Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Dealing with Lunatics: A Libertarian Perspective

Much has been made of the Greens' refusal to respond to the Australian Christian Lobby's survey demanding to know what the parties think on a range of Christian-type issues. Naturally, I'm behind the Greens all the way. The questions are highly leading, like this:

There is community concern that society is becoming desensitised to sexually explicit and extremely violent material as film-makers test the boundaries of the interpretation of classification guidelines. Unfortunately, the current National Classification Code and Classification Guidelines allow too much discretion to the classifiers ... Would your government direct a review of the Code and Guidelines, and the Classification Act, with the intent of limiting the discretion of the classifiers on such matters?

When the ACL asks questions like that, they're not so much engaging the parties in a discussion as advancing a particular, and in my view quite scary, agenda. So the Greens had every right to tell the ACL to go to hell, and were possibly even correct to do so. Apart from anything else, I am thoroughly sick of the Rovian idea that Australian Senate candidates need to cater to some kind of monolithic Christian Vote. Leaving sectarian tensions behind was a good thing in Australian political life.

But the Liberty and Democracy Party, just as opinionated as the Greens and equally antagonistic to the ACL's agenda, took a different tack, and I think their responses are worth noting. I'm not a libertarian myself – I like gun laws, for instance, and I don't think government foreign aid is immoral. And as for the LDP's apparently straighfaced assertion that relaxing building development zoning laws is an adequate public policy approach to solving homelessness... well, frankly, that's a little nutty.

But on the whole I've always felt that Australian politics could do with a bit more reflexive libertarianism, if only to defend against the strains of wowserism that tend to affect both major parties as they clamber over each other for the Working Families/Laura Norder/lock-up-the-reffos vote. Any counterweight to the kind of overweening authoritarianism we saw during APEC has got to be a healthy thing. We need people to step up and say: This is crazy.

Besides, it can be quite funny. Witness how the LDP responded to a question about, essentially, their willingness to pander to Christians:

ACL: What are your main priorities if elected for the next term of government? What can you offer to the Christian constituency in particular?

- Cut tax.
- Defend individual freedom of choice.
- Reduce the size of government.

Now, I am interested in neither cutting taxes nor reducing the size of government as an abstract concept, but you've gotta love their determination not to get sidetracked by the silliness of the Christian Constituency lead. They explain their reasoning in the full response:

The Liberty & Democracy Party doesn't try to offer special deals to any specific constituency, including the Christian constituency. We believe the government should treat everybody as individuals and leave them to make their own decisions to the maximum degree possible.

Fair enough.

Question after question, the LDP busily promote their own platform, rejecting silly premises left, right and centre, and seem to have quite a good time doing it. Like here:

Q: The Australia Institute and family groups have raised concerns about the premature sexualisation of children through marketing, advertising, music videos and a range of other media. What actions would you take to protect childhood?

A: The Australia Institute is a socialist organisation. Raising a child is the job of parents, not the government.

And does the LDP support the creation of a special visa to help persecuted Christians enter Australia as refugees? "No", says the LDP sternly,

persecuted Christians could apply as refugees, just like any other persecuted group. The LDP supports more immigration, which would allow a greater number of persecuted people to enter Australia.

Take that, you zany theocrats.

By the way, all the responses to the ACL's questionnaire are worth looking at, although probably not in the way the ACL themselves intend. One thing's for sure, James Baker is a climate-change-denying, homophobic white nationalist who needs to be kept out of the Senate at all costs. Queenslanders take note.


Diego Luego said...

Part of a speech by Cardinal George Pell to launch his new book was presented in the SMH as an opinion piece today.(Why?) In it he argued for the right of Christian organisations to take part in politics.

I resent his argument that only active believers are morally and socially responsible and capable of goodness. On the contrary, there are plenty of morally bankrupt, wicked, active believers as evidenced by the institutional paedophilia that many churches (including Dr Pell's) appeared to condone until recently.

I also take issue with his attempt to blur the long tradition of the separation of church and state. Cardinal Pell and all the other Christian apologists put together, represent only a tiny proportion of the Australian public.

Well done Greens! We need more politicians to stand up against this bullying, we do not live below the Mason Dixon line.

Anonymous said...

I like gun laws, for instance

The LDP wants to change the system so self-defence becomes a legitimate reason for wanting to own a weapon. That doesn't involve doing away with gun laws. Background checks and training courses beforing obtaining a permit/license will be given due weight.

and I don't think government foreign aid is immoral

It's immoral to take someone else's money by force. However, the government does this for the necessary evil of taxation. But when Australians pay taxes they pay it to their government so it will invest in public services at home. If their government then finds it politically convenient to spend that money overseas where it's of no benefit to taxpayers, then that's wrong.

And as for the LDP's apparently straighfaced assertion that relaxing building development zoning laws is an adequate public policy approach to solving homelessness

The link is nuanced and obviously not as politically popular as announcing a spending spree of millions of dollars.

Diego Luego said...

The only purpose of guns is to shoot something or someone. In a CIVILISED urban society there is absolutely no reason to own any type of gun.

I think the gun control laws are the only decent legacy of a very long decade of Liberal government - mind you I don't think they have gone far enough.

As for foreign aid, I would much rather my money was spent on attacking poverty than blowing people up. We can only hope that sometime one of our governments will reach UN target of 0.7% of GDP for foreign aid. Rudd has bid up to 0.5%, Howard is stuck on 0.35% (not the 3.5% that he actually said).

Anonymous said...

Cars have killed more people than guns. Ban them too?

Civilised society? Yes, widespread gun ownership makes people more polite. You never know who's packing.

You want to help poor people in other countries, do it with your own money. Don't ask the government to donate my taxes to corrupt Third World governments. I want better public goods in Australia.

Anonymous said...

Sorry that should be cars have killed a lot of people, just like guns.

Cars have killed more people than marijuana though.

So have alcohol and cigarettes. Clearly bans come about for political reasons, not public health or safety.

Diego Luego said...

I think you miss the point that guns, unlike cars, have no useful, peaceful, productive, legitimate purpose in an urban society.

Guns are either used to force one person's will on another, or as a symbol of a rather pathetic style of masculinity. They are a cowardly weapon because the user does not have to confront the victim face to face.

Unfortunately for the gun lobbies they can't explain why the murder rate in Australia, where guns are limited, is so much lower than in the US. Imagine how safe it would be if there were no guns at all!

And, for the record I do donate to overseas causes to help people less fortunate than myself. You are right though, it is better to bypass their corrupt governments.

Anonymous said...

No, the point is that you shouldn't presume to know in advance what is 'legitimate' and what is not.

This mindset is what Nobel Prize winning economist Friedrich Hayek labelled 'the fatal conceit' -- the idea that you can plan society and account for all outcomes when you don't have local information.

Not everyone lives in an 'urban' society. Rural areas do exist, and guns have plenty of uses in these areas.

Not every part of urban society is equally as crime-free as your residential area might be. Self-defence is legitimate.

Unfortunately for the anti-gun lobby, they can't explain why Switzerland has such low crime rates, despite widespread gun ownership.

They also find it hard to explain the 2 million incidents of crime that are prevented/deterred every year in America thanks to guns.

Lucy said...

Surit, in outlining those disagreements I have with libertarianism, I was merely qualifying my admiration for the LDP's robust defence of its own principles in the face of an insidious ACL attempt to make them take on a Christian Right-ish agenda. It was not my intention to outline and refute LDP policies in detail.

Since you dropped by, though, I will say that it amuses me that someone so demonstrably invested in the ideal of individual autonomy will make a claim for the immorality of public-funded foreign aid based on the notion that "when Australians pay taxes they pay it to their government so it will invest in public services at home." You believe in the individual above all and yet you see fit to overgeneralise about people's motives for paying tax? I doubt there is anyone who agrees with 100% of any government's taxation expenditure, but that's part of the "necessary evil" you appear to accept. Your position would be much more philosophically coherent if you rejected all taxation as a form of theft.

As for what Australians want - to take as a case study the only Australian of whose motives I can be absolutely certain: I am Australian, and when I pay taxes I do so in the expectation - indeed, the hope - that they will be used to provide a better life for those less fortunate than myself, even if said unfortunate people have the rank audacity to be born overseas.

Nor do I think I am alone in this. Private charity is a great and honourable thing, but it's not sufficient to solve the pressing problems of the third world. Moreover, it's in our interests to promote living standards in foreign areas, lest poverty, disease, etc serve to incubate hatreds which might, in turn, risk our security here. We all have a vested interest in a better, safer world, so I don't see how it's any less moral for a government to spend revenue on foreign aid than on any number of other programs which serve our interests.

Your claims about guns are weirder still, but I'm not in the habit of arguing gun rights. I don't share your touching faith in the tendency of gun advocates to keep it civil.

Lucy said...

... sorry, didn't mean to misspell your name. I posted before I got the chance to edit.

For the record, I also donate privately to a number of charities. I should think it would be a rare advocate of foreign aid who doesn't, but maybe I'm just naive.

And I meant what I said about the value of hearing more libertarian voices in Australian political life.

Anonymous said...

Your claims about guns are weirder still, but I'm not in the habit of arguing gun rights.

That's a shame. I was hoping you might have some evidence that would show conclusively that more guns equal more crime.

Because from my reading of the literature, guns have little to do with increasing crime, and I provided some evidence in my previous comment.

Criminals will get guns regardless -- if they're happy to break the law against murder, I can't see why a gun law would prevent them from buying it from the underground market. Just as I can obtain marijuana with ease although it's illegal in my state.

Banning something has nothing to do with its availability to criminals. But it denies law-abiding citizens an important equaliser.

And it makes it more likely we will be invaded. Why do you think the Swiss enjoyed so many years of peaceful neutrality? In part, it was because practically every citizen was legally obliged to own a gun. A civilian military defence is an excellent complement to the regular army. It is also a free police force.

Anonymous said...

You believe in the individual above all and yet you see fit to overgeneralise about people's motives for paying tax

That was not my intention. My intention was to point out the proper role of government is'nt to forcibly take money from its citizens so that it can give it to governments in other countries (yes, much of the money gets swallowed up by bureaucracies - I have seen this first-hand while living in India).

If you belive some government is necessary yet you also believe in voluntary cooperation, as I do, then you will want to minimise the tax burden.

That means non-essential items of collective expenditure (those items which can't be provided privately) should be scrapped. We have private charities. Clearly, we don't need taxpayer funded foreign aid to people overseas.

Foreign aid is not one of the essential things government needs to do to preserve a civil society. Police, courts, defence - these are examples of items where more money should be spent because no private company can provide them.

In effect, by supporting government foreign aid, you are increasing the level of coercion on Australian citizens, because they have to pay higher tax. Some people, like me, don't think charities make much of an impact compared to free trade, rule of law or other institutional reforms.

Forcing people like me to contribute is immoral. Just like asking people who oppose abortion to subsidise the practice is immoral.

Anonymous said...

Your position would be much more philosophically coherent if you rejected all taxation as a form of theft.

So far I have seen no evidence that a society where the government has no source of revenue (anarchy) works. So why would I advocate it, just to be 'philosophically consistent'?

I'm not in the business of preaching more individual freedom because I'm an ideologue. I advocate libetarianism because the empirical literature supports my case. I don't advocate socialism or variants of it because I grew up in India and have seen it fail miserably. I have also read of the evidence from the Soviet Union and China, where socialism failed.

And I understand you weren't trying to attack libertarianism with your post. But I think it's important to defend freedom whereever possible. Keeping silent gives the impression that the debate has been settled in favour of stricter gun laws, more government foreign aid, etc -- it has not.

Joseph said...

Thanks for the plug Lucy. For the record, there are plenty of people who identify as libertarians who support foreign aid and some even support stricter gun laws. That's not to say that there are not good libertarian arguments against both, just that they aren't core issues.

Libertarians are not anarchists -- they believe in some kinds of government intervention. They just tend to want a more rigorous rationale for government spending/intervention than most people.