An Excellent Primer for those Unfamiliar with Classic Liberalism
by Ahmed Suliman
As the Australian public comes to terms with the results of a federal election that promises more deadlock, politicking, and media games than ever before, it is a fitting time to keep sight of the issues and solutions that truly make a difference to the lives of voting public in their millions.
Liberty at Risk: Tackling Today’s Political Problems valiantly attempts to do so in a concise and direct manner. The book is Peter Fenwick’s second foray in book writing, after The Fragility of Freedom: Why Subsidiarity Matters (2014). Fenwick is the founder and chairman of successful consulting company, Fenwick Software, and a civil engineering and philosophy graduate.
Liberty at Risk is written to serve as a primer for ideas of liberty for the uninitiated, and as a convenient refresher for those are familiar with its perspective. Set out over twenty-three easily digestible chapters, it presents problems and solutions to many of the most significant facets of public policy and offers solutions to them inspired by the works of John Stuart Mill, Fredrick Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, and Milton Friedman. It also outlines, in various sections, the faults and fallacies with the thinking processes that currently drive public policy, criticising the likes of Paul Krugman and Joe Hockey with vigour.
A running motif throughout the book is Fenwick’s particular distaste for the welfare state as root cause of many of the points at issue discussed, arguing that the it has been counterproductive as “most of the benefits have been captured by sections of the middle class”. He quotes prominent American libertarian author and historian Tom E. Woods in saying: “All over the world, the impossible promises governments have made to their populations are beginning to unravel. Millions of people have arranged their lives in the expectation of various forms of government support that will be mathematically impossible to provide”. Fenwick acknowledges that many will have “great difficulty” in coming to terms with a significant reduction or (as it appears he prefers) abolition of the welfare state as we know it. However, he argues that it is possible to make reforms with sufficient degree of moral courage and “admitt(ing) that the emperor has no clothes”.
A substantial part of the book engages in a process of dispelling and correcting myths about the market economy, socialism and human behaviour. For example, Fenwick evokes the “Swedish model” of social welfare as a “failure” which has been trumpeted by Bernie Sanders supporters in the US, and socialist groups in Australia. These advocates, Fenwick suggests, with little to no knowledge of Swedish history of economic development. which was strongly influenced (between the middle of 19th century till the 1950s) by the classical liberal works of Swedish priest and parliamentarian Anders Chydenius. This was before the ruling Social Democratic Party instituted a major welfare state paradigm that contributed to Sweden falling from the fourth richest nation in the word to the fourteenth in just over a generation.
Another myth Fenwick addresses is the role of central banking in a free society. He argues that the Reserve Bank in Australia has no business setting interest rates, which he believes should be set by the market. Examples of interest rate changes in the post-GFC era are used to illustrate the ineffective and often counterproductive outcomes of these policy changes. Reserve bank produced fiat currency also gets a grilling, with the author proposing the simple idiom “money doesn’t grow on trees” remains valid when talking about currency values. The world money system, Fenwick argues, is vulnerable to collapse as confidence in government weakens, and a return to currencies backed by gold or another base standard would avert that. The concept of Quantitative Easing also faces the firing line a number of times.
As one moves from chapter to chapter, it becomes clear the significance of the role Fenwick places on the role of civil society in reaching the public policy outcomes he advocates for. He stresses that “services are better provided by small, local, caring, voluntary organisations than by large, remote, condescending, bureaucracies” when discussing the empowerment of Indigenous communities. He promotes private charity as the best method of supporting the less fortunate, noting that “we shall not be free if we are not compassionate”. He also draws on his experience when arguing that family businesses tend to be honest and reliable due their value systems as well as market incentives. The importance of tolerance in a free society is highlighted, and features in a chapter of its own in “The Virtue of Tolerance”, while chapter seven focusses on personal responsibility and community cooperation as the antidote to social ills such as domestic violence and anti-social behaviour in youth. In essence, Fenwick presents the case that there must be strong and vibrant civil society infrastructure and values in order to gain tangible utilitarian outcomes from the public policy positions he advocates for.
The logic of Fenwick’s positions is largely rigorous and definite. However, if I was to point at a flaw in a particular section or theme, it would likely be the discussion regarding politicians as role models in chapter nine. He presents former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, a riling force against communism and economic reformer, as role model, and questions the lack of trustworthiness in the political class. I would suggest that an examination of public choice, as articulated by US economists James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, would have been worthy for inclusion as answer to such queries. The special interest powers and perverse incentives that politicians find themselves surrounded by have a much larger impact on their decision making than their character traits. It is more productive to view political leaders less as potential honourable role models, and focus on how to change the incentives associated with their roles.
All in all, Liberty at Risk serves an excellent primer to those unfamiliar with classical liberalism and libertarianism. It sets out framework of pragmatic positions to problems that would be familiar to most readers, guided by principles of individual liberty, limited government, and a strong civil society. However, I also found it useful as a source of new arguments and perspectives on liberty, and as such I would definitely recommend it for your bookshelf or (insert mobile reading device here).
Ahmed Suliman is a 4th year engineering and commerce student at UWA. He is currently the Chairman of Australia and New Zealand Students for Liberty