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Maxim's Greg Fleming Gives a Libertarian critique


Libertarian critique

Over the past week I have come to understand the difference between a libertarian and a classical liberal. Quite simply it is compassion. The libertarian has no compassion. And if the political right in New Zealand ever want to be more than a squeaky wheel they need to connect their heads to their hearts and then their hearts to their hands.

Last week Maxim Institute continued its research and advocacy opposing a bill seeking to decriminalise the prostitution trade in New Zealand and stepped up our drive for legislation that would prosecute the purchasers rather than the sellers. Two thirds of those who enter prostitution have been sexually abused as children. 80 percent are on drugs and 90 percent want to escape the job but don’t know how. Not exactly the hallmarks of a free and healthy ‘industry’.

In the same week ACT MP Deborah Coddington wrote a column in which she explained her opposition to the bill. She received an inordinate amount of criticism – almost entirely from those on the far right. Of particular note was the attack by Jim Peron a prolific libertarian writer. In essence he claimed that as liberty was the highest value, the state had no role in interfering in people’s decisions to be, or buy a prostitute.

In her response, Coddington took the critique on board, writing, “As Lindsay Perigo once remarked about me, ‘This one needs work’”. No you don’t Deborah. It’s those on the right who need work. You have a heart. You have an understanding that yes, liberty is the highest value, but that it entails a concern for your neighbour equal to the concern for yourself. Liberty does not wash its hands of society’s most vulnerable. A classical liberal does not pass by the beaten traveller on the side of the road and mutter “would love to help, but you made your own choices”. Liberty does not float free minus moral imperatives.

The law has a role to play in protecting downtrodden women and children from sexual exploitation. If liberty is merely about free choices and bearing the consequences then we shouldn’t wash our hands of just the prostitutes. Surely we should abolish all drug laws, all welfare and all employment laws. If the highest ideal is for individuals to make their own decisions and bear the consequences then clearly the law should never intervene.

In her original article Coddington said, “Most women are prostitutes because their choices in life have become, over the years, severely restricted. Is it a mark of a civil society to legitimise men buying women who are already marginalised?”

Therein lies the essence of this debate. Libertarians claim to be classical liberals but they are not. Classical liberals are committed to Civil Society and in such a society the golden rule of ‘treat others as you would have them treat you’ is married to another, yet higher rule; ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. A Civil Society is not merely concerned with autonomous individual rights. They are important but only when understood within the context of what it means to be a human being living in relationship with others.

Since founding Maxim Institute eleven months ago I have sought to understand the essence of a Civil Society. Through our work I have become committed to the foundational principles of freedom, choice, competition and personal responsibility – each existing in relation to each other. Above all perhaps, I have come to understand the responsibility I bear for my neighbour’s welfare. I have been blessed with a life of privilege. The good choices made by my parents and many generations before them have provided me with the security, support and character to in turn make good decisions.

Many of my neighbours have not had that privilege. Life has dealt them a lousy hand. Many have been abused and cast aside. They find themselves with few choices. Often the only hand they see extended is one that seeks to exploit their vulnerability. These neighbours do not need more individual rights. They need our support. They need compassion. And they need our protection.

Long ago the political left in New Zealand captured the high ground on compassion. Its advocates consistently and convincingly spoke about ‘compassionate government’, and they did so by painting the right as heartless and self serving. But in reality, the state cannot mediate what are the personal outworkings of citizen virtue. The real issue is neither left nor right; it’s about real concern for another.

Greg Fleming, Managing Director Maxim Institute

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