Michael Costa – libertarian?

A few weeks ago I went to a dinner where Michael Costa, until recently NSW treasurer,  spoke on the topic “What Makes Good and Bad Goverment”.  If you want to hear what he had to say the audio files for the event are now online:-


The audience was mostly libertarians or libertarian sympathisers. On several occasions it seemed possible that the speaker could also be placed in the same category even if he has very little time for such labels. Towards the end of the second audio file Michael Costa is quite explicitly in the libertarian camp when in answer to a question about reforming government in Australia he says;

Would I like to see no government? Yes. Do I believe that’s achievable? No. 

And then only slightly later;

I’d even agree, there should be no governments …

It was a lot of fun and by the end of the evening I felt quite warm towards Michael Costa even if I had a list of disagreements with him on strategy. However his main message for libertarians was in my view quite reasonable. Essentially he was saying that when it comes to the political debate in Australia, ideology and philosophy will give you almost zero traction. What pays political dividends is good policy, backed by good policy based arguments and sound research framed within an Australian cultural context.

19 thoughts on “Michael Costa – libertarian?

  1. Would I like to see no government? Yes. Do I believe that’s achievable? No. – this sounds more anarcho-pragmatist (did I just invent a new politcal ideology?)than libertarian.

    But yes Costa often makes a lot of sense, especially for a Labor man.

  2. Precisely – it’w what the mob wants that drives practical politics though the plundering of the taxpayers money by rent seekers and others needs to be stopped as well, but how?

    Met kindred spirits last night at the MannKal presentation of Ray Evan’s and David Archibald’s books in Perth last night. Had a chat with David Evans and basically the CO2 issue is about money.

  3. I suppose we introduce libertarian practices by offering the mob something- we could privatise healthcare by pointing out the benefits of choice, we could reintroduce guns as part of a self-defence package (Feel safer!), we could strengthen local governments by talking about empowerment, etc. You can do a lot with the right spin.

  4. “The audience was mostly libertarians or libertarian sympathisers. On several occasions it seemed possible that the speaker could also be placed in the same category even if he has very little time for such labels.”

    Or maybe he’s just catering to his audience, the way Kevin Rudd changes his message between unions and business groups.

  5. Mitch – If he was just trying to be agreeable then he didn’t do a very good job. On several issues he essentially told the audience that he thought they were full of shit. At times his tone was positively hostile.

  6. papa — I like that term “anarcho-pragmatist”. That’s me.

    Anarchists are a sub-set of libertarians, so I think the label “libertarian” is still appropriate.

    Not sure why you say “especially for a Labor man”. Do you know of some libertarian tendency in the Liberals that they have been keeping extremely well hidden?

  7. It sounds like Costa is preaching the same type of ideology as Rudd and Obama. One of pragmatism.
    Pragmatic ideology (and similar ideologies such as populism, rationalism, utilitarianism) is itself an ideology IMO. It’s an ideology claiming to be practical, that is anti-principle, short range and compromising.

    Pragmatism dominates generally and dominates currently in politics around the world – therefore that is why you have to follow this pragmatism to get current “political traction” as Costa states (copying Rudd and Obama who have also stated exactly this in their economic speeches where they trash Hayek and Austrian economics).
    But that is not the proper optimal scenario. And the proper scenario is achievable.
    I don’t think good government is possible until the culture changes to recognise the epistemological faults of pragmatism.

    I wonder what the standard for “good” policy is anyway – if you claim that politics is not based on ethics and/or if you claim standards themselves are impossible because only “after the fact” knowledge is possible.

    From what Terje has said it is not possible to be 100% sure but it seems Costa is implying a theory practise dichotomy with his statement that ideally there would be no government but doesn’t think it’s possible. I think this position is highly likely because I think it dominates political “thought”.
    This is a typical modern philosophical position which I would say dates back to David Hume’s “problem of induction”.

    Pragmatism is based in epistemological method. More explicitly described by philosophers such as
    C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

    The problems I have with pragmatism as a method to knowledge include the problem that ideas are treated equally, the problem of refusing to reject arbitary claims, the problems of knowing when to distinguish between legitamite vs illegitame compromise, the rejection of any principle and generalisation. Considering concept formation itself is a form of generalisation, I think it’s clear that generalisation is a valid epistemological tool.

    In addition, people do not realise how common pragmatism is, they do not understand that despite its practical allure, it is not actually practical and they do not recognise the corrosive nature of pragmatism ie: once a principle has been denied the slippery slope is achieved.

    I would hope libertarians would know better than that.
    I would have thought libertarians would not wish to compromise on freedom of speech, initiation of force, protection of property rights.
    However if you accept the theory/practise dichotomies exist then this is inevitable.

    From Terje’s description it sounds like Costa is saying nothing original and that he doesn’t stand for much at all. Like Mitch, I think Terje would be surprised if he saw Costa address a different audience.

  8. Tim – Michael Costa talked about politics within the constraints of Australian culture and history. Obviously if you change the culture then a different approach might have more success. Do you really think libertarians should give up on politics until the culture has been reformed? Surely we can have a cultural strategy and a political strategy and the political strategy does not need to wait for the cultural project to be completed.

  9. Do I need to go out and put a copyright on anarcho-pragmatist® then?

    Anarchists a subset of libertarians? Interesting – initially I figured that anarchy was libertarianism taken to the extreme i.e. going one better than small government is no government.

    But that doesn’t gel with the image of anarchists you see and read about – generally the feral uni student types you see smashing police vans at G20 summits. They seem like confused far lefties that want to Smash the System just for the hell of it. Their slogans are equally confusing – the anarcho-capitalists say Taxes are Theft, which does sound like extreme libertarianism, while anarcho-communists say Property is Theft which is the antithesis of liberty.

    I prefer to think of myself as a pragmatic libertarian. In that there are some limits to complete individualism, and I think that pure anarchy would be anathema to libertarianism, as, IMHO, a pure anarchist society would quickly have its power vacuums filled by tribal warlords and the like, so that only the very strong would have real liberty.

    As for the Liberal/Labor libertarian argument, it’s been discussed before. True – the Libs are not particularly libertarian, especially the social conservatives, but as a supposedly centre-right party, on an economic basis, they at least claim to stand for individual opportunity and a market economy.

    Labor as a centre-left party, with its strong trade union influence, will always be inherently more collectivist than the Libs.

    Of course there are overlaps – sometimes I think Turnbull would probably fit into the ALP quite well, and Keating/Hawke were fairly free-market friendly. Rudd the fiscal conservative/anti neo-liberal just seems to flipflop depending on who he’s talking to and how the economy is going.

  10. Tim R – nice philosophical musings, I never did politics or philosophy at uni, so I don’t think I can compete on the language, however…

    …in the real world there needs to be some degree of pragmatism and compromise. I’m assuming this is what you call a theory/practice dichotomy? I agree with your points about generalisations and conceptual thinking, and what compromises are acceptable, but all the same we do not live in a perfect world, and eventually we need to actually do things rather than merely discuss philosophy and ideology.

    Of course you could always choose a course of action according to deontological ethics, but sooner or later you’d be faced with a course of action that was completely illogical or impractical – e.g. scrapping standardisation of postal addresses so anyone can describe the location of their house how they like.

    I like to mix a bit of utilitarianism and pragmatism in there, with libertarianism as the guiding principle.

  11. I don’t think libertarianism necessitates choosing individualism over collectivism. So much of life is done in collectives. Whether it is the chocolate club, the corporation, the political party or the family. None of this is in contradiction with being libertarian. We can have standardised postal addresses as well freedom. So to speak. We already have a standardised alphabet but there is no real law that says we have to stick to it. We just do because we’re not moronically individualistic.

  12. Tim R – nice philosophical musings, I never did politics or philosophy at uni, so I don’t think I can compete on the language, however…..

    I don’t know Tim R or whether he did philosophy at uni, but his writings are pure Objectivism. I studied engineering and computer science, and didn’t know shit from clay with regards to economics until I was around 27 years old, but the greatest force that explained how the world worked was Objectivism. As you get into it you will become exposed to multiple schools of philosophy and philosophers like Hume (and why so many were wrong!). And the best bit is how it all makes sense!

  13. Michael S – I read a couple of Ayn Rand’s fiction books many years ago – The Fountainhead and We, the Living. I remember being impressed by them, but more as entertaining yarns rather than works of philosophy, although We the Living was an eye opener for the evils of communism.

    I was an engie student too, and had no idea about politics or economics back then. Nowadays with my real world-developed libertarianism, I’ve been meaning to read Atlas Shrugged, but the size of it puts me off. If anything I’d be interested to see how closely aligned Obectivism is to my idea of libertarianism.

    Dunno about her non-fiction though – it sounds heavy going.

    Terje – yes fair enough. by collectivism I meant coercive collectivism rather than voluntary collectivism, the latter is not incompatible with libertarianism, the former less so. But even enforcing standard street numbering or postral addresses is a form of coercive collectivism, albeit a trivial one, and one that has a negligible loss of liberty.

  14. I don’t think libertarians should give up on politics. I think it’s worth campaigning on specific issues that could go either way. eg/ The internet censorship proposal.
    I also definitely think small groups of people can make a difference politically.
    But I don’t think a political party can initiate a large scale paradigm type shift in the beliefs of a culture without a receptive audience. And to achieve full freedom in society, large changes at fundamental belief levels would be required IMO. I think it’s much more likely politicians capitalise on or encourage beliefs already held. But this is an interesting issue that I would like to understand better. For example I don’t think certain types of cultures would tolerate a dictatorship. But then again once the dictatorship is in power, the government seems to get away with anything they want at the obvious expense of the people, but then again, the people don’t rise up. So it gets confusing IMO. Also historians offer different interpretations of political history.

    Environmentalism is a good example of a movement not initiated at the political level, it was a grass roots type of movement involving activists, writers, artists, and even businesses. Politicians are now jumping on the band wagon left, right and centre.

    I think some libertarians make the mistake of thinking the general populace are closet libertarians that simply need a bit more explanation on the benefits of low income taxes to suddendly convert to libertarian ideas.
    I think people actually want the oppression they are asking for. Two very recent examples amongst people I work with: In the last week I’ve heard someone say that they think cigarettes should be banned and I heard someone else suggest that the ACCC needs more power.

    The two major parties are essentially quite similar for a good reason. Because they represent what’s generally popular.
    So I think that if people recognised the fundamental principles of freedom in our society, (and this would take some major changes) then we’d have many more freedom loving politicians in parliament in the major parties.

    I’m still new to philosophy and Objectivism but they both interest me. I’ve been surprised at how persuassive I’ve found much of the Objectivist theory. It’s helped explain and develop many of the libertarian ideas I held for a long time. And they offer some great tools for thinking IMO.

    Regarding philosophy, you’d be surprised how much it is possible to learn by simply buying a basic history of philosophy book. You can get an outline of the famous ideas and developments and you can get used to the new lingo.

    The goal should be the pursuit of (useful) knowlegdge and understanding.
    After you have carefully examined an issue and you have thought up or come across a position that you cannot fault, then you should stick to the facts as you see them and adopt this conclusion. You should argue for it with conviction until someone can knock you down so to speak. If someone can show you a contradiction in your thinking, then you should have balls to investigate your conclusions and improve yourself.

  15. I think any politician or political party that wants to advance the libertarian cause in Australia will be ineffective unless they articulate their desired reforms and policies in a manner that the dominant culture can comprehend. This means appeals to symbolic notions that have currency (egalitarianism, democracy, due process) along with good cost / benefit arguments. So for instance in arguing against the Internet filter it is not sufficient to merely say that the government has no business regulating what and how we communicate. The mainstream culture thinks the government can and ought to do stuff if it might create a good outcome. In essence the general public is almost entirely focused on utility. However the general public don’t have a lot of time to analyse utility and want representatives to do it for them. Generally they will trust representatives that:-

    1. Articulate the problems the voter encounters in a manner that the voter understands. For example at the last election the ALP talked a lot about the double drop off problem faced by parents. The ALP doesn’t have a solution and maybe shouldn’t try to solve the problem but by at least communicating that they understand the problem they increase their standing. Every good marketing campaign talks more about the problem than the solution. “Do you have itchy feet that keep you awake at night, annoy your spouse and cause your relationship to suffer – buy brand X” will sell better than “By interfering in the reproductive process of the bacteria that feeds of dead human skin Brand X can stop your feet itching”.

    2. Care about the same things. So if you care deeply about dolphins you will generally vote for other people who care about dolphins. Not because they know what to do but because in representing you they might act how you would act given the same situation.

    Of course if somebody proposes a solution you strongly agree with or strongly disagree with then that will also sway your vote but generally people are not that wedded to a specific set of solutions. They’ll follow somebody in a different direction if they trust them.

    Don’t get me wrong. I do think that moral arguments from first principle are important and that cultural reform is important. I just think that the political wing of the movement needs to be more pragmatic than that. They need to talk about the costs of censorship or taxation or minimum wages and not merely assert that these things are morally wrong.

  16. On several occasions it seemed possible that the speaker could also be placed in the same category even if he has very little time for such labels.

    I was also present at Costa’s presentation. To be honest, I found it a bit confusing. On the one hand he has very libertarian ideas. On the other he’s contemptuous of organised attempts to promote these ideas politically. He didn’t offer any solutions, but rejected anybody else’s ideas.

    Then it came to me – he’s one of those libertarians that is so fiercely individualistic they can’t work in groups. They are doomed to view life through a prism of frustration – they know all the answers, but nobody will ask for them. Incremental progress is rejected because it is never insufficient. Pragmatism is seen as unforgivable compromise.

    I think Costa will remain an occasional newspaper columnist and retiree for the rest of his life. More importantly, neither he nor those like him will make a difference.

  17. David,

    I’m a little confused by your second paragraph. Are you saying that Costa isn’t pragmatic enough?

    I do agree with the assessment that Michael Costa was not open to strategic suggestions. However he was the guest speaker that evening and he did not have the advantage of prior knowledge of where people in the audience were coming from. I suspect he was responding to imagined positions rather than, or at least as much as, actual positions. And this was probably exacerbated by his style and persona (ie he habitually disagreeable as you suggest).

    I also think that he has not thought as deeply about some of these issues as he imagines or explored the domestic libertarian scene very intensely. He has been working on a single strategy for change (ie via the ALP right in NSW) and has not broadened his horizons. I think he is a bit of a closet libertarian who has not yet discovered that he isn’t alone. If I was a libertarian working within the NSW ALP I think I would become fiercely individualistic and have trouble working in groups. I would probably also be rather doubtful that minor parties could have much efficacy in delivering change.

    The main thing Michael Costa could offer the Australian libertarian movement is celebrity status, and media oxygen, not ideas. However he does not seem overly interested in doing so. I have often heard you say that as a movement we are not lacking for ideas. The problem as I see it is that as a movement we are seriously lacking in people with public profile that share our ideas and are willing to go on the record as sharing some degree of our identity. Unlike America we don’t yet have any high profile self identifying libertarians here. As a movement I think we are more likely to invent such a celebrity than recruit one.


  18. Terje, I had high hopes of recruiting him for his public profile, not his ideas. But like some libertarians we both know, he implies he knows all the answers as well as the questions. That makes him a lone wolf.

    I agree with your assessment of his state of knowledge though. Considering his history, he’s probably a recent convert to libertarian thinking. Perhaps he might eventually suffer from relevance deprivation and decide to get involved. He’s got a way to go though.

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