Archive for the 'Conservatism' Category

Irving Kristol, RIP

I first came across the work of Irving Kristol, who died yesterday, in a Carlton second-hand bookshop in 1983 or 1984. His book Two Cheers for Capitalism offered fewer cheers than I thought warranted in my youthful Friedmanite enthusiasm. But it was two more cheers than most books in Carlton second-hand bookstores offered capitalism, so I bought it.

It was the start of a long intellectual interest in neoconservatism, peaking in 1989 when it became the subject of my honours thesis. Though I remained a classical liberal, I was interested in the cultural questions raised by neoconservatives and those on fringes of neoconservatism (perhaps summed up in the title of a book by Kristol’s friend Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism). I was also interested in the neoconservative as intellectuals.

Most of the neocons were product of the amazingly fertile intellectual world of mid-20th century New York Jews. Indeed, Kristol was one of an extraordinary number of them who went to City College in the 1930s, the Ivy League universities not yet being ready for very bright working and lower-middle class Jews. These include Bell, Seymour Martin Lipset, Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer, Philip Selznik, David Landes and Kenneth Arrow.
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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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Intellectual decline on the right?

The theme is the intellectual decline of the right; I really am curious; can anyone write a decent foundation that they are in decline from.

commenter Charles in response to my post on whether the crisis in American conservatism will spread to Australia.

There are different elements to political movements, often with overlapping memberships, which can include interest groups, social groups, political parties and intellectuals. The intellectuals will often have influence well beyond their numbers, as the people most able to coherently articulate the movement’s goals and arguments. Their loss of confidence in their own side can be a sign of an actual or coming crisis in the broader movement; while their success in public debates and growing confidence can be a sign that a movement is on the rise.

In American politics, we are seeing that loss of confidence. Richard Posner’s own recent book and the post I quoted yesterday are one sign of this. Here is a man with ideas about markets that have in the past been on the radical end even for free marketeers (such as his idea for a market in babies) who now says that ‘we need a more active and intelligent government to keep our model of a capitalist economy from running off the rails.’ We have former Reagan adviser Bruce Bartlett calling for tax increases in a new book. Conservative intellectual Ross Douthat co-wrote a book calling for the Republicans to support government intervention to win back the working class vote.
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Will the crisis in American ‘conservatism’ spread to Australia?

A reader suggests that there may be some post fodder in the Richard Posner’s recent comments about the decline of the American ‘conservative’ movement. These are the key passages:

My theme is the intellectual decline of conservatism, and it is notable that the policies of the new conservatism are powered largely by emotion and religion and have for the most part weak intellectual groundings. That the policies are weak in conception, have largely failed in execution, and are political flops is therefore unsurprising. The major blows to conservatism, culminating in the election and programs of Obama, have been fourfold: the failure of military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives; the inanity of trying to substitute will for intellect, as in the denial of global warming, the use of religious criteria in the selection of public officials, the neglect of management and expertise in government; a continued preoccupation with abortion; and fiscal incontinence in the form of massive budget deficits, the Medicare drug plan, excessive foreign borrowing, and asset-price inflation.

…And then came the financial crash last September and the ensuing depression. These unanticipated and shocking events have exposed significant analytical weaknesses in core beliefs of conservative economists concerning the business cycle and the macroeconomy generally.

I’ll leave detailed discussion of the American scene to others who follow it more closely than I do, though Posner’s list seems broadly right to me. What struck me most when I read it was (again) the large differences between the political right (I’ll use this is as a less confusing catch-all term than Posner’s ‘conservatism’) in America and Australia.
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Ideological role reversal on the will of the people

Leftist critics of the right like Norman Abjorensen see them as opponents of popular sovereignty. Certainly, in the past conservatives have sometimes supported quasi-democratic upper houses as a way of keeping a restraint on popularly elected Labor governments. Labor responded by planning to abolish upper houses, successfully in Queensland, and didn’t get rid of its pledge to abolish the Senate until 1979.

But over the last 15 or so years there has been something of a role reversal. Conservatism developed a strong populist strain, while Labor governments and their left-wing supporters started thinking of ways to frustrate the will of the lower houses of parliament. This is most advanced in Victoria, where Labor changed the Legislative Council’s voting system to make it difficult for either major party to secure a majority, and introduced a charter of rights, handing substantial power to the judiciary, while reserving the parliament’s power to ultimately over-ride ‘rights’.

The political identity survey suggests that conservatives (combining self-categorised ‘conservatives’ and ‘social conservatives and economic liberals’) are now quite distinctive in their opposition to further ceding power to the judiciary and preserving the democratic system’s role in protecting individual freedoms, though a slim majority of the classical liberals in the survey also prefer the democratic system.
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On what do classical liberals and conservatives agree?

Early last year I wrote a post on common ground between classical liberals and conservatives. The Australian political identity survey helps me test my argument, though given the relatively low conservative response rate I have combined the answers of those who described themselves as ‘conservatives’ (69 respondents) and those who described themselves as ‘social conservatives and economic liberals’ (94 respondents). Because of this, I have not analysed responses to economic questions, as the economic liberal responses would dominate. The comparison charts can be found here.

As I thought, conservatives and classical liberals hold similar views on schools – neither gives majority support to monopoly curriculum, and larger numbers agree rather than disagree that while the government should help fund school education, it should not deliver it. Both groups disagree that the trend away from federalism is a positive development (both groups, though much more so conservatives, are Coalition voters – the Howard government was way out of line with its ideological supporters on national curriculum and other forms of centralisation).

I thought conservatives and classical liberals would hold similar views on anti-discrimination law. Conservatives are considerably more likely to think that it should be repealed altogether. However, on the current debate – whether or not the exceptions to anti-discrimination law should be preserved – conservatives and classical liberals are both firmly on the side of exceptions.

I thought both groups were welfare sceptics, and this is certainly true. Both very much oppose further redistribution of income and tax-funded maternity leave. Conservatives are also more sceptical of family benefits than I would have thought, though not as sceptical as classical liberals.

Inevitably, however, there are differences, particularly on some social issues – though these are not as large as expected.
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Non-existent ‘neoliberals’ and ‘neoconservatives’?

1,201 people answered the Australian political identity survey question on which political philosophy they identified with. Of these, the single largest group (a third) regarded themselves as social democrats. Just over 20% called themselves classical liberals, 15% described themselves as libertarians, 8% saw themselves as greens, and conservatives made up 14% of the sample, 8% describing themselves as social conservatives and economic liberals and 6% simply as conservatives.

Another 9%, 106 respondents, did not find their own beliefs in the political labels I chose. The single most popular response among these was ‘socialist’ or some variant on that, with 16 socialist respondents and 1 Marxist. ‘Social liberal’ or some variant on that was the next most popular from 14 people, with a couple of small-l liberal responses as well. We also had people who wanted to be simply a liberal, a liberal conservative, and a liberal democrat.

Though academics and commentators routinely discuss ‘neoliberals’ and ‘neoconservatives’, not a single person used those labels to describe themselves. In my question on which political intellectuals respondents had read, the ‘neoconservative’ thinkers – Irving Kristol and Leo Strauss – were the least read. Even among self-described conservatives and social conservatives, only 14% had read anything by Kristol and just 8% had read anything by Strauss.

It raises again the question of whether labels like ‘neoliberal’ and ‘neoconservative’ have descriptive or analytical value. My own reading of work by local academics (eg here or here) suggests that the main effect of the labels is to lead them down the wrong path, importing global academic concepts (neoliberalism) or distinctively American political ideologies (neoconservatism) rather than trying to understand the local variants of liberalism and conservatism.

In the next post, I will look at what classical liberalism and libertarianism mean in the Australian context.

Australian political identity survey – last chance

I’ve had many more responses to my survey on Australian political identity than I was anticipating – 1,155 as of a few minutes ago. But the more the better, so if you have not yet taken it and you feel that a political label such as classical liberal, libertarian, conservative, social democrat or green describes you, please help what I think is the first-ever Australian research into this topic and do the survey here.

I’m going to start analysing the results on Good Friday, so you need to complete the survey by 8am Friday 10th April for your answers to count.

My original post and some discussion of the survey in comments can be found here.

Australian political identity survey

As a classical liberal, I am the kind of person people like Kevin Rudd or the academic left are talking about when they use the term ‘neoliberal’. However, their descriptions of ‘neoliberalism’ often seem to be, if not totally inaccurate, crude caricatures of what people like me actually believe.

My impression from years of talking policy and politics with a wide variety of people, and editing a classical liberal magazine, is that even among those willing to identify with a particular political philosophy their actual views are (depending on how you look at it) more complex or less consistent than simply following the logic of their philosophy wherever it might take them.

To try to see to what people with different intellectual political identities believe, and on what they agree and disagree, I have devised an online survey of about 40 questions. There is a question on party support near the end, but the main point of the survey is to see what people willing to identify as classical liberals, libertarians, conservatives, and social democrats believe, regardless of their party affiliations. I’ll publish the results over Easter.

Click here to take the political identity survey