A genuine Australian political classic
Bruce Smith might be an unprepossessing name but it was held by one of the outstanding intellectuals of Australian history. If the recent republication of Smith's major work, Liberty and Liberalism, has the impact it deserves, his name might finally be rescued from the disregard it has suffered for more than a century.
Liberty and Liberalism was originally published in separate editions in Australia and England in 1887. It was a big book dedicated to the defence of classical, Adam Smith liberalism in both politics and economics. It was written at a time when liberalism was under pressure to abandon the philosophy of free markets in favour of a much greater role for government in the economy. The shift from the politics of the small state to the big state took place concurrently throughout the English-speaking world, provoking critiques from traditional liberal intellectuals everywhere, but Smith's book was the best of them.
Today, its arguments are so in tune with the revival of classical liberal economics in our own time that it is enjoying a publishing revival. Last year its full text was published on the internet by the Liberty Fund of the United States. Now, a new edition has just been published in book form by the Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney, with an introduction by historian Greg Melleuish.
Until now, the book has been almost entirely forgotten in its author's own country. The unsympathetic entry on Smith in the Australian Dictionary of Biography describes Liberty and Liberalism as "massive and anachronistic" and portrays its author as an extremist: "He remained a doctrinaire extreme laissez-faire free trader, becoming increasingly anti-socialist in the 1900s."
It is wrong to call the book anachronistic since it was very much in tune with its times. From the 1880s to the 1900s, the major political parties in the Australian parliaments were the Free Traders and Protectionists, with Sydney identified as the home of free trade and Melbourne the centre of protectionism. In the 1890s and early 1900s, even Labour representatives in parliament were themselves split between these competing philosophies.
It was not until 1905, when Alfred Deakin became Prime Minister with Labour support on a platform of industry protectionism, centralised wage fixing and White Australia -- what Paul Kelly has called "the Australian settlement" -- that Smith's brand of traditional liberalism was relegated to political oblivion.
Smith was a barrister and politician who grew up in Melbourne but spent most of his adult life in Sydney. The disinherited son of the shipping magnate, Howard Smith, and a founder of both the New South Wales and Victorian Employers' Unions, he was a representative of the Free Trade movement for the seats of Gundagai and Glebe in the New South Wales parliament between 1882 and 1894. He won the seat of Parkes in the Federal parliament in 1901 and held it until 1919.
Smith wrote Liberty and Liberalism when he was 36 years old. For such a comparatively young author, it was a remarkably erudite work, revealing a familiarity with the major classical, English, French and American liberal and conservative political philosophers and political economists, including Aristotle, Bagehot, Bright, Carlyle, Cobden, Comte, de Tocqueville, Hamilton, Hobbes, Hume, Locke, Macaulay, Mill, Ricardo, Adam Smith, Spencer and Stephen.
As well as engaging with the politics of the day, the book traced the emergence of liberalism through both the history of ideas and the history of politics. It traced British politics from the Norman Conquest and Magna Carta to the 1832 Reform Bill and the radical free trade movement of the mid-nineteenth century. Smith argued that British values of individualism, political liberty, economic freedom and a strong civil society could be adopted by any society. Although largely forgotten until now, Liberty and Liberalism is a genuine Australian political classic.
Were anyone to write a proper history of ideas in Australia, Smith should figure prominently. He was the most eloquent spokesman of the Sydney free traders, a movement which, together with the free thought philosophy of Sydney University's John Anderson, gave a distinctive and long-lasting libertarian tang to the intellectual flavour of their city.
Out of step with the protectionist social democracy that prevailed during the latter part of his life, Smith continued to emphasise open markets and the free movement of peoples. He was the leading political opponent of the White Australia Policy. In 1901, when both the Protectionist and Labour parties supported the racially exclusive Immigration Restriction Bill, Smith denounced it. "The foundation of the Bill is racial prejudice," he told the parliament. "the whole thing is a bogy, a scarecrow. I venture to say that a large part of the scare is founded upon a desire to make political capital by appealing to some of the worst instincts in some of the more credulous of the people."
Anyone looking for a far-sighted precursor to some of the most influential ideas of our own time will find them in Bruce Smith.