MonbiotMy article on the virtue of rational self-interest stirred up a bit of debate between one of our regular comment-leavers, Dave Powell, and I. Finishing up his contribution to the debate Dave left a link to an article by George Monbiot in which Monbiot has a little pop at libertarians and libertarianism – or least what he thinks libertarianism is about.

George Monbiot. What can I say? OK, I could say that he’s an addled-minded dim-wit, but to do so without first considering his case would be unseemly. So I won’t.

In all honesty I try to steer clear of Monbiot, who’s not undeservedly re-named “Moonbeam” by John Wright. Entering the mental world of Monbiot is a little like entering a lunatic asylum: the majority of the content is intellectually retarded, unwittingly humorous at times, full of incoherent babble, and the ever-present stench of stale piss. Not to mention straight-jackets: Monbiot’s vision for humanity involves a lot of straight-jackets.

But, putting my own sanity on the line, I entered, tentatively, just this once. His article is primarily concerned with the Northern Rock bank (and particularly it’s recently departed chairman Matt Ridley), which got into a little spot of bother recently and had to go cap in hand to the Bank of England for an emergency loan. The move sparked massive panic amongst Northern Rock customers who queued outside branches across the country to withdraw their money, but the panic cooled after government intervention to guarantee the savings of all customers. The bank has borrowed in excess of 19 billion from the government so far, with more on the horizon. Monbiot was irked somewhat about the fact that “Ridley and other bosses blamed everyone but themselves for this disaster.” Ridley has a long history of standing against all government intervention, taxes, subsidies and the like, and in favour of an increasing deregulation of business. Like myself, Ridley adopts a view of humanity that is consistent with egoism and a philosophy of rational self-interest.

Monbiot claims to be a biological determinist, and comparing himself to Ridley he writes: “I believe that much of our behaviour is governed by our evolutionary history. I accept the evidence [Ridley] puts forward, but draw completely different conclusions. Ridley believes that modern humans are destined to behave well if left to their own devices; I believe that they are likely to behave badly.” Monbiot is a classical statist, and in this admission we see a classic statist premise: men need governments in order to behave well. Mixing biological determinism with this view of humankind leaves us with a secular version of the doctrine of original sin: humanity is corrupt, inherently sinful, bad, wicked; and whereas in Christianity it’s a salvific act of God required to save man, in the secular version of Monbiot it’s the firm arm of a strong government, a bureaucratic whip across our back to keep us in line.

These sentiments are more than enough to give us an insight into Monbiot’s anthropological viewpoint. His philosophy is one of hatred for humanity. He distrusts us. He dislikes us. He feels unsafe with a humanity that is free, because in the mind of Monbiot a free humanity means a wicked humanity running amok and bringing chaos. So the solution – the Final Solution – is to keep humanity bound, forever in a regulatory straight-jacket, always to obey the dictates of his captors. One wonders to what extent his jaundiced view of humanity is the result of introspection.

This hatred for humanity is the source of his hatred for libertarianism – the philosophy that protects men from their governments and allows them freedom and individual rights over their own life, property and mind. And such is his hatred that he doesn’t even bother to accurately state libertarianism before criticising it. His mind is so twisted, his vitriol so poisonous that his reason has been dumfounded into attacking a caricature of libertarianism and blaming it for the failed policies of statism.

His first comments concern the Northern Rock difficulties. Monbiot approvingly quotes the Economist which accused Northern Rock of, “[pushing] an aggressive business model to the limit, crossing its fingers and hoping that liquidity would always be there.” Monbiot continues: “It was allowed to do so because it was insufficiently regulated by the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority.” It’s at this point were Monbiot’s hatred of humanity, freedom and libertarianism gets in the way of his critical faculties. He says that this “libertarian business model failed” and that “Ridley had to go begging to the detested state. If the government and its parasitic bureaucrats had not been able to use tax-payers’ money to clear up his mess, thousands of people would have lost their savings. Northern Rock would have collapsed and the resulting panic might have brought down the rest of the banking system.” Want a definition of pure unadulterated nonsense? There you go, in his confusion of banking policy with libertarian philosophy, Monbiot has provided the authoritative one. For a start it is not a point of libertarian philosophy to “push an aggressive business model to the limit, crossing its fingers and hoping that liquidity would always be there.” That’s irresponsible and the sure fire way to financial ruin. Under a libertarian approach this irresponsible and cavalier policy adopted by Northern Rock would have been less likely. The truth of the matter which Monbiot cannot bring himself to acknowledge is that Northern Rock’s behaviour was encouraged by statism: they acted in this way because they knew that the state could and would bail them out, and that the Bank of England was there ready and willing to provide a covering loan to help them should their banking policy go tits-up. Had they not had such a safety net, and they wouldn’t have under a libertarian scheme, they might never have been in this position in the first place. But, why let facts get in the way of good theory, eh George? Secondly, Monbiot is blowing the episode out of proportion. I haven’t read a single economic authority who thought that Northern Rock was on the brink of collapse let alone “the rest of the banking system.” People would NOT have lost their savings. The panic was largely a media manipulated melodrama, but of course George Monbiot is known for scare-mongering in a whole host of areas – it’s the defining characteristic of his writing.

Monbiot continues his anti-libertarian rant with: “Wherever modern humans…are allowed to pursue their genetic interests without constraint, they will hurt other people. They will grab other people’s resources, they will dump their waste in other people’s habitats, they will cheat, lie, steal and kill. And if they have power and weapons, no one will be able to stop them except those with more power and better weapons.” Dear oh dear oh dear. I agree with Monbiot here: I would hate to live in such a society as this one he describes. But, it isn’t a libertarian one, as he seems to think. Libertarianism is not about society “without constraint.” There are constraints. The boundaries are set by the harm principle: do as you like, but you cannot breach the rights of another individual. In other words, the government will rightly intervene if anyone tries to grab anyone else’s resources, dump waste on other people’s land, cheat, lie, steal or kill. Criminal and civil courts would deal with all such matters in a libertarian state.

While waxing lyrical about the evils of this society Monbiot ignores the fact that his statism is guilty of all of this evil itself. Wherever you find oppression, tyranny and brutality, you will find statist ideology festering at the root of it all. Monbiot says nothing of the theft of private property under statism, nothing about statist governments grabbing the resources of other people: whether in extreme forms in Zimbabwe or the more “civilised” forms of vesting orders. He never gets around to considering the truth that increasing government regulation and interference with individual rights is exactly what gave us most of the horrors of the 20th century and beyond. Blind to human history, his anti-libertarianism fails to see the need to keep government power in check. Of course Monbiot gives half a sentence to saying “we must ensure that the state is also…punished when it acts against the common good.” How, George? Silence. If the state has the monopoly on force, how is it to be punished? He doesn’t say. Furthermore, he never once describes where the limits of government regulation and interference in the lives of individuals should be drawn, nor does he lay down principles for drawing such boundaries. One gets the impression that he has no principles beyond his own whims.

Monbiot certainly has little grasp of libertarian philosophy. He speaks of the state being “broken down” under libertarianism, and of libertarianism “destroying people’s savings, wrecking their lives and [trashing] their environment.” The fact of the matter is that libertarianism makes savings possible, allows people to have the right to their own life and property without interference, and motivates humankind to look after their environment – it is after all our livelihood. It is statism that takes our money, that issues vesting orders on our property, that ensures the environment is owned by no-one and looked after by no-one. It is statism that puts us in a straight-jacket, takes away our freedoms, and infects all that makes life worth living with it’s noxious fumes.

Rather disingenuously Monbiot accuses libertarianism of being “the belief system of the free-rider, who is perpetually subsidised by responsible citizens.” At this point he has, seemingly, taken leave of his senses. It is not libertarians who ask for government hand-outs. We ask only for the right to stand on our own two-feet and take responsibility for ourselves. It’s the exact opposite of a belief system of the free-rider. Libertarians do not advocate, and actively oppose, free-rider statist policies such as unemployment benefit, arts funding, government investment in business, property vesting, free housing, inheritance tax, and 101 other such policies in which responsible citizens are forced to hand over their earnings, their property, for the many free-riders of society. That’s statism. That’s Monbiot. Charlatan. Hypocrite.

When I started reading his article I had a suspicion as to what was going on in his mind when he talked about “libertarianism.” Monbiot has made the classic mistake of confusing libertarianism with anarchism and if it isn’t already clear from some of his earlier comments his parting sentence confirms it: “the true social parasites [for Monbiot, libertarians] are those who demand [the government’s] dissolution.” This is where a political philosophy 101 class might have come to Monbiot’s aid. Perhaps he should have a look at the primer on libertarianism on this website if he’s stuck, and it seems to me that he clearly is. Libertarians do not advocate the dismantling of government or the state. That’s anarchism, that state of nature that Monbiot rightly fears. Libertarianism requires a government. Within a libertarian state people would be free to do what they like (accepting the consequences, of course) as long as it isn’t legally forbidden (a boundary defined by the rights of others and the harm principle), whilst the government could only do that which is legally permitted: to act when individual rights are breached by others. For instance: murder, theft, violence, fraud, and the enforcement of contracts. The government would, generally speaking, have three functions: defence against external aggressors, defence against criminals, and administering civil courts to settle disputes amongst individuals.

Seemingly Monbiot doesn’t actually understand what libertarian philosophy is let alone how it would pan out in practice. His errors are those of a schoolboy, so if he has any claim to being intelligent I can only conclude that he has wilfully twisted the true picture: confusing libertarianism with anarchism, and blaming libertarianism for the failing of statist policies.

So, having considered his arguments perhaps we might conclude that George is indeed an addled-minded dim-wit after all.