Atomistic progressives

Communitarians sometimes criticise liberals for supporting ‘atomistic individualism’. In a Cato paper, Tom Palmer gave examples:

[Classical liberals] “ignore robust social scientific evidence about the ill effects of isolation,” … I am quoting from the 1995 presidential address of Professor Amitai Etzioni to the American Sociological Association …

More politely, Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) [has] excoriated libertarians for allegedly ignoring the value of community. Defending his proposal for more federal programs to “rebuild” community, Coats wrote that his bill is “self-consciously conservative, not purely libertarian. It recognizes, not only individual rights, but the contribution of groups rebuilding the social and moral infrastructure of their neighborhoods.”

Yet in current politics, it is ‘progressives’ who put individual rights above the contribution of groups – especially if those groups are not politically approved by the left of politics. Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls this week gave the strongest signal yet that single-sex private clubs would become illegal, unless they received a specific exemption from the Victorian human rights commission:

“Ideally, all private clubs should demonstrate they are set up in a manner which is consistent with the equal opportunity … (so) clubs like the Athenaeum should have to demonstrate that they are set up in a manner which promotes equality.”

On this view, it is not enough that there are significant opportunities in society. Every formal institution within that society has to ‘promote equality’. And any organisation of people based on some characteristic the flipside of which makes people with any of wide variety of characterstics ineligible for membership is not permitted unless approved by the state. It is in effect a draconian attack on freedom of association and civil society.

Tim Wilson and Chris Berg have both argued in Melbourne papers over the last few days that it is difficult to see what good can come of this. The private clubs that it is principally aimed at are in long-term decline, and in the case of the Athenaeum having its own debate about admitting women. And the collateral damage will be that any private organisation based on shared religious or political beliefs, of men or women wanting to spend some time with their own sex, of their own age or sexual orientation, exists at the pleasure of the state.

Only informal networks would be safe from ‘human rights’ commissioners imposing the state’s view of how society should operate.

This is a very bad time for civil society. Political NGOs are facing much greater bureaucratic harassment. The sight-unseen national curriculum will diminish the distinctiveness of private schools. The social capital movement of the 1990s seems like a very long time ago.

12 thoughts on “Atomistic progressives

  1. Freedom of association has always been a bit of a problem for the ALP. Its first attempts to bring in a Bill of Rights under Whitlam included a provision that freedom of association be limited by our IR laws, not the full “UN Declaration of Human Rights” level.

    As for “existing at the pleasure of the state”, collectivist politics generally have a certain tendency to require people to conform and be controlled, for otherwise they cannot be acting collectively.


  2. I thought Mr Hulls was being very short-sighted. A future Liberal government (although it would have to have some imagination and back bone) could use those very same principles to persecute trade unions and, at a push, the ABC.


  3. I mostly agree. The real whingers regarding the single sex clubs are the men who want to stay in the clubs and change them. If they believe in their convictions they should quit and form their own club or join another that is inclusive. If the single sex dinosaurs then collapse without enough members so be it. Thw whingers are more interested in losing power and social status than in upholding their beliefs. Of course if this forced the churches to allow wmen priests ets that would be most amusing 🙂


  4. I read about this too, but do you think Hulls is being serious? It would be extremely hard to implement (the Athaneum and other groups would probably find a loophole to avoid being prosecuted) and would potentially alienate every private association in the state. I wondered if Hulls is perhaps trying to look tough by sounding off about an issue that has had some press lately, thus boosting his credo as a politician, while avoiding implementing legislation.


  5. “Of course if this forced the churches to allow women priests ets that would be most amusing”
    That would be very amusing. I can’t see why female only gym sessions and male/female only sports won’t be affected by this also. The first of these should be very amusing too, since it means things like female only pool sessions run under various pretenses for some religious groups will be no-more unless they get special exemptions, which I’m sure will create lots of media fun. Thus you will have a fight between people trying to get special rights for religious (and other) groups and the human rights commission and every time the human rights commission gives a special exemption, they will get media bother (why can they have it but not us?). It reminds me of when that guy won the Miss Australia contest. Should be a great laugh.


  6. Women-only gyms, as public businesses, are already illegal but have received an exemption. This was mentioned in reporting of this issue last week. But if women don’t want men checking them out while they exercise, why should they have to convince a human rights commissioner that they should be allowed to do this?


  7. More politely, Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) [has] excoriated libertarians for allegedly ignoring the value of community. Defending his proposal for more federal programs to “rebuild” community, Coats wrote that his bill is “self-consciously conservative, not purely libertarian. It recognizes, not only individual rights, but the contribution of groups rebuilding the social and moral infrastructure of their neighborhoods.”

    This is just statist cover. They love to pretend that the government invented community and that society = government. Of course it is rubbish. Community is nothing more than a group of individuals with a shared interest or some common bond. People living in the same street have a community whether they are conservative, socialist or libertarian. In fact the internet plays host to a vibrant libertarian community. And nothing destroys civil society quicker than a government program.


  8. Good piece Andrew. Can we present a private submission to the human rights commission arguing these points?

    What befuddles me is the assumption that classical liberalism, libertarianism and respect for individual rights lead to isolation.

    I would have thought that it was entirely natural for people to form and join groups and communities. This has been my experience, at any rate.


  9. Thanks for that link Andrew. So I guess if men want a men’s club, they’ll have to call it a gym.

    This smacks of double standards. We all know that groups of men act differently when there aren’t women around – a lot more swearing and utter b/s, for example. I don’t see the difference between men wanting the freedom to behave like that and women wanting the freedom to wear lycra.

    BTW, I always find it amusing that there are ladies squash competitions that men are able to play in. The day-time competition is called “Day Ladies”, but it’s about the only time guys who work shift-work can play, and they’re allowed.


  10. Will single sex schools be banned too under the rubric of supposed ‘Equal Opportunity’? Considering that many of the state’s boys’ and girls’ schools consistently produce above average results (supposedly because of the absence of a distraction in the form of the opposite sex), shouldn’t we be allowing girls to go to boys schools, and vice versa? This is the logical extension of Hulls’ “argument” (or diversion-factional infighting, transport chaos etc)

    This is to say nothing of the double standards evident in VCAT’s exemption to anti discrimination law in 07 by granting gay night club the Peel the right to exclude straight males and females, and lesbians. Maybe the Athenaum Club should claim, like the Peel, that by excluding women they simply aim to create a welcoming and safe environment for its patrons!

    As a side, there are several examples of formerly male-only institutions admitting women into its ranks. Freemasonry is one such example.

    The real insult to women is not the fact that the Athenaeum Club will not accept their membership but rather that the ALP’s belief that preferential treatment is NEEDED because women cannot make it on their own.


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