Illiberal groups in a liberal society (a review of The Liberal Archipelago by Chandran Kukathas)

This review first appeared in Policy, Summer 2003-04

A review of The Liberal Archipelago: A Theory of Diversity and Freedom by Chandran Kukathas, New York, Oxford University Press, 2003.

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.

Continue reading “Illiberal groups in a liberal society (a review of The Liberal Archipelago by Chandran Kukathas)”

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. 

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

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.

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

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?’”

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.

Continue reading “Rationalism, pluralism and freedom”

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.

Continue reading “Remembering the Menzies we forgot (a review of The Forgotten Menzies)”

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.

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

Federation under a liberal-democratic constitution the last victory of 19th century Australian liberalism (a review of the second volume of David Kemp’s history of Australian liberalism)

David Kemp’s The Land of Dreams: How Australians Won Their Freedom, 1788–1860, his first volume of an Australian political history seen from a liberal perspective, told a surprisingly positive story. The British settlers who arrived in 1788 established a penal colony; an inauspicious start for a liberal society. But by the book’s conclusion in 1860 Australia had, for its European residents, transformed itself into a largely free society. The Australian colonies were also early experiments in democracy. Self-described liberals, drawing on intellectual debates in England and elsewhere, played key roles in this transition.

In 1901, when this second volume in Kemp’s five-part series finishes, the liberals had enjoyed a recent triumph. The newly federated Commonwealth of Australia, which began that year, gave Australian democracy deep legal foundations. It was a limited government, with the national parliament restricted to legislating on a specific list of topics. Free trade between the states was guaranteed. Private property could be taken by government only on ‘just terms’. A national established church was a legal impossibility.

But in many other respects things had gone badly wrong. The new Constitution prohibited tariffs and other restrictions on interstate commerce, but protectionism lived on at the national level. The new Constitution included a power for the conciliation and arbitration of industrial disputes, the basis of non-market wage setting. The flow of people into Australia was more restricted, with racist ideas central to migration policy. Sectarian disputes within Australian society, especially between Catholics and Protestants, were entrenched. Class divisions, although less sharp than in Britain, were a serious problem.

Continue reading “Federation under a liberal-democratic constitution the last victory of 19th century Australian liberalism (a review of the second volume of David Kemp’s history of Australian 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.

the-land-of-dreams-hardback20200207-4-qw1svi

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