Individual Liberty and a Prosperous Society

Individual Liberty and a Prosperous Society

James Paterson — Personal & Political — 4 October 2010


The Liberal Party is a broad church. It contains people who call themselves conservatives, people who call themselves libertarians, and people who just call themselves Liberals. Each of these labels represents a school of thought on the centre-right of Australian politics. I’m often described in the media as a conservative or a libertarian. I don’t object to being described as either, but they’re not the labels I choose for myself. I describe myself as a classical liberal.

Why classical? Firstly, and importantly, the ‘classical’ element signifies that we are custodians of old ideas. Classical liberals are not creating a new philosophy. We are the people holding the flame for ideas that have been around for centuries. Ideas that go back to philosophers like John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and Benjamin Constant, and classical economists like Frederic Bastiat, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo. We give an appreciative nod to history, as custodians of ideas that came before us.

Why liberal? Ultimately for me I want people to have the maximum amount of freedom in their lives and I think classical liberalism best enables that. I believe in small, limited government that interferes as little as possible in people’s lives; a government that doesn’t trespass too heavily in an economic sense or in a personal sense.

At its heart, limited government ensures that society doesn’t trample on individual liberty. Individual liberty means that people are free to make good and bad decisions about their own lives and live according to their own values. One person shouldn’t impose their values, unreasonably, onto another or coerce them to act against their own conscience. I’m a proponent of individual rights, not collective rights, and of people being able to make their own decisions. Sometimes they’ll be good decisions, sometimes they’ll be bad decisions, but ultimately, each individual is responsible for the choices they make.

History has shown that when people are free to make their own decisions about their lives, not only are individuals better off, but society is better off as well. Societies that put a high degree of emphasis on liberty and individual freedom tend to be the most harmonious. They tend to have the least conflict. They tend to have the best capacity to accommodate people who have different values. In societies that don’t place much value on individual liberty, and instead put preference on collective rights, people seek to use the state to enforce their values, which always comes at the expense of someone else. You see the worst abuses of minority rights when strong states take an active role in enforcing morality. That’s when deprivation of liberty and abridgements of people’s freedom arises.

Throughout history we have seen states with very strong interventionist philosophies – such as communist and socialist states – where dissidents have either ended up in gulags or been killed for their political and religious beliefs. Countries like the Soviet Union heavily repressed people who had different views to the state orthodoxy. Even if you look at modern socialist societies like Venezuela or Cuba, they’re known for particularly severe political repression; people who have a different view about how their society should be organised, and who express their view publicly, are often murdered, jailed, or persecuted in other ways.

Today you also see restrictions in societies that are overtly religious in nature and don’t have separation between church and state. In many countries, particularly in the Middle East, followers of minority faiths are discriminated against and are persecuted by those in power. There is very little accepted space for minority faiths in the public square. Sometimes these countries allow people to privately practice their faith, but they’re often reluctant to allow it in public because it is seen as a threat to the governing regime. That’s an example of a society that doesn’t put much emphasis on individual liberty, and it comes at a cost that is heavily borne by minorities.

The separation of church and state is a core tenet of classical liberalism, but it’s important to understand the basis for that separation. The concept of church and state was established to protect people of religious faith from the state, not vice versa. It was never intended to prevent religious influence on policy. Sometimes in Australia, the commentariat suggest that it’s terrible that someone uses their Catholic faith to inform their views on abortion or same sex marriage. But that wasn’t the reason why the concepts of religious liberty and the separation of church and state arose. In the US, Thomas Jefferson pioneered the principle when he wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which became the template for religious freedom statutes around the world. Its key theme was that the state shouldn’t establish a religion, enforce a religion, or prevent people from practicing their chosen religion. In other words, it limited state interference in religion, not the reverse. Separation of church and state doesn’t mean that people of faith can’t run for public office or be informed by their faith. While I’m not a religious person, I appreciate the fundamental importance of religious freedom.

In contemporary Australia, one issue that tests the classical liberal viewpoint is the debate on same sex marriage. I’ve been on public record since 2011 supporting same sex marriage. I want freedom to be granted to gay couples to get married, although equally, I don’t want same-sex marriage to come at the expense of anyone else’s freedom. My view, supported by classical liberal underpinnings, is that government should be limited and therefore shouldn’t prevent a gay couple from holding a wedding ceremony; standing up before their family and friends, celebrating their relationship and ultimately presenting as husband and husband or wife and wife. For me, preventing two people from getting married, if that’s what they want to do, represents excessive government interference in people’s private lives. Same sex relationships already exist. We’re not creating these relationships by changing the law, all we’re doing is allowing same sex couples to formalise their relationship and call it a marriage. I don’t believe it’s the government’s role to prevent that.

However, there is a legitimate concern that in enabling same sex marriage, there may be unintended consequences for other people, particularly people who have a sincere and genuine belief in the existing definition and who want to continue to live their lives according to that view, even if the law changes. I’ve long advocated that we change the law to allow same sex couples to marry, but I also recognise the need to change other laws at the same time, so that people of religious faith or with sincerely-held beliefs about marriage can continue to live their lives according to their values. While those people shouldn’t be able to prevent gay couples from being able to get married, neither should they be forced to participate in a marriage that they don’t recognise.

Another current issue that those on the left are particularly concerned about is inequality of wealth and income. In the context of this debate, there is a misconception that mine is a selfish ideology, particularly when classical liberals argue for lower taxes and less government spending. On the contrary, I don’t think it could be any less selfish. As history shows, societies with a high degree of economic freedom are generally more prosperous, and they’re typically more equal societies as well. If someone is motivated by equality, I think they should favour a society organised along free market principles. I am supported in my view by research showing that countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom – which have well established free market economies – are also some of the most countries in terms of wealth and income. Comparatively speaking we don’t have a huge disparity. Often countries that have a much more interventionist style economies also have massive degrees of inequality. China, for example, is much less equal than Australia; the difference in wealth between a poor person and a rich person in China is greater than it is in Australia. I think China is on a positive trajectory and they will arrive at a position similar to Australia where wealth will be more equally distributed. But they’ll only get there through implementing the reforms that Australia has undertaken: deregulation, privatisation, cutting taxes, increasing free trade, and enforcing the rule of law. Because when we allow people to reach their full potential and compete equally, everyone prospers. So I think classical liberalism is an unselfish philosophy. I think it is a philosophy that maximises good for everyone.

Another misapprehension of my philosophy became evident during the debates about free speech and Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. In my view, there have been too many instances of 18C being misused to silence free speech. The most prominent examples of misuse were the Andrew Bolt, Bill Leak and Queensland University of Technology student’s cases. When I came into parliament in 2016, I immediately began arguing that we should change the law to better protect free speech. My stance was incorrectly characterised by some as me wanting to see more racism and, absurdly, even being in favour of racism. I abhor racism. I never use that kind of language myself and I condemn it in others where I see and hear it. However, I think laws like 18C are bad tools for combatting racism. They are ineffective, while at the same time they inhibit people’s right to free speech – which is perhaps the most important and fundamental liberty we have. Those who can’t speak freely are going to find it very difficult to secure any of their other fundamental rights or freedoms.

My belief is that the best tool for combatting racism is, in fact, more free speech. When people are racist they should be condemned for it. Even if, on a superficial level, we are seeing less racism expressed in the public square because of a law like 18C, it doesn’t mean that racist attitudes have reduced. More likely, racism has been driven underground where it is harder to combat, and where there is a risk of it flourishing. Europe’s recent history with anti-Nazi laws shows the real danger of this happening. Like everyone, I find Nazism an appalling and scary ideology, but making it unlawful hasn’t stopped it from being prevalent in France and Germany. Racism isn’t eliminated when it’s driven underground, and in fact for some people it reaffirms their views because they’re attracted to it being taboo and forbidden by the state.

When considering 18C, those in favour of change weren’t proposing to get rid of all vilification laws in Australia, nor were we proposing to get rid of all limits on free speech. Each of us is protected by laws that prohibit incitement to violence and threats to kill, among many other protections. Even if we had gotten rid of 18C there would have been a number of related laws that we weren’t proposing to change. Our proposal was to amend 18C, to ensure that it was better targeted. What was proposed would have captured the really appalling public racism that nobody wants to see, but at the same time it would have also allowed for more free speech. I’m disappointed that the proposed changes weren’t successful, but I think similar changes will ultimately be implemented, because 18C is a broken law. It will be misused again and when it is, people will see there is a need for change.

On these and other issues, the classical liberal philosophy leads to a different type of national leadership; one that recognises and accepts the limitations of government. Classical liberals want a limited state that treads lightly on the economy and on people’s lives. That’s not to say we impose false limitations, it just recognises that there is only so much that governments can and should do. When governments go beyond those limitations they fail to achieve intended outcomes. To use an extreme example, the polar opposite of classical liberalism is probably fascism. Fascists want a strong state that is heavily involved in the economy and heavily involved in people’s lives. People think of Mussolini as the archetype of a strong, dominant leader that sets a clear direction and leads in an authoritarian way. Mussolini, famously, was said to have ‘at least made the trains run on time.’ But as a general rule that’s actually not true. Fascist countries with strong states are often massively inefficient and horrible at delivering services, while also being oppressive to their citizens.

Classical liberal leadership is about recognising that there is a role for others in providing a lot of essential services that we require in a country like Australia. Our aim as leaders, is to enable progress by accepting that government shouldn’t look to drive the process of technological and economic advancement. Governments should get out of the way to let innovators and entrepreneurs take the lead. The vast majority of technological innovation and social innovation happens when people freely organise, with their own motivations and without state intervention or oversight. Certainly, there have been some instances where military innovation has led to new consumer products, but generally speaking it occurs in free enterprise. Stepping back and letting people innovate is the best way to create progress.

If I had my way, and classical liberalism ruled the day, I believe Australia would be a more prosperous country. People would have more control over their lives and be able to live their lives the way they want to. Obviously there are basic tenets we have to agree on: respect for free speech, religion, liberty, freedom of conscience, and equality between the sexes. We shouldn’t favour legal discrimination of any kind. These are the fundamentals, but within that framework we can tolerate a lot of difference in the way people practice their faith and live their lives, ensuring a society that is harmonious and tolerant.

I believe that there are many elements inherent in Australian culture that naturally lend themselves to the classical liberal philosophy. Most Australians, and certainly younger Australians, have a distinct dislike for the idea of a nanny state telling them what to do. While some Australians would like to control the choices of others and dictate their lives, overwhelmingly we have a streak of independence and a high degree of resentment when others try to tell us what to do. We all have our own interests, preferences, and viewpoints on many different issues. Whatever the case, we don’t want minority viewpoints to have their freedom taken away. Every Australian should be free to live their own life and to prosper. That’s what I want to see.

This article originally appeared in Personal & Political.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.