To understand our current political debate, it helps to have a view as to where we derive our rights — particularly freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the presumption of innocence and equality before the law.
We agree such rights are what distinguish us from places such as North Korea and Cuba, but are they given to us by the government or are we born with them? Is the government simply there to protect our rights, or should government decide which rights we should have and which we shouldn’t?
This debate has been around for a long time. Leading Enlightenment figures such as John Locke and Thomas Hobbes considered it more than 300 years ago.
Hobbes believed the natural state of man was perpetual war, with life nasty, brutish and short. In his view, the only way to achieve civilisation was to relinquish all liberties to the government, which then granted us certain rights as it chose. And if the government wanted to limit those rights, it had every right to do so.
Locke argued man is peaceful and industrious, but to establish a society in which private property is protected, it is necessary to give up certain freedoms to the government. However, this is a limited and conditional arrangement. Only the powers required to protect life, liberty and property should be relinquished, and ultimate power remains with the people. If the government becomes too controlling, those powers can be reclaimed.
Locke heavily influenced the American Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, its principal author and America’s third president, is well known for his statement, “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
Australia was once a society based on Locke’s view. The government was our servant rather than our master, it dipped into our pockets only modestly and generally shared the view of John Stuart Mill that, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
This approach has now been abandoned by government in Australia. Hobbes’ perspective is now dominant and our governments intrude far beyond protecting our lives, liberty and property. Indeed, governments assume we should be grateful for any liberties they allow us. We are over-governed, over-regulated and over-taxed.
As a senator, I have seen how this comes about. Masses of bills, regulations and red tape of all kinds come flooding in, with little opportunity for scrutiny. A relatively recent and particularly concerning example is the pile of legislation to address the threat of terrorism, introduced by the Abbott and Turnbull governments.
Each bill was said to be essential because existing Commonwealth laws were inadequate, despite no evidence that would-be terrorists were able to perpetrate evil or escape justice because of those inadequacies. Significantly, each bill was accompanied by politicians seeking to create the impression that only by voting for them could voters be safe from terrorism.
governments assume we should be grateful for any liberties they allow us
Whereas once we could only commit a crime by planning, inciting or undertaking violence, we now risk infringing the law if we investigate, talk about, promote or write about either terrorism or anti-terrorist activity.
On the assumption that any of us might become an offender, our phone and computer records are compulsorily retained, while state and federal governments share our passport, licence and other photos. And, of course, the definition of terrorism is sufficiently flexible to cover a multitude of sins.
Some argue that these powers will only be used for positive purposes, to keep us safe. The problem is, laws that increase the power of the government remain in force long after their original purpose is gone, ready to be used against anyone else.
Those advocating personal choice and the ability to live free from political correctness, whether about where they work, who they associate with, or what they think, play, watch, consume, buy or invest in, could easily become targets.
As for protecting our property, that’s an equally sorry story. Our pockets are being raided by bracket creep, increased superannuation taxes, an increased Medicare levy, GST on low-value imports and a levy on banks.
Meanwhile our national debt continues to grow, to be passed on to future generations. Middle-class welfare remains rampant, duplication between the Commonwealth and states is absurd, additional billions are being thrown at childcare and schools, the nanny state is stultifying and there is a pervasive sense of entitlement to other people’s money.
The need to wind back the size of government is obvious, at least to those of us who, like Locke, see governments as a threat to liberty rather than a benign source of rights. The question is how to achieve it.
It may well be that Jefferson was right, and a little rebellion is needed.
David Leyonhjelm is a Senator for the Liberal Democrats.