‘Progressive fusionism’ and classical liberalism

According to Don Arthur, classical liberals don’t really belong with conservatives. Australian conservatives are ‘market friendly’, but they don’t rate individual liberty that highly so they aren’t really liberals. What keeps classical liberals with conservatives is less ideology than

social networks and personal loyalties. Most of Australia’s classical liberals are woven into organisations and social groups that bind them to conservatives. … As a result, realignment probably won’t happen until this generation of middle-aged classical liberals shuffles off the public stage and makes room for the next generation.

Social networks and personal loyalties do create ‘stickiness’ on both sides of politics. But within non-party politics, it’s still not clear to me that even on ideological grounds Australian classical liberals aren’t more likely to fit with Australian conservatives than Australian ‘progessive fusionists’; pro-market, socially liberal, social democrats.

Though some Labor governments could be described as ‘progressive fusionist’, party positions rarely map neatly onto intellectual life. ‘Progressive fusionism’ does not seem to me to be widely represented in intellectual circles (Andrew Leigh?, Nick Gruen?, Fred Argy?), because most progressives are either anti-market or economically illiterate (or indeed both). There are no progessive fusionist think-tanks or institutions. From a liberal perspective, progressives tend to have the same problem Don attributes to the conservative right, of missing out half of liberalism.

Of the non-economic issues that concern me at the moment, on all but one I think I am more likely to find conservatives who will meet me at least half-way than I am to find social democrats who will do the same. The more I think about it the more I think
public education is a really bad idea, but I have already failed to convince Andrew L of that. Contrary to the egalitarian views within social democracy, at least on institutions to do with identity (eg religious schools, gay bars), anti-discrimination law should not apply. On free speech issues, I oppose vilification laws, as do most conservatives but few progressives I have come across. I oppose the illiberal and anti-democratic direction that campaign finance law is taking, but I think most ‘progressives’ will join that bandwagon.

Of the issues I have engaged with in the last couple of years, only on civil unions/gay marriage do I more clearly line up with the ‘progressive’ perspective in practical policy terms (though I think secular conservatism should have no ideological trouble with civil unions).

Don mentions Cato Vice-President Brink Lindsey’s suggestion that American libertarians have a lot in common with American progressives against American conservatives. I’ve qualified ideological terms with ‘ Australian’ or ‘American’ because these ideologies take very different forms in different countries.

Australian conservatism is very mild compared to American conservatism; by American standards Australian conservatives barely deserve the name. They are not particularly religious, not particularly concerned with sexual morality, and not very worried about migration except perhaps of Muslims. Australian conservatives are generally far less concerned with personal morality than either US conservatives or Australian progessives. All that makes it much easier for Australian classical liberals and conservatives to co-exist.

I’m glad ‘progessive fusionism’ exists. Of the three possible progressive fusionist intellectuals I mentioned, all are worth reading. But I think I must be one of the middle-aged classical liberal intellectuals who will have to shuffle off the public stage before the next generation makes new alliances.

24 thoughts on “‘Progressive fusionism’ and classical liberalism

  1. It’s a confidence-in-political-mechanisms matter. However much overlap on social issues there may be, in the end social democrats have way more faith in political mechanisms than classical liberals do. It is always going to be a sticking point. Classical liberals have more overlap with conservatives on that basic point since they have a wider range of issues where they are prepared to let things be.


  2. Frankly there is nothing the left would offer clasic liberals/ libertarians. In fact some lefties are so ignorant of these ideals that they actually think it would be posssible to reach a coalition with the australian greens! Why? Because the australian greens support free dope smoking.

    Others think the free market libertarian right was loud enough over David Hicks so they are really more authoritarian than they let out.

    Why bother.

    And you’re right andrew. Don seems to think that economic liberalism is not that important.


  3. The word ‘conservative’ should be taken to mean its dictionary meaning, i.e. adherence to preserving the status quo. Only if you add the word ‘fiscal’ before ‘conservative’ does it have real content.

    In the US there used to be ‘conservative’ in the old school of thought during the 1960s (e.g. Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater & Senator Robert Taft), and then there’s the neo-conservatism which passes for ‘conservative’ today. The former is represented by politicians like Congressman Ron Paul, the latter by President George W. Bush.

    Conservatism latches onto the dominant ideology/framework of the time.

    To put it in concrete terms: government has grown so much since 1901, that what was ‘conservative’ at the time of Australia’s federation is without a doubt ‘libertarian’ today (likewise, a 1787 size government in America is ‘libertarian’). As a classical liberal, I would be happy with a 1901 size government.

    I think you’re right about Australian conservatives not being as bad as their American counterparts. At least over here they pursue a harm-minimisation strategy in the War on Drugs, whereas over in the US, 50% of the prison population consists of drug users (not dealers).


  4. Belief in market forces does not imply a belief that they are always beneficial: for example, if you care a lot about equality — admittedly a fuzzy value — then even if you accept neoclassical economics, you will be happy with government using “market mechanisms” to redistribute goods and services. But that may be an incidental point.

    A big point of similarity between classical liberals and conservatives is that for them, society is like a boat trying to stay afloat with no ports in which to rest (Oakeshott’s analogy). Both philosophies see society irredeemably as a collection of individuals, each with their own interests, struggling to get by. This implies that societies, considered collectively, don’t have a strong “purpose”. Which itself weakens the notion of social progress.

    In other words, classical liberalism is some deep way not progressive.


  5. Conservatism latches onto the dominant ideology/framework of the time.

    I think conservatism actually has its own (rather pliable) framework. It’s probably more appropriate to say that conservatism latches on to the social situation of “the time” (i.e. the present)…

    […] government has grown so much since 1901, that what was ‘conservative’ at the time of Australia’s federation is without a doubt ‘libertarian’ today […] As a classical liberal, I would be happy with a 1901 size government.

    … To put it another way, conservatism is an ideology which doesn’t specify kind of society it would be “happy” with, because that’s inevitably very far from society as it currently exists now (107 years away even). You may not be happy with society for a long time yet, but to a conservative, life in Australia in 2008 is wonderful — so much so that cutting back government to 1901 levels (unless done extremely gradually) sounds utterly not worth the risk, given what we currently have.


  6. “Conservatism latches onto the dominant ideology/framework of the time.”

    It’s interesting that liberals criticise conservatives for not having an overarching set of principles or goals for society, and that conservatives criticise liberals for having such a set.

    I enjoyed this old Policy article about the liberal/conservative alliance written from an Oakeshottian perspective (and written by someone whom Andrew has in the past said is his friend):



  7. Leon – I think your point (at comment 4) is important, in that ‘progressives’ tend to think that there is a correct distribution of resources that can be decided in advance. However, in practice they tend to be very vague about what this correct distribution would actually look like. Andrew Leigh, for example, has written much about inequality of income, always with the assumption that less inequality is the correct outcome, but never saying what level of inequality would satisfy him.

    This idea is extremely problematic from both classical liberal and conservative perspectives, because ‘inequality’ is the result of the huge variety in individual talents and choices, and billions of individual transactions. While the consequences of inequality can be lessened through tax and spend, trying to eliminate its causes is completely incompatible with a free society.


  8. Andrew

    “… most progressives are either anti-market or economically illiterate (or indeed both)” – rather sweeping generalisation, I think – care to share some evidence? Also have you evidence on the percentage of conservatives who are economically literate? Or indeed the share of classical liberals or libertarians who are economically literate – unless you go in for a tautological definition that only economically literate persons can be liberal, and vice versa?

    For example, is Paul Krugman either not really economically literate or not really progressive? (and the list could go on for a very long time).

    And in comment 7, you ask Andrew Leigh to tell you what level of inequality would satisfy him. While I leave it up to Andrew to tell you if he wishes, I would have thought that a liberal would understand that people may not have a fixed end goal but can still think that the outcomes of current arrangements may not be desirable or even fair.

    I think also that while it may be incompatible with a free society to eliminate all of the causes of inequality, it is perfectly possible to eliminate some of the causes, and more of the causes than we currently do.


  9. Leon – I think you’re right about the tension between liberalism and progressivism. I’m not really comfortable with the ‘progressive fusionism’ label. The label I prefer is ‘liberal.’

    I think liberalism is about maintaining an institutional framework within which citizens can pursue their own goals. Governments – even democratically elected governments – should not have goals of their own.

    Progressivism often gets tied up with the idea that social (and economic) development has a natural direction, and that the enlightened have a duty to battle against reactionaries and hurry things along. It tends towards rationalism.

    There are progressivists on the left and right. People who think of everything through the lens of welfare economics sometimes think their duty is to do battle with reactionaries (ie people who don’t understand economics) and subject everything to cost benefit analysis.

    There are the kind of people who have trouble understanding Christmas. Why do people give gifts when it would be so much more efficient to give cash?

    I don’t see a huge conflict between Michael Oakeshott’s ‘conservatism’ and the liberal tradition although it is true that he criticises Hayek for having “a plan to resist all planning”.


  10. Peter – Obviously I was not saying that all people who think of themselves as progressive are anti-market or economically illiterate. I named three who are not in the post. But having argued with them for twenty years, I know there is a strong aversion to ‘economic rationalism’ in progressive circles, much of it based on a serious misunderstanding of economic facts (never mind theories).(eg Michael Pusey) Even discussing things in economic terms or using economic methodology is met with ‘I want to live in a society, not an economy’, and similar cliches. Only this week the soft left was attacking Andrew L for basically applying economic analysis to social problems.

    While anti-market thinking started out conservative, and there are still conservatives who are suspicious of markets, this is a very minor strain of thought in Australia.


  11. Andrew Norton wrote:

    Only this week the soft left was attacking Andrew L for basically applying economic analysis to social problems.

    That’s not quite true. They questioned the merits of only applying economic principles to the problem as they thought the underlying assumptions were wrong, not because of the economic analysis per se.


  12. On “There are no progessive fusionist think-tanks or institutions”, wouldn’t percapita fall into that category? Though it could have difficulties coming up with economic policy significantly different from CIS.


  13. “Andrew Leigh, for example, has written much about inequality of income, always with the assumption that less inequality is the correct outcome”

    Not always. I do have a paper showing that more inequality in period T seems to lead to faster economic growth in period T+1. It wasn’t the way I hoped it would come out, but the data speak pretty clearly.

    That said, I don’t have a strong sense of what the right level of inequality is. Indeed, I’m not even sure I have the right intellectual framework for answering the question. Which is a little embarassing, I suppose.


  14. Re inequality and Andrew L’s comment, perhaps “inequality” is a vague term like “small”, “bald” and so on – if something is really unequal (one person owns 99 per cent of everything), or pretty much equal, we can recognise it as such. But as soon as you try to define an appropriate or minimum level explicitly you run into trouble (thanks for this to a Philosophy II teacher years ago who introduced the sorites paradox).


  15. I was recently re-reading Nigel Lawson’s memoirs and came upon this interesting passage in a speech he gave soon after taking office in 1980, entitled “The New Conservatism”:

    “Those Conservatives who none the less feel ill at ease with the new Conservatism are inclined to suggest that it smacks far too much of classical liberalism. The charge is a strange one. Nineteenth-century politics was about wholly different issues. There was, behind the rhetoric, a fundamental consensus on economic policy. Disraeli may have used the Corn Laws and protection to secure the leadership of the Conservative party, but in practice he was operating in precisely the same world of non-intervention in industry, adherence to the gold standard (and thus to stable money) and free trade as was Gladstone. They had their differences outside the field of economic policy, but what matters to us today is what they had in common—which is scarcely surprising given that Gladstone himself was a Conservative Cabinet Minister before becoming the embodiment of Liberalism. Of all forms of heresy-hunting, this variety seems particularly futile.”

    See: http://www.margaretthatcher.org/commentary/displaydocument.asp?docid=109505


  16. The “liberal” philosophy of minimizing government interference has two major groupings (not mutually exclusive):
    (1) Government shouldn’t limit individual freedoms (e.g. what consenting adults do in the bedroom)
    (2) Government shouldn’t intervene in non-individual pursuits (e.g. corporate activity, economic sectors, etc)

    I link to a view political viewpoint tests (of various tests) here, and at least one of those tests has two axes, corresponding to state control of persons versus economic activity.

    Here’s another bit of the post, which explains why myself as a “lefty” sees a “righty” like Andrew (ans ALS) as worth reading and thinking about:
    Freedom for persons is an objective, constraints (and some command) of economic activity, the distribution of resources is a means to the objective. I’m highly unlikely to change my freedom-for-persons stance, but I’m open to discussion, on a case-by-case basis, about means.


  17. A good discussion of a subject not often discussed.
    I am becoming more and more uncomfortable with labels and categories.
    We are all a bundle of beliefs and values derived from teaching and experience. I think you cannot really say (as some do) that it is inconsistent to have market-based economic views and liberal social views. Or, indeed the converse.
    One thing I find fascinating and annoying is the tendency to accuse someone of hypocrisy if they do not hold the complete package of beliefs that usually go together. Though this seems to be most common in universities and some parts of the media.

    “While anti-market thinking started out conservative, and there are still conservatives who are suspicious of markets, this is a very minor strain of thought in Australia.”
    Gee, Andrew, I would have thought this is still quite strong in the outer reaches of the Liberal and National Parties as well as with quite a few businesspeople, who really don’t like competition.
    My favourite examples (of which I have been threatening to write some day) are Telstra and Qantas whose business strategies seem to a large extent to be based on attempts to keep as much as possible of the monopoly powers they once had.


  18. The more I read about Andrew Norton’s discussion of political philosophies and the current situation, the more I begin to think of him as a conservative than a classical liberal. A moderate one at that though.


  19. Ken -You are right that some conservatives are more likely to support capitalism (ie their own property) than markets. I had in mind more intellectual critiques of markets as driving out non-market values or causing change that is too rapid. Conservatism and leftism can both be seen as reactions to the forces unleashed by a liberal market society, but these days in Australia I would class conservatism as the milder reaction.


  20. In response to your question about the appropriate level of equality, assuming that increasing equity tends to have efficiency costs (actually, I often find efficiency and equity point in the same direction, but restricting this to the cases where they are in conflict, which is where liberals and rational egalitarians are likely to be in conflict), the appropriate level of equity is the one where the marginal social cost (in efficiency) of additional equity is equal to the marginal social benefit of additional equity. 😉

    How do you calculate that? Nightmare. It would be a values-driven hodge podge, and you couldn’t possibly expect any two people to come to the same answer. So to that extent, its a fair criticism to say we don’t really know what we want as an outcome.

    But you can look at individual policies and say ‘well, it has this effect on equity, and this effect on efficiency’ and try to weigh up the trade-off in individual cases. I.e., I would argue the equity benefits of higher minimum wages are somewhere between very low and negative, the efficiency costs are positive (if moderate), so higher minimum wages are on balance a bad thing.

    And one could turn the criticism around. Liberals believe in liberty – but how much liberty, exactly? You tend to do pretty much what I suggested in the above paragraph, Andrew: analyse individual issues on the basis of your underlying liberal principles, and at times even come down in favour of restrictions on liberty, just as at times someone like me will choose efficiency over equity. Do you have an exact level of liberty in your mind that is appropriate, which you can define any more exactly than my first paragraph above defines the appropriate level of equality? 😉


  21. PS – My conclusion that greater income equality has benefits arises from a view that for someone on $75,000, the marginal utility of an additional dollar is likely to be less than for someone on $15,000, so maximising social utility/welfare can require some degree of redistribution. Obviously a debatable assumption, but I think a reasonable one.


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