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April 15, 2024

Are you a libertarian? What does it mean these days?

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LibertarianismPhillip Frazer

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that upholds liberty as its principal objective. Libertarians seek individual freedom of choice, emphasising political freedom, and voluntary association  – edited from Wikipedia

Sounds pretty good eh?

Note the key concepts: liberty, choice, freedom, voluntary, and individual. These notions entered the mainstream (in Europe and the US) only recently, in the late 1700s, when scientific discoveries allowed us to grasp that everything – the universe, our existence – could be understood through rational thought and experimental practice.

What this ‘enlightenment’ meant was that we had no further need of gods or other mysterious and inscrutable forces to tell us what to do or how to do it. We could, among other things, rule ourselves.

Since then there has been unending debate and violent disagreement (eg wars) about exactly how we might rule ourselves – split between the principle of every person for themselves versus everyone has a responsibility to everyone else, also visiting all points between.

Libertarianism has been the big tent for people who reckon individual freedom trumps (that word will never be the same) group welfare, with major cross-rifts around gender – including women and people outside the male-or-female box – and ‘race’ or cultural differences.

Ownership has also caused a fundamental division, between those who believe natural resources can be claimed and owned by whoever got there first versus believers in common ownership of everything now and forever… and again, the many options in between.

As things stand today, libertarianism in the USA tends to mean private ownership and exploitation free of government interference, which is why most American libertarians are rich white guys like David Koch, the $43 billion heir who funds Republican politicians so long as they sign up to his program of dismantling regulations on his businesses, such as allowing oil and gas mining without safety laws or environmental controls. Koch was the Libertarian Party candidate for vice-president in 1980. (The Koch brothers refuse to fund Trump because they, correctly, see him as an authoritarian.)

The Push

In our own fair country, libertarianism got a grip in the 1960s in a community of artists and Sydney Uni students who drank at the same pubs and were known as The Push. Famous members included Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes, Frank Moorhouse and Lillian Roxon, all of whom shared this charming notion of libertarianism: a rejection of the rationality or finality of history (eg Marx’s ‘historical inevitability’) and the proposition that anarchic protest against those in power, not the capture of power, is at the core of freedom.

On the philosophical or political level, I believe all these people, from the enlightenment folks through Emma Goldman to The Push and the Koch brothers, have been overtaken by the facts of life.

Over the past 50 years we have come to understand that we don’t live on a blank slate upon which we may write whatever destiny we wish for ourselves. We exist as a species, one of millions, on a planet, one of trillions, which requires us, as a species, to do certain things such as not poisoning air and water, or not blowing things up on a global scale, and not transforming animal and plant life so drastically as to make the planet unlivable for ourselves and most other species.

All that assumes, of course, that we as a species agree that preserving our species is a common goal. (I know people who say the universe will be better off if/when our species is flushed down the dunny of history.)

This new science of ecosystems changes everything. ‘Freedom’ raises questions like, do I have the freedom to plant genetically modified seeds – in the earth or in the wombs of animals including humans? Am I at ‘liberty’ to belch billions of tonnes of CO2 or acid rain into the air because I have a right to pursue profit without nannies getting in my way?

All those old-time religions (that still inspire mass murder by the hour) provided us with fundamentals about what life is, and thus, how to live it. People like some rules and limits, which is one reason they embraced religions, and now we have limits that are based in reality – the laws of the universe and earthly eco-systems that we disobey or ignore at our peril.

Rand’s system

A diehard libertarian might say that’s not my problem, I’ll decide what I wanna do and I’ll do it. (This was Russian-American novelist Ayn Rand’s ‘integrated philosophical system’, and even though many libertarians reckon she’s the ant’s pants, she hated libertarianism for its focus on politics. She lived out her old age with the support of medicare and social security payments.)

Today, the libertarians most mentioned in our local media are Liberal Democratic Party members, led by crossbench senator David Leyonhjelm, and the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs think tanks. All these guys (and they are overwhelmingly blokes) have adopted the American pro-business line, railing against the ‘nanny state’, evil unions, Greens who put trees before people, and wimps who want us all to get along.

Neither the Australian nor the American parties have much of a following. Leyonhjelm is likely to be voted out under the new electoral rules, and the US party’s biggest bragging right is that it has a spot for its own presidential candidate (Gary Johnson, ex-governor of New Mexico) in every state. Gary might get more votes than any previous libertarian, because he’s not Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, and if he gets a new haircut.

Libertarianism, a pre-planetarist ideology, might seduce you with its rejection of top-hat capitalists, fist-waving socialists, and nannies of all sorts – but do understand that the ‘will’ your are free to exercise is constrained by the planet, unless of course you freely choose to go live on another one.

Phillip Frazer writes from coorabellridge.com and believes that good nannies are a good thing.


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  1. The meaning of Libertarianism needs to be put into your own words Phillip.
    “Libertarianism is one of those long convoluted political words that we hear at election time to fool the populous that we are free to think for ourselves.”
    Think about that sentence for a few seconds and see if an ad does not pop up on TV to try change your mind.


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