An opening glance at Libertarianism

Black and yellow libertarian flag with glancing eye

I've been meaning to write about libertarianism (also "classical liberalism") for some time now. It's an ideology that has received increased exposure in Australia of late, particularly through the influence of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and the libertarian-esque developments in Australia's 2014 budget. The IPA is a libertarian think-tank with very close ties to, and influence on, our current government (Liberal National Party Coalition). One need only view the IPA's wishlist of policy reforms and compare it to the actions of the current government to see that there are strong ideological alignments between the IPA and Coalition government. Don't get me wrong, the Coalition is not libertarian, but the cross-over points between its neo-liberal agenda and the libertarian agenda make for a unity ticket across many policy areas.

Despite the increased attention, I suspect that libertarianism remains fairly under-appreciated by the Australian public. It hasn't really been a part of our political discourse in the way that it seems to be in the USA. We have only one explicitly libertarian party that I'm aware of, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and its only elected member, David Leyonhjelm, is not due to enter parliament until the new Senate sits next month. Actually, I've just been reading that Bob Day, who is a new Family First senator entering the Senate along with Leyonhjelm, also leans libertarian. How his conservative social values (e.g., no gay marriage) jump through the individual liberties hoop I'm not sure. Similarly libertarian with his economics, but not with social policy, is state (NSW) Liberal Senator, Peter Phelps. He also seems to extract the small government/liberal economic parts of libertarianism and eschews the social liberalism, which really just makes him a conservative like Bob Day, no?

  • EDIT: No, apparently it doesn't. It makes him a Fusionist. "Dr Phelps is a libertarian with social conservative tendencies, placing him within the 'fusionist' school of conservative political philosophy. His political hero is Ronald Reagan." [source]

A article asks; "Is Australian Friendlier to Libertarianism than the US?" My answer would be, "No, it's not." I believe that the election of David Leyonhjelm was largely accidental, as he had the Donkey Vote (the first check box on the ballot paper) on the Senate ballot paper, and the name of his party, the Liberal Democratic Party, had enough similarity to the Liberal Party of Australia that people scanned the ballot paper, saw the word 'Liberal', and put a '1' in the box. As for Bob Day of the Family First party, I suspect that his election represents libertarianism by stealth. Not stealth in any covert or deceptive sense, but just slipping under the radar because the general public haven't been looking in that direction. Yes, Day uses the usual libertarian jargon, but I doubt that this raises any black and yellow flags for many Australians. Day's conservative social values also tend to discredit his libertarian leanings, despite all the free-market, economic rationalist, minimum wage abolishing, small government sentiments. I'm sure Day's comment (below) is another one of the standard libertarian tropes, wholly oblivious to the idea of defending citizens from firms that prey on their labour:

''We praise people who work for zero money - volunteers who work up to 40 hours a week in op-shops and nursing homes, but we don't allow them to work for more than zero until you reach [AU]$650. It's absurd,'' [Day] said.

I've been somewhat overwhelmed for choice regarding where to start my commentary on libertarianism and its influence on the environment, economics, and the general fabric of our social systems. In some part this is because 'libertarianism' is not a singular philosophy and there tends to be many flavours of libertarianism: from anarcho-capitalists to minarchists to seasteading survivalists (to fusionists!). Fortunately I recently stumbled across an equally overwhelming resource, Critiques of Libertarianism by Mike Huben, that I'm now happily reading my way through. Of particular interest to me is the subsection on Environmentalism, but the whole database is worth perusing. (EDIT: And now I've discovered that Huben is converting his "Critiques of Libertarianism" page into a wiki resource). The array of libertarian flavours is summed up with pithy aptness by Huben's opening line in his Introduction to Libertarianism:

Libertarianism is a cacaphony of political ideas united only by a rhetoric of liberty and freedom.

I guess the fundamental failing, as I see it, of libertarianism, is its myopically anthropocentric view of existence, where the right course of action is the one that maximises an individual human's liberties without harming the maximal liberties of other humans. This is supported by a confounding, syllogistic ideation: a kind of hyper-economic rationalism where individual hedonism trumps all but another's individual hedonism. It is certainly one way to organise the economic and social order in a society, but if fails miserably at recognising human dependence on the environment (which is already an undervalued fact) and the consequent value, not merely economic value, that should be placed on the environment if we want to maintain healthy societies and economies. Additionally, the libertarian social ideology lacks any connectedness with real circumstances as it seems to perpetuate the mythology of the "righteous wealthy" and "immoral, lazy poor" while setting up systems that only exacerbate wealth inequality.

The reason for raising this awareness of libertarianism is my general disquiet regarding the path this country is taking. The current political direction looks like it's heading towards a socially stratified, environmentally degraded dystopia, where we are merely agents in a marketplace and not citizens in a society. Where protecting the environment can only be achieved if such protection is the outcome of some economic syllogism that doesn't impinge on the "freedoms" of others or, Atlas forbid, "harm" their profits! Where "freedom," "liberty," and "rights" deserve "scare quotes" because, when you scratch the surface, they are now just politically expedient terms for another set of tradable commodities.

On the flip side, there are some libertarian ideas that have varying degrees of merit. For example, private ownership of land for ecological conservation has been utilised effectively in a number of contexts, but the contexts are the important consideration here. Black-and-white decrees about private ownership being the sole solution for ecological conservation, which seems to be a general libertarian answer to environmental degradation, seem perilously blind to context ('perilous' for the environment, that is). I hope to comment further on this in a later post.

But I digress. The point of this post is not to start poking at libertarianism, but to introduce libertarianism as an ideology that is worthy of significant criticism.  I admit that others will be better suited to providing critiques of libertarianism than I am, and I thank Mike Huben for assembling his database of Critiques of Libertarianism. I am pleased to note that an article I've been meaning to write a response to, which purports to refute environmentalism, is listed in Mike Huben's old website under the unflattering subsection title:

"Make or Break Views of Libertarianism - Positions so absolute and extreme as to border on self-ridicule."

If only such extremism wasn't influencing public policy. Then, perhaps, I could laugh about it.


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