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”

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’”

Is Australia an ‘arbitrary nation state’?

“That said, it should be recognised that immigration is here to benefit native Australians and not the other way round.”

Why do you think that? Do you simply have no concern for people not born within the borders of your pretty arbitrary nation state? If not, why should foreigners matter less than Australians?

– Robert Wiblin, 2 March.

Robert’s point is a challenge for political philosophies with universalist ambitions, such as some forms of liberalism and egalitarianism. States are part of these liberal and egalitarian theories, to protect or enforce rights, but they are not nation-states and the people in them have no particular nationality. Individual rights and entitlements derive from an individual’s status as a human (‘human rights’), not their membership of any smaller group.

So on these accounts, a purist classical liberal would have no easy ideological grounds for limting geographic movement, and a purist egalitarian would have no grounds for denying the claims of poor people throughout the world to material support. Certainly there would be significant personal costs to both classical liberals and egalitarians from such policies, but being born into a rich and successful country is a piece of very good luck that is morally arbitrary.

In practice, of course, few classical liberals or egalitarians pursue this kind of thinking to its logical conclusion. Continue reading “Is Australia an ‘arbitrary nation state’?”

Why even a good English curriculum should not be a monopoly curriculum

At least at first glance, the draft English national curriculum released yesterday looks reasonably good. I was pleased to see specific reference to apostrophes, and encouraged by a story in this morning’s Age that Julia Gillard is also big on apostrophes:

As a solicitor at law firm Slater and Gordon in the 1980s and ’90s, Ms Gillard would get her staff to chant: ”One cat’s hat, two cats’ hats, where do the apostrophes go?”

She told her biographer, Jacqueline Kent: ”If I got a letter with it done wrong I would draw a cat with a hat at the bottom in the hope it would come back right the next time. They all thought I was kind of strange.”

That Gillard needed to use a primary school mnemonic to teach people working in law firms how to write letters shows how badly English teaching has failed over the last generation.

Though this English curriculum may be better than those currently in use by the states, I am still strongly opposed to the idea of a national monopoly curriculum. What we should have instead is competitive curricula. Each curriculum on offer could be adopted anywhere in Australia, but none would be mandated for every school.

Though there are educational reasons for avoiding monopoly – one size is unlikely to fit all, we need better pressures than politics for innovation and improvement, etc – other stories running in today’s papers highlight the political reasons against monopoly curriculum (this is as much a criticism of the current state monopolies as the national curriculum). Continue reading “Why even a good English curriculum should not be a monopoly curriculum”

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”

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”

Classical liberals and political parties

Commenter Ute Man asks

At what point would Andrew Norton abandon the Liberal party …. Surely the Abbott inspired lunacy that encouraged Barnaby Joyce to publically voice his CEC conspiracies was a breaking point for anybody who even pretended to be rational. … Surely, at this point, it is impossible for the “last classical liberal” to deny the four-square conservatism (or idiocy, I can’t decide) of Abbott and his unannounced, unfunded policies to continue to support this party. Or are you just another prisoner to tribalism?

I’ve had many questions like this over the years. After all, in the thirty or so years that I have been a Liberal supporter the party has stood for the Australian Settlement minus the White Australia policy (Fraser), vacuous soft-right progressivism (Peacock), suburban conservatism (Howard), free-market liberalism (Hewson), upper-class conservatism with bad jokes (Downer), everything-depending-on-what-day-of-the week-it was (Nelson), market-leaning social liberalism (Turnbull) and now Tony Abbott’s big government conservatism. At the state level, the party often seems to stand for nothing at all, or at least there is no theme I can extract from their ad hoc point scoring against Labor.

Clearly for those – like much of the Australian Left – who see politics as self-expression, as part of showing what kind of person they are, this ideological variety would be intolerable. Indeed, with this view on politics involvement with any major party would be impossible, since both major parties are ‘broad church’ institutions incorporating a wide range of interests and beliefs. Which group is most dominant, or at least most obvious, will change over time with their numbers in the party, their skill, the political cycle, and luck. Continue reading “Classical liberals and political parties”

Paternalism vs liberalism

The Australia Institute‘s proposal in Something for Nothing to regulate working hours according to their version of a balanced good life highlights some differences between paternalism and liberalism.

Paternalists are confident that they know what way of living is best for each individual. Having found a few studies identifying harmful health or social effects of long hours at work, authors Richard Denniss and Josh Fear assume that all over-work must be bad and therefore should be regulated.

Liberals, by contrast, typically believe that there are many different ways of living a good life. Liberals are less likely to miss the other meanings and goals of work, and more likely to tolerate people making their own choices about life priorities. If somebody thinks that their job is more rewarding that going home at 5pm, there is no reason for the state to second-guess that judgment.

Paternalists tend to doubt the capacity of people to improve their own lives. Continue reading “Paternalism vs liberalism”