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Values, government and liberalism: not so strange bedfellows

By John Humphreys - posted Wednesday, 24 August 2005

In his recent essay answering the Centre for Independent Studies’ essay question and republished in On Line Opinion: "Is there a legitimate role for the government in shaping the values and attitudes of its citizens?" Phillip Elias argues against what he calls the dominant and liberal position, and in support of government intervention.

In doing so, I believe he has made three errors: first, the liberal position is not dominant; second, the liberal position is not what he says it is; and third, his answer is based on a misunderstanding of the question.

Elias insists "most individuals in Western democratic nations" reject government interference in the setting of our values. He gives no evidence for this assertion, probably because the evidence all points the other way. Most people in Western countries do support a ban on recreational drug use, most people do support some level of government censorship or control in the industries of pornography and prostitution and most people support the current ban on polygamy.


Elias goes on to say, "We generally acknowledge the reign of individual self-interest in market matters", but again offers no evidence for this remarkable claim. If his "we" refers to Australians, then I must point out that most people continue to support public education, public health, public welfare, public industrial relations, compulsory superannuation, corporate welfare, farm subsidies, government involvement in telecommunications, postal services, transport and regional development among other market interventions.

Our top marginal income tax rate and our total tax take are both higher than communist (sic) China and have been increasing consistently since federation. Adam Smith must be turning in his grave. To portray contemporary Australia as a country in the grip of neo-liberal economists would be laughable if the absurd belief was not so widely held.

At one stage Elias implies that liberalism is the cause of "increasing suicide rates, depression, drug and alcohol abuse and the breakdown of marriage and families" and elsewhere liberalism is blamed for "the psychological trauma of solitary confinement, the yearnings for sociability that drive much drug and alcohol abuse and the depressive effect of an intense but impersonal urban lifestyle" among other things”. Perhaps cancer too, he wasn't clear.

Unfortunately, the "liberalism" that Elias describes is nearly entirely a straw man. Consequently, nearly all of his arguments against liberalism are irrelevant.

At one point Elias asks rhetorically, "If social contracts involve obligation, would it not be rational [according to liberals] to minimise our participation in them". The short, and obvious, answer is "no", because social contracts have benefits. Liberals have always recognised this.

Elsewhere Elias brings up the possibility of a common goal, introducing the Platonic arguments about absolute values to counter the perceived liberal position of relative values. But liberalism does not insist that values are relative. The general liberal position is simply that you should not use violence to enforce values on others.


Elias is at pains to stress the importance of values and social interaction in life ("humans are social and moral animals"). He need hardly try to convince liberals - who would be in absolute agreement with those sentiments. Liberals do not argue against values or social interaction. Liberals simply argue that society should not use violence to set values, and that social interactions are better when they are voluntary rather than coerced. Elias asks, "does objectivity mean divesting ourselves of values?" Elias answers "no" in the belief that he is disagreeing with liberals. But liberals also answer "no".

It is suggested "the problem for liberalism has been how to join individuals into an authentic social unit". This is not a problem at all. Free individuals join into social units voluntarily. Elias seems to imply that liberalism and society are at odds, which is patently untrue. The dichotomy is not between liberalism and society - but a liberal, voluntary society or an illiberal, coerced society. Elias seems to be equating "society" with "government" - a significant and dangerous mistake to make.

At one stage, Elias enters a discussion of freedom and he apparently doesn't like the liberal use of the word. He accuses absolute liberal freedom of ignoring psychological harm (true, but so what?), neglected responsibilities (untrue, contract law) and moral harm (true, but so what?). At one point he asks whether a person unhappy about my behaviour on moral grounds must "abandon their scruples". Of course not - in a liberal world they are perfectly within their right to keep their scruples and be offended.

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About the Author

John is the Director of the Human Capital Project and a PhD student at the University of Queensland. He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Centre for Independent Studies, Editor-in-Chief of Menzies House and the founder of the Australian Libertarian Society. His personal blog can be found at

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All articles by John Humphreys
Related Links
Centre for Independent Studies
On Line Opinion - A legitimate role for government?

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