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.

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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.

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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)”

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)”

Classical liberalism and bills of rights

Andrew Carr asks why, as a classical liberal, I do not support a bill of rights. My political identity survey last year found that among classical liberals only about a third supported a bill of rights, so on this I am not an outlier.

The apparent incongruity is that classical liberals support individual freedom, but oppose a measure that could protect freedom from ‘big government’ or the ‘tyranny of the majority’.

Part of the answer is that virtually all classical liberals believe in democracy as well. Though much has been made of the ‘tensions’ between liberalism and democracy, which obviously can occur, there are also many parallels.

Both give significant weight to the preferences and knowledge of ordinary individual citizens, who ajudicate on the choices offered to them – by parties and candidates in the political sphere, by firms in the economic sphere, and by varying traditions and associations in the cultural sphere. Continue reading “Classical liberalism and bills of rights”

Constitutional rights and ‘divisive’ issues

Some bloggers were unimpressed with this justification from Attorney-General Robert McClelland for not proposing a charter of rights:

Let me say at the outset, that a legislative charter of rights is not included in the Framework as the Government believes that the enhancement of human rights should be done in a way that, as far as possible, unites rather than divides our community. [emphasis added]

Guy Beres thought that the ‘absence of any legal bedrock on human rights in Australia is a fairly considerable source of division and uncertainty’. Kim at LR agreed.

The charter itself would have been within the usual range of ‘divisive’ issues, ie those issues on which significant opposing groups both feel strongly. It would have flared for a while, but probably not have entrenched significant on-going conflicts or resentments. The losing side would have had a chance to present its full case, and would have been left with an opportunity to raise the issue again in the future.

But presuming that the charter was just the first step (or the first part of the slide down the slippery slope, depending on your perspective) towards constitutional rights protection then I do think it has significant implications for the way we handle ‘divisive’ issues. Continue reading “Constitutional rights and ‘divisive’ issues”

No charter, but too many ‘rights’

The government has decided not to introduce a charter of rights. Instead, they will introduce greater human rights scrutiny into the legislative process and increase human rights education campaigns.

While on balance I think that no charter is the right decision, the process of drafting and debating it would have had one distinct advantage over the chosen policy path. This would have been to focus attention on which interests and freedoms really deserved to achieve quasi-constitutional status as ‘human rights’, and which were things that should be the stuff of ordinary political debate.

Instead, the government has decided that ‘human rights’ are all the contents of the seven international rights treaties that have been signed on our behalf by various executives (this is not a democratic process; treaties do not require ratification by parliament). New legislation and delegated legislation will need to have a statement that ‘assesses its compatibility’ with these treaties.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in particular has provisions that are, as Jeremy Bentham famously described rights, ‘nonsense upon stilts’. It is a social democratic wish-list. Take for example this one on higher education: Continue reading “No charter, but too many ‘rights’”

The ‘human rights’ of international students

This morning’s Australian reports on this speech by my U of M colleague Simon Marginson calling for extended rights for international students:

International students are temporary migrants. Nations have the option of treating them as quasi-residents, or as outsiders. Everywhere they are treated as outsiders. Nowhere do they enjoy comprehensive human rights in local law. ……..human rights should not be confined to local citizens.

…we should understand student security as an issue of comprehensive human rights…

we suggest that a strong contribution governments can make to student security is to provide affordable student housing, for a mix of local and international students, in areas where students study and work. [I have altered the sequence from the original presentation]

I am a ‘human rights’ sceptic. As a classical liberal, I unsurprisingly believe that many of the interests and freedoms that find their way into lists of ‘human rights’ are indeed important. But I don’t believe these interests and freedoms are best advocated or defended by simply asserting that they are ‘rights’. Continue reading “The ‘human rights’ of international students”

Should there be a charter of rights referendum?

In the SMH, law academic George Williams rejects the idea that there should be a referendum on a charter of rights. He says that

Referendums are held to change the constitution, and have never been to approve an ordinary act of Parliament.

I’m not convinced by this point. The Australian constitutional system is much more than just the formal document called the Constitution. It includes all the laws, conventions and judicial decisions that establish and set out the relationships between the key institutions of government.

In this broader sense of a constitutional system, a charter of rights is an important change in the relationship between the executive and the judiciary, and represents a major shift in how the rest of us consider issues covered by the charter. The substantive rights and wrongs of various issues will become secondary to the legal arguments for and against, which are often much harder for ordinary citizens to understand. The judicial decisions made are likely to lead to conclusions which majorities do not support.

In this context, a referendum is not a silly idea. It’s not like having a vote on an ETS, as Williams suggests, or any of the other issues parliament considers each year. It’s about the rules of the political game, about who gets to decide what. It is a constitutional question, even if not an amendment to the Constitution.

Will a human rights charter be popular?

The public opinion research accompanying the report of the National Human Rights Consultation suggests that those proposing a charter of rights have a tough task ahead.

These days, only bastards and people who know a little political philosophy are likely to question the whole idea of ‘human rights’ (‘nonsense upon stilts’, as the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham memorably called them). So on questions about parliament paying attention to human rights or increased education on human rights only one or two percent of respondents express opposition.

But only 7% of respondents disagreed with the proposition that human rights are adequately protected (with a large 29% not expressing a view).

Worse for the main advocates of putting general human rights into legislation or the Constitution, the public isn’t in general very sympathetic on some of the issues that are driving the human rights push in the first place. Continue reading “Will a human rights charter be popular?”