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Is the minimal state a reasonable response to the nanny state?

David Leyonhjelm is chairing the Senate inquiry into ‘Personal Choice and Community Impacts’. AAP/Sam Mooy

Is the minimal state a reasonable response to the nanny state?

David Leyonhjelm is chairing the Senate inquiry into ‘Personal Choice and Community Impacts’. AAP/Sam Mooy

The Senate inquiry titled “Personal Choice and Community Impacts” has begun. The intent is to examine government measures “introduced to restrict personal choice for the individual’s own good”. Steering the ship is David Leyonhjelm, who suggests that the “nanny state” is an unacceptable violation of individual liberty.

Leyonhjelm recently said that your choices are:

… not the government’s business unless you are likely to harm another person. Harming yourself is your own business, but it’s not the government’s business.

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) suggests that having a right to choose:

… inevitably means some people will make … choices of which others strongly disapprove. That does not entitle them to seek to interfere in those choices.

These claims can be traced back to John Stuart Mill’s 1859 classic On Liberty. Mill argued that:

… the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised … is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

Despite its intuitive appeal, this is in fact a very radical position. We don’t know what will come out of the Senate inquiry, but we do have some idea about what the “ship of state” would look like based on these principles.

Drug policy

The LDP website argues for the legalisation of cannabis:

Crimes associated with the cultivation, sale and use of cannabis by adults are “victimless” as only those who have consented are involved.

The party position is not fully articulated for other substances, but the same arguments seem to apply to most illegal drugs. Some drugs can cause more harm to the individual than cannabis, but the harm principle rules out intervening in these cases.

Some drugs can cause harm to others, but alcohol is still the drug that creates the most carnage in this respect and would have to be banned under any consistent policy aimed at prohibiting drugs because they harm others. The LDP would be unlikely to go down that path.

So far so good – on drug policy I’m broadly on board with Leyonhjelm.

Sexual preferences

In the section of the website titled “lifestyle choices”, the LDP says that:

… private sexual activities and lifestyle choices voluntarily undertaken by adults are not matters for government intervention except to prevent coercion and protect children.

True to his ideals, Leyonhjelm introduced a bill into the Senate to legalise same-sex marriage.

There are other activities, not discussed on the party website, that some will find less appetising than same-sex marriage. At least some forms of incest seem compatible with libertarianism. Two related consenting adults are not harming anyone by choosing each other as partners (as long as they do not procreate). A person choosing to have several spouses also seems acceptable as long as the relationships are not harmful.

Logical consistency, something that Leyonhjelm advocates, means the libertarian position also allows bestiality. Leyonhjelm argues that the state should not interfere because an act is offensive or immoral. The justification for intervention is that the act is harmful to others.

One might claim that the animal is being harmed or not consenting, but I doubt that Leyonhjelm would go down this path given that he supports the use of animals for food production.

You might be a bit green around the gills at this point but still agree with libertarians that repulsion at such acts doesn’t mean we should make criminals of people who perform them.


It’s definitely time to head for the lifeboats when it comes to the LDP’s gun policy. The party position is:

Sport, hunting and self-defence are all legitimate reasons for firearm ownership …Those who wish to carry a concealed firearm for self-defence are entitled … to do so unless they have a history or genuine prospect of coercion.

Leyonhjelm does not deny that guns can cause harm, but he doesn’t think we should curtail the freedom of the vast majority because of the actions of a few crazed individuals. He also suggests that an armed citizenry would prevent gun-related atrocities.

Leyonhjelm’s position is that it is acceptable, and preferable, for all Australians to be packing heat on the trip to the supermarket.

Deregulation and privatisation

The LDP opposes taxing people to pay for things like the NBN, ABC, SBS, Medibank Private, electricity generation, TAFE, universities, hospitals and schools. The state should also stop regulating liquor licences, workplace conditions, occupational licences, taxi services, retail trading hours, crash helmets for bikes and seatbelts for cars.

Road regulations should also be relaxed, but the LDP says:

… should be accompanied by a health system that does not impose on society the cost of recovery of irresponsible and dangerous drivers.

I take this to mean that the uninsured who harm themselves because they drive recklessly will receive only the most basic, if any, medical assistance.

Leyonhjelm’s economic vision is where I abandon ship. If freedom is about choice, as he suggests, the government has to have a redistributive role because resources have a big impact on choices. By ignoring this the libertarian position reveals itself for what it really is: a philosophy of freedom for the few.

Where to from here?

As we can see, an idea that seems intuitively appealing turns out to be quite radical. The great virtue of the harm principle is its clarity. As Mill says, it asserts:

… one very simple principle as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control.

For many people, including myself, this parsimony comes at too heavy a price.

It will be interesting to see whether an inquiry headed by a person of libertarian persuasion will offer something that is palatable to the Australian public regarding the appropriate limits to state intervention.

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