When I became the first overt libertarian to be elected to the Australian Senate in 2013, I thought I would use my maiden speech to try and sum up my world view. In this speech, I outlined why I believe the role of governments should be limited to the protection of life, liberty and private property. I tried to highlight the importance of personal responsibility, the dangers of creeping government interference, and the fundamental right to be left alone so long as we’re not harming anyone else.
If I were to give an elevator spiel to someone who wanted to know more about libertarianism, I’d simply tell them that “a libertarian believes you should be able to keep more of your stuff and be left the hell alone”. It sounds too simple to work, but it does, and that’s what is truly great about it.
When you look at nations that slash government red tape, protect private property rights and safeguard civil liberties, you see societies where opportunity abounds, people escape from poverty, and civil society flourishes.
In fact, these policies have done more to lift people out of poverty than any government program anywhere. Free markets and free trade are responsible for one of the most remarkable achievements in human history: from 35% of the world’s population living on US$1.90 or less in 1990 to 10.7% in 2013, according to the World Bank.
As I see it, those who believe in a limited role for governments and the promotion of personal freedom, aka libertarians, are the great optimists of the world. An optimist would never dream of dictating how and when someone else should do something unless it was to prevent harm to another person. An optimist would never look at someone more successful and seek to grab some of their income or wealth. An optimist would never want to see more restrictions on our everyday lives.
Conversely, people who seek to control others, to take more of their earnings, and to redistribute it according to their values, tend to have a pessimistic view. Only a pessimist could look at society and think, we need more control over the daily lives of others. Only a pessimist would think their better off neighbours should be taxed more heavily or that their hard earned should be used on even more government programs.
A lot of the people who fall on the left side of Australian politics will probably decry the fact that I think they’re pessimists. They’ll say they’re the ones with a true and caring heart, and that redistributing wealth is a lofty goal because it helps those in need. This is demonstrably false, as all the evidence shows, but I will happily admit that such people have a heart, if not brains. The old saying, “if you’re not a socialist at 20 you have no heart, but if you’re still a socialist at 40 you have no brains”, still explains a lot.
The best thing about being an optimist and a libertarian is that it seems to be pretty contagious. In my time as a Senator I’ve seen the Australian liberty movement lift itself to heights I never thought possible. I’ve seen more and more media figures, organisations and individuals come to recognise that we can control our own lives and futures without a big, nanny state government breathing down our neck.
I’ve seen Mark Latham, the former Labor leader who was once at the other end of the political spectrum, recognise the virtues of libertarianism and come to agree with much of it. I’ve also seen my own party grow, with Aaron Stonehouse elected to the WA upper house and active branches and members throughout the country.
At a grassroots level, I’ve seen conferences such as the Australian Libertarian Society Friedman Conference – which is dedicated to spreading the libertarian ideal and advocating for small government – grow from humble beginnings to the biggest pro-liberty event in the Asia Pacific region. I have the privilege of once again being able to attend and speak at this event, along with international special guests such as Tom Palmer, who once smuggled banned books into the Soviet Union, and Australian thought leaders like Warren Mundine, Tom Switzer and Chris Berg discussing topics as diverse as how to boost our economy, the role of cryptocurrency, criminal justice reform, the need for nuclear power, and much more.
This is an event that started out as a small get together of like-minded individuals and now attracts over 350 guests and 80 speakers from all walks of life and age groups, who want to see a better, freer Australia. It is a true festival of dangerous ideas, where people can voice their vision of the future and not find themselves in hot water because someone is offended.
It is a catalyst for younger generations who want something better for Australia, and where Australians and international visitors coalesce over the free exchange of ideas. And it is the place where many of Australia’s great optimists come to meet.
David Leyonhjelm is a Senator for the Liberal Democrats