Norman Abjorensen must have a masochistic streak, because he emailed me with the news that he is a contributor to The Culture Wars: Australian and American Politics in the 21st Century, which was published late last year.
As I expected, some of Norman’s intellectual eccentricities on display in his book on conservatism are also evident in his contribution to Culture Wars. For example, he claims that the emergence of think-tanks like the CIS was ‘signalled a new offensive against liberal democracy and its perceived progressivist excesses’. In making this claim, he reveals part of the CIS’s history that I was not aware of, and indeed a part of the CIS’s history that its founder, Greg Lindsay, was also not aware of.
Apparently, a 1975 report of the Trilateral Commission (in Norman’s words an ‘extremely influential’ but ‘little known’ body) called The Crisis of Democracy popularised the work of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and its ‘immediate influence in Australia was evident in a host of new free market think-tanks, such as the Centre for Independent Studies and the Sydney Institute.’
Just how a ‘little known’ body popularised anything is not made clear, and particularly now how it popularised thinkers who were already famous long before 1975. Hayek became a public figure with The Road to Serfdom in the mid-1940s, and won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1974.
Friedman won the Nobel in 1976, but a man whose Capitalism and Freedom had been a constant seller since it was published in 1962, and had been a Newsweek columnist since the mid-1960s, was not exactly obscure (and this is ignoring all the scholarly work, which influenced policymakers). Indeed, by the mid-1970s conspiracy theorists like Naomi Klein regard Friedman as influential enough to share in the blame for the Pinochet regime in Chile on the strength of a brief visit.
Needless to say, the Trilateral Commission report had nothing to do with the founding of the CIS. As he explained in this interview I did with him in 1996, in the first half of the 1970s Greg Lindsay was already well aware of the major classical liberal and libertarian thinkers. Indeed, as the interview suggests, the film critic Bill Collins can claim more credit for the CIS than can the ‘little known’ Trilateral Commission. But perhaps a movie reviewer with big glasses isn’t quite the sinister influence that Norman is looking for.
And Norman seems to have a strange idea of ‘immediate influence’, since the Sydney Institute did not start until 1989, 14 years after the Trilateral Commission’s report. Alas, facts are not Norman’s strong point.
I’ve never read The Crisis of Democracy, but I am aware of arguments about over-loaded government. This was not just an argument from the right, and it was not an argument against democracy, but a concern that the credibilty of democratic institutions was being undermined by the state’s failure to deal with social and economic problems in the 1970s. In claiming that those calling for less government are engaged in an ‘offensive against liberal democracy’, Norman engages in the rhetorical trick of antonym substitution. For most people, the antonym of liberal democracy is authoritarianism, when of course the think-tanks were supporting individual choice and freedom, not dictatorship.
A PhD student came to interview me during the week, for his thesis on the ideas of ‘neoliberal’ think-tanks. As most of the people writing about think-tanks are, like Norman, fantasists reporting on their own wild imaginations, not reality, he has an excellent opportunity to provide the scholarship so lacking from Australian academics.