What’s happening to Liberal economic credibility?

The part of this morning’s Newspoll that stood out for me wasn’t the down in the usual ups and downs of party support and leadership satisfaction, it was the results of the question on which party the respondent thought would ‘best handle the issue of the economy’.

Labor was five points in front (44/39), the first time it has been in front under Rudd, and indeed the first time it has been in front since March 1990. Admittedly Newspoll didn’t again ask this precise question between 1990 and 2005, but chances are that if they had Labor would not have been in the lead. The ‘recession we had to have’ took hold shortly afterward, and on more precise economic questions on inflation, interest rates and unemployment Labor was behind.

Perhaps this bad result for the Liberals on the economy is a residual Barnaby effect – a finance spokesman vague on the difference between a million and a billion is not exactly confidence inspiring – plus a downward general ‘Liberal performance’ perception that seems to infect all their issue ratings, regardless of whether or not anything relevant to that issue has occurred. Continue reading “What’s happening to Liberal economic credibility?”

A missing great book of liberty

The IPA has released its 100 Great Books of Liberty publication, edited by Chris Berg, John Roskam and Andrew Kemp. I wrote 2% of this book – short essays on Mill’s On Liberty and John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration.

If I’d known it was going to take two years to get this compilation out – contributions were due early in 2008 – I’d have volunteered to contribute 3%, and written on Isaiah Berlin’s Four Essays on Liberty (the key essays have been more recently published in a book simply called Liberty).

There is a Berlin book(let) here – his The Hedgehog and the Fox, covered by Tom Quirk. Quirk’s summary does refer to a key Berlin idea, about the pluralism and incommensurability of values. It isn’t possible, Berlin argues, to find one key idea that allows us to rationally choose between any seemingly conflicting choices.

But while this is Berlin’s big idea (the fox of the essay’s title knows many things, the hedgehog one big thing), his ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ essay belongs in any list of 20th century liberal classics. That it is still in print more than 50 years after it was first published, and has spawned a huge secondary literature, including part of the discussion in the latest issue of Cato Unbound, testifies to its enduring interest. Continue reading “A missing great book of liberty”

Books that influenced me

Not many Australian bloggers picked up on the Tyler Cowen-initiated listing of their 10 most influential books. Andrew Carr was one. (Update: Tim Andrews parodies such list-making.)

Rather late, here’s mine:

1. Milton Friedman, Free to Choose. For reasons explained here.

2. Friedrich Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order. Contains key essays on markets as discovery mechanisms and spontaneous order. This is what I have taken from Hayek.

3. Isaiah Berlin, Four Esssays on Liberty. His most famous essay, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, is in this volume. It is beautifully written and repays multiple re-readings; as my own political reading widened I understood more of its allusions and admired it all the more. Continue reading “Books that influenced me”

Is Tony Abbott moving towards a coherent ‘modern conservatism’?

John Howard said that he supported ‘modern conservatism in social policy’. I argued several years ago that this seemed to amount to more emphasis on facilitating the social institutions conservatives did like – such as supporting families through generous handouts – and less emphasis on prohibiting or penalising things conservatives did not like.

During the Howard years, however, there were anomalies in this approach, which Tony Abbott seems to be moving towards removing.

Earlier in the month, Abbott announced a paid parental leave scheme. While this didn’t go down very well in his party room, I argued that it fits with a ‘modern conservatism’ that recognises that married women work, and that this is a factor in both deciding to have children and in the care of their children. The social science case for giving women six months off to care for and bond with a newborn child is far stronger than the case for longer term income redistribution in favour of families.

Yesterday, though learning from his previous mistake of making major announcements without consulting colleagues, Abbott indicated support for improved legal recognition of gay relationships. As The Age reported: Continue reading “Is Tony Abbott moving towards a coherent ‘modern conservatism’?”

Hong Kong observations

Some observations from my recent trip to Hong Kong:

1. Hong Kong’s number one economic freedom ranking would come as no surprise to anyone who just wandered its streets, without examining any economic laws. There’s more street advertising in Hong Kong than anywhere else I’ve seen in the world, and more commerce that spills onto the street in the numerous street markets. I liked the colour and light of the advertising, especially as it distracts from one downside of little regulation, a large number of very ugly and unimaginative (but presumably cheaply constructed) buildings.

2. Despite this economic freedom, Hong Kong’s free-market think tank, the Lion Rock Institute (chaired by my expatriate friend Bill Stacey), does have something to do. HK is currently debating introducing a minimum wage. Perhaps the high A$ at the moment makes this look worse, but a report issued while I was there found that the median wage in HK was only just over A$8 an hour, way less than the Australian minimum wage (though prices seemed generally lower than here). Given that HK’s per capita GDP is greater than Australia’s, this suggests very high income inequality. Continue reading “Hong Kong observations”

Absolute vs relative understandings of ideology

One of the reasons Waleed Aly’s ‘Future of Conservatism’ essay goes wrong is that he thinks of political ideologies in absolute rather than relative terms.

To think of an ideology in absolute terms is to take a principle or idea its adherents support and make that its foundational principle or idea, from which all else must derive or be deemed philosophically inconsistent.

To think of an ideology in relative term, by contrast, considers these principles and ideas relative to the status quo and other political ideologies.

So relative to the status quo and social democracy, ‘neoliberalism’ could be considered the ideology of markets. ‘Absolute’ opposition to any other organising institution than markets is a non-existent political force in Australia. But compared to where we are, the ‘neoliberals’ are those most in favour of using markets more. Continue reading “Absolute vs relative understandings of ideology”

How many people read political blogs?

Pollytics blog today reports some Essential Research polling on news consumption. I was surprised that 15% of the people in the sample said they read blogs several times a week or daily, though the question does not directly ask if they get news/political analysis from blogs.

Question: How frequently do you read, listen to or watch the following?

The 2007 Australian Election Survey found that only 3% of people read political blogs during the campaign.

Despite the apparently increased readership, 55% of respondents rated their trust in what they read on blogs as ‘none’ or ‘not much’.

Waleed Aly’s ‘Future of Conservatism’

I’m not sure why the Quarterly Essay people asked Waleed Aly – or indeed anyone on the academic left except Judy Brett – to write an essay on the ‘future of conservatism’ (semi-coherent op-ed abridgement here). While Aly claims some sympathy for philosophical conservatism, with quotes from Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott duly produced, his understanding of the contemporary Australian right is too limited to say anything insightful about its current state or future prospects.

One of his arguments is that ‘conservatism’ (or neo-conservatism, as he calls its recent Australian version) has been too influenced by ‘neo-liberalism’. But his 25-page account of ‘neo-liberalism’ is the usual reductio ad absurdum stuff: markets as the only organising principle and the only arbiters of social value. Aly offers no evidence that anyone in Australia believes this, much less anyone influential. Indeed, he admits that his ‘theoretical account’ is ‘artificially absolute’. But this is not as he thinks because ‘political imperatives’ mean neo-liberalism only ever found ‘compromised expression’. It is because nobody believed in ‘neo-liberalism’ defined this way in the first place.

‘Conservatives’ agreed to market reforms for the same reason social democrats agreed to market reforms: as pragmatic measures to improve economic performance. Continue reading “Waleed Aly’s ‘Future of Conservatism’”

Is long service leave an anachronism?

As of close of business this afternoon, I am on long service leave. But is this an anachronistic institution?

Certainly long service leave’s historical rationale is no longer compelling. It began in South Australia and Victoria in the 1860s as a scheme that allowed civil servants 6-12 months leave to go home to Britain after 10 years service in the colonies. Given the lengthy transit times a substantial period off work was necessary to make the trip to Europe. Obviously this is no longer the case.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that long service leave became widespread in the private sector, and it is now a statutory right. No other country incorporates such a right into their labour market regulations.

Criticism of long service leave is not confined to free marketeers. Some people say that changes in labour market conditions towards more casual and contract employment mean that long service leave is less relevant. Continue reading “Is long service leave an anachronism?”