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). []

Turning Rosé into Chardonnay via a Middleman

Youtube clip

I recently had to go into hospital for bladder surgery and had to stay an extra night as I had bleeding and blood clots. I was hooked up to a diabolical hydraulic machine which pumped 66 liters of saline in and out of my bladder for a day and a half to “irrigate” it. Though I would have to say it was more “irritation” than ”irrigation”. I was woken up every hour or so throughout the night when the nurse hung up new bags of saline.

It made me think of the powerful scene in Mike Nichols’ film of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22 (1961) where two nurses attend a poor bloke in a military hospital who is encased in a full body cast and casually swap the bag of saline and the urine bag instead of giving him a fresh one. All without so much as breaking their inane conversations about something or other. The thought of this happening to me gave me nightmares. So I returned to Heller’s novel to refresh my memory.

The copy I had in the 1970s broke its spine, was surgically repaired, but eventually got lost in one of my moves over the years. I got a new one (the 50th anniversary edition). I remember reading the novel when I was in high school and sneaked in to see the film when it was released. It was 1971 or thereabouts and I was 14 and the film was rated “adults only” by the censors (which are quite strict in Australia). It had a deep impact on me.

The saline swapping scene comes from chapter 17 “The Soldier in White”. Here Heller considers the different ways of dying in a hospital compared to the many terrible ways one can die in battle (in his case in the air in a bomber). See for example this passage:

Being in the hospital was better than being over Bologna or flying over Avignon with Huple and Dobbs at the controls and Snowden dying in back.
There were usually not nearly as many sick people inside the hospital as Yossarian saw outside the hospital, and there were generally fewer people inside the hospital who were seriously sick. There was a much lower death rate inside the hospital than outside the hospital, and a much healthier death rate. Few people died unnecessarily. People knew a lot more about dying inside the hospital and made a much neater, more orderly job of it. They couldn’t dominate Death inside the hospital, but they certainly made her behave. They had taught her manners. They couldn’t keep Death out, but while she was in she had to act like a lady. People gave up the ghost with delicacy and taste inside the hospital. There was none of that crude, ugly ostentation about dying that was so common outside the hospital. They did not blow up in mid-air like Kraft or the dead man in Yossarian’s tent, or freeze to death in the blazing summertime the way Snowden had frozen to death after spilling his secret to Yossarian in the back of the plane. …
They didn’t take it on the lam weirdly inside a cloud the way Clevinger had done. They didn’t explode into blood and clotted matter. They didn’t drown or get struck by lightning, mangled by machinery or crushed in landslides. They didn’t get shot to death in hold-ups, strangled to death in rapes, stabbed to death in saloons, bludgeoned to death with axes by parents or children, or die summarily by some other act of God. Nobody choked to death. People bled to death like gentlemen in an operating room or expired without comment in an oxygen tent. There was none of that tricky now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t business so much in vogue outside the hospital, none of that now-I-am-and-now-I-ain’t. There were no famines or floods. Children didn’t suffocate in cradles or iceboxes or fall under trucks. No one was beaten to death. People didn’t stick their heads into ovens with the gas on, jump in front of subway trains or come plummeting like dead weights out of hotel windows with a whoosh!, accelerating at the rate of thirty-two feet per second to land with a hideous plop! on the sidewalk and die disgustingly there in public like an alpaca sack full of hairy strawberry ice cream, bleeding, pink toes awry.

Yossarian was trying to avoid doing more dangerous and deadly flying missions so he took refuge in the hospital. He was thus able to observe the treatment the “soldier in white” was getting, such as the “polishing” of his bandages and the swapping over of his saline and urine bags:

The soldier in white was more like a stuffed and sterilized mummy than a real nice guy. Nurse Duckett and Nurse Cramer kept him spick-and-span. They brushed his bandages often with a whiskbroom and scrubbed the plaster casts on his arms, legs, shoulders, chest and pelvis with soapy water. Working with a round tin of metal polish, they waxed a dim gloss on the dull zinc pipe rising from the cement on his groin. With damp dish towels they wiped the dust several times a day from the slim black rubber tubes leading in and out of him to the two large stoppered jars, one of them, hanging on a post beside his bed, dripping fluid into his arm constantly through a slit in the bandages while the other, almost out of sight on the floor, drained the fluid away through the zinc pipe rising from his groin. Both young nurses polished the glass jars unceasingly. They were proud of their housework.

And further:

Nurse Duckett showed up then and chased them all back to their own beds while Nurse Cramer changed the stoppered jars for the soldier in white. Changing the jars for the soldier in white was no trouble at all, since the same clear fluid was dripped back inside him over and over again with no apparent loss. When the jar feeding the inside of his elbow was just about empty, the jar on the floor was just about full, and the two were simply uncoupled from their respective hoses and reversed quickly so that the liquid could be dripped right back into him. Changing the jars was no trouble to anyone but the men who watched them changed every hour or so and were baffled by the procedure.
“Why can’t they hook the two jars up to each other and eliminate the middleman?” the artillery captain with whom Yossarian had stopped playing chess inquired. “What the hell do they need him for?”
“I wonder what he did to deserve it,” the warrant officer with malaria and a mosquito bite on his ass lamented after Nurse Cramer had read her thermometer and discovered that the soldier in white was dead.
“He went to war,” the fighter pilot with the golden mustache surmised.

It was interesting to see how my nurses referred to these bags of saline and urine. They would hold up the urine bag against the light and earnestly discuss its colour using simile’s taken from oenology, such as “rosé”. I would imagine that “claret” was not a good sign (probably indicating the end was nigh), “rosé” was the word they used at first and this kind of wine was a cause for concern. Success would be declared when the “rosé” was miraculously transmogrified into “chardonnay” in a kind of reverse biblical miracle of turning wine into “water.” All of this of course was taking place in a strict prohibitionist environment where wine of any variety was kept away from my thirsting lips, so talking about it seemed a bit cruel.

Mike Nichols’ film of Catch-22 was a war film I showed my students many times when I was teaching a course called “Responses to War: An Intellectual and Cultural History” at the University of Adelaide. You can see the film guide I wrote for it here. There was also a major theme in the course on how those who experienced or witnessed military hospitals dealt with it in their creative work such as art (Jacques Callot), novels (Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1928), Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got his Gun (1938, the movie based on the novel appeared in 1971 the year after Nichol’s film on Catch-22), and Heller of course), or eye witness accounts (Florence Nightingale of the Crimean War and Henri Dunant of the Battle of Solferino).

A most depressing view of an army “hospital” was given by the 17th century French engraver Jacques Callot (1592-1635) in his series on “The Miseries of War” about the Thirty Years War. This one is called “The Hospital”

which shows the courtyard of a so-called “hospital”. Those maimed and crippled by war make their way to the entrance lower left where they are met by a priest/doctor. In the Centre is a well next to which is a tub for washing. Cripples are doused with water. To the Right a line of maimed receiving food from a large pot.

See Jacques Callot (1592-1635) and the Miseries of the Thirty Years War which is part of a series on War and Art.

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). []

The Work of Sisyphus: the Urgent Need for Intellectual Change

A shorter version of this essay appeared on the American Institute for Economic Research website.

Titian, “Sisyphus” (1548-49).


There are several deep intellectual and cultural issues which underly the bad policies being introduced by governments all around the world in response to the present crisis. This is only the most recent crisis in a string of crises which have emerged over the past 20 years which have produced similar results. The policies developed and chosen by governments and accepted by the mass of voters are based upon these long-standing, pre-existing ideas and beliefs. It is my view that, if we want to change these policies or perhaps even to prevent similar ones from being put into practice in the future, we need to address these deeper issues. They are the foundation, if you like, upon which the policies are built. So long as people continue to hold these beliefs they will continue to advocate and support policies which are destructive of individual liberty, economic prosperity, and voluntary social interaction.

I believe these deeper issues can be broken down into four groups:

  1. the mathematics and statistics of risk
  2. the moral foundations of a free society
  3. the basic concepts of economic theory
  4. the history of government behavior and the operation of markets

(1.) The mathematics and statistics of risk

What the events of Sept. 11, 2001 and the current coronavirus panic have in common is a misunderstanding of the basic mathematics of risk analysis. People in 2001 had no idea that the risk of dying from a terrorist attack was so minimal it was statistically insignificant (compared to dying in a car accident or falling off a ladder at home). There is a great deal of information (usually collected by government bureaucracies like the Center for Disease Control) available to the public for them to inform themselves about the risks they face in going about their normal lives. If they were unable or unwilling to this themselves it should have the responsibility of the press and the schools to provide them with this information so they could make an informed choice. These risks include natural risks (deaths caused by tornadoes and floods, flu viruses), social risks (like accidents at work, or in the home, homicide rates, car accidents), and avoidable personal risks (such as those resulting from “lifestyle choices” like diet, exercise, and drug consumption). Yet in the wake of September 11, 2001 in spite of the fact that the risk an individual person might face of death by a terrorist act was far, far less than other risks they accepted as a normal fact of living in a society, voters allowed a whole new massive government bureaucracy to be built at huge cost (the TSA); the passage of the PATRIOT Act; and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Similarly with the coronavirus panic. People have little appreciation of how many people die in any given year (such as from heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, opioids and other drugs) especially deaths in a typical flu season. The latter is especially relevant in the present circumstances as such knowledge would have provided a rough benchmark for making a reasonable judgement about how serious the problem is and what to do about it. The most recent bad flu season was 2017-18 when the CDC estimated that 810,000 (between 620,000 – 1.4 million) Americans were hospitalized and 61,000 (between 46,000-95,000) died. Data from CDC]. As I write (April 24, 2020), the current “tally” of cases and deaths from the CV in the United States stands at 878,974 cases and 49,754 cases, figures which need to be taken with a grain of salt given the lack of consistency across the country of diagnosing and recording this information. During the 2017-18 flu season the mainstream media did not give a running total every day of “cases” and deaths, like it was some kind of medical olympics medal tally, as it does today. A reasonable person who understood something about comparative risk and the history of recent epidemics would have judged the current epidemic in the light this knowledge provided and would have concluded that the risks we faced were ones which our society has come to accept as normal (or at least within the bounds of being tolerable) and which does not require the complete lockdown of people in their homes and the trashing of large sectors of the economy.

(2.) The moral foundations of a free society

In a crisis people revert to their default moral position, which in the modern world is the cry for “the government to do something.” This, as libertarians know (and perhaps only libertarians know), is a call for the government to use its coercive powers to force people to do certain things (or not do certain things), to tax, to spend, to “stimulate” (in other words to “distort”) the economy, and so on. If people had a different default moral position – that the use of coercion is wrong, that individual rights to life, liberty, and property are “sacred” – then they would not tolerate the government violating these things.

It used to be the case in 19th century America and England that the default moral position was to look after yourself and your own family and not to be a burden on others, to treat other peoples’ property with respect, to leave other people alone even if they were doing something you did not morally approve of, and not to call upon the government to solve every problem but to work things out for yourself or with the cooperation of your immediate neighbors. There were exceptions to this of course, most notably with the temperance movement to ban the sale and consumption of alcohol. Unfortunately today, the default moral position seems to be the exact opposite: to ask (perhaps even to beg) the government to solve all the problems one faces (in other words “to do something”), for the government to coerce people into behaving (or not behaving) in particular ways as determined by the experts they have consulted, to use taxpayers money to care for the people government policies have put out of work, and for the government to provide a constant stream of reassuring words to a frightened population about how they will solve the problem. This to me reeks of the “infantilization of the public” by a paternalistic and technocratic state and not the way a free and responsible population and society should function.

It seems the case that many (perhaps now most) people are either ignorant of the principles upon which a free society should be built, especially the historical case provided by the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights; or they have rejected them as no longer desirable or practical / useful. These are the principles based upon natural law and natural rights that set out the individual’s rights to life, liberty, and property, and the political arrangements which flow from these beliefs. These are governments with very limited power and with very minimal taxation powers; where there is a separation of power between the different branches of government to ensure that no one branch can become too powerful; with constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech, association, trade, private behavior; and which pursues a policy of peace and non-intervention with other countries.

Whether people do not hold these moral beliefs because they once knew about them but have “forgotten,” or never knew them because of gaps in their (public) education, or because they have come to reject them as wrong or harmful, the task we face is to provide them with the theoretical and historical arguments to show why they should reconsider their position. If it is a matter of them having forgotten or never having been taught these principles or about the institutions which embody them, then the task is relatively straight forward, though not easy. If it is a matter of them having rejected these ideas because they find various flavors of “progressivism”, socialism, or “crisis” utilitarianism preferable then our task is much, much harder and will take much longer to achieve.

The United States has a built in advantage compared to most other states in that its late 18th century Constitution and Bill of Rights is very libertarian in spirit and much revered in public rhetoric and in civic rituals, so in theory if not always in practice. Therefore, libertarians and other pro-liberty groups can work within the existing constitution by interpreting it as much as possible according to what I would call its “libertarian originalism”, and within the existing educational institutions by emphasizing its true “libertarian radicalism.” This is not the case unfortunately in other countries whose constitutions were developed in the 20th century when “progressive” or social democratic ideas were the dominant ones. In those countries the strategy for limiting government power and defending individual liberty will have to be tailored accordingly. In the case of my own country, Australia, the constitution which emerged in the 1890s and which came into effect in 1901 was renowned for its “progressive” nature and the stage was set for the rise of state interventionism throughout the 20th century based upon nineteenth century colonial practice and on early court rulings institutionalizing the price setting of wages by the state (compulsory wage arbitration), strict immigration restrictions (the so-called “White Australia” policy), state ownership of the major means of communication (the railways), and protectionism. This makes the task of creating a truly free society (both in terms of the ideology which sustains it and the instituions which makes this possible) quite different and more difficult than it does in the United States.

Within the academy, the debate seems to have been won by the progressives and the utilitarians (and perhaps in one sense also by the Marxists). There is now a significant body of work in philosophy on the natural rights tradition of political thought (perhaps going back to the pathbreaking work of Robert Nozick in 1974, Anarchy, State, and Utopia) but this has been counterbalanced by the even more influential work of John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971), and the continued interest in various forms of social democracy and even Marxism. A serious problem is that the universities became stacked with left-leaning scholars as a result tof the rapid expansion of the academy in the 1960s and 1970s. This expansion was a once in a lifetime event for the post-war baby-boomer generation and they seized the opportunity with some gusto. Nothing similar will help the career opportunities for libertarian scholars today who will have to fight for the scholarly scraps which will be left as this baby-boomer generation of scholars retires.

Given this “left” leaning stance of the universities, is there any surprise that students by and large are more concerned about “equality,” “the environment”, and “social justice” than they seem to be about the individual’s natural right to life, liberty, and property? I say “by and large” because we have seen encouraging spurts of activity and interest in these principles in the movement which sprang up around Ron Paul in 2016, and the growth of groups like Students for Liberty. The question we face today is how to inspire more students to take the principles of natural rights seriously and to use them as the grounds upon which to challenge the many injustices which are obviously around them.

I fear that unless the default position of people in a crisis is to respect the rights to life, liberty, and property of others then the prospects for liberty are rather bleak. Today, the default position of people is to defer to the government to “do something”; to accept the government’s right and duty to engage in “crisis utilitarian” calculations of what is in the “best interest” of “the nation” in the first instance and “the greatest number” of the people in the second; to accept the advice of a selected group of “experts” and “technocrats” who can “create the models”, insert the ”correct data”, “do the calculations,” and then tell us what we should do.

The kind of society I would like to live in is one where the default moral position is the “presumption of liberty” not the “presumption of coercion” which is what the call for the government “to do something” entails.

(3.) The basic concepts of economic theory

The events following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the financial crisis of 2008-9, and now the novel coronavirus epidemic of 2019-20 show a similar gaping hole in the understanding of ordinary people about the basic concepts of economics. The calls to end “price gouging,” the ban on supermarkets raising their prices for things like toilet paper thus causing the emptying of shelves, the call for governments to take over the payment of wages for workers, to bailout the banks and airlines, to pay for child care for those laid off, and to make massive injections of new money into the economy to prop up failing businesses, etc.

This reveals that many (perhaps most) ordinary people obviously still have no idea about tradeoffs, opportunity cost, the role of prices in transmitting information, the nature of money as a medium of exchange, the self-interested behavior of politicians and bureaucrats, just to list a few. What is even more disturbing is that many academic economists also have similar gaps in their understanding. Just in the past week in Australia an economist at the University of New South Wales (in Sydney) had the courage to talk about trade offs when trying to decide whose lives could and should be “saved” (and many other decisions taken by governments to “solve” the economic crisis – she even mentioned the invisible or “unseen” costs and consequences of government intervention), only to be denounced in an open letter of over a hundred other concerned academic economists for her callousness in even raising the subject.

At the time of the Global Financial Crisis the Keynesian view of money and banking suddenly reemerged (even among economists supposedly friendly to free markets) after its validity had been questioned and increasingly discredited by a number of economists after the 1970s period of “stagflation”. Something similar is happening today though on an even grander scale which was unimaginable ten years ago. The prevailing view, among academic economists and the general public, seems to be that the government can magically create wealth out of thin air, can fix the economy by putting a bit more money here and taking a bit away from there, can transfer wealth from some to others with little long term consequences, and that losing one’s job or one’s business does not have serious personal and psychological consequences, let alone that it violates their rights when ordered to do so by the state.

The public seems to have accepted the legitimacy of the government calling upon experts, especially technocrats in the fields of medicine and epidemiology, to make very serious decisions of an economic nature. When they do call upon economists to supplement this technical medical advice, governments almost universally only call upon economists for advice whom they are certain will support their interventions into the economy almost without question. One might ask where are the moral philosophers, the constitutional experts, the natural rights political philosophers, and the free market economists and dare I say it, the Austrian economists? Had they done so, they might have heard from the latter about the unintended consequences of their actions, the creation of perverse incentives, the importance of prices signaling to consumers and producers what needs to be produced most urgently, the fragility of complex supply chains, the distortions created in the long and complex structure of production, and the dangers caused by interest rates which are “too low”, and so on.

The subtlety and complexity of concepts like “unintended consequences” might escape technocrats and politicians but economists need to make the arguments clear. For example, these unintended consequences might be “bad”, when people do not go to hospital for regular treatment for their heart condition or cancer treatment because they fear getting infected by the CV in the hospital, resulting in an increased death toll as a result. Or they might be “good”, when fewer people drive to work because of the lockdown and furloughs which will result in lower road deaths, and more people washing their hands, etc., thus reducing expected deaths from the regular flu. We will only know the answer to these questions in a year or so when we have more complete and accurate data on “excess deaths” which will reveal the full scope and consequences of what is unfolding before our eyes.

One could go on at some length (and some free market economists have already done so) about the other indirect, long-term, and hidden (unseen) economic consequences of the actions taken by government to “solve” the CV problem, so I will not do that here. What I will say is that the lack of understanding of what I would regard as basic economic principles, or what the great Paul Heyne called “the economic way of thinking”, is so great and so deep-seated that it shows how much work has to be done to make the average educated peson aware of these principles. One might also add to the scale of the problem the absence in most introductory economic textbooks of any discussion of basic “public choice” concepts such as the self-interested behavior of bureaucrats and politicians which can produce “government failure,” an elementary knowledge of which might weaken voters’ faith in the ability of government to solve any problem let alone a massive one like a viral pandemic and the shutdown of entire economies. I think there are several books to be written about the many “government failures” which we have witnessed over the past year or so.

(4.) The history of government behavior and the operation of markets

We can see from the explosion of interest in and support for “socialism” over the past few years, especially among young people, that the supporters of socialism have no idea about the horrendous loss of life and destruction of wealth caused by attempts throughout the 20th century to impose socialism / Marxism. Or the economic catastrophe which is central planning. The disaster of communism and central planning is only one side of the coin, the side with the dark patina as it were. The other side which is bright and shiny is an appreciation of the benefits which free markets and free societies confer not just on economic wellbeing but also on the ability of people to fulfill their life dreams and plans whatever they might be. The latter is probably just s misunderstood as the true nature of socialism his. Both are the result of a serious failure of the teaching of history in the high schools and universities.

When I first became interested in history and economics in the early 1970s when I was at high school I read about the corruption of power (Shakespeare), the tyranny of undemocratic socialism (George Orwell), and the mass incarceration and death taking place in the Soviet Gulags (Solzhenitsyn). I have see not seen any similar comparable interest by students in these matters over the past 20 years. The absence of interest in or knowledge of these matters is truly an example of George Orwell’s “memory hole” into which historical truths disappear, never to appear again. It is a failing of English and History teachers in the schools that the current generation of students have not been exposed to this kind of literature, journalism, and history. This lack of exposure in the high schools is compounded by a similar memory hole at university and in the mainstream press. That a film like Raoul Peck’s The Young Marx could be funded by state TV and film bodies in the EU and favorably reviewed the MSM in this country says much about the current state of our problem. Where was the public outcry over the release of this film and its contents which is comparable to that over Woody Allen’s recently published autobiography? At least Allen was a funny comic and a great filmmaker, even if he may have had some other personal foibles.

But the forgetting is not just of history, it is also of theory as well. There are very good reasons which explain why socialism has failed so miserably, and why it results in massive slaughter when rulers attempt to impose this unworkable system on societies by force. This year is the centennial of the publication of one of the major early 20th century works which exposed the unworkability of central planning which was a key feature of the communist system – Ludwig von Mises’ essay “Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth” which was soon followed by his magisterial book Socialism in 1922. There had been many exposures of the economic problems of socialism which go back to the 1840s (Bastiat was a key figure in this early critique of socialism) but it took the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 to bring it to the attention of a broader public. For over 60 years there was a steady stream of solid theoretical work which debunked the claims of socialist planning, beginning with Ludwig von Mises, continuing with Friedrich Hayek, and then with Don Lavoie. The question we need to ask ourselves is, why isn’t this theoretical work better known among academics, intellectuals, and politicians, and what can owe do to make it better known?

People, as Hayek argued, learn most of their economics from the study of history, so their misunderstanding of the consequences of past government interventions in the economy, the cause of recessions/depressions, the failure of price controls (like rent control), leads to calls to “regulate” capitalism to stop its negative effects. There is a similar problem with the public’s lack of understanding of the history of how markets have caused the welfare of ordinary citizens to rise so dramatically over the past 200 years since the Great Enrichment began. When I was learning about how free markets operated it was the work of Ayn Rand, especially her work extolling “the virtues of capitalism” that caught my attention, although she was not trained as an historian. We now have much better works to tell us about the wonders of the market, and I note in particular the detailed historical work by Deidre McCloskey, in addition to the many more popular works which are available.


My conclusion is that the rebuilding of a free society after this chaos is over will require a great deal of work in the above four areas: mathematics and statistics, moral philosophy, history, and economics. Greater knowledge and a better appreciation of their importance is required if we want the general public to have greater skepticism about the ability of governments to plan and regulate our private and economic activity, an awareness of the necessity of a having a strong moral foundation for the defense of individual liberty and limited government, an understanding of the sometimes subtle but powerful ways in which free markets function to satisfy our diverse and changing needs, and the human and economic catastrophe which will inevitably result if we allow governments any opportunity to impose central planning of the economy ever again.

In my darker moments I think that in fact we have gone back to ground zero in all of these areas. In spite of the fact we have many, many more libertarian academics, teachers, journalists, bloggers, and writers than ever before, it now seems that, like Sisyphus, just when we thought we had pushed the heavy stone of statism up to the top of the hill and just when we thought one more push would see it tip over the edge and fall into the abyss, the stone slipped from our fingers and rolled back down our side of the hill. We now face the prospect of pushing it back all the way back up to the top of the hill again. The question is, what will it take for us to be able to push it over the edge this time around? Given the inevitable trade-offs we have to face in making any decision about what to do in the future with our scarce resources, we need to ask ourselves how much of those resources should we spend on policy matters and how much on changing the underlying ideas upon which policy matters rest?

Experts who advise Governments

“Unfortunately, no one listens to economists” (1852)

I have written some short essays on the following topics. The idea is to dip into the past to see what I can find which is relevant to things which are going on today.

  • Jeremy Bentham on rule by “disinterested experts” or “the fallacy of authority” (1824) here
  • Herbert Spencer on the State and “Sanitary Supervision” (1851) here
  • Gustave de Molinari on Economists as the Bookkeepers of Politics: “Unfortunately, no one listens to economists” (1852) here

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) reminds us that bad things can happen when so-called experts are able to get the ear of the government. They are not disinterested parties as they often claim and sometimes do much harm in the name of promoting the “greater happiness of the greatest number”. How they make this calculation has always been a problem for utilitarian administrators – whose “happiness” (or rights to life, liberty, and property) get sacrificed for the “greater good”? and over what time frame is this “greatest happiness” calculated, short term or long term? The “argument from authority” is one of the many “political fallacies” used by politicians to bamboozle the voters which Bentham discusses.

There is also the question of which are the best or most appropriate experts to use. It strikes me as not a coincidence that governments choose experts whose advice usually leads to increasing the power of the state and the prestige of the politicians who run those states. Cui bono? It is also not surprising that these experts usually do not include someone like a Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) who would want to know about “the unseen” consequences of this advice, what are the trade-offs, what are the unintended consequences, and who are the vested interests who might benefit from this presumably “disinterested” advice?

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) raises many of these concerns in his piece which was written soon after the cholera epidemic of 1849 swept through London and Paris. He also focuses on the incompetence of government authorities charged with public health and the impediments which government regulations place in the way of private and voluntary solutions to these problems. So what else is new?

Perhaps in the end it doesn’t really matter if economists like Bastiat do advise governments. According to Gustave de Molinari there are very good reasons why governments and the public ignore their advice anyway. It is not what they want to hear, they usually do not understand the economic principles at work, and the “tax eaters” who run the country have no reason to want to give up their privileges and benefits.