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The Freedom Impulse (Or Not)

3rd January 2009

Samizdata folk are having a lively exchange over Perry de Havilland's ringing call for Disunity in conservative ranks.

His core demand:

I am not calling for the 'libertarianisation' of the Republican party along the lines I would actually like, just for the party's rationalisation. I am in essence calling for a nominally conservative party to become... conservative. The simple fact is that people can be fellow travellers on a path that leads to liberty without all marching in ideological lock-step.

It just boils down to asking the question "do you want the state to have less control over people's lives or more control?" If a person can honestly answer that they think the state is too powerful and needs to be reduced, that is a fellow traveller...

The economic crisis needs to be re-branded for a start: this is not, and never was, a 'crisis of capitalism', it is in fact the 'crisis of regulatory statism'.

John Maynard Keynes said "in the long run we are all dead"... well sadly for the Keynesians of all parties, the long run has finally arrived as it always does with Ponzi schemes.

The lesser evil, the easy option, is no longer a viable option at all and the sooner the failures of the past are not dealt with by more of the same, the better.

But one reader makes a telling if depressing point:

Most of humanity that have ever lived have lived under the most ridiculous systems - under kings, and priests and politicians, imposing on them the most ridiculous restraints. It's the norm. Individual freedom is a recent idea that has existed partially in some areas of the world, that is all, and generally more talked about than actually practised. There isn't a default freedom-loving state of man.

... Horridly restrictive systems imposed for noble or otherwordly purposes can last for hundreds of years. In Assyria, it was the obligation of every woman to serve as a temple prostitute at least once. In myriad cultures, offering one's children for sacrifice at the request of the priesthood was the norm. Virtually every society until recently practised enslavement. Jews still are denied the right to eat many foods, muslims are told what clothes to wear and how to keep their beards.

In the main, once these things are presented as a normal thing, people just do them.

... People who live in institutions get institutionalised. They get too scared to leave, because they're used to being in a safe, restricted world where it's always jam roly-poly on fridays...

A while back I had a debate with Laird and others about council housing, and he said it was good that tenants would suffer increasing bureaucracy because that would make them hate statism and we should support that. It's not true. They just get used to it, the form filling and humiliating rituals, and come to think of it as the norm.

That's what the Enemy do; they shift the Normal.

This argument has a lot of history and bitter experience on its side. It is how the EU has grown and grown. But is it quite as true as it seems?

In past ages people were limited in their knowledge and 'scope'. So there was no real reason to rise up against tyranny if no other alternative could be conceived.

Now at least for the first time ever there is a quite new situation: many different ideas out there, and mass access to them.

Which maybe explains the currently fevered attempts by governments and other official/statist institutions round the world to grab for themselves more power - do they instinctively sense growing lack of control and so want as much padding as they can muster, to give themselves a better negotiating position when things start to deteriorate?

Or not.

Maybe the human condition is indeed at root passive, unambitious and fatalistic.

It takes special courage and self-sacrifice to face up to well organised, determined and well-armed tyranny. The examples we cherish - see eg the intellectual and physical agonies of Thomas Cranmer - are so striking in part because they are so rare.

Thus today the people of Zimbabwe, Cuba, North Korea and other places evince a staggering capacity for sinking into sustained oppressed apathy, although in each case the argument might be made that the local regimes do a good job in denying the public the chance to understand possible choices and violently squashing coherent opposition.

Just as the public get more sophisticated, so does state oppression.

Realising that people expect choice these days, the political establishment pretend to offer it to them. At the least this creates enough confusion to buy more time for existing attitudes/norms/institutions to entrench themselves.

Atlas Shrugged of course takes all these issues and reduces them to the darkest level of basic principle.

After John Galt indeed manages to stop a lot of the world - after years of personal hardship and uncertainty, and with many people dying in the process - there is the famous positive ending. The small band of heroic freedom-lovers decide that the time has come to rejoin and rebuild society, according to honest principles at long last.

Yet in the book that outcome occurs because the Collectivists seem finally to grasp the scale of their folly and either go insane or just wilt away and give up.

But is this realistic?

What if the Tenacity of Tyranny really is greater than the Impulse to Freedom?

Older comments:
4th January 2009
Paul E
Just wanted to thank you for feeding the thinking parts of my brain, and say I'm looking forward to more of the same in 2009 - even those (especially those?) entries which make me confused/annoyed/angry or which I think are just plain wrong.

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