A review of Sam Roggeveen’s Our Very Own Brexit., originally published on GoodReads in November 2019.
How vulnerable is Australia to the disruptive political developments in other Western countries – Trump in the US, Brexit and Corbyn in the UK, and the electoral devastation of former ruling political parties across Western Europe?
Sam Roggeveen, from the Lowy Institute in Sydney (disclosure: I have known Sam for many years and we had a recent private online discussion about his argument in this essay), is cautious but sees significant political risks. As in other countries, the Australian political parties that have been the foundation of post-WW2 stability have shrinking bases of support, leaving them open to internal insurgencies and political rivals.
One symptom of the old political system’s weakness, a rising vote for independent and minor party candidates, has been present for a long time. I wrote about this, as did many others, in the early 2000s and last year my Grattan Institute former colleagues published a detailed analysis of the characteristics and beliefs of minor party voters.
Chandran Kukathas’s The Liberal Archipelago is a contrarian book. Recent liberal (well, left-liberal) writers support special rights for minority groups to protect their culture, but believe groups should give their members liberal rights. Kukathas takes the opposite view. Minority groups should not be given special rights, but they can run themselves illiberally. If their members don’t like it, they can leave.
To understand why these contrary conclusions are reached we have to go back into liberalism’s history.
Kukathas returns liberalism to one of its original principles, toleration. Liberalism emerged in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as a response to European religious conflict. John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) is the most famous argument for toleration from that time, though Kukathas rates more highly Pierre Bayle’s Philosophical Commentary (1708).
Since this early period toleration has been a way of preserving peace. Forcing diverse groups into a common culture causes conflict, including violent conflict. Putting up with each other, advocates of toleration say, is the better option. Kukathas argues that this is not merely a compromise; it comes to be internalised in basic norms governing social relations.
The UNSW academic Martin Krygier draws a useful distinction between the ‘methodological’ and the ‘normative’ aspects of political ideologies. The methodological aspects are theories about how the world works, while the normative aspects are theories about which values are most important. The two have a complex relationship. The normative ideal of socialism, equality between people, continues to resonate even though socialism is methodologically discredited, its institutions overwhelmingly thought ‘not to work’. The methodological ideas of conservatism (Krygier’s example) about the unanticipated and often unwelcome consequences of radical change provide useful insights, even for people who might find conservatism’s ‘normative’ aspects, such as support for religious values, unappealing
Mark Pennington’s book Robust Political Economy puts him in the school of classical liberal thought that emphasises methodological claims. Mainly following Friedrich Hayek , Pennington focuses on the institutional implications of limited human cognitive capacities and, to a lesser extent, limited moral motivations. The strands of classical liberalism or libertarianism that make normative rights-based arguments are largely absent from his book, while the normative arguments of left-liberalism, as found in the work of John Rawls or Ronald Dworkin, are present but criticised on methodological grounds. Pennington’s liberalism is one that starts with Adam Smith and David Hume, rather than John Locke.
This review appeared in Policy magazine in Spring 2010.
In many Western countries, marriage is a subject of passionate political contention. Gay marriage triggers controversy wherever it is proposed. Conservatives suggest ‘covenant’ marriages with stricter obligations than imposed under current marriage law. Religions and cultures that permit men to take multiple wives challenge monogamous marriage. Participants in these debates disagree on much but concur on one thing: the state should decide what marriage means.
Tamara Metz questions this assumption. In her book Untying the Knot: Marriage, the State, and the Case for Their Divorceshe argues that a liberal state should not determine which relationships count as marriages. Disputes over how to define marriage show that there is no consensus on its meaning. The state should see marriage in the same way it sees religion, another subject on which agreement seems impossible, as a private matter in which governments should not interfere. There are other ways of promoting long-term relationships and protecting the parties to them.
Liberal thinkers on marriage
Core liberal ideas suggest that marriage and state should be separate, but, historically, leading liberal thinkers have not called for their separation. Metz shows that while John Locke—a leading liberal figure on the separation of church and state — and John Stuart Mill both applied liberal principles to marriage, neither saw a clear dividing line between marriage and the state. Both assumed that marriage, unlike religion, would be ‘established’ — an institution officially recognised and regulated by the state.
I think this might be the first book review I had published outside of student magazines. It appeared in the May 1990 issue of Quadrant. Stylistically I have evolved – fewer adverbs now and more care to avoid cliches (‘rests on his laurels’), archaic words (‘hitherto’) and the universal male (‘open to man’). But intellectually I still share the views of my young self, believing in liberal societies without thinking that liberalism can be derived from a single foundational principle or that liberalism suits all countries.
Over the last decade and a half John Gray, an Oxford academic, has been one of the most stimulating liberal theorists. Writing with great intellectual energy, he has produced influential books on John Stuart Mill and Friedrich Hayek, a text entitled simply Liberalism for the Open University in England, which articulates the basic ideas of the philosophy with remarkable clarity and brevity, and numerous articles on liberal thinkers and topics, many of which are collected in the volume under review.
One reason that Gray is of interest is that he never rests on his laurels. As this book’s essays (which are collected in the order of their original publication) show, he has continually revised his ideas as to which arguments constitute the most plausible foundations for the liberal philosophy.
Peter Mandler’s title, The Crisis of the Meritocracy, led me to expect another, yetanother, critique of allocating too much status, power and wealth on the basis of academic ability. But Mandler’s book is much more interesting than that. It is a rich history of post-WW2 education in Britain, highlighting how public attitudes and public policy interact, with neither ever fully controlling the other.
Meritocracy’s original antonym was aristocracy or other class-based systems of allocation. It aimed to restrict the role of inherited privilege in distributing social goods for which ability is relevant. Meritocracy matches people with education and jobs based on their demonstrated skill, achievement, or evidence-supported potential. This version of meritocracy remains commonly accepted, despite disagreements over exactly what counts as merit and how much other criteria should influence merit-based decisions.
Although meritocratic practices increased the average competence of workers, hopes that meritocracy would create a more egalitarian society have not been fulfilled. Mandler cites the early 20th century Christian socialist RH Tawney’s belief that, due to God’s providence, ability was randomly spread. If that was so, meritocracy would over a few generations dissolve the associations between family background and life outcomes.
The passing of Ian McLean in May 2021 reminded me that his 2013 book on Australia’s economic history had been on my ‘to read’ list for a long time.
An epigraph to the last chapter of Why Australia Prosperedquotes the Greek poet Archilochus that ‘the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’ (popularised by Isaiah Berlin).
McLean was a fox, with this nicely undogmatic book looking at the many factors that can influence economic growth both in general and in Australia, rather than seeking one big theory to explain it all. It takes sceptical looks at theories that might claim too much policy wisdom (post-WW2 Keynesian economics, 1980s & 1990s ‘economic rationalism’), and too little, that Australia was just a ‘lucky country’, as Donald Horne famously put it.
Australia was and is lucky in its natural endowments. These were the earliest source of its economic comparative advantage, as the wool industry developed in the first half of the 19th century. Sheep grazing land was taken without paying for it – whether the wronged ‘owners’ are taken as the Indigenous people who had traditionally lived on it or the Crown as represented by the governor of the colony – and the mild climate made winter housing for sheep unnecessary. Combine these capital savings with cheap convict labour and Australian wool was very competitively priced on international markets.
In classifying political beliefs, both books use Michael Freeden’s work on ideology. Borrowing a term from linguistics, Freeden argues that ideologies have ‘morphologies’. By this he means that ideologies share common clusters of concepts. These concepts can vary in their meaning and weight, but similar cluster content puts intellectuals, activists and parties into the same ideology. Peripheral or adjacent concepts can exist alongside the base cluster of concepts.
For Freeden, liberalism’s conceptual core consists of liberty, rationality, individuality, progress, sociability, the general interest and limited and accountable power. Edwin van de Haar doesn’t list his core liberal concepts in a way clearly intended to be comprehensive, but on my reading it includes freedom, individualism, tolerance, classical natural rights, belief in spontaneous order, a realistic view of human nature, constitutionalism, and limited government.
These lists contain ideas that serve different purposes within an ideology. Some – liberty, tolerance, constitutionalism, limited government, individuality and the institutions of spontaneous order – are liberalism’s political agenda. Other concepts are assumptions or theories about people and social organisation, such as rationality, sociability, and the feasibility of spontaneous order. Others still provide high-level normative justifications for liberalism: the value of individuality, progress, the general interest, and natural rights.
Liberalism is a philosophy of individual freedom, but liberals disagree on what counts as a threat to freedom. Jacob Levy’s Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom explores how liberal thinkers see non-state groups as both sources of and dangers to individual freedom. It traces this tension back through centuries of European and American intellectual history. The issues change but the tensions persist, especially around sensitive matters of personal identity and rights.
Contemporary controversies around non-state groups often involve religious or cultural minorities with views that part from modern norms on women, children and sexuality. In Australia, many religious organisations, for example, oppose gay marriage and fear being forced to conduct gay weddings. But it is not just traditional groups that trigger disputes. A few years ago, a Melbourne gay bar attracted widespread criticism for refusing entry to women and straight men. Different thinkers in the liberal tradition could come down on either side of these debates.