Classical liberalism has not had a significant presence in Australia since the free traders lost out after Federation and Alfred Deakin set in place the combination of tariff protection and centralized wage fixing system which laid the foundations of our current economic difficulties. Robert Menzies stood against the worldwide tide of socialism with his defence of “the forgotten people” and his victory in the 1949 election but he only held the line and he did not turn back the tide.
In the 1980s the economic rationalists attracted a storm of abuse from both sides of politics. This demonstrated how much ground the free traders had to make up after several generations of protectionism. The situation changed considerably during the 1980s as a degree of bipartisan support emerged for a modest reform agenda.
What is this thing called classical liberalism?
Karl Popper produced a handy summary of the leading liberal principles in a speech to the Mont Pelerin Society.
(1) The state is a necessary evil and its powers should be kept to the minimum that is necessary.
(2) A democracy is a state where the government can be changed without bloodshed.
(3) Democracy cannot confer benefits on people. "Democracy provides no more than a framework within which the citizens may act in a more or less organised and coherent way".
(4) Democracy does not mean that the majority is right.
(5) Institutions need to be tempered and supported by traditions.
(6) There is no Liberal Utopia. There are always problems, conflicts of interests, choices to be made between the lesser of evils.
(7) Liberalism is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. It is about modifying or changing institutions and traditions rather than wholesale replacement of the existing order. The exception to this is when a tyranny is in place, that is a government that can only be changed by violence and bloodshed.
8) The importance of the moral framework.
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