Classical Liberalism 101

Classical Liberalism 101

Classical Liberalism 101

September 16, 2015

You’ve been sent to this page because you can’t work out why you really like what I say 50% of the time, but don’t like what I say the other 50% of the time.

Using extracts from three different publications, I outline the basics of classical liberalism, or libertarianism, as well as provide a bit of background on the ‘nanny state’.

After reading it, I hope you’ll also agree with the other 50%.

From my address to the National Press Club, 24 June 2015

“The policies of the Liberal Democrats are based on classical liberalism, which owes its origins to the Scottish Enlightenment. Every time a meddling government makes a bad decision, takes our money, wastes it, and interferes in our lives, we are proven right. In other words, every day of the week.

Here we are in 2015 and the government still wants to know if you have the right combination of genitals before it will allow you to press them together in holy matrimony. It disapproves of adult smoking so much it is attempting to tax it out of existence, while a black market springs up under its nose. It will soon have all your phone and internet data collected in a convenient place so both it and hackers can snoop on you more easily. Then make you pay for the privilege.

Our way of thinking is new to people who have not yet figured out that the divisions between left and right are irrational and arbitrary. If I talk about letting people decide for themselves whether to smoke tobacco, people think I am a right wing nutter. But if I say the same about marijuana, I am a left wing loony. If I suggest we let gay and lesbian people do what they want, I am a leftie, but if I support 4WDers, fishers and hunters, I am a conservative.

When you understand that issues like these are not of the left or right, but about the relationship between individuals and the state, you will understand us.”

From my speech in Senators’ Statements, 16 September 2015 – ‘The True History of the Nanny State’

“I would like to clear up some confusion. First, I’m going to answer a question that has come my way a lot in recent times – ‘what is the “nanny state”?’

Next, I’m going to outline the origin of the phrase.

At its core, the ‘nanny state’ involves enacting laws and enforcing policies that interfere with or manage personal choices, when the only consideration is the individual’s own good.

This is distinct from public health interventions that address public problems, such as product safety, sanitation, vaccines and water quality. These are not nanny state laws. They are not directed at making individuals live their lives according to a certain set of rules or to a certain standard.

A good example of nanny state intervention can be seen in the case of obesity. If you eat too much and get fat, that is your problem. It may be unwise, but it is not the government’s business whether you eat too much and get fat. You are the one affected, and the costs you incur are private.

The distress and grief of those who choose to be around you is a consequence of that choice.  It is a private matter between you and your loved ones.

And if governments make an unconditional and unsolicited commitment to pay your healthcare costs, that simply indicates that governments are reckless with the money of taxpayers.  This recklessness does not justify further incursions into our lives.  Two wrongs do not make a right.

The Senate Economics References Committee Inquiry into Personal Choice and Community Impacts, of which I am chair, has adopted ‘nanny state’ as a short-hand phrase to describe its focus.

Last week, during the course of the first hearing, and then during an interview on Lateline, Mr Michael Moore – CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia – spent a great deal of time deliberately confusing nanny state issues with non-nanny state issues.

He was aided and abetted by the ABC’s Emma Alberici, who kept asking me questions about guns. Firearms ownership is not a nanny state issue. If it were, it would have been included in the terms of reference for the inquiry. It is not a nanny state issue because the legal regime pertaining to the licensing of firearms owners has the aim of protecting others from harm.

Why does this matter?

I am a classical liberal, like John Stuart Mill. And it is John Stuart Mill’s ‘harm principle’ that is at the core of the political philosophy I espouse.

That is, ‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign’.

Public health advocates conflate the sort of regulation needed to protect children, with regulation intended to protect adults from harming themselves through personal choices.

The Nanny State Inquiry is not about children, and attempts to make it so are a strawman. No-one disputes that children must be treated differently from adults. While I absolutely prefer decisions about children to be left to parents, without state interference, there are circumstances – like child abuse – where the state must become involved.

Public health advocates also purport to speak on behalf of the poor, less educated and less sophisticated. This looks superficially compassionate, but it is not. It is arrogant and elitist, and assumes moral and intellectual superiority.

Its effect is to hector people about unhealthy lifestyle choices, controlling their purchases, and punishing those who maintain ‘impure’ behaviours. Regressive taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, for example. ‘

It’s often said the term ‘nanny state’ was coined in 1965 by the Conservative British Health Minister, Iain MacLeod, writing under the name of Quoodle, who in 1954 famously smoked through a press conference on the dangers of smoking, and who died of heart attack at age 57.

There’s only one problem with this story. It isn’t true.

In fact, use of the word ‘nanny’ to describe state interference in individual choices is at least thirteen years older and came from the left.

In 1952, American journalist Dorothy Thompson (and one time wife of Sinclair Lewis, the Nobel-prize-winning socialist writer) used ‘nanny state’ to describe British imperialism in the Middle East. ‘Western empires’, Thompson wrote in her syndicated column, ‘have filled the role of headmaster, or Nanny-governess. The West does not treat the inhabitants of its colonies as equals’.

She continued, and I quote:

‘It is an amusing notion that comes to me that, with the retreat of empire, Britons are turning Britain itself into a Nanny-state, perhaps out of a long habit in persuading or coercing natives to do what is good for them.’

In a 1960 article in the New Statesman, the magazine established by the Fabian Society, ‘nanny’ was used to attack the British Board of Film Censors. ‘Novels and the Press get along, not too calamitously, without this Nanny; why shouldn’t films?’ asked columnist William Whitebait. ‘Nanny exercises a crippling drag on the growth of a serious and healthy British cinema.’

Any attempt to discredit the nanny state term by linking it to Iain MacLeod will fail.  He was a smoke-like-a-chimney-health Minister who voted for the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality; supported the immigration of all races into Britain, and advocated decolonisation. He also had a serious war wound and ankylosing spondylitis, such that it is unlikely smoking killed him at 57. It is also likely he was a classical liberal. Mr Moore thinks that the phrase ‘nanny state’ was coined by a fool. Iain MacLeod didn’t coin it, but he was certainly no fool when he used it.

In fact, his opposition to illiberal laws and racism was drawn from the same anti-paternalism that drives modern resistance to public health regulation. MacLeod believed that a powerful class should not impose its own values on the rest of society. Colonial masters told their subjects how to live their lives – lessons given force by military domination.

Every time people in love with their own expertise – including many public health advocates – seek to regulate what people buy or how they spend their time or what they put in their mouths, they forget the people who shop and the people who vote are the same people.

If we can trust people to vote – a difficult and demanding choice with profound consequences – we can trust people to know what to eat, to drink, to buy, what video games to play, and whether or not to smoke.”

From the Australian Financial Review, 6 February 2015

“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.”