Taxation, a costly sacrifice of individual choiceFebruary 6, 2015
Taking Classical Liberalism to the people – article in the Financial Review
After I was elected, during a trip to Canberra, I stood at the Australian War Memorial and looked down Anzac Parade. Parliament House dwarfed its predecessor, stretching its concrete arms across orange gravel and turf, encircling the smaller building. People, black dots picked out against the white building, scurried to-and-fro. This was a sitting week, and there were 5000 people in its 4500 rooms. And I was about to be one of them.
Politicians do not produce anything. We make legislation, tell others to make legislation, or tell someone else to do something entirely unrelated. Some of us spend your money telling you what a great job we’re doing or what a bad job the people down the corridor are doing.
I stood for Parliament in the hope of making a difference.
One of the strangest insults regularly levelled at me is that, as a classical liberal, I am ideologically driven. Who knew that having a consistent, principled belief system — and representing a large chunk of the population in the process — would be viewed as grounds for fault?
I also thought I knew about politics. I followed issues closely, read widely, ran as a candidate, and for several years had daily conversations with John Tingle when he was a member of the NSW Legislative Council, representing the Shooters and Fishers party. I was such a political tragic I even read Hansard.
And because classical liberalism is an important part of the Western political tradition – it’s what led Gough Whitlam to oppose conscription, Malcolm Fraser to oppose apartheid and Bob Hawke to support uranium mining and microeconomic reform – I thought at least other politicians and members of the Canberra press gallery would be aware that classical liberals don’t exist just to make Labor see sense on economics and Liberals see sense on civil liberties.
I anticipated having to explain my political views to the electorate. I see that as part of my job and I take it seriously. And I expected people – from both left and right – to disagree with me. But I did not expect to be criticised for being consistent.
“How can you support both marriage equality and firearm ownership?” they ask. Or, ‘How can you be in favour of both drug decriminalisation and lower taxes, or assisted suicide and welfare cuts?’ Or, ‘How can you support removing feral pests from our national parks and yet say nothing about climate change?’ Or even, ‘How come you’re opposed to data retention and national security overreach, and yet support the repeal of 18C (of the Racial Discrimination Act)?’
These were some of the questions lobbed my way during my first six months on the job. Sometimes the issues were combined differently, although the unlikely pairing of freedom to marry and freedom to carry guns has been the most common.
I’ve lost count how many times I’ve had to explain that classical liberalism is a philosophy concerned with the individual’s relationship to the state. This is distilled in John Stuart Mills remarkable observation: “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Yet even when keeping this sentence from Mill’s On Liberty front and foremost, it’s important to remind people that it’s not possible to make the world perfectly safe. Attempts to do so often result in gross denial of personal freedom and responsibility. A world free of risk is also impossible: should we – because human beings persist in having accidents with them – ban cars, motorbikes and bicycles? And let’s not start on alcohol or assisted suicide.
Some people base their arguments for restrictive gun laws on firearms accidents, particularly those involving kids. This is all too plausible until one realises that other things – widely considered safe – are more lethal to children than firearms. Backyard swimming pools, for instance. Should we ban them, too, while we’re busy banning everything else?
When I raised the issue of self-defence following the Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney, there were instant declarations of support for our restrictive gun laws. There was no understanding of whether it is prudent to rely on feel‑good laws or question of whether those laws can be enforced. And there was no regard for law-abiding gun owners, and no evidence presented. It was simply a chorus of, “I don’t want to be armed, so I don’t think anyone else should be able to choose to be armed”.
Just because you don’t like the idea of two women getting married or the bloke down the street having a well-stocked gun cabinet doesn’t mean you should seize the levers of power and stop either or both from happening.
Just because you don’t like cigarettes or marijuana doesn’t mean you get to stop other people lighting up – either through de facto or actual prohibition. And of course, just because you find someone’s words hateful or offensive doesn’t mean the rest of the country has to agree with you, or give you grounds for insisting that someone be dragged through the courts.
After six months in the job I’ve come to realise that I am effectively starting from zero when it comes to getting people to join these dots. People intuitively support “liberty for me but not for thee”. Some go so far as to argue that anything they like should be paid for by the taxpayer, while anything they dislike should be banned or regulated to oblivion.
The challenge is increased by the sheer administrative burden of the role. Being a senator is the most demanding job I’ve ever done, far worse than being a veterinarian or owning an agribusiness consultancy. I always thought anyone who could spend a sizeable amount of time with his arm two-thirds of the way up a cow’s behind could handle anything life threw across their path. Not necessarily.
Some people assume that politicians permanently live in Canberra, while others presume that politicians only work when they’re in Canberra. Both wrong. I have an electoral office in Sydney which the government actually spent $350,000 refitting. Without consulting me – I could have saved the taxpayer $150,000 had I been trusted to do it myself.
This is part of a broader failure to trust people to make their own decisions.
There is a fair amount of empirical evidence to show that individuals make better decisions than experts engaged on their behalf, especially when it comes to spending their own money. That’s why taxing people and then returning money to them in welfare or subsidies amounts to taking $100 in crisp twenties, burning one, and handing $80 back to the taxpayer. It’s wasteful, and pretends that government is capable of knowing every individual’s preferences in advance. It’s far better to take less tax and let people spend their money as they see fit.
The administrative burden quickly became evident from the phone calls, emails and letters I receive. Emails arrive in the thousands seeking to influence my vote. Many offer a free character assessment of me while they’re at it, although there are occasional compliments and some praise, too. Sometimes I write back – even to the abusive ones – and I’ve had correspondents express shock when they discover there’s a real person on the other end. I have also refused to let my election to the Senate change my basic personality. If people give me an earful of colourful language, I may respond in kind, especially if they’ve already called the office and abused my staff. That’s what led to the incident where I told an abusive constituent to go and do something anatomically impossible.
I didn’t appreciate the extent to which both major parties lack consistent policy positions – it’s mainly feel-good populism combined with an arcane proceduralism that works to the advantage of those who know the system. It also benefits those in the community who fight tooth and nail to keep things as they are. All the banning and regulating indulged in by the state means government has finished up invading every nook and cranny of our lives. And the inevitable corollary of that is it has grown fat at our expense. Government spending now amounts to more than a third of Australia’s GDP, and despite its rhetoric, Tony Abbott’s government has done little to remedy this.
Because I thought more people knew about classical liberalism, I went into the job expecting my troubles to be more mundane. People wouldn’t be able to pronounce my name, for example. But in fact my hassles are mostly a result of the fact that few of my colleagues and even fewer in the media have any experience of a parliamentarian who publicly subscribes to a consistent philosophical position. As I keep explaining, and many struggle to understand: if it’s not harming anyone else, it’s not the government’s business, whether they approve or not.
So now I know what to expect, what do I hope to achieve, given that I’m still only one vote?
I hope always to take that vote seriously and use it wisely. I may fail in this, but not through want of trying. I certainly make a real effort to understand legislation and the many amendments that are proposed, and to think issues through.
I want Australians to reconsider whether handing their money over to the government is better than keeping it themselves. I want people to understand that disapproving of something does not justify prohibition or regulation. I want people to appreciate the connection between the liberties they care about and the liberties that other people care about. I hope to provoke a national conversation about Australia’s tendency to be oppressive in some areas, and liberal or indifferent in others.
Consistent with my classical liberal beliefs, I also refuse to be captive to special interests. That is, I’ll support things because I think they’re right, not because people lobbied me or, heaven forbid, because they donated to the Liberal Democrats.
And I mean it when I say I’ll never vote for a reduction in liberty or an increase in taxes.