Liberal project successes, followed by stall and setback (on David Kemp’s Consent of the People, 1966-2022)

The Consent of the People: Human dignity through freedom and equality 1966-2022 concludes David Kemp’s epic five volume 2,504 page political history of Australia with particular reference to liberalism.

The full set takes us from the pre-liberalism of the late 18th century, when ‘liberal’ ideas and institutions were yet to be linked into the ideology of liberalism; through liberalism’s highpoint in the 19th century (volumes one and two); the twentieth century’s dismal first half when racism, protectionism, war, economic depression and utopian socialism broke liberalism but not democracy (volumes three and four); to the defeat of socialism after World War II covered in the later parts of volume four; to the story of volume five, which covers the revival of the liberal project in the 20th century’s final decades followed by stall and setback in the early 21st century.

The 40 years after Sir Robert Menzies retired as prime minister in 1966, having been in office since 1949, saw a liberalisation in which liberals were one influence among many. Kemp’s idea of ‘liberal project’, a policy agenda, is useful in understanding how Australia became a more liberal society despite ideological liberals not being numerous or always highly influential. Many people had reasons for overturning the ‘Australian settlement’ of the 1900s: white Australia, high tariffs, and a highly-regulated labour market.

In Australia’s division of political labour for the most part the people outside government calling for more liberal social policies and more liberal economic policies were different.

Liberal social policies were often promoted by single issue movements, at their core people trying to improve their own lives and not advance general philosophical ideals, although sometimes attracting support by appealing to broader principles (see Jon Piccini’s book on human rights in Australia).

Liberal economic policies were promoted by a broad coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, economists, business interests and think-tanks. In the think-tanks especially classical liberal philosophy was explicit, but in the other groups support for market mechanisms owed more to utilitarianism than freedom. The aim was greater and more efficient economic growth.

As in the immediate post-World War II period the Liberal and Labor parties provided the alternative governments. But ideologically party competition changed in the 1960s. Declining support for socialism within Labor and its increasingly university-educated and socially-liberal MPs and voters meant that attitudes to ‘liberalism’ were less of a divide between the two main parties. The Liberal Party often struggled to find a clear direction. Labor governments took the lead in ‘liberal’ reforms.

Continue reading “Liberal project successes, followed by stall and setback (on David Kemp’s Consent of the People, 1966-2022)”

A Google measure of ideological fashion

Brendan Duong points me to another Google innovation, a new way of tracking mentions of words and terms in books, using the huge archive of scanned books in Google Books. It can be used to track ideological fashion and interest over time.

In the easy to use version (there is a complicated-looking raw data download option) some care has to be taken with interpreting the results. For single words it is calculated as a % of all ‘unigrams’ or single words, for two-word phrases it is a % of all ‘bigrams’ or two-words. So percentages will always be lower for bigrams than unigrams, and I won’t directly compare them.

And because we are looking at percentages of all words in the category, a term could be rising in absolute mentions but still declining relatively.

Over the 150 years to 2000, we can see the changing fortunes of the three main Western ideological forces: socialism, liberalism, and conservatism. The interest of intellectuals in socialism is very evident here. Despite socialism entering a long decline in the 1980s, in 2008 it was still more mentioned slightly more often than liberalism. And despite the apparent ideological revival of conservatism, it trended slightly down from the 1960s.
[19/12: graphs and text updated to take account of later data]

Continue reading “A Google measure of ideological fashion”

‘Left’ and ‘right’ not so useless after all

Commenter Senexx today joined others who don’t think much of the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’. Way back in 1993 I wrote an article for the IPA Review arguing something similar.

But re-reading that article after all this time makes me think that if anything ‘left’ and ‘right’ have gained in utility since the early 1990s. The test of labels like ‘left’ and ‘right’ is not whether they can fully describe someone’s political position. Rather, it is whether the label will reasonably reliably locate someone in significant political contests of the day.

In 2007 I used results from the 2004 Australian Election Survey to suggest that this was the case with the questions I examined – especially on party preference, perhaps the most important indicator because of the way it bundles reactions to many different issues.

In my 1993 article I suggested that Labor support for market reform was complicating the old left-right divide. Now there is little support for further market reform in Labor or anywhere else on the left, and near universal left support for a serious reform rollback on industrial relations. Continue reading “‘Left’ and ‘right’ not so useless after all”

Why has the left turned on Rudd more than the right did on Howard?

Tim Dunlop kindly exempts me from his argument that the right’s commentators generally gave the Howard government a soft time, while the left’s commentators have turned on Rudd.

Some theories:

* Right-wingers typically have low expectations of what politics can achieve, and so were not so disappointed with the Howard government. Left-wingers have high expectations – higher than is realistic – so are inevitably disappointed. There was a huge expectations and popularity bubble around Rudd that in my view was always absurdly out of line with the fundamentals. It had to burst and it has.

* Labor governments try to do more than Liberal governments, and given the inherent limitations of state action are therefore more likely to stuff things up. The national broadband network looks like the next big Rudd fiasco, if he survives the 2010 election. Blunders put both left and right commentators on the attack.

* The views of right-wing commentators were closer to those of Howard than the views of the broad left were to Rudd. Most wouldn’t regard the examples Dunlop gives of failed Howard policies – Iraq, WorkChoices – as failed policies. Continue reading “Why has the left turned on Rudd more than the right did on Howard?”

Methodological and normative ideology

Martin Krygier’s response to Waleed Aly’s Quarterly Essay makes an interesting distinction between ‘methodological’ and ‘normative’ conservatism. Methodological conservatism offers what he calls ‘well-nigh universal’ lessons: that the world is complex, that radical change will always have unintended effects, that long-lasting things are likely to have something going for them or at least be ‘sticky’.

‘Normative conservatism’ expresses an ‘attachment to familiar features of the society in which the conservative lives’. The problem with it is that these ‘familiar features’ can be ‘lousy’; other ideologies provide some grounds for discriminating between those that are worth keeping and those which are not. We can accept methodological conservatism, but still recognise that ‘sometimes the disease actually is worse than the cure’.

The distinction can be made for other ideologies as well. Continue reading “Methodological and normative ideology”

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’?”

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”

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’”

Familism meets feminism

Like big business and the some (most?) in the Coalition party room, I’m not keen on Tony Abbott’s ‘big new tax’ plan to fund an exceptionally generous income-maintaining parental leave policy.

On the other hand, I do think it is a natural evolution of recent Australian conservative thinking. As it put it in my ‘big government conservatism’ article a few years ago:

Modern conservatism.. does not actively discourage or prevent departures from the norm in social and family relationships. So no-fault divorce stays, [and] single parent benefits are retained … . Rather, modern conservatism uses the state’s financial resources to ‘support families in the choices they wish to make’, to ‘help families struggling with the challenges of modern life’.

What this means is the ‘familist’ state increasingly contributes to activities which were once the family’s responsibility. The massive expansion in the FTB scheme and the baby bonus under Howard, and the rapid expansion in childcare subsidies, are all part of this. Parental leave is a logical extension of this trend. Indeed, the social science case for full-time parenting in the first six months of a baby’s life is far stronger than the case for the FTB handouts.

Abbott defends his scheme in these evolutionary terms: Continue reading “Familism meets feminism”

Australia’s statist right-wingers

This morning The Australian published my contribution to their What’s Right series, based on the political identity survey many of you contributed to earlier in the year.

Perhaps my main achievement is getting a newspaper to print the terms ‘classical liberal’ and ‘libertarian’ rather than blurring them with ‘the conservatives’. Unfortunately, however, when it comes to electoral politics ‘conservative’ is not such a bad catch-all term.

Various surveys over the years have asked voters to rate themselves on a 0 (left) to 10 (right) political scale. In the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2007 I classed the right as people putting themselves 7-10 on the scale and looked at their opinions on various issues. They were about 20% of the sample.

Social issues Continue reading “Australia’s statist right-wingers”