Alternatives to Political SystemsEconomicsPeople SystemsSociety

How Freedom Became Tyranny

Rightwing libertarians have turned “freedom” into an excuse for greed and exploitation.

by George Monbiot: journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist, United Kingdom.

Freedom: who could object? Yet this word is now used to justify a thousand forms of exploitation. Throughout the rightwing press and blogosphere, among thinktanks and governments, the word excuses every assault on the lives of the poor, every form of inequality and intrusion to which the 1% subject us. How did libertarianism, once a noble impulse, become synonymous with injustice?

In the name of freedom – freedom from regulation – the banks were permitted to wreck the economy. In the name of freedom, taxes for the super-rich are cut. In the name of freedom, companies lobby to drop the minimum wage and raise working hours. In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare; the government rips up our planning laws(1); big business trashes the biosphere. This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.

Right-wing libertarianism recognises few legitimate constraints on the power to act, regardless of the impact on the lives of others. In the UK it is forcefully promoted by groups like the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs and Policy Exchange(2). Their conception of freedom looks to me like nothing but a justification for greed.

So why have we been been so slow to challenge this concept of liberty? I believe that one of the reasons is as follows. The great political conflict of our age – between neocons and the millionaires and corporations they support on one side and social justice campaigners and environmentalists on the other – has been mischaracterised as a clash between negative and positive freedoms.

These freedoms were most clearly defined by Isaiah Berlin in his essay of 1958, Two Concepts of Liberty(3). It is a work of beauty: reading it is like listening to a gloriously crafted piece of music. I will try not to mangle it too badly.

Put briefly and crudely, negative freedom is the freedom to be or to act without interference from other people. Positive freedom is freedom from inhibition: it’s the power gained by transcending social or psychological constraints. Berlin explained how positive freedom had been abused by tyrannies, particularly by the Soviet Union. It portrayed its brutal governance as the empowerment of the people, who could achieve a higher freedom by subordinating themselves to a collective single will.

Rightwing libertarians claim that greens and social justice campaigners are closet communists trying to resurrect Soviet conceptions of positive freedom. In reality the battle mostly consists of a clash between negative freedoms.

As Berlin noted, “no man’s activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. ‘Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’”. So, he argued, some people’s freedom must sometimes be curtailed “to secure the freedom of others.” In other words, your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. The negative freedom not to have our noses punched is the freedom that green and social justice campaigns, exemplified by the Occupy movement, exist to defend.

Berlin also shows that freedom can intrude upon other values, such as justice, equality or human happiness. “If the liberty of myself or my class or nation depends on the misery of a number of other human beings, the system which promotes this is unjust and immoral.” It follows that the state should impose legal restraints upon freedoms which interfere with other people’s freedoms – or on freedoms which conflict with justice and humanity.

These conflicts of negative freedom were summarised in one of the greatest poems of the 19th Century, which could be seen as the founding document of British environmentalism. In The Fallen Elm, John Clare describes the felling of the tree he loved, presumably by his landlord, that grew beside his home(4).

Self-interest saw thee stand in freedom’s ways
So thy old shadow must a tyrant be.
Thou’st heard the knave, abusing those in power,
Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free.

The landlord was exercising his freedom to cut the tree down. In doing so, he was intruding upon Clare’s freedom to delight in the tree, whose existence enhanced his life. The landlord justifies this destruction by characterising the tree as an impediment to freedom: his freedom, which he conflates with the general liberty of humankind. Without the involvement of the state (which today might take the form of a tree preservation order) the powerful man could trample the pleasures of the powerless man. Clare then compares the felling of the tree with further intrusions on his liberty.

Such was thy ruin, music-making elm;
The right of freedom was to injure thine:
As thou wert served, so would they overwhelm
In freedom’s name the little that is mine.

But rightwing libertarians do not recognise this conflict. They speak, like Clare’s landlord, as if the same freedom affects everybody in the same way. They assert their freedom to pollute, exploit, even – among the gun nuts – to kill, as if these were fundamental human rights. They characterise any attempt to restrain them as tyranny. They refuse to see that there is a clash between the freedom of the pike and the freedom of the minnow.

Last week, on an internet radio channel called The Fifth Column(5), I debated climate change with Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, one of the right-wing libertarian groups which rose from the ashes of the Revolutionary Communist Party(6). Claire Fox is a feared interrogator on the BBC show The Moral Maze. Yet when I asked her a simple question – “do you accept that some people’s freedoms intrude upon other people’s freedoms?” – I saw an ideology shatter like a windscreen. I used the example of a Romanian lead smelting plant I had visited in 2000, whose freedom to pollute is shortening the lives of its neighbours(7). Surely the plant should be regulated in order to enhance the negative freedoms – freedom from pollution, freedom from poisoning – of its neighbours? She tried several times to answer it, but nothing coherent emerged which would not send her crashing through the mirror of her philosophy.

Modern libertarianism is the disguise adopted by those who wish to exploit without restraint. It pretends that only the state intrudes on our liberties. It ignores the role of banks, corporations and the rich in making us less free. It denies the need for the state to curb them in order to protect the freedoms of weaker people. This bastardised, one-eyed philosophy is a con trick, whose promoters attempt to wrongfoot justice by pitching it against liberty. By this means they have turned “freedom” into an instrument of oppression.




  1. It’s a shame how people that call them selves “conservatives” are mixing up with liberalism. Read the new book by the traditional conservative thinker James Kalb, THE TYRANNY OF LIBERALISM:

    I’ve not read it myself, but as he’s a friend of Nikos Salingaros, who is a friend of Christopher Alexander, I’m sure it’s good stuff. Definitely on my reading list.

  2. I don’t know what libertarians you’re talking about, but they’re probably the same kind of libertarians as what neoconservatives are to paleoconservatives. I’d recommend you actually do some research and study on both the libertarian platform and the unofficial leader of the libertarian movement, Ron Paul. I think you’ll find perhaps half of what you have written is false.

    One quick judgement, if I may take the liberty to pass it, is on the policartoon at the bottom of the article. I have seen this many times, and have always been dumbfounded by the ignorance apparent in it. A libertarian does not bitch and moan about their lack of freedom while wanting the life so “generously” provided us by our benevolent fuhrers. In other words, and quite simply put, we do not complain that the security we are ‘afforded’ is an inconvenience to the liberty it provides us; we believe these systems themselves negate the liberties we were inherently designed for as human beings — living creatures on this planet. The fish in the tank, for example, if it were a true libertarian fish would not complain of the filter — it would complain of the need of the filter; it does not want the fish tank.

  3. @ Me, the libertarians or neoconservatives are actually liberals:

    “Moderate means can eventually reach ends that are not at all moderate. Liberalism in fact tends toward a sort of totalitarianism in the name of an absolutized pluralism. It starts with religious freedom but leads to enforced nihilism because publicly to express the view that one purpose is better than another is to create an environment that is oppressive for those who disagree. It starts by dividing power but in the end demands comprehensive state administration of everything to ensure the equal empowerment of all individuals. The bureaucratic welfare state and the world market are rational formal arrangements for promoting the mutual accommodation and satisfaction of individual preferences. In the end, they are the only principles of social order liberalism can allow. Other principles, like religion, sex roles and particular cultural norms, must be suppressed as irrationally unequal and oppressive.

    Nihilism and the abstract purposes of atomic individuals do not seem to me a sufficient foundation for social order. If that’s right, then liberal governments are likely to lose both popular support and rationality, and consequently become increasingly unprincipled, ineffective, and ultimately despotic.” – James Kalb:

    The neoconservatives are not true conservatives, like the paeloconservatives, as they are promoting many of the same dogmas as the liberals, like the world market needed for satisfying the foundation of liberalism:

    “The point is that today’s public order, the one all respectable public institutions and authorities support, is antihuman because it denies fundamental aspects of human nature. It tells us that safety, comfort, and the satisfaction of desire are the point of life; that increasing and equalizing such things is the noblest goal conceivable; that love, loyalty and sacrifice are personal tastes like any other. Such a view cannot last or long remain tolerable. It must and will change.” – James Kalb:

    “It tells us that safety, comfort, and the satisfaction of desire are the point of life…” This is exactly what the libertarians tell us is the goal of life, and hence they reveal themselves as liberals, not conservatives.

    Personally I’ve just ordered James Kalb’s last book, THE TYRANNY OF LIBERALISM:

    So actually and straight to the point, LIBERALISM IS TYRANNY!!!!

  4. Wow, another article published on a topic PRI has no business sticking it’s nose in as it clearly has NO expertise. You’d think of anyone, a bunch of rebel farmers wanting freedom to enjoy raw milk and healthy foods not available from the mainstream, THEY would understand what it meant to be Libertarian. Ron Paul is a good speaker and educator, but he is not the only Libertarian out there nor did he invent this stuff.

  5. @ Ashton, that would be ok if the libertarians today were about maintaining the “human scale”, as you want libertarian-ism to be. But I think the therm paelo-conservative is much better, as this is all about maintaining the human scale. Libertarianism today mainly mean corporacy, which is all about destroying “the human scale”.

    Crucial for maintaining “the human scale”, among it freedom for farmers to produce and sell their own products, is self-organization and the pattern technology of Christopher Alexander. Why is it crucial to maintain “the human scale”? Because without it a strong civil society cannot exist. This is why I’m very happy that James Kalb seems to be interested in the work of Nikos Salingaros and Christopher Alexander:

  6. What on earth does this have to do with permaculture?

    I wish this was a site I could recommend to friends of various political persuasions. Because of articles like this, I don’t.

    This article insults a broad group of decent people including some well known proponents of permaculture. We’re going to have to transcend this kind of political warfare if we ever hope to achieve widespread success on the ground.

  7. After studying the writings of Jim Kalb this Xmas I’ve come to the conclusion there exist only two real political alternatives, modernism (human and “science” centered socialism, liberalism and libertarianism) and radical traditionalism. Now I cannot see any longer that there exist any political alternatives in Norway, the left/right axis is artificial and centers around the same basic ideologies, man as separate from nature and man as goal and source of society. Personally I don’t think I’ve any political choice anymore. As my choice seems to be radical traditionalism.

    What is wrong with Monbiot’s writings is that he thinks there is a difference between libertarians and liberals, but there is not. The bureaucratic welfare state and the world market has the same goal, satisfaction of comfort and desire, as there is no higher goal of human existence.

    Read more about radical traditionalism in this revealing essay by Jim Kalb:

    – Radical Traditionalism and the New World Order:

    What we westerners miss to understand is that Taliban and Al Quaida is a natural reaction to western liberalism. Yes, they are fanatics, just like liberalism is fanatic. We have no reason to condemn them before we realize the beam stuck in our own societies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Back to top button