Learning from the Wisdom of Others

My personal philosophies always start from a point of principle and then I seek to enliven and crystallized those initial ideas. The books that sit on my bookshelf, and that I highlight in this article, directed me to focus my thoughts and get them onto clear tracks through learning from the wisdom and knowledge of others.

My first selections are Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell. Animal Farm highlights the absurdity of the idea that all people can be equal. Even though I can understand why people think that’s a noble aspiration, Animal Farm shows that we can neither begin nor can we end in the same place as others and invariably when you have collective approaches to managing society you will end up with some more equal than others. People will inevitably be tempted to use power to their own advantage, which is something that I’ve always railed against. Animal Farm is a beautiful distillation of the problems that emerge from collective and centralised power.

Similarly, 1984 paints the image of a dystopian world but in this case it highlights the risks of surveillance and the control of language and that’s what we have today in so many debates, where people control the meaning and use of words as weapons. That’s why I have always been such a strong proponent of free speech, because if you can’t challenge the way people are using words themselves then you can’t even begin to have a conversation about important issues. 1984 is gripping and very challenging, particularly if you believe in a society that respects the individual.

Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman (of which I have a signed copy), makes a very good twentieth century case for markets and liberalism and how the relationship between freedom and capitalism is intrinsically linked, because if you control markets you will invariably end up controlling people. If you look at major conflicts where people have been the victims of tyrannical regimes, it’s always minorities who suffer. The majority never suffers as explicitly because, as the majority, they’re the people that have to be appealed to. This is particularly true as societies shift from democracies down an alternate path, but the point of Capitalism and Freedom is that the preservation of freedom is dependent on the decentralisation of power and decision making and that’s the beauty of markets. People vote once every three years in Federal elections but they vote every minute when they consume things. Its efficient in terms of the allocation of resources but also environmentally beneficial because we do things like put a price on waste.

Afternoon Light by Sir Robert Menzies is important, at the very least for its famous quote about the naming of my party:

“…we were aiming at political progress and power in our own right. We took the name Liberal because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his rights, and his enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea”.

People sometimes misunderstand that quote in that it does not mean ‘progressive’ as in left wing or progressive in the modern sense of identity politics. It speaks to the idea that the job of the Liberal Party is to advance national economic and social progress. This speaks to the perpetual, stupid debate about whether we’re a liberal or a conservative party, when we’re actually a culturally and institutionally conservative party and an economically liberal party with a diversity of views on social policy. This is the way it should be because you can never bind a person’s conscience or bind their beliefs on different issues.

Afternoon Light also shows Menzies’ command and understanding, not just of Australian liberalism, but of politics generally which is why he is such a giant of the 20th century and a man who shaped and built modern Australia. His collection of radio addresses The Forgotten People and Other Studies in Democracy is important for the same reason. For anyone who wants to understand the Australian character, and the Australian character as it relates to politics, ‘The Forgotten People…’ are seminal speeches. The last speech on ‘The Importance of Cheerfulness’ speaks to humour and bringing forth a light hearted approach. Indeed we are all people and you have to bring a bit of humour which is why I try and laugh, even when I’m taking things very seriously.

Speaking of taking things seriously, The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich von Hayek is a difficult book to read. It describes, in the context of the post war era, how centralised control will always be used to bad ends; how in political structures there is always a risk that the people that take the most advantage and opportunity are those whose morals are the most amenable.

“The ruling moral views will depend partly on qualities that will lead individuals to success in a collectivist or totalitarian system and partly on the requirements of the totalitarian machinery”

The people who win out of collectivist systems of government are the people who are best connected and best capable in building relationships, and everyone else comes second.

“…the desire of the individual to identify himself with the group is very frequently the result of a feeling of inferiority and that therefore his want will only be satisfied if membership of the group confers some superiority over outsiders”

In contrast, the point about markets is that people have freedom to see an opportunity, work hard, show enterprise and diligence and have the potential to succeed. Even people who may not be born into the right families or have connections are still in the best position to be able to advance their lot!

A more recent volume is Blowback (The Costs and Consequences of the American Empire) by Chalmers Thompson, written in the post Sept 11 era about the consequences of US Foreign Policy. While I’m generally supportive of the United States and its position in the world, this book talks about the vacuums that are created in certain countries when you destabilise regimes that have an order. At the time that it was written it wasn’t as clear what was going to happen in Iraq and Afghanistan, but now it’s abundantly clear! What we know is that the wealthy take care of themselves and with mobile capital they may pick up and leave. The middle class are in a similar position, although with slightly less mobile capital, and are at least able to free themselves. However the people left over often have the least invested in the preservation of the status quo, so it becomes of hotbed of opportunity to exploit the vacuum. Blowback shows that when you create these vacuums, they get filled by ‘nasty people’ and that leads to extremism.

Closer to home is Roland Perry’s “Monash: The Outsider Who Won The War” about the life and times of Sir John Monash. He’s such a giant figure in Australian history because he’s one of those people who has had so many different iterations to his career and who always stood on positions of principle. If you’re interested in military history it’s a fascinating book but I found the passages outside of his war history ten-fold more interesting: his pre-war period when he introduced reinforced concrete into Australia and the period after the war when he was responsible for the establishment of the SEC, to build Victoria’s energy capacity. He was a model of leadership, particularly when he had the opportunity to essentially seize power of the State (during the 1923 Victorian police strike) with the support of loyal soldiers and he forewent that opportunity in favour of a well educated population and a belief in democracy. I think that speaks to a man of incredible justice and character.

I also have on my bookshelf several volumes on Ronald Reagan whom I admire, not just for the content of the man, but for the clarity of his vision and the humour that he brought to the Oval Office. Reagan engaged people rather than hectored them and there’s not enough of that today. There are not enough people who are prepared to take positions and stand for something; to persuade people and convince them and be able to carry forward an argument. Milton Friedman had the same quality in that they both had a clear vision about who they were and what they stood for and they undertook their work in a charming and friendly way.