Waleed Aly’s ‘Future of Conservatism’

I’m not sure why the Quarterly Essay people asked Waleed Aly – or indeed anyone on the academic left except Judy Brett – to write an essay on the ‘future of conservatism’ (semi-coherent op-ed abridgement here). While Aly claims some sympathy for philosophical conservatism, with quotes from Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott duly produced, his understanding of the contemporary Australian right is too limited to say anything insightful about its current state or future prospects.

One of his arguments is that ‘conservatism’ (or neo-conservatism, as he calls its recent Australian version) has been too influenced by ‘neo-liberalism’. But his 25-page account of ‘neo-liberalism’ is the usual reductio ad absurdum stuff: markets as the only organising principle and the only arbiters of social value. Aly offers no evidence that anyone in Australia believes this, much less anyone influential. Indeed, he admits that his ‘theoretical account’ is ‘artificially absolute’. But this is not as he thinks because ‘political imperatives’ mean neo-liberalism only ever found ‘compromised expression’. It is because nobody believed in ‘neo-liberalism’ defined this way in the first place.

‘Conservatives’ agreed to market reforms for the same reason social democrats agreed to market reforms: as pragmatic measures to improve economic performance. Markets as institutions can co-exist with a wide variety of beliefs. There is no inherent inconsistency involved in choosing to over-ride market freedoms or outcomes in particular circumstances. Contrary to what Aly thinks, even the people who I assume are the real-world inspiration for the academic construct ‘neo-liberalism’, classical liberals and libertarians, recognise various kinds of ‘market failures’ and accept that government can be needed to control them (even if they are far more sceptical than social democrats about what constitutes a market failure and about the government’s competence to fix them).

When Aly moves off ‘neo-liberalism’ there are quotations from real Australian political figures (plus one columnist, Janet Albrechtsen), and so evidence prevents the hyperbole accelerator being pressed right to the floor. But even here Aly cannot resist exaggeration. He introduces the statements of various Liberal politicians about ‘Australian values’ and criticisms of Islam as a ‘reactionary form of monoculturalism’. But there is of course a wide gulf between being concerned about the consequences of highly culturally diverse societies and trying to impose a monoculture. Clearly, a government that presided over record migration from non-European societies wasn’t trying to create a ‘monoculture’.

Aly gets some of the detail of his dicussion of the climate change issue wrong. If by ‘neo-liberal’ he means classical liberals or libertarians, he’s wrong that denial is their only option. In my political identity survey last year 10% of classical liberals and libertarians said that climate change was not happening (compared to 26% of conservatives – implausibly Aly thinks conservatives need to get rid of neo-liberals to come to a sensible view on climate change, rather than the other way around).

But the wide variety of views on what to do about climate change mean that this is an issue that belongs in a discussion of the future of right-of-centre politics in Australia. No option (of nothing, costs exceed benefits, ETS, carbon tax) had majority support in my survey. My personal experience is that this issue generates stronger intra-right passions than anything I have seen in my quarter century of involvement in both the Liberal Party and the intellectual right.

I’m really not sure how this issue will turn out. My best guess at this stage is that international negotiations will fail to produce anything like the cuts demanded by greens. This changes the domestic politics radically from what they look if the debate is structured as just being about the science. Costly emissions cuts for negligible environmental benefit will, as the government is already finding out, be a hard sell. The long-term politics may end up being about who can best deal with the consequences of climate change – indeed, this is already happening via the water debate in the southern states.

It’s not clear that conservatives (or classical liberals, for that matter) will be either highly internally divided or particularly disadvantaged in this kind of political debate, as they have been to date in acrimonious exchanges about the science.

Aly’s essay is doomed by his misunderstandings of right-of-centre politics. But even with a solid understanding of the present, political prediction is always a dangerous business. In the short period between when Aly completed his manuscript and when it appeared in print the political prospects of both Republicans in the US and Liberals in Australia have improved significantly. I still think the Coalition will lose this year’s federal election, but the political dynamics are much better than almost anyone expected just a year ago.

41 Responses to “Waleed Aly’s ‘Future of Conservatism’

  • 1
    March 15th, 2010 09:17

    But there is of course a wide gulf between being concerned about the consequences of highly culturally diverse societies and trying to impose a monoculture. Clearly, a government that presided over record migration from non-European societies wasn’t trying to create a ‘monoculture’.

    It would be interesting to get Ally’s take in this botched up rubbish he wrote.

  • 2
    March 15th, 2010 11:45

    “‘Conservatives’ agreed to market reforms for the same reason social democrats agreed to market reforms: as pragmatic measures to improve economic performance.”
    Perhaps, but I think one of the reasons social democrats sort of accepted those changes was because the experience of the Whitlam years: that a more progressive government simply wouldn’t be allowed to govern. The ALP had to show that they would be no threat to the big end of town.

  • 3
    ken n
    March 15th, 2010 11:51

    Wow, Russell, that is revisionism.
    The Hawke/Keating reforms were considered by many or most people to be progressive. H & K were able to convince their constituency that the reforms were good for nearly all Australians.

  • 4
    March 15th, 2010 12:01

    Nothing wrong with revising things, ken n, eventually we get to the truth.
    People are very reluctant to change their voting habits. I don’t think Hawke and Keating had all that much support from traditional voters for those changes – privatisation was almost always unpopular – but apart from some voters who went to the Democrats, Greens or One Nation, most ALP supporters felt they hadn’t much of a choice.

  • 5
    Michael "Lorenzo" Warby
    March 15th, 2010 14:32

    Russell: you are being far too cynical about the Hawke-Keaitng government. First, they were part of a movement in public policy which extended way beyond Australia–the New Zealand Labour government went in a similar direction, but so did a lot of social democratic governments around the world.
    Second, there was a clear organising purpose behind the reforms: to create a sustainable welfare state. An efficient economy was judged to be a productive economy and thus able to able to continue to sustain a substantial welfare state. So “de-regulation” reduced transaction costs, “corporatisation” and “privatisation” re-allocated property rights in more effective ways and tapped into private funding for infrastructure while reducing unproductive drains on the budget, while “welfare reform” aimed to make the welfare state more effectively targeted.
    Third, you can see similar patterns in Western history going back centuries.
    Fourth, the main specific response to the failure of the Whitlam government was reform of internal Labor processes. These things have to be understood in their context and “the Whitlam government was too progressive” does not even come close to being sufficient.

  • 6
    March 15th, 2010 14:48

    Being judged a cynic, when we’re talking about Keating, is amusing.
    True, it wasn’t just in Australia, that social democrat parties had to change their policies – not that the rest of them faced quite as much media hysteria as Whitltam’s government did – but why did they change? You can say that some of the impetus came from failures in policies, but as I remember, the shocks to the world economy in the 70s weren’t entirely due to social democrat policies.
    One of the reasons the social democrat parties moved to the neo-liberal right was that an awful lot of money and careful preparation had gone into putting around the neo-liberal agenda. Changing opinion didn’t come cheap, but for the global rich it turned out to be cheap at the price. They moved ‘the centre’ and the social democrat parties headed for the votes there.
    I’m not entirely disputing Andrew’s point, just adding another aspect to it – the social democratic parties didn’t implement neo-liberal policies as a matter of principle, there were some pragmatic political survival factors operating too. But that’s why some who used to describe themselves as social democrats now describe themselves as democratic socialists. Just to restate the older principles.

  • 7
    Charles Richardson
    March 15th, 2010 15:55

    Hi Andrew –
    Haven’t read Aly so won’t buy into that discussion, but I think your suggestion that “The long-term politics may end up being about who can best deal with the consequences of climate change” is a good one. I’d have to say though that those who start by denying that there are any such consequences would seem to come to the debate at a considerable disadvantage.

  • 8
    March 15th, 2010 17:00

    Guys, gentleman, freedom lovin people…I’m sorry but we’ve lost. I hate to say it, but conservatism and liberalism are dead (say for odd blog and historical footnote).
    Tax to GDP has risen gradually, but relentlessly since federation. A-nort’s (CIS) beloved tax freedom day gets pushed back every year. Regulation (as pages of statute) has risen almost exponentially over the last four decades. Howard was a conservative in name only. At best, he stemmed the tide or had his finger in the dyke. Indeed, take Abbott’s big policies – a giganturn tax on business to support maternatity leave. Expanding Government gets plaudits, shrinking it is not feasible. Also, there are so many on the public teet that they are their own constituency – a monster with an appetite that can never be satisified.
    Thus, today’s conservatives are radicals by yesterday’s standards. And the best you can hope for is to slow the progression. I hate to say it, but the future of conservatism for the next 20 years is pretty grim.
    The only thing that will shake us from this soviet slumber is war, revolution or the moslems. It may sound a little loony, but this communal crap is holding our growth back. That’s ok when the west is in the ascendcy, but when East Asia gets larger and the you-know-whos keep breeding, where’re gonna be in stife. Maybe not now, but at some stage down the track. And don’t we know it. Only when we get our sh!t together and our confidence back can we compete.

  • 9
    Andrew Norton
    March 15th, 2010 17:03

    Charles – That may be so, but we are already many years into the most serious climate change issue for Australia, water shortages, without the Coalition’s views on climate change obviously having a dramatic effect on their capacity to participate in that debate. Labor is slightly ahead in the Newspoll best party to handle water planning and best party to handle climate change, but by smaller margins than the gap on other issues (though the results can be hard to read due to the absence of a 2-party preferred assessment).

  • 10
    Peter Patton
    March 15th, 2010 18:42

    We really have to ask what is going on at QE to choose such a lightweight to fight this ‘culture war’ battle.

    Why is he a public figure? Because he was good-looking, Christian GPS educated, and married to an Anglo woman, and thus was a perfect poster-boy for ‘moderate Islam’ during the fraught years following Sep. 11.

    That is, he is a celebrity, with nothing to offer a debate at the intersection of history, law, commerce, philosophy, and sociology. He is a protege of Robert Manne, and I can’t imagine his contributions to this mythical “neoliberalism” will be any advance on his patron’s.

  • 11
    March 15th, 2010 19:32

    Bang on Patto!
    Claim to fame….A you-know-how that doesn’t publically pine for a global caliphate!

  • 12
    Rajat Sood
    March 16th, 2010 03:05

    I find Q&A difficult viewing at the best of times, but last night, in less than sixty seconds, I saw Bill Shorten behave like a petulent child, Waleed Aly speak about Conservatism as if he is a Conservative and Catherine Deveny attempt a wise crack about nostalgia and Hey Hey its Saturday. Back to a rerun of Matrix Reloaded…

  • 13
    Baz (the ordinary Aussie)
    March 16th, 2010 06:09

    Agreed Rajat. I tell you what though. First time I saw Miranda Divine in action and I was a little disappointed. She was looked like she belonged in a wax museum.
    I think she went in there thinking too much and without the confidence and courage to fully back her convictions like she does in her articles.
    Bill was a bit petulant, but even so, he’s a step up from other union would-bies. At least he is pro growth and a touch pragmatic.
    Dutton tried his best, but was up against a hostile Jones and unfortunately lacks a degree of intellectual fire power.
    Still 4 lefties against 2 from the right and a communist audience. Raj, I can see why you’re a little frustrated at your ABC!

  • 14
    March 16th, 2010 06:51

    I’m looking forward to Waleed Aly’s essay.

    The thing I’m unsure about, is the relationship between political belief systems and the behaviour of elected politicians.

    For most mainstream politicians I suspect that policy positions and pragmatic alliances come before philosophical principles.

    If this is true, we can’t treat policy positions as evidence of an underlying belief system.

    In many cases it’s a bit like trying to read a restaurateur’s taste in food by looking at dishes they serve to customers.

  • 15
    Andrew Norton
    March 16th, 2010 09:53

    Don – Honestly, not much to look forward to. I very much doubt you will find anything of interest. And this is partly because there is no consideration of basic methodological issues of how to characterise political beliefs and movements. How useful is the canon, are Burke and Oakeshott quotes of any relevance? Does it make sense to invent an ideology which has no self-identifying adherents? Who speaks for a movement, should public opinion polling be used as well as the words of intellectuals, activists and politicians? For political parties, as you suggest, what is just electoral politics, and what is an expression of underlying beliefs? How to deal with evidence that contradicts your thesis (surely the migration program and private school funding are more significant than a few isolated statements critical of Muslims and a citizenship test in analysing the Liberal approach to cultural diversity)?

  • 16
    March 16th, 2010 10:52

    I was looking forward to doing a serious crit of the Aly essay and made a start at Catallaxy but decided that Andrew had just about said enough, it is so thin, and I decided to do other things.

  • 17
    Tysen Woodlock
    March 16th, 2010 16:30

    I was a little bit impressed by Waleed on last night’s Q&A, probably because every other guess gave such a poor performance. He was brave enough to state that most of us have no idea whether global warming is human made and have to place a great deal of trust in experts to get it right. It’s a view that is unpopular because a lot of us who believe that the consensus among experts on AGW is true like to use it to denigrate the intelligence or sincerity of those that oppose it as though if you watched Al Gore and approved of his movie you are some kind of expert in the field.

  • 18
    Michael "Lorenzo" Warby
    March 16th, 2010 16:46

    Russell: what a simple view of politics. Put the money in and “bingo!” get the result you want. This no doubt “explains” why all advertising campaigns succeed.
    You can promote ideas all you want, but unless they resonate, they do not get far. Stagflation was a genuine problem, the welfare state as structured was hitting various fiscal crunches, so new policy sets had an opportunity.
    And the policies largely worked in the way that was advertised. The Oz economy, for example, became both more resilient and more efficient and was able to fund significant expansion in (generally better targeted) welfare coverage.
    The real problem with socialism is that it simply does not work. That is, after all, the long-term history of social democracy–the socialist element retreats and the liberal element expands.

  • 19
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 16th, 2010 18:04

    “Howard … had his finger in the dyke.”

    Aha! I knew he wasn’t the social conservative he claimed to be.

  • 20
    March 16th, 2010 19:28

    Waleed Aly got a lot of mileage out of Islam after September 11 but, now that things seem to have changed, he’s reinvented himself as an “academic” and “social commentator”. Unfortunately, the media has given him a lot of attention largely because of the Islamic connection. There is nothing inspirational, interesting or of note in his ideas. His articles are a crude collage of nonsensical ideas and quotes that he pastes together into a word soup that bamboozles as much as it bores.

    His article in the Quarterly is no exception.

    It quotes liberally from Mills and yet Aly was one of the most outspoken and staunchest defenders of anti-religious vilification laws in Victoria. He quotes and references Hayek yet it is obvious that Aly has probably not read, much less understood, F.A. Hayek’s ideas and that he is simply regurgitating the same hackneyed old attacks on free markets that we have heard so many times before from more polished performers than this socialist apparatchik.

  • 21
    March 16th, 2010 20:17

    Michael, the truth is often simple; that money buys power is obvious. You wouldn’t dispute that the unions buy influence in the ALP? I didn’t claim that my point was the whole explanation for the policy change, I wrote: “I’m not entirely disputing Andrew’s point, just adding another aspect to it”.
    As for “The real problem with socialism is that it simply does not work.” well, with the global financial crisis and the pollution of the atmosphere with CO2 we could equally say that free enterprise doesn’t work.

  • 22
    March 16th, 2010 21:05


    I haven’t read Waleed’s essay, so I can’t comment on that. But I thought he was very interesting on Q and A, if only because he was measured and coherent (unfortunately a rare thing, as some other commenters have mentioned).

    I have a methodological question for you: how useful is it that only 10% of classical liberals claimed not to be believe in “climate change”? Even the most rabid denier of the science is happy to say “of course I believe in climate change: the climate is always changing!” So the way you have phrased the question may have allowed people to shirk the question of whether or not they support the consensus viewpoint.

    FWIW, most classical liberals I speak to are either delusionists (to use JQ’s phrase), or Nortonists (i.e., they are ambivalent about the science but resent the bullying attitude of alarmists). I would put the numbers at around 30/70 delusionists/Nortonists. But most of my friends aren’t liberals, so it’s a small sample.

  • 23
    Andrew Norton
    March 17th, 2010 03:04

    Robert – On the science I hold the same view as Aly: I am not competent to assess the science, but of the available heuristics the scientific consensus is the most prudent one.

    For classical liberals more generally, the responses in the survey were ‘not happening’ 9.4%, ‘happening mainly due to natural causes’ 30.9%, ‘happening mainly due to human causes’ 44.5%, and ‘other’ 15.2%.

    For conservatives, the numbers were 26.1%, 52.2%, 15.9%, 5.8%.

    Aly thinks ‘neo-liberals’ are logically required to be denialists, because their philosophy cannot allow market failures. He’s wrong on two counts if this is supposed to be an analysis of Australian politics. While as I noted in the post classical liberals are more sceptical than leftists of claimed market failures, they do not reject the idea. And in real-world politics people do not rigidly derive all their ideas from philosophical axioms.

  • 24
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 17th, 2010 06:42

    The reaction against Aly on this blog is purely territorial. He’s a lefty who is writing about the future of conservativism and you righties are outraged by the sheer presumptiousness of it all. (Extra marks to Peter for pointing out that he’s a Muslim, and to Rebecca for hinting that he’s a faux moderate.) Dog owners who observe their pets’ reactions when another dog strays into their yard will find this very familiar. Here’s an idea to make things better. Why doesn’t someone who actually is a conservative write a serious piece on the future of conservatism in Australia?

  • 25
    March 17th, 2010 09:01

    “Why doesn’t someone who actually is a conservative write a serious piece on the future of conservatism in Australia?”
    Because Tony Abbott has done it? (not that I’ve read it).

  • 26
    March 17th, 2010 12:10

    I think its impossible to get the different strands (brands?) of conservatism to agree. Of the following I’m not even sure I’d call them all conservatism, mostly they are right-wing.

    Populist (Barnaby)
    Socially conservative
    Pro-business anti-union (Abbott, Andrews)
    Small government anti-deficit
    Pro-individual rights
    Enviro Sceptics
    Actual Liberals

  • 27
    Tom N.
    March 17th, 2010 21:47


    But his 25-page[His] … account of ‘neo-liberalism’ is the usual reductio ad absurdum stuff: markets as the only organising principle and the only arbiters of social value. Aly offers no evidence that anyone in Australia believes this, much less anyone influential.

    This kind of nonsense dates back to at least Michael Pusey, and has been debunked several times. Yet like zombies, no matter how often or how completely this straw economic man is slain, sooner or later it finds new life.

    When it is just confused sociologists who try to resurrect this creature, no great harm is done, for no-one who matters really takes much notice. Of more concern is that Australia’s Greatest Economist is himself about the make the same mistake – and breathe fresh life into the straw economic rationalist zombie. To be fair, Quiggin provides a bit more nuance than the Alys of the world, yet he too appears to believe that there is lurking a band of neoliberals (actually, he cycles through various terms, never settling for long on one and thinking it matters little anyway), with their hands on the policy levers, who apparantly believe things like the free markets is always superior to government intervention. Of particular interest is Quiggin’s view that the reason that neoliberals don’t identify with the label is that, to them, their ideology is just ‘commonsense’. The opposite is surely the case, as all economists who have tried to convince the man on the Clapham St omnibus about the benefits of free trade will readily attest.

  • 28
    March 17th, 2010 22:32

    So TomN, you actually think no one believes in free markets as the organizing principal.. that they really lying?

    If so, are you sure this isn’t the same as the former NewYorker editor who couldn’t understand how Nixon won in a landslide as he didn’t know one person that voted for him.

  • 29
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 18th, 2010 07:24

    “the former NewYorker editor who couldn’t understand how Nixon won in a landslide as he didn’t know one person that voted for him.”

    Felicity Kennett said exactly that after her husband lost in 1999.

  • 30
    Andrew Norton
    March 18th, 2010 08:29

    JC – Are you saying you know someone who believes in markets as the *only* organising principle? (Aly’s claim). I know lots of people who think markets could be used more as an organising principle, but none who think it is the only one.

  • 31
    March 18th, 2010 09:22

    “all economists who have tried to convince the man on the Clapham St omnibus about”
    Andrew’s blog is too educative to let that pass – in case there’s someone who doesn’t know the phrase, it’s ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ ie. your average commonsensical, reasonable person (who sees the harm of free trade) like me ….

  • 32
    Andrew Norton » Blog Archive » Absolute vs relative understandings of ideology
    March 18th, 2010 10:04

    […] of the reasons Waleed Aly’s ‘Future of Conservatism’ essay goes wrong is that he thinks of political ideologies in absolute rather than relative […]

  • 33
    March 18th, 2010 12:21

    Hi Andrew:

    No, not the only one, but it’s most probably the most optimum way in almost all instances where there is scarce resource allocation.

    The only public goods I can think of are say the military, police and possibly some roads (only).

  • 34
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 18th, 2010 13:23

    JC, I think what Andrew might have been getting at is that there is more to life than the problems where markets are the solution. For instance, the problem of choosing one’s life partner (or in the old terminology, husband or wife). This is not usually left to market forces. Following on, should I be faithfull to my partner? terminate the relationship, etc – again, not a market-type problem. Then, in no particular order: which religion do I follow, if any; which people do I want as friends; what boundaries do I set for my children; should I top myself if I get a terminal disease; the list goes on and on.

  • 35
    Andrew Norton
    March 18th, 2010 13:29

    S of R – Indeed. For some of these, there is a liberal position (a voluntary choice) without there being other aspects of a market, such as an exchange or a price.

  • 36
    Baz (the ordinary Aussie)
    March 18th, 2010 13:43

    I think you guys are kidding yourselves if you think there’s no market in finding (or getting) love!

  • 37
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 18th, 2010 14:14

    I’ve not heard of any man marrying the whore he rented for an hour, not in real life anyway, but no doubt it’s happened somewhere, some time.

  • 38
    March 18th, 2010 14:15

    Funny, ratpack, but partner selection is in fact a market of sorts where people choose. So is religion to a large degree with them all competing for adherents.

    I could go on as well.

  • 39
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 18th, 2010 14:50

    As Andrew said, it’s not a market if there’s no price. All sentient creatures make choices every day, but that doesn’t mean there’s a market mediating those choices.

  • 40
    March 18th, 2010 21:23

    There’s no price as we know it in barter either, Ratpak. It doesn’t mean that exchange doesn’t take place.

    I think you’re confusing what a market actually is and seems to think it is objective thing.

  • 41
    Son of the Ratpack
    March 19th, 2010 05:34

    There is a price in barter. It’s a relative price. If we agree to swap two apples for one orange then the price of an orange is two, in terms of apples. The reason we don’t do a huge amount of barter in modern societies is that it is more convenient to use money. But just because there is competition and choice doesn’t mean there is a market. A lion competes against other lions for food and for mates, and chooses which gazelle to kill. But there is no market.