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Institute of Public Affairs on liberalism « Previous | |Next »
August 15, 2008

I sometimes glance through the Institute of Public Affairs quarterly Review looking for interesting material about liberalism in Australia. Often I'm disappointed as I don't learn that much about liberalism in Australia. A case in point is the editorial in the July issue of the Review by Chris Berg, the editor. Berg says that:

Liberalism's opponent today is not socialism, as it was when the IPA Review was founded in 1947; liberal philosophy now stands against an arguably more challenging adversary--soft 'market-orientated managerialism, which professes an appreciation of competition and commerce, but is in fact dedicated dedicated to limiting it.

That sounds reasonable. But who is Berg referring to when talking about liberalism's opponent? The Liberal Party that has embraced corporatism, big government and defended the entrenched interests of the big end of town? Or the ALP? Or both? We on the left would call Berg's 'market orientated managerialism' neo-liberalism, but Berg seems to imply that this is not liberalism. It is todays left.

Of course. Silly me. How could I forget. But then I thought that today's left had given up socialism for liberalism. Aren't we all liberals today----conservatives excepted, of course? Berg explains:

Today's left do not carry utopian Marxist tracts that contain fully elaborated plans for revolutionary government. But now the left clutches cherry picked studies from fields of psychology and behavioural economics. We are told that markets are irredeemably irrational, that we need to increase taxed in order to fully count for 'social costs;' and externalities, and that only a Nanny State can look after us. The left has replaced the socialist objective with a rigid utilitarianism that has no interest in any philosophical or moral discussion about the appropriate limits of government action.
Dear me. That dastardly left. Who are they? Social liberals? The left--eg.,the ALP-- are Australian liberals because utilitarianism is a classic form of liberalism (Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and all that), and utilitarian liberalism has been Australia's public philosophy since the 1860s or so. As an aside utilitarianism is a moral philosophy as its criteria to judge the right action is the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

I can only infer that what Berg is saying is that todays left must have embraced a false liberalism as opposed to a true liberalism. Why then, is utilitarian liberalism a false liberalism? Berg informs us thus:

They [the left] are nonchalant about the impact their policy prescriptions will have on individual freedom. And they are positively hostile to the concept of personal responsibility---people are too irrational to take responsibility for their own actions, and if they did, there would be too many 'social costs' for the government to possibly tolerate. The need for a liberal of liberalism in 2008 is just as strong as it was in 1947.

Isn't neo-liberalism--- Berg's 'market orientated managerialism'--- all about individual responsibility and rolling back the welfare state of social democracy? Berg, it seems to me, is fighting a family feud within liberalism. The argument is that some form of liberalism (free market liberalism) is good whilst other forms (utilitarian liberalism) is bad.

The core philosophical issue here is: 'what is the philosophical basis or justification for Berg's good liberalism, if it is not utilitarianism? Why should we choose his good (libertarian) liberalism as opposed to the bad liberalism of today's left? Presumably, the account would be along the lines that it gives us greater individual freedom, understood in a negative sense of freedom from state regulation and coercion. So why is greater negative freedom better? Because.......?

The IPA owe us an account here, since, on my reading of their publications, they reject both social liberalism and rights based (a natural rights doctrine) liberalism. Is there another form of liberalism? Or is the IPA crowd closet utilitarians? I've interpreted the IPA as working within the ‘Austrian school’ of economists, (Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek); a tradition that is more concerned with the ultimate aggregate benefits of free markets and with the need to counter the state's inherent tendencies to expansion and inefficiency. This school is consequentialist in orientation and so utilitarian.

if this interpretation is plausible, then Berg's argument against today's left for being utilitarian liberals no longer holds because the IPA crowd are also utilitarians. Consequently, further argument is needed to distinguish the good utilitarian liberalism of the IPA from the bad utilitarian liberalism of today's left (Rudd Labor). The word 'rigid' is not enough to do the work required.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 8:44 AM | | Comments (29)


The IPA just hates regulation of the free market. Regulation is about intervention into the free market. The latter would do its job if it were just left alone by heavy handed governments (the Nanny State), which trammel on the freedom of rational, self-interested individuals.

You are right. The IPA"s Liberalism is reduced to free markets and economic liberty. The IPA fosters the fiction is that the voice of liberalism is in danger of being heard in Australia--despite liberalism being the philosophy in which all public debates take place. Liberalism is all pervasive in Australia in terms of political philosophy and public policy.

Re: The first 3 paragraphs

Sounds like the (classical) liberalism is being moderated, as all political philosophies should be, therefore liberalism has for the most part reached it's beneficial limits. The next BIG step is complete deregulation and unregulate everything which leads to chaos and disorder. Which is what most ardent libertarians really are - anarchists.

However I will be going off topic if I rail on about them.


I suggest we are using the same words with different meanings. In the editorial I have grouped the managerialist parts of the Labor Party - the parts which appear to be in power - in with the 'left'. If you disagree with that grouping, then that is your right, but I suggest most Labor party politicians would still consider themselves of the left.

I also think you use the word 'liberalism' to mean a wider group of ideologies than is understood by IPA Review readers, who, at least in this case, I have tried to write for.

The distinction I tried to draw in the editorial was between pro-market and pro-free market political ideologies. The liberalism I advocate is a libertarian liberalism, where liberty is valued at least partly for its own sake, rather than a utilitarian liberalism, which, as you rightly point out, has dominated Australian history.

The editorial is available online -

I do think in terms of liberalism as a political philosophy as a tradition with many strands. I'm happy if you are willing to qualify IPA liberalism as a free market liberalism as that distinguishes it from, say social liberalism. I call it free market liberalism, not libertarianism, as I am not persuaded that the IPA is consistently libertarian. I detect social conservative tendencies.

I have no quarrel with the todays ALP being of the Left. Nor do I have any quarrel with you writing for an IPA audience who understand liberalism in terms of free market liberalism. I would also agree that managerial orientated liberalism--ie.,neo-liberalism--is different from classic liberalism or libertarianism.

I'm also at ease at you having a go at utilitarian liberalism as that strand has authoritarian tendencies arising from the greatest happiness for the greatest number principle.

My puzzlement lies with you characterizing managerial orientated liberalism as just of the left (ie., the Labor Party) when clearly it was also a part of the mode of governance put in place by the Liberal Party when in power, not withstanding Howard's Burkean conservatism and the authoritarianism of the national security state. The Liberal Party in power had a dubious record on free markets, competition and individual liberty and that record undermined its rhetoric.

your link to the editorial does not work.It leads to an error.

is classical liberalism the same as libertarism? If libertarianism evolved from the classical liberal tradition, then I would argue that what libertarianism has become today is somewhat different to classical liberalism.

This is how I understand it. On the whole libertarianism has morphed into anarcho-capitalism as you suggest. Classical liberalism keeps the state but wants it minimal. Unlike libertarians, classical liberals uphold constitutionally limited government for the purposes of defence, keeping the peace, enforcing the law, protection of property rights & civil liberties as well as providing some basic public services.

Chris Berg says that IPA's free market liberalism is a libertarian liberalism, when I would interpret it as more akin to classical liberalism.

Nan, that must have been my error - if you strip off the final full stop, the link should work:

Gary, I think we agree on more than you realise. I totally agree that the Liberal party shared many of the same characteristics in government that the Labor party is showing now. The word 'liberalism' in this context appears to be muddying the discussion. In my editorial at least, I use liberalism to contrast against a brand of managerialism, exhibited by both parties, but particularly obvious in the Rudd government. At least there were members of the Liberal government who were interested in discussing the appropriate limits of government action.

You may detect some degree of social conservatism in the IPA, which has certainly been historically true of the organisation, but I think you will find that the IPA's published material over the last 4 years is almost entirely libertarian. 4 years ago saw a new executive director, a new editor, and a nearly total changeover in research and administration staff. But nevertheless, a think tank where all the writers are most autonomous cannot ensure any great ideological consistency. Libertarianism is a broader church than you grant it - I do not agree that it has just 'morphed into anarcho-capitalism' as you suggest, and it is in many cases indistinguishable from classical liberalism. Not all libertarians want competing legal systems, and it is the moderate brand of libertarianism that most at the IPA subscribe to.

a standard definition of libertarianism as a political philosophy is that

governmental authority cannot justifiably extend beyond the defense of private property, keeping individuals from harming each other, and the defense of the nation as a whole. Everything else that a government does is illegitimate and abusive. Libertarians believe that the free market is the basis for a free society and that the government should not interfere with how the market operates - thus, a laissez-faire system of capitalism is best.

The word 'harm' indicate the utilitarian underpinnings.

Another account holds that all libertarians, by definition, at least oppose the initiatory use of coercion.

They support the rational principle of the individual human rights of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. This means that each individual has the right to keep what he earns for himself and his family, and this includes the right to use, trade, sell, give away, or dispose of his property as he sees fit. A person who violates the rights of others by initiating coercion, violence, or fraud against them forfeits his right to be left alone by government and may be arrested, charged, tried, and imprisoned, deported or executed if convicted (depending on the nature of his or her crimes). The basic, proper function of lawful government is therefore limited to protecting these rights of the peaceful individual from criminals and foreign aggression, and in not violating these rights itself, for if government is allowed to go beyond this legitimate function and itself initiates force in violation of the rights of peaceful citizens, it necessarily contradicts the only rational justification for its own existence by acting criminally itself.

This is a different form of libertarianism--a rights based one deriving from John Locke.
Real libertarians take individual rights seriously - seriously enough to consistently uphold them against the initiation of the use of force by anyone (including government) for any reason. This means that government must be bound by the policy of "laissez faire" - which means that government has no business coercively interfering with the lives of peaceful (non-coercive) citizens in their private affairs and voluntary (market) relationships.

I do not hear the IPA crowd strongly talk in terms of individual rights.

Hence my interpretation of the IPA as closet utilitarians.


There is a phrase in the think tank community: 'I'm not a utilitarian, but I play one on television'. Public policy debate in Australia is largely utilitarian - we have to engage on those terms, or be made irrelevant. The press and the public do not take kindly to arguments from first principles when debating technical policy issues.

However, I suggest you read further material by the "IPA crowd" - I think you will find a great deal about individual rights and the opposition to coercion. Apart from assuring you that I and most of my colleagues are 'libertarian' in the sense that you have described, I'm not sure what further to do for you.

I accept the need to talk the utilitarian talk in policy circles in order to get your policy point across. I agree that talk about first principles has no place in such circles. But I am not really concerned about debating first principles on this weblog, as public opinion is about public policy issues.

My argument in the update was that your criticism of today's left being the enemy of liberalism, because they were rigid utilitarian liberals who embraced soft 'market-orientated managerialism, was undermined by the IPA's tacit utilitarianism used to justify their libertarian positions of free markets, limited government and individual freedom.

An example: Hugh Tobin's article 'How long until our pubs have no beer' in the July issue of Review (it's not online) finishes thus:

Alcohol will always be a part of Australian culture. And an overwhelming majority of Australian's consume alcohol responsibly and want to continue to be able to do so. The majority do not deserve to be punished for the violent crimes of the few. But they should be protected from them, and that protection will come from more effective policing, not from knee-jerk policy decisions.

No rights are used by Tobin here to justify the 'should be protected'. It's the greatest happiness of the greatest number that provides the justification. Tobin also tacitly uses the idea of harm caused by the violent crimes of the few to get his claim---that the decent, responsible majority should be protected from the actions of the criminal few--- up and running. So Tobin is a utilitarian.

Your argument against the utilitarian left is weak because your IPA community also relies on utilitarianism. The only way that you distinguish the bad and good types of utilitarianism is 'rigid'---but what does that mean other than to say that today's left is rigid whilst the IPA is flexible. Honestly, what hangs on that distinction? If something does, than it needs unpacking so that we can understand your criticism of the conduct of today's left (Rudd Labor).

Gary, thanks, I'm a little clearer about your critique.

Certainly, you have identified an example of utilitarian reasoning, but I think that employing utilitarian reasoning should in this case be contrasted with the pursuit of a utilitarian goal - which is, I think, another way of describing the 'rigid' utilitarian managerialism that I originally described.

The distinction between the two camps in the editorial is (I hope) the distinction between those who would pursue a utilitarian public policy until it came up against a philosophical wall, and those who have no such wall. In the later case, this would be utilitarianism as a goal in and of itself. 'Rigid', if you will.

its my turn to be puzzled.I don't get what you are driving at. Can you give me an example?

What the hell is "social liberalism"?

The Hayek-Friedman "liberals" got their chance to impose the magic of the "free" market via the applied policies of the Chicago Boyz.

Beginning in Chile (chilly!!!) they were actively involved (with the help of right wing catholics) in the orchestrated removal of the democratically elected Salvador Allende.

They thus moved from country to country on their systematic cultural wrecking project. And in the midst of the wreckage their big-business backers orchestrated the systematic theft of untold wealth and riches from each country thus restructured---including of course Iraq.

One person (I forget who) described the process of theft in Iraq as the largest exercise of theft in the shortest period of time in recorded history.

In each country they even put in place new "laws" which cemented their actions and prevented the possibility of changing the now "legal" status quo.

The lives of millions of people were ruined quite literally over night.

All of this is written up in The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. A book which features copious fact-checked footnotes.

Needless to say the trolls at IPA (or the CIS) do not like the said book.

So called "libertarians" are just perpetual adolescents who are incapable of accepting the inherent demand for reciprocal relationship inherent in the human condition.

If you create a "culture" based on everyone for themselves,or a house divided into infinite competing fragments, then the house WILL fall apart in very quick time.

Put in another way, all of the cultural patterns that bind us together (the patterns that connect) will be shredded in very quick time.

Have you read the news?

social liberalism. You don't have much sympathy for it from what I can gather.

Nan, I am all for social liberalism.

But the question is what kind of discriminative intelligence informs the mind and actions of the common person.

Unfortunately the consumerist mob-mind created in the image of TV now rules the world.

Neil Postman told us that we are "amusing to death". I would add that we are also consuming ourselves to death.

A quote from the Social Wisdom Teaching of my favourite philosopher. Which is effectively a radical critique of the "world"-view promoted by the IPA, the CIS and all of the right wing think tanks.

"There is no cheap clever method for every-man in this entropic time of aggressive consumerism, universal indiscriminate waste-bound consumption of everything and virtually totalistic scientific and technological world domination".

I'm enjoying this dialogue and would also like to see how Chris Berg's distinction between rigid and flexible utilitarianism operates in practice.

you say above that the distinction between the two political camps in your editorial in the July issue of the IPA Review is:

the distinction between those who would pursue a utilitarian public policy until it came up against a philosophical wall, and those who have no such wall. In the later case, this would be utilitarianism as a goal in and of itself. 'Rigid', if you will.

What is the philosophical wall? I can see that banging into the wall would be an example of being rigid, as flexibility would ensure that you would avoid hitting the wall.

Is the philosophical wall support for the car industry, as outlined in the Bracks Report?

Is it free permits for polluters (coal-fired power stations) in an emissions trading scheme?

Is it an emissions trading scheme?

Is it the refusal by the Brumby Government in Victoria to allow water trading beyond the 6% of water reserves in the Murray-Darling Basin?

These are all example based around economics and Australian economics is deeply utilitarian in its rigor and precision. So where has economic policy making hit the philosophical wall on these issues.

I'm not an economist or a philosopher or a policy wonk, but I can give an example of a philosophical wall.

It is the over-allocation of water licences in the Murray Darling Basin, justified by water development, economic growth and wealth creation. The wall that is hit is the ecological health of the River Murray---we see the limits of economic growth at the expense of ecological health. Destroy the river and you destroy the irrigation industry.

I'm not sure the IPA crew would agree with this account of the limits of utilitarian economics that turned the River Murray into an irrigation channel through a series of barrages. Jennifer Marohasy, for instance, says that the ecological health of the River Murray has improved, and argues that the over-allocation of water entitlements is minimal, and that the drought is the main problem.

Gary, in this case, the 'philosophical wall' could be described as a value which limits the use of government action. Therefore, an Australia classical liberal or libertarian might see the value of, for instance, reducing late night street violence as a goal, but due to their philosophical beliefs about the necessary limits of government coercion, they would oppose a lockout or curfew - even if they thought it would be a successful at reducing the original problem.

Without that wall, nothing but political expedience can restrain government coercion.

The Update is very confusing. I'm not convinced that the Austrian School is utilitarian, nor do I think that the IPA can placed within that school of thought. On methodological grounds there is nobody at the IPA who could be decribed as being an Austrian School economist.

the update was trying to make sense of Hayek's account of true and liberalism in the Australian context.

My reading of Hayek is that he regards Benthamite utilitarianism as resting on human omniscience and complete rationality--features of a false constructivist rationalist liberalism. He argues that the British tradition of utilitarians--Bentham, Mill--and that of the New Liberals--- Keynes and Beveridge--- subverted the British tradition of liberty of Smith and Hume, who stand for true, evolutionary liberalism. The latter holds that government interference is necessarily despotic and must be limited to the minimum possible.

On my interpretation the IPA stands in the latter liberal tradition. Hayek reworks that tradition as a part of his defence of capitalism as a moral and economic order. The moral order is premised on individual freedom and responsibility. Freedom (good) is counterpoised to coercion(bad) and is understood in terms of negative liberty. I interpret the IPA as working in this kind of liberal framework, even though Hayek is no libertarian.

Given this kind of understanding I was surprised to discover examples of utilitarian reasoning within the latest issue of the IPA Review--eg., in the article by Hugh Tobin.


I think we resolved the utiltarian argument discussion earlier when you conceded that it was necessary to engage Australian public policy debates from a (mostly) utilitarian perspective. The Tobin piece would fall directly into this category.

Nevertheless, if you consider that the IPA is just a bunch of 'closet' utilitarians, finding openly utilitarian reasoning in the IPA Review is a strange way to demonstrate your case.

You are looking for an methodological consistency would be hard to find in any organistion of the IPA's size. All IPA fellows have a preference for limited government intervention in the Australian economy and society. Regardless of the perspective that they come to this view, I think you will find it a consistent goal.

I don't mean a 'closet utilitarian' in a bad sense.

I would say that some of the members of the IPA are closet utilitarians, in the sense that Hume and Hayek are: they often resort to utilitarian arguments-- as does Tobin---even though Hayek claims to have left utilitarianism behind or to have rejected it. For Hayek the resort to utilitarianism re-appears when he argues that the liberal order is the best one in human civilization

My claim is that the resort to utilitarian arguments is more substantive than merely adopting the language operationally ie., in order to be able to be heard in public policy circles.

I am not really having a go a the IPA. Personally I reckon your insight in the editorial is on the right track: that there is something deeply troubling about utilitarianism.

(My own view,for what it is worth, is that this tradition is too willing to sacrifice the few to ensure the satisfaction of the majority. When coupled to Hayek this means that the few must be sacrificed (accept their lot) to ensure the proper functioning of the general order of the market. This sucks because it means the deprivation of freedom as self-determination and so hollows out the liberal value of freedom.

I just didn't think that you made your argument in a way that made much sense, given that the left works in a liberal tradition and that utilitarianism can be found amongst those on the right of centre. That is why I asked to give an example of where you reckoned utilitarianism sucked.

I agree with your position about street violence and curfew. A curfew, like censorship, is bad news in a liberal order structured around individual freedom. A bit more policing is preferable.

You say that an

Australian classical liberal or libertarian might see the value of, for instance, reducing late night street violence as a goal, but due to their philosophical beliefs about the necessary limits of government coercion, they would oppose a lockout or curfew - even if they thought it would be a successful at reducing the original problem

What has that to do with a rigid utilitarianism? Are you arguing that utilitarianism leads to state coercion?


I see. "Social liberalism" is just "Socialism" with a perm and a blow dry.

silly boy its liberalism not socialism

"I am not really having a go a the IPA. Personally I reckon your insight in the editorial is on the right track: that there is something deeply troubling about utilitarianism."

It's simply another way of saying 'quantity over quality'.

What if "most people's" idea of happiness were merely to accumulate as many material goods as possible? Well, the environment would have to take a back seat, society could be engineered exclusively in the interests of increasing production and consumption (i.e. brave new world)

Alternatively, and more hypothetically speaking, If the goal for our whole society is something as atomised as the 'greatest happiness for the greatest amount of people', we may as well hook ourselves into the pleasure matrix or be shot with happy drugs!

Accompanied by an an allegiance to Pluralism Utilitarianism is a social philosophy that, almost by definition, levels the goals of a society down to the lowest common denominator and ignores the view that society could be a shared project rather than an ever-increasing compromise.