Controversy over Sean Gabb's Guardian Letter, 23rd December 2011
Taking liberties with the concept of freedom
It was amusing to read Sean Gabb of the so-called Libertarian Alliance proclaim the need for "exposing your readers to genuine libertarian positions" (Letters, 21 December). If that were done, they would discover that libertarian was originally coined by a French communist-anarchist in 1857, over one hundred years before the propertarian right in America appropriated it for their hierarchical ideology. To quote leading propertarian Murray Rothbard: "we … had captured a crucial word from the enemy … 'Libertarians' … had long been simply a polite word for … anti-private property anarchists … But now we had taken it over."
"Lefties, as a rule, only read other lefties," Gabb proclaims. As a "lefty" who has had the misfortune to read many propertarian writers, I can confirm that George Monbiot is right. Yet Monbiot is simply repeating libertarian Peter Kropotkin on proto-propertarian Herbert Spencer's ideas: "its practical solution of the social problem is miserable – so miserable as to lead us to inquire if the talk of 'No force' be merely an excuse for supporting landlord and capitalist domination."
Genuine libertarians argue that the state exists to defend property and the inequalities in wealth and power it creates. Most propertarian writers, notwithstanding Gabb's assertions otherwise, do likewise – but we do not agree this is a good thing. Unsurprisingly, libertarians have opposed both state and capitalism from the start.
Black Flag magazine
• Sean Gabb doth protest too much. It is hardly the case that "big business in general is only big because of state-granted privilege". Big business is big because, in a system of market competition, it is inevitable that there will be winners and losers and that the former should grow and flourish at the expense of the latter. It is equally inevitable that the state should then want to take due care of the goose that lays its golden eggs in the form of all that tax revenue. The idea that you can have a market economy without capitalism and its conjoined twin, the state, to underwrite the property rights on which a market economy is predicated, is frankly ludicrous.
• To quote the admirable Gerald Kaufman MP on the same page, "rarely have I read such utter claptrap" as Dr Sean Gabb displays in his insulting letter. Unlike readers of the Tory-owned press, we take the Guardian for opinions with which we can agree or disagree and make up our own minds based on facts provided elsewhere in the newspaper or other media. Surprising as it may be to the good doctor and his 1% friends, we can read a piece by Norman Tebbit, just as we can Polly Toynbee, and make up our own minds. Perhaps he should have read George's piece a bit more carefully, then he might have been able to offer a more lucid argument – or not.
• Dr Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance must realise that this ghetto's very own resident libertarian, Sir Simon Jenkins, would beat him into a cocked hat any day in the libertarianer-than-thou stakes. Not only that, we have a fair idea who pays Sir Simon. Does anyone know who bankrolls the LA?
• Sean Gabb says: "There is a difference between believing in free markets and supporting actually existing capitalism." Funny, I remember that argument getting short shrift when applied to the difference between socialism and the Soviet Union.
• George Monbiot makes several good points (This bastardised libertarianism makes 'freedom' an instrument of oppression, 20 December). He rightly cites Berlin's warnings that freedom is likely to be twisted to mean something very close to its opposite. The problem was recognised earlier by Condorcet (1743-94), who seemed to foresee the rise of Fox News. He asked his readers to imagine that "a troop of audacious hypocrites" managed to get control of the central power of a country and to create relays throughout its regions. It could lay its hands on the main sources of information and consequently be believed by "a people whose ignorance makes them prey to the phantoms of fear". Alternating seduction and threats, it "will exercise under the mask of liberty" a tyranny that is in no less efficient than any other.
The "mask of liberty" is being worn by all those whom Monbiot rightly castigates and it needs to be torn off.
Dr Graham Spencer
• George Monbiot is right to insist that some people's (or corporations') freedoms intrude on others'. However, one wonders whether the popularity of the narrow definition of political liberty espoused by the organisations Monbiot mentions (the Institute of Economic Affairs and Adam Smith Institute among others) owes something to their deployment of the word liberty in much the same way as the emergent 18th-century capitalists in the great age of revolution (ie as claims against a state controlled by aristocratic interests). Back then, "economic freedoms" were seen more as property rights than political liberties.
Adam Smith himself, although acknowledging the brutalising effect on the human personality of the division of labour "unless government takes some pains to prevent it", nonetheless had full faith in a system of natural liberty to deliver the greatest amount of human welfare – as did Bentham and other "bourgeois" followers. The recognition of severe negative externalities was a 19th-century problem necessitating a broader interpretation of liberty that led eventually to the Factory Acts – one that today's neoclassicists either ignore or abhor.