December 19th 2015


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The first Christmas: a birth that set fire to men's hearts

CANBERRA OBSERVED A Nationals welcome no sure thing for Macfarlane

CLIMATE CHANGE $100bn a year climate fund the rub in Paris deadlock

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Free speech petition: appeal all 'right not to be offended' clauses

WATER POLICY Review tells of destruction of farms in Goulburn Valley

CULTURE AND POLITICS Liberalism's disappearing act on human freedom

TAX REVIEW Rise in GST a no go when the need is for jobs

HISTORY Taiwan's first people have survived waves of settlers

FREEDOM OF RELIGION Law not broad enough to contain freedom's flow

SPEECH IN PARLIAMENT Credit where credit is long overdue: B.A. Santamaria

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Swedish daycare part II: problems of weak parenting

CINEMA No life is lived as an island: It's a Wonderful Life

BOOK REVIEW A contribution to Pope Francis' call for a conversation on conservation

LETTERS

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CULTURE AND POLITICS
Liberalism's disappearing act on human freedom


by Brian Coman

News Weekly, December 19, 2015

It is an obvious truth that political liberalism supports the concept of individual freedom, since that is the very core of its ideology. Few people would disagree with such a notion and we might therefore suppose that the whole program of liberalism poses few real problems.

Edmund Burke

But this is manifestly not the case, and many of the social and economic problems we face today in Australia are directly related to forms of unrestrained liberalism which, though proudly advanced as emancipation, actually enslave us in more subtle ways.

Edmund Burke famously wrote that “liberty must be limited in order to be possessed”.

It was also Burke who pointed out the nexus between individual liberty and moral restraint:

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love for justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot he free. Their passions forge their fetters.” (Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, 1791)

This passage from Burke is extremely important for it exactly nails the truth that, if the “controlling power on will and appetite” does not come from within the individual (in terms of a personal code of conduct), then it will be imposed from the outside, in the name of civic order.

For our ancestors, near and remote, such an “internal” moral code was contained within one or other of the great religious traditions, to which the great majority belonged. In the West today, such a situation no longer obtains and, increasingly, we see the state stepping in to assume the “controlling power” that once resided within the individual.

While this process, touted as ‘liberation’, may have begun in the Enlightenment of the 18th century, it reached its zenith in the 1960s with the counter-culture revolt of the young. The jettisoning of traditional moral restraints has been accompanied, in direct and opposite proportion, by a huge rise in state laws and regulations, and by ever increasing surveillance. We have, as Burke says, “forged our own fetters”.

What was once left to each person’s sense of truth, honesty, compassion and trust now requires a stifling miasma of petty laws and regulations. If James Bond was licensed to kill, we must be licensed to live. Business contracts that once might have involved little more than a handshake, now require reams of paper with ever-widening stipulations, qualifying clauses, etc.

The same lack of trust fuels a huge litigation industry where a sort of Hobbesian “warre of everyone against everyone” sees a veritable army of predatory law firms touting for business. An evening’s television viewing on the commercial channels requires that you endure seemingly endless advertisements for such firms, broken only by advertisements for “debt consolidation” or quick cash loans.

Restraints, inner or outer, there must be

All of these are symptomatic of the same disease – unrestrained liberalism coupled with the near total absence of the traditional notions of personal responsibility.

As the state moves to take control in this way, we often fail to understand just how much we have surrendered. When traditional moral truths are abandoned, legal truths often take their place. Here, I would like to quote from an article titled “The proliferation of legal truth” that appeared in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy in 2003, and that was written by Professor J.M. Balkin, of Yale University.

My point … is that law creates truth – it makes things true as a matter of law. … Law’s power grows organically and relentlessly out of law’s colonisation of social imagination. Legal power is ramified and spread through its ability to make things real and to make things true. … [I]f the law says that a foetus is not a person, then it does not matter that religious faith tells us that the law is wrong, and that the law is effectively legitimising murder. A foetus is simply not a person in the eyes of the law. This has obvious political ramifications, for it places the power of the state behind a certain conception of how the world is and what is true and false within it, whatever one’s views to the contrary might be and no matter how vociferously one expresses them. … [T]he proliferation of legal truth is also important because law does shape what people believe and what they understand. Law has power over people’s imaginations and how they think about what is happening in social life. Law in this sense is more than a set of sanctions. It is a form of cultural software that shapes the way we think about and apprehend the world.

To gain some idea of just how much freedom we have lost, you could start by looking in your own wallet or handbag. An ever-increasing wad of permits, licences and passes now require a major card shuffle every time you want to use your credit card. Permits or licences are required for more and more aspects of daily living.

In criminal law, the situation is even worse. In America, the first federal criminal statute, signed into law in 1790, included only a handful of offences: treason, counterfeiting, piracy, and murder, maiming and robbery. It fitted onto two sheets of parchment. Today, the best estimate puts the number of criminal laws at about 3000. In fact, such is the complex maze of legislation that it has proved impossible to provide an accurate figure. Hobbes’ “warfare” has become “lawfare”.

There is also a subtle form of oppression contained within that informal system of social power which is best described as “political correctness”. Is it not strange that, in an age when freedom of expression is touted as a great benefit, we are constantly subjected to what American author Marilynne Robinson once called “the tyranny of petty coercion”? It is increasingly the case that zealous liberals force us to conform to their notions of equality and our liberty suddenly disappears.

And sometimes the oppression is not subtle at all. Witness the Catholic Church in Tasmania, where the freedom to proclaim a traditional notion of marriage held for over two thousand years is now under attack.

Markets invisible hand turns into iron fist

If we move from the realm of human social relations to that of economic activity, the application of unrestrained liberalism has likewise turned upon itself in a destructive way. Thousands of small businesses, corner shops and family farms have been sacrificed on the altar of laisse faire economics.

Readers of News Weekly will, I am sure, have been as bemused as I was to learn that Coles Supermarkets recently announced a $50 million “nurture fund” to “help small Australian food and grocery producers, farmers and manufacturers to innovate and grow their business”. Is it not arguable that such mega companies are themselves responsible for the demise of huge numbers of small businesses? It is difficult in the extreme not to see this move by Coles in anything but a cynical light.

Just as Burke’s “controlling power upon will and appetite” is needed in the social sphere, so is it needed in the economic one. This is why News Weekly and its parent organisation have always advocated the principle of distributism, where the focus for all economic policies revolves around the social unit of the family, not the sharemarket or the profit margin of mega companies.

Hand in hand with the notion of distributism is that system of power sharing (including economic power) known as the principle of subsidiarity. It ought to be the case that small businesses and family farms have some power over their own short and long-term economic survival.

Instead, we see that they are at the mercy of that nebulous entity called “the market”, whose daily health depends in very large measure on the confidence level of big investors. These latter are themselves entirely remote from, and unconnected with, the actual processes of production.

And so it comes about that the average worker, farmer or small business owner, far from being free to work or trade in the manner envisaged by well-meaning liberal philosophers like Adam Smith, is wholly at the mercy of indifferent market forces. Smith’s “invisible hand” of unrestricted commerce has forged our fetters for us.

Our task, like that of Odysseus, is to steer the ship of state between two opposing evils – the Scylla of tyrannical socialism, with its gulag society, and the Charybdis of unfettered liberalism.




























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