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The London Libertarian

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Commentary and debate on politics, economics and culture from a libertarian perspective. To Libertarian Alliance Website >


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Ukraine: Game, Set and Match to Russia

Current Affairs Posted on Wed, April 02, 2014 17:50:59

Nico Metten in his blog A Libertarian look at what is going on in Crimea wonders why Libertarians should bother about the conflict in the Ukraine at all. I can think of two excellent reasons.

As rational, thinking individuals we are bound take note of significant events in the outside world. Particularly interesting are those events where a large section of official opinion seems to hold views which bear no relation to what is actually going on anywhere. By ‘official opinion’ here, I mean not just the utterances of politicians, always to be taken with a warehouse full of salt. I also include the media outlets and the academies which in the West have always trumpeted their independence from government.

A government in the Ukraine is overthrown by force of arms and its president has to flee for his life. In the present world, such a happening is hardly a unique occurrence. What is remarkable is that the Western media should present this as a ‘victory for democratic forces’. The recent overthrow by the military in Egypt of the elected President Morsi was presented as what it was – a coup d’etat which favoured Western interests, but a coup d’etat nevertheless. Why can’t the guys who took power in Kiev receive the same treatment, especially when they have amongst their number, some with distinctly unsavoury and violent political leanings? Why couldn’t the Western media outlets ask the ‘democratic forces’ in the Ukraine to wait one more year for the actual democratic election which was then due?

One reason could be that the Western media are congenitally incapable of seeing any revolution which overthrows an imperfect government as other than a marvellous happening and a brave new dawn. When, a couple of years ago, the media were enjoying wet ecstasies about the ‘Arab Spring’ (henceforth to go down in the history books as the ‘Arab Winter’) it was not difficult to see trouble looming. A passing acquaintance with the history of previous revolutions should have cooled journalistic ardour. Most people can see that war is damaging to a society. It kills people, destroys capital and disrupts the productive forces on which civilised existence depends. But what does a revolution do? It kills people, destroys capital and disrupts the productive forces on which civilised existence depends! And it often leads on to a civil war. England, France and Russia have all had revolutions which became civil wars and the Ukraine will count itself lucky if it avoids a similar fate. The violent seizure of power is the same, whether it is conducted by the military in Cairo or Western-backed idealists in the centre of Kiev.

One of the first acts of the new government in Kiev was to propose the abolition of Russian as an official language in the Ukraine. Given that there are many Russian speakers in the east of that country, this was not the most auspicious start from the revolutionaries. Alexander Solzhenitsyn accepted that, after the Soviet experience, many Western Ukrainians had been permanently alienated from Russia. However, he thought that if the Western Ukrainians wanted a state sharply differentiated from Russia, they too must recognise the rights of the Ukrainian Russian speakers east of the Dnieper.

Is it any wonder that Russians in the Crimea, puzzled by a democratic putsch in Kiev, frightened by the prospect of anti-Russian measures, decided to put Solzhenitsyn’s musings into action? Why would they not choose union with Russia in preference to a government of dubious leanings which actively disliked them? For the media to present the result of the referendum in Crimea as an undesirable annexation, when the mass of Crimeans clearly regarded it as a liberation, is one more perplexing episode in this sorry saga. For the UK government, which has elevated national self-determination to a religious principle in the Falklands and Scotland, to take this line must strike many as strange.

But to insult people’s intelligence is not the most important achievement of the Western politicians and their media flunkies when dealing with the Ukraine crisis. Before 1989, NATO fulfilled an honourable role when it prevented the spread of a backward and barbarous political system into Western Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO powers have become one of the most destabilising factors in the present international system.

It could have all been done differently. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet system, a case could have been made for the disbandment of NATO along with the Warsaw Pact. More likely, NATO could have remained a Western European alliance with the old Eastern Bloc countries assuming a political status similar to Finland and Austria; neutral, but leaning in their political and economic systems to the West. A third option has been chosen. NATO has expanded to include all the former countries of the Warsaw Pact and short-range missiles have been installed along the Russian border. This was precisely the kind of act which prompted Kennedy to risk nuclear war with the Soviet Union in 1962.

Now, it was one thing for NATO powers over the last 15 years to bomb Third World countries such as Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. It was another thing to desire to bomb Syria but have that cup so cruelly dashed from their lips. But it is a something else to play ducks and drakes with Russia. After the failed invasion of South Ossetia in 2008, orchestrated by the Georgian President and Western satrap Mikheil Saakashvili, it should have been clear that Russia would not permit acts of gross impertinence on its borders. Ukraine is yet another reminder that when the NATO powers push, the Russians were prepared to push back. Like Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya the Russians were prepared to take it. Unlike those powers, the Russians would also be able to hand it out.

And this explains the almost hysterical mouthings of the Western politicians to the entirely predictable Russian reaction. But merely repeating one hundred times that Mr Putin is a nasty man will not get them what they want. Neither will endless finger wagging. Still less will the list of footling sanctions trumpeted by the West prevent one Russian oligarch from purchasing the flat of his dreams in Belgravia.

NATO politicians know that to get what they want, they would have to bomb Russia and that this is fraught with danger. At that point public opinion in the West would have to wake up and ask why their representatives were messing around in Russia’s backyard. It was one thing to send the light brigade to their doom 160 years ago:

Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward, All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred.

But why would the rest of us want to ride into the ‘valley of Death’ for the Crimea in 2014?

So NATO have wisely decided to bluster and fold on the Ukraine. How they must be laughing in the Kremlin and how I laughed with them.



Libertarian Liberty: the Crucial Philosophical Problem and its New Paradigm Solution

Philosophy Posted on Wed, April 02, 2014 16:43:13

Libertarian Liberty: the Crucial Philosophical Problem and its New Paradigm Solution

This is a brief explanation of the main philosophical problem with libertarian liberty, and then of the solution to that problem. This is because there is considerable confusion among libertarians generally about the problem although there is even more confusion about the suggested solution, where it has been noticed at all. There is a parallel here with the problem of epistemological justification and the critical-rationalist solution. Moreover, the issues here do not appear to be of less philosophical, practical, or moral importance.

The crucial philosophical problem with libertarian liberty

The problem can be explained as follows. Some kinds of property are assumed to be compatible with interpersonal liberty: e.g., self-ownership, initial acquisition by use, acquisition by trade, etc. Other kinds of property are assumed to be incompatible with interpersonal liberty: e.g., slavery by seizure, acquisition by conquest, acquisition by theft and fraud, etc.). How are the different kinds of property being distinguished as libertarian or not libertarian? It cannot be because certain kinds of property are merely defined, whether explicitly or tacitly, as compatible with the mere word ‘liberty’: for words, as such, are of little or no importance. It must be because they are thought to be factually compatible or incompatible with real liberty: for the word ‘liberty’ refers to real phenomena in the world just as much as does the word ‘light’. But libertarians usually have no explicit theory of what such liberty is. So they must have a tacit theory of liberty. And that tacit theory has to be independent of ‘property’ (in a de facto, non-moral, and non-legal sense, of ‘exclusive resource-control’). Otherwise, we could not explain why one kind of property is compatible with liberty while another kind is not. There would be no real libertarian liberty; there would be only different forms of property. And libertarians would be deluded in thinking that liberty, as such, could be genuinely increased or reduced. They would really be referring to property that promotes utility in some way, or maybe promotes something else entirely. But that does not seem to be correct. So it looks as though there must be a tacit theory of pre-propertarian liberty. And if there is such a tacit theory, then it ought to be possible—and should be enlightening—to make this tacit theory explicit.

So what must libertarians be referring to by ‘liberty’? What most of them explicitly say they mean does not make complete sense, where they have any explicit theory at all. For instance, Robert Nozick has no explicit theory of liberty in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia. And some self-identified libertarians take something like Hobbesian freedom of action to be the libertarian sense. But this cannot be right, because that is a zero-sum view that people must compete over rather than one which can be either protected or increased for everyone. Less-confused libertarians rightly opt for something more like the Rothbardian conception of liberty, of not being aggressed against by other people. But when they try to make this sense explicit they run into problems. A first thing to note is that very few focus on liberty directly. Instead, they write about being against (initiated) coercion or aggression as the implied opposite of liberty, without explaining exactly how these are theoretically related to liberty.

“Coercion” fails completely and obviously. For “coercion” is, in plain English, the use or threat of force against people in order to obtain their compliance. And thus (initiated) coercion is neither necessary nor sufficient to make an action infringe liberty as libertarians understand it in practice. For some liberty-flouting acts do not involve (initiated) force or the threat of force against people: for instance, fraud is not coercive, and theft is usually surreptitious rather than coercive. And some (initiated) coercion is used to defend against or rectify acts that flout liberty: for instance, policing and law enforcement insofar as they are libertarian. In recent years, however, (initiated) “coercion” has increasingly been dropped as the one, or main, thing that libertarians are against.

What about “aggression”? There seems to be no similar inherent problem with saying that libertarians are against aggression (however, there are non-libertarian senses of “aggression” that must be kept distinct from the libertarian sense: such as “aggression” as the word is used in sport or in animal behaviour). The problem occurs when libertarians try to explain “aggression.” For they then typically do so in terms of acts that flout legitimate property rights. There are really four mistakes in one here. First, as it stands, this view is compatible with every system of property: they are all perceived as “legitimate” from within themselves. Second, to some extent it appears to be circular: to simplify somewhat, aggression is flouting legitimate property and legitimate property is what is acquired without using aggression (and throwing self-ownership, “homesteading,” and “labour-mingling” into the mix does not help). Third, there is a conflation of the factual and objective with the moral and legal: for it ought to be possible to say what libertarian liberty is—in theory and practice—without at the same time insisting that it is by its very nature “legitimate.” Fourth, there is no independent theory of libertarian liberty from which it is possible to deduce what kinds of property are libertarian (whether or not they are “legitimate”).

The solution to the crucial problem

The fundamental sense of “liberty” (or “freedom”) that libertarianism implies is too abstract to be explained in terms of property—even self-ownership—first and foremost. That is why problems and paradoxes arise when this is attempted, and standard putative solutions to them are, albeit unwittingly, fudged rather than sound. A pre-propertarian theory of libertarian liberty is possible and required.

Liberty is always about the absence of some sort of constraint. And libertarian liberty is interpersonal or social: the absence of constraints initiated on people by other people. Such initiated constraints are, very broadly speaking, “aggressive” (rather than defensive or restitutional, which are thereby not initiated but reactive). It seems clearer, more neutral, and more precise to refer to these initiated constraints as “proactive impositions.” It also seems clearer to theorise the ultimate nature of those impositions as a subjective “cost” (a preference utility lowering) to the victim (or recipient), in the sense of being the opposite of a benefit (a preference utility raising) and of flouting his spontaneous preferences (not preferences he has been coerced or defrauded into having). Thus abstract libertarian liberty itself can be formulated as “the absence of interpersonal proactively imposed costs” (or, for short, “no proactive impositions”, or just “no impositions”—but the full formulation is always implied, of course). And where such proactively imposed costs clash (so that some are, in practice, unavoidable: for instance, you must suffer the noise of your neighbour’s singing practice or he must cease to practice singing at home), then the libertarian policy must be to minimize such costs overall. This applies to defence and restitution too: to go beyond what is necessary or proportionate to achieve these (even if the only alternative is to suffer the imposition) is to initiate a new imposed cost: e.g., shooting a mere trespasser or forcing him to pay extortionate compensation. And yet, all that said, the precise form of words is not at all what is important. What is important is the general idea that it must be possible to render the tacit, pre-propertarian, non-moral, theory of libertarian liberty explicit in some form of words. To fail to understand this is to lack philosophical sophistication in the same way as the failure to understand critical rationalism. But once this is understood, anyone can attempt a different explicit version.

Without going into details and qualifications, this pre-propertarian and non-moral theory has two crucial, general, implications when it is applied to the normal human situation. Self-ownership is in practice entailed: for it minimizes proactive impositions for people to exclusively control—de facto own—themselves (it is a gross proactive imposition on me—as a conscious being—for you to enslave me, but a relatively negligible one on you to disallow my enslavement by you; especially as you are thereby similarly protected). Private property is in practice entailed: for it minimizes proactive impositions for people to have exclusive control over—de facto own—what resources they can acquire when they are not thereby, significantly, imposing on others (it is a gross proactive imposition on me for you to interfere with such resources as I have thus acquired, but a relatively negligible one on you to disallow that interference; especially as you are thereby similarly protected). That people must have such ‘property’ (de facto exclusive control) is a mere logical implication of applying such liberty to the world as it usually is: this is to say nothing about morals, or law, or social institutions. However, some people will insist that all “property” or “ownership” is inherently moral, or legal, or social, and say that they can make no sense of “de facto ownership”. For them, the implication can stop at “exclusive control”. It is sufficient to solve the philosophical problem that applying this theory of liberty normally entails exclusive control of one’s own body and of material things (when not acquired by, or causing, proactive impositions). But de facto “property” will be meant and used in what follows.

Consequently, as a very good rule of thumb, we can usually see what the practical observance of interpersonal liberty entails simply by reference to such self-ownership and such private property. Hence arises both the typical libertarian correct intuition that self-ownership and (non-imposing) private property exemplify liberty and the incorrect intuition that they are liberty itself. However, now when philosophically challenged or when problem cases arise, there is an abstract theory that explains what is libertarian and why without falling into the sorts of errors previously explained. But this should only be done when necessary. It would be absurd to approach every issue that might arise by immediately resorting to the abstract theory of liberty. The presumptions of self-ownership and (non-imposing) private property are practical rules that are libertarian (and analogous with the rules of rule utilitarianism). It is unnecessary and impractical to approach every single matter with the abstract theory alone (that would be analogous with a utilitarian always using only act utilitarianism).

It is necessary to understand that this is theorising about the real nature of interpersonal liberty (and hence the theory is falsifiable or, at least, criticisable) as opposed to merely defining the word “liberty” (which would be either stipulative or a type of popular usage, and so unfalsifiable). Moreover, the theory is not arrived at by, nor refutable by, conceptual analysis: for current concepts are, rather, just the limited, popular ones that give rise to the problem. After that, it is also necessary to distinguish the different levels at which the theory operates, because conflating these can also lead to confusion. 1) What libertarian liberty as such is abstractly theorised to be. 2) What is logically entailed by hypothetically applying such liberty to different logically possible situations. 3) What is logically entailed by applying it to the normal contingent facts of the real human world. 4) The affirmation, explanation, or defence of the idea that the application of such liberty to the real world is desirable (whether practically, economically, morally, etc.).

Does any of this really matter? Yes, it is absolutely vital. Because without some such theory, libertarianism at its very basis is a completely vague and ad hoc philosophical mess—however true and important the economics, history, and sociology might be. Self-described “libertarians” cannot even explain what liberty as such is, or relate it to anything at all. But with this theory it is possible to have sound and precise libertarian philosophical answers and solutions to myriad criticisms and problems. A tacit muddle turns into explicit clarity.

The social problem with the new solution

However, this liberty-centred, non-moral, pre-propertarian, libertarian theory is also combined with the critical-rationalist method: it is held, in every part and at every stage, as a conjecture for criticism—epistemologically unsupported and unsupportable (but not unexplained or unexplainable, or undefended or undefendable). And that combination is more than sufficient to make it a radically new Kuhnian paradigm. Consequently, this is something that most of the Old Guard of libertarians are very unlikely to accept, or even to understand. Many reviews of Escape from Leviathan are clearly unwittingly baffled by what is really being said about liberty (and many other things as well), and the most hopelessly baffled review is even incensed in proportion to its intellectual befuddlement. Consequently, the philosophically confused ‘justifications’ (although epistemologically impossible) of ‘libertarianism’ (although with no proper theory of liberty)—whether based on property, self-ownership, rights, utility, eudaemonism, contractarianism, argumentation ethics, etc.—are not likely to die out soon. It will be mainly a new generation of Young Turks that will understand and accept the new theory.



Should NATO exist?

Defence Posted on Wed, April 02, 2014 13:27:44

Is it high time that NATO became defunct?

“The pen is mightier than the sword” says the adage but presumably it means in the long run, for clearly a pen is no match for a sword in a duel.

All states have a moral support base in authority but force will be normally stronger in the short run. However, even Stalin knew that he could command no one at all, let alone any divisions, if this moral authority suddenly collapsed, and he also knew that it could collapse at almost any time.

At one time Stalin thought that the authority he had as head of state had collapsed; or maybe more apt, evaporated. It was after Stalin had openly and publically doubted that Hitler had invaded, as they had an agreement, or a pact, not to attack each other that Stalin thought that Hitler was about as satisfied with as he was. When the invasion progressed into the USSR, Stalin made clear his belief that it had not. But he later realised that it had. He felt sure that he had made a fool of himself to the extent that he had destroyed his credit completely. It is often said that Communism and Catholicism have a great deal in common and one of them is in being creeds that eventually built up a power base by propaganda, a base that did bring divisions to the Pope in the middle ages but such power was too much at odds with the Christian creed to survive as being proper for a Pope. So the Church did shed them.

Anyway, Stalin believed he had spent his credit with the USSR in the 1940s after Hitler invaded. He was famously waiting to be arrested when they came to ask what his orders were to counter the invasion that he, earlier, had doubted. .

Russia going into Crimea is not a key moment for “the West”. Indeed, it is not a defensive problem for the West at all but no end of fools, maybe under the influence of the centenary of the 1914 Great War, tend to imagine that it is. Putin is a little Hitler, according to them. All that line of thought is clear warmongering bosh. And it is about time that NATO ceased to exist, as the Warsaw pact has long since done. NATO is a sheer waste of time and money. It no longer relates to the defence of the west, not even one iota. It is now an institution that has nothing to do. Such sinecure institutions need to have their funds cut off.