Everyone wants to get high and have sex while saving money. So says P. J. O’Rourke, the political satirist who gave 1990’s conservatives a passable response to liberals who said they couldn’t be funny. P. J. would approve of the convenient, pseudo-intellectual ribbon that I tie around most dinner party conversations: ‘I believe you should be allowed to do what you want to the extent it doesn’t hurt other people’.
The great thing about that line is that it is just as likely to elicit a nod of agreement from a ‘quiet Australian’ as it is a trending hashtag from the Twittersphere. It overcomes that uneasy tension on both the left and right of politics: if I should be allowed to do what I want with my money, why shouldn’t that freedom extend over my body and into the bedroom (and vice versa)?
It’s a question that has been asked by, among others, Déjacque, Thoreau and Mencken and it is increasingly echoed by an Australian middle class who are ditching religion as quickly as they are climbing the economic ladder (admittedly with the odd global pandemic slowing the ascent). Today many – perhaps most – Australians just want to get high, have sex and save money (figuratively, if not literally). The great paradox of modern politics is that we haven’t voted for it. Why?
The boring term for O’Rourke’s wonderfully sibilant ‘Shag, Smoke and Save doctrine’ is libertarianism. Libertarians believe that individual freedom should be the core principle that underpins society. That means being able to live how you want (think marriage equality), spend what you want (think low taxes) and say what you want (think a Twitter feed free of politically motivated censorship).
It has an alluring logical consistency. Most Australians probably wouldn’t call themselves libertarians – it’s one of those unfortunate words that can’t help but roll off the tongue dripping in conceit. But that doesn’t mean we’re not starting to act like them. The decline of religion, along with every other societal institution, is one reason why yesterday’s conservative is supporting today’s social reforms, one postal vote at a time. And yesterday’s socialist is drinking champagne and lecturing at cocktail parties that it’s trendy to save the world and make money doing it.
We’ve been so distracted by the echo chamber extremes that we’ve missed the real story. Australians are not marching to the edges of the political spectrum. We are meeting each other in the middle, with a rainbow banner in one hand and the Dummies Guide to Negative Gearing in the other.
Australian political parties have never had quite the internal fissures between social liberalism and economic conservatism that define American politics. After all, the Liberals got rid of guns and Labor floated the dollar. Nonetheless, a systemic instinct towards social conservatism endures in the Liberal party in 2020 as obviously as the urge for just ‘one more tax’ courses through Albo’s veins. It’s hurting the Coalition – it’s harder for the Nationals to stand on a conservative social platform when Barnaby’s moonlighting as Tamworth’s answer to JFK. But it’s really hurting Labor.
If Shorten could have brought himself to awkwardly stick on Rudd’s ill-fitting ‘economic conservative’ badge until the election day he would be (isolating) in The Lodge right now. In fact, since David Leyonhjelm’s resignation in 2019, there hasn’t been a single person amongst Australia’s 227 elected federal representatives who consistently calls themselves a libertarian.
It’s not the entrenched nature of the Australian two-party system. Political parties the world over are demonstrating a remarkable ability to transform in-step with their bases. Trump’s Republicans and (to a lesser extent) Boris’s Tories are unrecognisable to George W. Bush and John Major, let alone Reagan and Thatcher.
It might be we just don’t have the cattle. Both Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd had the chance to make the ‘Shag, Smoke and Save doctrine’ their own, before proving that a robotic brain can’t compensate for a tin ear in politics. As much as I’d like to leave the blame at the feet of two men who thought they were too big for even oversized boots, it’s not why libertarianism remains a concept in parliament and an instinct on the street. No, the fault lies with us.
Even in lockdown [obligatory Coronavirus reference], we live in an age of constant action. If you’re stuck in your living room, you better be learning to speak French as you beat your push-up record whilst the sourdough bread rises in the oven. Politics is the same. We judge political progress by volume. It’s why the Gillard government at one time justified their existence by saying they had passed over 500 pieces of legislation (even if most of them were at best administrative and at worst hopeless). It’s why Tony Abbott went from preaching small government to becoming the ‘infrastructure Prime Minister’ in no time at all. In almost every job it’s better to do something than to do nothing. Unfortunately, we have forgotten that politicians should be the exception that proves the rule.
In 1992, Kerry Packer contemptuously mused to a print media enquiry that 10,000 new laws had been passed since he was a boy and Australia was no better a place as a result. In 2020, I’ll add thousands more again. And Australia remains no better place. Libertarianism relies on not doing things. The fewer laws the better. But when a politician has a CV to stack, doing nothing isn’t an option because we won’t accept a blank page. That’s a problem.
It encourages rushed, poorly conceived policies, from over-zealous Coronavirus responses to reflex bans at the behest of placard-waving, unwashed vegan anarchists. It costs us money – behind every law is a public servant armed with red tape. But most of all, our ‘quantity over quality’ approach has made it impossible for a sensible brand of libertarianism to be heard in modern Australian politics.
As we emerge from this surreal zombie apocalypse training camp, let’s praise the ‘do-nothing government’. Let’s allow someone to watch their favourite movie, even if it offends someone else’s delicate sensibilities. Let’s cheer on the days when parliament gets rid of a law, instead of enacting one. And let’s get high, have sex and save money. In a socially distant kind of way, of course.
Will Kingston is a lawyer-turned management consultant-turned merchant banker. A bit like Malcolm Turnbull, with a fraction less narcissism and a lot less money.
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