Libertarian tyranny, anyone?

The title sounds like an oxymoron, but, as I once tried to explain to a group of young economic libertarians, it isn’t necessarily.

As one of them put it, “I thought when you free up the markets everything else will follow automatically.” In response I warned against the dangers of totalitarian economism, a term that often crops up in this space.

It’s possible, I argued, for reasonably free markets to coexist with tyranny. Economic freedom may be essential, but it’s certainly not sufficient. The youngsters looked at me with utter consternation.

In fact, looking at the entire complexity of life mainly from the standpoint of economics is a common element on which socialists and libertarians overlap.

Nationalise the means of production, claim the socialists, and everything else will follow. Socialism good, capitalism bad.

Privatise the means of production, object the libertarians, and everything else will follow. Capitalism good, socialism bad.

Like Orwell’s animals, both species reduce everything to a single issue. They just can’t agree on the number of legs.

Alas, libertarian fallacies are so deeply engrained that I don’t think I convinced my audience (I would have suffered a similar failure with socialists, but I never argue with them: they’re a lost cause.)

So much more thankful I am to my new friend Xi Jinping, who has kindly provided some empirical evidence for my argument. President Xi (funny he should use the newly fashionable impersonal pronoun for his surname) has submitted to whatever China’s legislative body is called a proposal that no limitation on the president’s terms in office should henceforth exist.

Since every proposal coming from Xi is automatically rubberstamped, that effectively makes him president for life, barring a successful coup. Such an arrangement is hard to reconcile with democracy or indeed liberty (I don’t use these words interchangeably).

And true enough, China’s government is an out and out tyranny, complete with severe limitations on civil liberties, unlawful prosecutions and whatnot. The cult of Xi’s personality is also growing apace.

Thus at the Nineteenth Congress of China’s Communist Party, held in October 2017, the Party Charter was augmented to include ‘thoughts of Xi Jinping’. Until then that honour had been bestowed only on Mao and Deng Xiaoping, so Xi is in good company.

However, China’s economy is reasonably free and getting freer. Plus there’s a sizeable middle class that too is growing.

The current development in China is closely paralleled in Russia, where the sham of democratic elections can’t conceal that Putin enjoys a similar job for life, again barring a coup or a popular uprising.

The two countries have much in common, and in fact Putin’s pet concept of Eurasia has since 2014 taken a marked turn towards Asia. I’m not sure if a meaningful alliance between the two powers is possible, given their widely divergent interests, and I rather hope it isn’t.

However, there’s more in common between the two presidents for life, and indeed their two countries, than either of them has with the West. Incidentally, both countries invest vast amounts in R&D, Russia mostly in weaponry, China across the board.

China contributes 20 per cent to the world’s R&D expenditure, making her second only to the US, and not by a wide margin. That sort of thing would be impossible without a great deal of economic freedom, which is so dear to my libertarian friends. And yet China is a tyranny.

Libertarians ought to realise that Homo economicus isn’t among the species of life’s fauna. Neither production nor consumption nor economic behaviour in general defines man and therefore society.

Man and therefore society can easily accommodate both political tyranny and economic liberty. It’s just that some tyrannies are too ossified to introduce a measure of elasticity, and some aren’t.

Mao’s tyranny had no room for private enterprise; Xi’s tyranny does. Thus Xi can control the populace without having to murder millions, and Mao couldn’t. But controlling the populace is the shared goal – only the methods are different.

Similarly, by transferring power from the ossified party to a more flexible blend of KGB and organised crime, Putin’s government can limit itself to murdering hundreds, thousands at most, rather than tens of millions. But there are no moral or, if you will, existential barriers that would prevent Putin from upping those numbers exponentially should the need arise – and that’s the case with Xi as well.

One can understand how most people are attracted to simplistic theories providing a total explanation of life. They don’t realise that the very fact such theories provide a total explanation of life means they’re false, for life is irreducible to simplistic formulas.

This goes for Marxism, socialism in general, Darwinism, Freudianism – and also for libertarianism. Propagation of such fallacies obviates the need to study widely and think deeply, thereby reducing man’s chances for grasping the truth and gaining freedom.

For, as we know, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Conversely, missing out on the truth means a life of intellectual servitude – with physical servitude lurking just round the corner.

Nikita came back as Vlad

While I was otherwise engaged for a few days, my friend Vlad Putin went to town.

Delivering the Russian answer to the US State of the Union Address, Vlad implicitly established the priorities of his perpetual government. Poverty, pensions and healthcare received 10 minutes in toto.

That shows keen awareness of reality. Had Vlad lingered on those boring subjects, he would have had to comment on the 10 per cent of Russians who, by the government’s own figures, live below the poverty line.

Since in Vlad’s realm that line is drawn at about £200 a month, this means they starve – as do most pensioners. As to healthcare, the less said about it, the better. Russian hospitals act mainly as anterooms to the cemeteries.

Vlad’s friends, all coincidentally billionaires, wouldn’t be caught dead (pun intended) in Russian hospitals. Whenever something’s wrong, they hop on the plane to one of the enemy countries, which is to say the West.

Of course the situation with the rubrics that rated 10 minutes of Vlad’s time could be improved had Russia kept the two trillion dollars currently sitting in the enemies’ banks, half of it in those belonging to the US, Enemy Number One.

But that money belongs to Vlad and his friends, family, bodyguards, cooks and judo partners. Repatriating and, God forbid, spending it on those undernourished crumblies, would mean disrespect for sacrosanct private property, and that just wouldn’t do, would it? So it’s best to keep shtum about it.

Skipping over the unpleasant stuff, Vlad gave his compatriots the good news. Thanks to the new generation of weapons, he declared triumphantly, Russia could put an end to life on earth, and certainly the part of life that unfolds within the confines of the US and other mortal enemies.

Vlad illustrated his point with a few animated cartoons, and let me tell you: Bambi or Snow White they weren’t. The cartoons showed Vlad’s unstoppable missiles doing graceful pirouettes around America’s pathetic defences before reducing US cities to the nuclear ash so beloved of Vlad’s propagandists. The cartoons were actually produced in 2012, but such masterpieces live for ever.

This evoked my fond childhood memories of Khrushchev informing the Americans that Soviet scientists had developed a nuclear device that could blow all of the US in one whack.

Nikita was exaggerating: no such device existed then, nor exists now. That was bluster used for blackmail purposes and above all to push Russia’s claim to be treated as a superpower.

The trick worked, encouraging imitation. You’ve refused to speak to us, thundered Vlad, but you’ll speak to us now. So we will, as one would try to engage in conversation a madman brandishing a razor and threatening to slash our eyes.

To what extent Vlad’s razor is real, as opposed to coming from Props Central, is immaterial. For example, many experts think that the nuclear-powered missile Vlad boasted of is a figment of his imagination. It does have some nostalgic value in that Khrushchev was scaring the West with something like that back in 1959.

What’s undeniable is that Russia is putting all her resources in the military basket, an ability she has demonstrated many times before. That’s why it’s dangerously ignorant to claim that the country is so poor that it’ll never be able to match up to America’s military muscle.

Russia was poorer by orders of magnitude in the 1930s, when millions of people were starving to death, more millions were being exterminated and many more dying in Arctic labour camps.

Food rations barely kept the rest of the population alive and working three shifts in munitions plants until they keeled over their lathes. And yet, having started the decade without any discernible industry, the Russians ended it with the largest and best-equipped army in the world. In some weapon categories, such as tanks, the Red Army outnumbered the rest of the world combined.

The USSR wasn’t exactly prosperous in the two decades I remember personally, the 50s and 60s. Bread and potatoes weren’t just the staples but the sum total of most people’s diets; most families (such as mine) inhabited one room in a communal flat.

And yet the Soviets stayed neck and neck with the Americans in the arms race. True, they couldn’t sustain it in perpetuity, but Vlad may have a shorter timeframe in mind.

One way or another, Russia is capable of straining every sinew in pursuit of strategic military objectives. If that entails having a life expectancy 15-20 years lower than in the West, then so be it. Nobody cares about that.

But what does Vlad care about? What in his mind justifies such a gigantic effort?

Vlad’s propaganda screams as loudly as Khrushchev’s did about the West encircling Russia and only waiting for a propitious moment to strike. That many Russians swallow that bilge is understandable: like most people, they rely on TV to form their view of life.

Yet amazingly a couple of months ago I heard a British professor lecturing in all seriousness on the validity of such fears. He stopped just short of saying that NATO plans a first strike on Russia, but he did say that the Russians’ fears are justified.

Now in a sane world such fears would only be justified if an unprovoked NATO attack were a possibility, however remote. But it isn’t: no US president will push the red button with blithe disregard for the likely retaliation.

Vlad knows that. So why the muscle-flexing posturing, in line with Vlad’s much photographed bare torso?

It could be merely an attempt to blackmail the West into some concessions, such as the lifting of sanctions. But it could also be something more sinister than that.

Every state has to have a claim to its legitimacy, such as a time-honoured constitution or, say, divine right. The legitimacy of every Russian government has always been based on the promise of growing strength and imperial expansion. In Soviet times, those who were sceptical about that promise were subjected to no-holds-barred violence on a scale never before seen in history.

Putin’s state is history’s unique blend of secret police and organised crime, which at this point still uses violence selectively – it hasn’t yet got to a point where it has to murder millions in order to survive.

So much more does it depend on the traditional promise being accepted: take imperial sabre-rattling out, and Vlad’s junta must either go out of business or start culling Russians on a Stalin scale.

This explains why Vlad incongruously extolls both tsarist Russia and the regime that destroyed it. He accepts neither in its entirety; what appeals to him is the element on which they overlap: a show of imperial force. Without this he knows he not only won’t stay in power, but may not even be allowed to live to enjoy his purloined billions.

Hence his increasingly aggressive policy aimed at restoring the tsarist-Stalinist empire. Vlad’s forays into Chechnya, Georgia and the Ukraine have received but a mild slap on the wrist – the West was sufficiently scared of the razor Vlad was brandishing already.

That he now deems it necessary to wave more diabolical weapons may suggest that he plans actions that the West might otherwise punish more decisively. This can only be something Khrushchev didn’t dare launch: an attack on Russia’s neighbours that happen to be NATO members.

If so, the West must scrape together as much resolve as possible. We must take seriously not the metaphorical madman, but the razor in his hand – and be prepared to respond in kind.