Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Category: Political Philosophy

The American Right and Human Government

Palin’s suddent resignation has understandably left most pundits, pollsters and political junkies utterly confused. How can you credibly argue you have the experience and capability to govern the country when you are prepared to resign from governing a tiny state just 2 ½ years into your 4 year term?
Yet to Palin, this seems exactly what she should be doing to serve her community. Take these lines from her (hastily put together) resignation press conference

“I thought about, well, how much fun some governors have as lame ducks,” she said. “They maybe travel around their state, travel to other states, maybe take their overseas international trade missions. So many politicians do that. And then I thought, that’s what is wrong. . . . They hit the road, they draw a paycheck, they kind of milk it, and I’m not going to put Alaskans through that.”

Every leader in a country with fixed term limits eventually becomes a ‘lame duck’ (well save those in South America), but there is still usually a solid years worth of governing to be done that is of great advantage to their constituents, legacy and without the heat or requirements of politics as usual, even the chance for lesser but still significant reforms. Not only in policy, but especially as Hillzoy points out, in improving various departments in ways that only the executive is tasked to do. There’s still a hell of a lot of governing available to anyone president, governor or mayor as long as they hold that office. But Palin’s not only uninterested, but utterly dismissive of the idea, such lame duckers are just wasting space.

For Palin it seems, like many on the American Right, (they are certainly not ‘conservative’ by any sense of the term) what is important are elections, not governing. Elections are the chances to present an image, to crusade, to beat their opponents. Elections are about values, and character. But government is none of these things. It is slow, it is bureaucratic, it is compromised in every step of the process. Government is about choosing between less than satisfactory options and then spending your time arguing over the details. Or simply filling out the masses of paperwork required to do so. How in Palin’s world would such actions prove the values she represents, identify the character she adheres to, disprove the liberal-elites lies and half-truths or defend the American family and individual ethos. Like Bush before her, Palin to me seems utterly disinterested in government. In interest and principle, the American Right has moved from being interested in human government (which is why anyone cares about politics in the first place), to being interested almost entirely on the mere process of choosing government. This is absurd to say the least, but such seems the only explanation for their behavior. One of the most common criticism’s I had of the Bush Administration (and vindications I feel it having been shown a failure) was that of the folly of electing to office men and women utterly dismissive of and disinterested in government. When the detail got complex, or their seemed the lack of a clear value or principle to upheld their interest wandered elsewhere. And where government ran badly, even under their own watch, it was not a call to roll up the sleeves and get to work, but simply evidence that they were right in their dismissal of government as a whole. The worse it ran, the righter they were. So why bother fixing the problems?

You don’t hire a electrician who dislikes machinery, a librarian who only watches TV, or a journalist who isn’t at all curious about the world. Yet somehow a general view that government should be small, combined with a growing sense that they were a culturally and religiously embattled minority has turned the American Right utterly hostile of government as a concept and practice. And yet they love elections. Far from pulling out of politics altogether like many paranoid minority groups before them, this one has instead embraced the process of choosing government wholeheartedly, all the whilst completely losing interest in the actual process and business of government and its day to day operations. This can only be described as a fundamental flaw in the nature of the American Right today. Until they regain an interest in actual governing, rather than just arguing about values in the hothouse of the electoral process, then none of their anointed son’s and daughters should be considered for executive office (though even in the legislature such disinterest carries great costs too). There are many fine conservative Americans out there who believe in a small, efficient, well run government and should be given the chance to demonstrate their case both in elections and in office. But right now they are all but ignored by the booming voice of the far american right who don’t hate government but worship elections. Until that imbalance is reverse they will keep putting up people like Bush and Palin who are simply incapable of the job’s to which they aspire. Palin’s actions have mystified most of the political watchers who assume that government is the reward for winning elections. In Palin’s world, the reward from winning elections is to beat your opponents and drown out their values with your own. Being in government is simply the burden you have to bear for the next few years until the fun can come again in election season. No wonder she want’s to get out early, and spend the next few years giving speeches and pretending she is the next Ronald Reagan and president-in-waiting.

If they are down, who is up?

As everyone knows US republicans are in serious trouble electorally. Richard Posner attributes this to an intellectual decline amongst US conservatives. Evidence that they arn’t lead by the brightest of sparks is pretty clear. Yet more than individuals this is a question of intellectual clout, energy and influence within the sphere of ideas. The great new-right revolution marrying religious social conservatism and economic liberalisation is clearly over. Following on from this Andrew Norton engages in the interesting question if this decline is found in Australia too.

While Australian conservatism hasn’t failed on its own terms, on the other hand it is not obvious how Australian conservatives will be seen as having solutions to widely-accepted problems in the medium term. Possibly there will be scope for reworking family and social cohesion themes, but just how this will be done I don’t know. Perhaps the most interesting conservative issue at the moment is the charter/bill of rights, because of the significant challenge to our democratic system. But this is largely a negative agenda, and it is not clear whether conservative arguments will resonate with the broader public.

The Australian right is in a down period, with the natural shift in the political cycle. But to me it does not look like a broader crisis, as it does in the US.

I think Norton is broadly right, however I wonder if not this is a problem actually found across the entire spectrum. Progressives in the US have a lot of work to do to help their country catch up to the rest of the first world (such as universal healthcare), but these are not in any way ‘new’ goals. Only on Climate Change, and perhaps gay marriage is there a building ascendancy that new approaches are needed along lines suggested by progressives.
Take the issue of economics. Whilst the New-Right movement has clearly run out of steam and is now trying to defend the status quo, does anyone think the New-Left is offering a real alternative vision ? Rudd may have talked a lot about social democrats needing to ‘save capitalism from itself’, but each area of policy is approached piecemeal and in a pragmatic fashion. There is no clear intellectual ascendancy occurring on the left on economics, just a sudden vacuum prompted by time (It’s 30 years since Thatcher won power), arrogance (WorkChoices/US Deficit) and a psychological bodyblow (the GFC).

The 2007 election was notable for the lack of policy energy either party had. Workchoices was already law and a piece Howard had wanted to implement for two decades, meanwhile Rudd’s ‘education revolution’ proved illusory and largely a question of funding. 2007 was an election about individuals, pragmatism and renewal, rather than broad debates about the future direction of the country (1949) or reflections of an already existing social change (1972). While Labor is now enjoying the fruits of victory, and has made some welcome changes, it is hardly building an image as a progressive government, nor seriously trying to change the public mindset on key issues (outside an electorally motivated attack on free market fundamentalists lead by the largely free market supporting Rudd).

The Liberals are bouncing between moderate and more conservative ideals (indeed this struggle has become the hallmark of the Turnbull leadership unfortunately), but it is issue based and quite well contained within the same field of debate the Howard Government had (with moderates just a bit more vocal, and conservatives more angry). When was the last time Turnbull promoted a new idea? He had plenty in government(ie the pink bats rebate in Rudd’s stimulus package was originally Malcolm’s idea), but has been contained now that he is the leader.

In short there simply isn’t an ideological ascendency on either side of politics at the moment. Neither the Left nor the Right are bubbling away with new ideas. There is some activity amongst environmentalists, but it’s a minor area, and yet to be translated into a unifying political creed in the way the pro-markets economic research came to be associated with ‘freedom’. Neither side is doing a particularly good job of promoting bright new thinkers or intruding into the public sphere with new ideas and debates. I’m trying to do my own bit to think out a new approach for the left, but these are just introductory thoughts of someone more focused on foreign policy than domestic or economic issues (though this blogs posts may seem to indicate otherwise). Then again, I think we only realise these trends once they are already solidly in place and with leaders like Whitlam or Reagan to articulate them for us. Trying to find trends across a range of social science literature is a very tough ask, and the proliferation of avenues for new voices outside the mainstream (and hence easy notice) has made the task that much harder.

Neither the left or right in Australia are in intellectual decline right now, but it’s hard to say either is in ascendancy either.

Picture by Flickr user Mo Morgan used under a creative commons licence

Fukuyama was right

Normally I post a link to someone being serious/foolish and then spend several pages saying why they’re wrong and there’s better ways of looking at the world. This time however, someone being funny, in order to buffer a larger and under-represented point I’ve been wanting the make:

Capitalism is often seen by the public purely as it’s visible (or at least countable) outcomes. Money, Interest, Stocks are what come to mind when you ask people. Yet, much much more than that, Capitalism is a system of trade, lending, and interaction based upon the assessed value of capital assets possessed by the parties. Where barter trade systems consider just the equivalence of one good for another, capitalism adds in considerations of the assets already (or in future owned) and allows those to become part of the exchange (ie a bank lending to you based on the value of your house, or companies selling stocks which offer part of their future profits to those who purchase now).

That is, it is a system that is highly dependent on TRUST between the various participants within the market. It is a significant historical fact that Francis Fukuyama, fresh from his controversial classic ‘the End of History’ charting the ideological victory of democratic capitalism as a way of organizing human societies, would write his second book on the question of ‘Trust’. Fukuyama would argue and through numerous case study seek to demonstrate that ‘in all successful economic societies these communities are united by trust’ (1995:9).

While we are far from the end of the economic recession, we have the US president saying he is beginning to see ‘green shoots’ and much closer to home, even positive retail growth and reductions in unemployment. Whilst these numbers are sure to dip again, and some of the shoots to be bitten by the winter chill, it is likely that at the very least the Western world can now be said to have avoided a 1930’s style depression. This recession will be severe, and take a long time to get out of (not to mention the debt to pay back), but the system has held. And despite Adams pessimism that is because fundamentally people have retained their trust in the system. In the banks to hold their money, in the stock market to chart the worth of companies, and in our political leaders to respond to the challenges and do what they can to marshal resources towards solving the crisis.
Whilst Obama’s economic moves have taken hits from the Left (most notably Paul Krugman and those supporting bank nationalisation) and from the Right (sensible conservative concerns about debt through to the nutty tea baggers), he has largely been seen to chart a pragmatic and responsive policy approach to the current economic challenges. Whilst the media have again tried to use the left-right frame to accuse Obama of becoming a socialist or alternately being captured by the big end of town, the public have responded positively to his efforts. American conceptions of if the country is on the Right Track/Wrong Track have gone up a remarkable 31% since October 2008 when Obama’s victory began to look apparent. In the last 2 months it has gone up 8% and finally moved to positive territory with a 48/44 split. Even better and clearer in its indication is news that 64% of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of the Presidency. Obama and his team may have stumbled at times, and people are still nervous about how the bank stress tests will play out, but for now there is confidence returning.

Closer to home in Australia, and the Prime Minister also enjoys significant public support. While there was a statistically significant drop since April, Labor is in comfortable election winning territory, and the PM is like his American counterpart enjoying 64% satisfaction support. Indeed this comes even as voters express significant disagreement* with the way in which the government has stimulated the economy. Rudd’s job was a little easier given his inheritance of the strong economic management of the Howard government, yet such is the trust that the government is doing what it thinks is right, the public can disagree and still show almost record support for the prime minister.

It goes back to an argument that social democrats have been making since the Industrial Revolution. Whilst their measures distort the market, affect prices and cost individuals, the resulting benefits whether delivered in welfare, working conditions or universal access to services help guarantee public support for the continuation of the capitalist system as the engine of prosperity in the community. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt would repeatedly claim, his New Deal made him the best friend capitalism ever had. He saved it from itself, a mantle Kevin Rudd would claim for himself in his 2009 essay on the Global Financial Crisis. This has often been unfairly compared to a ‘destroying the village in order to save it’ mentality, but whilst there is no guarantee that moving significantly further in the opposite direction is even better at social cohesion and stability (or is worth the cost and distortion of the market), social-democratic policies can be claimed as a useful ballast, maintaining the stability of society.

This indeed is one of the interesting contradictions of politics, in that the reinvigorated capitalist revolution of the 1980’s and 90’s, was largely championed by social conservatives who saw their policies unleash significant social change and damage to the ‘social fabric’ of Burke’s immortal metaphor.

Thankfully Adams social commentary is just a little bit too pessimistic this time. Even though great problems remain, Capitalism retains the trust of the public, and for that our national leaders deserve our support. Now to tell our kids they have to begin helping pay for those same measures …

* I put this down more to voter ignorance, both of economics and the governments approach. Of the $42 billion 2nd stimulus package only 4 billion was cash handouts, with the rest on infrastructure. Yet the media framing has largely been such that the payments are the focus.

Obama on the size of Government

Obama’s rhetorical skill is often commented on in terms of its prose and poetry. In that he is indeed a rare breed of politician, but it’s also not that useful a skill. Any politician of merit has speech writers who can add such gloss to their words, and whilst Obama certainly established a bond with the voters at his rally through his eloquent language, the difficult and much more politically important part was to get them there in the first place. His prose is nice, but only as a topping. What is then often missed is how Obama is very good at noting the opposing arguments, faithfully describing them (unlike a lot of politicians especially his predecessor Bush) and re-butting them. Take this discussion from his recent Press Conference on government involvement in the auto industry:

Question: Thank you, sir. You are currently the chief shareholder of a couple of very large mortgage giants. You’re about to become the chief shareholder of a car company, probably two.

And I’m wondering, what kind of shareholder are you going to be? What is the government’s role as the keeper of public — public trust and bonds in — in soon-to-be public companies again? Thank you.

Obama: Well, I think our — our first role should be shareholders that are looking to get out. You know, I don’t want to run auto companies. I don’t want to run banks. I’ve got two wars I’ve got to run already. I’ve got more than enough to do. So the sooner we can get out of that business, the better off we’re going to be.
We are in unique circumstances. You had the potential collapse of the financial system, which would have decimated our economy, and so we had to step in.
So I just want to help them get there. But I want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy, you know, meddling in the private sector, if — if you could tell me right now that, when I walked into this office that the banks were humming, that autos were selling, and that all you had to worry about was Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea, getting health care passed, figuring out how to deal with energy independence, deal with Iran, and a pandemic flu, I would take that deal.
And — and that’s why I’m always amused when I hear these, you know, criticisms of, “Oh, you know, Obama wants to grow government.” No. I would love a nice, lean portfolio to deal with, but that’s not the hand that’s been dealt us.

Obama is making the obvious point that he has a chocked full agenda, but he’s also making an important point which politicians and pundits on the left almost never do, and note that there is nothing inherently good about increasing the size of government from a liberal perspective. Making government larger is not a good in and of itself for the Left. Instead there is the recognition that government can be a force for good, and is sometimes the only way to deal with certain issues, and as such ought to be involved. These are issue specific however and towards clear principled goals such as guaranteeing universal healthcare and education standards, providing defence of the country, etc. The left, and those of us with a Liberal view in particular would love a government which had very low tax levels and largely didn’t bother people. But so long as there are specific problems such as people not being able to get basic healthcare because of their low income (or simply surviving if they don’t have a job), then government is needed to address the problem. If that could be done with small government and low taxes, great, but no way has been found, hence the support for government intervention. Government involvement is simply a means, not an end for the left.

Whilst I can understand the need to defend the role of government from the traditional right wing attacks on it, particularly after the emergence of the New Right, lead by figures such as Ronald Reagan (“The nine most dangerous words in the english language are ‘I’m from the Government and I’m here to help'”; Government does not solve problems; it subsidizes them; Government always finds a need for whatever money it gets. etc), the left takes a daily beating from the right & dissuades others from joining its ranks because it is held that expanding government is a principle or goal of the left. It isn’t, and however much you go through the literature by modern or classic left wing thinkers within the western democratic-capitalist tradition, you will never find any advocating the growth of government as a good in and of itself. Instead, what you will find are specific issue related arguments for using government where no other option is viable or able to fulfill the principles and priorities of the society.

Obama would have watched and seen the tea-bag rallies, and here, in the context of joking about how much else he has to do, he is also sending out a little message to those who attended the rallies: ‘hey, I agree with you. But circumstances have forced our hand’. Obama knows that if the economic debate is about Big Government vs Small Government, he & the left will get beaten. But if the debate is about specific policy measures to respond to the debate, then he will win and win big (indeed the polls indicate people are rewarding his administration for being seen to act & punishing Republicans for not having clear policy responses).

The public largely doesn’t care about size, but there is a natural and usually wise concern about government ever getting too big, too large. Liberals and the Left have spent the better part of the twentieth century defending their policies against Conservatives who have sought to use this public suspicions to further their own policy agenda. Whilst this dynamic won’t significantly change, the left could benefit from occasionally noting as Obama did on Wednesday that they too share the publics concern about the size of government, and have no generalised desire to grow government as a policy end. Not only would this help shift the debate to specifics, and take some of the wind out of those who are concerned about such principles, and help convince more liberals that they can support and even get involved with left wing political parties.

Obama won unending praise for his lofty rhetoric, but he won independent and conservative voters support because he was able to recognise their concerns, identify areas of common agreement (in this case that neither want government running the auto companies), and then suggest why his policy response were the best response for the problem. He is in many ways a typical, orthodox Liberal, but because of this rhetorical effort, he makes liberalism seem like pragmatism, whilst sidestepping some of the baggage that has hampered the efforts of his fellow left wing politicians. That is his real linguistic ability, and one far too rarely noticed by the press.

Liberals and Markets

I’ve blogged before on my disagreements with Classical Liberal/Libertarian types. Whilst we seem to have read the same great texts, and decided such ideals and principles were for us, most modern ideologues who claim the labels Classical Liberal or Libertarian seem to have but one solution to every single policy option: Create another Market. Yet much as markets are rightly praised as a necessary basis for a free people, I don’t see why what is essentially a means, should have become the default ends for every single policy debate. Take a recent debate on Andrew Norton’s site as he works through the implications of his political survey:

Commenter Robert suggests, regarding my post suggesting Milton Friedman influenced views in favour of competitive curricula on government not delivering school education, that

It could just be that better read classical liberals tend to favour freedom in education (and perhaps freedom in other areas) and it’s not Friedman specific. Is it worth testing whether the effect from Friedman is greater than having read other liberal thinkers?

I’m sorry to report it, as I like and admire Friedman rather than just admire Hayek, but a test comparing Friedman readers and Hayek readers (Hayek being the second most popular classical liberal writer among classical liberals, after Friedman) suggests that Robert is right. Hayek readers are slightly more likely to give the ‘correct’ classical liberal responses to questions on school curriculum setting and funding.

Note the terminology shared between Norton and his commentator. Private education and having states compete in delivering curriculum is a position that “favour’s freedom” and is the “correct” response. (To get the full context you might need to read these two blog posts 1, 2)

Yet whilst robert, andrew and myself all hold individual freedom as the primary goal, I don’t see how that is best achieved through encouraging a market in education. To wit:

1.The options for parental choice are limited: People are limited geographically and to a certain extent socio-economically. And whilst ideally parents may move to good schooling area’s when their children begin school, the ability and likelyhood of moving again to facilitate a better educaiton is almost non-existent. Parents simply make do out of limited choices. Markets can work with only a few choices available, but the selection between then at relatively low cost is critical, and in education non-existent (a factor no government intervention can really overcome – at least not in a private system, more on this later)
2. For children, there simply is no choice. Not only do their parents dictate their education, upon turning 18, people cant and simply wont go and repeat parts of their education should they decide that other vendors are better equipped, cheaper, whatever. They will instead go into another industry, such as choosing between tertiary education providers, or simply leave behind the education market altogether.
3. Together these two points dramatically work to limit the cost or benefits to schools for adapting to the market in issues such as ‘best practice curriculum’. Schools have significantly lower need to be efficient or cutting edge than any business in a real market.
4. Norton presents this debate in the context of choosing between having a nationally delivered curriculum, a state delivered curriculum and ‘competitive curriculum’. Here, the ‘freedom’ of having schools compete in what curriculum is seen as the highest principle and therefore the ‘correct’ approach. Yet the group who benefits from this freedom is a very limited selection of the general public. That is, school teachers and administrators who can implement a variety of curriculum’s that they feel best benefit the students (or suit their own skills/interests) and a limited selection of students who do indeed receive the ‘best practice’ available at the time. As with points 1-3, the actual flow of information and therefore new curriculum will be limited, not to mention the difficulty and cost of implementing new curriculum’s each year; hence even students whose parents have sent them to the ‘best’ school may still miss out on the highest standards due to implementation issues/unlucky timing.

What this presents is an idea of a market which ticks some of the basic liberal box’s (markets, freedom) the market would be inefficient and the freedom limited and largely superficial. Meanwhile the social effect (again a Liberal concern) would be that some students within the system would largely miss out on even an acceptable level of education due to either flawed curriculum (ie an experiment gone wrong), or more likely stay stuck with a consistent, but lagging curriculum chosen by only a handful of local professionals years before and kept in place by tradition and the static effect of the costs of transition.

All this becomes even more apparent when you look back and read the classical liberal thinkers, and not the modern economists who have championed their ideals. Education has always been at the heart of the Liberal ideal because it is perhaps the primary means in which individuals can better themselves and in which they can be prepared whilst children to become independent, responsible, self-fulfilling members of society. Freedom within the liberal context is based upon the individual being aware of their choices, of having knowledge of the flow of information in order to make educated choices between competing options. None of this is available to the illiterate or the educationally deprived. As such, this Liberal would argue that the greatest freedom is delivered not in schools choosing between curriculum, but in individuals being the best possibly prepared to engage the modern world as adults. That is, the short term cost to schools in losing that competition (and to some extent to parents), is offset by having the end product individuals significantly better prepared to independently engage society and exercise their individual freedom in a range of industries.
Given this, the argument for a national curriculum to ensure individuals are well prepared, with such a service delivered by both public or private schools (who have the option to add additional subjects such as religious education), seems a pragmatic but ultimately more profitable approach.

Yet none of this seems to even register in the debate that occurs within ‘Classical Liberal’ and Libertarian circles. That the market is the primary way in which Liberal principles are to be achieved is held without question to be the ‘correct’ answer. Dissenting views from this ideal are almost not engaged with. Now there are several reasons that could be attributed to this. First is the traditional benefits of markets in other areas to provide liberal ideals, along with the general ‘siege’ mentality that seems to lead some liberal/libertarian thinkers to think they are still facing great statist forces as occurred in the 20’s, 50’s and 80’s, and not within a very market orientated culture. Likewise is the effect of the economist’s who became the primary public advocates for liberal/libertarian ideals during the late 20th century (Hayek, Friedman etc).

But either way, it makes for a strange experience to engage people who share very similar principles and ideals, and yet be able to predict without reference to circumstance the policy prescription they favor. Its not that I disagree with them in all cases, and Norton deserves credit for being an intelligent voice advocating an alternate solution within the Australian education context. It’s just that it’s ‘correctness’ and correlation with liberal principles like ‘freedom’ is simply expected due to the means advocated, rather than a more hard headed analysis of the actual ends to which such a system would deliver. Like the statists within social democrat ranks, marketeers within the classical liberal/libertarian ranks have managed to convince their fellow ideologue that the means are actually the ends. Odd.

Ideology and theories of Human Nature

There’s a good piece over at TNR discussing Obama’s move to embrace whats termed ‘Behavioral Economics’, rather than the more traditional models as a way to seek out his agenda. And whilst a good read of a growing field, this paragraph really stood out:

Barack Obama has the type of mind–orderly, analytical, well-read–that takes naturally to the study of ideas. But he’s always been uncomfortable describing himself in ideological terms. Is he a liberal? During the campaign, Obama would mock those who applied the label to him: “There’s nothing liberal about wanting to reduce money in politics,” he’d say. “There’s nothing liberal about wanting to make sure [our soldiers] are treated properly when they come home.”…

Rather than force markets to conform to his wishes, he shapes their calculus so they conclude (on their own) that their interests coincide with his wishes… In the mid-’70s, Charles Schultze, Jimmy Carter’s top White House economic adviser, sketched out a version of the conceit in a book called The Public Use of Private Interest. Schultze favored “harnessing the ‘base’ motive of material self-interest to promote the common good”–say, by taxing rather than outlawing harmful activities. A generation later, the behavioral theorists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, both informal advisers to the Obama campaign, hatched a descendant of this approach. In their own book, Thaler and Sunstein suggested that the government inculcate desirable habits like saving and philanthropy through a series of gentle “nudges.”

(Sunstein is now head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Obama)

But whats striking in this, is that this idea of harnessing the self-interest of the individual towards the common weal is precisely what makes a Liberal. Along with beliefs in freedom and the sanctity and primacy of the individual, Liberalism is distinct as a political theory for its inclusion of Self-Interest as the basic nature of humanity, and a force to be utilised for what public benefit that could be found, rather than turned inward or repressed. Unlike Conservatives and Social Democrats who see ills and flaws in human nature that need to be educated out and controlled by prohibition, Liberals seek to leave human nature, but seek outlets for it to flow in positive directions. This is why liberalism has always been the political ideology primarily tied to the market. Markets work to filter our private self-interest and desire for domination, into a form of profitable exchange that is peaceful, and prosperous. The more self-interested we are, almost the better in our engagement with the market (such as drive for competition that seeks out new markets, reduces prices, invents new products or services and drives out inefficiencies or failing businesses).

For me, it is this acceptance of human nature as neither good nor evil, but as a essentially constant that ought to be funneled for public and private good, that makes it at once the most pragmatic and sensible of political theories and worthy of being called by such a name. It does not seek to harness humanity towards some great goal, but merely identify common tools for interaction, instituted and maintained through good governance that enable the great and glorious seething mass of humanity, with all its contradictions, foibles, and beauty to make good on its promises to protect the poor, give freedom and dignity to the individual, and protect the society at large from the inevitable barbarians at the gates.

Obama doesn’t seem to like the word, his training is after all law not politics or philosophy, but in his endorsement of such schools of thought he is, however unconsciously more true to the ideal of a liberal than perhaps any number of his left wing colleagues who gather under such a banner. Human nature can’t always be shaped for positive purposes, but we have many benefits to be gained, many social ills spared, and many laws and restrictions that could be removed if we were to once more and forthrightly make such a principle at the heart of our understanding of how to govern humanity: Like a great carpenter, by going with the grain of humanity, not roughly against its form, no matter how great our final visions may be.

The revolution will be blogged

In a distant time and place, I began a PhD looking at how the internet and related technology was affecting our conceptions of politics and the public sphere. Eventually given the morass and confusion inherent in such a debate at present times (and the chasm between boosters & degrader’s) I eventually, and reluctantly gave up on the project. There is much there to write in the future, but for the time being, simply taking note of how the internet and related technology is shaping politics (particularly in non-democratic societies) is a passing interest of mine. So here’s a few links if the issue likewise sparks your fancy (and as an excuse for my light blogging today as I work towards the deadline for handing in chapters)

Moldova’s Twitter Revolution

The protests began after a conversation between Ms Morar and six friends in a cafe in Chisinau, Moldova’s tiny capital, on Monday, April 6, the day after the parliamentary elections. The elections brought a larger-than-expected victory for the incumbent Communist Party.

Suspecting vote-rigging, “we decided to organise a flash mob for the same day using Twitter, as well as networking sites and SMS,” she said, speaking at a secret location. With no recent history of mass protests in Moldova, “we expected at the most a couple of hundred friends, friends of friends, and colleagues”, she said. “When we went to the square, there were 20,000 people waiting there. It was unbelievable.”

The demonstrations continued into Tuesday peacefully. But later that day, with no response from the Government, angry protesters swept police aside to storm the parliament building and the presidential palace opposite. Fire broke out in one wing of the parliament, and the protesters vented their fury by wrecking computers and office furniture.

“Not only did we underestimate the power of Twitter and the internet, we also underestimated the explosive anger among young people at the Government’s policies and electoral fraud,” Ms Morar said.

And closer to home:

Blogs continue criticism in Fiji

Fijian bloggers have mounted an online tirade against the military regime as the government pushes on with harsh media censorship and wide-ranging reforms.

Frank Bainimarama’s government has silenced Australia and New Zealand’s radio transmitters in Fiji, thrown out international media and imposed tough reporting constraints on domestic media, leaving an information vacuum in the beleaguered state.

In the latest reports, international freelance journalist Pita Ligaiula has been detained and two Fiji Times newspaper journalists were summoned by government officials to explain “negative” coverage.

The censorship has pushed voices of dissent underground, onto several active blog websites that deride Bainimarama as an illegal leader.

What mainstream media there is, has been forced into printing non-news like ‘Man gets on Bus’, rather than just blank holes in protest of the governments censorship.

Whilst there are many out there in the developed west cheering on the downfall of the MSM (mainstream media) and urging bloggers onwards, it is in the developing and third world that the most interesting and democratic use of technology is to be found. The big daddy of them all currently is the site Global Voices online which gives a great overview of develops around the world. If you prefer a more personal voice in blogging (as I must admit I do) then take a ganger at
Ethan Zuckerman’s site ‘My hearts in Accra’. Zuckerman has spent a number of years in africa and the third world assisting the spread of the technology and integrating its use in these communities, and regularly updates with fascinating links. Whilst not always directly on topic, another must link is to Andy Carvin who whilst not blogging much anymore, has been going since 1994! and one of the best sourced writers.

More academically speaking, I would be remiss not to link to Clay Shirky whose book ‘Here Comes Everybody’ is a must read for scope and insight on the coming impact of technology on society. Whilst more socially than politically concerned Shirky has emerged as one of the sharpest new voices on the impact of the new technology, without coming across as merely a dot com booster as so many other young writers on the subject inevitably end up. (In fact part of the reason I abandoned the field was the depressing number of utopian pieces that from even the 1980’s predict the coming democratization and liberalization of society due to this technology. Even 30 years later, with blogs and twitters and the like proliferating it still isn’t anywhere like such a scope, and one must imagine, given human nature, never will be.)

But Shirky also (via Carvin) relates one of my favourite episodes above, one immediately brought to mind by the Moldovian case at the start of this post: Nothing Says Totalitarianism like arresting kids for eating Icecream

By Andy Carvin: In many countries, flash mobs are often seen as communal practical jokes or even performance art, with hordes of participants suddenly showing up in a public place, doing something irreverent, then vanishing without a trace.

In Belarus, young people are employing flash mobs to push the boundaries of what the government will tolerate in terms of free assembly. Last Friday[May 2006], flash mobbers descended upon a public square in the capital Minsk to gather together and eat ice cream. No rally, no speeches, no sit-in nor march – just standing around and eating ice cream:

If this were almost any other country in the world, standing around eating ice cream wouldn’t even cause the local authorities to bat an eyelash. In Belarus, though, it was treated as an organized public assembly, so plainclothes government agents broke up the event, arresting some of the young participants:

In the west flash mobs are a fun joke. In other parts of the world it can be taken as a serious challenge to the authority and control of the government.

Politics still operates essentially as it has for the last 300 years in the west. Parliament, the Executive and the Courts set the laws and the people form as various mobs pushing and pulling society in an ever expanding bubble past modernity and across the entire globe. The new technology has not changed, nor will it likely change such a pattern. No robot presidents will emerge. But it is at the very least a powerful tool for the dispossessed, the minority and the forbidden to advocate their cause. Like hitting jelly with a hammer, those using the new technology will often find a way around, though as in the first case I linked to, it doesn’t guarantee the safety of any just yet. But we can hope.

First do no harm

This is a welcome rebuff to the recent spouting’s of pure ignorance by the Pope, and echoed by Australia’s own Bishop Pell

The East-West Centre in Hawaii has estimated that if condom use had not been widely promoted and adopted, today 8 million Thais would be infected rather than the 550,000 now living with the virus. That’s more than 7 million lives saved. And have these condoms encouraged promiscuity? Five years into the campaign, in 1997, only 12 per cent of Thai military conscripts reported visiting a sex worker, down from 60 per cent five years earlier.

Similar success stories can be found in Cambodia, India, and Brazil where rates of HIV infection have steadily declined as a result of education about HIV, safer sex and the provision of condoms. In the West African nation of Senegal, the government began promoting condoms in the late 1980s and this has helped to keep HIV prevalence below 1 per cent to this day.

The rest of the story is filled with many more stats & examples.

I’m normally not one who buys the line that there’s a divide between religion and science. I think it’s too artificial, too simplistic and cuts out too many interesting discussions. Questions such as abortion can not be properly answered without both science and religion (or a deliberately secular ethics system in place of).
But given the influence that men such as Pope Benedict XVI and Bishop George Pell have, they ought to be vigorously engaged when they make claims that are simply false, and likely to encourage dangerous behavior.

Personally I don’t really understand the church’s objection to contraceptives. They arn’t mentioned in the holy texts (for obvious reasons), the knowledge & use of doesn’t change teenage promiscuity rates (if anything it makes it riskier), and most critically, contraceptives prevent the creation of a human life, which all major faiths hold starts at conception, and not possibly before hand. (Not to mention that 13% of female deaths during pregnancy are caused by abortions(67’000 women & 20 million abortions), with the legality and religion of the country having little effect)

In Uganda, where abortion is illegal and sex education programs focus only on abstinence, the estimated abortion rate was 54 per 1,000 women in 2003, more than twice the rate in the United States, 21 per 1,000 in that year. The lowest rate, 12 per 1,000, was in Western Europe, with legal abortion and widely available contraception.

So already living human beings will be safer, healthier, no morally worse, and alive, and far far less unborn humans will be brought into existence only to be later destroyed. If in any way your moral system has to do with the actual lives and well being of people as they are here and now then contraceptives are a no-brainer.
Anything less is not a moral system, but mere political doctrine for human behavior, dressed up as being ethically motivated.

It’s for reasons like this that I suggested a little while ago, that as a basis for a new left wing political philosophy, it had to begin with an acceptance of human nature as a constant. I deliberately didn’t link this to a utilitarian moral system, but anyone familiar with the philosophy would have seen it’s imprint on my words.

So let us talk religion and science, let us educate & inform children about religion and it’s possibilities and wonders, lets encourage those of faith to participate in the public debate and discussion, and let us then remind them of the responsibility they have to be honest and place a care for human well being ahead of their own prejudice and impulses. A hippocratic oath for religious leaders: First do no harm.

So good to see the papers running such a story, but it really should have appeared several days before. It’s no exaggeration to say lives depend upon it…

Taking Your Beatings

Being in opposition is never a fun time. One of my first clear political memories was of Paul Keatings concession speech in 1996, and were it not for the outrages I felt at the Howard Governments actions, I may never have found my way into politics or academia. But, whilst the impulse is to get back into power as quickly as possible, there is much to be said for the benefit of accepting your loss, and keeping your desires restrained whilst in this doldrum period. Take Thailand where the overthrow of one government is predictably leading to a similar challenge against the new one:

Protesters have been defying a state of emergency announced by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Sunday, one day after violent supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra forced the cancellation of a 16-nation Asian summit meeting.

Shortly after the emergency announcement, protesters attacked Mr. Abhisit’s motorcade as he left the Interior Ministry, injuring several people in the cars, but the Prime Minister reportedly escaped through a back door of the building.

Speaking to protesters by telephone link, Mr. Thaksin, who was ousted in a coup in 2006, called for a revolution and said he was prepared to return to join them.

It’s this kind of back and forth that makes me uncomfortable seeing scenes such as the tea-bag protests in the USA. If you havn’t been following the story, following Obama’s election win, passage of a stimulus package, a tax cut for 95% of people, and a return of taxes for high income earners to 1990’s Clinton levels of 39%.

So this April 15th, at events across the nation (Google Map here) people will be emulating the Bostonians who in 1773 rejected taxation without representation. What is the new mob’s concern this time? Well it’s rather hard to tell:

In late February, I attended a tea party in Lansing, Michigan, and will be there again next Wednesday. While there, I spoke with several people, and, while everybody attended for the same “big picture” reason, many had their own reason to be there.
For some it was wildly excessive and confusing tax laws. Others were there out of concern for their children and grandchildren. Some were there because they’re maddened that the same glorious policies that have made Detroit look like Bangladesh after a garbage haulers strike are being introduced on a national level, a few were upset because the same people who created these massive problems are charged with fixing them, others don’t want their country sold out to some global entity, and one man I saw had a sign that said “‘Government job’ is a contradiction in terms.” Many were there for the reason of “all of the above.”

Obama’s sins are not great or even significant, and the justifications claimed for the event are wide and varied. So what is really leading these protests ? Largely it seems a general anti-democratic discontent with the idea that Republicans and the right wing is now out of power. This of course can’t be admitted publicly, but it is pretty clear that the real object of hate here is not the taxes of Obama, but the votes in 2008 of their compatriots that put him in the White House.

Even more dangerously than just some fringe rants, is the clear evidence that Fox News, the largest Cable news channel in the USA has decided to support this anti-democratic movement

Fox anchors Sean Hannity and Neil Cavuto boarded the bandwagon first by signing on with tax day tea parties in Atlanta and Sacramento. Now Glenn Beck will be broadcasting from the Alamo in Texas and Greta Van Susteren will party in Washington, D.C., amounting to hours and hours of rotating live coverage of the anti-tax, anti-spending events.

“This year Americans across the country are holding tea parties to let politicians know that we’ve had enough,” Beck said yesterday. “Celebrate with Fox News.”

Whilst i’m not alledging violence Thailand style is imminent, an instructive lesson can be drawn from Venezuela. Whilst Chavez is an incompetent, possibly deranged leader, who makes up policy on the fly, and has wasted the equivalent of a few dozen Marshall plans in oil revenue without any substantive improvement in his countrymen’s welfare, he is well served by his opposition. Despite all his follies and flaws, the fact that the opposition media routinely calls for coup’s against him (and assisted a failed attempt in 2002), has essentially helped consolidate Chavez as the sane and moderate one. Instead of an acceptance of their position and re-orientation towards addressing the primary concerns of the Venezuelan people (poverty, regional relations & developing industries beyond oil) the opposition have confirmed their status as boosters and sycophants for the ultra elites. There’s many other issues of course, but it’s an instructive case study.

For these reasons, it was therefore pleasing to this unaligned political observer to note that Malcolm Turnbull has stepped back from his shadow treasurer’s reckless threat to block supply after the may budget.

Mr Turnbull said the opposition would reserve the right to oppose measures in the May budget it considered misconceived or poor policy.

“That’s been done in the past on many occasions by every opposition over many years,” Mr Turnbull told reporters in Terrigal, on the NSW central coast.

Any suggestion the coalition would block supply or block the budget was completely wrong.

“We will not block any of the appropriation legislation, so we won’t block supply bills.”

Such a move brings to mind Fraser & Kerr’s 1975 coup against Whitlam. And whilst the historically illiterate on the right are comparing Rudd to Whitlam (A true apples and oranges comparison), it was Fraser as much as anyone who suffered for the illegitimate means by which he obtained power. As Peter Costello writes in his memoirs:

‘An elected government is, or should be, entitled to expect that its money bills will pass… If Malcolm Fraser had not deferred Supply but let parliament run, he still would have been elected, probably in an even greater landslide. What is more, he would not have had to face the argument – which he always had to face – that somehow he had got into office through illegitimate tactics. I believe Fraser felt de-legitimised by this tactic and this is one of the reasons he was cautious in office and later began to court progressive opinion’. – Peter Costello The Costello Memoirs, 2008 page 24

In short, opposition is about as bad a time as you can have in politics. Your job is always on the line, your colleagues will end up doing more harm to you than your opponents as they either seek your job or want to put an acolyte into your seat. The media ridicules you and the public ignores you. After a decade, perhaps an entire career spent knowing power, the desperation to make it all go back to how it was, by means fair or foul must be overpowering. But such strategies almost never work, and de-legitimize you when they do. And, whilst I’m sure all the tea-party goers are loyal Americans, they need only look back to the history of the Roman Republic from Marius to Caesar to know the damage they could wreck on their young republic. One of democracies greatest strength is giving space for ambitious individuals to compete, but that only applies so long as they remain within the system, however great the temptation for ultimate conquest may be. They should like their wounds and rebuild. After all in 2004 everyone was talking about an eternal republican majority, and now look where the democrats are. The rights time will come again, until then such actions look at best foolish and arrogant, at worst anti-democratic and potentially treasonous to the very institutions and traditions of their own society.

Photo by Flickr user swansdepot. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

The courts and the law

Two key legal decisions in the last 24 hours, one here in Australia, the other in Iowa, USA that may have significant ramifications in time. First Australia:

KEVIN Rudd’s $900 stimulus bonus to 8.7 million taxpayers is valid and can go ahead, the High Court ruled this morning.

The ruling follows a legal challenge by academic and barrister Bryan Pape, who argued the payments were a gift, not a tax measure, for which the Government had no constitutional powers.

The payments are scheduled to go ahead from Monday.

Chief Justice Robert French said a majority of the court’s seven judges agreed the Rudd Government’s Tax Bonus for Working Australians Act was supported by one or more constitutional heads of power and that there had been a valid appropriation of the consolidated revenue fund.

Whilst the paying of the stimulus was never really in question (Pape himself has said other means were available), it does helpfully bring before the court the issue of the expanse of Constitutional powers. Though unfortunately for Pape (a committed states right advocate), the decision is likely to further centralise and legitimise power in canberra. Just like the Work Choices case, the High Court has a habit of rolling over on the Federal Governments demands, in a nearly 30 year long string of supporting the expanse of the Federal Government.

Though what this case also significantly highlights is the utter irrelevance of the constitution to the way our government operates. And whilst Australia is one of the best functioning democracies in the world, and governed more as a ‘democracy of manners’ than the law, it is still a dangerous thing. We’ve seen abuses of the constitution over time, and significant modern rights (such as free speech, freedom of association etc) imperiled by our constitutions lack of explicit discussion on such matters.

What this highlights again is the urgent need for a Constitutional convention to bring these issues back into the public domain, to properly discuss contentious though beneficial progressive changes such as adding a bill of rights, whilst also addressing a number of important (but to the general public utterly boring) issues in the federal/state relationship, such as with taxation, health and education. Having our Federal Government rely on loopholes to govern (such as signing treaties to force states to change laws as with Tasmania’s Sodomy laws), or proceeding almost to the point of payment of a critical stimulus package without a clear constitutional mandate, is unsustainable. In itself the decision was expected and will be soon forgotten, but it’s one more that indicates the need for a clear public discussion of the vast gap that exists between the way Australia operates, and the constitution it is claimed to be based upon.

There’s also pleasing news from Iowa, heart of midland America this morning:

The court first held that same-sex couples are similarly situated with opposite-sex married couples even though they cannot have children together because they “are in committed and loving relationships, many raising families” and “official recognition of their status provides an institutional basis for defining their fundamental relational rights and responsibilities.” The court believed society would benefit “from providing same-sex couples a stable framework within which to raise their children and the power to make health care and end-of-life decisions for loved ones, just as it does when that framework is provided for opposite-sex couples.” Since marriage is “designed to bring a sense of order to the legal relationships of committed couples and their families” the court believed the only reason the law could treat same and opposite-sex couples differently is their “sexual orientation.” The court held the statute classifies on this basis even though the statute does not mention orientation because “civil marriage with a person of the opposite sex is as unappealing to a gay or lesbian person as civil marriage with a person of the same sex is to a heterosexual.” The current law, the court said, prevents gay or lesbian people from “simultaneously fulfill[ing] their deeply felt need for a committed personal relationship, as influenced by their sexual orientation, and gain[ing] the civil status and attendant benefits granted” by the marriage law.

Andrew Sullivan, whose writing over the years has personalised this issue for me, where once it might have been just a dry issue of civil liberties celebrates. One day soon, people will look back and wonder how on earth our societies managed to justify such discrimination against Homosexuals, for so long. Though sadly on this, (and despite rhetoric that shows he understands) Obama has been willfully cowardly on this issue. This may not be the right political time to engage such a campaign (he already has a thousand and one more critical issues), but making his position clear would do a lot to help others do the pushing, and continue to build the consensus until such time as he is available to make the changes sorely needed, in recognising the fundamental right of everyone to marry, regardless of sexual orientation.

I prefer to see most decisions to change society reached by consensus of the people in popular elections. But sometimes the courts, freed from the status quo pressures which typically overwhelm most politicians, are needed to kick society along and counter the tyranny of the majority. In themselves neither of these two rulings will change their societies, but they do make clear the increasing need for reform in both countries, so that we may truly live up to our ideal under the rule of law, not the rule of men.

A Human Political Philosophy

Over a week ago, I posted a longish piece, wondering how to rebuild a left wing political philosophy, in light of the fall of socialism, and the adoption and subsequent bastardization of Liberalism (especially economically) by the right. Where was the left to turn to rebuild their political philosophy? I’ve been musing about this for a while, and I think i’ve come to at least a first point of reference. But before I reveal it, I want to quote and compare it to this post by the new wunder-kid of Conservatism Ross Douthat.

it’s my impression – created, in large part, by reading Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure (and if there’s a devastating rebuttal to her arguments, please send it my way) – that an awful lot of the money poured into condom-promotion over the years would have much been better spent promoting “partner reduction” in cultures inclined to promiscuity and de facto polygamy instead. This isn’t the same as promoting abstinence exclusively, and indeed, Epstein is witheringly critical of some of the abstinence-only programs that American dollars have funded in the Bush era. But “partner reduction” is a lot more consonant with the Catholic Church’s longstanding position – that it’s better to promote monogamy and fidelity than to take promiscuity as a given and make it as safe as possible – than you’d think from the overheated talk about how the Vatican’s flat-earth position on condoms has cost millions of lives.

Note the way in which the problem is to be addressed: Through the explicit effort to change human preferences. In this, as in many other issues, especially those related to sex (such as Homosexuality) Conservatives hold a political philosophy in which Humans are imperfect, flawed, and ought to be changed (or controlled at the very least). This is a approach that runs back through the history of western political thought. Thomas Hobbes famous claim that life pre/outside society is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, was used to justify giving the sovereign almost total control over the individual. So long as your security was assured, you could be shaped or changed in any way (Hobbes even re-defined freedom to mere mental desire, so as to help justify and claim labels such as “liberty” for his own totalitarian ideal). Plato’s Republic, perhaps the first piece of political science (at least that has survived) involves the designing of society entirely towards the aim of shaping and changing the next generation of citizens. People were to be classified as men of bronze, men of silver, and men of gold. Where you were born, so you died. But within, the state was to shape and make of you as it wanted and as most suited it’s aims. Change the word men for robot, and Plato’s republic would function identically. (And all this under the aim of seeking a “just” society.)

There is however an outlier within the Conservative Academy. One who is both the most endorsed and yet least understood figure in Conservative political Philosophy: Edmund Burke. Burke shares similar concerns about the imperfect, incapable human nature. Indeed these form the basis for his attack on the French Revolutionaries ideas about reshaping society towards an utopian idea. But instead of demanding his own chains on humanity to keep them from immoral or ignorant behaviour, Burke instead argues we already have a mechanism to deal with such concerns : Tradition. In tradition, and the wisdom of the past ages handed down, systems and institutions have been established which take into account these human excesses and account for them. In the market and (aristocratic) democracy we have the human need to compete (and defeat) given a peaceful, productive outlet. Titans of industry can prove their superiority via words and dollars, not spears or guns. And with a hereditary monarchy to stop anyone from thinking they could become the unrivaled leader, the passions and follies of humanity balance each other out.

Such a view still resonates today, especially within the neo-conservative revolution of the 1980’s & 1990’s. In their reaction to Socialism, they argued that it was entirely beyond the capability of man, any man, to control and sort the levers of the economy. No one could be that smart, that informed, that correct in their decision day after day, in industry after industry. Only the outcome of human desires & knowledge churned through competition in the market could appropriately provide the goods people want, and the price they are willing to pay. It is for this reason, that conservatives (and many others including myself) are understandably concerned about the Obama Administrations decision to involve itself in the way GM & Chrysler are run, including sacking the CEO and pushing for them to build energy efficient cars.

But such a conception is at stark odd’s with social conservative views (as held by the similarly free market, Obama disapproving) of Ross Douthat and his call for “partner reduction” schemes. This is a cognitive dissonance in conservatism that can not hold. And in here, there is an opportunity for the left

So Here is my first suggestion for rebuilding a Left wing political philosophy:

First Principle:That human nature can not be changed, only given outlets.
What this means, is not that we endorse let alone allow every low, defiled or debased act, but instead that when problems arise, it is not what is inside the person that needs fixing, but the system that funnels those needs into unhelpful or harmful ways.

Take the issue of AIDs that Douthat was talking about. Whilst social conservatives may push abstinence or the disquietingly termed “partner reduction”, the left can begin by accepting that yes people like to have sex. And no government, no law, no cop, no punishment in the world will possibly stop such behaviour. Instead we need a system that takes this into account and can in some way deal with the harms that come.

So we need to educate people so they are aware of the risks (such as STD’s, unwanted pregnancy), provide them access to ways to mitigate that risk should they go ahead (the selling of contraceptives from condoms to the pill), and the creation of a social environment where problems can be discussed and raised in open and honest ways. With these three steps, human lust is given a safe outlet. The act is still there, but the harm to individuals who indulge is low. And thus, the cost for the larger society is mitigated.

Or Drug use: All human civilisation has had drug use as an explicit part of their culture, both privately and publicly. Yet today the United States locks up over 253’000 people for drug offences. In fact 20% of their inmate population are there because of issues related to drugs. The aim may have been to remove those who sold, but surely significant percentages of that population are there simply for their own use of illegal substances. And despite the sentences getting harsher, and the prison population rapidly expanding, people still use drugs. People still like drugs. The Conservative policy here is of course to get even tougher, to denounce even louder, to decry and denigrate anything to do with drugs in any way (such as medical marijuana, or harm prevention strategies).
The left wing response however, taking a cue from Burke -where conservatives wont-, is to realise that drug use is a traditional element of human life and society and hence we need to design a system that takes it into account. Just as we abandoned prohibition for Alcohol, so it must be for other drugs (though carefully done, and with appropriate caution in making such a significant change). A system where such drugs are legal would do wonders for society at large. Not only would it promote individual liberty (which is my second Left wing principle and to which I shall return in a later post), but it would instantly end the black market drug trade that funds everyone from the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Cartels in Columbia to the bikie gangs in your local capital city. Likewise the health of citizens would likely improve, -not that drug use is healthy- but because legalising it would ensure some quality protection to stop added substances being added to the product (as is responsible for most of the deaths for those who think they are taking heroin or ecstasy but in reality it’s something else); likewise with the stigma and ‘cool’ of illegal drug use removed, the rate of drug use will drop (Drug usage, including Marijuana is lower in the Netherlands in every category compared to the USA). Meanwhile the government & economy would make billions from the new industry, all finally taxed, instead of slipping into thugs & criminals back pockets.

Whilst he wasn’t speaking only about drugs, US Democratic Senator Jim Webb makes the same point well, as part of his push for Prison Reform:

Let’s start with a premise that I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have five percent of the world’s population; we have 25 percent of the world’s known prison population. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice,”

Each of these area’s ought to be acted on the context, circumstance and details of their own merits. But a clear philosophy can help guide us through the myriad of difficult policy choices. If we start by accepting that Human Nature is an irresistable force, then our attention shifts from trying to chain up or constrain what is harmful or distasteful, and instead giving it safe, even productive outlets. It’s part of the reason the market and democracy work so well, because they give a beneficial outlet to what is usually a harmful human desire: to compete and dominate. Political philosophy has no importance or relevance unless it places the human and the nature of humanity at the base of it’s understanding of the world. In this it is an alien cousin from philosophy with it’s otherworldly systems of logic or religion and it’s spiritual entities beyond the scope of this world.

So my First Principle of a new Left wing Political Philosophy: That human nature can not be changed, only given outlets.

Photo by Flickr user Pierre Stachurska, used under a Creative Commons license.

Mapping the Australian political psyche

Andrew Norton is running a short survey on Australian political philosophies and identity. It shouldn’t take you long(<10 mins), and is better designed than most pol. surveys (though is focused around his own classical liberal attitude). Go help him out if you have the time.

The Economics of Peace

There’s some interesting new research out on an idea which is as old as the idea of free trade economics: More Trade = Less chance of War

In a recent paper (Lee and Pyun 2008), we assess the impact of trade integration on military conflict based on a large panel data set of 290,040 country-pair observations from 1950 to 2000. Results show that an increase in bilateral trade interdependence reduces the probability of inter-state military conflict between the two partners. If bilateral trade volume increases 10% from the world mean value, the probability of military conflict between the two trading partners decreases by about 0.1% from its predicted mean probability, other variables remaining constant. The peace-promotion effect of bilateral trade integration is significantly higher for contiguous countries that are likely to experience more conflicts. For example, an increase of 10% in bilateral trade volume lowers the probability of military conflict between two contiguous states by about 1.9%.

More importantly, our study finds that global trade openness also significantly promotes peace. An increase in global trade openness would reduce the probability of military conflict as it leads to an increase in bilateral trade interdependence. However, when the level of bilateral trade interdependence is held constant, the effect of increased multilateral trade openness on the probability of bilateral conflict is not clear. Countries more open to global trade may have a higher probability of dyadic conflict if multilateral trade openness reduces bilateral dependence on any given country, thus lowering the opportunity-cost of military conflict. In a recent paper, Martin, Mayer, and Thoenig (2008) find that an increase in multilateral trade raises the chance of conflict between states (see their Vox column). In contrast to their findings, however, our study finds that multilateral trade openness in fact lowers the probability of dyadic conflict with the bilateral trade partner, and by a larger magnitude than bilateral trade does alone. An increase in global trade openness by 10% from the world mean value decreases the probability of the dyad’s military conflict by about 2.6% from its predicted mean.

The most interesting point here is that multilateral trade reduces the chance of war far more than bilateral trade. Which seems slightly-counter initiative if we look at this as a pure economic consideration, as going to war with a bilateral only partner risks the entire trade relationship, whilst if they are just one within many in a multilateral deal, their importance to you is significantly reduced.

Yet here Constructivism offers an important insight. Relations between countries are not governed by the market value of the wealth/materials traded, but by the value placed on that trade and relationship by both participants. Take the case of China and Australia. Our export of Iron Ore is worth 2.4 billion, a sizable amount, and critical for China’s development. Yet, whilst worth much less, Australia also exports 300 tonnes of Uranium to China, and has 23% of the worlds supply under our soil. Australia could harm China’s nuclear power supply, and perhaps its nuclear weapon capability one day in the future (we only export for power purposes currently). As such, China has a great interest in increasing its relationship with Australia, and maintaining peaceful conditions with us. (Of course the ANZUS alliance & EU condemnation are the main determinants against China invading Australia). So it is less the dollars or numbers, than the value placed on that trade

But this goes much further when several countries are brought in to interact: Not only is there the material value of the multilateral trade, but countries are careful to be seen by their fellow nations as acting in an appropriate spirit and character. Just as you may observe your friends offering to buy the next round at the pub, or being nice to someones new girlfriend -who no one can stand- countries interact in a social fashion and shape rules or “norms” about those interactions. Gradually those ties can bind countries together, such that the mere realist thought of pure power domination for material advantage is never even considered (Australia could for instance invade New Zealand, but i doubt it has ever seriously come up in a Cabinet discussion in this country, despite the potential advantages and the ease of such a victory).

Thus, even if countries were confident that other nations would continue to trade with them despite going to war with one of the mutilateral trade partners, they would still be dissuaded due to the socialisation that had built up between all of the countries, and brought them to think of themselves as part of a common group, with common ways of interacting. (Of help here is also the fact that most multilateral trade deals are regionally based)

As I’ve said, this is one of the oldest ideas in classical economics and seemingly a common sense one, whether we take an economic or a constructivist view. Yet surprisingly, this was also an idea that met with significant student resistance when I was lecturing a unit on International Relations last year. Whilst the classes were largely young and left wing, there was a fair amount of diversity in their midst, and realist and conservative arguments could be regularly expected to be raised and debated. Yet, in spite of even my own publicly professed support for the idea, it met with strong disagreement, through both tutorials and written assignments.

It was only when I came to look again at who the public faces for this claim were that, I began to see perhaps why such a seemingly common sense idea is rejected out of hand; and just how trashed the free trade brand has become. Whilst the student body hasn’t suddenly gone socialist let alone communist (there literally are no alternatives!), the marketing of these ideas is in an incredibly bad state. The idea’s are strong, the evidence around, but people have become very skeptical that this is anything more than the big end of town favouring its own. Despite the billion plus brought out of poverty by Globalisation (though now at risk thanks to the GFC) and the general prosperity of the last 30 years) the public tend to see such ideas purely within an individual gain/loss prism. They see it as an incentive to increase their income, participate in the stock market, or begin a business, but almost never connect these to the wider social idea. The workchoices reforms suffered a similar issue. Both the advertising for the policy, and the union response against concentrated on what these changes meant for YOU. You’ll have more flexibility/You’ll get less rights or higher/lower pay. Almost no where was there a discussion about the benefits to the economy, the increased employment, flexibility in tougher times. I’m a skeptic of the workchoices reforms, so I don’t think the wholescale benefits overcame the individual negatives, but to see the government accept such a framing amazed me. This is also something that I think many Libertarians simply do not get in their support for such ideas and bewilderment that the wider public look on them so negatively.

The evidence may be there that increased trade reduces poverty and reduces the chance of war. Yet the Baby Boomer generation has abjectly failed to sell the idea, and I dont see the Gen X’ers doing any better (if anything they are more arrogant and less capable). Instead I think it will come through members of Gen-Y who have grown up within the free trade bubble (ie Born after 1982 when such ideas were in the ascendency) and who have experienced the benefits (prosperity and peace being the mainstays). We have in short been socialised to these ideas, and thus more able to see them for the potential they are, rather than the fictions of a ‘perfect market’ vs a ‘bastardy & Greed’ meme’s that dominated past generations of ideologues thought.

The political marketplace

By now most of you have seen this hard-hitting speech by Member of the European Parliament Backbencher & Conservative Daniel Hannan.

As speeches go, it’s a nice effort, clear and concise, and whilst relying a little too heavily on common instead of economics sense it makes a few good points. It’s interesting therefore to see Hannan’s own reaction to the video going viral:

When I woke up this morning, my phone was clogged with texts, my email inbox with messages. Overnight, the YouTube clip of my remarks had attracted over 36,000 hits. By today, it was the most watched video in Britain…..Breaking the press monopoly is one thing. But the internet has also broken the political monopoly. Ten or even five years ago, when the Minister for Widgets put out a press release, the mere fact of his position guaranteed a measure of coverage. Nowadays, a politician must compel attention by virtue of what he is saying, not his position.

It’s all a bit unsettling for professional journalists and politicians. But it’s good news for libertarians of every stripe. Lefties have always relied on control, as much of information as of physical resources. Such control is no longer technically feasible.

I want to raise two contradictory points here, so as to really assess what is going on. First, politicians have always known that bold or controversial claims always attract far more attention, and this is what compels journalists to listen to them, and secondly, this is not necessarily a good thing.

To the first: Ever since there have been politicians, the need to say something that captures the ear and quickens the pulse of your listener has been the politicians basic requirement. Whilst legislators may themselves appoint Solon’s to fix problems, and wise elder statesmen for Head of State roles, to get into the legislature itself you need to be bold. Some like Winston Churchill just seemed to attract controversy wherever they went in life, and combined this with actual administrative and parliamentary ability. Some, develop it over time, and through sheer determination force the media to pay them attention such as former PM John Howard. And some are fools who say the first thing that pops into their head, or deliberately make outrageous claims so as to gain attention. Such as Pauline Hanson.
In short, this is not a new phenomena. I’ve been reading David Day’s biography of Andrew Fisher recently (5th Prime Minister of Australia), and time and again the mild mannered, careful and cautious Fisher had to either get a running mate who could attract attention, effectively run his own left wing paper so as to be heard, or spend most of his waking hours visiting communities so as to be head. He proved a very capable parliamentarian, and all who met him were impressed by his talents, yet as a politician he struggled in large part due to his own cautious temperament. Something that proved of great virtue when Prime Minister. A further example. Whilst probably not cut out for the Parliamentary life, and certainly not adverse to saying controversial things(letting women vote for instance), John Stuart Mill, Englands greatest ever philosopher, barely won one term. Mill’s difficulty in public stemmed in part because he did not deign to be controversial on the stump, and preferred to discuss rather than rant, and sometimes even grant the point of his opponents, so as to make his own position clearer. Voters didn’t much like this and soon kicked him out. In short, the need for politicians to say something noticeable over something sensible is as old as the profession. And whilst the argument can be made that the standard of debate and political literacy (ie references to philosophy or literature) has surely dropped, it never was that high in the first place.

So when Hannan says that finally a politician must “compel by virtue of what he is saying”, he’s not saying anything particularly new. And whilst he uses the word “virtue”, controversy, outrageousness, and deliberate hyperbole all seem a better fit. Hannan is not the first, nor the wisest to criticise Browns many economic failings, but because he was concise and willing to dip a bit into hyperbole it got attention.

Now, to the second point: is this a good thing or not? Well yes and no. The internet is clearly a wonderfully democratising tool, of which this blog is evidence. Yet as we’ve seen -and again I want to stress how over the top politics and its coverage has always been- and by adding a million new voices, both online, and now elected officials around the globe (I’m an Australian, talking about a British Member of a European Parliament, who I was first linked to by a man living in America), then the overall level at which you have to speak has to keep rising and rising. In short, I fear we are slowly drowning out the more sober and softly spoken voices, in favour of the brash and the bold. Cable TV is the all too easy example of this, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh do more to influence the political thought of Americans today than all the University Professors in the country combined. In large part, that is their own fault, and our own fault. There are no excuses for an inability to communicate. But whilst democratising, this does run the risk of debasing just as much.

For this reason, as strong as my democratic spirits are, I dont see a justification for having a popularly elected president for Australia’s republic, over someone chosen by 2/3rds of the House of Representatives. Afterall, who would the public pick, but someone who has made their name entirely outside the field of politics. Anyone who has spent their lives learning & talking about political issues necessary for a head of state role, is either too unknown (from Uni Professors to elder Community figures like Major Michael General Jeffery or Quentin Bryce) or too controversial (Hawke, Keating, Howard). Instead it would be former sports stars, or perhaps a TV news reader or former actor. In other words, the greater the number of voices involved in the decision, the more likely someone entirely unqualified will take attention and hence the position.

So Hannan is right to welcome in the challenge to the stuffy control that the political media still exercises over the political process. I can’t count how many times I’ve ranted to journalist friends at the herd like nature of the press gallery for following the same story and refusing to let new voices in. As a liberal who pushes issues outside the mainstream approval such as legalising Marijuana, Homosexual Marriage, and severely cutting down on our middle class welfare state, I know all too well the impossibility of getting such views heard.

But there isn’t always a correlation between ability to say something that will get noticed, and ability to actually govern. Winning elections is a very different skill from governing well, as George W. Bush proved eloquently. So whilst I think it’s great that Hannan’s speech got noticed, lets neither convince ourselves this is a new era of politics, nor that it is a change without its own associated problems and risks.

(I was going to put in the self-pittying point that such a conclusion is neither bold nor controversial so wont be heard, but what’s the point as no one will read that either :P)

Some of us are just cannon fodder

This is just plain unlucky:

A 93-year-old Japanese man has become the first person certified as a survivor of both U.S. atomic bombings at the end of World War II, officials said on Tuesday.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi had already been a certified “hibakusha”, or radiation survivor, of the August 9, 1945, atomic bombing in Nagasaki, but has now been confirmed as surviving the attack on Hiroshima three days earlier as well, city officials said.

Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on a business trip on August 6, 1945, when a US B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on the city. He suffered serious burns to his upper body and spent the night in the city. He then returned to his hometown of Nagasaki just in time for the second attack, city officials said.

For some reason Yamaguchi’s story reminded me of a relative by the name of William Moffett who fought in WW1 for Australia. He enlisted, was shot, recovered, went back to the front lines and promptly got shot again. His view on the whole affair “Some of us are just cannon fodder”. Politics is in my view the greatest intellectual, moral and civil pursuit one could engage their lives in. It gives meaning and it offers the chance to improve human lives and well being. Occasionally however it can also cause great harm and damage. Damage that is generally rained down, not on those who ordered or advocated, but on the Yamaguchi & Moffett’s of the world. The cannon fodder. It’s people like this who help remind me at times when the partisan urge strikes, that politics is not a game. The outcome, measured in the improvement in popular well being is the aim, not individual pride or winning this or that ideological struggle.

Still, how bloody unlucky can you be…