Right Diagnosis, Wrong Prescription
Like delusional socialists claiming what’s needed this time around is ‘actual’ Marxism, a few (Classical) liberals are doubling-down in addressing the failures of liberalism…with yet more liberalism.
A certain amount of discontent with The Liberal Party has bubbled to the surface of late. For one, Campbell Newman, the ex-LNP leader of Queensland has jumped ship and joined the libertarian LDP. As has ex-Liberal and LDP candidate for Warringah, John Ruddick: writing a piece for The Spectator bemoaning the state of the party and explaining his defection on his way out. A missive that was then followed by an appearance with Chris Kenny’s over on Sky and with Janet Albrechtsen in The Australian. Yet whilst Ruddick’s diagnosis of what ails the Liberals is right his remedy is assuredly wrong.
Ruddick’s analysis of the Liberals is rather straightforward: they’ve strayed too far from their Menzian base. Values of fiscal sobriety and self-reliance have given way to a Labor-like behemoth with debt as far as the eye can see. Indeed, Ruddick’s echoing of Menzies’ Liberals as a party that favoured a ‘small state [and] big citizens’ is contrasted with the current incarnation that’s overseen the tyrannical ‘semi-Covid state’ and set us $1.2 trillion in debt.
Although we may quibble about the extent of the debt required in the face of this once-in-a-lifetime — and scientifically engineered — virus, the thrust of Ruddick’s argument rings true: centre-right parties have tilted away from the citizen and towards the heft of the state. Yet this analysis ignores both the position of centre-right parties more broadly and the failures of libertarianism specifically.
Taking first things first, a comparison with the Liberal’s British counterparts is instructive. Under Boris Johnson, an increase in the size of the state and a winding back of some of the harsher elements of Thatcherism has not been met with a wave of defections, but with a resounding win by the Tories at the most recent British election.
A large reason for this is the left on economics, right on culture formula that British academic Matthew Goodwin has defined as the current ‘sweet spot’ for Western politics. A position that’s been partially adopted by Johnson (the first half anyway) and by Morrison here as well. With this prescription a necessity due to the failures of the right’s own laissez-faire past. The remedy’s now required due to the ‘double-dose’ (social and economic) liberalism of the last forty years. Twin developments that have left Western publics both financially unstable and culturally unmoored.
Whilst a free economy is assuredly productive, and it may benefit assorted cohorts and bottom lines (witness the share of productivity growth that’s gone to capital over labour, for one) it’s also a movement that erodes much of the foundations required for the perpetuation of the nation itself. That is: it harms the ability to buy a property, get married and begin a family — i.e. it merely undermines everything a nominally conservative party purportedly stands for and seeks to conserve.
This is also not just a notion that’s bandied about by a few reactionary Burkeans who’ve found themselves on the wrong side of history either, but one that’s borne out by our own enfeebled marriage and fertility rates and by what the latest Intergenerational Report — and the Liberal’s own reliance on mass immigration — tell us is needed to stave off demographic decline. A dilemma that is known to some of our harder-heads, yet one that is also kicked further down the road with each passing administration: why reform when you can import?
Nor is this to mention social liberalism as such. That is, a state of affairs that has brought us such unedifying spectacles as the transgender craze, identity politics and a fractured electorate. Which — if it’s any consolation — is all further evidence of the strength of Goodwin’s analysis: a leftward economic shift provides the stability needed for the formation of family life, whilst a rightward cultural shift gives families a milieu in which to flourish.
Which is why it’s bizarre to see that dissatisfaction with The Liberal Party is met with encouraged defections to the LDP: something akin to jumping out of the frying pan into the proudly unregulated fire. The party of liberty and Leyonhjelm may hold a superficial appeal — particularly under our currently constrained Covid-state — but such a choice is ultimately incoherent.
This is so as all libertarian parties suffer the same fundamental flaw: they mistake freedom for virtue. Liberty is not an end: it’s a good and it’s a means to ends — wisdom, happiness and health to name a few — but it’s not a telos in and of itself. Which is incidentally why the nation most famed for its love of liberty is in the parlous state it’s in and why opposed states such as Japan attract so little attention: sentiments now so blindingly obvious further explanation shouldn’t be required.
In fact, libertarianism is such a philosophically poor prescription that American academic Michael Anton has called it: a feel good suicide pact; the most singularly ineffective movement of the last 50 years; and an impractical ideology that’s utopian, obsessed with purity of doctrine and blind to the complexities and realties of the world.
Added to this are the results of our liberalism as such — whether Classical or otherwise. Although libertarianism may be too much for many, our easy-going liberalism isn’t faring much better. Whether it be the two thirds of us who are overweight or obese, the ubiquity of tattoos and the pervasiveness of gambling, the normalisation of drug use or the spread of contagion such as ‘gender dysphoria’ there’s clearly something rotten in our liberal Denmark.
Indeed, if this litany is able to be framed as a form of success it becomes frighteningly clear how far we’ve fallen and how relativistic we’ve become. So dire is our liberalism that Persian-American author Sohrab Ahmari recently offered a rather striking retort to anyone deluded enough to think otherwise: look around you.
The implication is stunningly obvious: how can we possibly esteem anything we see before us with our very own eyes? If the drug-addicts, the toppled statues and the overweight, acne-prone, blue-haired kids glued to their I-Phones aren’t causes for concern then it’s hard to know what is.
The call for a return to Menzies is also misguided. Menzies’ liberal pronouncements were much more valid for an Australia of a certain day and demos. That is, a much more cohesive and predominantly Anglo-European society that had just emerged from the sacrifice of war and not the atomised one we find ourselves with today. As Robert Putnam has noted, libertarian proposals can only really stand half a chance in societies with high degrees of social trust: which, as our Covid response has confirmed, is assuredly not us.
The Liberal Party of Menzies and the society in which it grew are long gone and the ones we have before us are self-evidently broken, with a large amount of what ails us a direct consequence of liberalism and of the Liberal Party’s own making. What’s needed then is not further liberalism with the likes of the LDP, but a shift in a more Burkean direction. Yet as people like Cory Bernardi and even Ruddick himself have realised: in the Australia of today it’s nigh impossible for any real right-of-centre vision to prevail and in any form at all.
Originally published at https://medium.com on August 24, 2021.