(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”
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”
The latest issue of Policy has an article by former Costello adviser Dave Alexander defending what he calls Australia’s low-tax egalitarianism.
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.
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”
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”
The latest Quarterly Essay has responses to Waleed Aly’s What’s Right?: The Future of Conservatism in Australia, and his reply to them. The response of mine that QE published is copied in below.
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.
Aly responded: Continue reading “Norton vs. Aly on ‘neoliberalism’”
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?”
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”
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”
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”