Hayek, champion of Western liberalism

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Commentary on the Cambridge Companion to Hayek

This most useful primer features three essays in particular that provided good reason to reflect again on the received wisdom and habitual misuse of Hayek’s name to justify a great range of nonsense, whether it is a cold-hearted defence of callous economic rationalism, sometimes known by the grotesque misnomer of ‘neoliberalism’, or whether he is proposed as a menacing heathen idol in simplistic denunciations of free market economics.

The first of these essays, ‘Hayek versus Keynes’, by renowned Keynes biographer Robert Skidelsky, closes a theoretical gap between John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich August von Hayek to a matter of degrees rather than apparently irreconcilable differences.

The second essay, ‘Hayek and liberalism’, by Chandran Kukathas, tantalisingly suggests Hayek’s major impact should be a perpetual call to action, challenging those who can to become activists in defence of liberal values with truth rather than expedient propaganda, by admitting mistakes and shortcomings, but contrasting these with detailed examples of the failures of liberalism’s enemies, as well as the enormity of the consequences of those failures.  It is an eerily appropriate challenge from the past when applied to circumstances in the present.

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Bien pensantism: pretentious political ignorance

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One of the most pronounced and intractable political biases in Australia’s election environment comes from a core of notionally educated, engaged people who regard it as a heresy to agree with anything connected to the the labels ‘Coalition’, ‘conservatism’, and ‘right’. Not that this might be unjustified, except that the bias extends to believing that everything the ‘progressive left’ or ‘Labor’ does is OK, regardless of what that might be.

Such people might be thought of as bien pensants (right-thinking, self-righteous), a French term, originally implying people who repeat orthodox, conservative prejudices, but now also those who adopt and repeat ‘fashionable’ ideas without critical analysis or judgement. Ultimately, and ironically, that latter definition is actually the meaning of unthinking conservatism, even if so many bien pensants today believe themselves to be progressives or left-leaning.

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Abbott’s smoking gun anti-liberalism

The recent passage of the plain packaging for tobacco legislation through the lower house of the Australian Parliament, and the sanctimonious comments issuing from bloggers, news commentators and health fascists everywhere, prompted me to write about my biggest disappointment arising from this legislation – the betrayal of individual liberty and classical liberal principles that are embodied by this move. Put another way, it’s about my disappointment with how exigent politics defeats principled policy-making every time.

Let’s be certain about this: I am a smoker, and have been for years. As a smoker I understand that tobacco consumption poses significant health risks, just as I know that drinking alcohol poses significant health risks, and driving a car, eating too much fattening food, robbing a bank at gunpoint, crossing the street innocently, etc.

As a consumer of a product that is legal, however, I expect not to be treated as a social leper, sinner or other kind of undesirable critter by the state. This is different from accepting a degree of opprobrium extended by private individuals, and even restrictions on when and where I can use the product (as is the case with, say, alcohol, gasoline, matches, mobile phones, etc).

When the state moves to impose on me a requirement that I be unable to access product information on the packaging of that product, replacing the manufacturer’s intentions with state propaganda messages – and that is really what is being proposed – I am concerned enough to voice dissent.

First, let’s be absolutely clear: this is not a move to ‘plain packaging’. It is direct censorship and intervention in free market exchanges. No other product with potentially harmful side-effects has to carry this kind of state mandated propaganda, otherwise we’d have cars carrying large and graphic images of mutilated car crash victims, aircraft depicting charred bodies, alcohol containers plastered with photos of women beaten senseless by violently drunk men, etc. We do not do this because we still accept that these products are legal, and the risks associated with their use are part of the conditions of their use. Smoking, however, has taken on a different category. I see this new category being largely the invention of overly zealous ‘health fascists’, who have assumed the right to interfere in the lives of others on a number of grounds, not least of which is the right of the state to mandate a degree of ‘healthy’ living.

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