(This is cross-posted at Goodreads.)
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 history of liberalism and 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” →
In the 1990s I was interested in the social capital literature, as a way of empirically addressing some of the ‘communitarian’ criticisms of liberalism that I was writing about in my eventually abandoned PhD. Social democrats – such as Eva Cox in her Boyer lectures A Truly Civil Society – thought that there was a positive relationship between big government and social capital. I thought the opposite was more likely.
Over Easter I read this article by Isabelle Stadelman-Steffen using OECD social spending data and the results of European and World Values Survey questions on volunteering.
Overall for ‘social’ volunteering – for social welfare, health or community action on poverty, employment, housing or racial equality purposes – there was clearly a negative statistical relationship with public welfare spending. This is consistent with the ‘crowding out’ hypothesis, that to some extent the state displaces voluntary activity. In further support of this hypothesis, a large welfare state had no statistically significant crowding out effect for other voluntary activities. Continue reading “Crowding out and in” →
A survey for those who think that the internet is bad for face-to-face social interaction:
Following up on the social capital theme, there have been some more results released from the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2009, including a question on loneliness.
Most people never feel lonely or feel lonely less frequently than once a year. However about 18% feel lonely daily or weekly. In a different question on the same subject, 22% agreed or strongly agreed that ‘loneliness has been a serious problem for me at times’.
Question: How often do you personally experience loneliness in your life? Continue reading “Lonely Australia?” →
Light blogging due to an exam, an election, travel and work.
But in transit I have read Andrew Leigh’s new book Disconnected, about social capital in Australia. In his introduction, Andrew L tells us that ‘just as some people collect coins and others collect Pokemon cards, I collect pieces of data’. Much of it on social connection, trust, and organisational membership is reported in this book. As a dabbler in this field myself, I know that much of this data is hard to get and it’s very useful to have it presented in one place.
One piece of new survey research Andrew L reports is on friendship. For something so integral to most people’s lives friendship is a seriously under-researched topic in social science (and in liberal philosophy too, despite it being one of the last spheres of unregulated voluntary relationships).
In 1984, Australians reported on average 8.9 easily available people with whom they could speak frankly without having to watch what they say. Now the number averages out at 6.7 such friends. The average number of people on which respondents could turn to in times of difficulty (apart from those at home) dropped from 4.9 to 4.5. ‘Enough’ in both cases, but drops nonetheless. Continue reading “Disconnected?” →
One argument for stricter disclosure and control of political donations is to improve public perceptions of the political process. A NSW Parliament report from earlier this year said:
In evidence to this inquiry, the need for reform to restore public confidence in the integrity of the system was recognised by most of the political parties that are currently represented in the New South Wales Parliament…
It’s never been clear to me whether the disclosure regime would increase or decrease public confidence.
The general knowledge that it exists may increase confidence. On the other had, almost every specific mention of a donation is used to impugn donor and decision-maker alike. This could decrease confidence by providing more news hooks for negative stories about how politicians may favour donors.
However an analysis of political integrity questions asked by pollsters suggests that public confidence has generally been increasing over time. Continue reading “Do political donations disclosures increase or decrease confidence in the the political process?” →
A couple of weeks ago Tim Watts got a lot of coverage (here’s the Club Troppo version) for criticising the lack of response – from himself, and from others – to an incident on a tram, where a beggar started threatening and racially abusing a group of young Asian people. Like everyone else on the tram, he felt intimidated. He said the ‘inadequacy of the police response has created a climate in which people are fearful of speaking out’.
While the incident I observed on the number 96 tram this morning didn’t have a racial element, it did show that not everyone responds passively to threatening incidents. After a brief spray of abuse, a young man struck an elderly man, knocking him to the tram’s floor. The offender was immediately challenged by the two men closest to him; he threatened at least one of them but briefly backed off, before becoming aggressive again. But he did not get to carry out his threats, as two other young men tackled him to the floor, and then got him off the tram, pinning him to the ground despite his struggles.
Meanwhile at least two people were on the phone to the police, who acted quickly. The first police car was there in less than 5 minutes, two more police cars arrived shortly afterwards. The thug was arrested and put in the back of a police van. Continue reading “Public transport social capital not dead” →
Despite the federal government’s bank deposit guarantee, the RBA’s annual report showed that there was a run on the banks last year, requiring it to print more $50 and $100 notes.
Though demand has since eased off, the growth in currency in circulation at the end of the financial year was still about three times what would otherwise have been expected (even the usual annual 5% growth is surprisingly high, given the massive increase in use of electronic transfers).
It’s easy for voters to say in surveys that they don’t trust politicians, but here was a case when they were backing their opinions with real costs and risks to themselves. They would rather sacrifice the interest they might have earned and take the 3% or so risk of being burgled than believe either the banks or Wayne Swan.
The SMH this weekend devoted a large article in its news review section to profiling Chinese businessman (but Australian citizen) Chau Chak Wing, Australia’s largest ‘foreign’ donor to our political parties over the last decade (not online, but there was also this news story).
They claim that ‘unease about foreign donations is growing’, but that legislation to ban them is stalled in the Senate.
I’ve recently been looking at this issue from the perspective of NGOs, because this bill would also ban foreign-sourced donations to NGOs if the money was to finance political expenditure such as expressing views on candidates, parties, or election issues. My draft paper says:
Most major social, environmental and economic reforms and Australia over the last few decades are local versions of changes also occurring in other Western countries. Why assume that foreigners seeking to seed or support political activity in Australia will detract from Australian democracy, rather than adding interesting or useful ideas to local debate? ‘Made in Australia’ is no more a guarantee of quality in politics than in any other field.
If it passes, this legislation could make things very difficult for international NGOs like Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund.
Continue reading “Political xenophobia” →
Over the last few days, some new commenters have been adding personal abuse to their remarks. As it was directed at me, I have not edited or deleted it in line with my comments policy. But one of the reasons I set up my own blog was to try to create a comments culture where people could offer their views without being insulted. I have a pretty thick skin, but I don’t want my comments threads going the way of the threads at some other blogs, so I am going to start enforcing my civility rules from now on.
So commenters are welcome to expose errors, find fault with logic, criticise ideological assumptions etc, but personal insults will result in the comment being edited or deleted. Repeat offenders will be put in moderation or banned.