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