Liberalism unrelinquished, an Australian perspective

 

Today (16 June) marks the first observance of ‘Liberalism Day,’ an occasion in which people are encouraged to discuss the true meaning of the age‑old word ‘liberalism.’ So, happy Liberalism Day, everyone!

For those on Twitter, the hashtag to discuss these issues is #LiberalismDay. There are also two websites associated with this occasion: the main Liberalism Day website, and an accompanying Liberalism Unrelinquished website. By all means, join in the social media conversation and have a read of the good material on both sites (including an excellent short interview conducted by Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute).

This welcome initiative has been organised by Kevin Frei and Daniel Klein, and many around the world (including yours truly and, in fact, numerous Australian classical liberal identities) have strongly supported this initiative.

To mark this occasion in some small way, I want to briefly discuss the thought of late colonial and early Federation era businessman, politician, barrister, and classical liberal, Bruce Smith.

220px-Bruce_Smith_(Australian_politician)

Smith was a free‑trade New South Wales parliamentarian for the seat of Gundagai from 1882 to 1884, moved to Victoria establishing the Victorian Employers’ Union, returned to represent the NSW state seat of Glebe from 1889 to 1894, and later became a federal parliamentarian from 1901 to 1919. It is my understanding that Bruce Smith played a hand in financing the publication of Edward William Foxall’s book Colorphobia, an early critique of the ‘White Australia Policy.’

Bruce Smith’s tireless advocacy for the liberal cause, as classically understood, had largely become unrecognised, especially after the cessation of his political career, as the twentieth century wore on. This lack of recognition came, in no small part, as a result of the wholesale embrace of socialistic policy causes throughout much of the last century, for instance Keynesianism, the war economy, the governmental welfare state, policy paternalism, the Green movement and so on, which, accordingly, suppressed the coverage of truly liberal perspectives within intellectual circles and the general media.

Smith’s most prominent work, Liberty & Liberalism, was originally published in 1887 and, thankfully, republished in 2005 by the Centre for Independent Studies (with an insightful introduction by Greg Melleuish). Reference to this book appears on the Liberalism Unrelinquished website, and for very good reason.

In Chapter 5, Smith engages in a philosophical meditation regarding the meaning of the term ‘liberty,’ not only drawing from a wide range of most important intellectual contributors (including Edmund Burke, John Locke, and Herbert Spencer), but with having regard to various states of economic and social development.

With respect to the latter, he describes ‘the condition of primitive man’ as synonymous with a liberty defined as the ‘freedom to do as one wishes; freedom from restraint’ (p. 147 in revised edition). However, on account of the need to ensure security of private property rights in advanced societies, and influenced by a Benthamite emphasis upon the need to secure happiness, Smith offers the following definition as the ‘true principle of liberalism:’

‘in order to obtain for a community the largest aggregate amount of happiness, each member of it should have secured to him the most absolute freedom or liberty; subject only to such limitations as are necessary in order to secure equal freedom or liberty to all other members’ (p. 148).

The long sub‑title of the book, A Protest against the Growing Tendency toward Undue Interference by the State with Individual Liberty, Private Enterprise and the Rights of Property, encapsulates very starkly the concerns Smith harboured with regard to the decline of acceptability within Australia of the original meaning of the term liberalism, which concerns the freedom for individuals from unwarranted coercion and restraint exerted by others.

In many instances throughout the book Smith identified, with obvious concern, the outgrowth of socialistic policy inhibitions upon the exercise of individual liberties, most, if not all, of which were erroneously, and often deceitfully, justified as ‘liberal’ policies. The misappropriation of true, classical liberalism was referred to by Smith as the application of a ‘spurious liberalism.’

In Chapter 8 of Liberty & Liberalism, Smith goes through painstaking details several instances of spurious liberalism, reflected in industrial relations regulations, the ‘false philanthropy’ of forced transfers from one class of people to another, and some other policies emergent during the late nineteenth century. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this discussion is the timeless applicability of Smith’s original arguments, rendered over a century ago, to contemporary debates.

Smith reminds his readers that ‘the more one knows of legislation, the less it will be believed capable of actually producing happiness for the people, that is to say, happiness of a positive nature. It can prevent aggression and abuse by one citizen over another. It can guarantee to every citizen the freedom to do his very best for himself. But parliament possesses no mysterious power. It is nothing more than the whole people, concentrated, for purposes of practical debate. It can no more make wealth, or the comforts of life, than any other body of mere debaters. It cannot bestow comforts or luxuries on any one class, without taking them from some other class. Directly it commences such a process, it strikes a blow at the very tap‑root of our social system; at the peace and goodwill which is even now maintained in the face of all the inevitable pains and anxieties of life; at that confidence in the security of property which constitutes the main incentive to work and accumulation. And, if it goes further, and inaugurates a permanent system of state interference with individual rights and liberties, upon which our civilisation has been reared, that too will inevitably fall, and with it will disappear all the motives of self‑interest and self‑help’ (p. 280).

As Australian proponents take today to celebrate the rich inheritance of true, classical liberalism – a philosophy which, in practical terms, has enabled human beings to become richer, safer, healthier, smarter, happier, and more socially accepting, everywhere it has been applied to its fullest extent – let us remind ourselves of the key lessons outlined in the ‘extended present’ of the past by Bruce Smith, truly a great Australian liberal.

Update: For those interested in reading more about Smith, the Liberty Fund has maintained an online version of Liberty & Liberalism, as well as selected quotations. The relevant website link is here.

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35 Responses to Liberalism unrelinquished, an Australian perspective

  1. .

    “Bruce”!

    A bloody big mechanical shark, namesake of the Scottish liberator, caricatured burly Australian university professors or a tireless champion of liberty from the Riverina.

    I have taken a liking to this name.

  2. Ms Dolittle

    Great advice thanks Julie… I am about switch the office phone to message bank for a ladies’ lunch with the white witches (as one husband apparently calls us). We will be sure to propose a toast to Bruce Smith et al.

  3. Alfonso

    Alas Julie, they want as much State in their lives as possible because it means less personal responsibility financially and otherwise . You can have freedom or equality, not both. See LibLab Inc.

  4. I am wearing my glitter boots and doing a proud series of high kicks in honour of the great small-l liberal tradition.

    As Australian proponents take today to celebrate the rich inheritance of true, classical liberalism – a philosophy which, in practical terms, has enabled human beings to become richer, safer, healthier, smarter, happier, and more socially accepting, everywhere it has been applied to its fullest extent – let us remind ourselves of the key lessons outlined in the ‘extended present’ of the past by Bruce Smith, truly a great Australian liberal.

    Let us indeed. And let us also have char kway teow for lunch from Papa Wok on Colin St in West Perth. It makes a fine char kway teow.

  5. hammy

    So-called “classical” liberalism is nothing but the philosophy of the basest selfishness. Small-l liberalism on the other hand encourages us to think of the welfare of others, particularly those less well-off than ourselves. Government has a huge role to play in the latter philosophy, which is the basis of civilisation.

  6. Fisky

    So-called “classical” liberalism is nothing but the philosophy of the basest selfishness. Small-l liberalism on the other hand encourages us to think of the welfare of others

    Both are inferior compared to the success of Soviet Communism and in particular Joseph Stalin’s magnificent period in office.

  7. .

    Yes Hammy, freedom means you let people get rich, the ALP decides then to tax the poor for their own good, re: excise tax, then this feeds their onanistic vanity.

  8. Fuck off, hammy.

    [continues high kicks]

  9. Infidel Tiger

    Happy Liberalism Day!

    As soon as I can find my bike helmet and fluoro vest I’ll cycle down the shops for a celebratory plain packaged cigar.

  10. Ms Dolittle

    Fuck off, hammy.

    [continues high kicks]

    Nicely played Philippa. Could you make lunch with us next time? As Anne will attest, it really was a business meeting – we brainstormed (sans whiteboard) and came up with a neat fun size personal protection bacon spray – for the smart girl’s handbag. What da’ think?

  11. Anne

    I’m coming around to Hammy’s point of view.

    The sooner all wealth and production is destroyed the sooner the ‘survival of the fittest’ principle will kick in.

    In a world of self reliance or death, no leftie would survive.

    Problem solved.
    ————–

    Lunch could be tricky, Ms D; Philippa lives in Perth I think.

  12. Ms Dolittle

    Small-l liberalism on the other hand encourages us to think of the welfare of others,

    Oh I see, a 48% tax rate is encouragement for me, how kind.
    Government didn’t encourage me to door knock (waste of time) for the Salvos as I did a few Sundays ago – I did it under my own free will (stupid me). Bloody gubbam’nt, never there when you need them.

  13. Ms Dolittle

    Lunch could be tricky, Ms D; Philippa lives in Perth I think.

    Time difference works to our advantage! One must remain positive re: luncheon.

  14. Tel

    … an occasion in which people are encouraged to discuss the true meaning of the age‑old word ‘liberalism.

    Present day Liberal Party not invited then?

    I hope you remembered to put your request into the UN to get 16th of June, because June is pretty full. You will have to sandwich in between World Elder Abuse Awareness Day and World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. The committee might decide that the cause of Liberty could overly detract from the greatness and impact of those other highly important days. Anyhow, good luck with the permit application!

    Failing that, have you tried Octember? Or Grune?

    Hey, a long standing dream of mine has been to have a world recognized “International Day of Not Having International Days of Anything”. Can I double-up with you guys and share the 16th of June (or whatever you finally get allocated, presuming the paperwork comes back)? I’m also in the market for snappier names for my day.

  15. nerblnob

    Hm. Papa Wok is just down from where I work when in Perth. But it’s a helluva steep hill.

    It’s a demented world when “classic liberalism” (laissez-faire) is regarded as “basest selfishness” (donnez-moi!). Quite the opposite I’d have thought.

  16. Anne

    That would be… Aidez-vous, Nerblnob. :-)

  17. nerblnob

    Merci Anne. Je parle le francais comme une vache espagnole.

  18. Anne

    Hahaha..that’s what I always say Nerb.

  19. Anne

    Tip Nerb, get a French keyboard on your iPad. It helps with spelling and accents.

    Malheureusement, il n’aide pas avec la grammaire. ;-)

  20. JC

    Anne

    You have an appalling gravatar. The worst.

  21. Anne

    Seemed apt. You think not JC.

    What is your particular criticism?

    Cat has no fringe?

  22. Anne

    I’ll change it.

    Thank you.

  23. nerblnob

    Looks a bit like the Agip doggie.

  24. Anne

    Yes, I suppose so Nerb, but vomiting not breathing fire.

    Less sexy…

  25. Nicely played Philippa. Could you make lunch with us next time? As Anne will attest, it really was a business meeting – we brainstormed (sans whiteboard) and came up with a neat fun size personal protection bacon spray – for the smart girl’s handbag. What da’ think?

    Hmmm. Sadly, this would attract more of the type of men I hang round with, rather than repel them.

    On the other hand, a little dab behind the ears might really do the trick on my next hot date.

  26. Anne

    It would keep away the muslims, Philippa.

  27. Even better, Anne. Even better. It means I get close enough to stick a potato up the exhaust pipe and possibly some sugar in the petrol tank as well.

  28. Anne

    A friend was telling me that someone buried a pig on the site near the World Trade Centre where they wanted to build a mosque. It put the kibosh on the whole deal.

    Don’t know if that is true.

    Anyway, Ms Doolittle’s pig spray idea grew out of that story and a comment about pepper spray.

  29. nerblnob

    Damn, it won’t let me fix it.

  30. Gab

    Colorphobia

    Love the dedication to Labor voters. I think I’m going to enjoy reading that book. Thanks, Nerblnob.

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