CANZPS Guest Blog - Sweet Liberty

As an Australian who has spent years living and working with Americans, I’m struck often by the ways in which we are, at the same time, deeply similar yet very different. There are many examples, but one that seems fundamental is our idea of liberty. Both of us place a high and visceral value on both individual and collective (sovereign) liberty—in Australia’s case, the popular myth of the irreverent “larrikin” Aussie (Crocodile Dundee, Steve Irwin) expresses a love of individual freedom and a corollary disdain for authority. America seems to have a more formal reverence for liberty, building the very word into the names of its institutions, icons and ideas: Liberty Bell, Statue of Liberty, Liberty Trail, USS Liberty, Liberty Amendment—the list is endless.

Along with this shared love of liberty, the objective reality is that Australians and Americans are similarly free. Measured by their respective democratic and electoral processes; freedoms of association, expression and protest; history of peaceful changes of government; and access to education and other public goods, we enjoy very similar liberty. And during the twentieth century, by and large, we reaped the social and economic rewards that liberty brought.

But our approaches to liberty differ in one detail: the U.S. has institutionalized (indeed, constitutionalized) liberty to a much greater extent than Australia. A scan of our two national Constitutions finds “secur[ing] the blessings of liberty” as one of a handful of fundamental purposes enshrined in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution (another is to “promote the general welfare”). Yet liberty (nor freedom nor any similar word) appears nowhere in Australia’s, even though it came more than a century later and after much study of America’s constitution.

The U.S. Constitution hardwires liberty into America, with the separation of powers, the Bill of Rights, and multiple other Amendments (notably the Thirteenth). It lays out many other practical requirements for the government of a functioning federal state, but everything seems designed to underpin liberty at all costs. The Australian Constitution also sets up a practical model of government with many of the same features, but these aren’t perceived or valued as pervading guarantees of liberty in the first instance—for whatever reason, Australians seem happy to leave their freedom as an unwritten presumption.  Thus far, both approaches seem to have worked.

The twenty-first century is challenging these approaches to safeguards. During the previous century, both the USA and Australia invented their own versions of the welfare state in response to the social and economic challenges of the times. These are increasingly expensive and may collapse unless governments operate more efficiently.  Better management would tell us to exploit economies of scale, centralizing functions to reduce overheads and eliminate duplication. In terms of government structure, this would mean fewer local and state jurisdictions. But to do so would discard some of the guarantees of liberty built in to current constitutional arrangements. There’s a tension, therefore, between sacrificing governmental or economic efficiency in order to secure the blessings of liberty, and risking liberty to promote the general welfare. Until now we’ve been happy to do the former because the marginal cost of inefficiency was sustainable. But can we continue? Is there a way to be both free and efficient?

I suspect there is, but it’ll require creativity and a willingness to challenge orthodoxies. For example, a group un-controversially named Abolish the States Collective (ASC) exists in Australia to generate debate on the current federal model of government. Despite the name, its rationale isn’t political collectivism, but capitalism: its empirical research shows that Australia’s states add approximately AUS$30 billion annually to the cost of government—money that could be put to better use in a market economy. The ASC isn’t a heavy hitter on the Australian scene: like Americans, Aussies like the identity of statehood (there could be no universe without State of Origin football), but for the most part they don’t see state governments as bastions of liberty and would be prepared to listen to good arguments on alternatives as the costs of the current model grow. While most options would require constitutional amendment, such amendments are at least conceivable. I suspect that a similar revision of American governmental arrangements would be a much harder sell, if it indeed it could ever happen—which doesn’t bode well for efficient government.

Freedom-loving people shouldn’t play fast and loose with their liberty—but neither should they cling to obsolete orthodoxies. The USA and Australia each face a challenge to secure for themselves both the blessings of liberty and their general welfare going forward, but that challenge isn’t a market contest between competing alternatives: it’s more of a creative challenge. I think both countries are up to it, and can probably help each other with ideas.

Andrew Smith, Ph.D., a retired Australian Army Brigadier, writes and conducts research independently on national, international and strategic matters.