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Dear Comrades

An Open Letter to the Patriots of Liberty

"The lovers of liberty thought they were leaving it unlimited, when they were only leaving it undefined. They thought they were only leaving it undefined, when they were really leaving it undefended." (G.K. Chesterton)

This is going to be a recurring theme in a lot of these essays, so I might as well get it out of the way now. We all love our liberties, or think we do, and I'm no exception. Yet most of you, as you read what I have to say, will feel that those liberties are being threatened at least once. So before you stick a knife in my side and daub in blood the legend SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS on the nearest wall, I think you deserve to know exactly what you'll be killing.

I don't think anyone I know would claim to be an illiberal person, and many who wish to accentuate their love of liberty go beyond calling themselves liberal. When they wish to empathize the elevation of liberty above all other priorities, they call themselves libertarian. Yet it is those who proclaim the love for liberty the loudest—whatever they call themselves—who seem to understand it the least.

I have no doubt that the love they share is sincere, but what they don't share is a common conception of what they love. To some, it means the freedom to participate in government—to determine collectively the collective destiny of the nation and the species. To others, it means freedom from government—the freedom to do whatever one likes, irrespective of others' experiences or opinions. To some, it means the freedom to grow unlimitedly rich. To others, it means the freedom not to be poor. To some, it means the freedom to practice usury. To others, it means freedom from the practices of the usurer. To some, it means the freedom to commit oneself. To others, it means the freedom to enjoy a second chance, or to change one's mind. To some, it means the freedom to take risks. To others, it means freedom from risk. To some, it means the freedom to impose order on oneself and the world. To others, it means the freedom to follow every impulse and unleash the forces of chaos within and without. To some, it means the freedom to serve Nature. To others, it means the freedom to change what it means to be human. Now, every second statement in this litany is a refutation of its predecessor. Whatever conception of liberty to which one subscribes, it cannot possibly include all these things at once.

But these contradictions, it seems, are rarely confronted fully and honestly. Instead of debating, the lovers of liberty appear content to shout at each other, the result being that two sincere liberals can argue with each other without either realising that the other is having a radically different argument. A liberal typically either does not fully know that a conception of liberty contrary to his own exists, or combines two contradictory conceptions in his own philosophy. Now, I admit that I have not read nearly as much philosophy, liberal or otherwise, as I should have done; but I have listened to liberals of left and right talk around a table more times than I care to remember, and I have read and heard the same left-wing and right-wing commentary in the media that you have. It is of these people, and more importantly to these people, that I speak. We all know the right-winger who asserts in matters of business a conception to which he would never assent in what are called "social issues." We all know the left-winger whose blithe individualism in social issues, particularly in sex, is a stark contrast to his economic collectivism. If you don't recognise one of these characters, that person is probably you. 

The contradiction in both their philosophies is not the presence of a thesis and an antithesis. It is the lack of a synthesis, or any apparent recognition of the need for one. The right-winger who talks of the need for sexual self-control in the interest of the community, and who even advocates that certain amoristic acts should be restrained by the law, does not, with some honourable exceptions, explain why neither he nor the community needs to restrain his commercial activities. He tells us that the community has no right to infringe upon his liberty in this way, that what he does with his money is none of the community's business. The left-winger who appeals to a collective liberty, higher than that of mere self-interest, where money is concerned, assumes exactly the same attitude to sex that the right-winger has about money. Rarely does he explain why there is no collective need to place restraints on his desires. More commonly, he insists that there is no collective right to do so. That there may be a higher liberty in love as there is in business does not seem to occur to him.

Then there is a third creature, the so-called "libertarian" who, to his credit, does aim at a synthesis of sorts. He (or indeed she) is more logical than either the traditional rightist or leftist, for he takes the individualism of the left and uses it in the only way it can be used consistently: to excuse—nay, glorify—the individualism of the right. He claims to be the advocate of absolute liberty, and he takes delight in stripping down laws of all kinds, in which he can see nothing but the hand of the tyrant. Having removed the legal obstacles to divorce, or gay marriage, or abortion, or recreational drug use, or whatever else the liberal left is preoccupied with this week, he proceeds to abolish an anti-pollution law, or a consumer protection law, or a minimum wage law, and to do so on exactly the same grounds: that what is everybody's business is nobody's business. 

But if the libertarian resolves the most obvious contradiction of left and right, he leaves exposed another contradiction that rends his philosophy in two, and the contradiction is that which lies at the heart of every one of the examples listed above: that there are few, if any, freedoms that can be fully exercised without imposing on someone else's. One can expand one's own bubble only so far before it pushes up against another. If you wish to expand it further, you must ask your neighbour to deflate his. Left to itself, the libertarian's philosophy will inflate everyone's bubble until it bursts. If you ask him about his philosophy, he will probably invoke something like John Stuart Mill's Harm Principle, yet a minute's thought will tell you that (as Mill understood) the list of activities to which it can be extended is far longer than he assumes. 

"The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." 

Now, when I turn on the electricity at home, I am causing pollution which may, for all I know, mean that somebody somewhere dies sooner than they would done otherwise. Depending on how and where my electricity is produced, the pollution caused by my writing this essay may mean that a hundred people, or a thousand, or a million, are brought a millionth fraction closer to their death. Is it any less harmful, in the aggregate, to bring a million people a millionth closer to death each than to bring one person all the way? Once one understands that indirect injury exists, and that statistical violence (indirect, impersonal, unintentional) is no less violent than any other kind, half an imagination is enough to see that there is almost no sphere of activity to which the Harm Principle cannot in some way be applied.

No, I'm not advocating that the principle be extended in this way. I'm not suggesting that everybody, before they do anything, should have to consider the possible effects of their actions on every person on Earth. This is plainly impossible. But if the principle were applied literally, that is what would happen. The point is that the libertarian, out of his own mouth, undermines his own creed. He does not see that his bubble is pressing up against his neighbour's. He does not see that certain positive freedoms destroy certain negative freedoms, and therefore does not see that a choice must be made between them. He does not see, for example, that in "liberalising" the laws on divorce he has not only made it easier to end an unhappy marriage but has changed the essence of marriage itself—of every marriage, happy or otherwise. In extending the liberty to void a contract, he has destroyed the liberty to make a vow. The sacrifice may have been a worthwhile one (in this instance, I think it likely that it was); but the point is that the liberals and libertarians who talk of this change in the law simply as an extension of freedom do not seem to have seen the sacrifice that was made. I do not deny that in many cases the libertarian may be right when almost everyone else is wrong. I do say that when he is right, he is right for the wrong reasons. He does not see that what he is demanding is that a man should enjoy every positive liberty except the liberty to determine which liberties he should have.

Now, self-limitation, though it be a hard and unpleasant task which we may all be excused for shirking, is the essence of self-government. If liberty does not mean that one should have a say in determining one's liberties, it means nothing. If man were to revert today to his "natural" state, a state of complete lawlessness, he would indeed enjoy absolute positive freedom. He would be free to do anything at all, to himself or to his neighbours, and would not be free from anything they chose to do to him. But however natural this state may be, for him to remain in it would be profoundly unnatural. Absolutely free men are free to associate with one another. They are free to make alliances to their mutual interest, they are free to make concessions to one another as their conflicting freedoms come up against one another, they are free to make rules to govern those alliances, they are free to punish and exclude anyone who does not conform to these rules. They are free, in short, to make a State; and if the State were to be dismantled today, anarchic mankind would reconstruct it tomorrow. The libertarian wants smaller government, but the external forces that determine the circumstances in which a man's life is lived will not get any smaller if he gives up what little control he has over them. There may be such a thing as small government, but there can never be such a thing as small governance. The only question is whether the governance shall be direct or indirect, intentional or incidental, accountable or unaccountable. The anarchist, who fancies himself the complete libertarian, wants no government. He wants anarchy to speak. But it already has, and the thing it has called forth is government. This is the logical conclusion of Carlin's Law: "I have the right to do anything I like; but if I do something you don't like, you have the right to kill me."

Liberty, then, is a land with not one border but two, and to survey them we must turn not to Mill but to Rawls. 

"First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others."

What is required here is not some sentimental fretting about whether harm is done to somebody, a question which in the hands of libertarians and anarchists means only whether or not the harm done is too big and too concentrated to be ignored, but an equation in moral mathematics. Everyone's bubble must start the same size and be free to expand up to, but not beyond, the point at which it touches its neighbours. Anything less than this rightly deserves the name Tyranny, and I like to think I will join you in repelling anyone from this land who invades. But anything more is not Liberty but Licence. The border between the two must be defended as determinedly as the other, and the nature of the defence required is different. Licence does not invade Liberty, conquering her by force. She conquers by assimilation, by inducing us to forget that the border is there; or by moving it further, little by little, into her own territory, convincing us by sophistry that her territory is in fact ours. When she is at her most powerful, it will look as if she is retreating. Our defence must therefore consist, not of pushing the enemy back, but of holding ourselves back. It is possible for Liberty to advance, to turn what were once privileges into rights; but when Licence appears to yield a portion of her territory, we must first ask ourselves if we have earned it. If the human race has indeed, whether by means of technology or political engineering, made a new liberty enjoyable (and sustainably enjoyable) by everybody (and not merely anybody), by all means let us take what we have captured. If we have not, let us hold our line. 

Where the lines is to be drawn may be a matter of debate, but these are the lines which we patriots of Liberty must defend. I trust you to guard the border against Tyranny; and I thank you wholeheartedly for your service. But for some reason, it is to that other border that I have been posted, and it is with the same assiduity that I must defend it. I don't expect you to agree with me on everything. I don't even expect you to respect me. But I do ask that you at least respect the duty I perform, even if you think I perform it badly. If you don't respect the officer, respect the office. If we disagree on the borders, let us look at the land together and see if two heads aren't better than one. If you can convince me that this land or that land is ours, I'll be in your debt, for the temptation to venture into enemy territory is one to which I am as suspect as anyone. I don't aim to deny you anything that I have not denied myself, mercilessly and often bitterly. Remember as you read that if ever I try to hold you back, it is not as an enemy but as a comrade. Though we wear different colours, we fight for the same flag.

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