It is a sad fact that the state of liberty in Australia is in a rather sorry shape. The size and scope of government is consistently increasing, our economic and social freedoms are shrinking, and there is no respite in sight. There can be no denying that freedom is on the retreat.
Yet why is this? Our think tanks are world-class. We have many believers of small government in state and federal parliaments (albeit somewhat hidden in the closet), and youth political organisations like the ALSF are completely onside. Why, by any objective standard, have we failed?
Rather than using excuses of political culture, and blaming external forces, I would suggest that we look squarely at ourselves as the reason. We need to take responsibility for our failings, and address them for the way forward. I believe that one of the fundamental reasons we have not succeeded is that we have failed to look at the battle for liberty in a strategic manner, and instead have approached things in a manner that can be described as ad hoc at best.
Allow me to explain. Think, if you will, of the promotion of liberty as analogous to the structure of production, and the way institutions fit together. For this example, I will use a simplified and bastardised version of Hayek’s model (apologies to puritans)!
The structure of production in a developed economy can rather easily be defined. First you have the initial stages, representing investments and businesses involved in the enhanced production of basic inputs – raw materials. The middle stages convert these raw materials into various types of products that add more value – intermediate and capital goods. The final stages take these, transform them, and package them as consumer goods.
This theory, I suggest, can be applied just as equally to the structure of social change, and, through that, to the institutions of social change and political battle. So. How would this work?
Firstly you have your raw materials – ideas. These are raw intellectual materials; abstract theories and concepts. These are generally removed from the average citizen, and abstract in nature. These then become converted into policy analysis and policy papers. Slightly more accessible perhaps, but still generally removed from your average layman. Then you have the third stage. Consumer goods. Policies are neatly packaged, simplified, and presented to the people. The proposals are translated in a way the citizenry can understand and act upon.
So, how does this translate into something a little more concrete and into an institutional setting. Firstly, we have the raw ideas – these come from the universities. A great example would be the work in the University of Chicago in the 1960’s and 70’s. These are then developed into policy proposals by think tanks – to continue the example, Cato and others in the 1980’s. Then, we have the ‘implementation phase’ where grassroots advocacy and activist organisations fight in the trenches to convince the public, and then lobby the politicians – the National Taxpayers Union, Americans for Tax Reform etc. After all, it was this combination that ensured the great deregulations here, leading to significant increases in economic growth and prosperity.
Success is achieved in this model when all organizations work together in a holistic manner and are equal in strength. It is only when all three components are in play and institutions in all three stages are health that we can actually achieve true policy change. It is essential that all three stages are strong and functioning to maximise output in the final stage.
Now look at Australia. We certainly have the raw ideas – whether it be through the work of those in our Academy (eg Sinclair Davidson and Alex Robson) or that we steal it from abroad, whilst outnumbered by the left, we certainly are represented here. Then it comes to the middle stage, the think tanks. The CIS and the IPA are without doubt world class, and produce brilliant policy papers and proposals. Now we come to the implementation stage. And….. um… hmm…
There is nothing.
This, I suggest, is the fundamental problem we face. We have no organisations dedicated to free market ideas that are focused to a)packaging the message in a nice simple format for the average Australian to be able to digest and b)lobbying politicians to adopt this. None. The left have them. Social conservatives have them. Even crazy insane people have them. But not us. Granted, the IPA has recently started moving in that direction, which is great, but ultimately that isn’t their comparative advantage. What we need in Australia is a genuine grassroots free market advocacy organisaiton.
For those of you who don’t know me personally, I’m currently in the US learning the skills to do just that. As part of that, I’m participating in the Koch Associate Program in conjunction with my employment at Americans For Tax Reform; whilst many don’t know the name Koch, it is not only the largest private company in the world (revenue exceeding $100 billion USD a year), it also funds pretty much the entire small government movement. At the risk of turning this into blatant self promotion, the year long program’s aims are “ to identify up-and-coming leaders and entrepreneurs interested in liberty and help them develop the knowledge, skills, and experience necessary for careers with market-oriented think tanks, policy institutes, and other non-profit organizations”. In just two weeks I have learned more on how to effect change than I have in many years at home (and will try to go into concepts of the Science of Liberty and Market Based Management in a later post). So my grand plan down the track is to set something up like this back in Australia (hence the self-serving nature of this post!)
I know many in Australia doubt the efficacy and practicality of grassroots organisations as opposed to think tanks (I had a debate with the doyen of the ALS, Mr. Humphreys, on this very matter a few weeks ago). However I am convinced that until we set up a vibrant grassroots advocacy movement – that actually works – to promote the free market back at home, we are doomed to continue the failures of the past.
For us to succeed, we must step down from the ivory towers of intellectualism, we must tear ourselves away from online debates, and we must get into the trenches are really start to fight. Only then can we really create change.
(Note: This post was based on From Ideas to Action: The Roles of Universities, Think Tanks, and Activist Groups by Richard H. Fink. Whilst my desire to set up a free market grassroots advocacy organisation in Australia has been around for years, this specific model and argument is completely taken from Richard Fink and the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and I can claim no credit for it whatsoever)
Cross-posted at my personal blog.