What bleeding heart libertarianism has to offer the Australian libertarian community
I’m the product of two lifelong Labor voters, and the public school system. So it’s no surprise that when I started developing the first smatterings of a political conscience, it was tilted firmly in a socially progressive direction.
This was born of a youthful and naïve assumption that the power of the state was the only real way to secure social freedoms and social justice. To my mind, the government was the only institution that could stamp out homophobia, sexism and racism. It was the only thing, paradoxically, that could secure civil liberties.
Growing up under Howard meant that to be right-wing was to cater to the establishment – to big business, to the church, and to racists. To cut taxes and to deregulate the economy was to punish the most vulnerable in our society. Being right-wing meant invading Afghanistan and Iraq.
Social equality, civil liberties, the most vulnerable in our society. The right of people in foreign countries not to be invaded because our government didn’t like their government. These are the things I cared about 10 years ago, and these are the things I care about today.
What changed was my understanding of government, and my understanding of the free market. In short, the reputation of government took a nosedive while the free market suddenly became a more effective guardian of the things I valued. Freedom became more important than equality, as I realised that equality meant very little if there first wasn’t freedom to underpin it.
With the exception of the most dedicated of Rothbardians and natural rights activists, I think this shift mirrors some of the experiences of the people in this room.
Having said all of this, today I’m going to talk to you about bleeding heart libertarianism.
Bleeding heart libertarianism is a term coined by American libertarian philosopher Matt Zwolinski. It’s probably best recognised in the context of the blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians.
Here is what the bloggers at Bleeding Heart Libertarians have to say about what they believe:
We are libertarians who believe that addressing the needs of the economically vulnerable by remedying injustice, engaging in benevolence, fostering mutual aid, and encouraging the flourishing of free markets is both practically and morally important. The libertarian tradition is home to multiple figures and texts modeling commitment both to individual liberty and to consistent concern for the marginalized, both here and abroad. We seek here to revive, energize, and extend that tradition—to demonstrate that contemporary libertarians can, in addition to their traditional vindication of individual liberty, offer effective, powerful, and innovative responses to the problems of economic vulnerability and injustice and to their social, political, and cultural consequences.
What comes through in this description is the notion that bleeding heart libertarianism is not a different doctrine to regular libertarianism. It’s just a different emphasis.
There are a few reasons why I believe the Australian libertarian community in particular could and should better embrace the principles of bleeding heart libertarianism.
One is that I think bleeding heart libertarianism is the natural heir of 19th century classical liberalism, and classical liberalism is a more natural fit for Australia. Unhyphenated libertarianism is a kooky American thing for most Australians. The US libertarian movement is also infused with a fair amount of cultural specificity which jars awkwardly when copied and pasted into the Australian context. The American libertarian fixation on the second amendment, which is pretty irrelevant to this country, is one example of why an authentic Australian libertarianism needs to be actively differentiated.
I don’t think this is too much of an ask, however. It’s true that Australia, with the exception of Bruce Smith and parts of the old Free Trade Party, has never had a truly liberal political party. But this does not restrict us from picking up forgotten threads from elsewhere in history, like from the old classical liberals.
Classical liberals fought battles against the anti-free trade Corn Laws and against slavery. They fought for women’s suffrage and teamed up with the burgeoning labour movement to reject the corporatism of the capitalist class. Classical liberalism has a proud and rich tradition of progress and activism which squares easily with the Australian conception of the fair go. Contemporary bleeding heart libertarianism, with its acknowledgement of social problems and its advocacy of non-government solutions to these problems, offers a viable base from which to build Australian libertarianism.
Another reason to embrace bleeding heart libertarianism is that Australian libertarians need to play an active role in shifting politics more towards a culture one where people look at the government with more scepticism than they do currently. Part of the way to do that is to rehabilitate the image of the free market and reinforce the strengths of society. Bleeding heart libertarianism means being able to articulate the values we all hold dear – private property, free exchange, free speech, to name just a few – in a way that doesn’t just pay lip service to social justice.
This is not a foreign concept to Australia. The Hawke and Keating governments in particular were able to underscore their massive reforms to the Australian economy with the fundamentally progressive notion that economic growth is what would liberate the least well off from poverty much more effectively than a slew of trade barriers and economic protectionism. That is certainly not to say Hawke and Keating were perfect, but it’s a tough legacy to dismiss. We have to be able to do this, and do it convincingly, and this means moving beyond simply saying that tax is theft or worrying about our own hip pockets.
It means doing better than simply paying lip service. The enemies of freedom have grasped and maintained the upper hand on the debate over free speech partially because the arguments being made in favour of free speech are often made poorly. Sure, in the strictest sense, George Brandis was right – we all do have a ‘right’ to be bigots. We have a ‘right’ to be bigots in the sense that bigotry should not be constrained by law. But the lack of free speech laws means our political culture is notoriously bad at recognising the idea that just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s morally right or socially acceptable.
This fact means we absolutely have to be able to convince people that when we say we believe in free speech, we don’t believe that speech should be free of consequences, or that people have a right to a platform. We don’t believe that if someone calls you mean things in response to something you have said, that means your right to free speech is being violated. It also means taking a principled stand wherever speech is quieted. It means defending Queenslander Lex Wotton’s right to speak to the media without needing to ask permission from his parole officer.
The need to be convincing leads neatly into the final reason that bleeding heart libertarianism has a lot to offer Australian libertarianism. It’s also what I anticipate will be the most controversial reason, and that is: libertarianism needs to stop being a fringe ideology of rich white men if it is ever going to grow and prosper.
The state used to be the oppressor of women and racial minorities. The state once took away their civil rights, their rights to own property and their rights to work. Discrimination in the private sector was also widespread. Thankfully, the state has mostly vacated the space of discriminating against particular minority groups. But since it has done so it has refashioned itself as their benevolent protector. If libertarianism is going to successfully push back against the encroaching state, it needs to be able to respond to the concerns of people who aren’t rich white men. In short, there needs to be a credible alternative on offer.
In my own work as a Policy Analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies, I strive to bear these principles in mind. It manifests in my approach to various aspects of public policy. Regulation of the childcare sector, for instance, is bad because it restricts access to childcare services for low and lower-middle income women in particular. I argue that it’s these women who bear the burden of the financial penalty of lengthy periods of time out of the workforce, and the burden of the insecurity that comes with being financially dependent on a relationship with another person. This is also why our system of Family Tax Benefits is so problematic. The way the policy is designed means there are incentives for women in couple families to stay out of the workforce.
This disincentive effect is a fact that the big, bad, mean Commission of Audit recognised in their analysis of the policy. But the government, led by our supposedly feminist Prime Minister, either cannot or will not acknowledge it and reform the policy accordingly. Instead, the government’s so-called solution is a big government paid parental leave scheme, which will cost the taxpayer and create socially unjust outcomes to boot.
It is this emphasis on social justice which underpins bleeding heart libertarianism, and it’s this kind of emphasis on socially just outcomes that is necessary to move Australian libertarianism forward into the mainstream.
Disclaimer: these views are my own and do not represent my employer.
We have heard the constant complaints of those opposite over the last 48 hours about ethnic community leaders, multicultural community leaders, and their views on this particular proposal. I said at the start that I was a first amendment type of person: I view the proposal put up by the government and Senator Brandis in the exposure draft as a compromise. I accept that my views are not typical of all those in this place, or indeed all those in this country, in supporting a very strong and almost unlimited commitment to freedom of speech. The problem I have is that those opposite seem to see us as a nation of tribes; as a nation where self-declared leaders of communities—communities defined by race—should somehow should have a special place in the consideration of legislation that any other Australian citizen should not. Every Australian’s view has an equal standing in this place—every Australian’s view, no matter what community they declare themselves to be from; whether it be one or many; and whether or not they declare themselves to be leaders of communities. The elected bodies in this country are the elected representatives of the Australian people. We don’t believe in a corporatist society, or in one where there are a series of tribes where, somehow, some people have more rights than others.
- Senator Scott Ryan
File under ‘I tried really hard to ignore this but I’m a goddamn glutton for punishment’.
So what Scott Ryan is saying here is a strawman. Because Labor and the Greens are pointing to ethnic groups who do not want this repealed because they’re afraid of the lack of legal recourse and/or the message it would send to the community, Ryan thinks that this is tantamount to saying that these groups deserve ‘a special place’. He thinks that paying attention to what multicultural leaders have to say is to give them special treatment over and above everybody else.
Unfortunately for Ryan, the fact is that governments are made up of people who are elected to represent, but may not BE representative. That is where the role of community consultation, submissions to enquiries and even making petitions to the Parliament comes. It’s quite simple, really - there’s no way that this group of humans elevated to high office through a complex series of machinations (only one of which is election day) could actually claim to truly know or truly understand the concerns of every perspective on every issue the government moves to legislate upon. That’s why they ask, because it’s quite possible that the people who make up the parliament don’t actually fully understand the diversity they represent.
Of course, every government has the right to at some point make a decision that may not take into account what interest groups want. We hope that that decision has been made after being in full possession of the facts. What the government then has to do is outline why it has chosen to do what it is doing and why it believes the benefits of a given change outweigh the costs the interest groups have outlined.
Earlier in the speech I quote above, Ryan spoke about how a lack of free speech means racism is pushed underground to fester and the solution to unfair speech is more, free speech. I happen to agree with this argument, but it does assume that there is some standard of what is ‘unfair’, i.e. being harmful, insulting or offensive but not being censored or restricted.
I don’t know how he can make this argument without choking on his own hypocrisy. He says in the quote above, essentially, that ethnic minorities have nothing to offer the debate on what speech should be free and which unfree. So if the people who racist speech affects are told their perspectives on what speech should be unfree (by implication, what speech us unfair or undesirable) aren’t valuable, on what standard, on whose judgement can he say that something is a legitimate target of social activism? How can he say that more speech, rather than restrictions, are the solution when he doesn’t think that the perspective of those who understand the problem better than anyone matters?
Disclaimer: same at the last one.
The notion of giving offence suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. This is why free speech is essential not simply to the practice of democracy, but to the aspirations of those groups who may have been failed by the formal democratic processes; to those whose voices may have been silenced by racism, for instance. The real value of free speech, in other words, is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them. And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged. Once we give up on the right to offend in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice. —
Kenan Malik on the importance of the right to offend.
These are the kinds of arguments that people who are supposed to be ‘protected’ by hate speech laws are best positioned to make against them.
But nobody really seems interested in those arguments, or the people who would make them. Too foreign to our political culture, I expect. Too radical, too liberal.
Lately I’ve been disheartened by the quality of arguments put forward against 18C and in favour of free speech, in spite of believing in the cause.
There are two camps. There are the genuinely principled people, who will say that the solution to racist and racially insensitive speech in public debate is more speech and often have some sort of history in being those doing the ‘calling out’.
Then there are the people who (more often than not) refer to 18C as the ‘Bolt laws’, where the argument is framed in terms of political correctness gone mad and a belief that racist and racially insensitive speech is not only legitimate in our society, it ought to be free from the criticism of others. In other words, these people don’t believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant, because there is nothing to disinfect and ‘sunlight’ (read: criticism) is just a form of censorship. It’s not an accident that there’s overlap between this latter group and people who said Adam Goodes needed to ‘grow up’ when a teenage girl racially abused him at the footy and he responded in kind. That teenage girl deserves protection from censure; Adam Goodes does not. Goodes’ use of sunlight in front of thousands of people was not legitimate, because his offence was not legitimate.
The fact that there are two ‘camps’, so to speak, is not what fuels my disaffection. It’s the fact that the former camp seems to be all too willing to acquiesce to the language used by the latter camp. Principled people are allowing genuinely bigoted people to frame the issue through not explicitly reframing it, and by sitting idly by while the kinds of people they should abhor take pleasure in the idea that this law may go. I think George Brandis falls into this category: he is not racist himself and he spends most of his time on this issue invoking good and honest liberal principles but he still allows the bigots to frame the debate. This is why he links 18C to the Bolt case, and why he says people have a ‘right’ to be bigots.
Hypocrisy is compounded, however, even by the principled. Chris Kenny suing the ABC for defamation for showing a manipulated image of him having sex with a dog is case in point.* People look at the kind of cases that have been brought forward under 18C and have (rightly, in my opinion) determined that some of these are a case of ‘hurt feelings’, to the extent that the judgements significantly impinge upon free expression. This line of argument has since been expanded to suggest either implicitly or explicitly that all the cases of racism and racial insensitivity are simple matters of ‘hurt feelings’ - everything, from a taxi driver being racially abused to a demented columnist with an axe to grind is ‘hurt feelings’.
On the other hand, the way most people have treated the Kenny case suggests that such belittling is reserved for 18C. There are those who would defend the concept of defamation law as it protects one’s property (reputation), which is not a terrible idea in itself. The issue is that there seems to be no recognition that there are gradations. The idea that a manipulated image from a group long known for satire would actually damage Kenny’s reputation is simple nonsense. But there seems to be this desire to see cases of alleged defamation as uniformly are valid and legitimate - in other words, a valid restriction of speech - whereas all cases under 18C are equally illegitimate. One kind of complainant deserves the benefit of the doubt and another kind does not.
What is happening is that there’s a peculiar blindness about how wide a net defamation law really casts, whereas there seems to be perfect 20-20 vision on 18C.
I can only theorise about why this may be the case, though I do not doubt that some read this with a sense of triumph. The fact that the pro-repeal case has pretty much exclusively been made by people who have never experienced the kind of racism the legislation is designed to protect against probably has something to do with it.
There’s a point that has not been made in this debate at all, and it has resulted in the anti-repeal case using ‘thin edge of the wedge’-style arguments. Anyone who has experienced racism knows that what someone says to you at work is far more damaging than what a stranger says on the street (made worse if nobody defends you or calls out their behaviour). Comparatively, what some columnist has to say (even if it is with a national stage) would rank pretty low for most people, especially when there are people everywhere telling him exactly how his views are a waste of bits and bytes. One is free to say that in all of these situations it is not the place of the law to intervene: it is the place of other people, codes of conduct, mores, more speech, public debate. But there is a deep failure to even recognise the existence of a continuum.
My own contribution to the debate would be this: things are magnified when important people are involved, regardless of the actual harm and damage done, and the law expands to match it. This is true of both defamation law, and of something like 18C. We know, realistically, the prospects of legal recourse for a racially-abused taxi driver are slim to none. The same goes for someone bumping into someone in public and provoking ire, and copping an earful of racist abuse that usually involved the phrase ‘you people’. The law does not, and cannot, protect these people. This is identical to the criticism that many have of defamation law.
Given that the Attorney-General has this week released an exposure draft of the changes the government wishes to make to the RDA (and they are significant), this is a real wheat-from-the-chaff moment for this debate. My belief in the fundamentally good intentions of the anti-18C brigade rests on the tone and content of the arguments used against the proposed amendments.
The two parts of interest for me are ‘racial vilification’ and ‘intimidate’. Racial vilification, in this case, means to incite racial hatred. Intimidation is to cause someone to fear physical violence because of their race. This, according to George Brandis, is not about public debate, it is about abuse. So far, my friends at the IPA (and I mean that literally, I am friends with people at the IPA) have said the proposals are most of the way there, and the broadening of the replacement clause for 18D especially is a good thing. Andrew Bolt has said he’s relatively happy with the proposed changes. A cursory look at these amendments suggests that someone abused racially in a public place where they would not fear violence (a taxi driver in his cab, for instance) or where there was nobody else around to be ‘incited’ (an argument over a parking space) would no longer be covered even in theory. No doubt clever lawyers and activist judges could make short work of the narrowness of these provisions, but let’s keep it simple.
I wait expectantly to see what comes next, to see how these changes are defended.
* I like Chris, but he makes a career out of eviscerating the ABC. This is a perfect opportunity for him.
Disclaimer: these views do not represent those of my employer. They are mine and mine alone.
To be generically against markets would be almost as odd as being generically against conversations between people (even though some conversations are clearly foul and cause problems for others - or even for the conversationalists themselves). The freedom to exchange words, or goods, or gifts does not need defensive justification in terms of their favourable but distant effects; they are part of the way human beings in society live and interact with each other (unless stopped by regulation or fiat). The contribution of the market mechanism to economic growth is, of course, important, but this comes only after the direct significance of the freedom to interchange - words, goods, gifts - has been acknowledged. — Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (via the-metres-gained)
The result is that many women have observed state legal reform as the biggest step forward for their rights. Women have only recently enjoyed the freedoms that western men have enjoyed for hundreds of years and they still see vestigial threats to that freedom in the form of sexist culture.
Libertarian challenges to the State’s social and welfare programs are therefore viewed as a threat to women’s freedom and security… This is not an inevitable or ‘natural’ condition, but has grown out of our particular social history.
But it is one that will persist as long as a sexist culture does. As long as women feel (justifiably) threatened by sexist culture, they will be thinking politically in terms of protecting their own and other women’s security.
If the libertarian movement wants to solve this problem, we need to make it clear that ours is a genuinely humanist movement that wants all people to reach their potential and achieve their goals.
Libertarians need to show that women have nothing to fear by removing state-mandated protections. —
Conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. In looking forward, they lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment which makes the liberal accept change without apprehension, even though he does not know how the necessary adaptations will be brought about. — Friedrich Hayek
A wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities. — Thomas Jefferson (via liberal-democrats-australia)
(Source: americas-liberty, via liberal-democrats-australia)
I’ve seen a number of crowdfunding campaigns lately that aim to raise money for a particular person to help them get through a difficult medical event, or life event. I’ve supported a couple; please don’t think I’m questioning the motivation of the donors, or the recipients of this much-needed help.
What worries me is that according to my worldview, many of the things we’re supporting ought to be supported by default in a decent civil society. I wonder if, in addition to the support we currently give to these individuals, we could also support groups actively working to fix the structural inequalities that are causing people to suffer.
My politics are simple. We should constantly aim to build a society that is equitable for all citizens. This, in my view, is an endless goal. I’m concerned that by focusing on certain deserving individuals, we forget the countless others who also need our help.
I’m interested in other people’s thoughts. Thanks.
I have a lot of loosely related thoughts on this.
1) I think there’s a major hole in the libertarian idea that private charity can take the place of public safety nets - and that is, as you’ve observed, charity goes to those who know how and who to ask, not necessarily who needs it most.
2) As individuals we don’t prepare enough for the worst case. We don’t have emergency savings, we under-insure for catastrophe etc. In part that’s because of social safety net programs; in part it’s because we’re bad at estimating the impact of large events.
3) As a society, we have to be very careful in balancing the provision of safety nets with the unintended side effects. Too much government involvement massively corrupts medical research and treatment. Funnily enough, the US is a great example.
So: we can’t rely purely on charity, but providing a better safety net somewhat corrupts the market and makes people feel less of a need to personally guard against risks. It’s a bit of a mess.
I think Aus has a good conceptual balance that falls over somewhat in reality. Medicare *should* take care of people on low incomes, and those on higher incomes can get their own insurance or otherwise manage their risks. The issue is that Medicare doesn’t cover enough treatments and is generally underfunded for what it’s meant to provide. I also don’t think there’s a way to totally opt out (for the “wealthy”) - it’s either pay Medicare or pay private health. I’d like to see a “pay neither and get nothing” option, too.