Is Andrew Norton a Libertarian?

Who are Australia’s top libertarian identities? At Thoughts on Freedom, John Humphreys nominates Andrew Norton. That’s odd because I always thought that Andrew identified as a classical liberal rather than as a libertarian.

About a year ago Andrew wrote a post for Catallaxy on classical liberals versus social democrats. One commenter asked "Why not just call them libertarians – after all that’s what you mean when you say classical liberal isn’t it?" Here’s Andrew’s reply:

Classical liberals are certainly at the libertarian end of the political spectrum. In practice, though, I am uncomfortable with the label. Libertarians tend to have a rights-based view of the world (in this they parallel modern left-liberals, though their lists of rights are different). Personally, I don’t find rights theories or, for that matter any foundationalist theory, convincing. So while I favour the institutions of classical liberalism – limited government, the rule of law, protection of personal freedoms, the market etc – I have an more intellectually eclectic set of justifications than a simple assertion of rights. In practice, this leads to more pragmatic political positions than libertarians. For example, while maintaing due scepiticism I basically agree with the line that Gerard Henderson has been pushing (eg today’s SMH) that in times of threat the government can reduce some people’s civil liberties if a strong enough case can be made that they are a threat to Australia’s security. In the libertarian view, rights are rights, regardless of circumstances.

In a short essay called ‘Liberalism and social justice: the unhappy couple‘ Andrew distinguished between three types of liberal:

  • Libertarians who "assert that the individual simply has rights, and that others have no claims over them except those necessary to protect their own rights."
  • Social democratic liberals (or ‘Wets’) who are individualist but not in the sense that they simply assert that individuals have rights. Wets believe "that society should be organised in a way that promotes individual well-being." They combine this with the belief that "government action can remedy a wide range of social ills."
  • Classical liberals side with the ‘wets’ in making individual well-being their goal but are closer to the libertarians on policy. Classical liberals are strongly committed to liberty — they believe that a free society rather than a large state is the best guarantee of individual well-being. Individuals are the best judge of what will make their lives better. They often argue that coercing people into acting in their ‘own best interests’ attacks a person’s dignity and undermines their sense of control.

But if the Australian Libertarian Society adhered to Andrew’s rather strict definition they could hold their meetings in a telephone box. Even Jason Soon wouldn’t qualify. (As far as I can tell, Jason is a utilitarian who thinks that liberty is the best way to maximise the satisfaction of preferences). Australia has very few libertarians of the Robert Nozick type.

So here’s a question for you — Is it enough just to believe that governments should interfere less in both the economy and citizen’s personal lives, or does a person have to believe this for the right reasons? Is Andrew’s definition too narrow?


See Andrew Norton’s response: Am I Carlton’s lone libertarian?

More discussion at Catallaxy: Some libertarian navel gazing

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22 Responses to Is Andrew Norton a Libertarian?

  1. Rafe Champion says:

    Having read Jan Lester’s book Escape from Leviathan I think the libertarian anarchist position is philosophically robust, however the only way to get there is by way of a minimum state and so classical liberalism is a more practical stance for the next century or two. A review of the book can be found here.

  2. Yobbo says:

    “Is it enough just to believe that governments should interfere less in both the economy and citizen’s personal lives”

    It’s enough for me. After all the LDP is not just a “movement”, it is a political party. We want people to vote for us. Judging by Andrew’s beliefs he would vote for us were he not already a member of a rival party.

    I think it’s fair to say that most people vote according to Policy rather than Principles. I don’t care if the Liberal party claims to believe in individual liberties (which they do claim), if another party is proposing more liberal policies then I will vote for them even if they claim to believe in fairies.

    I personally don’t care if you believe in Liberty for moral, pragmatic or any other reason. I don’t care if aliens came down and told you that you should believe in it. As long as you do.

    I describe myself as a Libertarian primarily because it is a concise term that describes most of my political beliefs, and as such saves my fingers from excessive typing.

    I haven’t read Popper or Mises or whoever else and I probably never will. I came to my beliefs basically by thinking about everyday life and how it could be better. So in that sense I guess I’m more like Jason Soon than like John Humphreys, but since we agree on most policy decisions anyway it’s just easier to say we are both Libertarians.

    When the day comes that there are 3 different Libertarian parties competing for votes in an Australian election then the question would become more important. But the fact is that now there is only 1 party that is remotely Libertarian/Classical Liberal/Whatever you want to call it, and that is the LDP.

  3. I find Andrew’s definition of “libertarian” less than useful. Within libertarian debate there have always been “right-based libertarians” and “utilitarian libertarians”. It is fairly clear within the libertarian movement that we are refering to a set of policy positions, irrespective of how you get there.

    I started the Australian Libertarian Society (ALS) and the LDP and I am a utilitarian libertarian. I also sometimes refer to myself as a “classical liberal” or more likely a “liberal democrat”. Indeed — that was the name I gave Australia’s libertarian political party!

    Both Friedman and Hayek said they preferred to be called liberals (in the classical sense) but they both admitted that in modern language they are libertarians. They were both utilitarians. Indeed, I would say that most Australian libertarians are utilitarians (probably because many of them are economists).

    Further, there have been classical liberals that promoted “rights-based” classical liberalism, so it is silly to define classical liberal as only a utilitarian.

    I also think Rafe’s contribution confuses the issue. Rafe seems to suggest that a libertarian must be an anarchist… but once again there is a long-standing debate within libertarian circles between “minarchists” (small govt) and “anarchists” (no govt).

    Rafe’s contribution causes even more confusion when you recognise that today’s best promoter of anarcho-capitalism (David Friedman, Milton’s son) is actually a utilitarian, not a rights-based philosopher!

    Of course, there’s nothing wrong with Andrew calling himself a “classical liberal”, but that doesn’t stop him from being a libertarian. Likewise, some people prefer to call themselves “objectivists” but their politics also falls within the libertarian tent.

    If somebody really wanted to make a distinction between “classical liberal” and “libertarian” it is probably fair to note that “classical liberals” are normally on the moderate corner of the libertarian circle (sic), but that doesn’t stop them from being libertarian.

  4. I once set up a taxonomy of libertarians. The main splits in the libertarian community are between:

    philosphy: rights-based v utilitarians
    how radical: moderate v minarchists v anarchists
    foreign policy: peacemonger v warnick

    Calling somebody non-libertarian because they are minarchist (Rafe) or utilitarian (Andrew) or because of their foreign policy is missing the point.

  5. What Yobbo said. Although I’ve read Hayek (at law school), most of my use of the ‘libertarian’ label comes from thinking about things around me. I’m not a joiner but I joined the LDP, simply because what they say makes sense to me.

    I also find I need libertarian/classical liberal ideas on a personal level: they’re the only ideas that allow me to be me.

  6. Sacha says:

    Interesting – to me the greatest difference has been between a rights-based emphasis versus utilitarian emphasis. I’m not attracted to a rights-based emphasis, as that downplays the impact individuals can have on others and their surroundings.

  7. Don Arthur says:

    skepticlawyer – You say, “I also find I need libertarian/classical liberal ideas on a personal level: they’re the only ideas that allow me to be me.”

    I’m hooked. I really, really want you to go on. How does libertarianism allow you to be you?

  8. Ken Parish says:

    It’s possible that Helen is a follower of that great but under-recognised 20th century libertarian political philosopher Sammy Davis Jnr, who summed up the personal realisation/authenticity school of libertarianism in his seminal work I’ve Gotta be Me:

    Whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong
    Whether I find a place in this world or never belong
    I gotta be me, I’ve gotta be me
    What else can I be but what I am

    I want to live, not merely survive
    And I won’t give up this dream
    Of life that keeps me alive
    I gotta be me, I gotta be me
    The dream that I see makes me what I am

    That far-away prize, a world of success
    Is waiting for me if I heed the call
    I won’t settle down, won’t settle for less
    As long as there’s a chance that I can have it all

    I’ll go it alone, that’s how it must be
    I can’t be right for somebody else
    If I’m not right for me
    I gotta be free, I’ve gotta be free
    Daring to try, to do it or die
    I’ve gotta be me

    I’ll go it alone, that’s how it must be
    I can’t be right for somebody else
    If I’m not right for me
    I gotta be free, I just gotta be free
    Daring to try, to do it or die
    I gotta be me

  9. Jason Soon says:

    And here is a song associated with a close philosophical associate of Sammy Davis Jr who needs no introduction:

    And now, the end is near;
    And so I face the final curtain.
    My friend, Ill say it clear,
    Ill state my case, of which Im certain.

    Ive lived a life thats full.
    Ive traveled each and evry highway;
    And more, much more than this,
    I did it my way.

    Regrets, Ive had a few;
    But then again, too few to mention.
    I did what I had to do
    And saw it through without exemption.

    I planned each charted course;
    Each careful step along the byway,
    But more, much more than this,
    I did it my way.

    Yes, there were times, Im sure you knew
    When I bit off more than I could chew.
    But through it all, when there was doubt,
    I ate it up and spit it out.
    I faced it all and I stood tall;
    And did it my way.

    Ive loved, Ive laughed and cried.
    Ive had my fill; my share of losing.
    And now, as tears subside,
    I find it all so amusing.

    To think I did all that;
    And may I say – not in a shy way,
    No, oh no not me,
    I did it my way.

    For what is a man, what has he got?
    If not himself, then he has naught.
    To say the things he truly feels;
    And not the words of one who kneels.
    The record shows I took the blows –
    And did it my way!

  10. Jc says:

    Liking both songs wouldn’t get anyone into trouble.

    I really hate Libertarianism. However I can’t see a superior set of belief systems.

    What could be considered anything close to the wonderful view that an indivisual is sovereign? Understanding the real meaning of this concept places humnity at the highest point on the hill.

  11. Jason Soon says:

    And anyone remember this and who sung it?

    Let me tell you how it will be,
    There’s one for you, nineteen for me,
    ‘Cos I’m the Taxman,
    Yeah, I’m the Taxman.
    Should five per cent appear too small,
    Be thankful I don’t take it all,
    ‘Cos I’m the Taxman,
    Yeah, I’m the Taxman.
    If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street,
    If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat,
    If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat,
    If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.

  12. Ken Parish says:

    But then there’s Imagine, which doesn’t really suggest John as a libertarian hero.

    Imagine no possessions
    I wonder if you can
    No need for greed or hunger
    A brotherhood of man
    Imagine all the people
    Sharing all the world…

  13. Jason Soon says:

    Get your Beatles trivia straight. Taxman was actually written by George Harrison.

  14. Ken Parish says:

    Oh well, maybe that explains the contradiction then. On the other hand, maybe the political philosophies of both John and George were as deeply examined as those of Sammy and Frank.

  15. Ken Parish says:

    Come to think of it, did the Beatles break up because George was a Rothbardian anarcho-libertarian while John was a closet Marxist? Maybe a more interesting question than whether Andrew Norton is a libertarian, and at least as pointless. Mind you, I’ll still be interested in what Andrew has to say, and just as interested in Don’s inevitable third instalment on different sub-species of leftism

  16. Jason Soon says:

    I don’t think it’s pointless at all. I like these posts by Don. There is more to this issue than Andrew Norton or Peter Saunders. Don is teasing out all the nuances of political difference and probably having some fun while doing it.

  17. Ken Parish says:


    Yes I agree. I was being flippant. I think teasing out the nuances of the main positions of the contemporary democratic political lanscape, mostly from an Australian perspective, is a worthwhile exercise, and personalising it to specific local players is an entertaining conceit to get us there.

  18. Jason and Ken,

    If the recent stories in the press about what’s taught in High School English these days are true, then you both may have just suggested a potential High school English Assignment!!!



  19. Jason and Ken,

    In case it wasn’t obvious from my previous post, I was referring to the Beatles part of the discussion!!!



  20. Chris Lloyd says:

    Yobbo: “I personally don’t care if you believe in Liberty for moral, pragmatic or any other reason. I don’t care if aliens came down and told you that you should believe in it. As long as you do.” You should care. Cause the Aliens might tell me to build a nuke and fire it at Perth next time. There has to be a framework. The route by which people arrive at their position is more important than where they happen to stand today.

    Yeah skeptical lawyer. I’m hooked as well. I’ve been to paradise but I haven’t been to me. Can you show me the way?

  21. There were too many issues raised here for me to deal with them in comments, so I have a post explaining my position on my blog.

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