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Thursday February 15 2007

Last night I was on 18 Doughty Street TV, and tomorrow (Thursday) I’m on again, with Sean Gabb and Christian Michel, at 9 pm, in the “Vox Politix” slot, unless I have it all wrong.

Our topic is: the relevance of libertarianism.

Fair enough.  The relevance of libertarianism these days, at any rate in Britain, is not that obvious, given that Britain’s politicians have all pretty much turned their backs on such notions, with the exception, perhaps, of a few Lib Dems, who nevertheless baffle and infuriate me by attaching themselves to other Lib Dems who seem to believe the diametric opposite of libertarianism.

So anyway, here’s what I’m thinking.  Rather than pitching right in to arguing that libertarianism is indeed relevant despite what you might be thinking, I will start my preparatory thinking for tomorrow night with a question that interests me anyway, quite aside from whether libertarianism matters to anybody or to anything.

My question is: what are now the world’s biggest political debates/problems/ worries?

I would welcome comments about which of the following items in bold print are actually not big issues, and which other issues are which I have forgotten about.  Others may agree with the approximate terrain covered but carve up the issues slightly differently, or maybe just label the same items slightly differently.  Anyway, here is my list, in no particular order:

The environment, greenery, global warming, climate change, etc..  This is either a problem because the world is about to be stewed, drowned etc., or because it is not, but is about to be screwed by people who say that it must be saved from being stewed or drowned, cost be damned.

Islam, Islamic terrorism, War on Terror, etc.  Similarly, this is either a problem because the relationship between Islam and the rest of us really is a problem, or it is a problem because this otherwise non-problem is being used as an excuse to screw the world.  Others might prefer to call this problem: the Middle East.  Solve that and all else is sorted, and so on.  Which just goes to show that even the labeling of problems is incurably controversial.

The whole argument about poverty and how to get rid of it also qualifies as a World Problem, I would say.

That’s three big problems.  My next two are the two other global superpowers, in addition to Islam.  The definition of a superpower is a power whose mistakes and malevolences, such as they are or may be, threaten us all in a big way.  These are, aside from Islam (see above): the USA, and China.

I exclude other candidates: Europe, India, and such lesser powers as Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Iran, North Korea, Japan, and so on, because - although these places are pretty big and/or rich and/or powerful - the rulers of these places don’t, as I observe them, have the required combination of the clout and the will to screw seriously with the whole world, much as some of their leaders might like to.  I’m sure I could be persuaded that Iran fits that bill, but at present I reckon not.  (Please no comments about how “Iran”, “Russia”, etc., are not single conscious entities.  I know.  I am trading-off here between clarity and brevity.  I’m covering a lot of ground here.)

Poverty is a reason for all kinds of pressure being applied to the rules of all these middling powers and to many more even lesser ones, to do things better.  As is environmentalism, if you’re an environmentalist that is.  But Japan, Russia, etc. are not problems in and of themselves.  Maybe locally.  Not globally.

Have I left anything absolutely huge out?

Yes, I think I have omitted one further hot topic of truly global significance.  I think that the need for or the threat of world government, as most people understand that notion, is right up there with poverty, with dozens of A bombs and H bombs going off or with the sea level going up seventy feet, or with the possibility that the Chinese may suddenly get very angry or bossy with the rest of the world.  Whether you are for it or against it, world government is, I reckon, a genuine big problem, one way or another, either because the world desperately needs it, because it equally desperately does not.

Maybe also the War on Drugs is a global problem, either because the Drugs refuse to give up, or because those warring against them refuse to give up.  But now, I think I am descending into the realms of the worrying but not humanity-threatening, in the manner of someone writing out what ought to be in the National Curriculum, and wanting to include another thing, and another, and another.  So no emboldening for War on Drugs.  File under USA.

So, to repeat, here is the list: China, Environment, Islam, poverty, USA, world government.  As I say, in no particular order, so I’ve re-ordered them alphabetically.

Now I can ask myself what relevance libertarianism has to the above.  Quite a bit, I would say.

But my point in this posting is not really the libertarianism bit.  That was merely the circumstance.  Nor is it what anyone, libertarian or anything else, me included, considers to be the correct answers to the questions on the list.  It is simply the list.  Is it about right?


I’m not sure if you’ve introduced the ‘World Government’ element in order to showcase the left-libertarian argument for federalism? A section of the libertarian left in the UK are, for example, very pro-EU on the grounds that it will diminish the nation state and all that goes with it. This argument could, presumably, be applied to ‘WOrld Government’ as well?

I’d also suggest that you’ve missed one subject area as well: ‘Efficiency and Progress’. Again, I think that this is very relevant to any discussion in which libertarianism was to be looked at. There is the ‘big government’ argument. Is it possible for a government to achieve something by deciding “we’re going to do something about this”? Does social progress just happen (and if so, why - and what could cause it to stop happening?) or is it made to happen by collective action? And who should be ask to take that collective action? The state? Business? Voluntary entities or social enterprises?

Posted by Paulie on 15 February 2007



Actually, thinking about it some more, I think that neither “world government” nor anything like “efficiency and progress” should be in there, because they are not things that people generally would volunteer as problems or hot debates or hot topics or big worries.  And as categories they are too vague.  Efficiency and progress is too much like motherhood and apple pie, and world government is the context of all of this, the setting within which all such debates occur, invisible to many because an all-pervasive fact, like oxygen.  And the setting for a debate is a kind of unconscious given.  Not a problem.  Not even a huge opportunity.  Just a background fact.

I agree that efficiency and progress, or something like that, is important.  But this posting is not about what I think.  It is an attempt to describe existing global political debates.

One thing I am clear about, which is that my motives for introducing world government are not to do with libertarianism, but to do with the fact that I am interested in world government, mostly as a threat, but also as a simple fact about the future, caused by zero-cost phone calls, blogs, etc.  For the same reasons that economics has recently been globalising, so too has politics.

I don’t think that the answer to the numerous problems of world government is to just hope that it never happens and to try to defend the existing institutions, like the nation state, which it is even now inexorably replacing.  That way you just boycott the key debates which will happen, with or without you.

Put it another way.  World government is either going to be done very, very destructively, or done rather better than that.  But it is going to be done, in fact it is being done.

But, whatever.  My basic point is: thanks.  When you specifically ask for comments on something, you are particularly grateful for the first comment.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 15 February 2007


PS.  I just looked at your blog and you’re now on my blogroll.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 15 February 2007

Ta Brian,

I’ll reciprocate next time I update the links.

I’d disagree with you that ‘efficiency and progress’ isn’t a ‘hot topic’ though (at the risk of getting booted off your blogroll)


On a day-to-day basis, it’s the single biggest issue around - not just in the UK, but in developed democracies everywhere. At election time, I suspect the main proposition is ‘who will get the government to do as many of the things that I’d like to do - and tax me the least for doing it’.

Obviously, people don’t like being annoyed by government either, and they don’t want government to do anything that will be damaging to society in general or anything that offends their innate conservatism (people will object to someone doing ten good things if one side effect adds 5 mins to their journey to work, for example).

I’d also suggest that it’s a really central issue in the discussion of libertarianism.

Posted by Paulie on 15 February 2007


I think I may have worked out what the argument is between us.  Of course what you say about people wanting stuff done well for them and to them, rather than badly is right.  And of course that’s relevant to libertarianism.

But what I am looking for, in this posting and in this comment thread, is the “global” agenda, rather than just the stuff that people worry about in their everyday, local lives.  That is, I am looking for the problems that can only be solved by a global conclave of the globally great and the globally good (and maybe not so good).  So yes, if a journey gets delayed 5 minutes that’s a definite problem for whoever is delayed.  But, but few would argue that the solution would involve Kofi Annan et al getting involved.

What my now shortened list of five problems (China - Environment - Islam - poverty - USA) (arguably) do have in common is that there is damn all that some local councillor could possibly do about them on his own, or merely locally by doing a ring round, and by everyone local badgering London (or wherever) to get it sorted.

If your argument is that a global conclave is required, to establish general standards of government such that people are not locally mucked about by their local politicians and businesses, well, that’s a rational opinion, but not one, surely, that springs to people’s minds as an obvious “world problem”.  Yes, this kind of thing is a problem everywhere in the world.  But the solution to a problem like this in any particular place is not a global solution, in the sense that a London suburb can only be governed well if all suburbs everywhere agree to be similarly well governed.  The only widely agreed exception is Africa, which the globally great and good and meddlesome are convinced requires a global solution, in terms of aid, perhaps given as part of a deal involving better standards of government.  I have filed that under: poverty, which people do regard, rightly or wrongly, as a global problem.

I guess what I’m talking about is what in the EU context is called the principle of subsidiarity.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 15 February 2007

Fair enough Brian. We are, indeed, at cross purposes. I think I read ‘what are the world’s biggest problems’ as an aggregate question - and poor-quality governance is probably one of the ‘top five’ in that respect. But I understand your ‘Oi Kofi! We can sort our own traffic problems out!’ line.

You’re right - it isn’t really an issue for global governance.

Posted by Paulie on 15 February 2007

It occurs to me that “nuclear proliferation” might deserve to be added to the list, for all the above reasons.  Very little can be done about that locally either, although CND would presumably disagree.  That has to be sorted out at the global level, I would say, as would most others.  And, if you presented a menu of about fifty potential world problems to a bunch of people, the spread of nuclear weapons would surely get a lot of ticks in the box.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 15 February 2007


Wow, a debate followed by agreement!

In reply, I free concede that the distinction I have now made between a “problem” and a “world problem” was not sufficiently clarified in the original posting.  My thanks to you for prodding me into doing that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 15 February 2007

I think this exchange has helped me in another way, because it occurs to me that in my opinion (not necessarily very widely shared) there is a general habit in political discussion of regarding problems which could be solved locally as nevertheless being somehow national or even global.

Libertarianism, you might say, is the ultimate reaction against this way of thinking.  It says to the individual, well, what can you individually do about this thing you are moaning about?  Why not just switch to another supplier, place, country?  Why not buy your way out of the problem?  Okay, this may not be fair.  (Having to pay twice for a decent primary school, to have your teeth adequately seen to etc.) But would it not actually, for you, work better?  Money is not that hard to earn, for you, maybe.  Politics is damn near impossible to do successfully, in the sense of using politics to solve a particular problem that you have.

Which is easier?  Going private for a hip operation?  Or: Persuading the British government to pay for nice, quick hip operations for you and for everyone like you, despite its current inclination not to?

Charles Murray once phrased the same kind of choice in this way:

If you are worried about drug abuse in schools and your kid becoming a drug abuser, which would you prefer: Nagging the government to conduct its War on Drugs more successfully?  Or: The government giving up on drugs, but schools having the right to expel drug abusers, and you being allowed to choose a school which does that?

All of which is a world away from world government, but very relevant to what I am to be talking about this evening.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 15 February 2007

There’s the mutualist version of libertarianism as well though - you say…

“It says to the individual, well, what can you individually do about this thing you are moaning about?  Why not just switch to another supplier, place, country?”

If could also say to the individual, “stop waiting for the government to do something about it, use your own networks to collectively address the problem instead”

So in your school example would - instead of shopping around if the school doesn’t suit us, we could ask for it to be handed over from the unaccountable unresponsive bureaucrats that run it and placed in the hands of local people.

Not that I’m specifically advocating that, mind. Or not specifically here, anyway....

Posted by Paulie on 15 February 2007

I’m just slightly worried that the three panellists for this show are over the age of 40; as I keep boring Antoine and everyone else in our circle by saying, if there is no one at all youthful who’s taking up this cause, for how long can it remain relevant? (One of my soapbox issues right now is how the LA needs to sort out its ever-greying membership and bring in some new subscribers who can and will fund it beyond 2030.) Can you hook up the 18DS people with Paul Coulam? I think he’d be excellent in this capacity, and is always good for a juicy soundbite or two.

Posted by Jackie Danicki on 15 February 2007

It is very nice indeed to be so highly thought of by Jackie (much more highly in this particular regard than I think of myself) but I should point out that I am only a year away from being over 40 myself.

Posted by Paul on 16 February 2007

Paul, Antoine actually pointed that out to me last night when I told him about my suggestion. It’s not my fault you’re so sprightly and youthful…

Posted by Jackie Danicki on 16 February 2007

I was going to suggest myself, too, but I also am only two years from forty.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 17 February 2007

It’s a shame that Adriana doesn’t consider herself an l-word - she’d be a great ‘face’ (and eloquent voice) for the correct side of things.

Posted by Jackie Danicki on 17 February 2007
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