Intellectual decline on the right?

The theme is the intellectual decline of the right; I really am curious; can anyone write a decent foundation that they are in decline from.

commenter Charles in response to my post on whether the crisis in American conservatism will spread to Australia.

There are different elements to political movements, often with overlapping memberships, which can include interest groups, social groups, political parties and intellectuals. The intellectuals will often have influence well beyond their numbers, as the people most able to coherently articulate the movement’s goals and arguments. Their loss of confidence in their own side can be a sign of an actual or coming crisis in the broader movement; while their success in public debates and growing confidence can be a sign that a movement is on the rise.

In American politics, we are seeing that loss of confidence. Richard Posner’s own recent book and the post I quoted yesterday are one sign of this. Here is a man with ideas about markets that have in the past been on the radical end even for free marketeers (such as his idea for a market in babies) who now says that ‘we need a more active and intelligent government to keep our model of a capitalist economy from running off the rails.’ We have former Reagan adviser Bruce Bartlett calling for tax increases in a new book. Conservative intellectual Ross Douthat co-wrote a book calling for the Republicans to support government intervention to win back the working class vote.

This is all consistent with many past pro-market reforms staying in place, but it is clear that prominent pro-market thinkers are increasingly arguing that the main new problems to be solved – and political movements almost always arise out of problems to be solved – are caused by failures of small government rather than failures of big government. A partial backdown is equivalent to a major loss of momentum.

As I argued in yesterday’s post, in Australia I don’t think there has been any loss of confidence among free-market intellectuals. Economic rationalism fizzled out rather than exploded as a force driving policy change, though except for the labour market its major reforms are still in place. Australian free-market intellectuals still see scope for their ideas in improving dysfunctional government service delivery, and like the broader right as represented by the Liberal Party believe that there is a good chance that we are headed for spectacular ‘government failure’. People in the finance industry made some dumb investments, but how many of them would sign up to a $43 billion project without a business plan? Unfortunately, there are no regulations that save us from crazy regulators.

A crisis in ‘conservatism’ is harder to spot; though there are conservative intellectuals they tend to be loosely connected to conservative movements or parties, which are often un- or anti-intellectual. As a political movement in the United States, conservatives seem to me to have become too preoccupied with issues that are marginal to the day-to-day problems of the broader mass of people: abortion, gay marriage, etc. They are also unfortunate to have linked themselves to a president who failed the before and after test for most Americans.

While the Howard government had run its course by 2007, on the before and after test it was a success. Almost every objective social and economic indicator was better when it left than when it arrived. Until the WorkChoices slip, Howard had his eye firmly on the interests of ordinary Australians, using tax and spend to ensure they participated in economic prosperity whether or not they were contributing to it. Conservatives successfully tapped into concern about the state of the family; in the 1990s this was seen as part of a plot of wind back the clock on women’s rights, but by the 2000s almost the entire political spectrum was falling over itself to support the family, much to my frustration. Howard also tapped into concerns about social cohesion and immigration; while the left never went along with this and continued to denounce him as a racist Howard was successful in public opinion on this point. The conservative focus was on these mass constituency issues, with as my political identity survey suggested, often suprisingly relaxed attitudes on American conservative pet but narrowcast causes such as gay relationships and abortion.

While Australian conservatism hasn’t failed on its own terms, on the other hand it is not obvious how Australian conservatives will be seen as having solutions to widely-accepted problems in the medium term. Possibly there will be scope for reworking family and social cohesion themes, but just how this will be done I don’t know. Perhaps the most interesting conservative issue at the moment is the charter/bill of rights, because of the significant challenge to our democratic system. But this is largely a negative agenda, and it is not clear whether conservative arguments will resonate with the broader public.

The Australian right is in a down period, with the natural shift in the political cycle. But to me it does not look like a broader crisis, as it does in the US.

16 thoughts on “Intellectual decline on the right?

  1. I haven’t had much interest in following the intellectual decline of the right, but one of the factors involved might have been the marginalising of the ‘wets’ – a group that included some of the more intellectual members of the Liberal Party. What resulted was becoming more apparent as a narrowing and hardening and meaness in the party.
    I don’t agree with “on the before and after test it was a success. Almost every objective social and economic indicator was better when it left than when it arrived …. using tax and spend to ensure they participated in economic prosperity whether or not they were contributing to it.”
    I guess the before and after test means whether people felt ‘better off’ in the economic rational definition: more money. Economic rationalism didn’t cope very well with all our growing ecological problems – we’re all far from better off in those terms. Then there were many of the One Nation supporters, the long-term unemployed, pensioners who couldn’t get their teeth fixed, the huge number of people on the disability pension because they just don’t suit an economically rationalist world and so on.
    Yesterday I spoke to an old friend, a university professor, and after a while she volunteered the information that she was taking anti-depressants: “I had been feeling really negative for a few years really, just couldn’t shake it, and the doctor said I should take them until Christmas then see how it goes”. And I thought “Do I know anyone who isn’t on and off anti-depressants”? OK, a lot of it could be personal factors, and lax prescribing or whatever, but I think the prevailing economic rationalism of the last 30 years has contributed quite a bit to the number of people who don’t like their lives.


  2. Russell – I think the soft left element of the party, descended from the Deakinite protectionists, finally died when the Democrats were formed in 1977, though a few remnants hung around into the 1980s; however this was as much due to more suitable alternatives than what was going on in the Liberal Party itself – a less proletarian Labor Party from the late 1960s and of course the Democrats. It was the undoing of the rather unlikely Free Trade-Protectionist alliance of 1909.

    As usual, I think your argument rests on fictional alternatives – not a perfect society compared to what happened, but the trajectory the nation was on compared to the one it actually took. Australia’s welfare state has expanded massively under ‘economic rationalism’, and that was a major reason why it happened – the budget could not sustain the building demands on it.

    It’s very hard to know the extent to which depression is increasing – it has been a very effectively marketed illness. But unemployment significantly decreased in the eco rationalist era, and it is the only known significant economic cause. If there is an increase, it is more likely to come from changes to family relationships, which are partly economic in the changing economic role of women, but also cultural.


  3. I did refer to eco rationalism as the cause of cutting money for pensioner’s teeth, but what I was really trying to explain is that the kind of ideology that now drives government – and it’s not necessarily inconsistent with spending a lot to buy votes – is a money focus which demeans people, changes what organisations do, and isn’t something that, say, Malcolm Fraser would have approved of.
    When I started working in libraries we had a budget of course, but it wasn’t the main thing we thought about. We thought about developing our collections and services and technologies – within the budget. So we had nice things like a good music collection and a piano people could play, for example.
    Economic rationalism meant proving we were ‘value for money’ so accentuate the popular and cut the rest. Devise ways to make money out of our ‘assets’ – we started charging people to play the piano, and a lot else. Deal with an ‘efficiency dividend’ each year – more pouring over the budget – what to cut?, could we find sponsors? and on and on until all we were thinking about was money. And fobbing off complaints from the public. The culture of the organisation changed to being narrow, mean, resistant, desperate and hostile, since a lot of the employees knew that management saw them as a cost, and potential saving. I don’t think the traditional Menzies Liberals would have approved at all. I think they knew the difference between libraries and private businesses. The new right doesn’t know the difference.


  4. If you argue that supporting free markets is the key to dividing left from right, you are, I believe on soft ground. The Liberal party for most of its existence supported protectionism, I note in a reply above you describe them as the deakinite protectionists. The labor party is responsible for dismantling the protectionist system. Keating doing most of the work. Many forget that Whitlam started the tariff reduction process with Fraser ( with Howard as treasurer) stalling things until Labor got back into power. I’m not arguing against Fraser I thought he was a decent bloke, the way he came into power seriously restricted what he could do, and unlike Hawke his cabinet did not display any depth of ability

    I’m not arguing that labor hasn’t turned it’s back on their 80’s and 90’s free market tradition, their recent support for the car industry undermines any attempt to put that point of view . I am arguing and I believe with quite strong evidence that for almost two decades the Labor party were the free market leaders, the agenda fizzling out because most of the work had been done and because the population had suffered change fatigue and voted in the opposition. The Liberal did pretty much what the voters wanted, they stopped the process. To see it just look at the productivity gains through the two periods.

    Did you support labor when they were doing the hard yards? It’s the issue that resulted in me becoming a swinging voter and discarding this notion of right and left. The Australian party that is supposed to be of the left are the party that introduced rational economic policy.

    As to the current situation, I have no idea what the Liberal party stands for, on the one hand and you have people like Abbot who are as narrowly focused as any American religious republican, on the other, you have Turnbull, who supports a republic and who would like to give narrowly focused social issues they short shrift they deserve, but who pretends he doesn’t in an attempt to lead a party dominated by people who seem to believe the 50’s where a golden age, or something. If you can work out what they believe your a step ahead of me.

    As to the conservative think tanks, you hear their spokesman on the radio, as I have said before, derogative adjectives are not policy statements, I will add, derogative adjectives are not the foundation for any sort of argument, intellectual or otherwise. I ask, if that is all they have left, what is their purpose?


  5. “It’s very hard to know the extent to which depression is increasing – it has been a very effectively marketed illness.”
    That might be true about the marketing, but it seems more likely to me that thanks to the stigma attached to anything to do with mental health, it’s still probably a widely untreated and under reported illness. In addition, since the drug companies have the most money and marketing power (and the easiest “solution”), it’s not usually treated in a way that has the longest term efficacy — people are simply given anti-depressants by their GP and not much more, yet the longest term solutions involve behavioral stuff.
    “is a money focus which demeans people, changes what organisations do, and isn’t something that, say, Malcolm Fraser would have approved of.”
    Actually, I think the problem is that the focus is just mindlessly applied, rather than the government is too concerned with money (I think they should be concerned). The 2% per year efficiency gain is a good example — with government services that require face-to-face contact (and hence are very difficult to make more efficient), all this means is a worse service is provided, as most of us that work in the education sector know only too well. No doubt the same is true of many health areas also.


  6. Robert – Your question requires a separate post, though the same argument as the Pollytics post has been made for many years, including this post from me in 2004 (for some reason one of the various Catallaxy IT problems have renamed all my posts as by Sinclair).

    Conrad – I’m inclined to think that depression has become too fashionable, with people reclassifying the normal ups and downs of life as medical problems. A bit like the way people with a cold add melodrama by describing it as ‘flu’.


  7. OMG – people are going to think I’ve become reasonable and sensible 🙂 hopefully Jason or C8to can fix that.


  8. If you think that depression is just “the normal ups and downs of life”, then you haven’t known someone with true depression.


  9. Caf – There is an illness called ‘depression’, I am just scpetical about how many people who say they have it really do. See this piece by Will Wilkinson on a book which argues that there is a misdiagnosis problem.


  10. Love the last line:
    “If the Liberals do get a Senate majority in this election, they should make massive, irreversible changes, as they are very unlikely to ever get such an opportunity again.”
    – October 11th, 2004 at 10:18 pm
    But seriously, it’s not quite depressing, but very sad, that the non-Labor element of Australian politics is so inconsistent. We really don’t have alternative to Labor unless we want a “broad church” of big government and small government alike, where all we get is the grand compromise of spend spend spend (and regulate/censor) in a desperate attempt to please everyone.
    Oh well, looks like Labor will implode soon by doing the same thing.


  11. Antidepressants are cheap, effective and much safer than self-medicating with alcohol. I have absolutely no problem with the possibility of them be over-prescribed.

    I worry that people who talk endlessly about them with a vaguely negative sense contribute to the resistance that many people have to seeking out medical help for depression.

    Depression kills, folks. Just as surely as hypertension, cancer or a car crash. It kills people and deprives human beings of happiness; it deprives society at large an iota of shared joy and the economy loses productivity through errors and lost motivation. It’s just all-round bad.

    Whenever I see someone who is depressed or down, I ask them to talk to their GP about it. Depression is not a crime, it is not your fault, and it is treatable.

    Disclosure: I have been on a daily regimen of zoloft for 4 years and plan to stay on it for life, or until something better comes along.


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