Story by Russ Grayson, March 2015
THIS IS A STORY of surprise, hope and disappointment. It is about the surprise that a libertarian has been elected to the Australian senate, hope that he would be the variety of libertarian that supports freedom, social liberalism and a secure future for our citizens rather than big corporations, and disappointment at finding that he and his party are not.
As a fair food advocate, I hoped that his party would support Australia’s small-to-medium scale farmers, our food processing industry and we food buyers. I’m sure he would say that he does, however I suspect that his party’s policies would work against it.
Here’s the background to this sudden appearance of a political philosophy that has been marginal to Australian politics: On 1 July 2014 became the first senate representative for the supposedly-libertarian party, the Liberal Democrats, founded in 2001. The party has two representatives in local government — Jeff Pettett at Ku-ring-gai Council in northern Sydney and Clinton Mead at Campbelltown Council on Sydney’s south-western urban fringe. It is likely that David’s election can be in-part attributed to the party being listed first on the senate voting form and its being mistaken for the Liberal Party.
For the Liberal Democrats the precedent is John Singleton and Bob Howard’s Workers Party of the 1970s, Australia’s first libertarian political party that combined classical right-libertarianism with populism (the party later changed its name to The Progress Party). I remember them saying that those who want a governor-general should pay for the role, and that sounded a good idea to me. But the party had little voter appeal and didn’t persist, becoming extinct by 1981.
Search for a better politics
Libertarianism is a political and economic philosophy that through its modern history has had little currency on the Australian political scene. Its appeal to many is that it is seen to offer an alternative to the tired old divisions of Left and Right in the contemporary politics of Western nations.
“Might believers in modernity — whether ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ — find ways to break free of the doctrinal rigidity that has been imposed on us by fanatics of both the so-called Left and the so-called Right?”
Scientist, science fiction author and libertarian, David Brin, summed up this need for a new politics:
[quote author=”Article: Alliance for the Modern World by David Brin” image=”https://afsa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/David_Brin_at_ACM_CFP_2005dsc278c-1.jpg” w=”150″ h=”205″ image_align=”right” b]”It’s time to free ourselves from the old left-right axis of the 19th and 20th centuries.
“Might believers in modernity — whether ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ — find ways to break free of the doctrinal rigidity that has been imposed on us by fanatics of both the so-called Left and the so-called Right?” (Source: Alliance for a Modern World. davidbrin.com).[/quote]
Political philosophy: a very brief and general excursion
To make sense of the Liberal Democrats, let’s take a brief excursion into libertarianism. I generalise for sake of brevity and to avoid losing readers in the arcane world or economic philosophy.
Libertarianism is like socialism only in that it is a political philosophy that comes in a range of flavours. Contemporary libertarianism is conveniently divided into what we might call ‘right-libertarianism’ and ‘left-libertarianism’ (what I would prefer to call its ‘communitarian’ branch).
Like most political philosophy it has leaky margins as there are large areas of agreement between the two — the right and left libertarians — epecially when it comes to civic and personal freedoms. The difference is this: the economic freedom favoured by the right-libertarians favours the big corporations while that of left-libertarians favours more the small entities in the marketplace as well as the decentralisation of economic and political power. The right-libertarians, too, favour decentralising political power or defusing it altogether. Both agree that government is too big, too oppressive, too intrusive, too limiting of opportunity, too bureaucratic, too sluggish, too captured by its corporate paymasters and ideological fellow travellers, and should be diminished in scale and reach. Both agree that the main role of government should be to protect the freedom of the people.
Both of these flavours share a social philosophy that values personal freedoms and freedom from government interference in life. This notion of freedom from government intrusion in individual lives is what attracts many in the US to libertarianism there, where there is a deep suspicion and distrust of government. It is a sentiment that is growing as government and its agencies become more intrusive, more controlling and more dominant in the lives of citizens. It is a sentiment difficult to disagree with (unless your personal political philosophy lurches towards fascism or communism, supposedly polar opposite but really, to some extent at least, just look-alike ideologies, or towards other forms of authoritarianism).
Reading up on this stuff I was again surprised, though not this time at a libertarian being elected, but to discover that there is a libertarian thread — ‘green libertarianism’ — that Wikipedia says applies libertarian principles “in such a manner that environmental protection becomes necessary to maintain a free society.”
Surprise, hope and disappointment
My surprise and hope at learning of the Liberal Democrats was that here would be a party that would represent those without political power in this country, one that would represent individual citizens and small business, one that would create corrective feedback to the growing dominance of the BIG ENTITIES in our lives — to market control by big corporations and social control by big government, and the assaults on freedom that these entities bring.
The danger of allowing those big entities… entities controlled by small groups of corporate, institutional, public service or government decision makers… too much power reminded me of something David Brin’s wrote:
[quote author=”David Brin” image=”https://afsa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/David_Brin_at_ACM_CFP_2005dsc278c-1.jpg” w=”150″ h=”205″ image_align=”right” b]” …across 4,000 years we’ve seen that whenever a small group of men become powerful enough to control an economy and command-allocate its resources, they will do so according to biased perceptions, in-group delusions and fatally limited knowledge.
“Whether they do the normal oligarchic thing — cheating for self-interest — or else sincerely try to ‘allocate for the good of all,’ they will generally do it badly. As a blatant recent example… the collapse of the Soviet Union.”[/quote]
In hope of discovering a political entity with our various freedoms and with a philosophy of opportunity for all who want it at its core, I eagerly clicked through to the Liberal Democrats website and was encouraged to first see their statement of social principles supporting “civil society and volunteerism, civil liberties and individual freedom, individual liberty and personal responsibility under the rule of law”. Then there was “free markets and freedom of choice” in their economic principles.
For global market economic fundamentalists, any idea of protecting smaller economic entities and protecting Australians with legislation is anathema…
It’s here that my hope turned to disappointment. Further reading of the party’s principles put a different slant to their ‘free markets’ principle. It turns out that it is less about free markets for small-to-medium enterprises, farmers and sole traders, and more the shibboleth of free market fundamentalism that free, open, global markets benfefit all.
The problem with this is that the free global market tends to favour the big entities that inhabit it. In the case of our food system, their market power overwhelms the smaller farmers and food processors in this country and, through predatory pricing, advertising and PR budgets and other means, they marginalise the small-to-medium enterprise and drive them out of business. We know this because we see it happening with Australia’s supermarket duopoly.
For global market economic fundamentalists, any idea of protecting smaller economic entities and protecting Australians with legislation is anathema. They are willing to see those smaller, less-economically-powerful entities disappear, to see Australia’s lands sold to the highest bidder, to lobby against laws that protect the public. As much as I agree with their social principles, that was my disappointment with the Liberal Democrats. So was their social welfare policy that seems more like an expression of creative writing and wishful thinking based in an ignorance of the realities of the contemporary labour market and possibly leading to social darwinism. Privatising the social net ignores the reality of relying on a market that fluctuates and in so doing puts people’s wellbeing at risk.
A better libertarian thread
To those who support the smaller rather than the larger, who support the individual freedoms and civil rights that have made liberal democracies better places to live than the various banana republics, oligarchies, authoritarian command-and-control societies and theocracies that litter our planet, and to those to whom freedom is a basic life principle, elements of the Liberal Democrats program will appeal while others will turn them off simply because — like their policy for an unregulated free market — they contradict their social principles in that it would limit opportunity for those less-economically well off.
…the name you’ll never hear (them) mention… is Adam Smith, whose version of libertarianism adults still look to from time to time…
This leads me to wonder whether there is a thread of libertarianism that would be truly refreshing and new in Australian politics, one based on pragmatism instead of the tired ideologies that laid waste much of the Twentieth Century, one that is science-literate and that places the wellbeing and future of Australians first, including our primary producers catering to the domestic market and the industry and people who depend on them. Perhaps the nearest is that espoused by David Brin, who writes of those libertarians that favour big powerful economic entities:
[quote author=”David Brin” image=”https://afsa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/David_Brin_at_ACM_CFP_2005dsc278c-1.jpg” w=”150″ h=”205″ image_align=”right” b]” …the name you’ll never hear (them) mention… is Adam Smith, whose version of libertarianism adults still look to from time to time.
“A version that admires and promotes individualism and the stunning power of human competition, but also recognizes that competitive-creative markets and democracy and science only achieve their wondrous positive sum games when carefully regulated… the way soccer or football must be, lest the strongest just form one team and stomp every potential rival flat and then gouge out their eyes… which is exactly what winner-owner-oligarch-lords did in every human culture for 6000 years. Till Adam Smith came along and described how to get the good outcomes without the bad.
“The stealing of Adam Smith’s movement by fanatics and cynically manipulative oligarchs is not just a tragedy for the right, and for market capitalism. It is tragic for civilization.”[/quote]
Brin continues his economic critique when writing in Alliance for a Modern World: “We believe small business is the engine of innovation and a vibrant economy, and motivated workers provide its thrust. Specific Proposal: Reforms that energize small business should get priority over those that benefit narrow elites, who can afford to lobby for themselves.”
So, what do we need by way of an economic system? How about an economy free of the dominance of a small number of big corporations and the faceless men and women who are their decision makers… a ‘natural’ market based on people selling and buying as sole traders, as small or medium sized businesses, whatever it is that they trade in, whether goods or services… a ‘freed market’, let’s call it. What we can call it is something, disappointingly, that the Liberal Democrats do not offer us.
Let’s use the analogy of the farmers’ market — growers and food processors directly offering their goods for sale free of the local presence of market-distorting and dominating supermarkets.
Such a freed market is best accompamied by a free society where government makes a big effort to keep out of people’s private lives as much as possible and declines to legislate on things that have no negative social impact or that would benefit some wealthy or political elite.
For those of us looking for a way forward, a way out of the straitjackets of make-it-up-as-you-go, self-seeking Labor and Liberal policy, and those of us seeking to move forward from the tired and now-expired, simpleton divisions of Left/Right so increasingly irrelavent in the contemporary world, for those tired of the cynical politics of the electoral cycle, the Liberal Democrats offer us no solution. Sad.