Question Time with Chris Berg

The IPA Senior Fellow, articulate champion of free markets and free minds, has a new book in the stores and some contentious views, especially on migration. He spoke with Quadrant Online’s Tony Thomas about freedom, regulation and the need to put a leash on intrusive government

berg chrisChris Berg (left), 33, is the mop-topped, nerdy Wunderkind at the Institute of Public Affairs. He cranks out books on personal liberty that demonstrate startling erudition and a formidable grasp of the history of ideas. Concurrently, he has finished a PhD thesis on Australia’s financial deregulation and more than a score of submissions to parliaments, plus think-tank tracts. He has been a regular gadfly guest – surprisingly – on ABC’s The Drum and an opinion-page contributor to The Sunday Age.

Last week saw the launch of his book The Libertarian Alternative(MUP, 225pp, paperback $32.99 and ebook $14.99). He defines libertarianism as the political philosophy of liberty – the idea that people know better how to live their lives than governments. As he describes it, libertarians want small government dedicated to enforcing contracts, protecting our security, and otherwise getting out of the way. The book applies libertarian ideas on everything from trade and inequality, the environment, free speech, and the nanny state.

The book’s most contentious bit – especially now – is his urging for people to not only trade freely across borders but move their families across too, with legal immigration quotas to be seriously expanded.

So who is this Chris Berg, IPA Senior Fellow, producer of this torrent of classy print?

He says, “I love writing and my productivity strategy is to write at home from 5 am to 7am every single day and get 500-1000 words done. Over time it mounts up to a lot of stuff and ideas.”

Q: How do you relax?
A: With my family, wife Bronwyn Hinz, and kids, Walter, 2, and Leonard, 4. Bronwyn works on education policy for the Mitchell Institute think-tank at Victoria University. She used to be a staffer for Labor Senator Kim Carr. We have plenty to talk about at home!

Q: Did you get your ideological bent from your parents?
A: No, they’re a smart but not particularly political couple. My mother, Sue, was a maternity- and child-health nurse and dad, Ian, was an insurance executive. I went to Camberwell Grammar, where people thought I came across perhaps as a bit of a Leftie. I firmed up my political ideas digging around the internet while studying at Melbourne Uni  and following things up in books. I never got into student politics, a field that gets a lot of people into a lot of trouble. I never started pinkish, and I’ve never been interested in political teams, only in discovering ideas and where they lead.

Q: What’s next?
A: I’m hoping to convert my Ph.D. thesis on Australian banking history into a more readable book. There’s more action in that history than you’d guess. When a bank collapses, for example, there are fascinating human stories of the enormous impacts that collapse brings about. And if we dig enough into the history of even the driest economic policies, we always find rich stories of politics and vested interests at work.

Q: How do you, as an IPA stalwart, get such a good run on the ABC’s Drum and The Sunday Age?
A: “I’ve always found the editors I work with to be eager to run alternative views. I have great relationships with these editors — we’re all friends — and I’ve always found success pitching free-market stories to them.

Q: I can’t follow your book’s argument that globally, people should be welcome to migrate across borders to improve their living standards and benefit their new host countries. Are you suggesting we take a million Syrians or what?
A: No, I’m arguing theoretically for more open borders, but only at the margin. I’d welcome much higher migration here of low-skilled people.

berg bookQ: But how many more? You’re not going to squib the question like Kerry O’Brien did, are you?
A: It’s very clear there are some serious integration issues involving certain communities. Those integration problems must be solved first, which is why I’m not urging wide-open borders but gradual opening.  Migration here is heavily restricted and wrongly so. But now that the government has secured the borders against illegal immigration, there is scope to start talking seriously about much more legal migration.

There’s a serious problem with current treatment of the intake of genuine refugees. They are treated as needing continuing protection so they go straight onto the welfare system, which is terrible for integration and for community cohesion. Instead, they need to get into jobs and join the community.

Q: Your libertarian shtick seems to argue for reduced anti-terror security measures.  Are you happy for the community to suffer more risk?
A: No, the issue is whether the plethora of misguided security measures is actually adding to terror risk, not reducing it, and meanwhile harming our freedoms.  For example, when ASIO asks for more power to get and keep metadata on people, the government hands the same power to non-security bodies like the ACCC and ASIC.

Q: You’re pretty fierce against growth of regulations by governments?
A: Australians have to obey more than 100,000 pages of federal law, plus the masses of state and local demands. These can be absurd. In NSW, some councils are refusing planning permits to businesses that use trans-fats in cooking. A small business here typically spends $30,000 a year complying with red tape, and the total cost of red tape is at least $100 billion a year.

Q: Your book attacks all the anti-discrimination legislation now being enforced here?
A: Australian law is now forcing us to associate with, and not associate with, various groups and individuals. Freedom of association is a fundamental right. One of the examples I bring up in the book is an innovative travel agent, Erin Maitland, who wanted to run women-only tours but fell foul of anti-discrimination law. That’s absurd, and so are laws forcing single-sex social clubs to integrate.

Q: Out of a mark of 10 for excellence, what score would you give Abbott and Turnbull?
A: I’d give both a seven. We and conservatives generally are treating both men more harshly than we treated Howard, partly because the economy is performing less well. Politics is the art of compromise. I’ve been highly critical of both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull, but I understand that they don’t see their main role as pleasing ideologues like myself.

Q: Why do you claim the Left/Right dichotomy is now meaningless?
A: Classical liberals, conservatives, even Labor and Greens people will sympathise with various aspects of libertarianism. I sometimes find myself agreeing with the Greens on, for instance, gay marriage, metadata retention and privacy. But libertarians are also just as concerned to protect religious freedom, such as ensuring people can object to participating in marriage service that does not conform to their religious convictions. There have been a serious of cases of anti-discrimination law being used against people who objected to baking a wedding cake for a gay couple, particularly in the United States. We don’t want to introduce more liberty for one group and simultaneously take away liberty from another.

Q: Do you have philosophical brawls within the IPA?
A: No, because all our differences are still within the IPA’s ambit of free-market economics, freedom of speech and individual liberty.

Q: The IPA is having a strong 2016?
A: Absolutely. The IPA is now larger than it has ever been, and has a stronger national footprint, than ever. We have 3,700 members across the country. Our young members’ program now has 500 people engaging with the ideas of the free market and liberty. Our funding this year is projected to be around $4 million.  We’re now engaging in the public debate, not just in newspapers but online, on social media, through web-only video, and I think we can see the powerful impact that these approaches are starting to have.

Q: Isn’t it tedious writing all those IPA submissions to governments?
A: No, it’s really productive. You get the chance to get your evidence, written and often in person, directly to law-makers – to challenge their views, to present contrary evidence, and to make the case for smaller government straightforwardly.”

Tony Thomas’s book of essays, That’s Debatable – 60 years in print, launches at Gambero’s, 166 Lygon St, Carlton, at 6.30pm on Thursday, May 19.  The book can also be bought here. Tony blogs at No B-S Here, I Hope.

COMMENTS [14]

  1. Peter

    Chris Berg is clearly one of those open border guys who – unfortunately in my view – populate the fringes of the right side of politics. This is part of his favourite song,I guess,courtesy of John Lennon:

    Imagine there’s no countries
    It isn’t hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too

    Personally I would build a wall and keep everyone out (including refugees) who would bring clashing cultural values and/or who wouldn’t pull their economic weight from the get-go. To paraphrase the Donald: Australia first.

    • Jody

      I’ve read one of Chris Berg’s books about Freedom of Speech, but I think he’ll be an even sharper and more powerful advocate when he stacks on some decades of life experience. At that time I’d be very interested to see how some of his views – for example, on immigration – might have changed. And he’ll have two adult children – possibly grandchildren – by then, which will differentiate his world view from those he holds now.
      Good luck, Chris!!

  2. Bran Dee

    Ah to be so young with so much energy and application! Chris Berg impresses but he may still be too young and green to appreciate values and tradition because he does say ‘I sometimes find myself agreeing with the Greens on, for instance, gay marriage,- – – -.
    Young people are notorious for failing to examine all the consequences before supporting a fashionable cause. The Greens thought boat people all came because of push factors and could not entertain pull factors even after Indonesia said ‘take the sugar off the table’. Even now Labor wants to give the landed boat people permanent protection visas rather than the Coalition’s temporary ones on which they are prevented from starting a family reunion chain. What are all, really all, the possible negative consequences of homosexual ‘marriage’? Maybe more Homosexual School Programs, sorry, Safe School Programs, and redefinition of the terms’husband’ and ‘wife’. No, the Greens can b—– off.

  3. aertdriessen@gmail.com

    To one of the questions Chris said that integration issues had to be solved first before immigration policies could be implemented. So what Chris, is your yardstick for successful integration of Muslims?

  4. ianl

    > You’re not going to squib the question like Kerry O’Brien did, are you?

    Yes, he did.

    And Bran Dee:

    > Young people are notorious for failing to examine all the consequences before supporting a fashionable cause

    Completely agree. My 34 year old son fits this category perfectly.

    • Jody

      We cannot dismiss people’s ideologies simply because they’re under 40; they just need to be moderated by people with greater wisdom (hopefully) and more life experience. And, boy, don’t the decades make a difference to the way you think and feel!!!

      In my earliest years of teaching (already in my early 40′s) I used to become very angry about youth unemployment. A few years in the classroom taught me that the source of the problem was often the attitudes of the pupils themselves! And their families didn’t seem to talk to them about any of it.

  5. Ian MacDougall

    I notice that the IPA is against any changes to the present arrangements re negative gearing. So I assume Mr Berg is likewise.
    The most basic relationship in markets is between buyer and seller. In the rental property market, what is sold and bought is the exclusive use of the rental property. It is in the interest of the seller that the buyer’s choice be as restricted as possible, and in the buyer’s that there be as few possible rival buyers, and a maximum of competing vendors. In other words, both sides want their own range of choice maximised and the other’s minimised. Government intervention is pretty well never for a level playing field, but in favour of one of the two competing parties.
    At the present time it is possible (literally) for an enterprising rent-seeker to go to a bank and borrow a large percentage of the price of a dwelling at very, one might say historically, low interest. Then said rent-seeker rents said dwelling at a generous (to theirself as landlord) rent to someone who would rather be a first-home buyer, thus keeping the latter relatively poor while the landlord rent-seeker accumulates the deposit for the next property.
    The impact of all this in the market is to reduce net housing supply to small investors and first-home buyers alike, and so to force up housing prices. Which is manifest. And all the while the IPA-approved landlord gets a negative gearing tax break for the interest on the money borrowed. Federal tax receipts go down, no doubt to cheers from the ‘small-government’ (or should that be ‘small-brained’?) IPA: so the Federal Government either slides further into debt or raises taxes, or something of both.
    The only risk is a local financial crisis, or another GFC: generated by such neo-Ponzi scheming.
    The (choke! caaargh! splutter! hawk! spit!*) ABC recently featured a couple in early middle age who had accumulated a portfolio of something like 20 rental properties in this manner.
    And all done at the expense of the rest of us taxpayers: very, very enterprising.
    For an expert (Ian McAuley) elaboration on this subject, see
    https://newmatilda.com/2016/02/17/what-labor-negative-gearing-missing/
    .
    *I confess this to be a totally insincere ploy on my part to curry favour with QuadOnline readers.

  6. Jody

    I confess I’d take anything New Matilida said with a grain of salt. Regarding negative gearing; first and foremost NG does not just apply to property but all business ventures where the business needs to borrow money in order to operate. In short, the COST of maintaining the business against the income earned. Many doctors, pharmacists and lawyers, aka Pitt Street farmers, do this and have done for years. The Hunter Valley is full of properties and operating wineries owned by such people. And then there are shares, other businesses and ventures for which one can use negative gearing. So, let’s put aside the bias on home ownership. And, of course, eventually the property is paid off and returns to the market unencumbered. The bank has gained (and banks need business to keep employing staff), the small investor has gained (and won’t spend time on the public purse) and the real estate industry gains because there are buyers and sellers keeping the values maintained. And, of course, renters benefit. In fact, the more properties are NG the more are available and the price of rent is kept down. It is only the SHORTAGE of property which keeps rents higher than they currently are. These are all basic economics.

    Case study: my son is 34, rents in Sydney and wants to buy there. Impossible. But he can buy in Newcastle, negative gear, put in a tenant and then over time sell that property for a profit. This is his ONLY CHANCE to enter the Sydney market at all without being encumbered with debt of over $450,000 by way of mortgage. Well, he can hope that I die soon – that would help too.

    And the government is right; a huge number of negative gearing is undertaken by the middle class. Teachers, nurses, paramedics etc. At least, outside Sydney.

    I wonder why nobody is addressing the huge windfull of tax free profits on the family home in Sydney – the average value now $M1 and climbing? In wonder if I wonder. I’d be buying there instead of wasting time putting money into superannuation so that the government can just TAX that at all points in the process.

  7. Jody

    Oh, and don’t forget; investment properties pay HIGHER RATES of interest than for housing loans.

    • Rob Brighton

      Your points are missing from the debate Jody and are well made. I might note that a property I had negatively geared at one time has completed its progression and is now positively geared, meaning the rental income is now such that it exceeds the interest payments and adds to my taxable income.

      • Jody

        And I forgot to mention that Capital Gains tax is applied to the TOP MARGINAL TAX rate of the investor. So, if you have just $1,000 of your income paying 49% tax then ALL the gains from the investment will be levied at that rate. A 50% ‘discount’ applies but the amount to be paid can still be considerable – especially if negative gearing a valuable asset (homes or otherwise).

        People make statements about negative gearing based upon emotion and not really having a clue about it. And Labor appeals to these people because of simplistic messaging. People sit round and nod their heads and say, “yeah, that’s right; why should the rich get it all”? Unfortunately for most of us, the middle class has now been conveniently re-badged as “rich”. And this also applies to superannuation.

  8. Bran Dee

    I am so pleased Jody is back commenting, erudite but no frills.

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