Two lectures, or how libertarians lost the plot

To start on a personal note, I went out on two consecutive evenings in Melbourne last week. On Wednesday to hear humorist P.J. O’Rourke, speaking for the Centre for Independent Studies on American and world politics; on Thursday to hear Gillian Triggs, president of the Human Rights Commission, presenting the annual Anthony Mason lecture.

I may not have been the only one to attend both, but there certainly wasn’t much overlap. Which on the surface is odd, because both speakers were ostensibly concerned about the same topic: human freedom, and how to protect and expand it.

But one of the most depressing features of modern politics is the way that the two constituencies that O’Rourke and Triggs represent – which I’ll call libertarian and centre-left, respectively – not only see each other as enemies, but don’t bother listening to or engaging with each other’s arguments.

There is blame on both sides for this state of affairs, but it seems to me that the libertarians have been more at fault. Most of the libertarian “establishment”, both here and in the US, devotes itself to a narrow range of issues – lower taxes, deregulation, gun rights – and stays quiet about other threats to freedom, often pandering to cultural authoritarians.

The CIS, for example, prior to last month’s federal election issued a “To-Do list for the next government.” But none of its 30 points mentioned such civil liberties issues as treatment of asylum seekers, drug law reform, reproductive rights or anti-terrorism laws. A shorter list from the Institute of Public Affairs had much the same blind spots.

To put it bluntly, if you think of yourselves as defenders of freedom, and locking up innocent people in concentration camps on remote islands doesn’t make your top 30 issues, you’re doing it wrong. The idea that knocking a point or two off the income tax rate could be adequate compensation for massive human rights violations is just monstrous.

The worst examples of this habit of thinking, of course, come from the United States. There, some self-styled libertarians have even endorsed Donald Trump, because he pushes the right buttons for them of tax cuts for the rich and tribal hostility to “the left”. The fact that he also endorses torture, racial exclusion, tariff protection and friendship with dictators doesn’t seem to bother them. For many, they seem to be additional selling points.

To be clear, O’Rourke himself is certainly not in the Trump camp. He endorsed Hillary Clinton back in May, as only “the second worst thing that could happen to this country.” But Trump did not come out of nowhere. He may be a bridge too far for O’Rourke and others, but they cannot avoid the blame for helping to make the Republican Party the sort of outfit that would be comfortable with a Trump.

O’Rourke criticised, as he always has, the moral authoritarianism of the party, saying that conservatives need to concede defeat on issues like gay marriage and drugs. But how could it have escaped him that for most Republicans, it was the tribal or cultural issues that really mattered?

The advent of Trump has made this obvious to a lot of people; some have acknowledged their share of responsibility, for which they deserve credit. But it’s hard to resist asking them, “What took you so long?”, or “Really, you only worked that out now?”

One example among many is Ben Howe at RedState, who is admirably frank in saying “Donald Trump is my fault as much as anyone else’s.” But he then says he joined the “tea party” movement because its “core was principled, fiscal conservatism and a desire to return to the things that had made America great.” Others at the time, however, had no particular difficulty in seeing that its actual core was nativist resentment triggered by the election of a black president.

A much more significant case is that of the billionaire Koch brothers, who as libertarians have held off from supporting Trump, but whose fundraising and activism over two decades has nonetheless promoted some of the most irrational and authoritarian tendencies in the Republican Party – notably in aid of climate change denialism, which aids the Kochs’ business interests in the energy industry.

The lesson of Trump is that irrationality cannot be quarantined: a party that has collectively decided to ignore evidence, pander to tribalism and promote moral panic has no defence left against a demagogue who chooses to exploit those things even more ruthlessly.

As I said, the fault isn’t all on one side. The centre-left has also been blind to its own philosophical interests on occasion, and has demonised libertarians when it could have been doing more to enlist them as allies. But it has at least mostly kept its own house in order; the extremists of the left are well out on the fringe, whereas tribalism on the right has brought its extremists into the tent.

And as a final irony, the libertarian project of focusing narrowly on economics turns out to be a failure even in its own terms. The centre-left doesn’t just have a better record on civil liberties, it also does better with liberal economics: it was Jimmy Carter who deregulated the airlines, Hawke and Keating who cut tariffs, Bill Clinton who balanced the budget. The libertarians can’t even get that right.


Disclosure: as long-term readers will probably remember, I was editorial manager at the CIS in the late 1990s.


5 thoughts on “Two lectures, or how libertarians lost the plot

  1. The basic problem is that libertarianism isn’t a coherent ideology; it’s just selfishness dressed up in ideological rags in order to look better. Why else is it supported by so many who have already won the entitlement lottery?


    1. Thanks Xoanan – as a description of a lot of those who call themselves “libertarians”, I think that’s exactly right. But I don’t agree that libertarianism can’t be a coherent ideology, although to a large extent I think it’s just what others call “liberalism”. There are some good libertarian thinkers around, but at the moment they’re crying in the wilderness.


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