Remarks to the 2nd ALS Friedman Conference as part of the ‘Young women and politics’ panel, 3rd May 2014
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.
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.