Classical liberal nay-saying

You’re becoming a nay-sayer. This is the second voucher type scheme that you’ve argued against and you are still pro-conscription on student unionism.

– Sinclair Davidson, 23 July 2009

A constantly negative person isn’t much fun to be around. But being a policy nay-sayer is, for a classical liberal activist, part of the job description. There are endless suggestions for more government spending and regulation, and so there must also be endless criticisms of those proposals.

Most classical liberals join in the nay-saying. But perhaps where I differ from the others is that, as I argued in my big government conservatism article a few years ago, I believe that pressures for big government come from within centre-right politics, as well as the usual suspects of left-wing ideas, interest group rent-seeking, and politicians’ vote-buying.

I’d at least like to see Julie and Sinclair work through in more detail the tensions in their overall position. Sinclair has published several papers on lower tax with the CIS. Since she joined the IPA, Julie has published regularly on the need to contain government spending and reduce taxes. I agree entirely with those goals – but I am not at all clear on how a plan to spend another $5-10 billion fits with them.

There are perhaps arguments or proposals that would reconcile the two centre-right goals of school choice and lower taxes – perhaps by taking the necessary money out of other forms of family welfare or showing how the returns from the voucher proposal would deliver equivalent benefits. But to date these arguments haven’t been made.

Similarly, Sinclair’s view that universities should be forced to unbundle academic and non-academic services is in tension with views he otherwise holds. Just a couple of weeks ago he dismissed a proposal to regulate petrol retailing, saying:

Incredible – whatever happened to the notion that firms offer goods and services for sale and consumers decide what it is they want to buy and from whom they want to buy it?

That’s pretty much my reaction to Liberal plans to regulate what services universities can bundle.

I think all classical liberals are nay-sayers, but some of them say no when their friends, as well as their opponents, suggest big government initiatives.

61 thoughts on “Classical liberal nay-saying

  1. I agree on Rudd’s essays. I think values are more important than data in swaying opinion. Values backed by data are the key. For instance your debate with Sinclair Davidson over vouchers is a debate of he said/she said rather than a debate based on, we both agree that choice is important, we both want better delivery, we both want more devolvement of power to school level to set direction, we both want teachers having a capacity to innovate. i.e. supply side reforms are worth doing. That makes it a powerful argument when it builds and alliance rather than a conflict.

    BTW – the IPA are too value/politically driven to be anything other than partisan so I think the CIS has to be careful on how it brings values into its tent.


  2. Corin – Andrew and I don’t really disagree to any extent that non-libertarians or non-classical liberals would notice. To the extent that poor Andrew was challenged/criticised for something I said at a conference. (He also has more brand recognition than I do 🙂 ).


  3. Fair play. What do they say about ideology hey … oh that was cheeky. Mate, I have no philosophy or ideology I can ascertain aside from one central political premise. That premise is ‘participation’. Over the last couple of years I have formed the view that the complexity of modern life makes participation and choice more important for average people. So as a result I value the idea of primaries in selecting political candidates (like the Iowa caucus – I like the idea of people actually turning up to a town hall and nominating a candidate by standing in a corner), vouchers for schools (so long as people actually do get more control and choice), wages policies that promote work and the choice to take it (including penalties for not doing so), tax policies that promote the choice to enter into business endeavour, the choice to be represented by a union but no coercion and requirement, etc etc … People want power over their own lives. Now that is a value to argue for.

    I’ll shut up now. I sound like a student politician … or worse … Ryan Heath!


  4. Andrew Norton wrote:

    I was a continuous critic of the Howard government on higher ed policy since 2000 and a regular critic of tax and spend policies from at least from 2004 (and perhaps earlier, but I remember writing about it from 2004). So I am not drawing on after-the-fact wisdom.

    I wasn’t saying that you personally were! Even if I was, the link to your pre-election “Big Govt Conservatism” article was right there in the post to prove the point. But in taking your criticism public, you did seem more like a soloist than a chorister at the time.


  5. Corin – Ryan is good value in person, even if some of his writing sometimes reverts to student politician with a megaphone style.

    My years as a PhD student did not end with a complete thesis, but I did get a chance to read the liberal classics and other political theory. I agree that attempts to found an entire political philosophy on a single value don’t work. But in some ways the ‘failure’ of liberal theory (as someone like John Gray would have it) led me to the reverse conclusion about classical liberalism; that its strength comes from many overlapping justifications for key ideas and institutions.

    Though I probably wouldn’t use the term ‘participation’ (too much baggage) I have sympathy for how you describe your political position, though I suspect the negative side of my philosophy (high scepticism about the state) is stronger than yours.


  6. I would agree with that. I like Ryan, he is a character but I agree with your megaphone statement. Politics needs less grey I think and people like him are pot stirrers which is good. I would say I’m a pot stirrer too. Sinclair Davidson is clearly a pot stirrer as well … good one.


  7. Political theory in relation to CSU and VSU seems to have clouded all the above viewpoints from fact that Australia does not have any universities.
    A university is a non-Anglophone institution devised in Europe a few hundred years ago for the strict catholic education of young adolescent males by older males, using the limited private funds of the church and direct donations from some of the students families. Anything else is simply a corruption of this and not a university.
    A university located in Hungary might partly fund a walking tour from Szekely (Transylvania) to Tibet on the basis of impulse and rumour, see the work of Sándor K?rösi Csoma.. Would any so-called university in Australia fund a random walk hypothesis of this nature? No, becuase they are not by definition universities.

    Your collective frames of knowledge are out the window of the communal frontroom of the house of perspective.


  8. Parkos – did these ‘ur universities’ have compulsory unionism? Did they bundle their services, or have a ‘modular’ approach which allowed students who, for instance, didn’t want to pay for others to walk to Tibet, to ‘opt out’?

    If these universities are non-Anglophone institutions, then what are Oxford (founded in 1167) and Cambridge (founded in 1209)? What should we call them? Where did I actually go, all those years that I studied at Sydney ‘University’? Should I ask for my money back?


  9. Yes, see the CIS for a refund on your promisary note (degree).
    Oxford was created because English people with their Anglophone ways were banned from the Sorbonne. English is essentially non-U.
    Note the Scots College in Paris sur la Seine dans la Quartier Lacan.


    Oxford is a naughty renegade institution that pushed christian ways onto what otherwise a druidic college consisting of a clearing in the forest in the same vicinity.


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