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.
The one item that would clearly appear on the list of problems with both the Australian and American right is climate change, because on both sides of the Pacific they are identified by the media and broader public with the losing side in the debate over whether it is happening and its causes, and because they are internally highly divided on the issue.
On all the other issues Posner raises, there are different ideological views or circumstances that have saved Australian right-wingers from the troubles of their American cousins.
Because Australia is a much less religious country than America, abortion does not raise the same passions. Institutional differences in the way we have handled it – parliamentary conscience votes here, undemocratic judicial fiat there – have also helped defuse the issue here.
Australia’s better political-constitutional system has also saved us from poor appointments to public office outside the ministry itself.
Nor has any of the nonsense from the American Right about budget deficits ever caught on here – for all its faults the Howard government ran large budget surpluses at the same time as the Bush administration ran huge deficits, and while there was and is (like the US) a tax cut constituency in the broader right here, it does not support deficits as a means of financing those cuts.
While the Howard government did involve Australia in an unusually large number of military operations during its term, this never had the ideological element it acquired in some parts of the American right. The Iraq and Afghanistan operations had their origins in pragmatic alliance politics and, while a Labor government would have made a different call on Iraq than Howard did, both parties operate within the same alliance framework that is highly controversial only on the lunar left. The more significant local East Timor and Pacific operations were similarly pragmatic operations to meet needs in our immediate region. The Howard government was also lucky, with very low military death tolls overall.
The politics of the GFC – desite the efforts of Kevin Rudd – are also likely to play out differently in the two countries. In Australia, the economic reform movement has not failed on its own terms. Indeed, though I am not going to dissent from the consensus view that things here will get worse before they get better, what is striking yet again about Australia is how robust the economy has been in the face of externally-generated downturns.
I don’t want to be complacent here, but the main problems of the Australian right are almost all things that long predate the meltdown of US ‘conservatism’ and which are largely unaffected by it. Though it briefly flared again through WorkChoices after the surprise Coalition Senate majority after 2004, in hindsight the ‘economic rationalist’ movement fizzled out after 1996, long before the 2008 GFC. This was partly because it was running out of major reforms, partly because Labor became a largely anti-reformist party after Keating left, and partly because Howard was a pragamatic politician first, and an economic reformer second.
On social policy issues, at best modest progress has ever been made, and in the political debates liberals and conservatives are almost always outnumbered dozens if not hundreds to one by interest group representatives and academics.
While I expect a period of disorientation on the American right, on the Australian right we may be headed for a period of renewed focus – though not political success for some years at least. After looking like dull managerialists for most of the their first year in office, Fraseresque in frenetic activity but little actual movemement, team Rudd are now looking like reckless Whitlamites. There will be plenty to get fired up about, even if (as last time) the effect in the end is mainly to save social democracy from itself (to turn around the Rudd analysis).