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IPA: slips up? « Previous | |Next »
July 1, 2011

I've often wondered about some of the things that the Melbourne-based Institute of Public Affairs says in public; or what it leaves unsaid. These often give a hint on what lies behind its neo-liberal public face that speaks economic commonsense.

The IPA understands itself to be a centre right think tank, a staunch defender of individual liberty, and libertarian in both economic and social spheres. In public policy terms this cashes out as individuals being best placed to make decisions about their personal and economic affairs; and a deep scepticism of government power in all its forms, whether it is "socialist" planning from the left or social-engineering from the right. It claims to be politically independent, and to be offering impartial and disinterested expertise, and insists that its intellectual integrity and hence credibility is protected by their multiple sources of income.

It is good to have such a libertarian think tank--as distinct from a lobbyist-- and it is to its credit that it plays a strong role in both policy debates and public forums. Our democracy is much the better for the confrontation of opposing policy positions. And yet sometimes its advocates say things that jar. I don't mean those occasions when it obviously acting to as a paid publicist, or ideological mouthpiece, for its clients---eg., Big Tobacco or Big Irrigators---or its defence of climate change denialism because climate change represents a threat to freedom.

I mean those things that jar because they are odd; or strike you as odd; not it's staff defending the hegemony of neo-liberalism in public policy; an ideology that functions to ensure that its consensus across different institutions (media, government, think tanks, universities, public service etc) becomes a public common sense.

A recent example can be found in Asher Jordan's No shortage of land or food ... or hot air at The Drum. In defending the free flow of capital in a globalized world he says:

Put simply, even in the face of challenging climatic conditions, distorting trade rules and growing competition for land use, Australia's farmers still know how to grow success. Rather than imposing more control over their businesses, as proposed by Brown and Joyce, the Government should just butt out. If a NSW farmer wants to sell his land to a Chinese extraction company, it's his God-given right to do so. Now is not the time to start impinging on farmers' rights for the sake of political popularity.

It's that phrase "'s his God-given right to do so." That implies individual liberty is rights based and the rights (eg., property rights) are grounded in God and are not a human creation within western history.

Jordan implicitly links back to Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, and Locke in the 18th century to the belief that individual rights were a fact of nature existing prior to, and independently of, any man-made laws. The purpose of the legislative process is not to create laws or additional rights of the legislators' own design, but merely to proclaim and enforce men's natural rights while taking none of these rights from them. The inference is that the only duty imposed on others by such rights is the negative duty of forbearance – of not interfering with that to which a person has a right. If a person has a right to perform a certain activity, then others have the obligation not to interfere with that activity.

So the foundational underpinning the IPA's defence of individual liberty is religion---in the sense that all humans are endowed with rights by God. Sovereignty, the source of rights, rests with the (Christian) Creator.

The second jarring note lies with what Asher doesn't say. His article is basically a celebration of Australian agriculture:

Our farmers are also ranked amongst the worlds most productive.....These amazing productivity gains have made our farmers one of our nation's greatest economic success stories, attracting solid foreign investment and sustaining thousands of jobs in regional areas.

Not mention that this has come at tremendous environmental damage in the Murray-Darling Basin, the lack of water from drying conditions, the poor land management, or the enormous public subsidies of agriculture by state government intervention.

The latter is agrarian socialism, which is something that the IPA is opposed to in principle. According to their economic principles their position is an economy based on free and competitive markets, and individual liberty and choice, including freedom of association, religion, speech, and the right to property. Definitely not heavy handed state intervention.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 4:24 PM | | Comments (3)


According to Asher Jordan Australia has lots of productive land so it is okay to sell it to Chinese companies that want to mine it for coal. There should be no limits placed on foreign ownership by the state.

The IPA, like the CIS, intervenes into policy debates in order to defend the pre-given neo-liberal positions in public policy about free competitive markets, individual liberty and a minimal state. That is its ideological role--to ensure a consensus that neo-liberalism remains hegemonic in public policy.

The mining company, beit chinese or otherwise, will buy the land it intends to dig up. The farmers can sell willingly at a premium(premium via expediency)or they can fight the miners in which case when they lose they get "fair value" for their property. And the legal costs.
The rights of extraction appear to overwhelm any farmer at the end of the day.

Perhaps the ownership of mining companies needs addressing first.