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.

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

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.

Continue reading “Two answers to the question ‘What is liberalism?’”

The rise of liberalism in colonial Australia (a review of the first volume of David Kemp’s history of Australian liberalism)

(A shorter version of this review, omitting discussion of how the American experience influenced Australian politics to the mid-19th century, is cross-posted at Goodreads.)

This book is the first in David Kemp’s five-volume history of liberalism in Australia. The series, three volumes out to date, will cover 1788 to 2019. This first book takes us from European settlement in 1788 to 1860, when the colonies had achieved a substantial level of democratic self-government. It is principally a political history with special reference to liberalism; it focuses on major players and their involvement in big debates and events, not on the philosophical views of long-forgotten writers and activists.

To disclose my biases, I have known David Kemp for decades, including working for and with him, and share his interest in and concern for the Australian liberal tradition, with its ups and downs over 200 or so years in Australia. Some years ago I read a manuscript that turned into the first two volumes of this series.

In 1788, when British settlers arrived in the place that became Sydney, there was not yet such a thing as liberalism. The period covered by this first volume is the early decades of both Australia (that name is post-1788 too, but for convenience I’ll use it for the colonies collectively) and liberalism.

Although 1788 was before liberalism, many of the institutions and ideas that were later joined under the label ‘liberal’ were forming. Liberalism came in part from the creative linking between and expansion of existing ideas, institutions and issues.

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Continue reading “The rise of liberalism in colonial Australia (a review of the first volume of David Kemp’s history of Australian liberalism)”

Assorted links and comments

The first poll on the flood levy finds opinion heavily polarised on partisan lines, but overall against, 53% disapproving to 39% approving.

A different question on the same poll finds that 64% of respondents believe that universities would be better run by the public sector and 20% believe universities would be better run by the private sector. This dichotomy does not include the public-private hybrid nature of Australian universities as an option.

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In the context of the fascinating events in Egypt, Tyler Cowen reminds us of an outstanding book on public opinion, Timur Kuran’s Private Truths, Public Lies. In authoritarian regimes people conceal their true political views, but new dynamics can take over in which more and more people are emboldened to express their opinions. With no real support, in these circumstances regimes can crumble quickly when they lose the will to kill.

An interesting post on the signalling dynamics of cutting communications.

——- Continue reading “Assorted links and comments”

Hamilton is no friend of democracy

Recently in The Age Clive Hamilton published an op-ed calling the campaign by the miners against the government’s proposed mining tax an attempt ‘by plutocrats to destroy Australian democracy’.

Sinclair Davidson has already reminded us that Clive Hamilton has publicly contemplated suspending democracy to tackle climate change.

But Hamilton’s suspend democracy op-ed was a rare moment of political candour. The Age op-ed is far closer to his standard modus operandi. This is to provide arguments for some major curtailment of liberty but to stop short of proposing it, or do so only in the most general way.

Unlike Hamilton’s plans for ending the consumer society, his implied argument for curtailing the mining industry’s capacity to put its case has some realistic chance of persuading lawmakers. The various proposals to cap campaign expenditures would inevitably spill over into regulation of interest groups (though this may end up being declared unconstitutional).

Whatever the merits of the mining industry’s case, it is a response to the state launching a major attack on the industry. They have every right to defend themselves. Far from being an attempt to destroy democracy, this is the democratic system working effectively to subject politicians to scrutiny and and perhaps accountability.

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”

Norton vs. Aly on ‘neoliberalism’

The latest Quarterly Essay has responses to Waleed Aly’s What’s Right?: The Future of Conservatism in Australia, and his reply to them. The response of mine that QE published is copied in below.

I wrote it because responding to writers on ‘neoliberalism’ on blogs or in right-of-centre magazines is ineffective, since reading the views of the people who might be the real-world ‘neoliberals’ has not typically been deemed necessary by their critics. By getting something into the QE I thought Aly at least would read it.

The gist of my argument was to be of any political consequence, characterisations of ‘neoliberalism’ must be based on established beliefs or statements of plausible candidates for being ‘neoliberals’ (I didn’t fully go into this, but I took these candidates as people whose views have family resemblances to the claims about neoliberal beliefs made by academics – this is complicated by the fact that the term if not the idea of ‘neoliberalism’ is a left-wing academic one, with very few self-described ‘neoliberals’).

On this basis, I disputed some of Aly’s claims about ‘neoliberalism’ on the grounds that nobody believed them, or that significant ‘neoliberals’ believed otherwise (eg Thatcher, Milton Friedman). I also used results from my online survey from last year.

Aly responded: Continue reading “Norton vs. Aly on ‘neoliberalism’”

Academics in politics

Andrew Leigh has announced that he has won pre-selection for the safe Labor seat of Fraser. He’ll be in the House of Representatives before Christmas.

Of course Andrew is an outstanding candidate, but this is a big loss to Australian social science. He’s always been exceptionally productive, and in his late thirties has a publication record that most academics would be happy to retire with. Perhaps that’s why he is moving on to something new, but it’s hard to imagine that the steady stream of interesting papers and articles was about to hit an intellectual drought.

I can well understand the temptations of politics. While I think a fair assessment is that Australian politicians have done reasonably well by world standards, there is so much that could be done so much better. The kind of empirical social science Andrew has done in his academic career can tell us a lot about what policies are likely to work, and which are likely to fail or achieve too little at too high a cost. Someone with Andrew’s background can provide valuable input into the policy process.

The question is whether someone like Andrew, whose demonstrated major skills are academic research and analysis, can do more good inside or outside of party politics. Continue reading “Academics in politics”

John Carroll repents

In 1992, John Carroll and Robert Manne published Shutdown: The Failure of Economic Rationalism. This was the book that prompted me and two university friends, Chrises Jones and James, to co-edit A Defence of Economic Rationalism.

Eighteen years on, Carroll has written to The Australian to explain that he no longer supports the book’s conclusions:

To me now, the past two decades support the maxim: if in doubt, trust the free market.

Moreover, if the GFC signals anything it is to beware irresponsible government

Shutdown co-editor Robert Manne is hoping that he will be second-time lucky with Goodbye to All That: On the Failure of Neoliberalism and the Urgency of Climate Change.

It’s rare that public intellectuals will admit that they were wrong, so Carroll deserves congratulation for doing so.

Privatising air space?

According to RMIT academic Michael Buxton, quoted in The Age this morning, the increasing number of tall buildings on Melbourne’s skyline is bad because:

”What we’re doing with high-rise is privatising space at the public expense. If you buy your view, sure, you’ve got a wonderful view from the top of one of these towers but what you’ve done is bought airspace. So that airspace was once originally a part of the public domain … the public get no benefit.”

But how many members of the public would otherwise get to use the airspace at level 40 of a skyscraper? It seems to me that the higher the building the fewer issues ‘airspace’ use generates, at least until it reaches flight path levels (and as we don’t want low-flying planes in built-up areas, that is quite high).

There are ‘negative externality’ issues with the shadows tall buildings create, but Buxton’s dubious ideological claim does not seem to me to be helpful in deciding whether we should have more tall buildings in Melbourne.