Free speech and hate speech

Katharine Gelber’s new book Speech Matters: Getting Free Speech Right is for the most part a useful summary of speech laws in Australia, and the issues surrounding them. The key chapters are on using or destroying the flag to make political statements, the speech aspects of anti-terrorist laws, hate speech, demonstrations, political art, and corporate use of litigation against critics.

The few policy disagreements I have with Gelber come I think from our different underlying philosophical positions. Her commitment to free speech is more qualified than mine by social democratic ideas. For example, she supports laws against ‘hate speech’, which I oppose. Her position on this comes from her ideas about an ‘inclusive speech culture’:

[hate speech]’s very purpose is to exclude its targets from participating in the broader deliberative processes required for democracy to happen by rendering them unworthy of participation and limiting the likelihood of others recognising them as legitimate participants in speech.

But Gelber doesn’t show that this is the effect of ‘hate speech’. Hateful comments might intimidate, but they are also spurs to action – most of the ‘victim’ groups in Australian society are vocal in their own defence, and have plenty of other defenders. And as she acknowledges in her book, anti-vilification laws have the effect of giving cranks publicity. Continue reading “Free speech and hate speech”


Light blogging due to an exam, an election, travel and work.

But in transit I have read Andrew Leigh’s new book Disconnected, about social capital in Australia. In his introduction, Andrew L tells us that ‘just as some people collect coins and others collect Pokemon cards, I collect pieces of data’. Much of it on social connection, trust, and organisational membership is reported in this book. As a dabbler in this field myself, I know that much of this data is hard to get and it’s very useful to have it presented in one place.

One piece of new survey research Andrew L reports is on friendship. For something so integral to most people’s lives friendship is a seriously under-researched topic in social science (and in liberal philosophy too, despite it being one of the last spheres of unregulated voluntary relationships).

In 1984, Australians reported on average 8.9 easily available people with whom they could speak frankly without having to watch what they say. Now the number averages out at 6.7 such friends. The average number of people on which respondents could turn to in times of difficulty (apart from those at home) dropped from 4.9 to 4.5. ‘Enough’ in both cases, but drops nonetheless. Continue reading “Disconnected?”

Spare a thought for authors with bad timing

As an editor of a quarterly magazine, where most articles are commissioned months in advance, articles on current events make me nervous. What happens if the basic facts behind an article change before it goes to print?

The editors at Melbourne University Press must have thought that they were safe in commissioning Patrick Weller’s Kevin Rudd: The Making of a Prime Minister, due out in August.

But now at best they need a new closing chapter, and a move in the bookshops from ‘current affairs’ to ‘history’.

Malcolm Fraser’s liberalism

Malcolm Fraser’s biography is actually called Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, but according to his biographer (or narrator, as she calls herself) Margaret Simons ‘Enduring Liberal’ was one possible title, perhaps with a question mark. The book makes clear that Fraser has seen himself as following a liberal philosophy through his long political life, though a pragmatic one.

Fraser’s reputation on this is perhaps worse than it should be, because over the last few decades the most contested freedoms have been economic, and his record as an economic liberal isn’t great – though the biography argues persuasively that it is better than many assume.

A chapter on financial deregulation shows that there was a lively internal debate within the government, with Fraser and his office generally pushing for less regulation, while Treasury and the RBA took a more conservative line. By the time Hawke and Keating actually implemented financial deregulation much of the thinking, discussing and planning had already been done. In this sense, Fraser laid the groundwork for what followed. Continue reading “Malcolm Fraser’s liberalism”

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”

Goddess of the Market

It’s rare for PhD theses to be turned into good books, but I am glad to report that with Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right Jennifer Burns has beaten the odds. Her book is readable and interesting throughout.


There was one paradox of Rand’s work and legacy that particularly caught my eye after last year’s discussion of liberalism and the emotions. Rand thought that the emotions should always come from rationality; even sex was to be inspired by a recognition of shared values rather than physical attraction (a convenient idea for a woman in love with a much younger man). It sounds like an extreme version of the liberal emphasis on reason and rules over prejudices and passions. Continue reading “Goddess of the Market”

Is Christine Wallace’s review of the new Gillard biography an ‘absolute stink-to-high-heaven conflict of interest’?

In the latest issue of the Monthly, Christine Wallace reviews Jacqueline Kent’s new biography of Julia Gillard.

Wallace has her own Gillard biography coming out next year, a fact she discloses in the Monthly review. This is the usual let-the-readers-decide solution to apparent conflicts of interest.

Kent doesn’t accept that disclosure is enough, and Kent’s publisher doesn’t buy the disclosure defence either:

While [Monthly editor Ben] Naparstek said Wallace had clearly identified herself as the author of a rival biography, Mr Ball [the Penguin publisher] said that was “like a mugger declaring his profession when you first meet”.

“It doesn’t explain away the absolute stink-to-high-heaven conflict of interest in getting one biographer to review another. What kind of intellectual contortion must he have gone through to come up with that?”

Continue reading “Is Christine Wallace’s review of the new Gillard biography an ‘absolute stink-to-high-heaven conflict of interest’?”

Why no great social democratic thinkers?

One interesting point that Tim Soutphommasane made in his Weekend Australian article is that social democracy has

never had a political philosopher who has succeeded in offering a comprehensive articulation of [its] principles.

There is nobody with the status of Marx in socialism, Burke in conservatism, or a range of thinkers in the liberal tradition: Locke, Smith, Mill, Hayek. In my political identity survey, more than half of the classical liberal respondents said they had read each of the major liberal thinkers (though I did not ask about Locke).

Tim ends up suggesting John Rawls as the closest social democrats get, but notes that he was an American left-liberal rather than an identifying social democrat. And while Rawls may achieve great thinker status within academia, he is not widely read outside academia by social democrats or anyone else. I found his The Theory of Justice heavygoing; much less accessible than the other liberal books. Continue reading “Why no great social democratic thinkers?”