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Libertarianism: Lost in Translation

Libertarianism: Lost in Translation

I get Presseurope, a roundup of translated opinion pieces from the EU, sent to my email.

For the most part, the newsletter is incredibly informative. For instance, I had no idea that someone could honestly think that the Greeks deserved pity… or that disbanding the German nuclear program was a great idea.

But I don’t necessarily recommend subscribing to Presseurope. It isn’t for the faint of heart; it entails reading a lot of crap.

Yesterday, for example, I was lured into reading this piece: Children of Marx and Microsoft

The piece is a profile on the German “Pirate Party,” who won nearly ten percent of the vote in Berlin’s mayoral election. As far as I’m concerned, pirates should be rugged seafaring men with a penchant for talking birds, but they’re apparently also political:

The party principles and the electoral programme of the Berlin Pirate Party, including points such as free public transport and the right to an unconditional basic income, were tagged as ‘radical left’ by commentators on election night. … ‘Free’, ‘open’, and especially ‘transparent’ are the buzzwords that have been shaping the platform of the Pirate movement since it first took shape five years ago in Sweden as a party born out of the struggle against existing copyright laws.

Okay, so they’re typical left-wingers who have one pet issue and topped that off with a bunch of moronic proposals. What brought my eyes to a roll was this section:

The thinking is deeply rooted in America, where it is known as libertarianism. From a high appreciation for the freedom of the individual derives an extreme scepticism towards the state and government, which receives legitimacy only through direct participation. In Germany, the best it had done till now was as the hobby horse of a kind of fundamentalist grouping within the Liberal Party. But libertarianism in the U.S. is a very broad movement. To it belong both disciples of Ayn Rand, the prophet of a radical egotistical capitalism, and libertarian socialists guided by anarchist thought from the turn of the 20th century.

Such theoretical roots should not be overestimated. […] Among the new Berlin deputies are some who are passionate about Karl Marx, and the national chairman of the party was previously in the CDU. What’s libertarian about the pirates is their penchant for the most direct form of democracy possible.

The Pirate Party is not libertarian. Perhaps it started from good principles (demanding government transparency) but it became tainted once it transformed into a political movement and bribed the electorate with free (paid by other people) goodies.

I think the Pirate Party’s transformation shows the worst side of extreme democracy, offering to redistribute the property of others to gain favor. This stands in contrast to a libertarian paradigm of a a voluntary system of governance or one bound by certain inalienable rights; which are not necessarily places where popular opinion is always magically legitimate – as the piece suggests. I would praise direct democracy only insofar as it takes power away from politicians.

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in my echo chamber that I find it hard to understand how most people aren’t libertarians. That is, until I ask someone to explain to me what they think the philosophy is about and I get a stupid answer like the Süddeutsche Zeitung offered.


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Tom Dickson-Hunt | September 21, 2011 at 12:14 pm

I actually have something of a soft spot for the Pirate Party, warped by all things Europe though they may be. They were originally something of a joke by those opposed to draconian copyright enforcement (of the confiscate-computers-on-suspicion type) inspired by the legal fight over the tracker site Pirate Bay, and they’re still heavily tied into digital-freedom issues like that, on which I entirely agree with them. It’s just unfortunate that, being a real political party now, they have to have a platform with more than just one plank, and being in Europe, that platform defaults to “well-intentioned but stupid collectivism”.

Kathleen McCaffrey | September 21, 2011 at 1:30 pm

Tom, agreed. Though, as I mentioned to a friend, I think their opinion on, say, public transportation is more relevant than their views on Internet freedom when it comes to local governance.

What’s libertarian about the pirates is their penchant for the most direct form of democracy possible.

It is amazing how uninformed commentary can be. I am constantly reminded of this when the “talking heads” on TV or morning radio shows shoot their mouths off about stuff that is utterly devoid of any factual basis.

Many of America’s founding fathers had a philosophical bent that would be pretty close to modern “libertarianism.” And they rejected direct democracy when they wrote the constitution.

“It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so. — Will Rogers”

David R. Graham | September 21, 2011 at 2:34 pm

Labels for political sensibilities can bear different, even opposite content over a span of decades. Circumstances neither stagnate nor repeat, but labels tend to persist, their load of meaning altering through the years to reflect circumstances, including their users’ wishes.

From several directions, and now this one as well, I hear within the last month echoes of Robert Theobald, the British socio-economist I once served as informal chief of staff and for whom I once ghosted a book (*Habit and Habitat*). Theobald’s thesis (1960s-70s) was that technology in principle gave such excess productive capacity that nearly everyone had excess leisure time free, in principle, of the need to work/earn money for a living. Technology was the new serf class supporting the aristocracy, which in principle included all humans. In that situation, he argued, government is the employer of last resort and everyone has a right to, from government: guaranteed income, guaranteed health care and guaranteed opportunity for realization of their potentials.

(Contemporaneously, the economist Milton Freedman also argued for a guaranteed income, but on grounds differing from Theobald’s.)

As I say, echoes I hear today. Theobald’s grandfather was a Bishop of the Church of England. He was born and grew up in India. He stood six feet four or six, I forget which, and he studied with J.K. Galbraith, whose equally high stature, faced with Theobald’s, stunned the diminutive Indians in the class when Theobald defended Indian culture against Galbraith’s haughty dismissiveness. Kennedy appointed Galbraith US Ambassador to India, during the days when exceptionally tall American males were sought for top foreign postings, their height meant to intimidate the locals, usually diminutive. Cabot Lodge, for example, fit that description and role.

I broke with Theobald in 1971, after finishing my end of the book and before it went to the publisher. That same year I headed for India. Theobald’s ideas reflected and to some extent led positivist, progressive (neo-Keynesian) thought in the mid-to-late 20th Century and now reappear in the 21st. My impression of India in 1971, positively predisposed by Theobald, was that it was poised to throw off its modern socialist founding (which would have meant Theobald’s frame of reference) and enter the world stage powerfully in her own classical radiance. That impression proved accurate. It also confirmed the reasons for my break with Theobald.

Theobald is an English name of Frankish origin and now descendants of Eastern Franks (Berliners) espouse some Theobaldian doctrines. Western Franks gave us Rousseau, the French Revolution and Communism/National Socialism. These modern Eastern Franks may also look to the great statesman and Junker (Eastern Frank) von Bismarck – and his Jewish socialist interlocutor – for part of their inspiration. Life is rich and always funny if one knows how to see it.

    Kathleen McCaffrey in reply to David R. Graham. | September 21, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    Friedman advocated a negative income tax within a society that would have a flat tax. These guys are not.

    BannedbytheGuardian in reply to David R. Graham. | September 21, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    I can see where you are coming from . I see similar things but put it down to the Catholic /Protestant tradition.

    I am unable to pin American Libertarianism down . They have no flagship heroes or identifiable successes whereas there are many famous Anarchists .

    I think a VAT nationally would kill them off overnight.

Direct democracy is nothing but mob rule. I believe our constitutional republic was meant to protect against tyranny of the majority.

Why is it so hard for all of these everything should be free ideologues to understand that it would take somebodies efforts, toil, and capital to construct and maintain these “free” transportation systems. There is nothing libertarian about slavery. The left always claims to be the party of science, but they seem to be more the party of magic wands and unicorn utopias. We would all love life to be free from toil, but you can’t change reality, you can only redistribute it.

This morning one of my facebook friends posted a link to a petition for student loan forgiveness (again the land of unicorns for all). I found it interesting that they used the metaphor that a rising tide will lift all. If anyone has ever witnessed the world’s most extreme tides in the Bay of Fundy, they will know that the high tide is followed by the world’s lowest tide, so low you can walk miles out on the sea floor in places. During the tides, the amon

…the amon

Sorry sensit

Damn keypad.. the amo

… the amo

…the amount of water does not change, it just gets redistributed from other parts of the sea.

Sorry about the above keypad problems.

There is sometimes a tendency to identify Libertarianism with the “right” but in fact there is a degree of affinity with Anarchism, often seen as a viewpoint from the “left”…the Pirates might be attempting to pass themselves off as Anarcho Communists, followers of Kropotkin. Kropotkin and his supporters were always consistent opponents of the Bolsheviks who advocated a strong central government under their control as the only way of “withering away” the state.

Anarchists were very strong in Russia, Spain and other countries. However, their very suspicion of a higher authority meant that in political and military terms they were far too individualistic to act in concert for any length of time….

Having just read an article about “World Car Free Day”, I just had to come back and make another comment about free public transportation. It is not free in the US, but it is subsidized by the gas tax that I pay everytime I have to go anywhere. We don’t have a choice in rural areas. The gas tax should be used only for roads and bridges, not to fund subways. Also not only is a car an absolute necessity in the country, it is along with the washing machine one of the most liberating inventions of all time. I think they should rename the day ” Rural Genocide and Oppression of Women and Families Day”.

    WarEagle82 in reply to ella8. | September 21, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    Cars are not an absolute necessity in rural or urban areas.

    We could abandon automobiles and live as subsistence level farmers in an 18th century economy and we could deal with literal mountains of horse manure in cities like they did at the end of the 19th century.

    We could also suffer the mass starvation and an 80% to 90% population reduction that de-mechanization of our farms would cause.

    So, at least 10% to 20% of us could live without our cars…