Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Free Markets

Why is Libertarianism so unpopular ?

If you take a regular gander at libertarian voices in this country, you often find they arn’t a very happy bunch. Despite thirty years of economic reform running almost entirely in their direction, they always have a nervous skittishness about any sign of backtracking, with frequent prophetic warnings about imminent economic doom. A large part of this is based on the widespread recognition that libertarian and indeed free market ideas arn’t actually that popular in most countries in the world. What better demonstration could there be than the 2007 dumping of the Howard Government for its support for WorkChoices, or the public embrace of Rudd and his heavy spending on health and education (the two area’s which always lead public opinion polls in terms of focus area’s over tax, security or immigration). The Liberal Democratic Party, the closest to a Libertarian party in this country, receives well under 1% of the vote

Yet Libertarian views have four significant advantages:

1) They advocate more freedom: Whatever minor philosophical differences there are, Libertarians can generally be identified as favouring social and economic freedom. Of course in individual circumstances there are debates about the consequences and the like (ie drugs, abortion, fireworks), but in general being identified as being in favour of such a key western value is of tremendous value. Conservatives have spent 30 years grasping for that mantle, and only sometimes succeed in getting anywhere near it.

2) They play to people’s self interest. Despite the obvious flaw in this reasoning, most people think they are above average, and would like a little more of their own tax dollars. Now while this can certainly be over-sold, (and the strongest vote against workchoices came from those not affected by it) this is a pretty good platform from which to appeal to people. Instead of having to make a moral or ethical case about caring for the ‘other’ as social democrats do (witness Obama’s struggle for health care in the US), Libertarians can appeal to your personal sense of competence, capability and resilience. You should choose who your doctor is, where your kids go to school, how to spend your money, etc etc. Most people seem to recognise that the common wealth benefits us all, but still see themselves as seperate from and more capable than most they run into. Libertarians get to play to this, with a clear set of policy proposals that have a logic of their own (you make it, you keep it) rather than the re-distributionism of the big government advocates (we’ll give you more in handouts).

3) It seems to work: After thirty years of general movement towards free market policies we have western societies that sit on the right side of ‘History’, have seen significant growth in GDP, disposable income, attainable products and services, quality of life, brought over a billion people out of poverty, and had few of the claimed major consequences of opponents rhetoric. Sure, the welfare state and very slow changes have been there to buffet the winds of change, and markets clearly don’t work in some areas (defence, health, education) in the way they work in others (ie need some public input to achieve outcomes), but we have reduced taxes, sold off assets, and deregulated our markets for great public benefit. Yet the favoritism for free trade and libertarianism doesn’t seem to have significantly budged despite these successes.

4) And most importantly: They are the natural party of wealth in our society. Money has always had and always will have a significant influence in democratic societies. Indeed most of the big fights that lead to democracy in the west have been centered around the wealthy trying to exert their influence (the original kings councils that ushered in the parliamentary system in Britain) and to protect that wealth from undue government control (the US ‘no taxation without representation revolution). Elections are very expensive businesses and while money usually follows power (meaning the major parties abilities to enact current changes will drive corporate interest), most businesses, entrepreneurs or wealthy agents in society would also be very sympathetic to those proposing less regulation, less taxation and an outsourced, reduced government.
The Australian Labor party is one of the most successful left wing parties in the west precisely because their union beginning and links gave them a financial base to compete with the big money interests who supported the conservatives. But given the Conservatives in Australia have only a half-hearted endorsement of free market and libertarian ideals (at the same time as introducing WorkChoices, Howard was presiding over the highest level of Government welfare spending in this country’s history), it is a wonder that business elements, especially those trying to challenge the status quo of a particular market, or those so sure of their capability in a particular arena dont try and pull the Conservatives towards the Libertarian side of the dial with strategic donations.

Despite these three great advantages, appealing to individual desire for freedom, individual self-interest and the natural alliance with the moneyed interests in a country, it is a wonder why Libertarian voices havn’t done that well. Perhaps the main reason I can see is that Libertarians have usually been unable to even agree to enter the political debate, and as such have little to no public face. Without a professional effort at public advocacy, what arguments are made for Libertarian views are usually either pitched as high economics or simplistic scare stories. Indeed whilst I am often very sympathetic with their overall ideals, and spend a fair bit of time reading libertarian literature and chatting with them, I so often feel somewhat talked down to. The answer is usually so obvious to them that your greed or ignorance seems the only reason you don’t fall to your knees and accept their wisdom.
Likewise, when presented to much of the general public, Libertarian views are seen to be representative of greed and avarice, while they see the economics and logic of their positions both more just and more likely to benefit the disadvantaged. (On that there is some scope for debate, but it’s defendable, and certainly shouldn’t be as dismissed as it currently is). Finally, both for reasons of ideology, and because of the reception that the ideology has recieved, there is a quite clear distrust if not contempt for democracy amongst a clear minority of Libertarians that then slows or even damages efforts to promote their ideas to the public.

So why then is Libertarianism such a disregarded and discredited ideology in Australia, indeed in the world?