Recently a friend asked me if I had any smart new ideas for online political communication.
I’ve spent the last six months dabbling in what’s called ‘alternative media’ – blunt opinions on YouTube and Facebook, free from the stifling PC laws inflicted on mainstream media.
I told my mate to set up an online forum called ‘Challenge Yourself’ – a place where people could get outside the Left- and Right-wing echo chambers of partisan politics and be exposed to arguments that challenge their pre-existing view of the world.
It’s an intellectually healthy process.
We used to call it education: when intelligent people would research facts and pass them on for others to learn the essential truths of their chosen discipline.
As the father of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, put it: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”
Now, in the age of Twitter, politics has become a slag-athon, where personal abuse and innuendo have replaced the ancient art of persuasion.
I get into it as much as anyone.
I love the combative side of online politics, but I also believe it’s important to master the bigger policy issues.
In my daily routine, if I spend an hour fighting off the inner-city Goths on social media, I also spend three hours reading non-fiction, mostly government reports and policy papers.
This is to challenge myself, to think about ideas beyond those I already believe in.
Instead of the online forum I suggested to my friend, perhaps there’s an easier solution.
For a masterclass in original thinking, I recommend Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm’s new book, Freedom’s Salesman.
It’s certain to get you out of your comfort zone.
Rare among today’s MPs, Leyonhjelm has a structured philosophy of politics and society.
Some of his views – such as drug legalisation, assisted suicide and the abolition of marriage laws – can be seen as radically Left-wing.
Other policies, such as free trade and small government, are usually associated with Right-wing views.
The consistent thread throughout his thinking is the ideal of freedom or, as he puts it, “a general distrust of authority”.
This is a quintessentially Australian belief.
As a people, we don’t like being told what to do.
We love thumbing our nose at powerful people, taking down poseurs a peg or two.
But now this national trait is under siege.
The spread of the nanny state and political correctness is smothering our anti-authoritarianism.
Leyonhjelm detests this kind of government over-regulation and the associated rise of welfare dependency.
He endorses Mill’s “harm principle” as the core of his philosophy.
In 1859 Mill wrote of how, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Leyonhjelm wants to return to a time when, “over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
Thus he sees a legitimate role for government in health care, education and defence.
But he also mounts well-researched arguments for less state interference in business regulation, corporate subsidies, industrial relations, power generation and environmental control.
I’ve been a lifelong supporter of a minimum wage in Australia but Leyonhjelm’s advocacy for abolishing it – to help the unemployed, school-leavers and refugees find jobs – had me rethinking my position.
Similarly, he’s a devastating critic of the way in which governments throw money at wasteful schemes, such as Adelaide’s submarine program.
His chapter suggesting sarcastically for the subs to be built in Western Sydney reminded me of the brilliant 1970s MP Bert Kelly – using humour to expose the absurdities of political pork barreling.
Leyonhjelm also tears apart the Pharmacy Guild’s anti-competitive lobbying of government, which limits the public’s ability to get the medicines they need, when they need them.
On other issues, I’m afraid the Senator was unsuccessful in persuading me of the need to relax Australia’s anti-terrorism, policing and gun laws.
They are required, urgently in some cases, to prevent harm to others.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Freedom’s Salesman is its comprehensiveness.
Not since the time of Gough Whitlam has a Federal MP single-handedly constructed such a broad agenda – a complete policy program for his time.
For Whitlam, it was a social democratic expansion of government.
For Leyonhjelm, there’s a need to rebalance the role of the public sector, to reduce its intrusiveness and restore individual sovereignty to our national way of life.
As a libertarian, Leyonhjelm is uneasy about running with the herd.
His politics are distinctly non-tribal, refusing to bow to the shibboleths of Left and Right.
At a personal level, he is quite the character, eccentric even – far removed from the robotic, predictable style of Canberra’s ‘white-bread’ politicians.
In the book’s introduction, Leyonhjelm laments of how “being a Senator is interfering with (his) semi-retirement”.
“I am constantly recognised in public, regularly asked for selfies and occasionally abused”, he writes, “As a hitherto private person, that’s not something I enjoy”.
Few Australian politicians speak with such candour.
As proof of his independence, over the years, Leyonhjelm has also been a member of the Labor, Liberal, Shooters and Outdoor Recreation parties.
Like Billy Hughes, he has drawn the line at joining the Nationals.
Earlier this year I joined his party, the Liberal Democrats, in search of free speech and robust policy debate.
On the strength of this book, I’m glad I did.
This article was originally published by The Daily Telegraph. Read the original article here.