Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for May, 2014|Monthly archive page

Racism at the Libertarian Alliance

In Ayn Rand, Libertarianism, Racism on May 26, 2014 at 4:20 PM

This is a cross post. It was originally posted at Harry’s Place on May 23rd 2014, 1:45 pm

On Tuesday evening I attended a talk by Dr. Jan Lester entitled “A Critical Commentary on the Zwolinski 2013 ‘Libertarianism and Liberty’ Essays on libertarianism.org.” It was hosted by the Libertarian Alliance at the Institute of Education in London. In itself it was an interesting talk, although it was largely an argument by one self-declared libertarian that another self-declared libertarian does not have a theory of freedom or liberty. (This could be compared to a lecture by a member of Workers’ Power claiming that the Socialist Workers Party does not understand Marxism.)  A video of the talk can be seen here.

Like many political meetings across the political spectrum – and I have attended many such gatherings – the evening ended with a visit to the bar.  In the last year I have attended a few meetings by the Libertarian Alliance and the same faces turn up.

I was quite shocked by the brazenly racist comments made by some of the people in the bar.

As examples, I heard black people referred to as “macaroons” – where the term macaroons was explained as a derivative of “coons.” One of the attendees (who is white) mentioned that he was once, physically assaulted for no reason by a black man. He concluded from this that this was evidence of “a race war.”

Libertarians would view it as a violation of the liberty of a racist to prevent him from expressing racist views. People have the right, in libertarian theory, to be racist.  Libertarians are in favour of free speech and would be against any laws that would make the expression of a racist view illegal. A libertarian would also permit a company to have a sign on its door saying “No black people admitted.” Likewise a company would be permitted to advertise for jobs saying “It is our company policy not to employ black people.”

This might be shocking to some but it is important to understand what libertarianism is about. And what it is about is liberty. According to the libertarian conception of justice, there is justice if everyone acts within his rights. As a black person has no right to be employed by a company, he has not been wronged if a company will not offer him a job. A black person might be offended if a company does not offer him a job – but he has no right not to be offended. This is what libertarians think.

But just because libertarians would permit racist views  and racist employment practices in the private sector, it does not necessarily follow that they either approve of or encourage racism. As a comparison, libertarians are also in favour of repealing any laws that make drugs or guns illegal – but that does not mean to say that they wish to start injecting heroin or shooting people. In fact, racism as a concept would be an anathema to many libertarians qua libertarians for the following reason: libertarians champion the individual, not the collective. Ayn Rand (The Virtue of Selfishness, [Signet, 1964], pp.147-48) expressed it as follows:

Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to man’s genetic lineage – the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors…..

Just as there is no such thing as a collective or racial mind, so there is no such thing as a collective or racial achievement. There are only individual minds and individual achievements – and aculture is not the anonymous product of undifferentiated masses, but the sum of the intellectual achievements of individual men.

Tuesday night’s meeting was not the first Libertarian Alliance meeting I have attended where I joined people in the bar after the talk and heard racist views expressed. And quite frankly I find it disgusting.


The Paedophile School Teacher and the Sentence: A Comment

In Punishment on May 6, 2014 at 6:12 PM

The background case is that in the 1980s a teacher at Carmel College in Oxfordshire had groomed a 13 year old girl with whom he engaged in sex acts when she was 14. The case has recently come to court and the teacher has been sentenced to two years in prison. I make no comment on the length of the sentence and whether it was correct, too harsh, or too lenient, but I do comment on a reason the judge gave for the sentence.

According to the Oxford Mail, “Judge Mary Jane Mowat told the defendant the case was a difficult one to sentence, but that she had to jail him partly to reflect ‘reasonable public opinion.’” My concern is the “reasonable public opinion” reason for the sentence, not the sentence. We can break down “reasonable public opinion” into two components “public opinion” and whether that opinion is “reasonable” and consider each part separately.

Consider the following thought experiment that I have taken from Roger Crisp, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Mill on Utilitarianism, (Routledge, 1997), p.118:

The sheriff A town in the Wild West has been plagued by a series of violent crimes. The sheriff is confronted by a deputation led by the mayor. The deputation tells him that, unless he hangs the vagrant he has in his jail, whom the whole town believes to be the criminal,there will without doubt be a terrible riot, in which many people will almost certainly be killed or maimed. This vagrant has no friends or family. The sheriff knows he is innocent.

It seems to me clear that irrespective of “public opinion” the innocent man should not be hanged. Public opinion can be in favour of all sorts of things that might be rejected in law. For example, the public opinion could be to “hang all paedophiles” or “lock up rapists and throw away the key.” In my opinion “public opinion” should not form a  component for sentencing policy.

A get out clause for hanging the innocent vagrant in Roger Crisp’s example above would be that it is not “reasonable” to do so. Hence, it could be argued, that it is not “public opinion” that can form a component for sentencing, but “reasonable public opinion.” The problem here is who decides what is reasonable?

In the case in question, it is the judge who decides. I will ignore the separate problem of how the judge knows what the public opinion is and simply accept that she knows that public opinion is that a jail sentence is required. In order for the judge to have an opinion on whether the public opinion of a jail sentence is reasonable, it seems to me that she has to have an opinion as to whether a jail sentence is reasonable for the committed crime irrespective of public opinion. If she does not think a jail sentence is a reasonable punishment for the crime, then the criminal should not be jailed and if she thinks it is reasonable punishment then she may jail the criminal. I am not sure why public opinion need come into it. What is relevant is her own opinion.

I suppose that there is a possibility that the judge thinks that there is more than one option that is reasonable for punishment of which a jail sentence is one. In this situation, the judge can give weight to public opinion (or the judge’s view of public opinion) in sentencing. Even if this is the situation with the sentencing of the school teacher in question,  I feel that it is disastrous route to take and, in some ways, an attempt at abdicating responsibility for a sentence.

The judge is present throughout the whole trial and should consider all facts and mitigating factors when sentencing. The public have not necessarily done so. They might have just seen a headline in a newspaper or heard a biased report. Public opinion of a sentence might be of interest to sociologists but when it comes to the sentence itself a judge should not allow themselves to biased by it.