Archive for the 'Intellectuals & academics' Category

Hello Lenin?

The film Good Bye Lenin is a sweet tale of a son determined to protect his fragile socialist mother from the news that, as we are celebrating today, the GDR is no more. The emotional core of the film is the mother-son relationship, but we are led to a little sympathy for the mother who never lost her belief in a delusional socialist idea.

But what are we to make of people who late in life start making excuses for the dismally failed socialist experiment in central and eastern Europe?

In a bizarre letter published in Australian Book Review last May, Norman Abjorensen, once a Liberal staffer, blamed the collapse of the socialist experiment not on its dysfunctional economic system and cruel treatment of its captive peoples, but on a propaganda campaign and ‘permanent war footing’ by the ‘capitalist ruling class’ determined to ‘discredit and rid itself of a potential alternative’.

How anyone can talk about the ‘promising post-Stalin era’, as Abjorensen does, is beyond me. I very much doubt the Hungarians in 1956 or the Czechs in 1968 thought a brutal Soviet crushing of their attempts at creating a better society was ‘promising’. True, the end of mass extermination by the Soviet Union of its own citizens was an improvement, but the post-Stalin regimes were not ‘promising’ by any normal standard.

Anyone hoping that ABR readers would object to this nonsense would have been disappointed. Read the rest of this entry »

Hamilton for Higgins?

It’s not often that Pollytics, Andrew Bolt and Catallaxy blogs all reach the same conclusion: that Clive Hamilton is not a good candidate for Higgins.

I’ve written a couple of long critiques of Hamilton’s books (here and here). Essentially what Hamilton has been doing over a series of books and papers is to try to give his mystical worldview (he wrote a book in 1994 called The Mystical Economist), which rejects the materialism of the modern world, a respectable basis in both natural and social science. The natural science aspect argues that the environment cannot sustain this way of life, while the social science aspect argues that it is not good for our emotional or spiritual well-being.

While in my two articles on his social science I argued that he was unsuccessful, I do have a kind of admiration for the intellectual ambition behind it. Very few intellectuals try to cover so many fields in advocacy of their one core idea. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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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Can public intellectuals be used to assess partisan media slant?

Andrew Leigh and Joshua Gans have a new paper out on media ‘slant’ (which they prefer to ‘bias’, given that reporting can be negative or positive for reasons unrelated to prior partisan feelings).

One of their methodologies for assessing ‘slant’, getting five people to code article and editorial content, seems sensible – though it would be good to extend the analysis beyond the 2004 election campaign, given that it would be quite possible that leadership issues in that campaign made some papers appear more anti-Labor than they are on ideological grounds alone.

But another methodology using public intellectuals, as Sinclair Davidson has argued at Catallaxy, just isn’t going to work.

They’ve rated the partisan nature of various public intellectuals according to whether they are most mentioned by Coalition or Labor politicians in a positive or neutral way. As Sinc points out, this immediately starts to get some very counter-intuitive results:

Does anyone really believe that Philip Adams (26 mentions, 65% Coalition) is a right-winger? Other right-wingers include Eva Cox (9 mentions, 56% Coalition), Germaine Greer (4 mentions, 75% Coalition) and Hugh MacKay (18 mentions, 78% Coalition). Kevin Rudd’s best friend Glyn Davis (18 mentions, 56% Coalition) looks to be a tory too.

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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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Economic liberalism and the opportunities for political favours

Today John Quiggin published a post on ‘probity and economic liberalism’, arguments from which have also been appearing in the thread to this post of mine.

In response to the argument that economic liberalism reduces the scope for wrong-doing, Quiggin offers evidence which I think is in itself pretty much irrelevant: that various governments that introduced some liberal policies also had scandals. But as social scientists often point out, correlation is not causation. All governments eventually have scandals of some sort, and by Quiggin’s standard every ideology stands condemned.

The Latham argument I agreed with was that to the extent government either withdraws from activities or sets neutral rules of the game the scope for political favours is reduced. Because classical/neo-liberalism provides no ideological justification for industry policy and advocates cutting taxes over most forms of government spending it seems to me that it must, to the extent it is successful, have a prophylactic effect on political favours.
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More weak conflict of interest claims

Andrew Leigh was one of 21 economist signatories to an apparently Nick Gruen-iniatiated open letter (open op-ed?) defending government debt as an appropriate policy response to the GFC. In broad terms, it supports the orthodox pro-debt view being advanced by the government and most though not all commentators.

But when he blogged on the subject, two commenters used conflict of interest arguments in a way they are regularly used in public debate – to cast doubt on the person making the argument rather than directly tackle the argument itself. One alluded to Andrew’s recent but now completed secondment to Treasury to suggest that he was ‘conflicted’. Another suggested that Nick may be ‘less than disinterested’ because he had received consulting fees from the government.

Perhaps the open letter/open ed genre invites this kind of claim. Presumably the point of having 21 economist signatories/authors is to use their general professional standing to give the conclusions more weight than the argument as stated can provide, and so their professional standing is a legitimate target.

But as with many conflict of interest claims, this attack is an appeal to readers’ cynicism rather than providing any substantive reason to doubt the conclusions reached. If the argument is so flimsy it needs past government employment to explain why it is appearing, how come 19 other economists put their names to it? Isn’t it more likely that these 21 economists are among the many economists who support this general line of reasoning, and the precise signatories depend on social and professional networks rather than past financial interests?
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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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An easy game of ‘guess the researcher’

Study finds tall people at top of wages ladder

- title of article on The Age website.

No prizes for guessing which economist and blogger is behind this research finding.

Update: The paper itself.