Methodological and normative liberalism (A review of Mark Pennington’s Robust political economy)

This review was published in Policy in 2011.

A review of Robust Political Economy: Classical Liberalism and the Future of Public Policy by Mark Pennington, Edward Elgar Publishing 2011

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. 

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Separating marriage and state (a review of Tamara Metz’s Untying the Knot)

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 Divorce she 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.

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John Gray gives up on finding universal foundations for liberalism (my 1990 review of Liberalisms: Essays in Political Philosophy)

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.


Liberalisms: Essays in Political Philosophy, by John Gray; Routledge, London, 1989.

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.

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Democracy, meritocracy, and the rise of higher education (a review of Peter Mandler’s The Crisis of Meritocracy)

Peter Mandler’s title, The Crisis of the Meritocracy, led me to expect another, yet another, 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.

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Both luck and good management: a review of Ian McLean’s Why Australia Prospered

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 Prospered quotes 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.

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Two answers to the question ‘What is liberalism?’

Edwin van de Haar’s Degrees of Freedom: Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology and Michael Freeden’s Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction both set out to answer the question ‘What is liberalism?’ They share a methodology for reaching a conclusion. But they leave readers with quite different impressions of contemporary liberal thought.

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.

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Rationalism, pluralism and freedom

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.

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Remembering the Menzies we forgot (a review of The Forgotten Menzies)

Robert Menzies is, of course, far from forgotten. Despite his death in 1978 he remains a live presence in Australian politics. The Liberal Party he helped found lauds and fights over his legacy. Even Labor politicians invoke Menzies.

Stephen Chavura and Greg Melleuish’s book title, The Forgotten Menzies, nicely plays on the name of Menzies’ famous ‘forgotten people’ radio talk while alluding to one of their own key points. Australia’s longest-serving prime minister’s political achievements are well-remembered, but his worldview has faded from memory. It no longer aligns neatly with contemporary beliefs, complicating attempts to enlist him in current political debates.

Menzies was, as we all are, a person of his time. He was born in 1894 in Jeparit, a Victorian country town. His family were shopkeepers and evangelical Presbyterians. Chavura and Melleuish describe this as a world of ‘cultural puritanism’, in which independence, sturdiness, freedom, Godliness, duty and domesticity where all important values.

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Migration regulation and the freedom of citizens (a review of Immigration and Freedom by Chandran Kukathas)

In Immigration and Freedom, Chandran Kukathas offers a distinctive analysis of the politics of immigration. His interest in migration goes beyond the usual concerns about jobs and culture to its effect on freedom. He argues that the conditions attached to migrant residency reduce freedom for both migrants and non-migrants.

In my country of Australia, migration control sometimes affects citizens as much or more than immigrants. Employers cannot always hire the staff they need and must understand complex distinctions between visas. Real estate agents can only sell some types of property to foreigners. Educational institutions are required to monitor international students and report potential breaches of visas conditions. Political parties must check that their donors are not foreigners. Citizens who fall in love with migrants suffer exorbitant visa fees and intrusive questions about their relationship to get their partner permanent residence (the book has a nice epilogue, ‘Imagine If You Needed a Visa to Fall in Love’).

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The decline of liberalism in early 20th century Australia (a post on the third volume of David Kemp’s history of Australian liberalism)

The first volume of David Kemp’s history of Australian liberalism told the surprising story of how, between 1788 and 1860, a penal colony became an early liberal democracy. In the second volume, covering 1861 to 1901, the new national constitution federating the six colonies gave Australian democracy deep legal foundations.

While democracy was strengthened, by 1901 liberalism was weakened. Liberal political movements were divided between protectionist and free trade versions. Both were challenged by utopian socialist ideas and a militant union movement. The unions acquired direct political influence as Labour MPs won seats in parliament (Labor does not drop the ‘u’ until 1912). Kemp’s third volume, A Democratic Nation: Identity, Freedom and Equality in Australia 1901-1925, chronicles further liberal troubles in the first quarter century of federation.

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