Archive for the 'Intellectuals & academics' Category

Assorted links and comments

The first poll on the flood levy finds opinion heavily polarised on partisan lines, but overall against, 53% disapproving to 39% approving.

A different question on the same poll finds that 64% of respondents believe that universities would be better run by the public sector and 20% believe universities would be better run by the private sector. This dichotomy does not include the public-private hybrid nature of Australian universities as an option.

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In the context of the fascinating events in Egypt, Tyler Cowen reminds us of an outstanding book on public opinion, Timur Kuran’s Private Truths, Public Lies. In authoritarian regimes people conceal their true political views, but new dynamics can take over in which more and more people are emboldened to express their opinions. With no real support, in these circumstances regimes can crumble quickly when they lose the will to kill.

An interesting post on the signalling dynamics of cutting communications.

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Hamilton is no friend of democracy

Recently in The Age Clive Hamilton published an op-ed calling the campaign by the miners against the government’s proposed mining tax an attempt ‘by plutocrats to destroy Australian democracy’.

Sinclair Davidson has already reminded us that Clive Hamilton has publicly contemplated suspending democracy to tackle climate change.

But Hamilton’s suspend democracy op-ed was a rare moment of political candour. The Age op-ed is far closer to his standard modus operandi. This is to provide arguments for some major curtailment of liberty but to stop short of proposing it, or do so only in the most general way.

Unlike Hamilton’s plans for ending the consumer society, his implied argument for curtailing the mining industry’s capacity to put its case has some realistic chance of persuading lawmakers. The various proposals to cap campaign expenditures would inevitably spill over into regulation of interest groups (though this may end up being declared unconstitutional).

Whatever the merits of the mining industry’s case, it is a response to the state launching a major attack on the industry. They have every right to defend themselves. Far from being an attempt to destroy democracy, this is the democratic system working effectively to subject politicians to scrutiny and and perhaps accountability.

Methodological and normative ideology

Martin Krygier’s response to Waleed Aly’s Quarterly Essay makes an interesting distinction between ‘methodological’ and ‘normative’ conservatism. Methodological conservatism offers what he calls ‘well-nigh universal’ lessons: that the world is complex, that radical change will always have unintended effects, that long-lasting things are likely to have something going for them or at least be ‘sticky’.

‘Normative conservatism’ expresses an ‘attachment to familiar features of the society in which the conservative lives’. The problem with it is that these ‘familiar features’ can be ‘lousy’; other ideologies provide some grounds for discriminating between those that are worth keeping and those which are not. We can accept methodological conservatism, but still recognise that ‘sometimes the disease actually is worse than the cure’.

The distinction can be made for other ideologies as well. Read the rest of this entry »

Norton vs. Aly on ‘neoliberalism’

The latest Quarterly Essay has responses to Waleed Aly’s What’s Right?: The Future of Conservatism in Australia, and his reply to them. The response of mine that QE published is copied in below.

I wrote it because responding to writers on ‘neoliberalism’ on blogs or in right-of-centre magazines is ineffective, since reading the views of the people who might be the real-world ‘neoliberals’ has not typically been deemed necessary by their critics. By getting something into the QE I thought Aly at least would read it.

The gist of my argument was to be of any political consequence, characterisations of ‘neoliberalism’ must be based on established beliefs or statements of plausible candidates for being ‘neoliberals’ (I didn’t fully go into this, but I took these candidates as people whose views have family resemblances to the claims about neoliberal beliefs made by academics – this is complicated by the fact that the term if not the idea of ‘neoliberalism’ is a left-wing academic one, with very few self-described ‘neoliberals’).

On this basis, I disputed some of Aly’s claims about ‘neoliberalism’ on the grounds that nobody believed them, or that significant ‘neoliberals’ believed otherwise (eg Thatcher, Milton Friedman). I also used results from my online survey from last year.

Aly responded: Read the rest of this entry »

Academics in politics

Andrew Leigh has announced that he has won pre-selection for the safe Labor seat of Fraser. He’ll be in the House of Representatives before Christmas.

Of course Andrew is an outstanding candidate, but this is a big loss to Australian social science. He’s always been exceptionally productive, and in his late thirties has a publication record that most academics would be happy to retire with. Perhaps that’s why he is moving on to something new, but it’s hard to imagine that the steady stream of interesting papers and articles was about to hit an intellectual drought.

I can well understand the temptations of politics. While I think a fair assessment is that Australian politicians have done reasonably well by world standards, there is so much that could be done so much better. The kind of empirical social science Andrew has done in his academic career can tell us a lot about what policies are likely to work, and which are likely to fail or achieve too little at too high a cost. Someone with Andrew’s background can provide valuable input into the policy process.

The question is whether someone like Andrew, whose demonstrated major skills are academic research and analysis, can do more good inside or outside of party politics. Read the rest of this entry »

John Carroll repents

In 1992, John Carroll and Robert Manne published Shutdown: The Failure of Economic Rationalism. This was the book that prompted me and two university friends, Chrises Jones and James, to co-edit A Defence of Economic Rationalism.

Eighteen years on, Carroll has written to The Australian to explain that he no longer supports the book’s conclusions:

To me now, the past two decades support the maxim: if in doubt, trust the free market.

Moreover, if the GFC signals anything it is to beware irresponsible government

Shutdown co-editor Robert Manne is hoping that he will be second-time lucky with Goodbye to All That: On the Failure of Neoliberalism and the Urgency of Climate Change.

It’s rare that public intellectuals will admit that they were wrong, so Carroll deserves congratulation for doing so.

Privatising air space?

According to RMIT academic Michael Buxton, quoted in The Age this morning, the increasing number of tall buildings on Melbourne’s skyline is bad because:

”What we’re doing with high-rise is privatising space at the public expense. If you buy your view, sure, you’ve got a wonderful view from the top of one of these towers but what you’ve done is bought airspace. So that airspace was once originally a part of the public domain … the public get no benefit.”

But how many members of the public would otherwise get to use the airspace at level 40 of a skyscraper? It seems to me that the higher the building the fewer issues ‘airspace’ use generates, at least until it reaches flight path levels (and as we don’t want low-flying planes in built-up areas, that is quite high).

There are ‘negative externality’ issues with the shadows tall buildings create, but Buxton’s dubious ideological claim does not seem to me to be helpful in deciding whether we should have more tall buildings in Melbourne.

A missing great book of liberty

The IPA has released its 100 Great Books of Liberty publication, edited by Chris Berg, John Roskam and Andrew Kemp. I wrote 2% of this book – short essays on Mill’s On Liberty and John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration.

If I’d known it was going to take two years to get this compilation out – contributions were due early in 2008 – I’d have volunteered to contribute 3%, and written on Isaiah Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty (the key essays have been more recently published in a book simply called Liberty).

There is a Berlin book(let) here – his The Hedgehog and the Fox, covered by Tom Quirk. Quirk’s summary does refer to a key Berlin idea, about the pluralism and incommensurability of values. It isn’t possible, Berlin argues, to find one key idea that allows us to rationally choose between any seemingly conflicting choices.

But while this is Berlin’s big idea (the fox of the essay’s title knows many things, the hedgehog one big thing), his ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ essay belongs in any list of 20th century liberal classics. That it is still in print more than 50 years after it was first published, and has spawned a huge secondary literature, including part of the discussion in the latest issue of Cato Unbound, testifies to its enduring interest. Read the rest of this entry »

Is the PhD a problem?

Louis Menand’s new book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University is mostly the ‘backstory’ of American higher education; it is lucid and erudite reporting as readers of his New Yorker articles would expect. He has not set out to be ‘prescriptivist’ (his word). But clearly he doesn’t like the American PhD.

To start with, it’s not clear that the PhD is fit for purpose. It can’t be a qualification for university teaching, since most PhD students are already teaching. Nor do PhDs clearly provide a contribution to scholarship, since many PhD theses are not of high quality (and probably even more are not read except by the student, his/her supervisor, and the examiners). Menand – a Professor of English at Harvard – suggests that ‘if every graduate student were required to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would probably be a plus for scholarship.’

Then there are what Menand calls the ‘humanitarian’ considerations. PhDs take a huge amount of time – though in the US they are nominally 4 years, most people take much longer. Median time to completion is 7 years in the natural sciences, 10 years in the social sciences, and 11 years in the humanities (including time out). Read the rest of this entry »

Goddess of the Market

It’s rare for PhD theses to be turned into good books, but I am glad to report that with Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right Jennifer Burns has beaten the odds. Her book is readable and interesting throughout.

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There was one paradox of Rand’s work and legacy that particularly caught my eye after last year’s discussion of liberalism and the emotions. Rand thought that the emotions should always come from rationality; even sex was to be inspired by a recognition of shared values rather than physical attraction (a convenient idea for a woman in love with a much younger man). It sounds like an extreme version of the liberal emphasis on reason and rules over prejudices and passions. Read the rest of this entry »