From time to time I get to speak to Arts students who all tell a similar story – they signed up for a subject in political philosophy and learned about socialism and communism and several other ‘isms’ in some detail. Then they had a single lecture on liberalism or even classical liberalism that was very vague and general. Generally stories like this don’t worry me too much. Signalling theory suggests that what you have learned at Uni isn’t as important as the fact that you did learn at Uni. So the content (what human capital theories emphasise) isn’t as important as the process of learning. This must be especially true for more generalist degrees.
From time to time, however, it does matter.
Most elite opinion has no real understanding of classical liberal thought. We see this in the media all the time. We have seen this in the nonsense written and spoken about the appointment of Tim Wilson to the Australian Human Rights Commission. We see this in the complete incomprehension the left have displayed to the anger the Bolt decision generated. They genuinely do not understand what the fuss is about and when 18c is amended – as the Australian has been suggesting for the last two days – they will be surprised. Even at this late stage they somehow still think that 18c will remain intact and in place.
The confusion about classical liberal thought can be seen in an op-ed in The Conversation by Catherine Renshaw of the Australian Catholic University.
Classical liberalism is not a coherent body of political philosophy. However, in relation to human rights, there are three key ideas that most classical liberals subscribe to.
The first is the idea that all people are born with rights, which they hold simply because they are human.
The second idea concerns what human rights actually are. Classical liberals believe that the list of genuine human rights is quite short. It is comprised primarily of those things that are necessary to preserve life and individual liberty.
Thirdly, classical liberals believe that the role of the state in fulfilling or protecting human rights should be very limited. States should do only what is necessary to protect life and property.
That is more or less correct – I would insert the word “equal” into the “all people are born with rights” statement but she has distilled the ideas fairly well. It’s not clear, however, why these statements are incoherent to her or anyone else.
She does have a go at a critique of these ideas (emphasis added)
Historically, classical liberals view rights as bestowed by God or derived from some essential human essence.
But many Australians seem to take a more pragmatic view of human rights, as noted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner Mick Gooda. Rights are the important interests and values that democracies have decided to protect.
Okay – so rights don’t come from God, or some human essence; they come from democracy. Hmmmmm. I’m not sure that subscribing to classical liberalism is inconsistent with democracy but I suspect many critics do think just that. She goes go for some paragraphs on what Australians want and expect from a human rights regime that is at odds with classical liberal views. Unfortunately, however, Ms Renshaw runs into a very serious problem (emphasis added).
Where his views have resonated is on subjects such as children in immigration detention. On this issue, Wilson has simply said that he doesn’t think it is right. This is the sort of visceral response shared by most Australians.
In addition to his gut feeling that imprisoning children is wrong, as a classical liberal, Wilson should find the government’s entire asylum seeker policy deeply troubling. What the government is doing is violating the rights of the few (asylum seekers) in the name of achieving a greater good for the many (preventing deaths at sea and protecting Australia’s sovereignty).
To a classical liberal, this sort of utilitarian approach to rights should never be acceptable. Wilson’s intervention on this issue will be important.
I actually don’t disagree with that view – I expect classical liberals do find “asylum seeker policy deeply troubling” and “utilitarian approach to rights should never be acceptable”.
Yet the democracy that is Australia does not find “asylum seeker policy deeply troubling” – quite the contrary. Both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party were competing at the last election to outflank the other on the right on asylum seeker policy.
Whatever “important interests and values” asylum seekers might have, Australian democracy has decided to not protect those rights. In terms of the argument Ms Renshaw has presented in her op-ed this is a fatal flaw in her argument, but it isn’t a fatal flaw in a classical liberal argument. Classical liberals are capable of holding the belief that asylum seeker policy is deeply troubling despite having majority support within a democracy. I don’t understand how she can hold that view – given her argument.