Hobbes and the Libertarian – 2

The American Constitution is lauded for entrenching liberty, but there is little everyday freedom in the cities of that land. The South African Constitution is at pains to demand personal liberty and equality, but its people live in fear.

America’s prosperity is a factor of their personal freedom as much as it is of the space available to the Americans, and the legendary American work ethic which grows from that personal freedom. There is genuine freedom promised and enjoyed that is greater even than Britons enjoy in may fields, but it remains the case that while I can walk in complete safety, day or night, through any neighbourhood, there are many places in the cities where Americans dare not step from their cars. This displays the libertarian paradox.

In contrast, an example of a truly free society might be the Falkland Islands: crime free, such that no one locks their doors, each islander living without fear from their neighbour or their government. On the other hand, it is a physically constrained society where opportunities are limited, and that is a limit on freedom.

What then is a truly libertarian society?

Hobbes observed that liberty is not to be defined by theory:

There is written on the Turrets of the city of Luca in great characters at this day, the word LIBERTAS; yet no man can thence inferre, that a particular man has more Libertie, or Immunitie from the service of the Commonwealth there, than in Constantinople. Whether a Common-wealth be Monarchicall, or Popular, the Freedome is still the same.

This is to say that under any state, the existence of sovereignty abnegates entirely the natural freedom of the individual to exactly the same degree, whether in a free city of his time like Lucca (or like the Anglosphere nations in our own), or in a vicious tyranny like the Ottoman Empire (or any number of dictatorships in our day). One could say that in London one is just as much under the complete command of the laws as in Peking: it is just that in practice the laws are mostly mild and benevolent in Britain.

Actual personal liberty is not a factor just of the relationship with the state, or Common-wealth in Hobbesian terms, but of fact and sensation. Complete legal liberty is enjoyed where there is no Common-wealth, but then we are prey to every passing stranger, “and the life of man of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”.

This consideration ensures that the United States of America, for all the promises of their constitution, cannot be a libertarian land. In America merely walking the the downtown areas of the main cities in daylight is fatal: the first-hand stories I have been told by Britons who did not appreciate this would make your hair stand on end. In reaction, policing in America is brutal and occasionally deadly; not as much as the media or activists portray, but breath-taking from an outside view. Outside the cities if crime is low, the Americans may enjoy the liberty their national myth promises.

Undoubtedly the proliferation of guns in America is a major factor. If Commonwealth countries forbid guns, which is an anti-libertarian move, that ban may produce a net increase in liberty.

A theoretical problem for a nominally free but lawless society is Hobbes’s observation on when a sovereign ceases to be worthy of obedience. This comes from what we might call a libertarian understanding of sovereignty, namely that ‘the end of Obedience is Protection’. He asserts:

The Obligation of Subjects to the Soveraign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by Nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them, can by no Covenant be relinquished. The Soveraignty is the Soule of the Common-wealth; which once departed from the Body, the members doe no more receive their motion from it. The end of Obedience is Protection; which, wheresoever a man seeth it, either in his own, or in anothers sword, Nature applyeth his obedience to it, and his endeavour to maintaine it. And though Soveraignty, in the intention of them that make it, be immortall; yet is it in its own nature, not only subject to violent death, by forreign war; but also through the ignorance, and passions of men, it hath in it, from the very institution, many seeds of a naturall mortality, by Intestine Discord.

If the state makes itself weak, in the name of freedom, it ceases to do its fundamental duty, namely to protect its subjects. In that case not only can it reduce actual freedom, but it absolves its subjects from any duty of obedience.

A truly libertarian state therefore must retain complete sovereignty, just as much as that of China or any other tyranny, but be distinguished from a tyrant by its actions in using that mighty power for protecting personal freedom, which is the purpose of its having that power.

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America loses its Virgin Islands

The United States Virgin Islands are to be sold, after 104 years, to pay for the Biden COVID relief package. Joe Biden conceded that it was a wrench but they were offered hard cash, and that is hard to come by these days.

A spokesman for the State Department acknowledged the sale, saying that no one had wanted to keep the islands – they were a drain on the US Treasury for no return and there are plenty of better beach resorts along the Gulf Coast anyhow.

The Virgin Islands were bought from Denmark in 1917 to prevent the Germans getting hold of them during the Great War, amid fears that the Kaiser would erect giant sausage factories within reach of the American mainland and assault American nostrils with the smell of industrial cabbage pickling vats. The Americans only intended to hold the islands until the war was over and they could be flogged back to the British Empire, but they got forgotten during a drinking bout at Versailles.

In the meantime, the neighbouring British Virgin Islands have become one of the most successful territories in the world, while the American islands have withered. Various attempts to dump them have failed: at the last vote, most of the electorate stayed on the beach collecting welfare cheques.

The State Department were unable to say who had bought the islands: they thought it was the British government, which is what they wanted, but thinking back on that ‘phone call they were not sure any more. The man on the ‘phone was talking gibberish so they assumed it was Boris Johnson, but it might have been some other man called Boris. It could have been one of the corporations over in the BVI, but that’s fine.

Joe Biden said of the deal “This is an opportunity for America to go forward in its main goals, to get rid of past mistakes, and, well anyway, I, erm..”

The US Treasury expressed concern that the price has been paid in US dollars, as those will be practically worthless in a couple of years when the COVID relief package has fed through and hyper-inflation cuts the price of a dollar to a cent.

Eire applies to be America’s 51st State

“In retrospect, it was an easy decision” said the Taoiseach yesterday: “It makes sense for Ireland to join the United States of America”.

Joining the United States, he explained, is the best hope for Ireland’s prosperity. Ireland has more trade with the United States than with any other country except Britain; Americans are keen to be seen as Irish; and the two countries have provided each other with a great deal over the ages – America received labourers, and Ireland received the potato blight fungus. “With the EU, we’d tied our donkey to the wrong post.”

Irish commentators overwhelmingly agreed, observing that the Ireland only joined the European Community in the 1970s because Britain did, and while it was great for a while, the fascination has gone, like any other 1970s makeover.

Richard O’Shea, a senior government adviser, said the move would go forward as soon as possible. The Europeans had used Erin and cast here aside; “It was all very lovey-dovey when they wanted us to stiff the Brits in the negotiation, but now they are not returning our calls, they are ignoring us and humiliating us in front of our friends and neighbours. We thought we were getting cash in had from Brussels, but we find they have gone off with our fish, which is several times more than we ever received. We thought EU loved us, but they were only after cheques.

“The Europeans don’t understand us and their culture is alien. Ireland cannot stand alone: we need to join with another English-speaking country that can be a major trading partner and protector, and we couldn’t think of one except America.”

Joe Biden has often expressed his Irish ancestry. While has has not commented on the Irish government’s approach, he did express deep concern about the number of Republicans in Ireland: the Irish government was quick to reassure him that there is no connection between Irish Republicans and the GOP, and in fact the only similarity is a tendency to carry guns.

Timing for the move is still uncertain but it looks like it’s Irexit for now & howdy partner.

As Rome gave way to Byzantium…

As Greece gave way to Rome, so Britain would give way to the United States, so Harold Macmillan is misquoted as saying. Britain’s imperial decline after the War is not in doubt, and the Suez debacle was a psychological turning point. Suez was 65 years ago though. Time is turning and the world has been transformed.

Macmillan’s words were actually said not of Suez but during the War, when he already realised, as he could hardly fail to see, that the United States had become a military and naval power of overwhelming strength, through that country’s suddenly acquired wealth, and that we had entered the age of the American empire. He told Richard Crossman at Allied Forces HQ:

‘We, my dear Crossman, are Greeks in this American empire. You will find the Americans much as the Greeks found the Romans – great big vulgar, bustling people, more vigorous than we are and also more idle, with more unspoiled virtues, but also more corrupt. We must run A.F.H.Q. as the Greeks ran the operations of the Emperor Claudius.’

If Macmillan thought the Romans needed help running an empire, he was unfair to them – as Virgil says:

Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(Hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,
Parcere subjectis et debellare superbos.

The Americans are not Romans – they really cannot run an empire, too fixed as they are on their own norms, which are not those of the wider world however much Hollywood the nations imbibe. They can however govern themselves well, and that is the main requirement for any nation. They are still eye-wateringly wealthy and accordingly strong.

Maybe that impression of unlimited opulence is just in the eyes of an outsider though. Here in Britain every penny of government spending is resented and for all the cutting of fat, and wails over every local budget not renewed, the government still runs deeper into debt day by day, while in America they seem to have billions of dollars to spend on military, engineering and spacefaring projects of which we cannot dream in the constraints of the government purse. The NASA budget alone this year came to £16.5 billion.

Actually though, £16.5 billion is well within the sort of budgets the British government does spend freely. It is a fraction of the total estimated HS2 budget, and that is just a single railway line (that the owners should be paying for anyway), albeit over several years. That is not to say that £16.5 billion space spending should be reproduced here, but it is perfectly able to be done. Ours is not a small, poor country. We just choose to run our government as if it were one, because elsewhere in government they are overbudgeting on touchy-feely things and spaffing it all up the wall.

Those huge marble halls and wide, sunlit spaces of the American capital contrast with the cramped streets and corridors of Westminster, but it is only show: the soaring Capitol was built when America was still a middling power, erected by toiling slaves, built big because there was unlimited space to play with. The White House is impressive, making 10 Downing Street look like a cramped flat, but it is no better than a hundred country houses in the Home Counties, or Leinster House in Dublin from which it was modelled. The Maryland sunshine hides what is actually quite ordinary.

The American Empire of the mind is still real, and that land is still the wealthiest in the world. The sickening feeling of decline is unavoidable though. The pioneers opened up the wilderness between the oceans, but their children are abandoning it. A society built on freedom, individuality and enterprise grew rich as a result, but the worm is at the root of those very qualities. The entrepreneurs still have fire in them, and the land on which to build, but the children of those who grew rich from their efforts are turning on them.

As the Greeks gave way to Rome, so the British Empire gave way to America’s dominance. If they cannot maintain it though, as in time they cannot, then there is a conclusion:

As Rome gave way to Byzantium, so America must give way to a re-emergent, international Britain. That is, if Britain can shoulder the burden and not fall prey to the fatal flaws of the Empire of Constantinople.

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A stronger President than we realise

It did not look good for him. Though the centre of a scrum of adulation amounting almost to worship, and the honeymoon period the press are determined to keep going, President Biden’s political position is in a fine balance. That counter-intuitively may make him all the stronger.

The American system is hard to get a flavour of from British preconceptions: a Prime Minister’s strength depends on the size of his majority, if any, and the relative rebelliousness of the members in their party, and he or she may be tumbled out of his office at a moment. Australian Prime Ministers are with indecent frequency. In America though the Presidency is winner-takes-all and he is emplaced ,practically immovably for four years.

Even so, the Congress cannot be ignored, and he does not control it. The Senate is teetering with Mr Biden’s party in control only by the Vice-President’s casting vote. The House of Representatives is his party’s, but not overwhelmingly, and even in that unfortunate country’s state of angry bifurcation, party discipline is not so strong, nor need it be as their behaviour does not determine the rise and fall of the President’s government.

This may be an advantage to the new President. His opposition is not just from the Republican Party: his most dangerous opposition is from his own party. In that struggle, the presence of resistance from Congress is an ally.

President Biden’s first actions are in the immediate spotlight in the way his future actions may not be, and here he sets the tone, or what he wants to appear to be the tone for the next four years. Wisely, he has struck with a string of orders overturning his predecessor’s legacy, and that has generated the headlines he wanted. The orders in question may be quite ordinary and as expected, reversing Donald Trump’s isolationism and with a good deal of symbolism laid on. This will be an important impression of himself to lay down to the voting public and also to his own party, seething at his heels.

You see, his party has become filled with radicals quite opposed to the old values of the party (and by old values I am not going back to the days when it was the party of slavery, but what it established in more recent ages) and those radicals will be disappointed if he does to impose their wild, foolish, unconstitutional visions. The accusation is waiting, hovering waiting to drop: ‘Vote Biden; Get Trump’. He must deflect that accusation before it falls; firstly by projecting himself within the halo he currently enjoys, and secondly by resisting radical action because it cannot get through Congress.

The balanced Senate is an ally in particular: as the Senate must confirm many of his important appointments, knowing they will not approve a nutcase (to use the technical term) will allow Mr Biden to appoint moderates.

The Supreme Court is another opportunity disguised as a threat. It is said now to be dominated by conservative justices, and this has infuriate radical Democrats. That is not a logical fury though: while liberal justices have been active in overturning Acts of Congress to impose their personal vision, the ideology of conservative justices is the opposite: the prevailing doctrine is to read the Constitution as it is written and not to make rules up from their own preferences. In that case, when Mr Biden gets his legislation through Congress, he wants conservative justices there who will not interfere with it.

It is the radical Democrats who have more of an interest in trying to appoint a court which overrules the democratically elected Houses of Congress – which sheds a great deal of doubt on their being entitled to be called ‘democrats’ at all.

The tensions then and the blind hatred of the extremes, making a mockery of the pleas for unity, should ensure (if handled wisely) that the moderate path in all endeavours is the surest route to follow. That may be how Joe Biden can defeat both sides and be his own man.

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