The Prospects for Liberty: The Threats it faces and how to counter them

Table of Contents

  • (1.) The threats which confront the liberty movement
  • (2.) The task ahead
  • (3.) Looking for the “Golden Thread” to unravel justifications for state intervention
  • (4.) Choosing the right kind of arguments to use
  • (5.) Where we are now and what we need to do next
  • (6.) Conclusion

(1.) The Threats which Confront the Liberty Movement

II have taken the roughly 15 year period following the end of the Second World War as my starting point in this paper as this is when there was a concerted effort to build organisations to defend liberty and oppose the expansion of state power which had taken place in the first half of the 20th century. I have in mind

  • Leonard Reed and the Foundation for Economic Education founded in 1946
  • Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, et al. and the Mont Pèlerin Society founded in 1947
  • Anthony Fisher and the Institute for Economic Affairs in 1955
  • Pierre F. Goodrich and Liberty Fund in 1960
  • F.A. Harper and the Institute for Humane Studies in 1961

Long-standing and on-going threats to liberty

Some of the serious threats to liberty which they identified at that time (the 1950s and 1960s) are still with us, which says something about how difficult it is to shift opinion (both public and academic) and to reverse or even slow down the ever increasing expansion of the power of the state. Furthermore, there are numerous new threats which have appeared over the ensuing decades which I think makes our task even more difficult than it was for the Fisher-Goodrich-Harper generation of CL/libertarians.

Long-standing and on-going threats to liberty include:

  1. the rivalry (“cold war”) between the major nuclear powers and the threat of MAD (mutual assured destruction): the US, Soviet Union (now Russia) and China
  2. the expansion of the welfare state
  3. inflation and the expansion of the money supply by Central Banks (now called “quantitative easing”)
  4. the expansion of state-funded universities and the dominance of left-wing and Keynesian ideas within the academy
  5. the expansion of the regulatory state (now known also as the “nanny state”)
  6. the many “small” wars fought by the US/NATO and their allies (like Australia) to achieve “regime change” or promote the spread of “democracy” or fight “communism” (now “terrorism”)

New threats to Liberty over the past 20 Years

I would also add the following list of new threats to liberty which have emerged over the past two decades, especially as a result of the attacks of 9/11 2001, the global economic crisis of 2008-9, and the Covid lockdowns of 2020-22:

  1. the rise of the “surveillance state” after 9/11 with the monitoring of all telephone and email communication, and now the censorship of so-called “disinformation” spread via social media companies; it should be noted that Australia has played an important role in the emergence of the surveillance state by its membership in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance which is made up of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States
  2. the use of ”quantitative easing”, the government bailout of the banks and large investment firms, and the massive rise of government debt as a result of the global economic crisis of 2008-9
  3. the rise of a radical “Green” environmentalist movement which is demanding massive government intervention in and regulation of the economy in the form of a Green New Deal, government subsidies for “renewable energy,” and policies of carbon “neutrality” or “net zero”
  4. the rise of “neo-protectionism” and “industrial policy” which is a key platform of various nationalist and “populist” leaders such as Pres. Trump
  5. the resurgence of explicit interest in and support for “socialism” especially by young people which was noticeable at the time of the anniversaries of the birth of Karl Marx (1819) and the Bolshevik Revolution (1917); this also includes the respect some intellectuals and commentators have for the policies of the Chinese Communist Party as another path for economic development to take, or to control the spread of the Covid virus
  6. the emergence of the “Lockdown State” and what I call “Hygiene Socialism” during the Covid panic of 2020-2022; this has resulted in the acceptance by the general public that our lives should be controlled by “experts” and that governments can and should centrally plan key sectors of the economy
  7. the continued domination of the universities and schools by leftist intellectuals who have among other things promoted “woke-ism”, identity politics, the de-platforming of divergent opinion, and the promotion of Critical Race Theory

(2.) The Task ahead

When one adds all these up the list is a formidable one (the above contains 13 items) and it is so daunting for the future of the liberty movement that one wonders where to begin. For each of these threats to liberty there are some common elements and some common tasks which those in the liberty movement will have to undertake:

  1. there are the theoretical ideas which are used to justify these policies: these ideas are typically developed and propagated in the economics and politics departments of universities and colleges and so this is the arena where they need to be challenged and refuted
  2. there are the entrenched vested interests (both political and economic) which will vigorously defend their continued existence and even their expansion: this is a political problem which has to be addressed at the legislative level
  3. there is an ignorant or misinformed public who either tolerate these policies or demanded them in the first place: this problem has to be addressed by a broadly based campaign to popularise sound economic thinking

Each one of the threats to liberty I have listed above individually would require a small army of academics, intellectuals, journalists, agitators, and sympathetic politicians and voters to challenge the policies and to begin the long task of repealing them. Multiply this by 13 and one can get a sense of the task ahead.

It is my suggestion that there are several possibilities we need to consider:

  1. there is a need for a division of labour in the liberty movement , where those with special interests and skills apply themselves to opposing one of these threats. This happens to a considerable extent already today with groups which focus on environmental issues, war and peace, government regulation, and so on. For new entrants, the question then becomes whether or not to join an existing organisation, or found their own organisation (say in a region or a country which does not have such a group)
  2. there is a need for “movement investors” and “intellectual entrepreneurs” who have the skill to identify an emerging new problem which needs addressing, finding the people and the funding to organise them into a coherent group, and guiding them through the labyrinth of practical politics to get the changes which are required.
  3. there need to be be “feeder organisations” which can identify young and emerging talent, help them to be trained in the theoretical and political skills needed to be effective advocates and agitators for liberty. These feeder organisations should be directing the young talent they identify and train into various paths such as think tanks, lobby groups, existing political parties (“infiltrating the enemy’s camp”), or a separate “Libertarian” or “Classical Liberal” party. A related path which requires a different set of organizational skills leads to academia.
  4. there needs to be organisations or research centres to support academics who are interested in free market ideas and CL political philosophy; these people need to be found, cultivated, and supported as they move through what is a very hostile intellectual environment (the “academy”)
  5. there needs to be “outreach programs” to take the message about political and economic liberty to the masses; this effort will require skillful writers and speakers who can made complex ideas, especially about how markets operate, accessible to non-expert audiences whose minds are filled with misconceptions and errors which they have learnt at school or via social media
  6. finally, there needs to be coordination among the various groups in order to avoid unnecessary and expensive duplication, and to identify gaps in the movement which might need to be filled, or to address a new threat to liberty which might suddenly emerge as a result of a crisis

The problem for a small and relatively insignificant country like Australia is to figure out what it can do to contribute to the broader, international liberty movement and where it fits in. One possibility is for it to become a “beacon of liberty” now that Hong Kong is in the process of losing that status as it is gradually swallowed up by the CCP, and given the fact that the government of Singapore has strongly authoritarian bent. Imagine there being a truly liberal nation which is independent of “entangling alliances”, highly productive and competitive in world markets, and fully open to the free movement of goods, services, and people.

(3.) Looking for the “Golden Thread” to unravel justifications for State Intervention

Is there a “golden thread” which links all these disparate threats to liberty together, so that unraveling or cutting this one thread will end many of these threats in one blow so we don’t have to fight each one individually.

On the other hand, there may not be just one “golden thread” we have to cut, but a bundle of them. The following is a list of four key ideas which I think are common to many if not all forms of justifications for state control and intervention in the economy and in people’s lives in general. To undermine or refute any one of these key ideas would, I think, take us a long way to persuading people to rethink their faith in government intervention in our lives:

  1. the morality of using coercion
  2. misperceptions and exaggerations about the extent and cause of market failure
  3. the lack of understanding of the extent and cause of government failure
  4. public ignorance of basic economic insights which makes points 2 and 3 possible

The morality of using coercion

There is an almost universal belief that there is a difference in the sort of behaviour states and their agents can engage in compared to ordinary mortals like us. The common belief is that states are “justified” in the use of coercion to compel compliance with regulations, to seize our property in the form of taxes, and to kill other people in war, whereas ordinary people are not justified in using coercion in this manner.

In Australia, which lacks a strong tradition of thinking about natural rights and this a Bill of Rights to enshrine and protect them (unlike the US) the dominant political ideology is one of “expediency”, where the use of coercion is considered to be essential in order to “get things done”. This belief makes it possible for the emergence of a government based upon “technocratic managerialism”, which is supported by both major parties who take it in turns to be be the “manager.”

There would be much less tolerance for the government’s use of coercion if more people thought that the use of coercion by anybody is immoral. If they believed this, then they would feel outrage or contempt for those politicians and bureaucrats who used coercion every day to achieve their goals, they would feel ashamed and guilty if they personally sought and got handouts from the state which are financed at taxpayer expence (and thus got by means of coercion through compulsory taxation) ; or if they sought privileges from the state like monopolies or subsidies for their business.

For those who defend “limited government” the argument has to made that the sole legitimate function of government is to protect the the life, liberty and property of citizens by minimizing the use of coercion by one person against another (such as robbers, fraudsters, rapists, and murderers), and that the coercive actions of the state and its agents must also be strictly limited in scope, otherwise it in turn will become a threat to the life, liberty and property of the very people they are supposed to be protecting.

We should also make the case for the virtue of “self-help”, that instead of seeking government organized and tax-payer funded “charity” in times of economic hardship we should take steps on our own to avoid or prepare for economic hardship, or organise with others (family, neighbors, like-minded people) to help those in genuine need. We also need to use social ostracism against those who receive tax-payer funded handouts, subsidies; and those who seek to rule others, in order to discourage them from continuing these practices.

Misunderstanding the nature of “Market Failure”

It is crucial for us to disabuse people of the mistaken idea that the market has inherent flaws which inevitably lead to serious problems unless “corrected” by government action. These “market failures” are typically thought to be things like the monopoly and predatory power of large corporations, the boom-bust economic cycle, environmental “degradation” caused by any industrial activity, and the inability to provide all kinds of “public goods”.

There is thus a need for a better theoretical and historical understanding of what constitues “market failure”, why and how they happen, and what can be done to rectify them. Free market economists have produced many studies which have examined why markets “fail” but these are not well known among the general public: that “failure” is due to previous or continuing government regulation, the prohibition of competition, the lack of clear property rights; the absence of free market price signals. There are also many historical works which show that “public goods” have been provided privately on the market in the past and can be provided again in the present if they are allowed to do so.

Ignoring the even greater Problem of Government Failure

There is a near universal belief that governments and “experts” (technocrats) employed by the government can solve problems, “manage” the economy, and provide services which private individuals cannot. This belief has been maintained in spite of the many disastrous attempts by government in the 20th century to “plan” or “manage” the economy, and the theoretical work of the Public Choice school of economics, whose insights are almost universally ignored in the economics profession.

There is an entire gamut of public choice insights which need to be better appreciated by the public. These include the self-interested behaviour of politicians and bureaucrats; the inevitable capture of the state (parliament) and its regulatory bodies by powerful vested interest groups; the problem of “perverse” institutional incentives, and the issue of “political” rent-seeking by vested interests .

There are also important insights which have been made by the Austrian school of economics, especially by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, such as Mises on the “impossibility” of rational economic calculation under socialism due to the absence of free pricing (especially of capital goods), and Hayek’s “problem of knowledge” which is that central planning can never have the widely dispersed local knowledge of consumer needs, the availability of resources, and the constant changing local conditions which are necessary for production of goods and services to take place.

These insights mean that any government attempt to “manage” or “centrally plan” an economy is doomed to failure, whether this be the “total or universal” central planning which the Soviet Union attempted to do, or whether it be “partial or sectoral” central planning which many so-called “liberal democracies” attempt to do with industrial policy, renewable energy production, or vaccine development.

Public ignorance of basic economic concepts

Time and time again we see how deep the general public’s ignorance of basic economic ideas is. Every time there is a major storm or flood and the price of bread or bottled water goes up the public denounces shop keepers for “price gouging” and calls for government regulation and price controls.

The mid-19th century French economists Frédéric Bastiat was the most brilliant populariser of economic ideas who has ever lived, but even he could not disabuse the French public of these commonly held economic “fallacies” or “sophisms”: that there are opportunity costs for every economic decision one makes; that there are “the seen and the unseen” consequences of economic actions (especially government intervention in the economy); the idea that every action has a cost and a benefit which is different for different people and groups; the inevitability of “unintended consequences” of government regulations, and so on.

The persistance of these economic “fallacies” in the mind of the public indicate that we need a new Frédéric Bastiat to popularise economic ideas, not to mention better trained economic journalists who also share these false economic views and spread them to the reading public.

(4.) Choosing the Right Kind of Arguments to use

Selecting the right kind of arguments in order to defend liberty and criticize government intervention and coercion is an important strategic matter as different people respond to different kinds of arguments. For example, some people find “economic” arguments heartless and respond better to moral arguments about fairness and justice. Others are driven on a more emotional level to seek safety or protection from some immanent crisis or perceived catastrophe such as climate change or a virus pandemic. Hence their demand that “the government do something” to solve the problem immediately. So, we have to identify the kinds of people we are trying to convince and to select the best kinds of arguments to suit that particular group.

I think defenders of liberty need to appeal to the following different groups:

  • the average voter (this is the job of a political party)
  • people who are still forming their opinions, such as students (Mannkal, CIS, IPA)
  • educated people who might be swayed at the margin (CIS, IPA)
  • sympathetic academics and intellectuals (journalists, writers, artistic types) – if there are any! (IPA, CIS??, Liberty Fund)

CL and libertarians have historically used a “smorgasbord” of arguments to defend liberty which include:

  1. moral arguments which appeal to justice and a particular moral theory concerning property rights, individual liberty, and the nature of political power (coercion)
  2. economic arguments which appeal to notions of economic efficiency and the greater productivity of free markets
  3. political arguments about the dangers posed by political power and the need to limit it, and how best to organise the political system in order to enable the state to undertake properly its legitimate functions (if any)
  4. historical arguments concerning the evolution and expansion of state power over the past century (Higgs’ “ratchet effect”), the nature and causes of government failure, the nature and causes of market failure, the struggle for liberty in previous centuries (the “Great Emancipation), and the vast improvement in the human condition brought about by free market “capitalism” (the “Great Enrichment”)

Moral Arguments

Some of the moral arguments which have been used to defend liberty and oppose government interventions include:

  • that the use of coercion against others is immoral and a violation of their natural rights to life, liberty, and property
  • people should be “free to choose” and then pursue whatever life goals they prefer (however they imagine them – Jeffersons’ idea of “the pursuit of happiness”) without outside interference (i.e. force); so long as they respect the equal right of others to do the same (Herbert Spencer’s “law of equal liberty”)
  • that this “freedom to choose” is what it means to be “human” and that to prevent individuals from doing this is fundamentally wrong (as it demeans their “humanity”)
  • the goal is “flourishing” both as an individual and as well the groups and communities these individuals voluntarily associate with or create
  • the means to achieve this goal is non-violence, cooperation, mutually beneficial association for production and trade, and the division of labour
  • a belief in the dignity and worth of productive labour, producing goods and services to satisfy the needs of others (McCloskey) – these activities are “morally good” and worthy of social recognition
  • conversely, the “immorality” of acquiring wealth or political privileges by the use of power, and coercion exercised over others; that seeking such power over others should be regarded as immoral, and not what free individuals should do or aspire to (how far to push this?? – this includes politicians, bureaucrats, privilege or rent-seekers, government contract seekers, wielders of coercive power (police and military))
  • the idea that it is wrong to accept “compulsory charity” or benefits from the state at the expence of others (taxpayers); people should think of this as shameful and not a “right” that is due to them from others

Economic Arguments

These are very well known in CL/Libertarian circles so I will not provide a comprehensive and detailed list here. They can be summarized as arguments about the greater efficiency and productivity for free markets (capitalism):

  • the greater wealth creating possibilities of “free market capitalism” due to mutually beneficial cooperation, the division of labour and specialization, and free trade (both domestic and international)
  • the incentives to be productive and satisfy the needs of others (consumers) caused by the private ownership of property, and the possibility of making a profit (with the corresponding disincentive of making losses)
  • the ability of free market prices to rapidly convey information about what is demanded by consumers, how pressing or urgent that demand is, what resources are available and at what cost for producers to create and then deliver these goods and services to consumers
  • the enormous innovations made possible by the free market (capitalism) which are the result of the advance of scientific knowledge, technological improvement, simple trial and error, and the existence of entrepreneurs who are able to identify new opportunities and carry them out successfully
  • the existence of “competition” between producers for new customers creates greater choice and lower prices
  • the much greater life choices made possible for individuals (especially women, and peasant farmers) by an extensive, global and international division of labour
  • the more general “creative” benefits of free, open and tolerant societies in the cultural sphere

Political Arguments

  • a liberal and democratic political system makes it possible for ordinary citizens (voters) to make their rulers accountable for their actions, and to help determine how much and what kind of taxation and regulation by the government will be permitted (although this ability is often exaggerated by supporters of democracy); the benefits of democracy is that the voters can get rid of bad politicians and bad policies without resorting to violence; the weakness of democracy is that all new governments have a strong incentive to become bad governments which introduce bad policies again in an endless cycle
  • interventions in the economy (and in private life in general) create additional problems because of inevitable government failure, the creation of perverse incentives, and unintended consequences (Bastiat’s “the seen and the unseen”); there is pressure on government by voters which pushes politicians to intervene again and again to solve the problems caused by these previous interventions ( Mises’ “dynamic of interventionism”)
  • periodic crises (economic recessions, depressions, war, epidemics) lead voters to demand that “the government do something” which usually means greater intervention in the economy, higher taxes, and more regulation of private lives; once the crisis is over the regulations and taxes may decrease but not to their previous lower level, thus leading to the gradual expansion of state power over time (Robert Higg’s “ratchet effect”)
  • power attracts unsavory types of people (predators, arrogant ideologues and would-be rulers) and “do-gooders” (perhaps naive and well-meaning) who want to use state power to achieve their ends (Hayek’s “why the worst get on top”); this can only be prevented by reducing the power and scope of the state to make it less attractive to predators and impossible for these people to act in this way
  • political power inevitably attracts rent-seekers who lobby politicians, regulators, and bureaucrats to do them favors in return for certain benefits in return (campaign funds, jobs on company boards later); this attraction to power will not end until political power is reduced or removed entirely; this is one of the contradictions of democracy, by which I mean that it has built-in incentives and an existing mechanism to enable those who wish to undermine liberty to do so
  • the welfare state inevitably creates a “dependent class” who will never vote for cuts in government expenditure; they in turn create a permanent and growing class of welfare administrators and distributors with a very strong self-interest to defend; the real danger is that if or when those who receive benefits become the majority they will always vote to protect (or even expand) these benefits (another contradiction of democracy)
  • politicians often play the “nationalism card” to persuade voters to accept considerable intervention in the economy, such as the idea of the need for “national industries” (like a car industry) or for the state to seek “energy independence” (via heavily subsidized “renewable energy”), or even “national greatness”; nationalism is usually taught in the state school system (via nationalist history) and promoted by means of “national holidays”; CL/libertarians need to persuade voters that we need to find a way to combine being a member of an internationally diverse and integrated trading system and the desire of many voters to express their feelings of patriotism (nationalism?) which can often be quite narrow and parochial

Historical Arguments

Hayek observed that people often get their economic ideas indirectly by means of the history they were taught at school. For example, the belief that “capitalism” underwent a crisis or even a breakdown during the Great Depression and that western economies were only saved by massive government intervention; or that the industrial revolution impoverished millions of people and forced them to work under nearly slave-like conditions. The task for defenders of liberty is to show that the benefits of the free market and the harms of government intervention are not just theoretical matters but can be demonstrated by many historical and present-day examples. The general ignorance of the public on these matters is truly staggering and it will require an enormous effort to rectify this massive problem.

Thus this section will have two parts (many of the remarks made above also apply to this section):

  1. the failures and harms caused by government intervention and political privilege
  2. the successes and benefits of free markets and limited constitutional governments

The failures and harms caused by government intervention and political privilege

  • the poverty caused by hundreds of years of serfdom and slavery which were protected and enforced by the state
  • the death and destruction caused by hundreds of years of inter-state rivalry and wars
  • the suffering of people in “the colonies” who were enslaved and exploited in other ways for the benefit of privileged traders and plantation owners
  • the violation of the freedom of speech and association caused by the banning of rival religious groups by the privileged established church
  • the exclusion of working and middle class people (and of course women of all socio-economic classes) from participation in elections which enabled privileged elites to set the kind and level of taxation (and other legislation and regulations) to suit themselves at the expence of ordinary people
  • and with the massive increase in the size and scope of state power in the 20thC we have bigger and better examples of government failures on a colossal scale, such as the “Great War” (WW1), the rise of communism in Russia and China, the rise of fascism and Nazism in Italy and Germany, the “Great Depression”, Prohibition I (of alcohol in the US in the 1920s), the “War on Poverty” since the 1960s; Prohibition II (the “War on Drugs” since the 1970s), the rise of the “‘surveillance state” after 11 Sept. 2001, and most recently the attempt to eliminate or control the spread of the Covid virus by means of coerced lockdowns and other draconian restrictions of economic and social life.
  • it should be noted that probably the biggest single expansion of government power occurred during WW2
  • it should also be noted that the “War on Terrorism” since 2001 has also been a spectacular and costly failure

The successes and benefits of free markets and limited governments

The successes and benefits of free markets and limited governments can be summarised as the result of the “Great Enrichment” (Deidre McCloskey) and the “Great Emancipations” (David Hart) which have taken place since the mid-18thC. The failures and harms listed above were either eliminated or significantly ameliorated by these two great forces of emancipation and enrichment which began to exert themselves during the Enlightenment, and put into practice, with varying degrees of success, during the American and French revolutions, and then the various liberal reform movements in Europe (and Australia) during the 19th century. What needs to be stressed is that these reforms were driven by the spread and adoption of liberal ideas about individual liberty, the protection of life and property, and restrictions on the power and scope of government activity. These reforms included:

  1. the abolition of serfdom and slavery
  2. the expansion of the franchise to include first middle class votes, then more working class votes, and then eventually women voters.
  3. the introduction of written constitutions and bills of rights to limit the power of the state and protect the liberties of ordinary people, such as freedom of speech, religion, association, movement, choice of occupation; one again it should be noted that although Australia has a written constitution it does not have Bill of Rights grounded in natural law and natural rights principles; this might have happened if its constitution had been written in the 1790s instead of the 1890s, but by then it was too late. [Note: because the intellectual climate of opinion has changed so radically since the time of the writing of the American Bill of Rights (Amendments to the Constitution), the danger is that any Bill of Rights written today would not contain a list of rights derived from natural law/natural rights principles but one based on modern notions of “welfare rights”, such as a right to state provided welfare or health.]
  4. the deregulation of the economy which allowed the expansion of industrial activity, freedom of trade and occupation, the division of labour, the right to make and keep the profits one made in such activity, all of which led to an explosion of wealth creation and prosperity the like of which the world had never seen before
  5. the freedom of movement of people to escape poverty and political oppression by “voting with their feet” to go to other jurisdictions (and to enter those jurisdictions without passports or visas), either domestically by moving from the countryside to the city, or internationally to North America (the US and Canada) or elsewhere like Australia and Argentina.

The sad fact is that historically, this emancipation and enrichment was never allowed to be fully realized as the state reasserted its power in the late 19th century and during the 20th century especially during the “30 Years War of 1914-1945”. The liberal revolutions were left incomplete or unfinished as illustrated by the following:

  1. the persistance of colonies and empires by all the major European powers
  2. the retention of large standing armies and navies which required conscription, high taxation, and “war industries” run by the state, which made large scale wars possible
  3. the creation of early forms of the welfare state in the late 19th century (Bismarck’s Germany) and which were made nearly universal following WW2
  4. the emergence of ideas and policies (discussed above) which justified the introduction of the income tax, central banking and fiat currencies, the regulation of nearly every aspect of economic activity, the re-emergence of protectionism, national industrial policy, and the overly protective (or rather repressive) “Nanny state” (which might be better described as “the Nurse Ratchet state”)

(5.) Where we are now and what we need to do next

Living in a Hybrid system where there is a mixture of liberty and state coercion

The result of these partial emancipations and enrichments, combined with the reassertion of state power and regulation, is that we now live in a “hybrid” system where the gains of market productivity and innovation (technological, scientific, logistical) have been able to keep ahead of government impediments (regulation, taxation). In addition, many of the political and social emancipations which western societies gained in the past have been partially retained although significantly whittled down by regulations and controls. I call the remnants of these freedoms our “legacy freedoms”. We have now reached the point where one has to wonder how much longer can the forces of emancipation and enrichment stay ahead of the state’s insatiable desire for increased power and control?

The period of emancipation and enrichment was based upon the widespread acceptance of liberal values and ideas among large sections of the public, who used the pressure of public opinion and mass political agitation to push for liberal reforms, the best examples being the public campaigns to eliminate the slave trade and then slavery itself, and the removal of the protectionist Corn Laws in England in 1846. However, the belief in liberal values began to weaken significantly in the late 19th century and largely disappeared in the first half of the 20th century. In our “hybrid system” the belief in liberal values and beliefs has been severely weakened to the point where to a large degree they have been replaced with their opposite, namely a brief in the justice and feasibility of state coercion to solve social and economic problems. The default position for most people today is not “the presumption of liberty” but the “presumption of state intervention,” or in other words that “the government should do something.”

This shift in belief has produced what I call “the normalisation of state coercion”. By this I mean the acceptance by the vast majority of the people that the use of state coercion is normal, necessary and inevitable in order to solve our social and economic problems. They thus hardly ever question this belief and demonstrate strong opposition when CLs/libertarians do question it. The problem for us is how to get enough people to begin questioning the wisdom, justice, and necessity of this belief, and if we can succeed in doing this, how to channel this doubt into reforming our society in a more liberal direction.

Crises and Tipping Points

Robert Higgs argues that the periodic crises which afflict our society (usually caused by state interventions in the economy, like recessions and depressions, or the outbreak of war, which is also the result of state activity vis-à-vis other states) has resulted during the 20th century in a “ratchet” effect , whereby the state increases its power during the crisis, relaxes those controls a bit at the end of the crisis, but retains some of the increase in its power until the next crisis, when the “ratchet effect” is experienced again. The net result over decades is the steady and seemingly irreversible expansion in state power and scope. His pessimistic conclusion is that, in the absence of any strong countervailing ideological opposition to this expansion, it will continue indefinitely or until a catastrophic economic breakdown takes place (or what Mises called the “crack up” of the economy), or when the people rise up in a bloody rebellion or revolt.

Periodic crises can create “tipping points” where people are confronted with a new and serious problem and are forced to question their existing beliefs and to look for something else to explain their current situation and to offer them a way out of the crisis. The hope for those in the liberty movement is to be able to take advantage of such a crisis and tipping point to push people in a pro-liberty direction. A good example of this was the famine in Ireland in 1845 which was a crisis used by free traders like Richard Cobden to successfully agitate for the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws and the introduction of free trade in 1846. The sad fact is that the experience of the 20th and 21st centuries is that the various crises which have occurred and which offered such “tipping points” have had the opposite effect, namely pushing people to look for and adopt pro-state, interventionist ideas and policies to solve the crisis. The problem for us in the liberty movement is how to use crises and tipping points to move things in the other direction.

The “covid crisis” and the mass panic it induced is the most recent and perhaps most extreme example of such a tipping point we have seen in a long time. It was stunning for those in the liberty movement to see how quickly and how willingly people gave up their personal and economic liberties and, if the Higgs ratchet effect is still functioning, these liberties will not be returned in their entirety any time soon (if ever). The crisis also revealed the moral preferences of the majority of the population, showing that they did not value their personal or economics liberties very highly (if at all), that they valued the spurious promises of “security” and “protection” offered by the state much more highly than liberty, and that the people believed the state could provide this “security” at an acceptable or no cost. The sad conclusion I draw from this is that unless we can change the public’s underlying moral preference back to one which places a high value on liberty then the liberty movement will not succeed and that every time there is a another crisis the public’s default position will continue to be “the government should do something”, even if this “something” destroys liberty in the process.

The Problem of Intellectual and Institutional Inertia

Those in the liberty movement have to face the problem of how to overcome the “inertia” which exists at both the individual and institutional levels and which makes radical change very difficult (perhaps impossible) to achieve.

At one level there is individual inertia. Once people have settled on a particular set of ideas (often at college age) it is most unlikely that they will change their thinking later in life. Thus, it is imperative to appeal to people when they are young and looking for the ideas which will shape their behaviour for the rest of their lives. This is exactly the strategy which has been so successfully adopted by the Greens and the environmental movement to appeal to high school children for whom the young Swedish school girl Greta Thunberg was a role model and source of inspiration. For older people more set in their ways of thinking, the best we can do is to try to change their thinking “at the margin”, that is to say, if there is a proposal for an increase in taxation we might be able to persuade them to accept a lower increase rather than a higher level of increases in taxation. This of course is not an ideal solution, but it is better than nothing.

When it comes to academics and intellectuals, the strategy should be to find those who have expressed some interest in some aspect of liberty and to encourage them to see the “bigger picture” of the interconnected nature of the broader liberty philosophy in the hope they will expand and deepen their appreciation of the benefits of liberty in all aspects of our life (social, political, and economic). For those academics and intellectuals who have invested their entire careers in defending state coercion and intervention in the economy it is highly unlikely that we can persuade them to change their minds and so we should not waste our scarce resources in trying to do so.

At another level, there is institutional inertia which can take two forms. Firstly, the implications of the Higgs “ratchet effect”means that once the state has acquired a new power it (or rather the politicians and senior bureaucrats who control the state) hardly ever (probably never) relinquishes that power, thus the state has a built in tendency to expand. At another level, those who have benefited from the expansion of state power – the vested interests who get government contracts or subsidies or a protected market with limits on competition, the lower level bureaucrats who staff the administration and implement the new government policies, and the voters who get tax-payer funded benefits and services – will fight tooth and nail to protect and keep these benefits. They constitute a formidable political impediment to liberal reforms.

It is sad to say that this group of individuals who directly benefit from state coercion are probably unreachable by the liberty movement and thus we should not waste our resources trying to persuade them otherwise.

(6.) Conclusion

The above comments paint a rather bleak picture of the threats which face the liberty movement. I will conclude by saying that my recommendation is that we in the liberty movement should constantly stress the following two points, namely to emphasize the benefits of liberty to both individuals and the communities in which they live, and the harms caused by the use of state coercion and intervention. What follows is my summary of these benefits and harms:

The Benefits of Liberty

  • liberal ideas and the institutions they inspired made it possible for a wave of emancipations to sweep the western world which brought an end to a system which gave power and wealth to a privileged few and poverty and oppression to the majority of the people
  • free markets based upon private property, contracts, mutually beneficial cooperation, the division of labour, and free trade made it possible for the “great enrichment” to take place, which brought unheard of prosperity to ordinary people for the first time; the benefits of industrial mass production and innovation which this unleashed are still improving our lives to this day
  • liberty (“the freedom to choose”) makes it possible for individuals to choose and pursue whatever life goals they prefer, to be able to “flourish” and develop as individuals, to choose the people they want to associate with in families or their local communities in order to pursue common goals
  • political liberty makes it possible for ordinary people (voters) to place a check on the power of politicians and other powerful individuals, to make them be responsible for their actions, and to exercise some control over how the broader community is structured (within the limit of respecting other peoples’ equal rights to life, liberty, and property)
  • a spirit of liberty and toleration creates a society which is creative, innovative, and rich with new ideas, new products, new art and culture, and new opportunities for individuals to pursue as they see fit

The Harms of State Coercion

  • government activity is based upon the use of coercion and the violation of individuals’ rights to life, liberty, and property; that the use of coercion is immoral even if done by the state and its agents and should therefore be strictly limited or even done away with entirely
  • government failure is ubiquitous and inevitable; it wastes or destroys the wealth of its citizens; furthermore, each failure has a tendency to lead to further interventions which in turn inevitably fail or impose significant costs
  • government activity discourages the development of independent and responsible behavior on the part of individuals, and encourages a spirit of dependency upon the state; this creates a semi-permanent “dependent class” of individuals who have to rely upon government welfare and other benefits in order to survive
  • the coercive powers of the state attract individuals who wish to use those powers for their own benefit at the expence of ordinary taxpayers; this also creates a “class”, this time a parasitic “class of exploiters” who live off another “class of industrious producers”who generate the wealth needed for society to function
  • rivalry between states often results in wars which destroy lives and wealth on a massive scale, which violates the liberty of its citizens through conscription into the army and the subordination of economic activity to the needs of the “warfare state”; in the nuclear age the scope for mass destruction and killing by states is so vast that it is hard to contemplate

Some Final Thoughts

One might hope that if these alternative visions of the benefits of liberty and the harms of state coercion can be presented to enough people in a form they find appealing and persuasive, then we in the liberty movement might be more confident about the future of liberty given the numerous threats it currently faces.

The Myth of a liberal “Australian Way of Life”

[Note: This post is part of a series on the History of the Classical Liberal Tradition]

Some conservative/liberal groups in Australia have adopted a slogan first used in the US, namely the “Australian Way of Life” modeled on the notion of the “American Way of Life”. It implies that such an “Australian” way of life was and possibly still is a “liberal” one, when in fact, if there is anything such as “the” Australian way of life (which I doubt) it is more likely to be a socialist, statist, or paternalistic one. Or “progressive” in modern parlance.

The idea of an implied “liberal” “Australian way of life” has become part of the Institute of Public Affairs’s mission and sense of itself, and hinted at most recently in the party platform of the newest Australian political party with the very awkward and oddly name of “Australia’s Representatives” (or “AusReps”). I think this is unfortunate and misleading because it fudges over significant issues of Australia’s very un-liberal heritage and history, especially its founding as a penal colony in 1788 and its national founding as a “progressive” and socially “advanced” state in 1901. (In addition, we should mention the founding of an explicitly “Liberal Party” in 1944 by Robert Menzies et al. which I would describe as “LINO” or “liberal in name only” rather than a “true” classical liberal party (free trade anyone?), but this is the topic for another post.)

The “American” Way of Life

The adoption of such a statement, “to maintain and enhance the Australian Way of Life”, with the implication that Australia’s “way of life” was then and is now (or should be now) a “liberal” one, might have made some sense in America where the founding of the American nation state was a product of a war of liberation against the British Empire, a successful act of secession from an irresponsible tax regime, and the writing of a new constitution based upon ideas of natural rights to life, liberty, and property (with the obvious very un-liberal proviso that it did not apply to black slaves). Even in America, there were some “original sins” against liberal principles committed by the “founding fathers”, such as the attempt to dismantle the truly decentralized and “con-federative” nature of the Articles of Confederation and impose a much more centralized national state with a president with powers more like an elected monarch, with growing powers of taxation, the creation of a National Bank and a “national debt”, and economic policies which necessitated considerable state intervention (the so-called “American System” of Hamilton and Clay), and then the high tariffs of the late 19th century.

But the unravelling of the “liberal” (in the “classical” not the modern American sense) “American way of life” accelerated in the 20th century with the creation of the Empire (after the Spanish-American War), the creation of the foundations of a welfare state under FDR in the 1930s and Johnson in 1964, and a massive “national security state” during and after WW2. Now, what remains is what I call a kind of “folk libertarianism” where the rhetoric of individual liberty is still part of public discourse but it has been largely emptied of much content and meaning under these very changed circumstances.

The Manifold “Original Sins” of the Founding of “Liberal” Australia

In my opinion Australia, by contrast, was founded in a state of “origin sin” against liberal principles, or rather several waves of “original sin”, in spite of the claims to the contrary by David Kemp in his multi-volume history of “A Liberal Nation”. [On the rather jarring juxtaposition of statist and liberal images on the cover of this volume, see below.] “Australia, or rather “New South Wales,” began as a military penal colony based upon the principles of a labour camp, with minimal voluntary labour or exchange relations between individuals which were limited to the small but growing number of “free” settlers and not the convict “forced laborers”, a form of military socialism where the governor and military officers controlled the store of provisions with all the problems of a “command economy” or what Mises called a “Zwangswirtschaft”, and a system of land ownership where the entire continent had been claimed as “the property” of the crown, or what I would call a kind of “monarchical or crown communism.” This control of land by “the crown” resulted in the legal and practical dispossession of the native inhabitants and the creation of a system of “crony” land ownership by means of land grants, sales, long-term leasing, and so on. There was the practice of “squatting” on tracts of land, or what the Americans termed “homesteading” which was the established liberal “Lockean” way in which unowned land was converted by use and occupation (“mixing one’s labour” with the soil) into justly owned and legitimate private property. However freehold title was not the most common form of land ownership and the system of “crown land communism” especially in mining leases is still the common practice in Australia.

By the mid-19th century the colonies began to get some tokens of self-governance (what I would call some aspects of “political liberalism” with the development of colonial legislatures) but this was limited throughout the rest of the century and well into the 20th after so-called “independence” by Imperial control of foreign and military policy which meant that Australia never became a truly independent country or nation like the US until after WW2. This very limited form of liberalism in Australia was based upon the “new” liberalism which had emerged in Britain (Hobhouse and Green) which had dramatically revised the more “radical” kind of liberalism which was the foundation of the actions of reformers like Richard Cobden in the 1830s and 1840s. The “antipodean” form of liberalism which was prevalent in Australia in the late 19th century was defined by extensive government involvement in the ownership and supply of key infrastructure activities like ports, railways, and other public transport (trams), as well as grain storage and delivery. This was described at the time quite correctly as “colonial socialism” and to this was added from “the left” the very unliberal views of the “labour movement” which resulted in the formation of the Labor Party in the last decade of the 19th century.

One should also mention the great split which had emerged as industrialization took place between the supporters of liberal free trade (concentrated in Sydney) and un-liberal protectionism (concentrated in Melbourne). The success of the protectionists in getting their policy adopted as a cornerstone of the economic policy of the new “Commonwealth of Australia” in 1901 added to the growing list of “original sins” against liberal principles which lay at the very heart of the “new nation”: this included compulsory wage arbitration, the exclusion of certain races from immigrating (the “White Australia Policy”), continued government ownership and control of significant infrastructure, and soon after Federation the adoption of a country-wide land tax which evolved into an income tax. Given these activities, it is not surprising that Australia at the beginning of the 20th century had one of the highest levels of government spending and taxation as a percentage of GDP of the more advanced economies in the world, possibly twice that of the US. For this and other reasons Australia was commonly regarded as an advanced “progressive” country where the practicality and desirability of many socialist principles were being showcased as an example for the rest of the world, which would follow in due course.

One might also add to this toxic brew of government interventions that of the willingness of many Australians to get involved in foreign wars which posed no direct threat to Australia but were directly connected to maintaining the power and prestige of the British Empire. I have in mind the Boer War in South Africa (another war of independence the British opposed) and the First World War which one might describe as a brawl between European Empires which Australia would have been well advised to avoid. To the “myth of a liberal Australian way of life” might be added that of “the myth of ANZAC” which was the way many Australian’s judged themselves as “fit” to be a (semi-)independent nation by their prowess to wage war and kill other people, admittedly as stoically as possible under considerable hardship.

The 20th Century: LINO (liberal in name only)

The history of the growth of the state and its increasing intervention in the economy and over people’s individual lives throughout the course of the 20th century is only another long and very sad chapter in the history of liberal Australia which I cannot go into here in any detail. I have limited my remarks in this post to the “original sins” of Australia’s foundation and not their subsequent development and expansion. But one could conclude from this brief history that contemporary classical liberals/libertarians cannot get any solace in talking about “the Australian way of life” if by this they mean a “liberal” way of life. To paraphrase Robert Menzies and John Howard, the truly “forgotten people” of Australia are not the ordinary taxpayers and “battlers”, but the small handful of true or radical liberals who have popped up from time to time in Australia’s history, disappeared, and then promptly forgotten. [See my collection of some of these “forgotten” true Australian classical liberals and libertarians here. I have also put online Menzies’ radio “fire-side chats”, including “The Forgotten People” talk of May, 1942.]

Note on the “socialist” Sydney Habour Bridge vs. the “liberal” Surf Life Saving Association

The front cover of David Kemp’s third volume of his history of liberalism in Australia – A Liberal State: 1926-1966. How Australians chose Liberalism over Socialism (Melbourne University Press) – has a jarring juxtaposition of images which goes some way in explaining the strange and conflicted nature of “antipodean liberalism”. In the background there is the iconic image of the Sydney Harbour Bridge (completed 1932) which is statist and illiberal in its funding and its construction; and an equally iconic image (in the foreground) of a member of the Surf Life Saving Association which is a private and volunteer association and hence very liberal in its significance.

The Bridge in Curve (1926) painting by Grace Cossington Smith

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was built by a government body (the NSW Dept. of Public Works) and funded by taxpayers (and tolls) rather than by a private firm using its own funds. It cost A£6.25 million and required the coercive confiscation of over 400 private homes and commercial buildings without adequate compensation. It then took 56 years to pay off the loans incurred to build it (1932-88). It thus is a symbol of the worst features of government intervention in the economy (also broadly known as “socialism”). See Sydney Harbour Bridge – Wikipedia

In the foreground we see figures dressed in the distinctive clothing of the privately funded and voluntarily organized Surf Life Saving Association. In “liberal Australia” in 1902 it was illegal for anybody to go into the ocean during daylight hours! Only after this illiberal and prudish law was challenged in the courts that surfing and surf swimming became popular and the need for surf life saving clubs appeared. The Surf Bathing Association of New South Wales was formed on 18 October 1907. I would argue that the SLSA is thus a symbol of the best features of a voluntary, free market society (also known broadly as “liberalism”) and that the image sits rather jarringly in font of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on the cover of the book. See Surf Life Saving Australia – Wikipedia

However, I’m sure Kemp is not asking us here to make a choice between the “socialism” of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the “liberalism” of the Surf Life Saving Association. Rather, he seems to think that the two go together seamlessly as part of the one “liberal state”. A view I do not share.

The Great Books of Liberty

For over twenty years I have been working on making “the great books of liberty” (or “GBL”) accessible and more widely known . These GBL are a subset of the larger “great books” program pioneered by the University of Chicago under the direction of Mortimer Adler (1902-2001) back in the 1950s. Like many people growing up in the 1960s and 1970s our school library had the distinctive custom-made shelf unit which housed the collection of 54 volumes of “the Great Books of the Western World” which one usually bought as a set along with its three companion volumes which tried to make some sense of the collection for the ordinary reader.

These “Introductory Volumes” included a volume on “The Great Conversation” and two volumes on “The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon”, which was a rather awkward neo-Latin word for a “collection of topics”.1

After regular sales produced very poor results in the beginning, the publisher Encyclopedia Britannica employed experienced door-to-door salesmen to sell the set as they would any other “encyclopedia” designed for the home market. This resulted in the sale of millions of the sets, although we have no data about how many of these volumes ever got read by the presumably suburban purchasers.

See these Wikipedia entries for details:
Great Books of the Western World – Wikipedia
A Syntopicon – Wikipedia
Great Conversation – Wikipedia
– and a cutdown version of only 10 volumes: Gateway to the Great Books – Wikipedia

Mortimer Adler’s 102 Great Ideas

Adler thought he could identify 102 “Great Ideas” on which he wrote short introductory essays to the very detailed list of specific pages in “the great books” in the collection. In 1992 Adler updated his introductions which was republished as The Great Ideas: a Lexicon of Western Thought (1992) along with another volume, Mortimer Adler: “The Great Conversation Revisited,” in The Great Conversation: A Peoples Guide to Great Books of the Western World, (Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1990).

These “102” ideas were:

Volume I: Angel, Animal, Aristocracy, Art, Astronomy, Beauty, Being, Cause, Chance, Change, Citizen, Constitution, Courage, Custom and Convention, Definition, Democracy, Desire, Dialectic, Duty, Education, Element, Emotion, Eternity, Evolution, Experience, Family, Fate, Form, God, Good and Evil, Government, Habit, Happiness, History, Honor, Hypothesis, Idea, Immortality, Induction, Infinity, Judgment, Justice, Knowledge, Labor, Language, Law, Liberty, Life and Death, Logic, and Love.

Volume II: Man, Mathematics, Matter, Mechanics, Medicine, Memory and Imagination, Metaphysics, Mind, Monarchy, Nature, Necessity and Contingency, Oligarchy, One and Many, Opinion, Opposition, Philosophy, Physics, Pleasure and Pain, Poetry, Principle, Progress, Prophecy, Prudence, Punishment, Quality, Quantity, Reasoning, Relation, Religion, Revolution, Rhetoric, Same and Other, Science, Sense, Sign and Symbol, Sin, Slavery, Soul, Space, State, Temperance, Theology, Time, Truth, Tyranny and Despotism, Universal and Particular, Virtue and Vice, War and Peace, Wealth, Will, Wisdom, and World.

The ideas of individual liberty and constitutional government were important to Adler as the above lists indicate. For example, there are entries on Aristocracy, Constitution, Democracy, Government, Labor, Law, Liberty, Monarchy, Oligarchy, Revolution, Slavery, State, Tyranny and Despotism, War and Peace, and Wealth. He would also write other books in which the idea of freedom or liberty would be given a more prominent position, such as The Idea of Freedom (1958); Six Great Ideas (1984) which were Truth, Goodness, Beauty, Liberty, Equality, and Justice; and We hold these truths : Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution (1987).2

I have put online the essays and “links” or references to the texts dealing with Government and Liberty as examples of the extraordinary industry which Adler and his editorial assistants gave to this enormous project. All this or course in the pre-computer era.

His original list of 102 “great ideas” is an eclectic and very idiosyncratic mixture of ideas and concepts which were, on the one hand, an heroic attempt to organise a mass of material but, on the other hand, one which I think fails to do justice to the diversity of thinking and creative activity which is the hallmark of the several thousands of years old “civilisation” or “tradition”, “western” or otherwise.

Adler and the Encyclopedia Britannica publishers which backed the project were criticized for their many omissions, such as women authors and “people of colour” from the Left (especially during the 1970s), as well as for their emphasis on “ideas” rather than the style or form of the works (especially of art and literature). It was also criticized from the Right, such as their erstwhile collaborator, Pierre Goodrich, the founder of Liberty Fund, who had his own idea of the “great books” which placed a much great emphasis on individual liberty, limited government, and free markets than Adler and his colleagues did. For instance, the only economic ”ideas” Adler included in his list were “Labor” and “Wealth” but not “Markets,” “Private Property,” “Cooperation,” “Taxation,” or “Coercion”. There is also no entry for “Individual” or “Individualism” which I believe is a key concept which emerged out of the western tradition.

Being both a business and an intellectual entrepreneur, Goodrich solved the problem by setting up his own foundation in 1960 in competition with Adler’s group at the University of Chicago to promote his own vision of “the great books of liberty.” It was to put online Goodrich’s vision of the GBL that I was originally employed by LF some 20 years ago. The results of my efforts can be seen here:

When the new building for Liberty Fund was being designed the Board wanted to pay homage to Goodrich’s vision of the GBL by having the names of the 100 authors on his list prominently displayed on the exterior of the building, as this photo shows.

[The facade of LF’s new building in Indianapolis, IN.]

Most unfortunately, the end result is largely a failure as the names are barely visible from the main road (even when the sunlight is shining at the right angle), and probably never read by the drivers of the cars as they rush by at high speed. The greatest failing of their attempt is that Goodrich had a teleology in mind, as he believed all these authors and great books were leading up to the writing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but this end point and purpose is mysteriously hidden from view around a corner of the building. It is not visible from the street and is so well hidden and obscured that it is barely visible through a window from one side room which is not used very often.

The Contested Nature of the Great Books

[Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books (1704)]

If the gender or ethnicity of the authors, or the feature of a work which defines its “greatness” (the ideas it contains, or its form and style) is a matter of disagreement, I would add my own criticism. This is the idea that “great books” seem to emerge as a whole out of the surrounding intellectual sea in which they were given birth. My view is that what we have now come to regard as “great books” were not deemed such at the time of their appearance, that they came out of or produced hotly contested debates among many authors and groups, in other words they were “contested” at the time and continued to be be “contested” in the present as the debates about the gender and ethnicity of the authors and the general “wokeness” of their content clearly demonstrate.

I think the editors of the original collection were aware of this problem and attempted to deal with it as best they could. As they stated in the first volume on abc concerning what they termed “subordinate types of questions” (Preface to volume 1 of Syntopicon, pp. xxii-xxiii)

The question, *What books other than those published in this set contain important discussions of this ideas?* is answered, to some extent, by the Additional Readings listed in the chapter on each of the great ideas.

The question, *What is the history of the ideas, its various meanings, and the problems or controversies it has raised?* is answered, at least initially, by the Introduction to the chapter on each of the great ideas. Here as before, if the reader’s interest is aroused to further inquiry, the topics, the references under them, the passages in the great books referred to, and the books listed in the Additional Readings, provide the means for a fuller exploration of the idea, in varying degrees of thoroughness and ramification.

In the example I have provided, the Introductory essay on the idea of “Liberty”, one can see for oneself how well they have succeeded in doing this. I fear that sometimes the project becomes so bogged down in details and cross-references that this noble goal disappears from view.

Thus, in the spirit of Goodrich, I have drawn up my own list of “the great books”, a kind of competing “great books” list, in order to make the contested nature of their appearance and content more clearly visible to the contemporary reader. My list at present contains some 17 “pairings” of texts and I plan to expand this in due course. This approach I realize is easier to do with books which deal with questions about the liberty of the individual, the extent of the power of the state, the nature of property rights, and the free market, but I suspect a creative person interested in literature or art could do something similar with the “texts” they are most familiar with. There might be the conflict between “traditionalists” and “innovators” for example. I would love to teach in a broad “Great Books” course where experts in different disciplines could adopt a similar methodology. Furthermore, this approach is very much in the tradition of the original Adlerian approach which was to invoke the study of the Great Books as a continuation of “the great conversation” which has been going on in the west for centuries. By having our own “conversations” in the present about hotly contested “topics” we can continue this excellent approach to teaching and learning.

My list of “provocative pairings” of texts is now on the front page of my website) and contains the introduction which I include below. Wherever possible I include a copy of the text in its original language as I think it important to be able to read some of the texts in the language in which it was actually written, rather than just rely on translations. And since I am now living back in Australia, I have made an attenmpt to include wherever possible a domestic equivalent to show the universal nature of these debates and conversations.


There are different schools of thought about what makes “the western tradition” “western”. One common perspective (advocated here) is to argue that it was in “the west” where ideas about the individual (including individual “natural rights”), limits to the political power of the ruler, the rule of law, freedom of speech and religion, and free markets (in fact the whole discipline of “economics”), were preconditions for the emergence of the industrial revolution (and the massive increase in wealth this made possible) and the institutions and practices of “liberal democracy” such as constitutional government.

However, the emergence of these ideas, institutions, and practices was not inevitable and was in fact hotly contested within “the west” itself, both ideologically (in print) and politically (i.e. by the use of violence). Ideologically, it seems extraordinary to me that “the” western tradition could produce two such contrasting thinkers such as Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer, for example. Thus I think that the best way to understand how the ideas and institutions now associated with “the west” emerged, is to see it as the result of a “dialogue” or “conversation” (and sometimes an outright “battle of the books” as Jonathan Swift described it) between opposing positions.

Politically, many of the iconic texts of “the western tradition” were burned and/or banned and their authors censored, imprisoned, tortured, and even executed by the Catholic Church and various governments. In other words, they were “indexed”. Thus, the struggle was not just an ideological one but also sometimes a violent political one since traditional ruling elites did not relinquish their power and privileges without episodes of violence, such as the Reformation and the Wars of Religion, the English Civil Wars and Revolution, and the revolutions that followed in North America, France, and across Europe in 1848. So it seems to me that the ideological disputes we can read in the texts need to be placed against the backdrop of political events, with the texts being seen as sometimes precursors to political change or reactions to previous political change.

My “Provocative Pairings” of some of the Texts

I suggest that an interesting way to read the “great books” of the western tradition is by pairing each one with a contemporary (or near contemporary) text which takes a different view. This approach works especially well with books on political, economic and social theory. See my paper on “The Conflicted Western Tradition: Some Provocative Pairings of Texts about Liberty and Power” for the Association of Core Texts and Courses annual conference, April 2019, Santa Fe, NM., where I explore this approach in more detail.

Below is a list of some “great” (i.e. influential) books in the western tradition about political power which oppose the idea of individual liberty, free markets, and limited government and which I have paired with a contemporary “pro-liberty” text. Wherever possible I also link to the original language version of the texts as translations can be of variable quality (see the specific book page for details); and in a couple of instances I also include an Australian counterpart if it is available.

See the list here.

I am planning to write a more detailed Study Guide for my list of Provocative Pairings and put it online in due course.

  1. The Great Ideas. A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World. M. J. Adler, Editor in Chief. William Gorman, General Editor (Encyclopaedia Britannica: Chicago, [1952). []
  2. Mortimer Adler, The Idea of Freedom : a Dialectical Examination of the Conceptions of Freedom (Garden City, New York : Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1958); Six Great Ideas: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty – Ideas we Judge By. Liberty, Equality, and Justice – Ideas we Act On (New York: Collier Macmillan, 1984).; and We hold these truths : Understanding the Ideas and Ideals of the Constitution (New York : Macmillan, 1987). []

Rewriting and Resinging Australia Day

Further research into the origins and meaning of the national anthem, “Advance Australia Fair” (henceforth AAF), is revealing some interesting facts.

The Author: Peter Dodds McCormick (c. 1834-1916)

The author Peter Dodds McCormick (c. 1834-1916) (his nom de plume was “Amicus” – so shouldn’t this be “nom de tune”?) was a Scottish immigrant who came to Australia in 1855 and worked as a joiner / carpenter, then in a number of high schools in Sydney ( St. Mary’s National School and Plunkett St. Public School), and was active in the Presbyterian church and choirs (as music director of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of NSW), hence his interest in writing patriotic songs for the colony of NSW and then later the Commonwealth of Australia. He may have written around 30 patriotic and Scottish songs during his life.

Jim Fletcher in the NDB describes McCormick as “ultra-Scottish and ultra-patriotic” who liked to organise massed choirs such as “the 10,000 children and 1000 teachers at the 1880 Robert Raikes Sunday school centenary demonstration, and 15,000 schoolchildren at the laying of the foundation stone of Queen Victoria’s statue.” 1

Graeme Skinner tells us that AAF was “first sung at the St Andrew’s Day concert of the Sydney Highland Society on 30 November 1878.” McCormick later made some revisions to the words and this revised version was sung by a choir of 10,000 at the inauguration of the Commonwealth which was held in Centennial Park, in Sydney. The tune was also played by “massed bands” at the naming of the Federal capital celebrations in Canberra (Fletcher).2

A statue of McCormick in the grounds of The Scots Church in Margaret Street, Sydney [from the “Urban Ambler”].

The Difficult Birth of a National Anthem

AAF only became Australia’s official national anthem after a tortuous political process. A new anthem was sought by Gough Whitlam’s Labour Party government in 1972 as part of its “It’s Time” campaign to remake Australia along more progressive lines. The Australia Council for the Arts took submissions (receiving about 1400) and recommended a short list of three to go to a referendum – Banjo Paterson’s folk song “Waltzing Matilda” (1895), the South Australian poet Caroline Carleton’s “Song for Australia” (1859), and McCormick’s “Advance Australia Fair” (1878). A referendum was held in 1974 and AAF won with 51.4% of the vote.

The next government led by Malcolm Fraser of the Liberal Party was staunchly monarchist and so ditched the results of the referendum and returned to “God Save the Queen” in 1976. However, opposition to this old anthem persisted and another poll was held in 1977, this time including the monarchist anthem as one of the choices, with a repetition of the result from the earlier poll. The figures were:3

1977 poll (6,767,000):

Advance Australia Fair – 2 940 854 (43%)
Waltzing Matilda – 1 918 206 (28%)
God Save the Queen – 1 257 341 (18%)
Song of Australia – 652 858 (10%)

After Preferences (6,768,000):

Advance Australia Fair – 4 415 642 (65%)
Waltzing Matilda – 2 353 617 (35%)

After a considerable delay the Governor General of Australia, Sir Ninian Steven, officially proclaimed “Advance Australia Fair” as the national anthem on 19 April 1984.

Rewriting the Contested Lyrics

The cultural values of the Anglo-Scottish community in Australia in the late 19thC are clearly visible in the two songs I have come across, AAF and “Awake Australia” (see my earlier post on this, and have been pointed out by critics many times. These include:

  • the assumption that Australia was open and unoccupied territory which was there for the taking (the “Crown” permitting of course, since it owned it all as a resulting Cook’s claiming in 1770). So much for the Lockean principle of ownership stemming from the first comer “mixing one’s labour” with the land and making it “theirs”
  • that the land was the preserve of the immigrants from England, Scotland (like McCormick), and Ireland, and no others (as no one else is mentioned)
  • the pro-British Empire sentiments, such as boasting that “Britannia rules the waves” and the glorification of martial values – the new Aussies would “rouse to arms like sires of yore” and that Britain’s “sons” still kept a “British soul” and would defend their “native strand” (i.e. their sandy beaches) from any foreign foes (Russian, French, Chinese?)
  • the meaning of the word “fair” in the refrain. Did it mean “fair” as in “reasonable” or “fair” as in fair-skinned? It is open to interpretation.

The words to AAF have been changed many times over the decades in order to suit the changing needs of its listeners (and presumably the singers as well) to the point where it has become very politicized.

Firstly, by McCormick himself on the eve of Federation in 1901. For example he mentions the “Commonwealth”.

Then by the selection committee when the Labor government was looking for a replacement for “God Save the Queen”. When the song was proclaimed as the “national” anthem the following changes had been made to McCormick’s verse:

  • “Australia’s sons, let us rejoice” was changed to “Australians all, let us rejoice”
  • “To make our youthful Commonwealth” was changed to “To make this Commonwealth of ours”
  • “For loyal sons beyond the seas” was changed to “For those who’ve come across the sea”

The original five verses were also cut down to only two (only the 1st and 3rd verses were kept). Those verses cut were no. 2 which was very pro-conquest and Empire; no. 4 which explicitly mentioned only Brits, Scots, and Irish as settlers; and no. 5 which was bellicose and male-oriented. The complete song is as follows with the kept verses 1 and 3 in bold:

Australians all let us rejoice,
For we are young and free;
We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil,
Our home is girt by sea;
Our land abounds in Nature’s gifts
Of beauty rich and rare;
In history’s page, let every stage
Advance Australia fair!
In joyful strains then let us sing,
“Advance Australia fair!”

When gallant Cook from Albion sail’d,
To trace wide oceans o’er,
True British courage bore him on,
Till he landed on our shore.
Then here he raised Old England’s flag,
The standard of the brave;
With all her faults we love her still,
“Brittannia rules the wave!”
In joyful strains then let us sing
“Advance Australia fair!”

Beneath our radiant Southern Cross,
We’ll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands;
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To advance Australia fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing
“Advance Australia fair!”

While other nations of the globe
Behold us from afar,
We’ll rise to high renown and shine
Like our glorious southern star;
From England, Scotia, Erin’s Isle,
Who come our lot to share,
Let all combine with heart and hand
To advance Australia fair!
In joyful strains then let us sing
“Advance Australia fair!”

Shou’d foreign foe e’er sight our coast,
Or dare a foot to land,
We’ll rouse to arms like sires of yore
To guard our native strand;
Brittannia then shall surely know,
Beyond wide ocean’s roll,
Her sons in fair Australia’s land
Still keep a British soul.
In joyful strains the let us sing
“Advance Australia fair”

The most recent change was made by the current Prime Minister, Scott Morrisson, who surreptitiously one weekend in late Dec. 2020, when everybody was on holidays or preoccupied by Christmas and New Year, changed the phrase “for we are young and free” to “for we are one and free.” This is problematical for several reasons. One is that Australia is definitely not “one” on the issue as the controversy about the words of the anthem and the date of our “national day” is hotly disputed. Second, aboriginal groups rightly state that their culture is not “young” as they are descendants of one of the oldest cultures on the planet. Only the Constitution of the nation state of Australia is “young”, at least in comparison. Thirdly, as a libertarian I do not regard Australia as “free” given its large welfare state, high rates taxation, massive bureaucratic regulation of our lives, and a history of high tariffs and government subsidies to privileged industries. In response to this, I have written my own version of the first verse of AAF which is included below,

Morrison’s act also raises the following question in my mind: Is the power to unilaterally change the words of the “national” anthem one of the enumerated powers of the PM under the Constitution? I think not.

Others have rewritten the anthem in an attempt to remove some of its more objectionable aspects. Jens Korff at “Creative Spirits” discusses and quotes a number of alternative versions of the anthem.4

Judith Durham (once a member of Australian pop group “The Seekers”) with the help of Kutcha Edwards has written a very good substitute which I include here.

Australia, celebrate as one, with peace and harmony.
Our precious water, soil and sun, grant life for you and me.
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts to love, respect and share,
And honouring the Dreaming, advance Australia fair.
With joyful hearts then let us sing, advance Australia fair.

Australia, let us stand as one, upon this sacred land.
A new day dawns, we’re moving on to trust and understand.
Combine our ancient history and cultures everywhere,
To bond together for all time, advance Australia fair.
With joyful hearts then let us sing, advance Australia fair.

Australia, let us strive as one, to work with willing hands.
Our Southern Cross will guide us on, as friends with other lands.
While we embrace tomorrow’s world with courage, truth and care,
And all our actions prove the words, advance Australia fair,
With joyful hearts then let us sing, advance Australia fair.

And when this special land of ours is in our children’s care,
From shore to shore forever more, advance Australia fair.
With joyful hearts then let us sing, advance … Australia … fair.

Peter Vickery, a former Victorian Supreme Court judge and founder of “Recognition in Anthem”, has written in 2019 two new verses which he has entitled “Our People” and “Our Values”. Our People goes as follows:

For sixty thousand years and more
First peoples of this land
Sustained by Country, Dreaming told
By song and artist’s hand.
Unite our cultures from afar
In peace with those first here
To walk together on this soil
Respect for all grows there.
From everywhere on Earth we sing, Advance Australia Fair.

I have even come across a parody, “Advancing Australian Fires”, written by “Mick” at the height of the bushfires in the summer of 2019/20:5

Australians why do we rejoice
While we are all on fire?
Our leader is incompetent,
Let’s throw him on the pyre.

For monied hands across the seas
We’ve pillaged land and sky.
Now we will reap what we have sown –
We’ll watch the nation fry.

With no remorse let’s go all in,
Come strip Australia bare.

There have been two attempts to “Christianise” the song as the following examples show; The first was written by Dr Robin Lorimer Sharwood, fourth Warden of Trinity College in The University of Melbourne, and is apparently used within St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne:6

O God, who made this ancient land,
And set it round with sea,
Sustain us all who dwell herein,
One people strong and free.
Grant we may guard its generous gifts,
Its beauty rich and rare.
In your great name, may we proclaim,
`Advance, Australia fair!’
With thankful hearts then let us sing,
`Advance Australia, fair!’

Your star-bright Cross aslant our skies
Gives promise sure and true
That we may know this land of ours
A nation blessed by You.
May all who come within its bounds
Its peace and plenty share,
And grant that we may prayerfully
Advance Australia fair.
With thankful hearts then let us sing,
`Advance, Australia fair!’

There is another Christian verse of unknown origin:

With Christ our head and cornerstone,
We’ll build our nation’s might;
Whose way and truth and light alone
Can guide our path aright;
Our lives a sacrifice of love,
Reflect our Master’s care
With faces turned to heaven above
Advance Australia Fair!
In joyful strains then let us sing,
Advance Australia Fair!

In imitation of the New Zealanders who have an English and a Maori version of their anthem “God Defend New Zealand” (1876), someone in the Australian rugby fraternity wrote a verse in the Eora language which was sung at the Australia vs Argentina Tri Nations match last year. The words are as follows:7

Australiagal ya’nga yabun
Eora budgeri
Yarragal Bamal Yarrabuni
Ngurra garrigarrang
Nura mari guwing bayabuba
Guwugu yago ngabay burrabagur
Yirribana Australiagal
Garraburra ngayiri yabun
Yirribana Australiagal

In order to get the meter right for the purpose of singing it to the tune of “Advance Australia Fair” the Eora words are very terse and the translation provided by the unnamed author is not very coherent or understandable to English ears.

Australian(s) do sing
People Good
Yellow Earth (ground) do not fatigue yourself
Country many (a very large number) sunrise
The sun setting red
Presently today future event tomorrow
This way Australian(s)
To dance bring sing
This way Australian(s)

It certainly leaves out the controversial parts of the English language version which in my view makes it a rewrite of the anthem not a true translation. Since the Eora language has not had any native speakers for a very long time it has had to be reconstructed by linguists from notebooks made by some of the observations made by science officers in the First Fleet (e.g. David Collins and Lt. William Dawes) .8

A further problem which comes to mind is the selection of only one aboriginal language for the translation. One could argue that Eora was the language of the clans which lived in the Sydney region at the time of the arrival of the First Fleet (estimated to be about 30 in number), but this became a “dead” language when the population was either wiped out by disease or “assimilated” into the broader community by the late 19thC. Why wasn’t a “living” aboriginal language chosen, one with perhaps the most native speakers alive today?

Map of Aboriginal languages in the Sydney area.

Since there are now so many different version to choose from, I thought I would add my own “libertarian” version of the national anthem to the mix.

Australians let’s all feel remorse
For we were strong and free;
Our golden soil and wealth from toil
Is taxed by tyranny.
Our land abounds with harmful laws
So we must take a vow;
For history’s sake, our children’s fate,
Let’s free Australia now!
With angry voice then let us shout,
Let’s free Australia now!

  1. Jim Fletcher, “McCormick, Peter Dodds (1834–1916)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 30 January 2021. []
  2. Graeme Skinner, “McCormick, PeterThe Dictionary of Sydney (2008). []
  3. Source: The Australian National Flag Association – “National Symbols – National Anthem”. []
  4. Source: Jens Korff, “National anthem: Advanced, Aboriginal & Fair?” (1 Jan. 2021). []
  5. Source: “Am I Right” website Advancing Australian Fires, Parody Song Lyrics of Peter Dodds McCormick, “Advance Australia Fair”. []
  6. Source: David C. Leslie’s article. []
  7. Source: NSW Government website, “Australia Day in NSW”. []
  8. See the work by Jakelin Troy, The Sydney Language (Canberra 1993). []

Lord Acton and The Prince (1891)

“Lord Acton” (John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton) (1834-1902) believed that historians should make moral judgements about the actions of the people they studied, in particular political and religious leaders. His best known statement of this view can be found in a series of letters he wrote to Bishop Creighton in 1887. They contain some of his most colorful language on the subject, such as his famous phrase, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, as well as that historians should act like a “hanging judge” when it came time to judging the behaviour of such leaders.

The context of the letters was the question of how religious historians (Acton was a devout Catholic) should handle the corrupt and even criminal behaviour of many Popes, and the appalling treatment of dissidents and heretics during the Inquisition, such as censorship, banishment, imprisonment, torture, and brutal executions. This historical problem led Acton to talk about the universal nature of moral principles, their applicability to both rulers and those they ruled, the requirement for historians to use such principles in the assessment of historical figures, the tendency of these powerful historical figures to be “bad men”, and that it was the function of historians to “hang them”. In the third letter to Creighton, Acton quotes with some approval a conversation he had with John Bright, one of the leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League, who stated to him that “If the people knew what sort of men statesmen were, they would rise and hang the whole lot of them.” Whether Bright and Acton meant this literally or metaphorically is not clear.

Here is an extended quotation from one of these letters to Creighton:

Here, again, what I said is not in any way mysterious or esoteric. It appeals to no hidden code. It aims at no secret moral. It supposes nothing and implies nothing but what is universally current and familiar. It is the common, even the vulgar, code I appeal to.

Upon these two points we differ widely; still more widely with regard to the principle by which you undertake to judge men. You say that people in authority are not [to] be snubbed or sneezed at from our pinnacle of conscious rectitude. I really don’t know whether you exempt them because of their rank, or of their success and power, or of their date. The chronological plea may have some little value in a limited sphere of instances. It does not allow of our saying that such a man did not know right from wrong, unless we are able to say that he lived before Columbus, before Copernicus, and could not know right from wrong. It can scarcely apply to the centre of Christendom, 1500 after the birth of our Lord. That would imply that Christianity is a mere system of metaphysics, which borrowed some ethics from elsewhere. It is rather a system of ethics which borrowed its metaphysics elsewhere. Progress in ethics means a constant turning of white into black and burning what one has adored. There is little of that between St. John and the Victorian era.

But if we might discuss this point until we found that we nearly agreed, and if we do argue thoroughly about the impropriety of Carlylese denunciations, and Pharisaism in history, **I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position, like Ravaillac; but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greater names coupled with the greater crimes. You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them, higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science.**

The standard having been lowered in consideration of date, is to be still further lowered out of deference to station. Whilst the heroes of history become examples of morality, the historians who praise them, Froude, Macaulay, Carlyle, become teachers of morality and honest men. Quite frankly, I think there is no greater error. The inflexible integrity of the moral code is, to me, the secret of the authority, the dignity, the utility of history. If we may debase the currency for the sake of genius, or success, or rank, or reputation, we may debase it for the sake of a man’s influence, of his religion, of his party, of the good cause which prospers by his credit and suffers by his disgrace. Then history ceases to be a science, an arbiter of controversy, a guide of the wanderer, the upholder of that moral standard which the powers of earth, and religion itself, tend constantly to depress. It serves where it ought to reign; and it serves the worst better than the purest.

Four years later, Acton would return to this topic in a lengthy introduction to a new edition of Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513) edited by Arthur Burd in 1891. I have put this Introduction online here. To make this essay easier to read I have put all his quotes in italics (he quotes works in Latin, French, German, Spanish, and Italian – as well as English), and have put in bold some of his comments and thoughts.

Whether one thinks Machiavelli wrote this notorious book in order to ingratiate himself with a ruthless Prince of his own day (the “ambitious” Machiavelli), or to warn, in a guarded fashion, readers of the true behavior of the ruthless leaders he observed around him (the “realist” or “republican Machiavelli), or as satire (the “comic” Machiavelli), Lord Acton respected Machiavelli’s “political sagacity”. He also thought that the practices he described had deep roots in European history which needed to be openly admitted and discussed by critical historians, and which were increasingly being adopted by politicians and leaders in his own day, especially in the nationalist movements in places like Italy and Germany.

Hidden among the thicket of untranslated quotations are many important observations about the nature of politics and the behavior of those who wield political power. Here are a selection:

  • “that extraordinary objects cannot be accomplished under ordinary rules” – by this Acton/Machiavelli meant that many political feats, such as state building, empire and “nation” building, could not be achieved if politicians and “statesmen” were limited in their actions by normal moral precepts
  • he chronicles a lengthy list of the kinds of actions politicians and religious leaders had taken to advance their interests, such as “murder by royal command”, and the violent suppression of “the rebel, the usurper, the heterodox or rebellious town”
  • that these crimes had been improperly justified by historians and political theorists by a kind of moral relativism based on the ideas that “that public life is not an affair of morality, that there is no available rule of right and wrong, that men must be judged by their age, that the code shifts with the longitude, that the wisdom which governs the event is superior to our own”
  • that it was wrong for these same theorists (such as nationalist historians or those who wrote hagiographic histories of kings and queens) to indulge in “the solecism of power” (the error of those who wield power) to only think about the glorious outcome (of say national unification) and to ignore the means taken to achieve that goal (war, revolution, oppression)
  • Acton concluded that in order for these “extraordinary objects” to be achieved there had to be what he called “the emancipation of the State from the moral yoke” which was applicable to ordinary people
  • the end result was what he termed “a Machiavellian restoration” which he saw taking place in late 19th century Europe, where there was “no righteousness apart from the State”, and where over the course of “our own” century we have “seen the course of its history twenty-five times diverted by actual or attempted crime”

Since Acton died soon after the start of the 20th century (as did other “old liberals” like Herbert Spencer and Gustave de Molinari) he did not live to see any of the atrocities states would inflict on the world in the bloody 20th century.