Transcript of a talk given at the Frihetsfronten’s Summer Seminar near Stockholm, Sweden, on 18th August, 2001
Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2001
(N.B. Since I gave this speech, I have discovered that hardcore pornography is actually now legal in England.)
When I was in Dallas, Texas, to give a keynote speech about Taking Children Seriously at an education conference, I made the mistake of trying to buy alcohol in a nearby town. The rebuke I received from the shop assistant was such that I feared he might do something I might regret. “This is a dry county, Lady,” he growled. “We don’t have liquor here.” He was clearly outraged by the idea that anywhere might ever permit alcohol.
“Right. Oh, I see. Terribly sorry,” I replied, edging away as quickly as I dared without making any sudden moves – well I’d heard that all Texans carry loaded firearms. There’s something a bit odd about being able to see that there’s nothing wrong with carrying a gun, but not being able to see that carrying a tin of beer is also pretty harmless, isn’t there?
After that harrowing experience, I must confess that I was a little worried about visiting Sweden this weekend. I’d heard that buying a drink here is not for the faint-hearted. I’d heard that if you’re a person of modest means, as I am, you should bring your own. Enough to last you the whole trip. I brought enough to last me the weekend. [I PUT ON TO THE TABLE MANY BOTTLES OF ALCOHOL.] After all, it wouldn’t do to run out, would it? Better safe than sorry.
Oh, and don’t even think of selling any of it to Swedish people. The Swedish government doesn’t take kindly to evil foreigners coming over and corrupting their citizens with dangerous substances like alcohol. Does anyone know what the penalties are for selling alcohol to Swedes?
The Swedish State (henceforth known affectionately as “Nanny”) cares about the welfare of her charges – er, citizens, I mean.
Nanny Knows Best, and because she cares, she helpfully makes the cost of getting a drink so prohibitive that only those who could reach into their wallet and pull out enough cash to buy a small country can afford one.
You can tell Nanny really cares by the proportion of the cost of a drink that goes into her own wallet. [I USE CASH MONEY TO DEMONSTRATE THE PROPORTION THAT GOES TO TAX] From the prices I’ve seen here, I estimate that it must be of the order of 99.9384 per cent.
What does she do with all that money she helpfully confiscates? Well, for one thing, she provides jobs for otherwise unemployable thugs whom she hires to go around checking that no citizen is engaging in any inappropriate behaviour (like drinking more than a thimble of sherry once a year).
However, friends, I have to tell you that there is, in Sweden, a very alarming criminal element which doesn’t appreciate Nanny’s compassionate efforts to help her charges. These dangerous criminals do things like smuggling as much as a whole tin of beer across the border. [I GET OUT TIN OF BEER.]
Rest assured that if Nanny catches them, she’ll punish them severely. [I WAVE TOY HANDCUFFS, 20 FEET OF CHAIN, AND OTHER INSTRUMENTS OF TORTURE.]
I was reading a travel book the other day which was complaining about Stockholm. It said Stockholm shuts down for the night at 7 p.m. so you’d better take a book to read for entertainment in the long evenings.
What that writer fails to appreciate is that 7 o’clock is when everyone sneaks off to their local speakeasy for a night of illegal drinking.
In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a people whose consumption of alcoholic beverages comes even close to matching that of your average Swede. I feel sick just watching Swedes drink. If I ever need a liver transplant, I’ll demand a Swedish replacement – the Swedish constitution is evidently something special.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with an Australian parent at that Dallas conference.
I’d been invited over for a chat and, it transpired, to drink copious quantities of tequila and to eat brownies which tasted most peculiar and caused one to find it necessary to lie down in a darkened room and pray that one might survive the night. (And I’m an atheist.)
Anyway, at one point during this Japanese-Game-Show-like challenge to my constitution, while I was still able to sit up and was only seeing double, a child approached me.
At least I think it was a child – I assumed it couldn’t actually be a large green oozing reptile that was asking for a taste of my tequila. Feeling glad of an excuse not to drink the tequila myself, I thrust my glass in the general direction of said reptile and said brightly, “Of course. Be my guest!” Then I hurriedly added a warning that she might find it a little strong.
My Ozzy host, Oz, whose constitution could rival that of any Swede, I can tell you, suddenly went red in the face and started frothing at the mouth.
Wondering if this was a heart attack, or perhaps a tropical disease he’d brought over from Australia, I was about to phone for a doctor, when he erupted in an angry explosion, chastising me for offering alcohol to a child. (In fact, the child had taken one sniff, screwed up her nose, and gone off to get some water instead.)
Just like the Swedish Nanny, Oz was of the opinion that individuals must be protected from themselves, and prevented from drinking alcohol. And he, like Nanny, had a policy of helpfully enforcing this.
If you come from somewhere like the USA – where you have to be 21 to buy a drink and parents can be prosecuted for giving their children alcohol – you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. But coming from England – where it’s only marginally more common for parents to stop their children drinking than it is in France (where they believe that alcohol is second only to mother’s milk in its nutritious qualities) – I used to find it surprising that drinking was such a big issue in some places.
This little experience with an Australian who prides himself on being able to drink anyone else under the table took my breath away.
How he could sit there and drink 2 litres of tequila in approximately 76 minutes, and maintain that a child will be in mortal danger if a single drop touches her lips, I don’t know.
Well, actually, I do know. His parents didn’t let him drink until he was 18, and if it’s right for him, it must be right for his children. And undoubtedly his parents’ policy was a success: he didn’t become an alcoholic until after his eighteenth birthday. The day after.
I wonder what he’d say about the Swedish Nanny’s caring policy? After all, if it’s right for Swedes, surely it must be right for Ozzies!
So my first tip for any aspiring tyrants out there is: take a leaf out of the Swedish Nanny’s book and my friend Oz’s book, and keep tight control over other people’s alcohol consumption.
After all, it’s important to show you care, and people need to be protected from themselves, otherwise they might just have fun, and then where would we be?
CENSORSHIP AND PRIVACY
Speaking of not having any fun, it may come as a surprise to you if you’re Swedish, to learn that our Nanny in England takes her duty to protect us from corrupting influences very seriously indeed. We don’t have erections.
[PICTURE] You only have to look at any Englishman to know that our moral virtue would be in grave danger if we were to catch even a glimpse of the sort of stuff Swedish people take for granted. [I WAVE A SWEDISH PORN MAGAZINE.]
[I START LOOKING AT THE MAGAZINE AS IF FORGETTING I’M GIVING A SPEECH] Oh, er, where was I? Speech. Right.
Anyone would think – from the interrogation you get at customs if you inadvertently smuggle a copy of non-approved material into Britain (like I did once, as a favour to a friend) – that a copy of Hustler in your hand luggage is like carrying live ammunition (which I also did once, by accident, but that’s another story).
If you’re ever of a mind to have an adventure, try it yourself. You’ll be able to dine out on the story for years. Or if you’re unlucky, dine in – in the place where you’re not allowed out…
Our British Nanny protects us from the corrupting influences of all sorts of other things too. However, at least political satirists can talk on television about the Prime Minister buggering a sheep without raising a stir. And at least we can hear the words “fuck” and “shit” on English television – after 9 o’clock anyway. In the place they call the “land of the free”, from extensive research on my part (that’s to say, watching television a lot) I can tell you that, constitution or no constitution, there are limits on the freedom of speech. Who in their right mind would choose to have a beep instead of a “fuck”?
If you’re an aspiring tyrant, be sure to control people’s access to information and freedom of speech. You can’t be too careful – people might get ideas. For example, Karl Popper’s book, The Open Society and its Enemies, was published underground behind the iron curtain, and many people there were influenced by that and other such books.
Let people get hold of information you disagree with and they might rebel against your tyranny.
That’s why so many parents do what Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia used to do, controlling people’s access to information, punishing people for playing certain types of music, and banning books and films they thought subversive. A young friend of mine once had almost her entire CD collection stolen and destroyed by her mother, because the music contained “inappropriate” lyrics. Parents are always stopping their children watching South Park and other ‘undesirable’ television programmes. Be sure to monitor everyone’s television use. And indeed, their use of the internet. They might just try to access subversive internet web sites like my own, the Taking Children Seriously web site. The government of Singapore apparently has my site on their blacklist – their list of non-approved sites.
But what’s wrong with what the Singapore government is doing? After all, caring parents monitor and control their children’s access to the media and video games. And – as happened to a friend of mine once – they sometimes go so far as to burn any erotic magazines they find in their children’s rooms.
So, aspiring tyrants out there, forget about any “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”. Forget privacy! If you want to search their place, and steal their stuff, just do it! You’re in charge, and you know best, and you’re only doing it because you care about their welfare. You can’t risk allowing them to be subverted by accessing dangerous, inappropriate, non-approved information, can you? The ends justify the means, right?
Which reminds me of another interesting fact that might be of use to any aspiring tyrant. If you want to institute slavery or involuntary servitude, there are plenty of ways of doing so without encountering any opposition to speak of. It all depends whom you want to enslave, and exactly how you go about it.
For example, in many places, constitutional protections against involuntary servitude and slavery have not prevented either conscription or compulsory schooling. As long as you don’t call it “involuntary servitude” or “slavery”, you might get away with it.
Consider the case of the third world food aid charity, Oxfam, whose representatives have always been in the forefront of opposition to free trade on the basis that, for instance, child labour exists in some countries.
This is the same Oxfam that has instituted a program of so-called “community service” for school children in Britain, which schools eagerly participate in, signing up their pupils without their consent.
I heard about this when a young libertarian friend of mine, Josh, found himself signed up for the programme. He was not, I assure you, of a criminal nature, and had committed no crime, not even a victimless one!
He was a quiet, well-behaved young man who did his homework and never caused any trouble. And yet Oxfam had no qualms about using him and other perfectly innocent British children as slave labour for their own ends. And no one turned a hair.
There would have been a massive outcry if Josh had been working as a shop assistant of his own free will in his local supermarket.
But if it’s involuntary servitude, well, that makes it all OK, doesn’t it? After all, he was being forced to go to school, so what’s wrong with forcing him to do a spot of community service as well?
HOW, AS AN ASPIRING TYRANT, YOU CAN COUNT ON HELP EVEN FROM LIBERTARIANS
Now if you’re an aspiring tyrant, you may be thinking that there’s at least one group of people standing four-square in the way of your plans to eliminate freedom. There are, after all, people in this world who really do believe in freedom. Libertarians. Libertarians are doing everything they can to increase freedom in the world. However, if you play your cards right, many libertarians will actually join in your fight against freedom.
Let me tell you about my friend, Bill.
Bill and I both want to live in a society in which people have no obligations except those which they’ve consented to. We both predict that a libertarian society will have no borders, no government, no taxation, no welfare state – and none of the speed cameras, unmarked police cars, and wheel clamps that have made my life unbearable in recent years.
We both agree that a fully free society will have no prohibition against abortion, no laws against physician-assisted euthanasia (or indeed against killing yourself any way you please – though personally, I intend to be cryonically suspended, so falling out of a 27th floor window isn’t high on my list of options).
We both look forward to the repeal of all laws against drugs, guns, prostitution – and especially those infuriating laws telling us we can’t drive at 250 kilometres an hour on motorways. Philosophically, my friend Bill and I are both anarcho-capitalists at heart.
But Bill has a strange and decidedly alarming affliction. No, I’m not talking about the fact that he sometimes seems to forget where his shower is; or at least, that it can be used to reduce the olfactory shock to friends and neighbours alike. I refer to his strange blindness to any immorality that isn’t perpetrated by government.
Remember Josh, my young friend who was picked to do involuntary community service? When I told Bill about this, he was appalled. “Outrageous!” he fumed. “That’s slave labour! Involuntary servitude! Oxfam! They’re a bunch of communist thugs responsible for propping up half the world’s dictatorships. And they’ve caused starvation and death in the third world. I hate the stuff they sell too – it’s ‘Recycled Paper’ this, ‘Sustainably Grown’ that, and ‘this-ought-to have-been thrown-out-in 1973′ the other. Bunch of trendy lefty eco-fascists with no taste in clothes whatever,” Bill concluded, tucking his orange shirt into his holey blue jeans.
And he went on: “Of course this is what you get when you have a government-run school. Government ruins everything. What we need is the abolition of government schooling.”
“Er, Bill…” I said. But he was warming to his theme, and went on about the evils of government schooling for a further 83 minutes. Until, that is, I managed convey to him the information that the school in question was a private one – a jolly expensive one at that!
There was a stunned silence.
To Bill, private schools are not a proper subject for criticism.
“But surely you’re not opposing the idea of private schools?” he said, amazed. “Are you a Communist or something?”
“Bill, are you saying that it’s perfectly fine to imprison people who’ve committed no crime – except the crime of being between the ages of 5 and 16? And to force them to obey the every whim of the ”warders“ put in charge of them – as long as you aren’t the government? Whatever happened to the non-aggression principle?”
Bill, like other libertarians, is a strong believer in the non-aggression principle, the idea that coercion is legitimate only in self-defence or in the defence of others, except when it comes to children. Then, as long as the coercion isn’t government coercion – as long as it’s the parents who do the forcing, rather than the government – to Bill, there’s nothing wrong with it.
“Oh but children aren’t adults,” explains Bill, airily. Well, no, and women aren’t men either, and black people aren’t white. Why does that suddenly make it legitimate to coerce them?
Changing tack, Bill said: “What would you say if your child were to tell you that she wants to get some exams and she asked your advice about whether she should go to a state school or a private school to get them?”
Actually, I’d suggest that she choose a College of Further Education instead, because those are unlike most schools, in that a large proportion of the people there are young adults who’ve chosen to go there, and they treat the students the way universities treat their students – quite a bit better than schools do.
But in Britain, Colleges of Further Education are state institutions. I myself left school at 17 and went to a college of further education after a particularly nasty incident involving my left ear.
Specifically, the teacher in charge of my age group dragged me into his office by said ear, to reprimand me. Someone who was still bearing a grudge against me for having cost our team a netball game four years earlier, had informed him that I’d been spotted leaving the school when I’d had no lessons to attend.
People like that teacher tend to have an exaggerated idea of the amount of education that goes on in free periods behind the bike sheds.
Actually, I did probably learn a lot more playing poker in the sixth form common room than I ever did in Chemistry lessons. At least in the poker games I had some idea what was happening and generally managed to avoid causing explosions. And indeed, by all accounts, Racy Tracey taught many of the boys lots useful things behind the bike sheds.
But to get back to the issue of advising a child about schools – in England in the year 2001, most state schools are far more pleasant places for a typical child to spend time in than most private schools are.
That’s nothing to do with who funds them. Nor is it any sort of evidence that we should nationalise all private schools or give up libertarianism and become statists or anything like that. But it’s a fact. Why is it so? Well, that’s just the way things happen to have turned out at the moment. This shouldn’t be surprising.
What types of school are available in a society is deeply rooted in the history and traditions of that society. The fact that state schools in England are less unpleasant for children than most private schools is due to the accidents of history that have led us to the present day.
Bill was shocked. To him, a private school must be better, because it’s private.
It’s a bit like saying “We know that ultimately, there won’t be any state schools, there’ll only be private schools. So ultimately private schools are superior – therefore they must be superior now.” This is the mistake of utopianism – judging current institutions against what you think is the blueprint of how the ideal libertarian society should be, and thinking that politics is just a question of switching over to this blueprint.
But in fact, liberty – the non-initiation of force, a consensual social order – however you like to define it – isn’t a blueprint for society but a set of conditions that a society should have.
Creating those conditions takes knowledge. We can no more ‘switch them on’ than we can switch on a new scientific discovery or switch Nigeria into enacting the American Way of Life.
What we have to do is exercise creativity to solve specific problems, and remove specific impediments to liberty and reason.
And it so happens that the problem with the school system – which is one of the greatest impediments to liberty and reason in our society – has nothing whatever to do with how schools are funded, and everything to do with the fact that children are coerced by their parents to attend.
In England, legally, school is not compulsory, so it’s not government or legal coercion that’s the problem in this regard, it’s parental coercion.
I said to Bill, “Sometimes it seems as though you think that the only evil in the world is government. But if government’s the only evil, then why don’t we all go off and live in, say, a hunter-gatherer society. Hunter-gatherers don’t have a government! Of course they also don’t have scientific medicine, television, Apple computers and bone china teacups – all things which are clearly essential to life. And if you return from a hard day’s hunting expecting to be able to have a nice cup of tea without first making a fire and taking a long hike to the nearest water hole hoping you won’t tread on a parasite that will then work its way up into your brain to lay its eggs – forget it!”
“It isn’t that I think government’s the only evil,” replied Bill. “It’s just the evil I’m particularly interested in. I’ll leave it to you to argue against private schools. It isn’t that I think no wrongs happen in private schools, I’m just advancing the libertarian political agenda.”
It was a tactical retreat. A proposed cop-out – yet even as a cop-out, it just won’t do: “Bill,” I said, “advancing the libertarian agenda depends on combating those wrongs as well.”
Bill looked at me as though he was thinking I might be the exception to the rule that it’s wrong to lock innocent people up in psychiatric institutions. “How?” he asked, simply.
“Would you say we’re living in a libertarian society now?” I asked.
There was a pause, as Bill looked about him. Whether he was searching for an excuse to leave, or taking a quick look around to check that we weren’t in a libertarian paradise, I couldn’t say.
“No,” he replied warily. “I don’t think we’re quite there yet. There aren’t enough of us yet.”
“Quite,” I said. “So even if we’re right in thinking that we’ve discovered the ultimate truth about what the ideal society should be like, we haven’t discovered the ultimate truth about how to propagate these ideas to others. What that means is that we lack the necessary knowledge to change our society into a libertarian one.”
“D’you mean that it’s no good us having all these great ideas about freedom if we don’t persuade everyone else we’re right?” asked Bill.
“Yes, exactly,” I answered. “We need not just the ideas themselves, but knowledge about how to propagate the ideas.”
“Yes, we obviously haven’t got the hang of how to propagate the ideas yet, or else we wouldn’t be surrounded by statists and communitarians,” agreed Bill gloomily.
“Quite.” I replied. “So it follows that the ideal libertarian society of the future will be built by a generation of people who are unlike us in some extremely important ways, by people whose parents and grandparents were unable to create a libertarian society. So the question is, in what ways will these people be different from us? And where will such people come from? If you want a libertarian future, Bill, you have to realise that the issue of how to raise and educate children is vital. If people raise and educate their children exactly as they were raised and educated, creating adults exactly like themselves, it follows that there will be no libertarian future.”
THE INSIDIOUS LURE OF PRAGMATISM
If you’re an aspiring tyrant, how can you further your anti-libertarian cause while sounding like an enthusiastic ally of libertarianism?
By arguing in favour of liberalising measures, but confining yourself strictly to pragmatic arguments: utilitarian arguments – arguments about what works, arguments about figures, arguments about what empirical studies may or may not have shown – as opposed to moral and philosophical arguments. This trick is particularly effective in a debate about the morality of the authoritarian status quo which, as an aspiring tyrant, of course you’re secretly promoting.
When I mentioned that I was coming here to speak, a friend of mine, Sally, who has quietly and without any noticeable effort on my part become a libertarian (this seems to happen to quite a large proportion of people who become enthusiastic about the philosophy of Taking Children Seriously) said to me that she really admires the way I speak out about libertarian ideas, and that she wishes she could do what I do.
Basking in the glow of this compliment – and feeling decidedly pleased with myself, and possibly an inch or two taller, and definitely now in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize (having reduced the odds against to a finite, if still disappointingly large, figure) – I asked her – and this was in no way fishing for compliments I assure you – what had particularly impressed her.
Her answer deflated me considerably: “Well, you must have vast amounts of information in your head. I don’t think I know enough facts and figures to be good at arguing for libertarian ideas. How ever do you remember them all?”
“I don’t!” I protested. “And it isn’t just because I have no memory for facts and figures,” I added hurriedly. “It’s because facts and figures shouldn’t be your first line of argument when you’re arguing for liberty.”
“But I remember you told me about an argument you liked about the war on drugs killing more people than it saves. That was a facts-and-figures argument. What if you were challenged about the war on drugs by one of those frightening Southern Baptists?”
For anyone who’s unfamiliar with the murkier depths of American fundamentalism, Southern Baptists are the ones who agree with Ephesians chapter 5 verse 24 that “wives should submit to their husbands in everything”. (One can’t help wondering whether they also agree with chapter 6 verse 5 which reads “slaves obey your masters,” but I digress.)
“First”, I said, I’d argue that it’s immoral to stop people using or abusing their own bodies as they see fit, as long as they’re not harming anyone else. In the unlikely event that such a person were to listen to that argument, and start thinking about it, and asking practical questions about practical problems, then I might well rebut any pragmatic arguments he might make with a few facts of my own – if I could remember any.
“For example,” I pontificated, “If he were to raise the fact that, since the beginning of the Dutch experiment in decriminalising cannabis, heroin use has risen in Holland, I might mention that heroin use has risen more in Britain in that time. I might well add that the use of hard drugs has declined in recent years in The Netherlands, while it’s still rising in the UK and most other Western countries. If my opponent were to argue that people have died in Britain as a result of taking drugs, I might point out that the Netherlands has fewer drug-related deaths than any other European country. If he were to make dark predictions about what decriminalising cannabis might do to the cannabis consumption figures, I might assure him that in Holland, where cannabis has been decriminalised, cannabis consumption is somewhat lower than in England, and that it is substantially lower among children.” (People like to hear these things.)
“However,” I concluded, “Unless you want to hinder the libertarian cause, never make a pragmatic argument in a context that calls for moral justification.”
“Er, what?” queried Sally, who had nodded off during my little lecture.
“You have to be careful not to give the wrong impression, for one thing,” I explained. “Have you heard about that ghastly gaffe made by the world’s largest tobacco company recently?”
“No, what happened?” she asked, eager to hear a juicy piece of gossip.
“They caused a big political stir in the Czech Republic, by publishing a report about the allegation that cigarette companies put a hidden economic burden on the state by causing cancer and heart disease.”
“Well they do, don’t they?” said Sally, disapprovingly. “Don’t get me wrong – I know that in an ideal world that wouldn’t be an issue because it won’t be the state paying for health care, but right now, they are a burden on the tax payer aren’t they?”
“In that case,” I replied triumphantly, “What would you say if I were to tell you that actually, the economic cost to the Czech nation caused by smoking-related diseases is greatly outweighed by the benefit of people dying younger, because the cost of care of the elderly combined with state pensions is much larger than the additional cost of treating cancer and heart disease and the loss of productivity of the people who die before retirement. So cigarettes are in fact a net economic benefit.”
At this point, Sally gave me the sort of withering look I imagine she might give her husband if he were to – say – shit on their new carpet. By the way, I can report, from personal experience, that she’s really awfully decent about guests being sick on the new carpet. I’m sure it wasn’t the alcohol that did it – I’m sure it was the fish. I do hope it wasn’t the same fish I’d seen in the children’s sandpit earlier that day. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the tobacco company report.
“I’d think,” replied Sally icily, “that either I must have misheard you, or you’ve been spending too much time with Bill. You make it sound as though the deaths are a good thing!”
“And that, Sally, is precisely my point!” I said. “What I mean is, when you stick to pragmatic arguments and don’t first make the moral argument, it can make you – and libertarian ideas – look frightfully bad. What I’ve just said is what the tobacco company report said, and I agree with you, Sally: if the aim was to confirm in the eyes of uncommitted people that cigarette companies are callous, immoral, and don’t care about people dying, it couldn’t have done a more admirable job.”
“Yes, I see why you seemed a bit offended when I suggested that you like pragmatic arguments,” said my friend, clearly relieved. Umm… so what should you say, when faced with anti-cigarette-selling arguments?“
“Well consider the alternative. Ask your opponents to justify the coercion their position implies. You have to make the case that this is an issue of who decides? Who has jurisdiction over a person’s body? Is it the cigarette company? The government? The person’s parents? Or the person himself? Tell them that taking control of other people’s lives is wrong! That’s what anti-cigarette people want to do.”
“And of course,” teased Sally mischievously, “When you only make moral and philosophical arguments, the fact that your memory’s about as bad as that of my senile old grandmother doesn’t hamper you a jot.”
“Yes but that’s not why I don’t.” I replied. “There are all sorts of problems with them. Have you read Frances Kendall’s Super Parents, Super Children?”
“Yes of course,” said Sally. “You told me about it, remember?”
“Oh, er, did I? Right. Well anyway, in that book, you’ll remember that Frances Kendall advocates sexual freedom for children.”
“Yes, very courageous, I thought.” enthused Sally.
“Quite.” I said. “But instead of concentrating on the moral and philosophical arguments, she gives pragmatic arguments against denying teenagers sexual freedom. One of these arguments struck me because it was about some anthropological research I’d studied on my degree. I’m talking about the section on the Trobriand Islanders.”
“Yes, I remember,” said Sally. “She said they’re a free and easy bunch without sexual hang-ups and whatnot, right?”
“Yes,” I replied. “The research Frances Kendall was relying on was, on my degree course, deemed to have painted an inaccurately rosy picture of life among the Trobriand Islanders. Far from being a paradise of sexual freedom, according to the later research I read, the Trobriand Island people have all sorts of grim practices including gang rapes of both girls and boys.”
“D’oh!” said Sally.
“Who knows whether the earlier or the later research is true,” I continued. “But this does illustrate another fundamental problem with pragmatic arguments: you become hostage to a completely irrelevant set of facts. Suddenly, the sexual freedom of teenagers in our society comes to depend on the anthropological history of a bunch of savages somewhere.”
“Yes, point taken,” said Sally. “But I’m sure I’ve heard you use them. Remember that argument you told me about gun control – you know – the one giving a set of statistics showing that since the crackdown on firearms somewhere-or-other, gun-related crime and deaths have risen there by a staggering percentage. That’s a pragmatic argument isn’t it?”
I must pause here to confess that as one who fantasises about being able to walk down the high street open-carrying a Smith and Wesson .44 magnum, I was very taken with this pro-gun argument when I heard it. I made a mental note to remember the figures to use next time someone gave me a hard time about the photograph of me shooting such a gun, on my web site. But what I said to Sally was this:
“Yes. And you should be careful how you use it too. If the figures had gone the other way, would that make the crackdown right?”
“Good point,” she replied. “Mentioning figures to rebut the other side’s moral argument would be tantamount to telling your opponent that you actually agree with his idea that it would be right to prohibit gun ownership if the figures were otherwise.”
“Exactly.” I agreed. “Ideas have consequences. Giving people the impression that you agree with their immoral ideas is at best counterproductive to the libertarian cause, and at worst, immoral in itself. Have I told you about my adventures in Quebec City, Sally?”
In April this year, I was one of 15 libertarians who risked life and limb for freedom mounting a counter demonstration against 15,000 socialists, communists, eco-fascists, and violent anarcho-syndicalists who were protesting in Quebec City, Canada, against the FTAA summit – the Free Trade Area of the Americas summit. [I HOLD UP COPIES OF THE PLACARDS WE USED, SAYING THINGS LIKE “PROFITS NOT POVERTY”, “STOP TRADE – STARVE KIDS”, “FREE TRADE NOW!”, “FREE TRADE FREES PEOPLE”, ETC.]
Some of the libertarians wanted us to stick to pragmatic arguments. But those of us who were stating our moral and philosophical views were giving the anti-free-trade people the information that there’s a genuine disagreement about morality here. Had we just stuck to utilitarian or pragmatic arguments, we’d have failed to convey that fact. “But we’ll get a lot more positive interest if we keep quiet about some of the ideas non-libertarians find unpalatable,” argued one.
“Well yes, but in that case,” I replied, “Why not go the whole hog and spout only anti-capitalist platitudes? Then we’d get lots of support, wouldn’t we?”
“What these libertarians were doing,” I told Sally, “Was trying to control what people thought we were, so that they wouldn’t really realise at first that we were libertarians – so that at first, they’d think we were fellow greens, communists, or revolutionaries – so that they’d be listening sympathetically, and only realise later the truth about our ideas.”
“Is it that you think that’s dishonest, or that it won’t help the cause?” asked Sally.
“Both!” I said triumphantly. (Well, when I see a chance to be moral and pragmatic at the same time, there’s no stopping me!)
“It’s like I tell Taking Children Seriously people: Instead of trying to lure people, unknowing, onto the path you’ve secretly decided would be best for them, simply state the truth as you see it, honestly – and allow them to make up their own minds. It’s not right to poke about in other people’s minds and to try to manipulate them into what could only be the semblance of agreement. And how’s toning down the truth going to help? How are you going to persuade them of your actual ideas if you tell people half-truths, lies and evasions instead? If you give them arguments which to you don’t look sufficient, they won’t look sufficient to anyone else either.”
“Yes, now you come to mention it, I wasn’t persuaded of libertarianism by pragmatic arguments. Like, I’m really going to alter my whole world view on the basis of a few facts and figures – NOT! It was definitely the philosophical and moral arguments that got me. Do you realise you’ve made me a pariah in my family, Sarah? Before I got into Taking Children Seriously I was a Christian, a socialist, and a green, and now look at me! If you’d told me three years ago that I’d become an atheist libertarian, I’d have laughed in your face. I thought you Taking Children Seriously people were all mad. But I just kept thinking about it and every time I left the Taking Children Seriously List in disgust, I found myself feeling drawn back to it.”
If you give people the impression that the argument for libertarianism is that there’ll be a ten per cent increase in the efficiency of coal mines or something, they’re likely to think, “Well other things might just be more important than that! What about right and wrong?” If you tell them that the argument for libertarianism concerns right and wrong, then although they might disagree with you, they’ll at least know that there’s an argument out there, and they might come back to thinking about it later, like Sally did.
“Sarah,” said Sally, “One of the books you recommended had headings like ‘The rich get richer’, and ‘The rich get richer – with our help’ – as though there’s something wrong with that. I think it even had statements like ‘The wealth of the rich might not seem so opulent under a libertarian system.’ Isn’t that an example of manipulation?”
“It certainly sounds like it,” I said sheepishly, frantically trying to remember which book Sally might be referring to, and wondering guiltily if I’d recommended a book I hadn’t read. “Whilst I’m all for persuading anti-capitalists of libertarian ideas, this kind of statement is dishonest. It implies that people are libertarians because they want to find the best way of preventing the rich getting richer. Are you sure that’s what this book was saying?”
“Well,” said Sally, “The implication was definitely that anyone who hates the rich and wants them not to get richer is fine with the author, and that the author should be fine with the rich-hating reader too – ‘we’re all on the same side’ sort of thing. I couldn’t help noticing it because one of the other books you recommended had a chapter titled ‘The Rich get richer and the poor get richer.’”
“Ah yes,” I said, “That’s David Friedman in The Machinery of Freedom. That, of course, isn’t manipulative. Instead of conveying the impression that the rich getting richer is a bad thing, he presents up-front the idea that he approves of the rich getting richer.”
“Maybe the other author was just trying to tailor what he said to his audience,” Sally suggested, doubtfully. “You don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, do you?”
“Not at all. I may do a very poor job of this myself – given that when I spoke at the World Libertarian Conference last year, one person in the audience angrily suggested that I was in the wrong room and that maybe there’d be a more appropriate audience somewhere else on campus – but what you need to do in an argument is to answer the questions on the mind of the person you’re trying to persuade. And different people will have different burning questions. So there’s nothing wrong with adapting your arguments to suit a particular audience. But you have to do that without saying something false!”
At this point, I should confess that the World Libertarian Conference wasn’t the only time I’ve upset someone in an audience – but at least some people at that conference liked what I said. In the past, things have been worse.
I’m the sort of person who, only after having given a lecture on the subject of how feminism perpetuates the traditional subjugation of women, discovers that The Young Women’s Union is not a branch of the Mother’s Union (an organisation of vicars’ wives) but a group of radical feminist activists. I’m the sort of person who, when in the green room before a television programme I was appearing on (The Frost Programme with David Frost) talks about “eco-fascism” with a fellow guest – who turns out to be David Attenborough, the famous presenter of BBC documentaries on wildlife and the environment.
I once gave a talk to a group of so-called “anarchists” which I discovered to my cost, was actually an underground group of animal liberation activists whose members engaged in violent activities of questionable legality.
I felt very uneasy at that meeting, especially when they asked me whether I condone meat-eating. Being partial to a nice blue-rare steak on occasion, not to mention the odd bit of well-hung wild game, it wasn’t easy to play the vegan.
The hall erupted in outrage. The Chairman glowered menacingly at me as I imagined him having glowered at previous victims before killing them.
(Do you think it’s the lack of vitamin B12 in their diet that makes such people thirsty for human blood?)
I suppose it could’ve been worse: I could’ve been wearing a fur coat.
So, yes, it is worth finding out who you’re talking to before you launch into your arguments for liberty. When you’re in a dry county in Texas, talking to a man with a gun, who disapproves of drinking, take a tip from me and be a little bit careful about making jokes about alcohol, prohibition and speakeasies.
And now, let me close by opening one of these bottles. The drinks are on me! Down with tyranny – let’s drink to liberty – and to plentiful supplies of high-quality alcohol!
Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2001, ‘Tips for tyrants’, Frihetsfronten’s Summer Seminar, near Stockholm, Sweden, 18th August, 2001, https://www.fitz-claridge.com/tips-for-tyrants/