History gone wrong: liberal democracy’s failure to flourish in Central Europe and Russia

(This is cross-posted at Goodreads.)

The Light that Faileds 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.

light that failed

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”

A Google measure of ideological fashion

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]

Continue reading “A Google measure of ideological fashion”

Victoria – left-wing state?

I may be Carlton’s lone classical liberal, but are things much better in the rest of Victoria? An article in this morning’s Sunday Age proclaims Victoria the ‘left-leaning state’.

The article notes that Labor’s vote has been typically strong here for decades, and is holding up here during this latest campaign as it declines elsewhere as the Julia, Kevin, Mark and the leaker soap opera undermines the Labor campaign. As John Roskam observes, the left-wing tilt even influences the right – the Kennett years aside, the Victorian Liberal Party has typically been rather wishy-washy compared to the more robust conservatism found elsewhere.

The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2009 asked its respondents to rate themselves on a 0 (left) to 10 (right) scale. It actually finds that Victorians (average rating 5.04) are moderately to the right of people in New South Wales (average rating 4.97), but the more noticeable thing about the figure below is that NSW and Victoria are to the left of the rest of Australia.

Continue reading “Victoria – left-wing state?”

‘Left’ and ‘right’ not so useless after all

Commenter Senexx today joined others who don’t think much of the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’. Way back in 1993 I wrote an article for the IPA Review arguing something similar.

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”

Why has the left turned on Rudd more than the right did on Howard?

Tim Dunlop kindly exempts me from his argument that the right’s commentators generally gave the Howard government a soft time, while the left’s commentators have turned on Rudd.

Some theories:

* Right-wingers typically have low expectations of what politics can achieve, and so were not so disappointed with the Howard government. Left-wingers have high expectations – higher than is realistic – so are inevitably disappointed. There was a huge expectations and popularity bubble around Rudd that in my view was always absurdly out of line with the fundamentals. It had to burst and it has.

* Labor governments try to do more than Liberal governments, and given the inherent limitations of state action are therefore more likely to stuff things up. The national broadband network looks like the next big Rudd fiasco, if he survives the 2010 election. Blunders put both left and right commentators on the attack.

* The views of right-wing commentators were closer to those of Howard than the views of the broad left were to Rudd. Most wouldn’t regard the examples Dunlop gives of failed Howard policies – Iraq, WorkChoices – as failed policies. Continue reading “Why has the left turned on Rudd more than the right did on Howard?”

Methodological and normative ideology

Martin Krygier’s response 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’.

The distinction can be made for other ideologies as well. Continue reading “Methodological and normative ideology”

Privatising air space?

According to RMIT academic Michael Buxton, quoted in The Age this morning, the increasing number of tall buildings on Melbourne’s skyline is bad because:

”What we’re doing with high-rise is privatising space at the public expense. If you buy your view, sure, you’ve got a wonderful view from the top of one of these towers but what you’ve done is bought airspace. So that airspace was once originally a part of the public domain … the public get no benefit.”

But how many members of the public would otherwise get to use the airspace at level 40 of a skyscraper? It seems to me that the higher the building the fewer issues ‘airspace’ use generates, at least until it reaches flight path levels (and as we don’t want low-flying planes in built-up areas, that is quite high).

There are ‘negative externality’ issues with the shadows tall buildings create, but Buxton’s dubious ideological claim does not seem to me to be helpful in deciding whether we should have more tall buildings in Melbourne.

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”