05 November 2007

Liberty and Democracy

Libertarians have solid grounds to be disappointed with the Howard government.

During the 1980s I was targeted by the Hawke Government's youth policy "Priority One", and finding it an utter load of wank decided that what the country needed was a government that stumbled and bumbled its way less into people's lives, and which took less tax to boot. As I entered the workforce I became irritated at red tape and dismayed at the tax take. You had to be clever to understand libertarianism, and it certainly provided something to do while grappling with undergraduate studies.

Time passed, and working in government - facing real issues with really few resources and real obligations to report one's actions for repackaging by PR dollies - cured the infantile disorder for me. Others are still out there maintaining the rage, such as you might find on Catallaxy. While there is still waste and blundering in government, it is important to think carefully about what government does, why it does it, and whether it's right to send people to prison for not wishing to fund this. I used to post there partly to be cheeky, partly to use it as a stone on which to sharpen my own beliefs, insofar as it remained firm enough for such a purpose.

Politically, the movement that gave rise to libertarians was much the same as that which transformed the Liberal Party during the 1980s. The Chicago school, the examples of Thatcher and Reagan, all had a powerful impact as an alternative paradigm for many in the Liberal Party and a few outside it. If you look at Liberal criticisms of the Hawke and Keating governments, much of it is done from a libertarian perspective: lots of stuff about "the nanny state", paying too much tax and so on.

The high-water mark of libertarianism in the Liberal Party was Fightback!, the cluster of policies the Liberals took to the 1993 election. The party and its message was led by John Hewson, who proudly declared himself as a non-politician (an odd boast for a man seeking the ultimate job in Australian politics: non-medical doctors and illegal lawyers are rightly viewed with suspicion), a position that endeared him to libertarians.

Had Hewson won the 1993 election, the Australian government would have been smaller than it is. Howard took over and steered the Liberal Party firmly into big-government populism, dropping his railing against red tape and funding massive increases in government programs - particularly in welfare transfer payments. It's been electorally successful and it has clearly been sustainable in a time of great prosperity. Yet, the libertarians had hoped for more: only in industrial relations has there been anything like a libertarian policy coming out of the Howard government.

Libertarians seeking as little government as possible had to turn somewhere, having been abandoned by the Liberal Party every bit as surely as the moderates. Moderates are still floundering, failing to link up with Democrats, NotHappyJohn, GetUp and other centrist groupings. The libertarians, however, have taken decisive action - but not necessarily to their benefit.

The LDP is an alliance of disaffected libertarians and gunlosers. The one truly heroic act of the Howard government was the reversal of the onus of owning deadly weapons, requiring the gun owner to prove a legitimate interest in owning weapons. Gunlosers have tried and failed for a decade to make the case that they should be allowed to own weapons because, well, they wanna. They have tried to form alliances with small parties focused on seeking to use the environment for outdoor recreation rather than exclusive environmentalism, but they have shied away. They tried the CEC, but they have their own problems and seem determined to spray themselves with voter repellent. Now they've finally found a host constituency: the libertarians!

The libertarians could have made common cause with civil libertarians: people concerned about David Hicks and the terrorism laws. However, in their new alliance with the gunlosers libertarians seem overly fond of military hardware as the only solution to all foreign policy problems. Besides, civil libertarians tend to be big on social justice, a phrase that causes gunlosers to reach for their missing weapons.

It's inherently unstable because there really are more important rights to assert than the unfettered claim of weapon ownership over all else. Libertarians have to make one of two cases: either what existing services should be cut, or (harder to do while maintaining a broad constituency) develop an alternative paradigm for government along with a method for funding that. Instead, they've retreated into snark: assertive independence with a hectoring tone worthy of any nanny. Take this yobbo, for example:
Unlike most other candidates in this election, I’m not going to ramble on telling you stories about how much I’ve done for the community

Casts some doubt over your suitability as a community representative, and your regard for those who do work hard and achieve much for people.
I am standing in this election because you pay too much tax.

Not that he can or will do too much about that, or is terribly specific about what the wastage is. I like how he, with the mindset of the nanny state he so wants to escape, has made a value judgment about my finances. Click through to this and you're 'rewarded' with guff like this:
Paternalist campaigners argue that more liberal availability of alcohol will lead to social problems. However, most civilised countries allow the relatively free supply of alcohol and they don’t suffer any catastrophic social meltdown.

This not only ignores alcohol regulation in other countries, it also assumes that "catastrophic social meltdown" is the only basis for introducing regulation (and with such meltdown, regulation becomes impossible).

Where have I read that before? Oh yes: the Greens' campaign is predicated on the idea that they had the balance of power in Tasmania and WA, and they didn't melt down - so vote for us and the country might not melt down all that much! The LDP is asking voters to commit another member of the Milat family to a public institution, and the less said about THIS the better. It's a poor and desperate source of appeal, and it shows aspiring small parties why there's little to gain and much to be lost in dealing with the LDP as currently configured.

There will be a certain amount of wary sniffing by libertarians with the Liberal Party in opposition, particularly if the Rudd government and the Labor states reshape the federation profoundly. This will ultimately come to nothing, in terms of influencing the next Liberal government.

Until the libertarians can divorce themselves from the gunlosers, until they can develop some honest responses for government against market-distorting behaviour that were unknown (if not absolutely then certainly in today's scale) before the end of World War II, they can't be taken seriously as a political force. That, and my guess that organising libertarians politically is like herding cats into wet paper bags for the purpose of fighting their way out of them - and their problem(s) become obvious. If you vote for them, you'll have to share their problems and a whole lot of others besides.


  1. I tend to agree with you on the current state of the LDP. However I cannot get the concept of libertarianism out of my head. Perhaps that I agree with the philosophy, and if it would be possible to combine some of the elements of libertarianism and social justice, then there may be an alternative political future out there for our nation.
    I think the French and the US had a good start in this, but I don't particularly like how they've developed. Maybe I'm too utopian?

  2. In other words, unless libertarians stop being libertarians they will never be mainstream.

    I agree.

    I prefer to remain libertarian and lose the election.

    Your complaint about our slogans is pointless. Of course one sentence doesn't include our entire manifesto. Our point about allowing alcohol in convenience stores is perfectly legitimate and evidence from around the world is relevant. And Lisa Milat is running in the ACT and shouldn't be blamed for the sins of her in-laws.

  3. Watcher, nobody's asking you to expel ideas from your head. Libertarianism offers a guide for how you look at public policy, and I believe that the LDP should've had more confidence in their own beliefs rather than being flattered by the gunlosers.
    The whole idea of The Road to Serfdom and similar libertarian texts was a recoil from the utopianism of left and right. Clearly some regard the idea of themselves as a small but happy band of partisans hiding out in the hills as romantic: I think it's pointless, even risible.

  4. John, of course losing the election is the only option open to you, and if you really cared about your beliefs you wouldn't be so keen to sell them out or to find solace in losing.

    I condemn libertarians for lacking confidence in their own policies - which explains, but does not excuse, the alliance with the gunlosers.

    Evidence from around the world on alcohol is indeed important, John, thanks for proving my point. I saw the interview with Lisa Milat and she declared that she wouldn't answer questions about her in-laws; firstly, political candidates don't decide what questions they're asked and secondly, there is a legitimate question as to whether the actions of one member of the Milat family make it easier for the "sins" of other members of that family easier to inflict upon the rest of us.

  5. Andrew Elder, if you can come down off the ledge you perch on, would you help John and many other fine Australians this Saturday by getting out amongst the voters so you too can experience what the people want and actually think, by handing out LDP flyers and spruking the virtues of libertarianism?

    If you are an ex Liberal party man, then you would have the training and experience to engage your fellows in good spirit, honesty and integrity on polling day. Not like the gooses up around Penrith stuffing inflamitory muck into people's letterboxes, spitting on candidates, tearing down posters etc etc - fat boy big L Liberals maybe?

    It is the only day in the cycle that Australians are focused on this subject - who is to win. It is 'civics' that is the main game on polling day, not politics as that all stopped on Wednesday with the thin media blackout.

    So, if you can come on down and join in am sure that LDP candidates would appreciate the help.

    It is a business where one by one we win them over.

    Best regards,

    Bede Ireland
    LDP Senate Team 4 TAS

  6. The plural of "goose" is "geese", Bede, and the person who can't tell what position another is in has no business running for Parliament. I'm busy this Saturday, and regrettably, you are too. You would be much more productive drinking beer at my place than you would inflicting yourself on the long-suffering souls of Gunn Island. Each to their own, as the liberals say.

  7. Face it fella. You are just an idiot taxeater who has gone native.

    Graeme Bird.

  8. What? You know you've disappeared up yourself into a Kurtz-like world of your own when barbed comments like that have no sting.