Archive for the 'Books & writers' Category

Why no great social democratic thinkers?

One interesting point that Tim Soutphommasane made in his Weekend Australian article is that social democracy has

never had a political philosopher who has succeeded in offering a comprehensive articulation of [its] principles.

There is nobody with the status of Marx in socialism, Burke in conservatism, or a range of thinkers in the liberal tradition: Locke, Smith, Mill, Hayek. In my political identity survey, more than half of the classical liberal respondents said they had read each of the major liberal thinkers (though I did not ask about Locke).

Tim ends up suggesting John Rawls as the closest social democrats get, but notes that he was an American left-liberal rather than an identifying social democrat. And while Rawls may achieve great thinker status within academia, he is not widely read outside academia by social democrats or anyone else. I found his The Theory of Justice heavygoing; much less accessible than the other liberal books. Read the rest of this entry »

Famous writer mistakenly impressed

As regular readers know, I think the literati are typically poor analysts of political and policy matters.

Though Nobel-prize winning author J.M. Coetzee’s style suggests to me a more analytical mindset than is usual among literary figures, comments in yesterday’s SMH on books and writers on Australia he has found interesting are not encouraging me to revise my theory:

Other writers I was impressed by included Mark Davis, Geoff Boucher and Matthew Sharpe, who try to place recent developments in Australia in a world context.

I gave up on Davis’s book, but I did finish and blog on Boucher and Sharpe’s book on ‘postmodern conservatism’ in Australia.

One of my criticisms was that is that it doesn’t place recent developments in Australia in a world context, but rather confuses recent developments in world politics with an Australian context.
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Tony Abbott’s big government conservatism

Tony Abbott’s book Battlelines is part personal memoir, part Howard goverment history, part conservative philosophy, part analysis of current politics. I don’t think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but the parts are interesting enough.

For me, its main value is in being a relatively detailed statement of ‘big government conservatism’, from the perspective of a supporter.

Even coming after the big-spending Howard years, there are several proposals for more spending still, including teacher salaries, dental care, and yet more family spending (I laughed out loud at the sub-heading ‘how families have been forgotten’). Luckily there are also some proposed cuts, from a higher retirement age and to superannuation concessions.

Though there is an ideological element to the family spending idea, Abbott’s plausible claim that the Howard government was a problem-solving government rather than one that was highly ideologically driven also helps explain why government grew under Howard.
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On Liberty at 150

The 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, along with the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, has been getting plenty of attention. But there was another still-famous book published in 1859 that doesn’t seem to be getting anniversary celebrations – John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

I try to rectify this in the current issue of Policy. At the end of my article, I try to explain why Mill, despite probably being the most read and cited liberal philosopher, has an uneasy place in the classical liberal canon, but still deserves to be there:
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Why pay more at Borders?

This week if you download a coupon you can get 30% off a full-priced book at Borders. They regularly offer similar kinds of specials.

So far as I know, this is a novel strategy for booksellers in Australia: not discounts on a particular book, and not discounts across-the-board, but one discount on a book the customer chooses (is there a unique barcode for each coupon which protects against fraud?). If the strategy is to get people into the store it is a clever one. It allows all books to attract customers rather than just the specials, but unlike across-the-board discounting it increases the yield on additional purchases.

What Borders don’t tell you is that sometimes you need a coupon for shopping at Borders to make sense. My weekly notice from Borders, which I received yesterday, advertises Colm Toibin’s new novel Brooklyn for $36.50. A Toibin novel is likely to be worth $36.50, but there is no need to pay this much. Other bookstores are selling it for the publisher-recommended price of $32.99.
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Orwell’s great reach

For all the differences between ideological groups in the political identity survey, they had one thing in common: for all of them, George Orwell was the most read writer.

orwellbyideology

Perhaps this is partly because he was one of only two writers on the survey list who is most famous as a novelist (though he was a very fine essayist as well), and not even the greatest treatise writers can absorb readers in the way novelists can. But clearly it is not simply the fact of being a novelist – the other novelist, Ayn Rand, came fifth even among libertarians.

Orwell’s cross-ideological appeal is presumably some mix of his skills as a stylist and observer of life, and the capacity of people from all political backgrounds to find something that appeals to their beliefs. Read the rest of this entry »

Miscellaneous links

Tony Abbott’s obituary for Melbourne intellectual Ronald Conway. I was impressed with Conway’s books The Great Australian Stupor and The Land of the Long Weekend when I read them in the mid-1980s. Looking at them again last night, I am still impressed with the range of reference and the synthesis of psychology, sociology, history and politics. But the psychological framework, especially drawing on Freud, seems dated. Still, the books had great titles, which should help preserve Conway’s place in our intellectual history.

The Productivity Commission has released its draft report on parallel importation of books. I have not read it all. Main point I had not previously thought of: that many of the benefits from the existing rules flow overseas, because foreign authors can extract higher prices from the Australian market than otherwise. Main recommendation: that publishers still be protected from parallel importation, but only for 12 months. As most of the profits from a new release will be made in the first 12 months, this looks to be largely a win for the publishers.

Still at the Productivity Commission, an inquiry into the contribution of the not-for-profit sector. It sounds reasonably benign, but I am suspicious. The trend is for civil society is to co-opted or coerced into serving the state.

Sinclair Davidson uses
the latest tax statistics to continue his series of analyses showing that during the Howard years the Australian state was increasingly funded by the top 25% of income earners.

Are book reviewers softer than movie reviewers?

I was intrigued last November by this Marginal Revolution post on why music reviews tend to be positive, compared to film reviews. I was particularly interested in a comment comparing film and book reviews:

Book reviews are generally positive because reviewers frequently have a choice of which book of several to review, and choose to read books they expect to like, and then to give publicity to ones they enjoyed (knowing that there’s no such thing as bad publicity). It seems like there is a three-step process:
1. Is this book likely to be worth my time?
2. Read it. Is this book worth writing about?
3. Write a review.
Movie reviews basically have to cover all releases in a week, so there is no such filtering out of bad products.

My perception is that book reviews tend to be softer than movie reviews, but I had a different theory: that for social reasons people in the relatively small literary community are reluctant to give negative reviews to people they are likely to meet, if they don’t know them already. As the vast majority of reviewed films are foreign, this is less of a problem in movie reviewing.

A friend who is a part-time literary critic made a related point, that many book reviewers are actual or aspiring book writers themselves, while few movie reviewers have made or are likely to make a film. There are several reasons why this may lead book authors to be softer reviewers: they don’t want to provoke negative reviews of their own work, compared to a critic less of their reputation with readers relies on providing good advice to book buyers (which could lead to lower quality of reviewing overall, not just in being soft), and having been through the pain of writing themselves may just feel sorry for authors, even if the book isn’t much good.
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PJ O’Rourke finally coming to Australia

I first came across PJ O’Rourke in 1987, via an hilarious review of a book by Jimmy Carter in the American Spectator (then a witty Tory magazine, not the Clinton-hating rag it became in the 1990s). Vindicating his harsh judgment, the Carter book now sells second-hand for $3.98. This review led me to his also-hilarious Republican Party Reptile and many other good books over more than 20 years.

He’s finally coming to Australia, a little later than originally planned via cancer treatment, to give the annual CIS John Bonython Lecture.

He’ll speak in Sydney on 21 April and in Perth on 28 April. I’m not sure if I have any New Zealand readers, but he will speak in Auckland on 30 April. (For east coast Australian readers with lots of frequent flyer points, note the arbitrage opportunity in the Auckland dinner.)

Norman Abjorensen’s mess of a book

I’ve not thought much of Norman Abjorensen‘s work for a long time, but his latest book John Howard and the Conservative Tradition disappointed even my low expectations. It is a mess.

Abjorensen states himself to be in favour of popular sovereignty, and sees the efforts of liberals and conservatives to limit it to be their most important, from his perspective, feature. The great success of Australian conservatism, ‘has been to serve a ruling elite under a pretence of caring for all’. But after having run through some 19th century conservative resistance to the then maturing Australian democratic institutions, for the 20th century Abjorensen seems to have forgotten how he started. Much of the book is just a summary of the political lives and times of successive ‘conservative’ parliamentary leaders, with no particular emphasis on democratic developments or how the interests of the ‘ruling class’ were served.

In an unusual move, however, he has tacked on the end of the main text several previously published book reviews, and in one – on Clive Hamilton’s Silencing Dissent – the anti-democracy theme is developed. As I noted when that book was published, while the Howard government did not always deal ideally with its opponents, its overall account is tendentious. Vigorous debate continued throughout the Howard years, including constant and often vitriolic criticism of the government. And of course the democratic system smoothly removed the Howard government in 2007.
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