Despite the ascendance of free markets, capitalism and so-called ‘free trade’, economic libertarians are still not short of ammo when it comes to the role of government in economic affairs.
In the early 1900s, for example, over two years, it took just 358 pages of legislation to federate the country. Today, however, Canberra generates around 6,500 pages a year. In Victoria, Stonnington Council requires a 25-page long form to hold a street party. There are 24,000 different types of licenses administered by our three levels of government. And in Queensland, at a time when the State Labor Government claims to be for ‘open for business’, the Adani Carmichael coal mine project has spent seven years in the approvals process, fighting more than 10 legal challenges and sitting patiently with a 22,000-page environmental impact statement.
Aside from the lousy ‘soft power’ message this last example sends to our Asian neighbours, it’s clear that the battle against red (and green) tape, or expanded regulation, requires steady vigilance.
Yet aside from the tangled instruments of compliance we see the same curb on liberty when it comes to ‘identity politics’, which itself prohibits choice, limits the exchange of ideas, undermines aspiration and takes individuals for granted.
In my experience identity politics does three things to us. First, it wraps the individual – complete with desires, ambitions and skills – in a choice already made for them. It is a game where “your complexion,” as Lionel Shriver observes, “eclipses everything about you.” Second, it undermines some of the best instances of our past. And third, identity politics subtracts from being the best version of ourselves.
By contrast, a good example of the exact opposite of these three things can be found in looking at something quite simple – humbled individuals from our past. In undertaking research for my book Winners Don’t Cheat, for example, I found countless instances of strangely under-celebrated figures, from men like Australia’s first federal indigenous parliamentarian Neville Bonner to others like black World War 1 servicemen Douglas Grant and Frederick Prentice. Many of these individuals faced real and not imagined discrimination, taking steps to organise their landscape, ‘transcend’ their difficult settings and take their own path toward success.
In fact, their lives offer near-perfect case studies from Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life – acknowledge malevolence, do what you can with what you have, and compare yourself to who you were yesterday and not what someone else is today. They, and literally countless others, possess a wonderful message. Not one of ‘feel good’ optimism but ideals that confront the seductive ideas – victimhood, grievance and inequality – found in identity politics and constantly served up to young people today.
But why do we not hear from them? As we’re aware, it’s unfashionable to look fondly upon our past, and cultural confidence in our history is made hard when it’s all about shame, or the assumption that no achievement was possible prior to the civil rights era of the 60s and 70s.
I can recall a few years ago, for example, encountering Reclaiming Patriotism by our outgoing Race Discrimination Commissioner. Despite its weighty subject title, nothing before 1972 – curiously prior to prime minister Gough Whitlam – was mentioned. There was nothing about social cohesion in the colonies, the Rum Rebellion, the Gold Rush, John McArthur, the sheep’s back, let alone the enlightenment or scientific method. What small references he has made, albeit in other works, have been to race riots, nods to ‘race patriotism’ and upheaval and dispossession.
But through ignorance we find inversion and a key example of what ‘not to do’. Much like excessive and expanded pages of regulation, countering identity politics begins with getting out of the way of individuals. While readers may sense an impulse here to push away political correctness, exile safe spaces or stand at the barricades on free speech, I sense there’s something less heroic than this required in our current politics. And that is reminding individuals about the capabilities required to thrive under freedom.
Indeed, the key deficit to identity politics is the incapacity to see individuals as complex – requiring motivation, being bound by habits, having kinship obligations, possessing goals and so forth. But as the recent high-profile example of tennis player Serena Williams shows, shedding this complexity and wearing your identity on your sleeve will not get you too far in the modern world, regardless of the heights you reach or the money you earn. “I am a husband, a father, a son, a teacher, an intellectual, a citizen,” as the black American academic Glen Loury reminded Brown University students in 2008. “In none of these roles is my race irrelevant, but neither can ‘identity’ alone provide much guidance for my quest to adequately discharge these responsibilities.”
My sense is that we have a great deal to be proud of from our past. In addition to having many decent individuals we can draw from to inspire us, Australia is still a place where merit, self-responsibility and self-regard will still squarely conquer identity politics. While economic libertarians do well to stand up against red tape, a similar energy should be brought to cultivating the talents and skills required to thrive, aspire and do well under freedom.
Sean Jacobs is the author ofpublished by Connor Court.