What is a Liberal?

In the Australian context, the two major political parties are the Liberal Party and Australian Labor.

The Liberal party is a fusion of classical liberals, libertarians and conservatives.

Classical Liberalism is a doctrine stressing the importance of human rationality, individual property rights, natural rights, constitutional limitations of government, the protection of civil liberties, an economic policy with heavy emphasis on free markets, and individual freedom from restraint.

Libertarianism believes that every person is the absolute owner of his or her own life and should be free to do whatever he wishes with his person or property, as long as he respects the liberty of others. There are two types of libertarians. One type holds as a fundamental maxim that all human interaction should be voluntary and consensual. They maintain that the initiation of force against another person or his property – with “force”  meaning the use of physical force, the threat of it, or the commission of fraud against someone – who has not initiated physical force, threat, or fraud, is a violation of that principle. Libertarians generally do not oppose force used in response to initiatory aggressions such as violence, fraud or trespassing. Libertarians favor an ethic of self-responsibility and strongly oppose the welfare state, because they believe forcing someone to provide aid to others is ethically wrong, ultimately counter-productive, or both. Libertarians also strongly oppose conscription because they believe no one should be forced to fight a war they oppose.

Conservatism is a political philosophy that favours traditional values. The term derives from the Latin, conservare, to conserve; “to keep, guard, observe”.  Since different cultures have different established values, conservatives in different cultures have different goals. Some conservatives seek to preserve the status quo, while others seek to return to the values of an earlier time, the status quo ante.

In Australia, Conservatives are mostly of the status quo ante variety believing that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. The rule of law above a monoculture of absolutes.

Conservatives want to conserve particular forms of human identity and relationships. These include:

– the relationship between members of an ethnic group based on a shared ancestry, culture, religion, history and language

– our masculine identity as men or feminine identity as women

– our role as fathers and mothers or husbands and wives within a family and our place within a family tradition

– marital love and paternal & maternal love

– our sense of connectedness to nature and our attachment to a particular locality

– a positive sense of our moral nature and of the existence of an objective moral order

Conservatives believe that historically, individuals did not create these things for themselves. Instead these forms of relationships grew in a distinctive way within a particular tradition. Some of these oppose the very idea of classical liberalism.

Collectively this fusion of philosophies like to govern in the manner of economic rationalism or neoliberalism as it is called in other parts of the world.

Neoliberalism refers to a political-economic philosophy that de-emphasizes or rejects government intervention in the domestic economy. It focuses on free-market methods, fewer restrictions on business operations, and property rights.

There are other similar definitions:

  • Government policy combining domestic free markets with coercive opening of foreign markets by political means
  • A philosophy that takes the conditions of the market to be the moral perfection of mankind and unconnected to efficacy of producing goods.
  • The rule of the market entirely by microeconomic units and rejection of macroeconomic concepts and hierarchies such as the good of the state and society.

With the wane of trade union influence on Australian politics we can focus more on today’s underlying philosophy of the Australian Labor Party than the communist and socialist affiliations of the traditional union.

Today’s Labor consists largely of social liberals and social democrats.

Social liberals value liberty, rights and freedoms, and private property as fundamental to individual happiness, and regard democracy as an instrument to maintain a society where each individual enjoys the greatest amount of liberty possible. While the State does have an important role in ensuring positive liberty, social liberals tend to trust that individuals are usually capable in deciding their own affairs, and generally do not need deliberate steering towards happiness.

Social democracy, on the other hand, has its roots in socialism, and (especially in democratic socialist forms) typically favours a more community-based view. While social democrats also value individual liberty, they do not believe that real liberty can be achieved for the majority without transforming the nature of the State itself. Social democrats retain a strong scepticism for capitalism, which needs to be regulated (or at least “managed” ) for the greater good. This focus on the greater good may, potentially, make social democrats more ready to step in and steer society in a direction that is deemed to be more equitable.

I believe sensible libertarians or their offshoot known as minarchists would also find a home in Australian Labor along with the social liberals. Minarchists have a consequentialist or utilitarian viewpoint. Instead of having moral prohibitions against initiation of force, Minarchists support a limited government that engages in the minimum amount of initiatory force (such as levying taxes to provide some public goods such as defense, law, and roads, as well as some minimal regulation), because they believe it to be necessary to ensure maximum individual freedom.

Today’s Labor also governs in the manner of economic rationalism but are not entirely against socialist or arguably social democratic principles of nationalising infrastructure and they are not opposed to intervention in the economy in a Keynesian manner.

So we have liberally applied intervention in Labor and liberally applied individual autonomy in the Liberals.

So I ask, what is a Liberal?

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One response to “What is a Liberal?

  1. Nom de Plume

    My political philosophy would be Socialist Libertarianism, because Welfare I believe is integeral to the success of Civilisation.

    We are not all equal you see, and never can be. Pure Libertarianism does not factor this in. On its own, it’s a dog eat dog philosophy with good manners hiding the blood shed resulting from it.

    Seems perfectly unreasonable to me that those who are from afluence, smart and then educated should then take a share of the world far beyond their needs and reasonable wants and, to the detriment of those who were not born into afluence, smart or significantly educated.

    The earth is a shared experience and if those who are greedy want more than their share, then compensation to those from who they take, should be afforded. Hence Welfare.

    My problem in all of this is the tyranny of democracy which does not show itself to be especially fair in many cases, leaving minority groups such as ethnics and rural dwellers without a significant voice of worth.

    As to what a Liberal is? It is a word without meaning associated at least in Australia with a conservative political party. But that party would be better described by other words with meaning such as Conservatives.

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