“Passion meets Reason, they fall in love, the end”.
I was once asked why I was a Liberal. This was what I sent them a few days later.
The Americans amongst you may find it confusing – being Australian, “Liberal” does not mean “Leftie” to me.
In the beginning
Government cannot make man richer, but it can make him poorer. — Lugwig von Mises
In the beginning I was just another regular fellow. I received my compulsory, free education at a local public primary school filled with well-meaning teachers. What I learnt from them, aside from the maths and writing and such, was that all the problems of the world could be solved – we just needed someone with the guts and the vision to …
… to start a government program and to spend lots of money on the problem.
With all due respect to my former teachers, I have since come to the conclusion that they were partly wrong. The quest to solve the problems of the world I have no qualms with. Further, the belief that they can be solved, or that things can be better for everyone – “that another world is possible”, to shamelessly borrow from Resistance – I still believe that. I’ve never doubted it.
But what I no longer believe is that the problems of the world are simply waiting for somebody to make a law. For someone to start a government program or spend government dollars. I have not come to this conclusion by accident. It has been a long, slow path of reading, thought, more reading and re-thinking.
Use the Source, Luke
Computers are useless. They can only give you answers. — Pablo Picasso
The rethinking began with computers. I admit that I have always been a computer geek. I’m one of those guys whose family leans on for tech support. I can’t even really remember which computer I sat down in front of first, or the first time I began to two-finger type, or the first BASIC listing I tapped in to the computer to make a simple program. What I can remember is that computers have always been a part of my life. A big part.
I discovered opensource software somewhere in highschool; shortly after discovering the Internet in 1995-96. It was a real eye-opener. Software that you could legally download for free, and it came with the sourcecode. Zounds! What a concept!
Before long I was a regular little Richard Stallman convert; with all of the frothing and energy which is attendant thereto. This was possibly my first passion, my first experience of having a cause.
This phase stayed with me throughout highschool. I wrote of Stallman in one of my essays that:
He is a programming genius, probably one of the greatest of all time. His calm approach, and unflinching resolve to uphold his principles, make him a leader and visionary who will – I think – one day be listed alongside the likes of Martin Luther King and Ghandi.
A little enthusiastic, I think now. But Stallman had (and still has) passion, genius, verve, energy and – yes – an unflinching commitment to his principles. Such things are inspiring to a young mind. I think that intelligent youth want to be True Believers almost as much as they want sex.
I can’t be sure about this, for like Michel de Montaigne I can only write about myself with any authority. But it seems true enough. Whether I prefer leadership, or unrestrained sexual abandon, seems to depend on the day of the week and the phases of the moon.
But I digress.
In the groves of the Academy
The test and the use of man’s education is that he finds pleasure in the exercise of his mind. — Jacques Barzun
Apparently I did some respectable work somewhere in highschool, for upon my graduation I was accepted into Sydney University on a Liberal Studies degree. It sounded great on paper, having more to do with old ideas of western liberal education than the Liberal Party, but it was revealed in the end to be a glorified Science/Arts degree with reduced options – which is why in my second year I switched to Science/Arts.
University was a revelation. Highschool was wholly directed, you read, thought and wrote what you were given. At university, it transpired, learning was Every Man For Himself (women too, of course, and they were in the majority). Presuming that one was awake, one attended the lectures and went to the tutorials. But outside of that, it was very much “Do as thou wilt, shall be the whole of the Law”. I argued with other students about politics, read the student media, read the major dailies (The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald), and as the fancy struck me I dived into the library, or fished about the Internet, to read about any topic of current interest. It was wonderful stuff.
Sometime in my first year, I figured that this student politics thing looked like a good way to have fun, learn some skills and meet people. In the spirit of fairness I decided to vet the local political clubs. I visited the Socialist Student Workers’ Party: not my thing. I tried to go to an ALP Club meeting (this was Labor Right, it transpires), but nobody else turned up. I went along to the Labor Club meeting – Labor Left – and was struck by people’s ignorance about the ins-and-outs of the GST (which was a hot topic of the time). The Democrats on Campus weren’t on campus at all. Last of all I went along to a Liberal Club meeting.
I was sold almost immediately. Here were people who made the effort to greet me, shake my hand and say hello. They were sensible, polite, and basically I liked them as individuals. More to the point, the policy discussions struck a more resonant chord with me than discussions of Revolution, or Revolution’s tepid descendant, Social Justice.
And so, in 2000, I became a Liberal.
That’s where the matter rested for a while. My liberalism was of a fairly standard NSW moderate complexion. From my extensive reading on opensource, and the vibe of that community I had retained a true belief in free speech, free worship, and so on; but little more than that. Passion lingered with me, but it was now sandbagged with the cynicism that one quickly develops in the student political scene. Having seen politics in the small and politics in the large, I can tell you now that smaller is nastier. Student politics is often dodgy, dodgy stuff. The Sydney University Liberal Club had its fair share of strife; I questioned my commitment several times in my time 2000-2001. But I saw leftists burning out sometimes in months. I’m glad I never went that way.
I didn’t really elaborate my thinking at the time. I identified as a small-l liberal, I defended public education, the welfare state, and the need for government regulation in all sorts of markets (and I wrote extensive articles on this basis). This is in fact the nature of the Liberal Party: all accusations levelled against it of blind ideology are untrue. The Liberal Party has a vague, amorphous subscription to the free market, and in any case, this subscription is subject to the political exigencies of the day.
Pride goeth before the re-reading
I cannot live without books. — Thomas Jefferson
My personal life in 2001 disintegrated. By the end of it I was suffering a clinical depression, and failed several units. I decided to come home to Darwin. On my return I gathered together some friends and founded the University Liberal Club.
More on that in a bit.
Somewhere around this time, I discovered or stumbled across the Mises Institute, named for the Austrian-American economist Ludwig von Mises. The Mises Institute specialises in the study and promotion of the Austrian-classical branch of economics.
Perhaps the most important thing I got from the Mises Institute was a freely downloadable book, called Liberalism: The Classical Tradition by the Institute’s namesake. It’s hard to relate the impact that this one little book has made on my thinking. It showed me, essentially, that I was a liberal ignoramus. I’d been talking out of my rear end.
For sure, I’d had the passion, and the ability to make my case, but I had lacked the pure fundamentals. In liberalism, which speaks to economics, politics, and ethics, you must start at the beginning and work your way up. Too many people pluck the fruits of liberal thought without giving due regard to the entire tree which has rendered them so juicy.
Liberalism, as explained by Ludwig von Mises and others in his scholarly tradition (notably his student, Murray Rothbard), is a complete, logically derived series of propositions and conclusions. One starts with fundamentals – usually the non-agression axiom – and one goes from there.
Before long you have come to understand, amongst other things, why government is a morally dubious enterprise; why property is the basis of true freedom (including free speech, free worship, free association and free press); why every species and degree of government intervention just makes things worse; and just why Patrick Henry said “Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”
In which vein, one also winds up learning a lot of history, particularly the English Revolutions and the rise of English Classical Liberalism; the American War of Independence and its darker offspring, the American Civil War; and last but not least about the French Revolutionary era, with its keynote theme of people who were good by themselves, becoming in mobs murderously psychotic.
I’d found it, at last: reason. Liberal scholarship is rich. It is filled with the whiff of the Renaissance, with the excitement of the Enlightenment; with a permeating attention to the cycle of history and an underlying urge to stop the world’s broad drift to a new kind of Roman ruin. It tends to be unapologetically intelligent, but it does not dismiss the common fellow. I look forward to spending the rest of my life just catching up with all the wonderful things there are to know.
You won’t find average Americans on the left or on the right. You’ll find them at Kmart. — Zell Miller
To try and give vent to the passion and reason I have collected over the years, I give a lot of my time to growing and nurturing the Liberal club. To be blunt, it is very difficult. It is forever disheartening to see intelligent, well-meaning people lured into the arms of socialism. I understand the call, and socialism has always been a welcoming place for the passionate; but its reasoning is fundamentally flawed. I have lost count of the Marxists I have met who never read Marx; the Communists surprised to learn that Communist states killed 100 million people in the course of the 20th Century; Socialists who emerged as I did from primary school and who were never were questioned or challenged or exposed to a reasoned contrary view.
All of us, either as Liberals at-large or for people in the political parties, bear the blame. It is too widely and easily accepted that socialism is the faith of the intelligent. Too many students, even if they do not subscribe to socialism (and most don’t), are given the fatal impression that this is what all intelligent people think. It happens because liberals of all kinds have signally failed to convey the depth and logical nature of Liberal thought. I only learnt about it by accident, how many see the Liberal party and reject forever all things called “Liberal”?
In any case, I am a Liberal. I will probably stay one for the rest of my life – formative years and all. I hope that in its due course Liberal thought will make a comeback in the campuses – and in the streets – and in the minds of Australians. And I hope to do my part.
Why am I a Liberal? Because it’s the right thing to be.