to suppress this kind of murmuring. The established media can be set to work on the usual delicate combination of ignoring and defaming the opposition. Individuals who have been too outspoken can be punished in various ways. But every act of suppression brings an increase in opposition. When people are sacked form their jobs or put in prison, they become martyrs, and others pay attention to their message—often assuming without further thought that it must be true if coercion is the only argument against it. It is now that members of the Establishment begin to fear being alone and defenceless among the governed. They start to receive hate mail. Jokes circulate about how the waiters in some expensive restaurant routinely urinate in the soup or spit phlegm into the salad. There is the occasional violent attack, and rumours about death lists.

Historically, there have been two responses to this kind of separation of rulers and ruled. The rulers can lose faith in their own right to rule, and give way at the first shock that needs unusual firmness of reaction. This is what happened in France after 1788. The mockery of Voltaire, the denunciation of Rousseau, the repeated scandals in law and administration and in the private conduct of the powerful, had all persuaded the rulers of France that they had no right to continue as they had done. The leaders of the Third Estate remodelled the Constitution and swept away the power of the other two Estates without serious opposition—even though right up to the point of no return, the Old Order had a theoretical superiority of force. Much the same happened with the British departure from India in 1947. The costs of the War had made upholding the Raj difficult, but probably not impossible. What made for the suddenness and completeness of departure was that radical opposition in Britain and nationalist opposition in India had already convinced the authorities that the Raj was not worth upholding—that it had no right to be upheld. And thus the work of two centuries of brilliant conquest and inspired administration could be levelled to the ground in a few months.

Or the rulers can decide on firmer measures of repression. They can protect themselves by withdrawing into armed compounds, and disarm the ruled. They can establish a secret police, and weaken or abolish due process in cases of “state security”. They can try to seek out and destroy the opposition. There are hundreds of precedents for this response, but I think particularly of Czarist Russia and the last Shah of Iran. It will not work without the last extremes of terror. Short of that, there will eventually be an uprising to sweep the established order away, and the ferocity of the uprising will be proportionate to the force of the repression that preceded it. And even with the last extreme of terror, the best on offer is a long age of grim despotism punctuated by intervals of chaotic bloodshed. Such was the history of the slave revolts against Rome, and of the Jaqueries of early modern France.

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Unless it crumbles from within, an establishment will do what is needed to maintain itself in power. But losing the consent of the governed is not something to be lightly risked in the first place. I remember in 1982 seeing Dennis Healey at a bus stop in Charing Cross Road. At the time, he was Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, and until quite recently had been Chancellor of the Exchequer. In my view, he had been—and might be again—a leading member of a very bad government. All I did on seeing him, though, was to nod politely and carry on walking down to the railway station. Others passing by did much the same. I have no idea what he was doing at a bus stop, but Mr Healey was plainly enjoying himself. He would have enjoyed himself far less if circumstances had required him to be driven round London in a bullet-proof car, and hurried though the briefest possible exposure to the public with a crowd of armed guards around him. I am sure the average MP or BBC Governor likes to go shopping in the local supermarket, and not have to worry about what might be placed under the family car while it is parked with all the others. The managing directors of big companies do not live in continual fear of having their children kidnapped from school. Though Irish terrorists have made an effort to change things, England remains a nice, civilised country in which to be powerful or rich. It is surely worth making an effort to maintain this.

Yet already we are at the murmuring stage of delegitimisation. Most people do not believe what the politicians say any more. A minority are claiming—and, I believe, claiming truly—that those in power have an agenda that involves stripping us of our personal liberty and our national identity and independence. The response has been a pack of lies, joined by what so far have been clumsy and half-hearted attempts at persecution. There was, for example, the prosecution of George Staunton for racially aggravated criminal damage. He was caught sticking up posters against the European Union. Had the case against him not been largely withdrawn once publicised, an old man of 78 would have faced a maximum punishment of 14 years in prison.[5] That is the sort of mistake that establishments make when they start to falter. Another few years, and such cases will be proceeded with regardless of public opinion: the purpose then will be to frighten the governed regardless of unpopularity.

But murmuring is the earliest stage, and we are not far into that. There is still time for pulling back. As at other times in English history, we can still hope for a compromise between rulers and ruled. All our rulers need to do is withdraw the country from the European Union and start paying at least some respect for constitutional rights. Give us that, and they can keep their old boy networks and their interlocking patterns of financial and political power and the general fun of being accepted as the natural lords of creation in a wealthy, powerful country. Give us that, and the next generation of establishment figures will contain names like Bonham-Carter, Toynbee, Trevelyan, Waldegrave, and even Blair and Prescott. Press on with the agenda of control, and the downward spiral of hatred and fear can begin properly.

Of course, what Brian and I are attempting is not mutually exclusive. Indeed, each of us naturally complements the other. Brian needs some motive to force the Establishment to take him seriously and start letting him conduct his Socratic dialogues on television. I desperately want people like Brian to negotiate the compromise. Though I believe in the right of resistance to tyranny, I do not really want to see an English Liberation Army setting off bombs in the London office of the European Commission. I want a lot more freedom, and that includes much lower taxes and regulations. But I do not want to overthrow the existing order of things in this country – not, at least, unless it commits itself irrevocably to the New World Order.

But this is my purpose in writing. This is why I make Brian squirm with embarrassment when I go on the wireless as a representative of the Libertarian Alliance and denounce Tony Blair as a traitor and a tyrant. I do it because I believe I am right. But I do it also because I hope that the people in charge of this country have the flexibility of mind and understanding of when and how to compromise that kept their predecessors securely in power when the leaders of the French Old Order were having their heads cut off and when Russian noblemen were driving taxis in Paris.

But this makes me sound like a Whig, when I should perhaps be trying to sound like a writer from the Loompanics Catalogue!


1. Available on the Internet.

2. “Dr Pirie Changes Trains (but Continues in the Same Direction)”, “Dr Pirie Has not Changed Trains (but Continues Waiting on the Platform”, Free Life Commentary, issues 18 and 19 , both from July 1998.

I was unreasonably harsh to Dr Pirie—a failing for which I have apologised many times. Nevertheless, my criticism stands that the Adam Smith Institute has too often been used by ambitious politicians to expand their power under the cover of market liberalism.

3. What is Wrong with a Libertarian Political Party, by Brian Mickelthwait, Tactical Notes No 27, the Libertarian Alliance, London, 1999.

4. For a longer attack on this terrible woman, see “Clare Short: La Pasionaria of the Serbian War”, Free Life Commentary, issue 32, May 1999.

5. See “George Staunton: First Martyr of the Anti-EU Movement”, Free Life Commentary, issue 33 , July 1999.

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