09 January 2009

Giles Bowkett

I've been reading Giles Bowkett's blog a long time because he's doing some interesting things programming in ruby, which is a language I like but haven't done anything serious in.

He throws in some other good stuff - this piece on the potential demise of record labels echoed almost exactly what I thought when I read the same NYT article.

But then he started producing what seemed like random insults aimed at libertarianism. And I got rather pissed off with that. I mean, I'm all in favour of hearing diverse opinions and all that (in theory, of course, not in practice), but there wasn't even any content.

On Wednesday, he got around to actually explaining his position. And, in keeping with his normal output, he made some very good points.

Things he says which are true:

  • US libertarian think-tanks end up advocating policies which advance corporate interests at the expense of the general interest.
  • The libertarian movement has been royally screwed by the Republican party
  • This was in principle predictable
  • If you intervene in politics, good intentions are trumped by bad strategy
  • 'If politics were chess, Libertarians would be trying to win by holding up the pawn, saying "my pawn has a machine gun!", and making little pew-pew noises. It just doesn't work that way.'
I couldn't have put that last one better myself. I know that because I've tried.

What I gather from all that is that Bowkett is in fact a libertarian. He's just one of the substantial number who are hostile to the "think tanks all over Washington". In fact, despite his generally outspoken tone, he's a lot gentler on them than many of his fellow libertarians are. The phrase "Orange Line Mafia" does not appear in his posts.

The other quibble I have with him (and my real point here is that I mostly agree with him about concrete issues, as opposed to what labels to use for things), is that even the Washington Libertarian establishment has its good points. Look at what Radley Balko has achieved, and may yet achieve, in the sphere of police and judicial abuses. Look at the fact that the op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today says things like "The more incompetent you are in business, the more handouts the politicians will bestow on you". That in a piece that opens with the writer's account of his days at Cato. Would we be better off if the WSJ wasn't saying that? In November Bowkett admiringly quoted Roderick Long's article about the pro-corporate bias in much libertarian activism. But, you know, Roderick Long is certainly included in what I think of as "libertarianism", and that article was published by Cato.

The issues Bowkett raises aren't immediately relevant to me, because I'm British and the libertarian movement in the UK isn't even powerful enough to do any damage, let alone to do any good. But, taking a longer view, they're the exact same issues I've been writing about in connection with the recent pieces by Jacob Lyles on Distributed Republic, they're the same issues I was talking about in the pub last night with the LPUK. And I'm going to be writing a lot more about them.

But even if it's true that Libertarian activism is counterproductive, doesn't it matter whether libertarian theory - that government would be better if it did very much less - is actually true or not? If it's true, it's worth spreading, even if there's currently nothing useful we can do about it.

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