Liberty from a Beginner: Selected Essays
Edition Second Edition
Published 06 January 2016
Binding Perfect-bound Paperback
Forward by Sean Gabb
Because my working day tends to be about twenty hours long, much of my correspondence – especially via Facebook – is conducted on a sort of autopilot. People write to me. I write back. I forget the nature of the exchange a few seconds after pressing the send button. I therefore cannot give the exact date when I first encountered Keir Martland. Certainly, though, we were regular Facebook correspondents in the early months of 2012.
My first impression was of a young man of great intelligence and fluency. He was cynical and witty, and seemed to share an impressive number of my own prejudices. We got along increasingly well. Within a couple of weeks, he had moved from the list of my autopilot correspondents into the much smaller group of actual friends.
One day, after he had said something particularly well, I had a look at his Facebook profile. First thing I looked for was the university he was attending, or had attended. I saw mention of a school in the North of England, but no university, nor job. No matter, I told myself. Not everyone who lives in the North goes to university. Not everyone there has a job. The important thing about friends is what they think and can write.
Then he submitted an essay to the Libertarian Alliance. It was a very fine piece of writing, and I passed it straight to Dr Meek, our Editorial Director. A few days later, he called me while I was fighting to stay awake over one of my novels. He was in a terrible flap, and I thought at first someone was trying to sue us for something I might have said.
“Keir Martland is thirteen, Sean! Are we allowed to publish anything by him?”
“Thirteen, eh?” I woke up. I sat up. I stopped thinking of words to describe the scream of someone who has just had a sword rammed into his bladder. “Well, er, yes, I was aware of that. Don’t worry, Nigel. You don’t need to pass a CRB check to publish someone under age.”
You can be sure he got a deal more of my attention after that. Were you up to writing coherently and at length when you were thirteen? I was not. Without realising it, I had stumbled into the company of my probable successor as leader of the British libertarian movement.
Keir is now sixteen. He has just sat the first round of his A Levels, and is looking at which university he will grace with his attendance. I could fill up the rest of this Foreword with praise of his unusual abilities. I could, for example, say how, a few months ago, he was called, with a day’s notice, to speak beside me at a Manchester University debate on the British Empire, and how well he spoke without any text, and to an audience I had already provoked into something close to incandescent rage. But I will not. His writings stand by themselves.
Another reason I will drop the matter of his precocity is that youth is a transitory asset. As said, Keir’s writings stand by themselves. Some mention has to be made of how young he still is. But the mai question is whether his writings are any good. I think they are.
Most notably, they break out of the dead end that British libertarianism – and much American – has found itself in since about 1980. In this time, standard libertarian writing has veered between an arid economism and cultural leftism. The question of who owns the coal mines, or the railway network, is obviously important. But it is not centrally important. Indeed, many of the things written about by libertarians are not only of secondary importance, but the positions taken have been counter-productive.
For example, there is a good case in the abstract for privatising the prisons and the police. There would still, in a stateless society, be need of law enforcement. Since this could not be done by the State, it would need to rest on some kind of voluntary provision. This being said, allowing private enterprise into these areas at the present time does nothing to reduce the extent of coercive power. It simply alters the nature of that power, by making it more opaque and therefore less accountable. It blurs the distinction between private enterprise and the State in ways that would have been thought dangerous between 1945 and 1980, and that are dangerous in any event.
If a constable employed by Her Majesty the Queen behaves abusively or illegally, you have a direct line of complaint that goes through your Member of Parliament to the Home Secretary. So long as you are reasonably intelligent, and have a good case, you will generally have redress. You will have this without needing to spend time and money in the civil courts. If you get into an argument with a private contractor, there is no direct line of complaint except through the civil courts – and no one goes to law in this country unless he is rich or slightly mad, or both.
As for prisons, when these are owned and run by the State, those working for them have an interest in cushy working arrangements and nice pensions, but do not generally try to influence the content of the criminal law. A private enterprise prison, on the other hand, will be run by an obvious interest group. If you own a prison, and you want to make a profit from using its inmates as slave labour, you will not want your cells filled the dross who have traditionally found themselves inside. You will want drug-dealers and tax-evaders and even political prisoners – the kind of people you can rent out as booking clerks and call centre operatives. You will, therefore, lobby for the retention of victimless crimes and for longer sentencing.
Similar objections can be made to a whole range of the policies advocated by libertarians for the past generation. So far from reducing the power of the State, these have tended to enable the growth of a police state.
A better approach is to make a fearless defence of freedom of speech and association, and to support any group of people who want to be left alone. This nowadays involves a defence of Christians and identitarians, and perhaps of some Islamic separatists. A quarter of a century ago, I was seen as broadly on the side of the angels when I spoke up for a group of sado-masochistic homosexuals who were prosecuted for beating each other up in private. One of them, I recall, was convicted of the horrid crime of “aiding and abetting an assault on himself.” I got a couple of funny looks, but no one thought of shunning me, or thinking me a bad person. Happy days. The modern victims of state power tend to be people who want to explain in public that homosexuals will go to Hell, or that there are too many black faces in the country, or that politicians and the police are fair game for retaliation.
In my younger days, I was able to move slightly ahead of the pack in part of the direction we have come. Any libertarian now must stand against the tide.
But this brings me to cultural leftism. I still make a point of insisting that there is nothing wrong with all-male sex. I believe in general that everyone should be equal before the law, and that no criminal laws should be made that focus disproportionately on any ethnic or religious or sexual group. But the time when homosexuals and black people and women were victims of state discrimination is long past. Words and slogans that I was happy to take up when young, because they were about legal equality, have been drained of their old meaning. They are now the cover for an attack on the rights, and even the existence, of the traditional peoples of this country. The object is no longer legal equality, but the creation of a new and heterogeneous population that can only be kept at peace by an unaccountable police state.
We need, then, to distinguish between a defence of individual rights and the advocacy of “political correctness.” Any libertarian who drops this challenge, and takes refuge in muttering about transaction taxes in the City of London, is not putting the libertarian case as it needs to be put.
I go further. In all times and places, libertarianism of any kind has been a minority interest. Freedom has only ever been the rule when libertarians have allied themselves with other ideological interests. The considerable changes of the past quarter century have brought our traditional alliance with big business into question – just as, a hundred years ago, our alliance with the landed interest ceased to be viable. We need now to start looking for understandings with ideological interests that are not in themselves libertarian, but that might, if they succeed, establish an order less practically illiberal than the present order of things.
When I read these essays, I feel some assurance that the approach taken by me, and, and before his lamentably early death, by Chris Tame and me, will not terminate with my own death or retirement from the libertarian movement. Keir is young. In the normal course of things, the line started by Chris and continued by me is reasonably secure.
But I return, in closing, to Keir’s youth. There are very few men who continue to believe at fifty what they believed at sixteen. Time alters both opinions and ambitions. It is possible that, by the time he leaves university, Keir will not be what he now is. If so, his choice must be respected. It is, after all, his life; and the choices I made when I was his age have not, fully considered, been to my advantage. Even discounting the time absorbed, I could have been a more successful writer without the baggage of the Libertarian Alliance. I will add that, but for certain unpleasant circumstances that manifested themselves at the beginning of that year, it was my intention to withdraw somewhat from libertarian politics in 2011. If, in 2020, Keir looks at the broken down old men who are expecting him to take up the burden falling from their own hands, and he decides instead to bury himself in the Inns of Court, who will I be to complain?
Nevertheless, whatever the future holds, the present is secure. I have not the slightest hesitation is commending these essays to a reader. And I thank Keir for the honour he has paid me by his request that I should write their Foreword.
Deal, June 2015
© 2016 – 2017, seangabb.
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