Tribal Libertarianism, Estonian Style
Arvamus 16 Jun 2013 Jüri EstamEWR
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Jüri Estam ERR News (29.05.2013)
Will individuals ever gain the opportunity to directly fashion the type of society they'd like to live in? It's an idea of some allure. At this point, H.L. Mencken, if he were still around, would weigh in with a broadside: "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." Still, Mencken was focusing on democracies and not republics when he wrote that, so perhaps all isn't lost.

Estonia is now toying with some interesting social engineering. The country's President, along with the NGO sector, recently gave a shot at fostering greater citizen inclusion in policy formation by creating a People's Assembly or “Rahvakogu.”

This walking-talking suggestion box had both fans and detractors. If journeys of a thousand miles begin with a single step, who knows where this might go? Ongoing 24/7 digitally-enhanced decision-making by the people, for the people? To fashion an honestly brokered cybercommons would be a big step towards citizens being able to take direct responsibility for their destinies.

Unbeknownst in a sense to themselves, for there are few vocal libertarian ideologues around here, Latvia and Estonia have both been flirting with libertarianism - something that's been scarce in these parts since the late eighties. Two decades ago, Estonia's two primary market-oriented political parties (the Reform Party and IRL) employed those pages in the Milton and Rose Friedman playbook that deal with the economic configuration of free enterprise societies, but tended to de-emphasize the rest, meaning the key messages concerning personal liberty and responsibility.

In 2009, the Latvian journalist Juris Kaza wrote about how his country was bumbling toward "minarchy." Kaza, if this captures his drift right, means a rather dystopian, reluctant and ad hoc sort of minimal state that's temporarily imposed during an economic crunch, when public services are slashed out of sheer necessity.

"Positive minarchy" on the other hand, when designed in a purpose-applied fashion, is defined as self-ordered cooperation of individuals, as opposed to having structures and regulations imposed from above. Think "Summerhill," writ large.

Minimal statists accept the need for some mechanisms of governance, in contrast to the anarchist's utter lack of a state. What government services and economies of scale are essential and desirable? In what areas are central government involvement and redistribution of taxpayer monies by politicians uncalled for? How much can be done without coercion and paternalism?

There's a flavor of libertarianism that gets too little publicity, one that hews more than any other to the ideas of consensuality, nonaggression and non-intervention that occur often in other libertarian writings too. Add to this the belief that when one has harmed another, you should try to undo or repair the damage that’s been done, to the extent that’s possible. Without agreeing with her on everything, I can very much recommend Dr. Mary J. Ruwart’s “Healing our World - The Other Piece of the Puzzle,” which, though slightly dated here and there, is free for the reading on the Internet.

Much of the libertarian political landscape described above bears a similarity to historical accounts of how the Estonians governed themselves eight centuries ago, before the Northern Crusades brought big changes to the indigenous peoples on the southern and eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. The old Estonian way of down-up self-rule was then hobbled, but not fully forgotten.

Instead of tolerating an unintentional quasi-minarchy that limps along in a way that few really like - for austerity measures have come to roost here too - shouldn't Estonians give purpose-built libertarianism a thought instead? It’s one thing when a centrally run, modern government reluctantly reacts to a cash and credit crunch by trimming public services, but quite another if libertarian philosophy were to gain broader acceptance, with the express objective of building a society from the ground up that involves as little government intervention as is thinkable and feasible. Then we'd have a say in what gets prioritized and what not, and in how society could alleviate and palliate some of the current all-too prevalent discomfort directly. State mechanisms aren't the only ones in the toolbox that can provide change.

The "national interest" goes beyond the interests of the country per se

One of the greatest people ever born in Estonia was the moderately nationally-minded statesman Jaan Tõnisson, who disappeared after being arrested and tried by the Kremlin in 1941. Tõnisson's approach to national-mindedness rejected the subjugation of others, focusing instead on the development of potential. What then of "tribal libertarianism?" If competition and even various forms of soft aggression are all around, what protective strategies can a nation avail herself of?

How does a small and stressed indigenous culture make good in 21st century Europe? One thing is a transition strategy for the country, as we return from East to West, yet another is a national development plan coupled with a recovery strategy designed to extricate Estonia from the economic and social straits we find ourselves in. But there’s also the valid question of the continued viability of the Estonian culture as such - one that’s being weakened by a variety of factors. If not interesting to everyone, the issue is important to many native sons and daughters.

Most strands of North American libertarianism, where the philosophy tends to flourish the best (this to the limited extent that libertarianism enjoys traction anywhere) offer little guidance for a culture like the native Estonian one, which continues to cast about for a fitness strategy and tries to find it's chi again. Fortunately the bookshelf isn't bare of ideas.

One can view the native Estonian culture to a degree as being synonymous with the linguistic viability of the Estonian language. Going deeper, one can actually see several languages and dialects there, but I'll generally stick to the word "tribe" and even tribes as regards the first nation that inhabits this country, living aside people of other backgrounds.

Outside of the libertarian framework as such, there are strategies that do work for some other first nations. These could potentially be woven into an Estonian libertarian way forward, custom designed for a culture trying to avoid the fork of the road that might lead to eventual language death and extinction.

Who knows - additional essays on such topics may be called for at some later date!

Jüri Estam is a communication consultant and writer based in Tallinn. He was first attracted to the creed of libertarianism as a teenager, and has tried to live accordingly ever since. When in the army, his unit's motto was "Freedom from Oppression." For a dozen years, Jüri worked as an editor for Radio Free Europe, and his home is situated on Tallinn's Freedom Boulevard.
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