Sean Gabb and Libertarianism


In the first of a series of interviews with leading libertarians, Dr Sean Gabb, Director of the Libertarian Alliance, discusses what libertarianism means to him. Dr Gabb is also author of around fifteen books (some novels, some poetry, others political) and has contributed to and Vdare. The topics discussed in this interview include English reactionism and the ancient philosopher, Epicurus. 

Keir Martland: Dr Gabb, thank you for agreeing to take part in this interview. Would you like to begin by saying how you arrived at libertarianism and what you mean by it?

 Sean Gabb: To say that political opinions, or opinions about anything, are genetically determined would be absurd. However, I do believe that people are born with general dispositions that incline them to adopt certain opinions – or, when the range of known opinions is limited, to adapt certain opinions to their own nature. I think that is how it was with me. From my earliest childhood, I have never wanted to control others or to be controlled. I was brought up in a strongly Conservative family. That obviously influenced me. But I always found myself moving to the more liberal shades of conservatism. Also, I rejected socialism partly because it was The Other, but also because it struck me as a justification for control and even tyranny.

My epiphany came when I was thirteen. In one week, I read George Orwell’s “Nineteen-Eighty-Four” and the “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” The first gave me chapter and verse reason for hating socialism. The second sharpened my appreciation for the traditional and generally liberal order of Old England. I became a committed Tory.

My second moment came when I was seventeen, and I read J.S. Mill’s “On Liberty.” I know the book is flawed in all manner of ways, but I read it at one sitting, looking up every so often to tell myself that this was what I had always believed. Before then, one of my A Levels was in English History in the 19th Century, and I’d found myself repeatedly thinking well of the free traders and liberals whom my History teacher tended to scorn. I was prepared, till I read Mill, to think that old liberalism had been a good idea in its day. I came away from Mill a pretty convinced libertarian.

From here, it was a quick jump to Macaulay and Burke. Long before I had heard of Rand and Rothbard – long before I had met Chris Tame and joined his Libertarian Alliance, I was a Believer.

Now, as to what I mean by libertarianism, I take a fairly liberal view. For me, a libertarian is someone who: want to be left alone; who wants to leave others alone; and who wants others to be left alone. There are many paths by which you come to this position, and many justifications for it, and there are many claimed derogations from it. I do not, therefore, take part in the mutual denunciations of some libertarian groupings – anarchists v minarchists, natural rightists v utilitarians, social conservatives v libertines, believers in limited liability capitalism v mutualists, etc, etc. I have my own opinions on all these matters and others beside. I only reject someone as a fellow libertarian if it is reasonably plain that he isn’t sincere in his claim, but that he is only using arguments about liberty to gain allies in some other cause that is his main agenda. For this reason, I was dubious as a young man about the more convinced Cold War hawks, and nowadays despise the neo-conservatives who talk about liberal values, but are more interested in conquering and reordering countries that might sort of work if left alone.

Keir Martland: This is always an interesting question to ask as every answer is totally different. It’s particularly interesting that you say that your family was a strongly Conservative one. In what way do you mean that your family is/was Conservative?

Sean Gabb: When I say my family was strongly conservative, I mean that its members believed in the traditional institutions of this country, and Britain’s special status in the past and present, and who were very suspicious of those developments – immigration, permissivism, and so forth – that seemed likely to change the country from what it had been or from what they wanted it to be. When I came out as a libertarian, I claimed no longer to accept many of these opinions and attitudes. Of course, I never did wholly reject them, and they have continued to exist in an unstable synthesis with my libertarianism.

Keir Martland: And what is it about tradition that made you a libertarian? Would you say that tradition is actually something over which the state has little control?

Sean Gabb: I won’t talk about tradition in general. However, the traditional order of England is the raw material from which the whole libertarian tradition has been refined. This is an order of limited government and respect of the individual – of freedom of thought and speech, and due process of law, and respect for private property, and of general equality before the law. If I were a Russian libertarian, I might have to begin by rejecting my entire national history and culture. Because I am an Englishman, I can be a traditionalist – even a reactionary – as well as a libertarian. Indeed, I can be one because I am the other.

As to the rule of the State in the creation or maintenance of tradition – yes, there is some control. The authorities in even a very liberal country have much influence over what people believe and how they act. At the same time, they are themselves influenced and constrained by these traditions. For example, England became Protestant because Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I chose, for varying reasons, to withdraw the country from communion with Rome. It is possible that, but for Henry’s failed divorce, England would have remained as Catholic as France. However, once the Reformation had run its course, the English State was forced to accept the new order of things. Charles I and James II were deposed partly because they had despotic ambitions, but also because they tried to alter the settlement of Church and State.

Keir Martland: On that basis then, English libertarians can quite consistently be ‘reactionaries’? Would you say that the ability to be reactionary is unique to English libertarians or would you be able to include other nationalities? For many, the term will conjure up the image of ‘far-right’ statists - to what extent is this association incorrect?

Sean Gabb: Yes, English libertarians can consistently be reactionaries – though we need to be selective in our reaction. I don’t think we would wish to repeal the Married Women’s Property Acts, or bar a defendant from having counsel for his defence in a trial for felony, or bring back impressments of seamen for the Navy. But we can take pride in our nation and its achievements, and hope that a more libertarian future can be inspired by and connected with our libertarian past. As for whether other peoples can do the same, I cannot really say. I am certainly dubious about the American worship of their Constitution and revolutionary origins. The colonies were settled by the more totalitarian Protestant dissenters. The last witch mania in the English world took place in America. The Revolution itself may have been inspired by the English legal judgement that outlawed slavery. The Constitution legitimises the slave trade and takes account of slavery to give additional power to the slave states. American jurisprudence on slavery is a disgrace. Apartheid was the established order in much of America until my own lifetime. America is the country that banned beer and started the War on Drugs. Political correctness can be seen as much a secularised American Protestantism as something made up by German Jewish lefties. America is a country where freedom existed for so long as there was a frontier and for so long as there was some fading impress of English ways. As for other countries, I don’t see much of a libertarian tradition. English is the great and wondrous exception. We are, in some measure, the Chosen People when it comes to the development on free institutions and scientific and industrial civilisation.

Keir Martland: Would you like to see a return of power to the monarchy and a shift of emphasis away from democracy? Lysander Spooner in ‘No Treason’ made the point, excellent for its sheer simplicity, that just because a slave has choice over his next master doesn’t mean that he is in any way free or that he has made any contract.

Sean Gabb: You are asking if I would like to undo the constitutional developments of the past three hundred years. The answer is no. I might like to wind them back to about 1910, when the Constitution was internally balanced. But that does not seem a likely thing to expect or to work for.

I accept that Parliament is filled with scoundrels and traitors, and that they are put there by a thoroughly corrupt system of election. But, while I have the greatest respect for Hans-Hermann Hoppe, and might accept that his proposals will be good for other peoples, I still absolutely believe in a limited constitution, where a monarch and his advisers balance and are balanced by representative institutions chosen by those of the people who can be trusted with the vote.

How to decide who should be trusted with the vote is a question I can’t easily answer. The middle class electorates of the Victorian golden age cannot be brought back. Freeholders or tenants of good income are as likely to be state functionaries or clients as independent professionals and entrepreneurs. The whole moral and intellectual tone of society is different. I sometimes hope for a military coup and a Caesaristic dictatorship, which will sort out our present mess. But the question is always “Who will be Caesar?”

I think our best hope is for a set of technological changes that will make power hard to exercise as freely as it now is exercised, and that will bring people to look to other sources of income and moral authority than the State.

Keir Martland: You’ve taken a great interest in the writings of Epicurus, am I right? What makes Epicurus, who is relatively unknown when compared to Plato and Aristotle, worthy of such interest for a libertarian?

Sean Gabb: Big question. My best answer is to refer you to the essay I wrote on Epicurus a few years ago. However, I will try to summarise the argument. Epicurus rejected all attempts at a supernatural legitimisation for the existing order, or for any reconstruction of that order. Instead, he believed that a viable society could be made up of free individuals contracting each to respect the lives and property of all the others. Because of the catastrophic end of the ancient world between the fifth and seventh centuries, most of the relevant literature has not survived. We have in Lucretius a good summary of his physics – which are an astonishing achievement in themselves: a fully atomic hypothesis and a mechanistic universe. But this was only his negative case, which was a denial of the supernatural and the terrors that had been used to keep people under control. His positive social and political agenda must be reconstructed from short and often random sayings. But we do have enough to say that, of all the ancient philosophers, Epicurus was the closest to what we would call a libertarian.

Keir Martland: Indeed, the standard Greek philosophy might be summarised as: man is a social animal, society is social, state is society, and therefore we must be statists. Impeccable logic - I’d expect nothing less of Aristotle - yet the definitions of ‘society’ and ‘state’ are less than impeccable. Epicurus was a hedonist, was he not?

Sean Gabb: Epicurus was accused in his own time of hedonism. In fact his claim that we should seek happiness must be read in conjunction with his definition of happiness as an absence of physical and moral pain. He says:

“When we say… that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice or wilful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not by an unbroken succession of drinking bouts and of revelry, not by sexual lust, nor the enjoyment of fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. Of this the beginning and the greatest good is wisdom. Therefore wisdom is a more precious thing that even philosophy; from it springs all the other virtues, for it teaches that we cannot live pleasantly without living wisely, honourably and justly; nor live wisely, honourably and justly without living pleasantly.”

Not much hedonism there!

Keir Martland: I see. This kind of misinterpretation is to be expected a) when much of the literature is simply not available and b) when his ethics lead to a case for liberty. In a debate some years ago on BBC Scotland you made the case for legalising all drugs and similarly, in another debate on the BBC, you have argued against the restrictions on ‘drinking-hours’. These both clearly rested on the principle of self-ownership. What is your preferred justification for the principle of self-ownership and for another central principle to libertarianism, homesteading?

Sean Gabb: I take a rather minimalist line. I have never accepted the case for natural rights – not, at least without a God to legitimise them. Utilitarianism in its usual variants simply talks about the greatest happiness, without giving any reason why anyone should believe in the greatest happiness principle. The best I can say is that I desire that that people should be no more unhappy than is unavoidable given the actual circumstances of their lives. Some kind of libertarianism follows from this. If you don’t care if others are happy or unhappy, this argument will not touch you. However, most people seem not to desire the general unhappiness of others.

Keir Martland: Let’s say that libertarians, by whatever means, came to power. Let’s further suppose that you were the elected or selected leader of the new government. What would follow?

Sean Gabb: It won’t happen, but, if I did come to power, I’d shut down as much of the administration as I could. I’d keep defence and internal order and quite a lot of welfare – people do want this, after all, and have legitimate expectations to its continuance. I’d strip out all the agencies of oppression and bureaucracies that support the PC elites that have come close to destroying us as a free people. I cover this in some detail in my book Cultural Revolution, Culture War. Of course, I do recommend this for a longer answer.

Keir Martland: Finally, would you say that the opinion moulders are ultimately failing? With support for UKIP, with the election of MPs who claim to be Austrian school economists, with Frank Turner singing about how we should ‘fight for what we own’ and that we are ‘sons of liberty’, with the general anger at the current politicians, would you say that the British public is actually rather naturally reactionary?

Sean Gabb: Conservatives have been consoling themselves for as long as I’ve been alive with talk of a “silent majority.” If this does exist, it’s so far been very silent. I suspect that most people aren’t happy with the current state of affairs, and would put up with most replacements of it. Sadly, most of these replacements don’t look notably libertarian.

As for our own attempts at moulding opinion, these have been thoroughly incompetent. In many cases, supposedly free market institutions are simply front organisations for special interest group advancement – no names here! Or they bang on about symptoms rather than causes. For example, I agree that the European Union is not ultimately a good thing for liberty. We are in it, however, because we are currently too decayed as a nation to get out. And, while not ultimately good for liberty, it does a good occasional job of keeping our own crazies under control. Without EU membership, we’d have minimum pricing for alcohol, strict laws against porn, and probably armed police buzzing all over the place in helicopters.

Oh, and coming to the election of supposedly libertarian MPs, I’ve spent my entire adult life hearing about “sound” politicians who turned out to be awful. I remember, for example, Barry Legge, a Tory MP before 1997. He used to go about preaching the joys of the free market and freedom in general. Then in 1996, he introduced a private member’s bill to make club owners criminally liable for drug taking in the surrounding streets. Murray Rothbard once asked why our friends never get anywhere in politics. His answer was that, once they get anywhere, these people stop being our friends. Do not trust politicians. They are there because they’ve been allowed in. The filtering process is quite efficient. Mistakes may sometimes be made, but the presumption must be that they happen very seldom.

Keir Martland: Thank you, Dr Gabb, for your time and answers.

Sean Gabb: Many thanks for putting such interesting questions. 

  • Gaynor Martland Jones

    Fantastic interview …. well thought out questions which were answered frankly and indepth ..
    Well done both parties

  • Tom Burroughes

    Despite my agreements on a lot of points, there are several problems with how he makes the argument about issues such as the US and whether the English are, in any sense, a sort of “chosen people” (Chosen by whom or what?). The practice of slavery was, after all, something for which the UK governments and businessmen of the day bore some responsibility, since this vile practice started during the Colonial Era. The US Founders were at fault, of course, for not ending it but tolerating it right up until the Civil War.

    If the English really do have a specific genius for liberty (what about the Scots?), then it is needs to be explained why they have sometimes, and very badly, fallen down on the job and thoughtlessly given freedoms away in recent decades.