How far out is libertarianism? How uninhabitable is its terrain, disorienting its position and remote its chance of success?
Perth is the world’s most isolated capital city. Libertarianism is the political philosophy furthest from any other. It is so far from communism, socialism and fascism that it makes them all look alike. Libertarianism is not even on the Left-Right continuum.
Now imagine a libertarian in Perth, and not only before commercial fax machines and other newfangled gadgetry, but also even further away than its geography indicates, thanks to government intervention increasing the price of airfares, cars, etc. That would make such a libertarian the outsider at the outpost of the outskirts of the outback. This tyranny of distance was experienced as a powerful tool of oppression in political insider Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago:
[H]e was not supposed to encounter others like himself, in order to avoid the risk of his gleaning a bit of sympathy, advice, support from someone’s smile or glance.1
The relationship between loneliness and politics is more pervasive than is admitted by those who prefer to think highly of politics. Most people choose to accept political beliefs mainly to help themselves gain acceptance by those who currently appear accepted in terms of popularity or power. Compounding this is that those in positions of popularity and power themselves often chose, and continue to choose, their path for reasons of acceptance too. In this way, politics for acceptance becomes self-perpetuating, and drifts further and further from self-reflection. It also makes politics ripe for disruption by those who don’t require such acceptance, and are happy saying what they believe without requiring approval.
How might an out-and-out libertarian in Kalgoorlie — a mining town 595 km (370 miles) from Perth — fight against this “loneliness”? By focusing on one’s own company? By giving up on libertarianism? Or by trying to use one’s own reason, conversing with books, having them introduce him to other books, writing to publishers, enjoying libraries and spreading the word?2 A libertarian may still mix with non-libertarians, but the expectation is that it will be as if they are still in a library; the norm is to keep it quiet. But how might someone in a remote location, with zero internet access, find libertarian literature to begin with? It was quite simple, really, for a 16-year-old Kalgoorlie kid in 1952: by just accumulating scraps of wisdom from his father. One such 16-year-old in 1952 recalls:
I was working after school in my father’s mining engineering business, unpacking crates of machinery that had come from America and in the crates was this packing material. No polyurethane, no bubble wrap or anything like that in those days, so they used to crumple up magazines to make sure the machinery would not move around. As a kid, I pulled these things out and I smoothed them out and I took them home and read them. They were magazines called The Freeman that came out of The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) in New York and they contained information about individual responsibility, the free market and all this stirring stuff. The words of Thomas Jefferson. All so inspirational that I could feel my curiosity stirring. (pp. 28-29)
Those are the words of Ron Manners, who, 68 years later (at the age of 84) is still unpacking libertarian ideas. But now, in a very big way, he is a net exporter, invigorating think tanks all around the world with injections of funds, fresh blood (Mannkal scholars) and sustenance (such as his own writings and regular attendance at conferences worldwide).
Ron’s discovery of libertarianism was not purely literary. For example, there was the lasting intellectual impact, when Ron was 17, of his father successfully questioning the local medical authority figure, the family doctor, who wanted to amputate Ron’s arm after a car accident (p. 29). Ron’s father took him to Perth the next day for a second opinion. Ron’s been travelling the world for wise and interesting opinions ever since. And now he has more arms than the Kochtopus.
The three stages of Ron Manners’ political journey are: discovery, escape and rebellion. The escape stage, Ron found, was not really possible, so I won’t summarise those escapades in this review; for those who like escapist literature, a sizable minority of The Lonely Libertarian explores some of his “‘fugitive’ years” (p. 5) as a “tax refugee” (p. 38).
Anyway, for many decades now, Ron is so firmly in the rebellion stage that his Mannkal Economic Education Foundation (Mannkal) is arranged to permanently rebel against bad economics and bad education, however well-meaning, popular and respected. Now the only lonely Australian libertarians are lazy illiterate anti-socialists on the autistic Left-Right spectrum.
Ron’s previous Australian attempts to overthrow tyranny were of the showdown kind, which he found did not work out well, with politicians not personally owning up to their positions and voters hiding behind the anonymity of the secret ballot. Mannkal differs from Ron’s earlier attempts at independence in that it is more about showing up than showing down. Mannkal has already survived longer than even the most “conservative” of Australian Prime Ministerships. And already Mannkal’s legacy is far clearer. Incidentally, Ron’s family business, Mannwest, is “six years older than the Australian flag or the Australian Constitution” (p. 49; see also the “very volatile timeline graph on pages 238-39”).
Ron Manners is a good name for a libertarian because libertarianism is not libertinism. Libertarianism is not anti-family; it is anti-nanny-state. Libertarians believe the role of parents, community leaders and moral guides are not the role of government. Libertarians would rather use manners, would rather say “Please!” than “Police!” and “Ron!” than “Wrong!” If you dislike that sentence, consider that the main justifications for government are merely cheap, cheeky and cheesy plays on words. For example, what do statists call the most important of legal documents that no one signed to bind/contract/submit/consent/subscribe themselves to? That gets the imposing name of “The Constitution” — reflecting the form of the old joke with the punchline “The Aristocrats”. Or what’s the term for taking money from one group without their permission, in order to give it to other groups, in exchange for votes, while hiding this process under respectable-sounding names like community and democracy? Soft libertarians call it “churn”. But the best name for this churn, I now see, thanks to Ron, is actually “money laundering”:
[T]aking money from one person and simply giving it to someone else is theft, morally if not legally. Laundering the money by having the government act as agent for the transfer doesn’t improve the situation ethically, even though it makes it apparently legal. (p. 101, and Libertarianism 101)
“Churn” has connotations of the process being inevitable, natural and out of human control. In contrast, “money laundering” attaches intent as though the subject matter is people rather than statistics.
Ron’s combination of radicalism, eloquence, insight and persuasiveness is evident throughout The Lonely Libertarian. Here are five more examples:
(1.) Proposing to keep more of our own money is not asking for a free lunch. In fact, it is suggesting that people keep enough of their own money to buy their own lunch. (p. 133)
(2.) Never cooperate with taxation investigators in any way. You shouldn’t be expected to aid a thief when he walks into your home and, likewise, you shouldn’t have to take him by the hand and lead him to the drawer in which you store your valuables. Any efforts you make in cooperating with them comes close to cooperating with suspected criminals. They are the ones who should feel guilty, not you. After all, whose money is it? (p. 138)
(3.) I will grant that the government does things for me that I neither requested nor need. However, since I did not request them, you must regard them as acts of charity and not expect me to pay for them. I won’t pay for them, for the simple reason of self-preservation, otherwise what is to stop every crackpot in the country from packaging a load of garbage, bolting it to my car, throwing it in my window, or hanging it about my neck and then sending me a bill for services rendered? (p. 144)
(4.) The politician’s definition of tax reform is, simply, changing loopholes into nooses. (p. 153)
(5.) Unfortunately, most of our problems would not have occurred had we been as concerned about preserving liberty as we were about earning a living and paying taxes. Most of us are so busy and preoccupied that we have neglected to preserve the freedom that protects our rights to keep what we have earned. (p. 159)
Those nuggets ain’t chicken.
If one opposes radical libertarianism because it is so far out, then should Perth and Kalgoorlie be opposed for the same reason? Should the marginalised be marginalised because they are marginalised? Should the status quo be maintained because it it is the status quo, and in the name of status and prestige?
The overriding theme of The Lonely Libertarian is a questioning of how influence, popularity and idea quality are measured. This has revolutionary consequences for political operators. It is a sensitive thing among many of Ron’s friends in the libertarian movement: how soft and compromising should they be towards the outright protection racket of government and its supporters?
I wouldn’t see any reason to object to compromising, if it was clear that those acting in that way have considered non-compromise options and are familiar with major Australian journalists and businessmen who have taken uncompromising routes with interesting results. To pretend that the likes of Ron Manners (the lonely libertarian), Neville Kennard (the loudly libertarian), Bert Kelly (the lowly libertarian) and Paddy McGuinness (the unlabelable libertarian) never existed, had zero success, cannot be built on or are not worth seriously researching, does not seem a defensible strategy to me.
How does one measure the influence-value, the truth-value, the novelty-value and the inspiration-value of the philosophy of Ron Manners? Try quoting a price on one of Ron’s quotations, like Ron’s definition of libertarianism:
We object to the taking of our property by organised society, just as we do when another individual simply commits the act. In the latter case we unhesitatingly call the act robbery. It is not the law which in the first instance defines robbery, it is an ethical principle, and this the law may violate but not supersede. … Robbery is robbery, and no twisting of words can make it anything else. (p. 101, and Libertarianism 101)
And yet for many who like to mix with Ron Manners and enjoy his support, robbery is not considered robbery but something more rubbery, something sappy to bend, erase and mould. There are many benefits to living in a big tent, but it may come at the cost of longer-term investments and security.
I was worried when I first saw Ron’s opening poem, written to mark his 83rd birthday on January 8, 2019 (p. 7). It begins by emphasising the importance of measuring everything, including what can’t be measured, even measuring the importance of friendship by counting the number of friends. But then the poem ends up mocking measure-mania by calling for a night of unlimited drinking. Such a beautiful set-up and punchline. All-time classic. I hope that “evidence-based” readers appreciate its importance, even if they can’t value it.
Here’s something the measure-mad mismeasure or don’t measure:
[F]or every dollar you put into the hands of the enemy (so to speak) you have increased his power to act against your interests by launching into more of these well-intentioned, but usually disastrous programs. (p. 96)
Public spending is not just a bite into the private sector; it is rabid, draconian and vampiric. Disincentives are spirit-sapping; they can’t be measured with a spirit-level. The measure-mad tend to measure what they think will make them easier to fit in and be respectable. Ron’s book is a friendly attempt to keep the measure-mad honest and limit their vanity metrics; to make clear the game they are playing, of measuring very selectively while feigning no such selectivity.
I like to ask those who pride themselves on their evidence-basedness, “When attempting to justify government expenditure on utilitarian grounds, how do you take the coercive nature of taxation into account?” The taxpayer, by definition, is not putting his money where he most wants to. Therefore, he experiences a disadvantage. This disadvantage cannot be measured in a way that shows it to be offset by any possible advantage received later from government expenditure. This makes clear how unscientific and arbitrary is “evidence-based” politics.
One of the many disruptive specialties of Mannkal is the sending of students to conferences and internships around the world. One disruptive element of this is it gives them exposure to unofficial and unacknowledged aspects of “respectable” organisations. For example, if they were to attend a Mont Pelerin Society Meeting, there’s a chance they might meet one or two people familiar with MPS history and the most important of presentations on strategic theory in MPS history, like Helmut Schoeck’s presentation from 1957, titled, “What is Meant by ‘Politically Impossible’?”, a clear critique of the confident strategy of so many analysts and lobbyists who are meant to be free-marketeers.
It must seem odd for someone from Western Australia to hear so many in the libertarian movement talk about the importance of not being too radical. Everyone knows about Australians punching above their weight. Major achievements in Westralian history were thought impossible. What does “the mainstream” even mean when you know the history of C.Y. O’Connor’s Fremantle Harbour and Goldfields Pipeline, two engineering achievements thought impossible? Or what does it mean when the government said Australia was running out of iron ore for domestic use, banning its export and private exploration, and then Lang Hancock found enough for the entire world for hundreds of years? Or the Royal Perth Yacht Club winning the 1983 America’s Cup? Are we meant to look at all these idealistic realisations in a spirit of empty patriotism or passionate pioneering? These are not achievements likely to result in any respect for “Overton windows” (unscientific jargon in popular use among policy analysts and think tanks).
The real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait. I give one coarse instance of what I mean. Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about it was that it was duplicate. A man is two men, he on the right exactly resembling him on the left. Having noted that there was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain. At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart on one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other. And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong.
Getting at this from another angle, Ron says in The Lonely Libertarian:
Leonard E. Read [the editor of the crumpled magazines from those machinery crates Ron uncovered in 1952 when he was 16] taught me that life is not a numbers game — you don’t need the biggest gang to achieve your goals. History is full of examples of how small groups of individuals have achieved amazing results. (p. 233)
My personal favourite Leonard Read quote on this is that in our society the tendency is:
we count, we do not weigh, opinion.3
Counting rather than weighing clarifies that those who are big on using metrics to report their libertarian activities are being unhelpfully selective in both what and how they choose to measure. In contrast, Ron is all about elevating the evaluating of valuing of ideas. Sounds stupid until you consider what ideas are and that the truth-value of many ideas is discounted and sold at a loss.
Ron is so distrusting of metrics that he often thinks about how unimportant balance sheets are compared to reading the people involved with the balance sheets and the business (p. 170).
All this flows naturally from his readings of the basic libertarian writings that most of those claiming to be libertarian don’t attempt to read. Consider this eloquent, inspiring and content-strong Ludwig von Mises passage from 1927:
All mankind’s progress has been achieved as a result of the initiative of a small minority that began to deviate from the ideas and customs of the majority until their example finally moved the others to accept the innovation themselves. To give the majority the right to dictate to the minority what it is to think, to read, and to do is to put a stop to progress once and for all. … so general is the acceptance of this kind of interference by the authorities in the life of the individual that those who are opposed to liberalism [by “liberalism” is meant classical liberalism or libertarianism] on principle are prone to base their argument on the ostensibly undisputed acknowledgement of the necessity of such prohibitions and to draw from it the conclusion that complete freedom is an evil and that some measure of restriction must be imposed by the governmental authorities in their capacity as guardians of his welfare. … It will require many long years of self-education until the subject can turn himself into the citizen. A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper. He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police.
Or as F.A. Hayek said in 1949:
The main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their courage to be utopian which gained them the support of the intellectuals and therefore an influence on public opinion which is daily making possible what only recently seemed utterly remote. Those who have concerned themselves exclusively with what seemed practicable in the existing state of opinion have constantly found that even this had rapidly become politically impossible as the result of changes in a public opinion which they have done nothing to guide … We need intellectual leaders who are prepared to resist the blandishments of power and influence and who are willing to work for an ideal, however small the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote.
But I guess working intimately with politicians and journalists is more attractive than being familiar with such basic texts, values and principles. Selling out is attractive. There is no denying that. Although to some of us such getting out and about resembles prospecting by fishing in a tailings dam.
Any group or individual that gets support from Ron, they get not so much an endorsement as an encouragement to dig deeper, try harder and read more. Ron pushes libertarians to push more. As I see it, for a student to receive a Mannkal scholarship, they have to at least pretend to be interested in economic and political education. Their mastery in form-filling, box-ticking, interviewing and creative-writing bodes well for successful navigation of the bureaucratic state. Some Mannkal scholarship applicants think they are tricking Ron and his team, but Ron and Mannkal are happy letting them think that. They like to keep their enemies close, and especially to get them thinking. Ron and Mannkal know there is no real excuse for anyone not already being totally familiar with good economics and good politics. They know that meeting most authors in person should not really help in comprehending their writings. That good economics and politics doesn’t get taught at schools and universities is no excuse in the internet age, let alone in the free public library age, which includes the impressive private library of Ron Manners, housed at Mannkal “Hayek House” HQ in Perth.
Ron Manners knows everyone in the worldwide classical liberal and libertarian movements, but few know Ron Manners. They almost certainly know his name (and something of his generosity), but that is equivalent to front and back labels. Knowing the label is not knowing the meaning. Many who know the label “libertarian” do not comprehend its meaning. Reading Ron’s own words is a good way to get to really know him. And it helps us get to know exactly how much the government does not in any way at all represent libertarians. Measure that!
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, translated by Thomas P. Whitney and Harry Willetts, abridged by Edward E. Ericsson, Jr (New York: Vintage, 2018), part 1, ch. 3, p. 58. ↩
- This sentiment was shared on a recent social media post by a Kalgoorlie libertarian: “There is something special about books … books thrill you to the marrow; they talk to you, counsel you, admit you to their living, speaking friendship. They introduce other books; each one creates a desire for another.” ~ Petrarch, 1346, quoted by Ron Manners’ Twitter, January 31, 2020, https://twitter.com/RonManners/status/1223109229055102977. ↩
- Leonard E. Read, The Romance of Reality (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1937), p. 21. ↩
** Buy your copy of the The Lonely Libertarian here **