Monday, 28 May 2012

DOWN TO THE DOCTOR'S: Freedom gets a shake on state radio!

_McGrath001This week, Dr Richard McGrath is listening to state radio!

I'm recommending readers find fifty minutes to listen to this MP3 podcast from National Socialist Radio, a.k.a. Red Radio, broadcast yesterday on Chris Laidlaw's programme. It features interviews with two self-styled 'libertarians,' Colin Cross, a former candidate from Libertarianz and Sam Buchanan, an anarchist from Paekakariki.

This is followed there is an explanation a discussion of libertarianism between Laidlaw and Victoria University politics lecturer Javier Marquez, including the role that Marquez thinks luminaries such as Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Friederich von Hayek and Ayn Rand played in the evolution of libertarian politics.

The discussion is not always accurate, but it reveals the way the mainstream sees libertarianism in NZ today.

Naturally, my own sympathies here are with the position of Colin Cross. Colin is a longstanding member of the Libertarianz Party and former electorate and list candidate. His musings comprise the first seventeen minutes of the audio programme, in which he acquitted himself well.  Most of that time was spent dealing with the usual questions and the host of straw men that are thrown up whenever someone suggests paring back the State  so people can have more of a say in their own lives, and the lives of their families, whanau, friends and communities. Questions such as:

  • What about the roads? (If we had a dollar for every time that question comes up…)
  • What would happen if the state welfare system was dismantled?
  • What guarantee is there that people in a libertarian society would act in a rational self-interested manner?
  • Has there ever been a libertarian society?
  • Is property theft, as Proudhon claimed—and Sam Buchanan still believes?

Colin answers these questions in such a calm and engaging manner he readily convinced me.

But then, I was already convinced.

Next interviewee Sam Buchanan was introduced as a left-wing or "socialist" libertarian. Frankly, juxtaposing the words "socialist" and "libertarian" is akin to mixing water and oil. The term is oxymoronic, because coercion lies at the very root of socialism. To his credit, Sam is cynical about the motives of the State and its capacity to violate the freedom of its citizens. But he also believes that private individuals, industrialists and corporations can pose as much a threat as an overbearing uncontrolled State. In particular he believes that an economic imbalance between individuals, such as often exists in the context of an employer/employee relationship, impinges on the freedom of the less economically able—which blurs or ignores the critical distinction between economic freedom and political freedom, which is the difference between the dollar and the gun.

To overcome these perceived problems, Sam proposes a “syndicalist” form of industrial ownership, which means “workers” basically seize and own the factories, ports and “commanding heights” of the economy. (If you want an image of what this would look like across whole economy, think of a country in the grip of a General Strike. That pretty much gives the picture.)

Pushed to answer this critique, and the challenge that only the already rich can succeed in the present system, Colin provides the example of TradeMe’s Sam Morgan, who did not come from old wealth but created immense riches for himself and his backers through his ideas and his entrepreneurial endeavours. The important thing to realise is that he and other similar entrepreneurial heroes (Graham Hart, Bob Jones, Peter Leitch) were not constrained in their success by their initial financial modesty.

On the other hand, anyone these days who wants to advance themselves and others does face immense hurdles put in their way by the state, which essentially does tend to calcify things in the form of the status quo. (Just imagine the many hurdles, for example, for an engineering entrepreneur wanting to harness the power of nature for the betterment of human life and profit by building a hydro-electric dam on his own property—the biggest hurdle being the Resource Management Act, an act of brute political force that stops a landowner being able to exercise his property rights. )

Buchanan likens the criminal actions of gangs to authoritarian government, which in many examples is sadly true. The IRD, for example, who hound people to death and impose arbitrary penalties for failure to pay one's tribute to them by the designated due date, frequently behave like a criminal gang.

Colin was more definite as to the role of the state: it should not protect against competition, but must be chained up to do its proper job of protecting  individual rights. This is the only legitimate function of the state. Sam Buchanan on the other hand seems a little less certain about the function of government, and appeared at one point to endorse an anarchistic system of non-government such as exists in parts of Somalia. He also doesn't believe people should be able to rent out houses they own. He is clearly anti-capitalist, and that's where he loses me. He seems to be mired in the misguided beliefs in the power of robber barons, Ebenezer Scrooge and the evil inherent in the profit motive, forgetting the profit motive and selfishness inherent in anyone that gets up in the morning and goes to work.

The question to ask a "left-libertarian" is whether they would allow an enclave of free-market capitalism in their state. A free-market libertarian would certainly allow a socialist enclave within a state run under their principles, as long as no force was initiated and entry and exit from such an enclave were permitted. (As Colin pointed out early in his discussion, a feature of libertarianism is tolerance for the (peaceful) views of others.) A socialist system on the other hand could not tolerate a free-market enclave within its walls. Socialism, unfortunately, by its very nature involves an intolerance of private property and promotes its redistribution into "social" ownership. And that, I'm afraid, is not very libertarian at all.

All in all, this radio show was chock full of ideas, a lot of them good. It even dug below the surface into the philosophies from which the political expression of freedom--laissez-faire capitalism—arose. Although it blurred the distinction between libertarianism and Objectivism, and libertarianism and anarchy, although it promulgated the oxymoron of "right" and "left" wing libertarianism, it was still a genuine effort to articulate some of the principles of libertarianism, and for that I salute Chris Laidlaw and his team.

Give the show a listen.

Top marks though must go to Colin Cross, who I now formally appoint as the go-to man for libertarian radio interviews and Sunday morning TV political shows. Bravo, Colin!

See you next week! 
Doc McGrath


  1. I did indeed give it a listen. You're far more charitible than I am! I wasn't overly pleased, as I am sure it left listeners with a muddled, inarticulate, and generally pretty confused idea of what libertarian views actually are.

    The show degenerated, for me. It started fairly strong, as you noted, with Colin Cross speaking strongly to the eye-rollingly painful lefty strawman arguments. I think it would have been more effective if he'd pointed out more that unlike communism, nobody has *ever* tried pure laissez-faire capitalism, so harping on about what "might possibly happen" gets pretty tiresome. Still, I guess he was trying to be radio friendly, and well done to him.

    After that, I just felt there was nothing of merit to the show. As you said, the concepts espoused by Mr. Buchanan were confused, conflicting, and completely lacking in any principle beyond "corporations are baaad, maaaan!". As for Javier Marquez, he hammered home for me just how useless some of these chair-warming professional academics can be. He seemed to have little grasp of the subject he was supposed to be an expert on, with little knowledge of the philosophical underpinnings of classical liberal thought. He confused many aspects, and was just echoing Laidlaw, who actually DID seem to have a good grasp of the subject. Kudos to him.

    I guess I'm getting what I pay for (at the point of a gun).

  2. @Greig: Yes, I got that too. Marquez was hopelessly out of his depth--as you say, Laidlaw in what must have only been a brief time for research knew far more than this supposed "expert."

    I wonder where it was his expertise was supposed to lie?

    Still and all, it's not bad exposure.

  3. @PC: Marquez' blog states "My recent research has focused on the history of political thought, especially ancient Greek and Roman thought. I also have a strong interest in dictatorship, revolution, and other political pathologies."

    At least he doesn't claim to be an expert in libertarianism but it does leave you wondering why they picked him.

  4. Maybe RNZ considers libertarianism a political pathology? Or maybe that's what VUW's PolSci department thought in selecting him.

  5. Well I enjoyed the commentary (the first bit anyway), and Colin Cross did an AMAZING job - well done Colin and thank you.


1. Commenters are welcome and invited.
2. All comments are moderated. Off-topic grandstanding, spam, and gibberish will be ignored. Tu quoque will be moderated.
3. Read the post before you comment. Challenge facts, but don't simply ignore them.
4. Use a name. If it's important enough to say, it's important enough to put a name to.
5. Above all: Act with honour. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.