Climbing the Tree of Freedom

Previously I have written about the need for libertarians, classical liberals and like-minded folk to focus efforts on “low hanging fruit” when discussing and promoting policy. That advice has largely be aimed at the Liberty & Democracy Party, whose members are sometimes given to arguing to death issues which the mainstream don’t give a rats about. While I am now considering joining the LDP, I think more thought still needs to be paid to this issue.

Now I’d like to present a related metaphor to picking low-hanging fruit; it is climbing the tree. Essentially libertarians are apt to give a lot of time and thought to developing models of ideal worlds, then measuring the real world against them. I know economists do this too, but libertarians like Murray Rothbard – more accurately he was an anarcho-capitalist – built quite detailed descriptions of how everything was meant to hang together ethically, not just economically. The contrast with present practice is stark. Stark and — this is the key thing — highly motivating to a certain sort of mind.

In 1946 a stalwart libertarian called Leonard E. Read said in a speech that if there were a button on his podium that would immediately abolish all controls and regulations on the U.S. economy, he would push it. This is heroic and it swells the chest, but it doesn’t really account for the fact that no such button exists; and if it did, very few voters would let libertarians go anywhere near it.

So we need to look at things a different way. The low-hanging fruit analogy is about going to the mainstream with policies which are simple, which have a large impact, and which are closer to any given libertarian ideal world than our present. This approach relies on identifying big-ticket policies which are more likely to succeed, before proceeding to contentious policies that would delay the overall program. More to the point, it aims to defuse the media’s insatiable appetite for controversy by focusing on areas where consensus is broadly reachable. It also imports a principle of philosophical conservatism that changes should be enacted with patience — that only a few planks should be changed at a time. In software engineering we could call this “refactoring”, the key point of which is that the final outcome may not be visible from the starting point. It is the journey of improvement which leads to the discovery of good solutions, not the hope that it can all be solved up-front.

The tree climbing strategy builds on the low-hanging fruit principle with this simple rule of thumb:

People at the bottom of the tree are there for a reason.

Now by “bottom of the tree” I don’t mean to draw parallels with the rhetoric of “us vs them”; of rich vs poor. Instead I am referring to people who have come to rely on things as they are. It is very common for libertarians to sort of demonise these people a bit: they are ‘tax eaters’, those who benefit from the forceful appropriation from others. But telling people that they are evil just makes them angry. Pride is an important human emotion: why pretend it gets left outside the ballot booth?

Instead libertarians might look at it this way: these are rational and decent people making decisions against an irrational background. They made choices based on what was sensible. We should not punish them for failing to deny their own reckoning of what best served their own interest. After all, we expect the market to rely on this behaviour to produce good outcomes; why would people behave any differently towards the Family Tax Rebate?

So we may need to swallow our pride and accept transitory positions. Jason Soon has brought this up at Catallaxy in respect to ownership of roads. In the ideal libertarian world all roads are privately owned. In the real world they aren’t, and it wouldn’t be possible to make them otherwise without careful consideration of the mechanics of private roads. If we’ve learnt anything over the years, it’s that privatisation is actually quite tricky. We don’t know what the proper market “should” have been. If we did know for certain we wouldn’t need a market, making mockery of Mises. So we guess, and sometimes quite wrongly. The privatisation of Telstra by share issue instead of the auction of its infrastructure is one such potential example.

There is no magic button. But there is the tree. The trick is to pluck the low-hanging fruit without cutting branches from other people. Let them climb without falling too hard first, and they might just agree to come along.

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15 Responses to Climbing the Tree of Freedom

  1. James Farrell says:

    I think you’ve made this point clear enough by now, Jacques. Perhaps in your next post you could describe your favourite low-hanging fruit in some detail. For example, you mentioned guaranteed minmum income schemes in a previous post. I’d be curious to know exactly which verison you subscribe to, how you think it would differ philosophically and practically from the current welfare syatem, and who would be the winners and losers were it introduced. When you have time. I think people from across the spectrum would be happy to share ideas on this kind of thing, whereas you’re right that very few people are interested in privatisation of roads, and only self-identified right-wingers want to discuss the merits of freer access to guns — a complete turn-off for vast majority.

  2. Jacques Chester says:

    Yes, I’m getting preachy, aren’t I? Between this post and the previous one. I think my next post will feature a picture of me in a cassock.

    As for the plan I currently favour, and which the LDP have adopted, see this paper (PDF).

  3. Jc says:


    But that’s like saying we should give up. I don’t much care for the liberal government, but the one single most important reform since Federation was the freeing up of the labor market through Workchoices. It wasnt great as it was supervised by a bunch of lawyers and it was sold terribly. But we have had a continued barrage of lies and distortions about free labor markets and what they mean. It now looks as though we’ll lose that reform.

    How can any libertarian ignore that and not be even remotely upset?

    That reform alone, from a libertarian perspective offered untold benefits to the marginalized worker along with the added potential of broadening the labor markets to all participants.

    That fruit looks like it will go rotten for a generation as a result of lies and distortions by the opposers. We should be upset and we should tell it like it is. If an economist is opposing free labor markets I cannot see how that person can wear that title. Otherwise we need and explanation that labor markets do not respect the price signal and demand curves doesnt slope downward.

    We can also be pretty passionate from the free market side too.

    I would also argue this point. We have had a coterie running the side of free markets for 25 years in this country and they haven’t achieved a thing. We have gone backwards in terms of being able to change public perceptions here when it comes to free markets. It is as though they are frightened of their own shadow. In addition they seem to fight all the wrong battles. AGW is good example of this. At the very least AGW should be considered by reasonable people to be a risk management issue that needs addressing. Our side has allowed the deniers to show their face with pathetic arguments that are quite honestly embarrassing.

    The privatizations are another case in point. They had a chance to influence government policy on this subject that would have made privatizations more palatable to the public by doing one simple thing. Instead of the revenue going into consolidated revenue all stock should have been gifted to all citizens who could then do what they like. Instead it has been a government grab for more cash. No wonder privatizations have become a dirty word. And who can blame the public for such perceptions.

  4. Brendan Halfweeg says:

    JC, are you saying you believe in AGW and that government action is appropriate to curb our energy eating ways? You commie so ‘n so!

  5. Jc says:


    I know, it’s embarrassing , isn’t it? :-)

    I think there is a fair grounding in science to admit there is a risk, which is why I say the issue needs to be treated as a risk management problem. Dude, there’s a pool of smoke going from China crossing the pacific ocean and hitting as far as Mid continent US. This is quite a blaze! It’s not an AGW thread but the point is that a vast majority of people want to see mitigation efforts. The very fact we’re denying this is allowing for a socialist solution when market forces could work more effctively by strengthening property rights across the board. There is no point denying it isn’t real any longer. It is quite real.

  6. Brendan Halfweeg says:


    Polution is one thing, it is a clear failure in the definition and enforcement of property rights, and I agree that reform is required in this direction. But AGW????

    With enforced property rights, polution would be dealt with by the market, in fact will be to a certain extent already, as polution is an indication of inefficiency, and thus will give appropriate price indicators to decision makers. Protected industries are the main offenders, and as soon as their rent seeking ways are curbed, the cleaner our rivers and our air will be.

    I’m not even going to go into the problem of the AGW proponents attributing man’s actions as the primary cause.

    What sort of market based ideas would you apply to a problem whose framework is not clearly defined, whose cause and effects are subject to significant speculation, and can be applied universally to all human activity?

    If you’re just trying to head off the watermelons with some carbon taxing like John Humphries proposes, then I have some sympathy, but if you really believe everything the AGW fascists are spouting, I’m really surprised.

  7. conrad says:


    I think that big cloud of particulates/ozone/No2 etc. coming from China is actually good for global warming — it stops sunlight hitting the earth (although it diminishes rainful). Its funny that whenever there are global warming stories, they always show pictures of filth (although of course showing CO2 is not really an option).

    I agree with you (and Jacques), it seems to me that the libetarian movement attracts a lot of single issue people, some which really have nothing to do with such a movement at all (like AGW), or issues which you will never win, nor make much difference to the average person in any case (like handguns), and this works like an overall dampener on anyone’s enthusiasm for such parties and I’m sure people form false associates (e.g., only gun-toting rednecks thing low tax is good). I also don’t see the point of suggesting radical tax alternatives (like the 30/30 scheme) which I assume are never going to get through due to paranoia even if they did work, when good results could be achieved simply by deleting all the perks and querks of the tax system and using it to reduce overall tax takes. The second of these would be politically much more palatable. You could also work step by step, deleting things that affect almost no-one, such as almost all of the deductions you can claim on your tax bill. People might start getting used it and begin to enjoy seeing both taxes and perks and querks reduced. Harder things could then begin to be targetted.

  8. melaleuca says:

    I’ve been having a close look at the LDP myself lately, and in particular their environmental policy. I’d classify them as reptiles of a variety not worthy of conservation.

  9. Brendan Halfweeg says:

    Hey, we’re Gaia’s children too!

  10. melaleuca says:

    I think the LDP’s 29 word environment policy compared to the 832 word “right to bear arms” policy says it all.


  11. Jacques Chester says:

    I notice you’ve been on a bit of an anti-libertarian warpath lately, mel – what brought it on?

  12. Yobbo says:

    He’s a troll.

  13. melaleuca says:

    Remain seated on that bar stool, Yobs.

    Jacques, have a look at the policy and commentary on their forums, like the ALS blog. These guys have an ideology every bit as warped and dangerous as that of Marxists.

    Somebody has to hold them down and kick them in the head. I’m volunteering.

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  15. Mark Hill says:

    “Ive been having a close look at the LDP myself lately, and in particular their environmental policy. Id classify them as reptiles of a variety not worthy of conservation.”

    It isn’t finished you imbecile.

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