How Britain’s Wars at the Top Could Sow Distrust in the State
2022 has seen the upper echelons of the British state locked in a game of musical chairs – and we still have two months left to go. This has been the year of two monarchs, three prime ministers, four chancellors and three/four home secretaries (depending on how one counts Suella Braverman’s non-contiguous terms).
In a recent guest article for Free Life, the composer Laurence Hughes lamented, on his seventieth birthday, his relative lack of success in a culture that is waning in appreciation for the kind of art he has dedicated his life to producing:
The disappointment and disillusionment is now complete. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing left to aspire to or strive for. I just can’t be bothered any more. I have had enough. What a massive waste of time and energy!
Conventional thinking about social, political and economic matters tends to narrow the options available to a set of policies advocated by two, possibly three political parties of scarcely dissimilar ideologies. Any genuinely radical approach concerning these topics is abandoned given that the fundamentals are deemed to be beyond question. Thus, alternatives to these entrenched matters – such as whether the state should have any positive role at all in anything – are seldom given the light of day, let alone the opportunity of being debated.
In the mainstream debate both for and against a free market, one notion that seems ubiquitous is that the free market is predicated upon individual choice. Consequently, those in favour of such a market are likely to argue that the more choice there is the greater the competition between firms, leading to increased economic efficiency as those firms seek to meet their customers’ needs for the lowest possible cost. On the other hand, opponents will counter that choice can be wasteful, costly, inefficient and overwhelming, particularly when it concerns supply of provisions as basic as water. They might suggest further that choice is often an illusion conjured up by private companies that basically operate in a profit-maximising cartel.
Debates between libertarians and those who advocate any kind of statist intervention frequently take the form of “X should happen vs. X should not happen”. For example a budding libertarian might argue “the post office should be privatised!” whereas his opponent may cry “the post office should be state owned!”
From time to time, the fundamental right of each of us to our individual liberty is challenged by the notion that such a right shouldn’t necessarily apply in emergencies. In the regular, fair weather of societal relations, it is easy enough for us to agree that we should, for instance, have no right to physically injure or steal from other people. But what if an emergency could be resolved only by a breach of the non-aggression principle (NAP)? What if that situation was so desperate that the only way to avoid almost certain loss of life (or severe bodily harm) was to violate the property rights of another person?
A key question for libertarian activists is the extent to which the circumvention of unjust laws imposed by the state can serve as part of a political strategy.A prominent, if somewhat extreme example from recent times is Ross Ulbricht, who went as far as actually breaking a whole plethora of narcotics laws by operating the darknet (i.e. black market) site “Silk Road”. As a result, he was convicted, in February 2015, of a whole raft of offences, including conspiracy to traffic narcotics.
One of the obfuscating features of sociological commentary – whether it takes place in academic tomes or in popular magazines – is the tendency to describe the subject matter in terms of vast, overreaching abstractions. For instance, “the market” does X, “the government” does Y, “companies” do Z, and so on. Such categorisations are not, of course, unimportant; the use of shorthand is often needed as a clear identification of particular groups of individuals, each of whom share a common feature relevant to the discussion. However, the fact that every group is, indeed, nothing more than a group of individuals is precisely what is forgotten if the use of these abstractions is taken too far.