Refuting George Monbiot’s attacks on Libertarianism

December 20th, 2011

George Monbiot, world famous environmentalist and renowned anti C02 campaigner has chosen to launch an attack on Libertarianism.

Articles like his are more useful than annoying, because it provides Libertarians an opportunity refute all of his carefully made points, and introduce people to the true core philosophy behind Libertarianism.

First things first.

What is Libertarianism?

Libertarianism is one thing and one thing only. It is the philosophy carefully described by Murray Rothbard in his book, “For a New Liberty, the Libertarian Manifesto“. It is not anything other than this.

Libertarianism is not a basket of contradictory ideas that you can mix and match to suit your personal prejudices. It is an absolutely coherent, logical and perfect basis for ethical behaviour when it comes to other human beings, outside the realm of your religious beliefs.

It is important that this definition is set out before I begin. Murray Rothbard has exposed a system of philosophy that deals with the rights of man in the same way that Newton uncovered the laws of motion. It is air tight, irrefutable, testable and completely sound.

This is very important, because there are some who use the word ‘Libertarian’ as a prefix so that they can keep the bad ideas they are wedded to and graft them on to the soundness of the Libertarian philosophy, in an attempt to lend the purity and logic of Libertarianism to their broken ideas.

Libertarian Socialism (an transparent oxymoron) is a good example of this. You can read a refutation of Libertarian Socialism here. There is no ‘left libertarianism’, ‘rightwing libertarianism’ or any other word combination Libertarianism, just as there is only a singular form of gravity, or the Strong Force, with a single nature that you are bound to deal with in this reality.

And now, to Monbiot.

Freedom: who could object? Yet this word is now used to justify a thousand forms of exploitation.

If two people agree voluntarily to exchange goods, no exploitation has taken place. This is a common mistake that Statists like George Monbiot make. We will see in this essay that his thinking is very muddled in this and many other areas.

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?

Libertarianism is not an impulse. A frog’s leg touched by an electrode is an example of an impulse. Libertarianism is a carefully defined explanation of the rights of man. It is neither right nor left wing.

The Occupy Wall Street term ‘the 1%’ are able to prey upon people because the State is the great facilitator of predation. Sadly, people from George Monbiot’s position will not consider that the State itself is the cause of all his problems.

In the name of freedom freedom from regulation the banks were permitted to wreck the economy.

This is not true. As usual, people like George Monbiot do not have any understanding about the true nature of money and banking. This makes it impossible for him to come to a correct analysis of anything to do with this subject.

The banking industry is a State controlled monopoly. The State mandates the reserve requirements, and prevents competition through arbitrary licensing. It also controls the form of money (fiat currency), which is backed by nothing and which loses value by a minimum of 2% per year by design, in the case of Sterling. The economy has been ‘wrecked’ not by the banks, but by the State, its fraudulent money and its Keynesian brainwashed regulators that have no understanding of what money is, where it comes from or what it is for.

I have a feeling that if George Monbiot had a complete understanding of money, he might move towards the Austrian School, and away from the idea that the State should control money. This might be a good place for him to start.

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.

Taxation is theft. The same State that steals money from the poor through its fraudulent money printing and inflation, uses violence to steal money from the productive who create jobs with their capital and enterprise. The idea that because someone is successful they should have more of their money stolen from them is not only pure evil, but it is why industry has fled the UK for countries where hard working and inventive people are not arbitrarily preyed upon.

The minimum wage is an unwarranted interference by the State in private contracts. It stops people from gaining work experience, and acts as a disincentive to hiring. It is completely misguided to think that the minimum wage helps the poor; it does not. It simply reduces the number of jobs available. This is, of course, a separate issue from the immorality of the State interposing itself where it is not needed or wanted or morally justified in interfering.

In the same cause, US insurers lobby Congress to thwart effective public healthcare;

The provision of healthcare has been distorted almost to destruction in the USA. Where treatments were once inexpensive, they are now exorbitant. Where insurance was once affordable, it is now out of reach of millions of people. This is entirely the fault of the State. Those who are old enough to remember a time before the State interfered in medicine understand that this is the case, from first hand experience.

the government rips up our planning laws;

Planning laws are not collectively owned; it is nonsense to say that they are ‘our planning laws’. Furthermore, everything beautiful in Britain was built before the introduction of planning laws; in fact, most of Britain was built without the regulation of the State, and it produced one of the most beautiful countries on Earth. The idea that the State is needed to regulate building is a very modern and very bad idea, and it is demonstrably so. It violates people’s property rights, makes buildings uglier and more expensive and these regulations should be scrapped.

big business trashes the biosphere.

Libertarianism is the best solution to the problem of pollution. The only reason why companies can get away with pollution is because the land and rivers are not owned by individuals. If they were owned privately, pollution would be stopped over night. There is an excellent section on this in the Libertarian Manifesto, and Lew Rockwell has a superb essay on this subject that you should read.

This is the freedom of the powerful to exploit the weak, the rich to exploit the poor.

Actually, this is the effect of the State, which keeps people weak, facilitates the exploitation of everyone, including the poor, who under the wing of the State, are keep in a condition of penury.

Rightwing 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. Their concept of freedom looks to me like nothing but a justification for greed.

There is no such thing as ‘Rightwing libertarianism’. Libertarians accept as a fundamental principle the non aggression axiom which means that they cannot initiate force against anyone for any reason. This puts a very large constraint on the power to act on Libertarians, and it also means that Libertarians are very careful not to aggress against other people, meaning that their acts should not impact on the lives of others.

That George Monbiot does not know this, demonstrates that he has had no contact with or exposure to Libertarianism. If this were not the case, he could not have written these lines.

Greed is a subjective term. It is very much like preferring chocolate over strawberry. How much money is too much, how many houses are too many and all these choices are completely personal and arbitrary, and as long as you do not steal to get what you have, its up to you how much you want to accumulate. To put it simply, greed is not something that can be measured scientifically. In this context, it is a word used to smear people and nothing more.

So why have we been been so slow to challenge this concept of liberty?

What George Monbiot has done is craft a huge straw man. “This concept of Liberty” is not what Liberty is at all; it is his idea of what Liberty is, and it is key to his position that you are never exposed to true Libertarianism, because if you are exposed to it, it is very likely that you will be swept away by its purity, beauty and the sheer unadulterated truth of it.

I challenge anyone who thinks that I am wrong to read For a New Liberty for themselves.

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. 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.

This is not the true nature of the conflict, and it exposes the lack of depth of Monbiot’s thinking, which cannot penetrate any further than what is before his eyes.

The true conflict is between the State and every living human being.

Social justice campaigners and environmentalists are all fighting inside an Inception scenario, where they believe they are battling for a win where in fact, the board that they are playing on is a completely controlled artificial space where it is not possible for them to do so.

If these groups want cleaner rivers and air, they should embrace Libertarianism and property rights, and push for an end to the State. In a world where there are no public spaces, pollution becomes absolutely intolerable. Smoke stacks, acid rain, litter, dumping sewage and industrial waste into rivers and every other act of vandalism becomes impossible, because everyone, literally everyone wants to keep their own property clean.

When a space belongs to no one, that is where the garbage goes. Environmentalists that truly want to clean up the earth actually want everyone to have a stake in keeping it clean. That means property rights in everything, no public property owned by the collectivist State. It is a hard pill to swallow for many people, but in reality, it produces what they want; a clean environment where everyone is converted into an environmentalist by default.

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.

I shall leave this to the pen of Rothbard himself:


ONE OF THE BEST-KNOWN and most influential present-day treatments of liberty is that of Sir Isaiah Berlin. In his Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin upheld the concept of negative libertyabsence of interference with a persons sphere of actionas against positive liberty; which refers not to liberty at all but to an individuals effective power or mastery over himself or his environment. Superficially Berlins concept of negative liberty seems similar to the thesis of the present volume: that liberty is the absence of physically coercive interference or invasion of an individuals person and property. Unfortunately, however, the vagueness of Berlins concepts led to confusion and to the absence of a systematic and valid libertarian creed.

One of Berlins fallacies and confusions he himself recognized in a later essay and edition of his original volume. In his Two Concepts of Liberty, he had written that I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no human being interferes with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can do what he wants. Or, as Berlin later phrased it, In the original version of Two Concepts of Liberty I speak of liberty as the absence of obstacles to the fulfillment of a mans desires.2 But, as he later realized, one grave problem with this formulation is that a man can be held to be free in proportion as his wants and desires are extinguished, for example by external conditioning. As Berlin states in his corrective essay,

If degrees of freedom were a function of the satisfaction of desires, I could increase freedom as effectively by eliminating desires as by satisfying them; I could render men (including myself) free by conditioning them into losing the original desires which I have decided not to satisfy.

In his later (1969) version, Berlin has expunged the offending passage, altering the first statement above to read: Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others.4 But grave problems still remain with Berlins later approach. For Berlin now explains that what he means by freedom is the absence of obstacles to possible choices and activities, obstacles, that is, put there by alterable human practices.5 But this comes close, as Professor Parent observes, to confusing freedom with opportunity in short to scuttling Berlins own concept of negative freedom and replacing it with the illegitimate concept of positive freedom. Thus, as Parent indicates, suppose that X refuses to hire Y because Y is a redhead and X dislikes redheads; X is surely reducing Ys range of opportunity, but he can scarcely be said to be invading Ys freedom.6 Indeed, Parent goes on to point out a repeated confusion in the later Berlin of freedom with opportunity; thus Berlin writes that the freedom of which I speak is opportunity for action (xlii), and identifies increases in liberty with the maximization of opportunities (xlviii). As Parent points out, The terms liberty and opportunity have distinct meanings; someone, for example, may lack the opportunity to buy a ticket to a concert for numerous reasons (e.g., he is too busy) and yet he was still in any meaningful sense free to buy such a ticket.7

Thus, Berlins fundamental flaw was his failure to define negative liberty as the absence of physical interference with an individuals person and property, with his just property rights broadly defined. Failing to hit on this definition, Berlin fell into confusion, and ended by virtually abandoning the very negative liberty he had tried to establish and to fall, willy-nilly, into the positive liberty camp. More than that, Berlin, stung by his critics with the charge of upholding laissez-faire, was moved into frenetic and self-contradictory assaults on laissez-faire as somehow injurious to negative liberty. For example, Berlin writes that the evils of unrestricted laissez faire . . . led to brutal violations of negative liberty . . . including that of free expression or association. Since laissez faire precisely means full freedom of person and property, including of course free expression and association as a subset of private property rights, Berlin has here fallen into absurdity. And in a similar canard, Berlin writes of

the fate of personal liberty during the reign of unfettered economic individualismabout the condition of the injured majority, principally in the towns, whose children were destroyed in mines or mills, while their parents lived in poverty, disease, and ignorance, a situation in which the enjoyment by the poor and the weak of legal rights . . . became an odious mockery.

Unsurprisingly, Berlin goes on to attack such pure and consistent laissez-faire libertarians as Cobden and Spencer on behalf of such confused and inconsistent classical liberals as Mill and de Tocqueville.

There are several grave and basic problems with Berlins fulminations. One is a complete ignorance of the modern historians of the Industrial Revolution, such as Ashton, Hayek, Hutt, and Hartwell, who have demonstrated that the new industry alleviated the previous poverty and starvation of the workers, including the child laborers, rather than the contrary.9 But on a conceptual level, there are grave problems as well. First, that it is absurd and self-contradictory to assert that laissez-faire or economic individualism could have injured personal liberty; and, second, that Berlin is really explicitly scuttling the very concept of negative liberty on behalf of concepts of positive power or wealth.

Berlin reaches the height (or depth) of this approach when he attacks negative liberty directly for having been

used to . . . arm the strong, the brutal, and the unscrupulous against the humane and the weak. . . . Freedom for the wolves has often meant death to the sheep. The bloodstained story of economic individualism and unrestrained capitalist competition does not . . . today need stressing.

The crucial fallacy of Berlin here is insistently to identify freedom and the free market economy with its oppositewith coercive aggression. Note his repeated use of such terms as arm, brutal, wolves and sheep, and bloodstained, all of which are applicable only to coercive aggression such as has been universally employed by the State. Also, he then identifies such aggression with its oppositethe peaceful and voluntary processes of free exchange in the market economy. Unrestrained economic individualism led, on the contrary, to peaceful and harmonious exchange, which benefitted most precisely the weak and the sheep; it is the latter who could not survive in the statist rule of the jungle, who reap the largest share of the benefits from the freely competitive economy. Even a slight acquaintance with economic science, and particularly with the Ricardian Law of Comparative Advantage, would have set Sir Isaiah straight on this vital point.

By all means, read The Ethics of Liberty. It is the epitome of clear thinking and reason.

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.

There is no such thing as a ‘right wing Libertarian’. Once you have read For a New Liberty you will understand why this is the case. Justice applies only to man, and not to groups of men. Man does not have rights in groups (gay rights, black rights, women’s rights etc) and so when the accusation of closet communist is bandied about, you can understand where it is coming from.

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’.”

Man is not a fish, and only man has rights. This analogy is self evidently nonsense.

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.

Another bad analogy. Swinging your fist to punch someone in the nose unprovoked is violent aggression. Swinging your fist for any other reason is entirely your business. If you hit someone in the nose by accident, this is not aggression, it is an accident. You can therefore punch someone in the nose without aggressing against them. Boxers do it every day for sport. A better way to put this would be to say that you should not deliberately and without provocation, punch people in the nose because doing so is an act of violence. Thinking clearly and cleanly about these matters is essential if you are to get to the bottom of them. If you start from the wrong initial premiss however, it is difficult if not impossible to arrive at the correct conclusion.

The Occupy Movement, by the admission of some of them who have managed to get on to television, does not know exactly what it wants. It has no leadership, no centrally organising body, and anyone who turns up there has an equal voice. There are many Libertarians at the Occupy gatherings, and so to attempt to co-opt that movement in this way is simply misleading.

Berlin also shows that freedom can intrude on 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 on freedoms that interfere with other people’s freedoms or on freedoms which conflict with justice and humanity.

Unbelievable. Happiness is subjective, not objective or measurable. The State is not required to dispense Justice. Equality is a trigger code word that Statists use to justify their fallacious ideas. When it is used in this way, it usually means you are reading the words of a man like George Monbiot.

“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.” This line is self evidently fallacious. First of all, man by his nature, does not exist as classes of men. This is a one hundred percent artificial construct. Your liberty is a function of your ability to exist free of coercion. This has nothing to do with with the emotional condition of other people (misery). You have no right to coerce others, and so as long as you do not do so, other people’s misery is not of your creation, and you cannot be blamed for it, or held responsible for it (outside of any religious obligation).

Rothbard never makes wooly statements and unfounded declarations like this. That is why I always recommend his books and essays, because there is no bad thinking in them, no leaps that depend on common knowledge. Rothbard’s thinking is a seamless, solid platform that is irrefutable, complete and absolutely correct, exposing the fundamental particles of the true nature of human interaction. Once you read Rothbard, bad thinking of the type we see here, jumps off the page with its wrong-ness.

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. “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 on 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.

I actually laughed out loud at this part.

Clare has no ‘freedom to delight’ in someone else’s property the landlord has an absolute right to cut down any tree on his property. If Mr. Clare wants trees, he should spend less time viewing the much admir’d trees of the Landlord, and work to secure his own property, whereupon he can have his own trees to rest under with his decedents.

Of course, if Mr. Clare is a French citizen he has no incentive to own property, because the French State declares that primogeniture is illegal and families cannot pass down property as they see fit. This forces the French Monsieur Clare to marvel at the trees owned by the State or other people, and it means that eventually all people will only be able to marvel at trees owned either by the State or by its cronies.

A small digression, but illustrative nonetheless. Property rights are the foundation of a free and prosperous society. It solves all the problems of the environment, and its beauty, and has many other side effects that are entirely beneficial.

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.

On the other hand, the monarch is very good at preserving the land is it not? Richmond park is a beautiful example, with its deer, 500 year old trees and tranquil spaces. What does the State do to help Richmond Park? It builds tower blocks at its edge. Preservation orders are nothing more than theft, masquerading as an act for the ‘public good’.

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.

No one has the right to pollute, this is false, and no one asserts that they have the right to pollute. They can have a license from the State to pollute, but that is an entirely different thing.

When people agree to work for each other, this is not exploitation, it is a mutually agreed contract. If someone owns a tract of land and allows a mining company to mine it, this is not exploitation, it is trade.

No one who is sane and who owns guns owns them to kill. Self defence is not the same as murder, and you have a right to defend yourself. Period.

People like George Monbiot have a very confused (no wonder, look at the books he reads) idea of what rights are and where they come from. Without a proper understanding of rights, it is impossible to have a logical perspective on all of these matters, and logical thinking is essential if you are to solve any problem in logic and ethics.

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.

The State controlling the money, movement, biology and property of man is nothing less than tyranny. The State and its many apologists have no right to control others, and the only way they can justify their inherently immoral stances is by invoking poetry. It simply will not wash.

Last week, on an internet radio channel called The Fifth Column, I debated climate change with Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas, one of the rightwing libertarian groups that rose from the ashes of the Revolutionary Communist party. 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.

Monbiot needs a new prescription for his glasses… LOL!

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. 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.

No plant has the freedom to pollute; this is a plain straw man argument. In a Libertarian society, any lead smelting plant that poisoned a tree on someone else’s land, let alone a person, would be subject to a withering legal attack. Knowing this in advance, all lead smelters would move to the most remote and desolate places on the earth to avoid poisoning people and being hit by thousands of vigorous lawsuits.

In the land of the State however, pollution is openly permitted and merely limited to different degrees, so that businesses can deliver cheap lead ingots to industry. A lead smelting plant in the middle of nowhere that has to deliver its ingots thousands of miles before they are used would have to increase their prices dramatically. Once again, it is the State that is the problem, not industry. It is the State that permits, condones and promotes pollution. It is the State that shields the polluters. It is the State that disempowers the victims of environmental poisoning.

Environmentalists like George Monbiot fail to understand that Libertarianism, property rights and Statelessness provides them with a means to have an environment that is cleaner by orders of magnitude. It takes an insightful thinker who has read the right books to come to this conclusion however.

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.

Libertarianism is the philosophy that disempowers the exploiters who use the State to license their systematic destruction of the environment. Libertarians understand what the true nature of the State is. They understand what liberty is, where it comes from and how to define it.

Libertarians understand the true nature of money. They understand how banking works, what inflation is and where it comes from. They also understand how contracts work, and your right to enter into them on whatever terms are suitable to both parties. They understand what the word ‘free’ means as it applies to man. They understand this unambiguously, without contradictions or sleights of hand, sophistry, or doublespeak.

Libertarians understand the true nature of the State, its predatory nature, and the truth of its institutionalised theft and mass murder. Libertarians understand what weak people have the same rights as the strong and that the needs of the weak are best served by understanding, defining and protecting the rights of everyone, equally.

Libertarianism is not a bastard child. It is of a clean lineage that stretches from Frdric Bastiat to Murray Newton Rothbard to Ronald Ernest Paul to Llewellyn Harrison Rockwell. It is anything but cycloptic. It embraces everything and every possible situation where man must interact with man, and it approaches every possible scenario with the same rock solid set of irrefutable fundamental principles.

Libertarianism does not rely on deception or changing the meaning of words to suit its purpose or befuddle the reader, a perfect example of which is given to us on a plate when Monbiot says that people who promote Libertarianism pitch it against liberty. This statement is absurd on its face.

Freedom can never be an instrument of oppression, by definition, if you are not working from the bespoke dictionary of George Monbiot.

You do not have the freedom to pollute other people’s land or bodies, or to steal money or property from them. When you participate in these immoral acts you immediately cease to be exercising freedom. But you know this.

The meaning of words is important. When people misuse them deliberately, they do so in order to confuse and deceive their readers. If you cannot construct an argument against something without changing the meaning of words, you have a strong indication that your position is incorrect.

In this piece, George Monbiot has demonstrated that he knows absolutely nothing about Libertarianism, has not read any of its foundational texts and is simply using the word ‘Libertarian’ as a axle to spin his attacks on the villains that are polluting the environment.

As the Ron Paul presidential bid gains momentum, we can expect many more empty attacks like this to emerge, as writers who have never read a single libertarian work are forced to tackle his philosophical positions. What this will do is expose either their complete ignorance about what Libertarianism is, or their inherently violent Statist philosophies, or their complete lack of the ability to think clearly.

In which of those three categories would you place George Monbiot?


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