Author Archive | Roderick

It Didn’t Begin With George Reisman

James Mill and Charles Knight were both, broadly speaking, free-market libertarians, and much that they wrote on economic and political matters is quite valuable. But the hysteria with which they attack Thomas Hodgskin is instructive:

Charles Knight and James Mill

Nothing can be conceived more mischievous than the doctrines which have been preached to the common people, at Birmingham and elsewhere. … The nonsense to which your Lordship alludes about the rights of the labourer to the whole produce of the country, wages, profits, and rent, all included, is the mad nonsense of our friend Hodgkin [sic], which he has published as a system and propagates with the zeal of perfect fanaticism. … These opinions, if they were to spread, would be the subversion of civilised society; worse than the overwhelming deluge of Huns and Tartars.
(James Mill, Letter to Henry Brougham 3 September 1832; quoted in Alexander Bain’s James Mill: A Biography.)

A writer [= Hodgskin] who has delivered lectures on Political Economy complains, in those lectures, that “the labourer is not allowed to work, unless, in addition to replacing whatever he uses or consumes, and comfortably subsisting himself, his labour also gives a profit to the capitalist on all the capital which he uses or consumes, while engaged in producing;” – and this principle the same writer calls a principle of slavery. The mischievous ignorance of such doctrines may be very easily shown. If some capitalist did not receive a profit upon the employment of the capital, it would remain unemployed – it would be useless. … Sometimes these doctrines meet you in the violent addresses that wrong-headed men deliver in popular assemblies. Sometimes they force themselves upon your notice in the shape of miserable writings, which profess to advocate your interests against those who are called your oppressors, – by which name all those are meant who have anything to lose, and anything to defend. … And, lastly, they insinuate themselves to your view, scattered amongst sound principles, intended to explain to you the laws which govern the production of wealth, in lectures on “Popular Political Economy.” [= Hodgskin’s 1827 work, which Knight admits in a footnote “with the exception of this doctrine ... may be considered useful and instructive.”] One and all of these counsellors, we say, are your bitterest enemies. They would lead you away from the pursuit of those means which can alone better your condition, to the cherishing of vain delusions, which will make you first unhappy, then idle, then starving, and then utterly depraved and worthless. Such doctrines may begin in the lecture-room, and there look harmless as abstract propositions; but they end in the maddening passion, the drunken frenzy, the unappeasable tumult, – the plunder, the fire, the blood ….

To you who have patiently borne with us in our examination of the great questions upon which this little book so imperfectly treats, it is, we should think, unnecessary to urge the paramount duty of exhibiting, during a time of strong political excitement, a respect for the laws, and a determination to maintain the private rights of all men inviolate. The rights which are most open to attack, as we have shown you, from designing and ignorant persons, are the rights of property. Upon the upholding of those rights depends your own security, your own freedom, your own certainty of going steadily forward in the improvement of your condition. Those of you who possess knowledge, and who desire knowledge, must have some influence over those who, unhappily, still remain without that best possession. It is for you to convey to them the truths which we have endeavoured to establish. It is for you to show them that the participators in, or the encouragers of tumult are the greatest enemies of freedom. It is for you to show them that freedom can only be the inheritance of the peaceable, the industrious, and the virtuous. It is for you to show them that no people can make any steady improvement in their institutions, that do not march forward in the career of improvement with an even and dispassionate temper – with a tolerant regard for all honest opinions – and, above all, with a determination that, come what storms there may, the vessel of the state shall not sink while the crew are quarrelling. Nothing can destroy our ultimate peace and prosperity but a violation of the great principles of natural justice, by which property is upheld for the benefit of all. …

Unless you, each in your own circle, put down that ignorant spirit that would make this temple of our once industrious and peaceful island “a den of thieves,” our liberties are at an end, because our security is at an end. There can be no liberty without security. Unless you, each in your own circle, endeavour to instruct the less informed in the knowledge of their rights in connexion with their duties, we shall all go backward in freedom, and therefore in national prosperity. When the ignorance of great masses of people is manifested by the light of a burning city, the records of that ignorance remain, in ruins which attest the hideous force of lawless violence. If the restraints of order are again set up, the ruins are cleared away; and, slowly perhaps, but certainly, capital again ventures forth to repair the destruction which a contempt of its rights had produced. But let the spirit of violence long continue to exist in sullen contests with the laws, or in causeless jealousy of the possessors of property, and the spirit of decay is established. Then begins a silent but certain career of destruction, more sweeping and wide-spreading than all the havoc that civil war upon the most fearful scale has ever produced. Houses are no longer burnt, but they become untenanted; manufactories are no longer pulled down, but the sound of labour is heard no more within their walls; barns are no longer plundered to distribute their stores, but the fields are not sown which were wont to produce those stores; roads are no longer rendered impassable by hostile bands, but the traffic which once supported them has ceased; canals and rivers are not dry, but their waters are mantled over with weeds, for the work of communication is ended; harbours and docks are not washed away by the sea, but the ships that once spread their sails for every corner of the earth lie idly within their bosoms, rotting “sheer hulks,” abandoned to the destruction of the wind and the wave. In the mean time, while all this silent decay goes forward, and many a mouldering pile proclaims that the reign of justice is at an end, the people are continuing to perish from the face of the land. Famine and pestilence sweep away their prey by thousands; and the robber who walks abroad at noon-day selects his victims from the few who still struggle to hide a miserable remnant of former abundance. At length tranquillity is established – but it is the tranquillity of death. The destroyers have done their work ….

These, assuredly, would be the consequences of following the blind guides that would break down the empire of property. These advocates of your “rights” would give you weeds instead of corn, skins instead of cloth, hollow trees instead of houses; and when you had gone back to the “freedom” of savage life, and each of the scattered tenants of a country covered with the ruins of former wealth could exclaim, “I am lord of the fowl and the brute,” these ministers of desolation would be able to sing their triumphal song of “Labour defended against the claims of Capital,” [= Hodgskin’s 1825 work] amid the shriek of the jackal, and the howl of the wolf.
(Charles Knight, The Rights of Industry, 1831.)

Bear in mind that Hodsgkin, the author against whom these scaremongering jeremiads are directed, was a defender of private property on Lockean lines, and had simply pointed out that the capitalist class’s monopoly of the means of production was the product of state privilege rather than of Lockean homesteading and free exchange. So deeply enmired were Mill and Knight in a right-conflationist vision of the economy that they were apparently unable to see Hodgskin’s attack on state interference with private property as anything but an attack on private property itself.

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Thickness For Me But Not For Thee

Lew Rockwell, 1990: Lew Rockwell, 2014:
The Conservatives Are Right: Freedom Isn’t Enough
Conservatives have always argued that political freedom is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the good society, and they’re right. Neither is it sufficient for the free society. We also need social institutions and standards that encourage public virtue, and protect the individual from the State. …

The family, the free market, the dignity of the individual, private property rights, the very concept of freedom – all are products of our religious culture. … The traditional family – which grows out of natural law – is the basic unit of a civilized and free society. The family promotes values necessary for the preservation of a free society such as parental love, self-discipline, patience, cooperation, respect for elders, and self-sacrifice. Families encourage moral behavior and provide for proper child rearing and thus the continuation of the race. …

“Question Authority!” says a leftist bumper sticker popular in libertarian circles. But libertarians are wrong to blur the distinction between State authority and social authority, for a free society is buttressed by social authority. Every business requires a hierarchy of command and every employer has the right to expect obedience within his proper sphere of authority. It is no different within the family, the church, the classroom; or even the Rotary or the Boy Scouts. … Authority will always be necessary in society. Natural authority arises from voluntary social structures; unnatural authority is imposed by the State. …

A critic might point out that libertarianism is a political doctrine with nothing to say about these matters. … But no political philosophy exists in a cultural vacuum, and for most people political identity is only an abstraction from a broader cultural view. The two are separate only at the theoretical level; in practice, they are inextricably linked. It is thus understandable and desirable that libertarianism have a cultural tone, but not that it be anti-religious, modernist, morally relativist, and egalitarian ….

The only way to sever libertarianism’s link with libertinism is with a cleansing debate. … [W]e must adopt a new orientation. … In the new movement, libertarians who personify the present corruption will sink to their natural level, as will the Libertarian Party, which has been their diabolic pulpit. Some will find this painful; I’m looking forward to it. Let the cleansing process begin – it is long past due.

The “thin” libertarian believes in the nonaggression principle, that one may not initiate physical force against anyone else. The thin libertarian thinks of himself simply as a libertarian, without labels. Most “thick” libertarians likewise believe in the nonaggression principle, but they believe that for the struggle for liberty to be coherent, libertarians must be committed to a slate of other views as well. …

We have been told by some libertarians in recent months that yes, yes, libertarianism is about nonaggression and private property and all that, but that it is really part of a larger project opposed to all forms of oppression, whether state-imposed or not. …

To claim that it is not enough for the libertarian to oppose aggression is to fall into the trap that destroyed classical liberalism the first time, and transformed it into modern liberalism. …

Attacking the state is not enough, we hear. We must attack “patriarchy,” hierarchy, inequality, and so on. Thick libertarians may disagree among themselves as to what additional commitments libertarianism entails, but they are all agreed that libertarianism cannot simply be dedicated to eradicating the initiation of physical force.

If some libertarians wish to hope for or work toward a society that conforms to their ideological preferences, they are of course free to do so. But it is wrong for them – especially given their insistence on a big tent within libertarianism – to impose on other libertarians whatever idiosyncratic spin they happen to have placed on our venerable tradition, to imply that people who do not share these other ideologies can’t be real libertarians, or to suggest that it would be “highly unlikely” that anyone who fails to hold them could really be a libertarian. That these are the same people who complain about “intolerance” is only the most glaring of the ironies. …

The danger is that thick libertarianism will import its other concerns, which by their own admission do not involve the initiation of physical force, into libertarianism itself, thereby transforming it into something quite different from the straightforward and elegant moral and social system we have been defending for generations. …

All of these additional claims are a distraction from the central principle: if you oppose the initiation of physical force, you are a libertarian. Period. Now how hard was that?

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Check Your Privilege / Check Your Premises

[cross-posted at BHL]

Info on the next Molinari Society panel:

Eastern APA, Marriott Philadelphia Downtown, Monday, 29 December 2014:

Molinari Society, 1:30-4:30 p.m. [GIX-3, location TBA]:
Libertarianism and Privilege

chair:
Roderick T. Long (Auburn University)

presenters:
Billy Christmas (University of Manchester), “Privilege and Libertarianism
Jennifer A. Baker (College of Charleston), “White Privilege and Virtue
Jason Lee Byas (University of Oklahoma), “Supplying the Demand of Liberation: Markets as a Structural Check Against Domination

commentators:
Roderick T. Long (Auburn University)
Charles W. Johnson (Molinari Institute)

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Curry Milestone

Happy 12th Birthday, Molinari Institute!

(Why not celebrate by contributing to the Institute’s General Fund? Support publications, translations, speaking appearances, and more!)

In other news, I’m in England for a conference. More later.

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