Chameleon conservatives

Do conservatives believe in conservatism, or is conservatism whatever conservatives happen to believe? I think commenter Ken Nielsen is right when he says ‘“conservative” means different things to different people in different countries.’ In the very useful introduction to his book Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present, Jerry Muller says:

..conservatives have, at one time or place or another, defended royal power, constitutional monarchy, artistocratic preregotative, representative democracy, and presidential dictatorship; high tariffs and free trade; nationalism and internationalism; centralism and federalism; a society of inhereted estates, a capitalist, market democracy, and one or another version of the welfare state. …

You get the picture. John Howard fits into this – constitutional monarchy, free trade, soft nationalism, centralism, a capitalist, market democracy and a welfare state – but he could have had contrary ideas without threatening his status as a ‘conservative’. Unlike liberals, conservatives are not committed to a particular set of state institutions.
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The contradictions of conservatism?

I just don’t see how you can say that economically people should be as free as they can to do the things they want unhindered by the State, but socially the State should be telling them what’s best and how they should structure their lives. It would actually be refreshing for a conservative to just say, “yeah, there is an ideological contradiction, but so what”.

commenter Christian last week.

It has often been claimed that social conservatism and economic liberalism are contradictory. Christian seems here to be saying there is a logical contradiction on display, but I think conservatives can fairly easily side-step this criticism. It would only be valid if conservatives defend markets as institutions of freedom. But there is also a utilitarian defence of markets, which is that economic freedom is good because it produces more wealth than any other system. Social democrats could defend markets for the same reason.

At least on the surface, another version of this criticism is harder for conservatives to escape. Continue reading “The contradictions of conservatism?”

What does it mean for a political party to ‘own’ an issue?

I’m writing the public opinon chapter for a forthcoming book on the Liberal Party’s future, and in the process trying to think more systematically about the concept of ‘issue ownership’ – discussed here before in the context of Mummy party/Daddy party thesis. Rather surprisingly (or perhaps not, for those who always thought it was dubious), I can’t find anything about it in the Australian academic literature, though there is a fair amount in the international political science journals.

In the US, issue ownership analysis is part of broader theories about voter ignorance. We know from many surveys that the general public has very limited knowledge of political institutions and policies. They tend not to know very much about broader social trends either. This means that electors draw on various informational short-cuts to make political decisions. This includes stereotypical views of political parties, based on assumed previous policy success or failure, or on perceptions of how political party members feel about an issue, on the assumption that interest or sincerity will translate into successful policy.

According to the American literature, some issues are not owned by any party but are ‘performance’ issues. The economy is put into this category, as whether or not it is going well is sufficiently obvious to voters, from regular news reports and everyday experience, for them to form their own views directly on the issue without going via a prior party stereotype (in one paper, parties can have a ‘lease’ on the economy as an issue, but one which would end with their recession or another party’s boom).

Even where issues are ‘owned’, the standing of parties is not immune to very salient contrary information, such as debacles and scandals. Continue reading “What does it mean for a political party to ‘own’ an issue?”

Paddy McGuinness, RIP

By the time I first met Paddy McGuinness, who died yesterday, his persona was much as I would have expected from the columns I had read in The Australian and then the SMH: rather gruff, given to sweeping pronouncements, but showing a very wide range of interests. This was the mid-1990s; I found our few conversations awkward. His uncommunicative style spilled over into the way he edited Quadrant. You knew your submission had been accepted if it appeared as an article in the magazine, you knew it had been rejected if after a few months there was still no sign of it. Apart from that, total silence.

While I never clicked with Paddy, he did seem to have a talent for friendship cutting across journalism, intellectual life, politics and the arts. This went back to the 1950s when he was part of the Sydney Push. According to Anne Coombs’ book on the Push, Paddy had his first contact with this group aged just twelve, having met some of its members at a science fiction conference. She quotes him as saying that he underwent the ‘usual [sic] adolescent progression from Catholicism to Marxism’ before coming to social democratic views. While at Sydney Uni studying economics he was involved in starting the ALP Club, a split from the Labor Club, which had become a front for the Communist Party. An early swipe at the radical left, the target of much of his subsequent commentary.

From there, Paddy was someone who really did have the many careers of pop sociology: Continue reading “Paddy McGuinness, RIP”

The Bulletin, RIP

The Bulletin is to join the the magazine graveyard in my spare room, if I can find a copy of its last issue, supposedly out today (I checked three newsagents, with no sign of it). Its weekly sales had dropped below 60,000, down from 100,000 in the mid-1990s.

The Bulletin hasn’t had a niche for a long time now. While it still occasionally broke stories, on a week-by-week basis it wasn’t providing much you could not find more promptly and at lower cost in the newspapers. I haven’t bought it on a regular basis for at least 15 years.

But I am still sorry to see it go. Handed-down copies from my grandfather’s subscription in the late 1970s and early 1980s were an important part of my political education. And it provided some of my earliest mainstream media coverage. In 1995, they ran a cover story under the title ‘Young, bright and right’,with a photo of me, John Brogden, Marise Payne and a bust of Sir Robert Menzies. The NSW Young Liberals used this cover in their promotional materials, and for years afterwards I’d meet Young Liberals in Sydney who knew of me via that cover.

So The Bulletin, RIP. (And wasn’t Crikey tacky in putting ‘The Bulletin does a Ledger’ in their subject header today?)

On what can classical liberals and conservatives agree?

Why are Australian libertarians suddenly so keen to collapse the ‘broad tent’? You don’t see many social conservatives trying to reform the tax-code according to the Summa.

John Heard today.

Political alliances between different ideologies shift with the times. For most of the second half of the 20th century, liberals and conservatives were united against communism and its fellow-travellers. A lot of differences could be overlooked when there was a united view on what was perhaps the most important issue in world politics, at least from the perspective of liberals and conservatives.

As many people have commented, there have been more overt tensions between liberals and conservatives since soon after that glorious month of November 1989 took away their common cause. But there is still something of a liberal-conservative camp – if not quite a single tent, to modify John’s metaphor. This is partly because there are many people who, in the context of contemporary politics, are on the liberal side of economic debates and the conservative side of social debates. But it is also because there are some issues on which ideologically distinct classical liberals and conservatives can still agree. Here are a few:
Continue reading “On what can classical liberals and conservatives agree?”

Are young voters attracted to social conservatism?

Conservative and ‘progressive’ Liberals may disagree on much, but it seems they share at least one attribute – confusing their hopes with our reality. Last December Senator Judith Troeth called for a ‘progressive liberalism’ to restore the party’s electoral fortunes. As I pointed out at the time, the polling does not support Troeth’s conclusions.

And today NSW Young Liberal President Noel McCoy has an op-ed in The Australian arguing that John Howard’s social conservatism resonated with young people.

The evidence for this is rather thin, as McCoy effectively admits. That in 2004 the Australia Election Study found more young people voting Liberal than Labor ‘for the first time’. So the AES surveys in 1996, 1998 and 2001 (and no doubt 2007) are aberrations, and we should rely on the 2004 survey? McCoy is drawing on Clive Bean’s research, but Bean was relying on a sample of 121 persons aged 25 and under (see his chapter in Mortgage Nation). Ian Watson’s analysis of a much bigger sample of Newspoll respondents found the Coalition’s worst-ever result among the 18-24 year olds in 2004.
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Why is father-son intergenerational mobility stable?

Using data from four surveys over a 40 year period, Andrew Leigh’s latest paper (pdf) argues that father-son intergenerational mobiliity is stable in Australia.

In his conclusion, as reported by The Australian, he says:

“On one view, the absence of any significant rise in inter-generational mobility might be regarded as surprising,” Dr Leigh says in the study report.

“Increases in healthcare coverage, the banning of racial discrimination, the abolition of up-front university tuition fees and an increase in the number of university places are among the policy reforms that might have been expected to increase inter-generational mobility.

“Yet there were also trends in the opposite direction.” These included rising unemployment during the study period and the removal of inheritance taxes in 1979. Dr Leigh said a rise in inequality had been well-documented with the distance between income groups greater in the early 2000s than in the mid-1960s.

I know conclusions are where they let academics off the referee’s leash, but some of this seems a bit odd to me. I’m not sure why improved healthcare coverage would make much difference; in any case claimed ‘disability’ is much higher than it used to be. Nor are bans on racial discrimination likely to have influenced the figures much; such laws are easily evaded and many migrant groups were doing fine long before discrimination was outlawed.

Inheritance taxes, as Andrew L’s own research shows (pdf), took only about 30% of the largest estates – something unlikely to affect the salary data he’s using (though it may affect investment income). And rising inequality is consistent with high mobility (if the poor and the rich swapped places each generation, ie complete mobility, inequality would be unchanged because it is a static, snapshot-in-time measure).
Continue reading “Why is father-son intergenerational mobility stable?”

The cost of FEE-HELP

Providing me with my second page one dial-a-quote this week, the SMH this morning leads with a story titled ‘Student debts out of control’. Drawing on an article by Bruce Chapman in this week’s Campus Review, it says:

GRADUATES from private colleges and universities are costing taxpayers more than those from public universities, and new ministers of religion present one of the greatest burdens.

Though for reasons I will explain this is not correct, Chapman’s original article does make a valid point. This is that under the FEE-HELP loan scheme for full-fee students there are implicit subsidies because student debt is only indexed to inflation, meaning that the taxpayer bears most of the real cost of lending students money to pay their tuition fees. (Aspects of this issue were discussed on this blog last October.)

Undergraduate FEE-HELP students do pay some real rate of interest, because they have to pay a 20% surcharge on any amount they borrow (eg, if they borrow a tuition fee of $10,000, they will owe the government $12,000). If these students repay quickly, that could work out at quite a high real rate of interest. But if they borrow a large sum that takes many years to pay back then their real rate of interest will be low, and they will effectively receive a subsidy from taxpayers.
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NUS’s travels towards coherence

At its annual conference last month, the National Union of Students rolled over on compulsory and up-front amenities fees. According to its new president, Angus McFarland, it was a matter of accepting reality. “We were … aware … that the Labor Party had comprehensively ruled out returning to the upfront fee-paying system,” he said.

But they are not giving up on a fee. One of the options they plan to present to the federal government is a HECS-style scheme to avoid the up-front charges of the old amenities fee, but to restore a revenue flow from students.

This is certainly less incoherent than NUS’s previous position, that the HECS which funds tuition on an income-contingent basis should be reduced, while a up-front, completely deregulated fee which funds other people’s childcare and student union hacks should be maintained. To the extent that made any sense, it was sending very mixed messages.

But removing the up-front element only solves half of NUS’s coherence problem. As the huge drops in student union membership reported in today’s papers demonstrate, their services were of peripheral importance to most students (or more cheaply acquired on a user-pays basis). So NUS’s position is that students should be allowed to spend more on services they mostly don’t need, while being against students being allowed to invest more in their principal asset, their human capital.

Still, in calling for fees of any kind, against the price control of the two major parties, NUS is in the deregulation camp. They just need to take their deregulatory ideas a lot further than they have.