the cider rebellion

OldEnglishCiderToday is the anniversary of Lord Bute’s 1763 ouster from office in England. In hindsight, we can see that the error that ended this stage of his career could have served as a warning to the British government of their impending loss of the American colonies.

In Conceived in Liberty, volume 3, chapter 4 (“The British Army and the Grand Design”), Murray Rothbard tells the history of tax revolts on both sides of the pond before Americans declared independence from Britain.

For four decades, the English Whigs (liberals, in the libertarian sense) had maintained a policy of “salutary neglect” of the colonies, and “America had been allowed to flourish with a good measure of independence.”

When the Tories (conservative, in the illiberal sense) returned to power, their “Grand Design” was to strengthen and expand the imperial military with increased taxation at home and abroad. Abroad it led to the American Revolution, but it didn’t go down too well at home, either.

Lord Bute not only introduced a domestic excise tax on cider to support his expanded military budget; he “extended the enforcement of the excise from retail shops to private English homes.”

As a rule, taxpayers are more resistant to taxes they have to pay directly out of pocket to the government. My understanding from my French in-laws, for example, is that most French citizens cheat on their income taxes, and the government knows it, but rather than cracking down on the popular resistance, the French state supports itself primarily with sales tax, paid invisibly through every purchase and administered by the French merchants.

Rothbard writes, “The tax on cider was able to pass in Parliament despite the opposing coalition. But its lasting significance for America was the depth of the popular and ideological opposition that it engendered in England.”

Bute was out of office, and the colonists gained a short-term lesson in resistance from our English cousins.

Unfortunately, the long-term lesson seems to be the one learned by Anglo-American governments ever since: passive and invisible taxes meet with the least active defiance.

why the vocabulary of our tradition matters

semanticsI’ve been blogging recently (An Idiot Abroad, the Economist, Sp!ked) about "Little Englander," a term that I would argue is a contranym, something that means both one thing and its opposite.

So what are we to make of these opposed connotations of nationalist bigotry on the one hand and peaceful internationalism on the other, both wrapped up in a single term?

For one thing, the contrast is no accident — no more than it is an accident that the term liberal can mean left- or right-wing, pro-or anti-market, an advocate of hard capitalism or soft socialism, depending on the context and the speaker.

At the time of the Manchester School, when the slur "Little Englander" was being coined, the term liberal unambiguously meant a reformer who wanted to dismantle the conservative status quo. Liberals were unequivocally in favor of individual freedom, open borders, free trade, and international capitalism in its anti-Mercantilist and anti-Marxist sense. They opposed big government, high taxes, tariffs, political privileges, and all but the most limited and purely defensive war.

It was this final value, a principled preference for peace over war, that led the interventionists to coin the term Little Englander. Liberalism, as a term and as an ideology, was too popular for the conservatives and socialists to attack it directly. Socialists therefore connived to appropriate the term through redefinition. Conservatives, in contrast, attacked the liberals’ patriotism with the dichotomy of Great Britain and Little England.

There is a division within libertarianism over the question of vocabulary and the importance of semantic positioning. While some debate the definition of, for example, capitalism or patriotism, others argue that it is folly to get stuck in struggles over terminology. Explain what you mean, the latter contend, and don’t worry over the words.

I understand why the semantic quibbling can seem both endless and pointless, but the lesson I take from the linguistic history of our movement, broadly defined, is that the words do matter. The slurs work, and their effects can still be felt over a century later, when the specific debates have long been forgotten. Language banditry has been a thorough success for the opponents of individual freedom.

I don’t know Stephen Merchant’s politics. He and Ricky Gervais have been deliberately quiet on the subject, other than to oppose the humor-killing strictures of political correctness. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb, however, to guess that they are not sorry to say goodbye to the British Empire and would oppose any sudden resurgence of imperialism. I don’t take Merchant’s casual slur as an attack on the proponents of peace and a humble foreign policy.

So why should we care if an entertainer uses Little Englander to signal his friend’s parochialism? What was lost in the imperialists’ semantic victory over the term? What does it mean for the future of freedom when we have reached the point where even the Economist, without any apparent irony, uses a term of derision that was originally aimed at the magazine’s founders — and uses it without historical context and completely in keeping with the worldview of the political interventionists the magazine was founded to oppose?

When we lost the semantic battles over liberalism, isolationism, and Little Englander, what was also lost was the connection in the public mind between the philosophy of freedom and a policy of peace. To be pro-capitalism and anti-poverty strikes our contemporaries as perverse. A philosophy that is pro-market and anti-war creates cognitive dissonance in today’s mainstream, and yet these values were assumed to go together at the height of our movement’s popularity and effectiveness. In letting our opponents, both on the left and the right, redefine the terms of the debate, we have allowed ourselves to descend to the position where we constantly have to explain what we don’t mean.

This is not to say that we should let ourselves be derailed by terminological disputes. But neither should we let go of our history — or the language of that history.

The principled advocates of liberty can even reclaim, I hope, some of the terms used against us — anarchism, capitalism, isolationism, among others. That these terms can cause misunderstanding is not sufficient reason to abandon them. Everything about our philosophy can cause misunderstanding among the uninitiated. I contend that the vocabulary is an important part of the package.

I look forward to the day when we can join Spiked in proclaiming ourselves proud Little Englanders (whether we have any personal connection to England or not) and be understood to stand for cosmopolitan openmindedness, individual liberty, and a policy of peace.

Hayek’s defense of tradition

20140401-071447.jpgF.A. Hayek considered himself a liberal, as do I. But in the United States, he was and is called a conservative. This irked him enough that he wrote an article called “Why I Am Not a Conservative.”Download PDF

But while it may have been wrong to associate Hayek’s thought with the political conservatism of the 20th century, there is at least one powerful argument Hayek contributed to the cause of cautious traditionalism.

Tradition isn’t quite the dirty word today that it once was for most post-Enlightenment intellectuals, but it does still have the reputation of being irrational — and it’s certainly still considered inadequate cause to stand in the way of centrally engineered social progress.

Hayek argued, however, that tradition was often an economically efficient way to transmit hard-won lessons from the past into the future. Rational arguments take time and effort, and they rarely have the effect on behavior that we rationally argumentative types wish they had. Tradition, on the other hand, is very effective and relatively cheap. The “transaction costs” — to use econ-geek language — are considerably lower for tradition than they are for propositional logic.

Does Sp!ked online know our tradition better than the Economist does?

SpikedIn contrast to the Economist‘s insulting conflation of anti-interventionism and xenophobia, Spiked — which according to Wikipedia "is a British Internet magazine focusing on politics, culture and society from a humanist and libertarian viewpoint" — ran a piece last fall by Patrick West called "A ‘Little Englander’ and proud."

Unlike Stephen Merchant or the Economist, our Spiked author does address the history: "The term ‘Little Englander’ was coined in the late-nineteenth century, an imperialist slur directed at members of the Liberal Party who were opposed to the Second Boer War (1899-1902)."

And the article’s subtitle highlights the irony of the ahistorical colloquialism: "Ignore the jibes of the pro-intervention crew: it’s the Little Englanders and ‘isolationists’ who are the true internationalists."

The Waters of March

WatersOfMarchIn the final days of the month, as the sky opens and empties an ongoing downpour on the riverside Liberty Liberty Fest (so nice, they named it twice), the bossa nova song stuck in my head offers itself as a theme: "The Waters of March" by Antonio Carlos Jobim.

And the riverbank talks

Of the waters of March

It’s the promise of life

It’s the joy in your heart.

I’m probably most familiar with the David Byrne rendition with Marisa Monte on the 1996 album Red Hot + Rio. But I listen to enough bossa nova to know Brazilian versions as well. That is, I know the sound of them, but I don’t speak Portuguese, so I just imagine the English version as I listen to the Brazilian singers. After all, Jobim wrote both sets of lyrics.

For years the song has lifted my spirits and helped me endure the feeling of unending late winter. Yes, March is dismal, with trees still skeletal against a steel-colored sky and unending mud underfoot, but spring is on its way. The waters of March signal the promise of life and let joy return to my heart.

But, silly me, I’d never thought before of how different March is in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed. March, in Jobim’s Brazil, marks the onset of winter, not spring.

"The inspiration for ‘Águas de Março,’" Wikipedia informs us, "comes from Rio de Janeiro’s rainiest month. March is typically marked by sudden storms with heavy rains and strong winds that cause flooding in many places around the city."

A stick, a stone, a sliver of glass, these seemingly random bits in the lyrics are examples of all that gets churned up and washed away in the floods. The Brazilian waters of March are full of refuse. It is not a washing away of the detritus so much as a threat of chaos before the oncoming cold.

Wikipedia explains: "All these details swirling around the central metaphor of ‘the waters of March’ can give the impression of the passing of daily life and its continual, inevitable progression towards death, just as the rains of March mark the end of a Brazilian summer."

Did I just get it backwards? Is my song of hope really a song of despair, misinterpreted because of cultural narrowness?

Apparently that’s not the whole story. Jobim added additional phrases to the English lyrics to make them fit better with the Northern Hemisphere’s conception of March: "the joy in your heart" and "the promise of spring."

As I’ve written in a different context, "the message sent is not always the same as the message received," but in this case, we have multiple messages at the source. The life-affirming lyrics are Jobim’s gift to his English-speaking audience, and I’m grateful for them. After an unusually long and cold winter, when I find myself standing in mud, huddled among my comrades, discussing liberty in the downpour, I need the waters of March to speak of hope for a future that is no longer some abstract distance on the calendar, but just around the next bend in the deep river.

historical irony: the Economist magazine prefers Great Britain to Little England

TheEconomistCover20131109I blogged the other day about the double meaning of the term "Little Englander" and how its two meanings are really at odds with each other:

See Wikipedia and Wiktionary for example, where the primary definition is anti-imperialist, followed by the "colloquial" usage that means xenophobic. ("An Idiot’s Guide to Little Englanders")

One recent article from the Economist seems to use the term in both ways simultaneously ("Great Britain or Little England?").

Because the magazine does not give the author’s name, I assume the piece is meant to represent the editorial position of the Economist itself, opposing drastic budget cuts while recognizing a general need for the British state to shrink and the market to grow. Who, then, are the Little Englanders according to the Economist? Euroasceptics and anti-immigrationists.

"Britain is on the way to becoming more solvent but also more insular," the Economist frets. "The trick for Britain in the future will be to combine a smaller, more efficient state with a more open attitude to the rest of the world."

Apparently, a "more open attitude" would take the form not of voluntary exchange between free individuals across international borders but rather of precisely the sort of governmental intervention that George Washington disparaged as "foreign entanglement."

One great irony is that the Economist is itself a descendent of the original Little Englanders. The magazine traces its lineage back to the Anti–Corn Law League, the early free-trade manifestation of the Manchester School.

The classical-liberal Manchester School is remembered most for its opposition to protectionism, which was rightly perceived in the 19th century as a way to tax the poor to benefit the landed aristocracy. The Economist has not remained a liberal publication in this historically libertarian sense, but it has generally honored its free-trade roots. Has it lost track of the other side of the Manchester coin — opposition to war, imperialism, and foreign entanglements?

An Idiot’s Guide to Little Englanders

An Idiot AbroadI keep learning about movies and TV shows long after they’re past current — when the Netflix app on my iPad suddenly puts them in front of me. So I’ve just watched the first episode of An Idiot Abroad, the latest attempt by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the UK creators of the BBC’s The Office, to find humor in humiliating and ridiculing their friend Karl Pilkington — this time by sending him around the world to "experience" other cultures.

Merchant is clearly the better-educated half of the duo. "I’ve been to many exotic places," he says in the show’s opening. "I genuinely believe that travel broadens the mind."

Whether or not he’s sincere in that conviction, Gervais’s candor better represents the feeling of the series: "I want him to hate every minute of it."

Why? "Nothing is funnier than Karl in a corner, being poked by a stick," Gervais explains, adding, "I am that stick."

So why is Pilkington their victim of choice for this ongoing series of orchestrated culture shocks?

"He is a round, empty-headed, chimp-like manque moron, buffoon idiot. And he’s a friend," Gervais says.

But Stephen Merchant’s less blunt explanation is what caught me off guard and sent me to Google and Wikipedia to research current British terminology:

"He is a typical Little Englander and he doesn’t like going out of his comfort zone."

I could judge from context what he meant, but I had never heard the term Little Englander used that way. If you’re an American, the chances are you’ve never heard it used at all. I knew it from the history of classical liberalism, where the British war party of the 19th century used it as a smear against the anti-imperialists of the Manchester School. The British hawks called the anti-interventionist opponents of the British Empire "Little Englanders" to distinguish them, I assume, from the true patriots of Great Britain.

It wasn’t Britain the Little Englanders opposed, of course; it was empire.

The 20th-century equivalent smear, used both in the United Kingdom and the United States is "isolationist" — implying that the opponents of an expansive interventionist foreign policy are trying to shut out the rest of the world, bury our heads in the sand, and attempt to wish away the impositions of an ever more global culture. In other words, we are narrow-minded, myopic, and reflexively against everything foreign. By implication, it is the interventionists who are cosmopolitan and internationalist.

Here is Gregory Bresiger’s description of the Manchester School, from his JLS article "Laissez Faire and Little Englanderism":

The Manchester School [was] a radical group of parliamentary members in Victorian England. They were also known as the Little Englanders, or the Peace Men. Generally, they weren’t pacifists, but they proclaimed themselves as followers of Adam Smith, who saw peace, a reduction in government expenditures, and free trade as vital characteristics of prosperous, free societies. They fought the same battles as Taft and those consistent friends of liberty who today call for the dismantling of the American imperial state both at home and abroad.

Manchesterism, like libertarianism today, was a philosophy ridiculed by nationalists and jingoists in Victorian England, who called it hopelessly utopian and isolationist.Download PDF

Is that what Stephen Merchant is accusing Karl Pilkington of? No, of course not. Merchant means that Pilkington doesn’t like Chinese food and thinks that foreign cultures have taken normal things from the English and made them weirder.

The result is a perverse travel show that is both very funny and oddly informative. Merchant’s use of the "Little Englander" epithet is a tiny, throwaway line, not at all the emphasis of the show — although it does get repeated in every episode of the first season, since it’s part of the opening.

So why do I find it significant? Isn’t this just another example of how language changes over time with shifts in political and historical context?

(I argue against this general line of thought — using a different example — in my most recent Freeman article, "Check Your History.")

If "Little Englander" were just a case of shifts in meaning, we should expect the more political and historically minded definition to have passed out of current usage, replaced by the insulting cultural definition.

But a quick Internet search suggests that while both meanings are current, the political meaning is still primary. See Wikipedia and Wiktionary for example, where the primary definition is anti-imperialist, followed by the "colloquial" usage that means xenophobic.

So why do the British still conflate opposition to empire with opposition to foreigners?

Is it the same reason Americans insist on the same conflation when talking about "isolationism"?

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