06 July 2007

Norman Geras - a true libertarian democrat?

I find it difficult to engage with someone like Norman Geras at Normblog. For a start he doesn't allow comments on his 'blog' - not even censored moderated comments...

I thought the whole idea of a blog was to get feedback - I would think calling his website (because that is effectively all it is) norm'blog', is breaking some sort of trades description act.

But apart from all that, what sort of libertarian democrat would deny people a voice?

He has written many posts attacking the current smoking ban and this for me is something that sums up his type of libertarianism.

It is a 'market is supreme and sod the rest' libertarianism, which of course ignores the fact that markets are usually unfairly distorted and that people with money have more liberty than those who don't.

To bring the smoking ban down to civil liberties, to me seems absurd. There are surely liberties on both sides and the inconvenience to non-smokers for many years has been far worse than the present minor inconvenience to smokers. Smokers have done well - non-smokers have put up with the intolerable for far too long.

People say non-smokers had a choice - but tell me where I could find a non-smoking pub before the ban - there were none. There was clearly something inherent in the market preventing this choice for non-smokers (and the 91% support for the smoking ban demonstrates there must have been a demand there). What of course was happening was that owners of pubs (whatever their true feelings on the subject) were effectively forced to allow smoking to remain in business - this is not a proper choice. Most people go to pubs in groups that include at least one smoker and it would have meant effectively ostracising their smoking addicted friends - socially this was very very difficult. There were all sorts of pressures like this and a 10% drop in takings was more than any pub owner could take unilaterally. Across the board there should have been some non-smoking pubs but in practise there were effectively none. When the market breaks down like this - in a democracy the government should step in.

For those like Norman who cling to their mythical principle of 'market liberty', a liberty that doesn't exist in practise, they find this anathema. But they are wrong.

I always instinctively recoil at people like Norman who call themselves Marxists (it probably is my Tory childhood coming through). I have usually found them quite intolerant and bullying sort of people - of course there are exceptions (as an aside Chris Dillow is one of my favourite blogs and I understand the point he was trying to make about liberty and justice even if Norman didn't.

Norman and other market libertarians have this 'holier than thou' approach that really grates my sensibilities. The sooner they get over themselves and realise the market needs regulating to truly protect liberties (and in Norm's case also allow comments on their site) the better for all of us.

Although Norm opposes the ban - he is right on one thing - once we accept the ban is correct, as 91% of us do, then it is also intolerable not to protect children in the home from smoke. Oh! I can see the libertarian smoke coming out of their ears right now (or is that their mouth).

10 comments:

  1. "It is a 'market is supreme and sod the rest' libertarianism, which of course ignores the fact that markets are usually unfairly distorted and that people with money have more liberty than those who don't."

    No it's a "liberty is supreme" type of libertarianism (what other sorts are there?). "Power" isn't "Liberty", Neil. Liberty refers to the freedom of the will and the rights of each human being to exercise total control over his person and property, whether they be rich or poor.

    The fact that I cannot leap oceans in a single bound or fly to the moon has nothing to do with my liberty, it simply demonstrates that there are physical limits to my capabilities as a human being. The size of my wallet does not prevent me from exercising my will, it does not prevent me from exercising control over my body and property.

    The smoking ban, of course, does encroach on these rights and thus is rightfully regarded as criminal by libertarians.

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  2. The smoking ban, if anything is libertarian.

    If non-smokers were able to work in, or go to a pub without breathing in smoke and stinking of smoke, if they had had that option then I would agree with you but they didn't.

    Neither did landlords of pubs have a choice - those that wanted smoke-free pubs would have lost enough business to make their pubs unviable which is why there were no non-smoking pubs.

    Wealth clearly has an effect on someone's liberty. There are places that are restricted according to wealth - I cannot go to some beaches, establishments, join certain clubs unless I have extreme wealth. To deny that wealth has an effect on freedom is at best naive. Oppostunities in life depend so much on wealth - it is only a accident of birth that a minority of us live in West and do not have to work in Asian sweatshops or a minority not born in the estates that have to live with daily crime and drugs. To deny these facts is the Tory way of looking at liberty and it is disingenuous.

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  3. "Wealth clearly has an effect on someone's liberty. There are places that are restricted according to wealth - I cannot go to some beaches, establishments, join certain clubs unless I have extreme wealth."

    I want that expensive sports car I saw in the showroom today. Am I less free than the owner of the car showroom? Does your concept of freedom allow me to steal it? And the owner of the car whose car I stole?

    I want to fly with the birds. Am I not free? Do I have a right to fly?

    Liberty refers to the freedom of the will and the rights of each human being to exercise total control over his person and property, whether they be rich or poor.

    As Wikipedia describes it:

    "Liberty is generally considered a concept of political philosophy and identifies the condition in which an individual has the ability to act according to his or her own will"

    Or John Stuart Mill in "On Liberty"

    "The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right...The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."

    None of this has any relation to wealth or power or status.

    This concept of negative liberty goes as far back as Mill, Locke, Smith (and beyond them to Greece) and is founded in universal, natural rights afforded to person and justly acquired property.

    "As reason tells us, all are born thus naturally equal, with an equal right to their persons, so also with an equal right to their preservation . . . and every man having a property in his own person, the labour of his body and the work of his hands are properly his own, to which no one has right but himself; it will therefore follow that when he removes anything out of the state that nature has provided and left it in, he has mixed his labour with it, and joined something to it that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. . . . Thus every man having a natural right to (or being proprietor of) his own person and his own actions and labour, which we call property, it certainly follows, that no man can have a right to the person or property of another: And if every man has a right to his person and property; he has also a right to defend them . . . and so has a right of punishing all insults upon his person and property."

    Which makes your use of force on other peoples property a crime. Its also clear that none of your rights have been violated just because you cant obtain access to private property or people refuse to enter into a consensual arrangement or contract with you. To force them to do so is in blatant violation of libertarian principles.

    I'll reproduce my post from Wongablog.co.uk because it concludes nicely...

    ..We have the right to be free from agression and coercion employed against our will, against person and justly acquired property. Libertarian theory is grounded in property rights. My home is my property. If you enter onto my property or interact with it physically without my consent then we consider it to be trespassing, just as agression against my person without my consent is considered assault. In both cases I may employ force to repel such agression.

    In the case of the bar, we come to an agreement regarding your presence on my property. I agree to let you on my property. I hold the property rights, and thus decide how that space is to be employed. At no point do you acquire any property rights over my property. By entering onto my property you accept my right to employ that space as I see fit. Smokers on my property produce fumes on my property. If I consent, there is no trespass, there is no crime.

    Your use of force on my property and against others is completely unjust whether it be a fist fight or a piece of government legislation. You dont want to go elsewhere, but if I decide I no longer wish to have you on my property, then you are a trespasser. You are the criminal.

    "To deny these facts is the Tory way of looking at liberty and it is disingenuous."

    I'm sorry, but classical liberals like Mill(who championed universal rights and held what we know consider to be libertarian principles) were the main opposition to conservatives and the right wing before socialism became popular in the mid 19th century.

    Indeed, its common knowledge that the term "left wing" comes from French liberals who sat to the left of the President.

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  4. ANL, there is a contradiction in Mill's logic and liberalism in general.

    While the general principle is excellent, 'harm to others' is very difficult to define - virtually any action impacts on others.

    Crash helmets, seat belts etc reduce serious injuries to motorists and save the taxpayer money as well as saving motorists' lives. The infringement to their liberties is marginal, the benefits to society (and improved liberty to taxpayers) far outweigh the liberty concerns.

    The smoking ban not only fits into that category but also improves the liberties of non-smokers, so cannot be thought of as anti-libertarian at all.

    There were plenty of landlords that wanted to ban smoking on their property but financial constraints prevented them. It is this financial constraint that prevents choice for non-smokers, that is not a free choice - it is a restriction on their liberty.

    Both smokers and non-smokers are happy with the present legislation. Pubs have improved their beer gardens and outside facilities for smokers and non-smokers can now largely avoid breathing in and stinking of smoke. It has enhanced both parties liberties.

    Indeed you have to question how free an addict is to make a decision about smoking in the first place - most want to give up and a lot of smokers have welcomed the help this smoking ban has given to that aim. Surely that is some form of freedom as well.

    We do not live in a world where one statement or principle should be absolute over every aspect of our lives. There is no absoluteness about freedom and liberty - in the real world it is complex and compromises and judgements have to be made. It is always going to have an arbitrary element where-ever you draw the line.

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  5. "While the general principle is excellent, 'harm to others' is very difficult to define - virtually any action impacts on others."

    Which is why libertarians define unjust action as violence or aggression against anothers person or property without consent. Its a clearly defined principle.

    "Crash helmets, seat belts etc reduce serious injuries to motorists and save the taxpayer money as well as saving motorists' lives. The infringement to their liberties is marginal, the benefits to society (and improved liberty to taxpayers) far outweigh the liberty concerns."

    And this is why you are a socialist/statist and not a libertarian. Forcing people to wear seatbelts IN CASE they hurt themselves, is entirely anti-libertarian...

    Granted, Mill isnt rigourous enough in his definition, but I quoted him because the following passage was particularly pertinent,

    "He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right."


    "The smoking ban not only fits into that category but also improves the liberties of non-smokers"

    Improves? Their liberties are not infringed or violated by the act of smoking on property that belongs to someone else.

    If you enter onto the property of someone else you do so at their invitation and under their terms. Thus you consent to their use of the property, smoking included. No violence or action has been directed without consent against the person or property of the non-smoker. If you dont agree to these terms you cannot employ force against their person or their property.

    "There is no absoluteness about freedom and liberty"

    I'm afraid there is. I can understand the utilitarian arguments, but to claim that these are arguments of freedom is to turn a whole body of political philosophy on its head.

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  6. "tell me where I could find a non-smoking pub before the ban - there were none."

    You're right, Neil! Oh no wait, Wetherspoons, one of the largest pub chains in the country, banned smoking in its pubs some time ago. Or does that not count for some mysterious reason?

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  7. Wetherspoons only banned smoking in about 10% of their pubs once the smoking ban was announced. No, it doesn't count. Without the smoking ban promised there was no choice for non-smokers.

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  8. [The smoking ban, of course, does encroach on these rights and thus is rightfully regarded as criminal by libertarians]

    Which of course is the fundamental libertarian fallacy - that property rights are supreme. They are not. My neighbour does not have the right to use his property in a way that will severely inconvenience me or cost me money. If he makes a midden of his garden, so that it attracts vermin and disease, then he has no right to do that since such behaviour directly interferes with the rights of those who live in adjacent properties. Society has been making laws that so restrict the rights of property owners for centuries.

    [Its also clear that none of your rights have been violated just because you cant obtain access to private property or people refuse to enter into a consensual arrangement or contract with you]

    Yeah, right. Tell that to a black man seeing a line of lodging houses with signs up saying 'no blacks or Irish'. I think he'll treat your assurances that his rights haven't been infringed with contempt. The usual libertarian 'solution' of telling him to set up a lodging house of his own that will admit black people just about sums up the ivory tower impracticality of some libertarians. There is a balance between individual rights and the public good. Having laws which restrict the grosser formers of racial, sexual and religious discrimination undoubtedly do violate the rights of those who would do the discriminating. But the wider public good of reducing blatent sexual and racial discrimination in the workplace and eliminating the social evils that such discrimination produces, is rightly seen as a countervailing good.

    [To force them to do so is in blatant violation of libertarian principles]

    In 1861 Slavery was defended by the Confederacy in precisely the same terms.

    [The smoking ban, if anything is libertarian]

    No it is not Neil. It is not libertarian at all. However it can be justified on the grounds that restricting the rights of the property owner in this case promotes the wider public good.

    The point is that there are no absolutist arguments on the question of balancing public good against individual rights. Each case must be taken on its merits.

    I am opposed to compulsory seat belt wearing because the public good argument was never well made. Personally I wear a seat belt because I think it is the safer thing to do, as I did before it was compulsory, but the 'public good ' case is unclear. There is evidence that drivers have become more devil-may-care as a result of universal seat belt wearing and the 'costs to the NHS' argument never made much sense on a bean counting basis, as it has had to treat more people with serious injuries who before would have been fatalities.

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  9. [Which of course is the fundamental libertarian fallacy - that property rights are supreme. They are not. My neighbour does not have the right to use his property in a way that will severely inconvenience me or cost me money. If he makes a midden of his garden, so that it attracts vermin and disease, then he has no right to do that since such behaviour directly interferes with the rights of those who live in adjacent properties]

    Indeed, their property rights. So you've just reiterated the point. If I light a fire on my property, and the smoke crosses over onto yours, then this is trespass and I have infringed on your property rights.

    Unless can demonstrate how smoking in a bar infringes unjustly onto the property rights of others, I fail to see the point.

    [Yeah, right. Tell that to a black man seeing a line of lodging houses with signs up saying 'no blacks or Irish'. I think he'll treat your assurances that his rights haven't been infringed with contempt]

    He's welcome to think what he likes, it doesn't make it any less the case. Rights aren't a matter of interpretation or opinion. He hasnt got any rights, under libertarian theory, to enter onto the property of someone else without their consent. This applies to any human being no matter what the colour of their skin.

    ["The usual libertarian 'solution' of telling him to set up a lodging house of his own that will admit black people just about sums up the ivory tower impracticality of some libertarians."]

    Firstly, any sensible businessman would not want to restrict his market based on race. He would be free to do so but the market would punish those who turned away clients based on the colour of their skin. A shortage of housing open to black citizens would be an incentive for any capitalist to enter into the market and provide services for those discriminated against. Which is what happens day in and day out, and has been happening for centuries, long before anti-discrimination laws appeared.

    Secondy, its hardly a surprise that the most successful businesses were employing and welcoming customers of all races long before the government stepped in, so talk of "impracticality" does not stand up against the empirical evidence.

    [There is a balance between individual rights and the public good. Having laws which restrict the grosser formers of racial, sexual and religious discrimination undoubtedly do violate the rights of those who would do the discriminating. But the wider public good of reducing blatent sexual and racial discrimination in the workplace and eliminating the social evils that such discrimination produces, is rightly seen as a countervailing good.]

    Oh god, the "public interest" argument.

    At what point does the "public good" usurp the rights of the free individual?

    What happens when this majority believes that lynching every one with blond hair is for the public good? Would you support that because its considered in the interests of the public good?

    And who decides what the public good actually is? The state? I dont think you need me to point out examples of where the state's idea of the public interest has entered the history books as mass murder. And you talk to me about ivory towers!

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  10. [Indeed, their property rights. So you've just reiterated the point. If I light a fire on my property, and the smoke crosses over onto yours, then this is trespass and I have infringed on your property rights]

    No their rights, regardless of whether they own the property.

    [He's welcome to think what he likes, it doesn't make it any less the case. Rights aren't a matter of interpretation or opinion. He hasnt got any rights, under libertarian theory, to enter onto the property of someone else without their consent. This applies to any human being no matter what the colour of their skin]

    That 'libertarian theory' does not admit such a violation of rights is not of the slightest concern to me as I have no more respect for libertarian theory than I have for gaia mumbo jumbo or witchcraft.

    [Firstly, any sensible businessman would not want to restrict his market based on race]

    If running a restaurant, I suppose that sensible businessmen would not want to poison their customers. Yet most countries still have public health ordinances which regulate the way in which restaurants operate, so as to reduce the risk of food poisoning. Sensible people don't want to commit murder or rape or theft yet we still have laws to regulate human behaviour in all of those ways.

    [Oh god, the "public interest" argument]

    Yes the public interest argument. So?

    [At what point does the "public good" usurp the rights of the free individual?]

    When your 'right' to drive on the right conflicts with the law that says that you must drive on the left.

    [What happens when this majority believes that lynching every one with blond hair is for the public good? Would you support that because its considered in the interests of the public good?]

    No, of course I would not support that. That you have to resort to such pathetically extreme example shows how bankrupt your argument is. I said that each case should be argued on its merits. That of course supposes that the person doing the arguing has the wit to understand what those mertis are, which you seem keen to demonstrate that you haven't.

    [And who decides what the public good actually is? The state? I dont think you need me to point out examples of where the state's idea of the public interest has entered the history books as mass murder. And you talk to me about ivory towers!]

    Which is a good reason to constrain the state's power by a constitution and to distribute power in say the American model to reduce the risks of an elected dicatorship arising. Presumably the state protects property rights, such as copyright law, and the various theft acts, out of a spirit of the public good. Who decided that Mr Libertarian?

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