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.
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.
(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 Light that Failed’s first sentence says ‘the future was better yesterday’. And so it was. Thirty years ago there were high hopes for the future of liberal democracy, especially in Central Europe, which had just peacefully ended communist rule. But that is yesterday’s future, replaced now with Central European governments dismantling liberal democracy, authoritarian regimes in Russia and China causing trouble around the world, and many established liberal democracies suffering from serious political dysfunction.
In trying to explain what is going on, The Light that Failed: A Reckoning, reads to me more like a pre-20th century political classic than contemporary political analysis (one of its authors, Stephen Holmes, has previously written excellent books on the historyof liberalismand its critics; I have ordered the English-language books of his Bulgarian co-author Ivan Krastev). The Light that Failed has evidence and examples, but not the relentless facts and data of recent journalistic or academic accounts. Instead, its contribution is the categories it uses to understand events and its psychological insight.
The book’s central concept is imitation. Individuals and societies are always copying each other, but this process can be experienced in very different ways. In Central Europe, the first post-communist political leaders and many of their people wanted to imitate the West: democracy, individual freedom, a market economy. And a triumphalist West wanted its model to be imitated; including in countries where the political elites and many of their people were not asking for advice. Continue reading “History gone wrong: liberal democracy’s failure to flourish in Central Europe and Russia”→
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]
Compared to other OECD countries Australia’s tax-welfare system combines a relatively low tax take with relatively egalitarian outcomes because benefits are more targeted on lower-income earners. Australia also has unusually high rates of voluntary opt-out from full government entitlements, with many people taking partially subsidised private options in education and health.
For Alexander, this policy mix helps Australia avoid some of the pathologies and dysfunction associated with either high levels of inequality or over-sized government.
The Catallaxy crowd aren’t convinced. And indeed in publishing the piece I expected some flak from my classical liberal comrades. But I thought the Alexander article was a strong one. In my own political life I have always been torn between my philosophical commitment to smaller government and my pragmatic sense of what it takes to achieve even incremental change towards that goal. Politically, relatively low-tax egalitarianism may be the only viable model we have.
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”→
Martin Krygier’sresponse 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’.
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.
One of the many interesting points Tamara Metz makes in her book Untying the Knot: Marriage, the state and the case for their divorce is that liberal thinkers have been surprisingly unconcerned about the relationship between marriage and the state. While many have written about relations between individuals within a marriage – Mill most famously – they have generally accepted that the state has a legitimate role in regulating marriage.
Metz think this is a mistake, from a liberal point of view. Marriage is like religion, something of deep cultural and emotional meaning, but on which there are widely differing and strongly held views. While almost all cultures have marriage as an institution, some insist on monogamy while others allow polygamy, some make divorce difficult and others easy, some allow gays to marry while most see marriage as between a man and a woman.
Liberals have dealt with religious disputes by requiring the state to keep out of them, and Metz believes this provides a model for how the state should treat marriage. It should not be in the business of trying to give particular cultural meanings to people’s relationships. Just as liberals do not supported ‘established’ religion, they should favour disestablishing marriage. Continue reading “Should marriage be disestablished?”→