Barely a week goes by without Senator David Leyonhjelm finding himself in the headlines. As a man unafraid to speak his mind, he is godsend for click-focused editors and those with a fondness for social media histrionics alike.
While he is a figure of great contempt for much of our politically engaged elite, his presence in the Senate (however it came about – thanks people who don’t read the ballot properly) is undoubtedly a positive one for broadening the scope of public debate in this country.
With both major parties and the Greens being tied to the idea that solutions can only derive from the hand of the state, a prominent Parliamentarian who challenges this assumption exposes the public to a much needed different approach to human organisation.
Conformity forms a major component of Australia’s national psyche. It’s why a concept such as “the queue” in relation to asylum seekers resonates so well. It also makes Australia ripe for the entrenchment of the binary political groupings of “progressive” and “conservative”. This makes it very difficult for for anyone to transcend these labels without grave suspicion.
While Leyonhjelm will remain a figure of disdain for the progressive commentariat, their frequent “Yes, but…” pieces in the press at least demonstrate that they are having to think outside their ideological assumptions. Having to defend their turf from someone who doesn’t neatly fall into the populist conservative box is a positive occurrence for our national discourse.
It is true that Australia does have a great propensity for treating its adult residents like (very young) children who need to be coddled. With global liberal economics loosening the power of governments, and the Internet being a space impossible to control, governments at all levels have directed their desire for control towards local physical spaces. Challenging this, as Senator Leyonhjelm and Labor’s Senator Sam Dastyari, have done with their enquiry into “Nanny State” legislation is an essential debate into how our governments act.
The collusion between the state and big business, under the guise of “regulation”, is another area where libertarians like Senator Leyonhjelm can potentially have a positive impact. While our entrenched parties insist on picking winners, to the detriment of the general public and smaller businesses who don’t have the resources to lobby governments, Leyonhjelm would demand a level-playing field for all. A strong, and admirable, libertarian principle.
While Senator Leyonhjelm makes some attempt to transcend populist political labels, claiming he is neither Left nor Right, in the way he phrases his arguments he still sees his potential constituency deriving from the conservative cultural group. He makes little attempt to demonstrate to progressives that the state isn’t the pervasive benevolent actor they envisage it could be.
There are historical reasons for this. Fusionism, the alliance between conservatives and classical liberals/libertarians, was a Cold War tactic used to counter a common enemy in communism. It has persisted to this date as a cultural grouping despite having completed its task in 1989 and the grand contradictions inherent within it.
Leyonhjelm sees votes within this cultural grouping. Political parties are loathed to challenge cultural groupings, no matter how in conflict the alliance of ideas within them are. It far easier to preach to existing perspectives than to challenge them. Votes are more important than ideas to these entities.
That said, there is one strong commonality that continues to bind this fusionist alliance, and that is a negative view of humanity that dominants both libertarian and conservative thought.
Broadly, there are two schools of thought within libertarian circles: Consequentialists and Natural Rightists. The former believes that more positive and humanistic outcomes occur when the state has a far lighter touch to influence how people live their lives. The latter, the more dominant, believes that “freedom” from the state is an inalienable right that cannot be encouched on, and positive, humanistic outcomes play second fiddle to this right to personal freedom.
While consequentialists have a positive view of humanity that sees humans as being able to interact with each other with limited overarching authority, natural rights libertarians, however, share the negative view of humanity that is common between socialists, fascists, conservatives, and that also bleeds (increasingly heavily) into much progressive thought. However, for natural rights libertarians, rather than investing a grand authority into the state like these other perspectives do to varying degrees for their own agendas, they wish to devolve this authority solely to the individual.
There is a deep strain of natural rights libertarianism within the national psyche of the United States, and as most modern libertarian thought is derived from US, this has become the dominant lens with which the philosophy is promoted, and the one Senator Leyonhjelm has adopted. This binds the Senator to an American conservative perspective, and this explains his prominent advocacy of looser gun restrictions.
Natural rights libertarians like Leyonhjelm don’t see a gun as an object of violence, they see it as an object of security. But of course, it is the threat of violence that they believe is the only way to create security. Trust and understanding are deemed beyond human capabilities. There remains a conservative assumption that violence is a form of strength. Rejecting the idea that it takes strength to be gentle and kind as naïve and foolish.
While libertarians like to think of themselves as rational free-thinkers, the group-think within their circles is just as strong as it is within progressive or conservative mindsets, and their insistence in the positivity of an armed public is the prime example. It’s the marker by which they gauge each other’s purity.
Yet giving up the ability to provide your own security through violence is the price you pay for living in a society with a large amount of social trust. The fantasy of natural rights libertarians can only lead to what is known as a Hobbesian Trap. The peaceful perpetual stand off that they envisage will be constantly undermined by preemptive strikes due to an ever increasing social distrust.
Which makes the Senator’s fondness for the term “hoplophobe” rather amusing. As if people shouldn’t be scared of an object designed solely for the purpose of violence (as opposed to other objects that can kill but aren’t designed primarily for this purpose).
Unfortunately, this continued insistence on promoting loosening of firearm regulations, and his aggressive disdain for anyone who challenges his perspective, limits the Senator’s ability to speak to a broad range of demographics.
By promoting an idea that the general public has no time for, Leyonhjelm will end up pushing the public away from those classical liberal ideas that do have merit. As, unfortunately, in our current era of hysterical political tribalism, having one idea of dubious merit can lead to every sentence one speaks being completely dismissed.
The irony here for Leyonhjelm is that by promoting his purist vision, without any political compromise, he’ll end up restricting freedoms instead.
The Senator has proved himself quite adept at playing the political game – pushing the right buttons to get his name in the press – but this is one area where his understanding of how to achieve some positive impact is lacking. In a pluralistic democracy no-one will ever be able to implement their entire ideological vision, sacrificing one idea to gain traction for another is essential.
Dropping firearms from his dogma (or “principles” as he refers to it) would be a far more utilitarian approach to promote a freer, less intrusive society.
Despite this, Senator Leyonhjelm is providing a great service to the Australian public in encouraging us to think in ways that the other parties do not.
If Australia wishes to be a 21st Century globalised cosmopolitanism society, then the ability to handle a multitude of different ideas is essential. Leyonhjelm’s presence in the Senate is a significant aspect of this process.
Having a politically educated public is also an essential component for any democracy. Players like Leyonhjelm who are able to poke some holes in the entrenched actors and received wisdom of the current discourse are therefore highly important. Like him or loathe him, having an extra angle with which to challenge a government, regardless of ideology, is of net value to our own political assessments.