Chasing the Norm

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

Category: The New Left

The Right and the Bill of Rights

In (yet another) back down, the Rudd Government recently abandoned its call for a bill of rights. Instead it is introducing a ‘Human Rights test’ for all legislation, leading to much rejoicing by many liberal and conservative Australians (which I’m labeling here right wing, with left wing liberals tending to support Rudd’s -original- push for a Bill of Rights as I do). Yet their joy is somewhat surprising given that the Australian Right wing tend to define themselves (rhetorically at least) by their desire to restrict the reach & power of government and encourage individual freedom. Which is exactly what a bill of rights is designed to do, hence its position at the heart of the US constitution, the most liberal document in history.

Andrew Norton helpfully tries to explain this apparent contradiction in a good post over at his blog:

In a democratic system, classical liberals will tend to be more sceptical than social democrats and the median voter of actual and proposed regulation by the state. But I don’t think this is inconsistent with believing that classical liberal freedoms should be achieved within the persuasion-based, evolutionary and open democratic system. Even within a pro-freedom perspective individual rights and freedoms can conflict – let alone all the conflicts with other values that people hold – and there is little reason to believe (as many opponents of bills of rights have argued) that courts will do a better job of deciding on the trade-offs than democratic politics.

a distinction can be drawn between an in-principle opposition to constitutionalising some rights and a tactical judgment that the bill of rights we would end up with would not support the classical liberal conception of individual freedom. I think this does help explain the lack of enthusiasm for bills of rights among classical liberals, even where they might support constitutionalising a limited list of rights or freedoms. Aided by the various UN treaties, the concept of ‘human rights’ has expanded way beyond what classical liberals have ever supported, to make them the basis for big rather than small government.

While the arguments about risking giving too much power to the courts are valid, and one should always be skeptical if modern politicians can reach the wisdom of political philosophers such as Jefferson & Adam’s, Norton’s comments still seem to me somewhat partisan. His main concern seems the content of a Rudd/Gillard(or Abbott?) introduced Bill of Rights, rather than the concept as such. That it is, had a classical liberal Prime Minister introduced a bill of rights, I expect he would be significantly more inclined to support it. Which leaves me wondering why none on the right are proposing to write their own Bill of Rights?

There’s two good reasons they should: First, if there was a right wing version on offer, the debate would shift from the rhetoric of angry partisans (like this) towards debating which principles and the specifics. A debate about how to code a protection of free speech, or whether the government can compulsory acquire private land would be a useful debate.
Second, if those on the right support the concept (as opposed to their concerns over Rudd’s specific version) then now is the time to propose an alternative. The campaign for a Coalition government to implement economic liberalism didn’t just spring from nowhere in 1996, but was pushed & argued over throughout the 1980’s and maintained until the time was right (whilst critically giving support to the ALP Government when it agreed with this approach). With Joe Hockey the likely candidate to take over the Liberal Party once they lose the upcoming election, liberals have a good chance to gain a leader who will at least listen to their views. Assuming the ALP stay in office for another two terms, by 2016 a Coalition Government could win office and pledge to implement a Bill of Rights which has been around for 5-6 years in public debate (removing the fear factor) whilst adhering to a strict ‘negative’ set of limits on government/society, rather than the more left wing desirer for positive rights to food/shelter/support etc.

I believe a Bill of Rights has a fundamental worth, that will unite people of all political philosophies across the left and right. Guaranteeing free speech, restrictions on discrimination, and basic rights of people who fall under the watch of the security apparatus of the state would help ensure that the ‘democracy of manners’ which rules Australia does so within confines that do not trample over the individual. For those of a liberal persuasion, both the Howard and Rudd governments have infringed individual freedom and shown little concern about doing so, in economic, social and security area’s. There are legitimate concerns about increasing court influence to deal with, however the High Court has already involved itself in these issues (such as ABC v Lange 1997 on free speech). A carefully constructed negative set of rights could infact help clarify what the public want, rather than allowing the much freer interpretation available today where lawyers and judges can draw on all constitutional and legislative documents.

Having an alternate proposal (while a lot of work) would increase the quality of the debate, let those on the right set the terms of what a bill of right should be (helping dispatch poor/unworkable ideas such as a right to an income) and far more than any comparison with UN treaties, let Australians debate and define the basic freedoms we as a people insist on for a good society. Given the move to presidential prime ministers, increasingly invasive technology options for the government and centralising federalism, sitting back and hoping all will be ok is not a sensible option.

Don’t be afraid of the public

Discussing the pro’s & con’s of Democrats passing the health care bill in the US, Reason.com’s Peter Suderman writes

the choice for Democrats may actually be whether they want they want to be portrayed as so single-minded in their determination to push their unpopular agenda on the public that they are willing to use party-line voting and any sort of obscure procedural trickery they can come up with to get it passed, or whether they want to be able to make the argument that they responded to the public’s clear concerns and backed off an incredibly unpopular piece of legislation when they had the chance.

Suderman of course doesn’t want the bill to pass, but his reasoning is an all too clear example of the fear the political class have of a voter backlash for their actions. Indeed the political class and Center-Left wing politicians, especially in the USA are almost paranoid in its worry about appeasing the voters, to the extent it ends up doing a much poorer job & therefore looking much less competent than it should otherwise. To fix this, left wing leaders need to take a leaf out of conservatives like Reagan, Bush and Howard and have the courage of their convictions. The media and political class will always be jumpy, but our leaders ought to know better. Obama seemed to promise this at the start, but the fear seems to have crept in of late.
Read the full article »

Balance and Progress: The Philosophy of Avatar


I’d previously ignored all the hype and pre-story about Avatar, however one piece I had seen was Miranda Devine’s claim that the ingenious blue humanoid Na’vis philosophy of balance (as against the company’s push for change & development) makes it a lefty film. Watching the movie this weekend I came away finding myself both often rooting for the Company against the Na’vi and of the view that if any political philosophy is to be found within it, Avatar is a deeply conservative movie. To illustrate this, I want to replace the usual left/right divide and propose a slightly more pejorative version: Up, Balance, Down. See the chart on the right (Apologies I only have MS Paint to hand)

The Up Agenda:
Taking Darwin’s Origin of Species as a guiding light, Upward political philosophies see nature as inherently amoral and hostile, with relief only possible through development, change and progress. This means a certain willingness to deliberately shape both human and natural environments as an aid to larger goals. Economic theories which have political currency take this path given their focus on increased prosperity, either in an opportunity sense (capitalism) or an outcome sense (communism). Liberalism, with its strong views of what an ideal society ought to look like, regularly strives for progressive change, as does a nationalistic platform which sees future prestige/power for the nation (like building up a big army & using it).
Reaching its height in the Enlightenment and the triumph of reason, these political philosophies argue that deliberate action can shape naturally found environments for the better. Of course not all paths are equal, liberals reject communist reasoning and aims and vice versa. None of these philosophies would justify the abuse suffered either here on earth by the environment/native populations or the deliberate destruction of the Na’vi’s homeland, but finding themselves in an environment which is far far less welcoming that found on Pandora (more on that later) the only true means of survival of the species is development. Comparing current living standards to previous ages seems to emphatically support the case, such as our increased ability to withstand natural disasters, disease, and have enough resources to ensure re-population and growth. Of course there are always unintended consequences, of which global warming is as good an example as possible. And this, the Balance agenda would charge is the problem with Up philosophies.

The Balance Agenda
At the heart of the Na’vis world view in Avatar is a belief of all things in balance. Cameron cheats here, by making the spiritual link with nature of indigenous earth bound human populations a biological reality, via the tendrils at the end of their hair, and shown most directly in the attempt to switch humans into the bodies of the Navi at the Spirit Tree. Man and nature are one. At heart of a balance philosophy the view that nature (both environmental and human) automatically produces a stable and sustainable environment, so long as we don’t interfere too greatly. A belief in god is often important here as a deliberate balancing agent(either as creator or tweaker), however it is not necessary.
Devine and co-charge this represents a green left agenda, seeking to maintain the environment, but it is also a deeply conservative agenda too. Both environmentally (as UK Tory leader David Cameron and blogger Andrew Sullivan endorse, and Tony Abbott seemed to claim in his recent speech) and socially as a defence of the status quo. Of course sometimes positive action needs to be taken to maintain the strength of pre-existing institutions and social structures. Social Democrats often take this line, arguing that only with a decent welfare system and adding legislation to protect and stabilise during difficult periods (ie minimum wage/maternity leave), we can achieve a better equilibrium. Having effectively achieved that mix by the mid-20th century, their focus has been balance ever since. Conservatism is at times embued with a spirit of progress, such as its embrace if not recent subservience to capitalism, just as the green left are often socially liberal in a way social democrats are not. But overall, none of these political theories seek radical social-restructure, rather action to protect the critical elements of the status quo in both nature and the environment. Even facing a threat like Global Warming, the Green Left still largely seeks to maintain society as is, just made side changes (like switching depleting fuel sources for sustainable ones). Even their railing against capitalism and growth (see as Clive Hamiltons work) is to seek a better stability across society.

The Down Agenda
Rarely seen, some political philosophies do in fact advocate a regressive turn. The best recent example is the Taliban in Afghanistan who steadily returned women into the home, reduced the role of education, science and tools of entertainment (even so far as banning kites), all in the name of seeking an idealised former past (whose historical existence is often doubtful). As Karen Armgstrong shows in ‘The Battle for God’, this is a common move of rebels within all three of the major monotheistic religions, but it need not necessarily be religiously driven. It combines both a belief in an earlier balanced time period, with a reason/religious drive to re-shape the environment to the ideal.

Fascism, such as the Nazis of Germany is also driven by views of a mytholigised past of Aryan domination. Hence they sought to re-take the ‘homeland’ of old, change social mores, and remove those parts of the population which challenged that stability (intellectuals, gypsies, gays, jews etc). It was this idea of a regressive return to ancient village life which seems to have most enticed the philosopher martin Heidegger, though ironically, the Nazi’s combined this with the most modern technology of warfare and industrialization as the tools for implementation.

(This is obviously a rough and quibbable dissection. Capitalism after all is represented as a natural phenomena by its supporters, and hence best left to its own devices to seek equlibrium. However, that’s really only the case theoretically rather than practically, and even Adam Smith saw the need for a human hand at work to keep the mechanism functioning properly (such as the removal of monopolies and establishment of law and order). It is also subverted as countries endorse capitalism largely for its prosperity benefits rather than it’s potential for equilibrium or justice. I’m happy to hear any arguments about placings/other political philosophies I’ve left out in the comments)


When thinking about this during the movie, I found myself often quite sympathetic to the Company. Cameron has to venture into the realms of science fiction to make the Na’vi’s philosophy of balance/connection to nature a physical reality, careful never to show disease or suffering which they must in fact suffer far greater than any modern western citizen (notice that the oldest Na’vi is no more than about 50). Here on earth, I see no evidence that such balance is to be found. We may well be the only tiny rock in an unimaginably big universe which sustains life. Everywhere else, like Mars where it may once have survived, it’s now long dead.The planet earth as we know it was formed around 4.5 billion years ago. First life did not emerge in the broiling seas until at least a billion years later, with what we know as life, ie multi-cellular organisms over 3 billion years later. Human existence can be credibly stretched back to 200’000 years. Even today with all our development and knowledge, nature still daily tries to kill us. Haiti, China, Pakistan have all suffered recent earthquakes, The Pacific and South East Asia Tsunami’s, most of the world see’s floods regularly, with many area’s copping tornado’s & hurricanes too. Not to mention diseases, accidents, wild animals, droughts, storms, etc. As little as we know, asteroids the size of cities could be streaming directly towards this earth, certain to snuff out all life with them, they’ve hit before, and we wouldn’t know until too late, and with no sensible options for saving ourselves. What comforts we have gained (steady access to shelter & food) are because humans have changed the world to suit our needs. For every flourishing of nature in one area, another is too cold, too hot, too dry or too wet to sustain humanity. Hell over 70% of the planet is covered by seas which are largely lethal to us, and certainly cant be lived in (without significant developments such as building submarines, underwater structures).

As a progressive, I think the idea of balance is a myth. That doesn’t mean that life or the environment in all it’s myriad ways is worthless. In fact it makes it far far more worthy, because it is so rare and unique that any life has managed to survive. There is no way that the Company should be allowed to destroy such a resource as they do in the moview. But unlike the Na’vi, the green left, conservatives, I don’t believe that only careful management can ensure the survival of our species. It is either up or out. The Na’vi’s life is not a viable model of existence. Unlike the regressives, I don’t believe that humanities best days have already come and gone. I believe that with careful, humble reason, based on as careful a study and knowledge of nature in all its glories and threats, we can improve society, both human and natural and eek out a survival. Devine ought to take a second look at the movie, it’s got a very conservative philosophy at heart. Even Cameron has to cheat to achieve it.

The courage to hope:Obama and the left 1 year on.

From Talk Left:

I knew that his policy positions were like Hillary Clinton’s (or any mainstream Dem, as Kos puts it). But I thought, despite my disagreements with his political style, that the historic opportunity he was presented coupled with his immense political talent would lead him to become our FDR…

It seems pretty clear that I was wrong. Apparently, I was the only one. Everyone else knew what they were getting — small bore, incrementalist, Beltway centrism. Of course this is “better than Bush.” But I thought we would get something bigger and better. Yes, I am pretty darn disappointed.

While some such as Andrew Sullivans understudy Patrick Appel calls it a ‘quote from the cocoon’, I still think the analogy is pretty apt. For all the talk of a new camelot in the white house (Ie JFK only less womanising), FDR has always seemed a more potential analogy to Obama. Neither was a close fit to their base, yet immense political skills and historic times allowed them significant achievements. Their skills as strategists and writers also parallel at heights that Kennedy and Clinton’s don’t reach.

But perhaps the most interesting US political event of 2009 has not been the astoundingly dumb way health care has been debated, nor the tea baggers (or that they choose to call themselves tea baggers), but the lefts rapid desertion of Obama.

9/11 obviously throws things off, but the Republican party and voters largely stuck to Bush throughout his time in office. It was only from 2006 onwards that you had enough voters shift that the republicans faced any real electoral losses, and even by 2008 when independents and democrats couldn’t stand him, a majority of the right still supported Bush.

Yet Obama for all that he has achieved has been deserted by many on the left. That is despite overseeing a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, beginning to close Gitmo and transfer to traditional legal prosecutions, a successful stimulus package, and coming closer than even FDR on meaningful healthcare reform (the public option is dead but something will still be passed).

Of course, left wingers like everyone else have jobs and mortgages and are suffering in a sluggish American economy, but and some changes like Dont Ask Dont Tell and full exposure on Torture have gone begging with no good justification. Yet after the rigid party discipline of the Clinton and Bush years, a style of politics we are very used to in Australia (Rudd’s support ratings amongst ALP voters has barely moved in 2 years, and Howard’s even longer), it is significant how little the bond holds for Obama and the Left.

In part this is because I think many misread him. Yes this could mean the conservatives were right that some saw Obama as ‘the one’, but more likely they thought that he could convince congress just as he had convinced them. There was also a general policy ignorance that let many think his proposals were more liberal than centrist, which closer watchers wouldn’t have thought so. Bush had the same issue (being not as far-right as many boosters thought), but he included enough lines to appease the base that they thought they were getting what they wanted, something the more cerebral Obama has always been very reluctant to do.

The depression on the left also says much about the post 1960’s left’s inherent pessimism and at times infuriating lack of courage in their convictions. Obama consistently said during the campaign that this would be a long slow, tough process, yet after one year of pretty significant successes (though health care is what really matters), many have like the blogger quoted at the top simply given up. Which in turn weakens Obama, in turn reducing their support for him.

I also think its easy to over-read the electoral significance of this shift. When health care is passed, the economy picks up, and Obama hits the road again to campaign both for congressional elections next year and his own re-election in 2012, we can be sure that much of the enthusiasm will return. Secondly, there are still signs that the Organising for America organisation, (ie the volunteers who put Obama in the White House) are still in good shape and keen to get involved again. Obama when campaigning will return the energy many feel has been lost while Obama has been governing.

But it may also indicate a significant shift in the left more long term. Even though they have just taken power for at least 4, perhaps 8 years, the lack of a clear agenda other than fixing the Bush era mess, and bringing America into the 21st century (ie accepting globalisations changed their industries, fixing health/welfare to similar standards to the rest of the developed world), the Left lacks a clear agenda. And so when the individuals at the top get in trouble, it is all too easy to fracture and bitterly divide.

Until liberal/left/centre-left wing politicians, thinkers and writers, begin to coalesce around a clear vision of what society should be, then even the most skilled of smart, pragmatic politicians like Obama are going to have a very tough time keeping the group together. Rudd has only escaped it in part because of a weak opposition but now that the euphoria of victory is slipping away, the left is faced with the same question it was 2 years ago : What do we really stand for? Ie: What should society look for? What are the top 5, top 3 principles we want to see embodied in society? What changes are impossible now but should be advocated for eventual implementation? What does the good society look like?

You can still win elections without answering that fully as Obama and Rudd show (both ran as people to fix the current problems in a pragmatic way), but you’ll struggle to keep the energy and enthusiasm going long term. That vision of a better society was what led the conservatives both in and out of government to dominate politics in the Anglo-sphere for the last 30 years. If the Left wants to do similar it has to do more than just win elections, it needs to return to the books and decide just what it truly wants to use political power for.

Otherwise this is going to be a very short and rather forgettable decade of left wing power.

The courage of their convictions.

A big congratulations to Senators Judith Troeth and Sue Boyce for crossing the floor to vote for the CPRS scheme.

Senator Judith Troeth

Senator Judith Troeth

Senator Sue Boyce

Senator Sue Boyce

For the last month the central debate amongst political insiders was how many conservative climate sceptics were going to cross the floor to vote against the CPRS. No one doubted the threat was serious, and on some of the early amendments they even carried out their threat to vote no. This wasn’t enough for the cons, and following one failed spill motion they resigned on mass, forced a second leadership challenge and though expecting to lose, pulled out a surprise victory in the leadership stakes. Of the 10-15 Liberal senators who still supported of the CPRS in line with a strong majority of the public only 2 voted yes, and the bill failed.

As for Turnbull, he surged amongst Labor voters in his final days for his defiant support of the CPRS, and provided himself an exit narrative far more historically praiseworthy than the already pencilled in outline of having badly lost an election arguing for policies he didn’t support. His biographers have their story, and while not the PM outcome he thought himself destined for, it’s one he can be proud of. (And out of bitterness or convictions he’s still arguing for an ETS. Watch this space.)

So what is the moral of this story: In Australian (&US) politics, it seems only conservatives have the courage of their convictions. In government the conservatives ruthlessly pursued their policies, and now in opposition are fundamentalist in their rejection of the lefts agenda (Such as Tony Abbotts sudden disapproval of mandates). True, this stridency isn’t always the best electoral politics, Bush & Howard went down humiliatingly and Abbott is miles below Rudd on the polling. But in policy and momentum terms it matters. Bush got through much of his agenda (save reforming social security), as did Howard, and in office Obama and Rudd have struggled to get their signature issues through (Health & ETS respectively) and only barely scrapped through a stimulus package (whose debt they now wear like a bad smell). All of which makes their re-election campaigns so much harder as they have little to point to as achievements. This isn’t a startling new observation obviously, but it is worth recognising when it occurs. There’s all sorts of explanations floating around, assigning rational reasonableness to the left & irrational ignorant passion to the right, but it doesn’t really hold weight. Likewise theories that this is just a post-election backlash (as the US teaparties have been seen) don’t work either because the same determination was evident in government.

Instead, it seems to reflect the pattern of the last 30 years. The right emerged circa 1970 with a clear vision of society and agenda, easily won the rhetorical war against the dying remnants of Post-WW2 liberalism, and has stayed in the ascendant ever since. Though the left had some electoral victories (Hawke, Clinton) and has made good advances in some areas (homosexual rights, environmental, retaining welfare net), it hasn’t ever really gotten up from its crouched, defensive position. It hasn’t been willing to be blooded and potentially risk any kind of electoral backlash in order to carry out its policies. It was so anxious to gain government it weakened or deferred most of its real beliefs, and having gained it is even more anxious to keep it. This isn’t always the worst thing, sometimes good government means just pragmatically minding the store, something that is in the best of the conservative tradition. But when it comes to big critical issues, it also can translate overwhelming strength into policy defeat. Rudd’s suffered it here, and we are just waiting to see if Obama can escape it in the US (the public option is dead, but surely something will get through). So good on Troeth and Boyce for having the courage of their convictions that seemingly few other liberals and moderates do. To vote as they see their conscious and beliefs dictate, not based on calculations of self-interest.

If liberals/the left is to escape this, the option is not more strident politicians, but a much clearer and more thought through agenda. One that can carry liberal/left/progressives of all tempraments through, and mutually re-enforce various elements. It’s not enough to support health care & climate change as individual policies, we need to show how these build towards an clear vision of a better country. I’ve started to begin such work here, I hope you’ll join with me on this.

Liberalism in 21st Century Australia

Brandis_speech Thanks to the Australian, we have full access to Senator George Brandis’s excellent speech “We Believe: The Liberal Party and the liberal cause”, delivered at the 2009 Alfred Deakin Lecture in Melbourne on the 22nd October.

Though I urge you to go read the full speech, Brandis is perhaps at his best when he takes aim at the way liberalism was mishandled under John Howard:

John Howard did not see the Liberal Party as simply the custodian of the liberal cause. For Howard, it was as much a conservative party as a liberal party – indeed, with the passage of time, rather more the former than the latter….Now Deakin would never have said that, and Menzies never did. The “two traditions” theory was a specific contribution of John Howard’s. In diminishing the centrality of liberalism to the Liberal Party’s belief system, and balancing it against conservatism; in qualifying the Liberal Party’s commitment to the freedom of the individual as its core value, and weighing it against what he often called social cohesion, Howard made a profound departure from the tradition of Deakin and Menzies.

Brandis goes to great lengths to show the critical importance of liberalism to Deakin and Menzies. However, while philosophically he is right, these two men both made the same practical choice of binding their liberal instinct into a general anti-labor party that created Howard’s broad church approach. In many ways, both Brandis and Howard are right. By 1909 Deakin, wearied and bloodied after a decade leading the continent realised that his middle liberal way was being trampled by the adolescent labor party, and the aristocratic conservatives. His personal philosophy was much closer to Labor, but he could not abide their caucus control, and so chose to make peace with the conservatives and form a party ‘Fusion’ between the two anti-labor forces. This was a practical choice to ensure the survival of his MP’s, but sacrificing the dominant position of liberalism on the Anti-labor side to a more generic mix. Menzies likewise made a similar choice, knowing that a coalition was the only way to ensure they could keep Labor from power. It is this practical history that Howard claims informs the modern liberal party. Yet the Liberal party would be nothing if it was stripped of its liberal elements. Even Tony Abbott in his conservative manifesto ‘Battlelines’ can’t help himself from repeating many liberal ideas without seeming to notice the contradictions to his professed conservatism. Liberalism is the parties soul, it is as Brandis argues, the cause of its proud history

In every age, whenever liberalism and conservatism have come into contention, the victory of liberalism has enlarged the freedom of the individual, which later generations of conservatives have then joined with them in striving to defend. But every time, it was the liberals who were the animating spirit.

No fair analyst of the Liberal party could disagree with this claim. Menzies may have held onto power a long time in part due to conservative scaremongering, but winning power is not the same as using it, and Menzies books (Afternoon Light, Speech is of Time, Measure of the Years) all play up and look back favorably on his liberal actions, guiltily ignoring his more conservative indulgences* in the name of electoral success. Menzies is also an interesting liberal due to his rather Millian take on why freedom is important. Modern Liberals seem to see freedom as an end in itself, and while it is, Liberalism has a second reason for wanting as much individual freedom as possible. From the grandfather of Liberalism, J.S. Mill (again via Brandis’s speech)

“It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation

That is, freedom’s greatest reward is that it enables individuals to improve and develop themselves, to build their talents and skills, to flesh out and give style to their character. To become who they are, rather than who society might like them to be. It’s also a very powerful political message to the newest voting block: Gen-Y. As Possum Pollytics has detailed, Gen-Y is a quickly rising block that the Liberal party absolutely fails at marketing its message to. But if it was to recast its commitment to freedom as one based on allowing ambitious individuals, or creative individuals the space and opportunity to make of their own lives what they want (rather than being seen as just a stuffy desire to make life easier for businesses), then it could have great appeal to this group. Many of my friends, all solid labor voters looked anew at the party of Malcolm Turnbull when he took the leadership. They saw great appeal in his personal story of achievement, and waited to be given a reason to vote for him. Thus far, they havn’t seen anything like it, and are growing disillusioned. This is an argument Howard could never make, but Turnbull can. Freedom has always been re-defined by every era. In the 80’s it was to liberate societies from protectionism and welfare traps. Today it must be for individualism and towards human flourishing in our newly minted modern societies. This is not some new age spiritualism, it is an honest, humane and civillised approach to mankind, to quote Menzies who whilst Prime Minister wrote that:

“Without minds that are informed, toughened by exercise, broadened by enquiry and fearless in pursuing the truth wherever it may lead, we may never hope to have spirits untrammeled by blinding ignorance or distorting prejudice. And without free minds and free spirits our boasted civic freedoms becomes an empty shell” (Menzies 1958 page 218)

I want to end by quoting Hayek’s ‘why I am not a conservative’ which Brandis also quotes extensively. However while this line is used by Brandis and Hayek to attack conservatism, I think it is actually much more relevant for liberalism today:

…Let me … state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.

I’ve often come to see Liberalism as akin to a shark, if it stops moving it suffocates. Liberalism today has been forced to become the defender of the status quo (or been taken in directions it is uncomfortable with as a tool of the wealthy and powerful), and in this backward looking, reactive stance it is an easy target. Until it can pivot onto a forward looking position, its calls for freedom will float past listeners ears unheard. While there is important work to be done reviving the history of liberalism, such as its importance to Deakin and Menzies and Australian history (i’ve always seen this country as a Republican-Liberal hybrid far more than the Libertarian-Liberalism that dominates the US, or the incremental Liberal-Traditionalism of the UK), its return to power is dependent upon a coherent, bold policy agenda. Such an agenda would need only 5-6 key policy changes. To be argued at every meeting, before every microphone, in every publication and household. It might look something like this

1. Reform welfare state – End churn of middle class welfare, significant cuts to tax cut, especially for poor.
2. Allow Euthanasia and full marriage equality.
3. End the war on drugs beginning with legalising marijuana and decriminalising use of others.
4. Make competition policy a priority. Break the clasp of the big end on town on the direction of economic liberalism.
5. Commit to transparent modern governance. Publish as much as possible online, have ombudsman to ensure population can see who gets what and when in every bill, every department, every budget handout.
6. Make ensuring privacy for individuals a key concern.

The exact nature or order of these policies is not important. What is important is having a clear, future driven platform to identify with modern liberalism in Australia. Liberals need to return to defining themselves, rather than as currently letting others define them (such as Prime Minister Rudd’s essay on Neoliberalism). Many elements will be contentious, some are 20+ years away from implementation, but the argument needs to be taken up and begun today. The clearer and shorter the case, the easier it will be to sell and settle into the minds of the voting public as an identifying feature. Only with such a clear image can it regain its rightful place as the “animating spirit” of modern societies, and lay claim to ownership of the 21st century as it has the 20th. The only way to prevent Liberalism sinking into status-quo stance inimical to conservatism is to give it a forward objective. Just as individuals are either on the up or the out, such a humanistic philosophy as liberalism must seek ever greater mountains to climb if it is to remain relevant. There are so many challenges still to be addressed.

* I don’t believe Menzies fits either a liberal or conservative approach, but unfortunately I can’t say why until i finish an academic paper I’m writing on the topic. Look for an announcement here in coming months about it. Sorry for being so cryptic, but I have to be until it’s published.

Obama’s hidden healthcare weapon

While we’re all still waiting for the definitive campaign strategy books on the Obama 2008 campaign to be written (I’m looking at you David Plouffe), one thing is patently clear: Obama won because he mobilised people to assist his campaign in a way never before seen in America. Instead of just asking volunteers to grab a phone call and begin calling, he had a motto of ‘Respect, Empower, Include’. Volunteers were instead asked to go find 5 more people who would also join. Those who managed this were made team leaders, with similar opportunities for advancement for those new members in a similar fashion. People were given increasingly harder tasks to see if they could deliver, and then were rewarded with being team leaders. Neighbourhood teams were set up across the country, each invited to build their own networks. This process continued for months and months, before any phone calls were made, emails sent or doors knocked. That could come later, and did, delivering perfectly on election day.
OFA_Call_Congress
Why am I recounting this history? Because, a lot of the self-obsessed media have forgotten about Obama’s Organizing For America organisation. The media like to imagine that their shows as the only forum for real political discussion(far more real in their eyes than even the legislative chambers), with polls simply rating how the people react to various lines or positions. But Obama’s still organising, even with the power of the Presidency in his hands.

On the 20th of October, Organising for America set out to make 100’000 calls to members of congress to encourage them to support health care reform. That was passed easily. So they set it for 200’000. Again too easy. From Obamas facebook this morning:

obama_facebook_small Barack Obama Yesterday’s numbers are in. The final tally was not just 200,000 calls placed or pledged — it was 315,023. You’ve taken America one giant, irreversible step closer to passing health reform. Thank you.

Just imagine trying to field all that as a staffer in some Republican Senators office! (or wavering Democrat) While many Republican’s took comfort in the anger expressed at the town halls in August, it’s clear those events, (including members of the public bringing guns to public meetings, and numerous comparisons of Obama to Hitler), along with the Presidents speech to Congress, began to turn people towards supporting healthcare.

healthcare_polls_us

While Republicans raged, Obama’s network kept organising, holding functions, parties, door knocking, and continually organizing and seeking to expand. To Respect, Empower and Include their neighbors, friends and colleagues in the wider movement. Obama has already gotten closer than FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter & Clinton to delivering Universal healthcare reform in the US. The Democrats policy has many flaws that would make it almost unacceptable to many in other western first world countries, but for America it’s still a big and important step. His big speech was important, as was his deliberate outreach to Congress, and decision to let it choose its path (rather than draw up the policy in private inside the White House as Hillary did in 1994). But when Health Care reform passes, a large part of the credit will have to go to the 2 million active volunteers (& 13 million supporters) who signed up to help elect Obama’s, and now are invested in his success.

It’s not just about having a flashy website, its about getting people involved any way possible. The internet just helps break the hold talking heads have on politics. As I discussed a few weeks ago, if people feel invested in your success, they will work harder and longer, than any bribe or pork barrel could possibly compel. And if Republicans think this network will have dissipated by 2012, or let them waltz into the White House on the back of public anger over SOCIALISM! they have a great big surprise coming. It’s going to be fun to watch, and a very important lesson for all future political strategists, not just in the USA and countries with voluntary voting, but also Australia.

Embrace the Waste!

Last night I gave a quick plug for Bob Hawke’s memoirs, citing his charm and larrikinism. Yet what is also refreshing in it is the strong sense of conviction and willingness to advocate for it that Hawke has presented his entire life. Starkly different from the managers style PM (Fraser, Howard, Rudd) and with a better sense of the public than Keating or Whitlam, Hawke brought a strong attachment to new ideas, tempered (and protected) by his desire for consensus and negotiation. It seems even at 80 little has changed:

FORMER prime minister Bob Hawke has called for Australia to assess a nuclear waste industry as a moral, financial and environmental response to climate change. Mr Hawke, speaking after the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue he attended as a participant, said: “This issue, frankly, seems to me to be straightforward in its obligations and benefits.”I have spoken to Aboriginal leaders and to people from the environmental movement and they are prepared to consider the proposition.”

With the nuclear power industry expanding rapidly around the world due to climate change and Australia supplying that industry with uranium exports for decades ahead, Mr Hawke said the issue arose from Australia’s global obligations. “There is a responsibility to deal with global warming and consider what role Australia should play,” Mr Hawke told The Australian. “Australia can make a significant difference to the safety of nuclear generation by agreeing to take waste from nuclear power stations. This would be an important contribution to safety and energy security. It would also become a strong source of national income for Australia that could be dedicated to our own environmental and water requirements. “The fact is that Australia has some of the geologically safest places in the world to act as a repository for nuclear waste.”

nuclear_kangaroos_cropped
While there are still big debates to be had about Australia generating power via nuclear plants (I’m supportive though don’t think the economics work), what shouldn’t be contentious is Australia’s role as a provider of uranium. Australia has some of the strictest standards in the world when it comes to the supply of uranium (just look at the debate over selling it to India a democratic ally) and stands to benefit significantly from its mining. Whilst most don’t think you have to support nuclear power to prove your good faith on climate change (as Howard and Abbott charge), clearly the spread of nuclear power world wide benefit efforts against climate change. And yet this can’t or won’t fully happen until a solution for dealing with its waste is created. No other country can deal with it as safely and securely as we can. Those against are pretending that somehow the entire industry will be shut down, both here and overseas if waste can’t be safely stored. But even a flickering knowledge of history and the human condition would tell you that when people cant do something safely but want it, they will simply keep doing it unsafely. Likewise, those protesting about waste being in Australia are practicing a selfish and immoral NIMBY attitude that ensures the waste will be dumped on someone else, probably much less securely, and likely in a poorer country without our advantages or careful handling procedures. That or they use amusing but false scare tactics like in the image on the right. Unfortunately this policy has the support of the Greens and to a significant degree Labor as well (though incumbency & economics are seemingly softening their rejection of nuclear waste)

Australia has both the geological and political stability necessary to handle the task, the space to do so, and as a provider as Hawke notes, a degree of moral responsibility to take it. But this will not be done simply out of the good of our heart, but offers a very financially beneficial option for this country. We will be making money both selling it to other countries, and then having them pay to return the used leftovers to our shores, buried deep underground almost exactly where it came from. Many will complain of course, and the ideal for nuclear waste would of course be to simply put it in a rocket headed towards the sun. But whilst that is too expensive to contemplate, then burying it in Australia is by far the best option the globe has, and a very good deal for Australia. It is one of those rare area’s where our moral and fiscal interests coincide, and we should grab it with both hands.

Photo by flickr user Karen Eliot used under a creative commons licence

Today’s real lefties: Cops and Soldiers

Conservative politicians and commentators regularly complain about the left wing bias of government run institutions such as public television and radio. But what they don’t notice is the institutions which are really promoting a liberal/left wing agenda: The Police and the Army.

From an Op-ed in the Washington Post by two policemen:

Nationwide, a police officer dies on duty nearly every other day. Too often a flag-draped casket is followed by miles of flashing red and blue lights. Even more officers are shot and wounded, too many fighting the war on drugs. The prohibition on drugs leads to unregulated, and often violent, public drug dealing. Perhaps counterintuitively, better police training and bigger guns are not the answer.

Drug manufacturing and distribution is too dangerous to remain in the hands of unregulated criminals. Drug distribution needs to be the combined responsibility of doctors, the government, and a legal and regulated free market. This simple step would quickly eliminate the greatest threat of violence: street-corner drug dealing.

Having fought the war on drugs, we know that ending the drug war is the right thing to do — for all of us, especially taxpayers. While the financial benefits of drug legalization are not our main concern, they are substantial. In a July referendum, Oakland, Calif., voted to tax drug sales by a 4-to-1 margin. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates that ending the drug war would save $44 billion annually, with taxes bringing in an additional $33 billion.

Without the drug war, America’s most decimated neighborhoods would have a chance to recover. Working people could sit on stoops, misguided youths wouldn’t look up to criminals as role models, our overflowing prisons could hold real criminals, and — most important to us — more police officers wouldn’t have to die

Whilst most left wing politicians are still a full decade away from even beginning a debate about legalisation, here is an authentic voice of the police pushing for it immediately. To them it is not an abstract question of the morality of condoning drug use or being ‘soft on crime’ but clearly evident that only with legalisation and regulation will we be able to tax and protect users, whilst financially destroying criminals from misguided youths through to bikie gangs and mob types.

A similar point can be made about the army, which is equally taken for granted by conservatives to be an institution on their side in foreign policy debates. Whilst many soldiers do relish the fight, just as many and their more experienced commanders prefer to be sent in only when and where they can make a significant difference or are undertaking their core responsibility: defending their country. Instead of being the first option as a way to respond to a problem, most in the armed forces would prefer that as a country we focus heavily on aid and development so as to prevent other countries from sliding into failed state/civil war conditions. Rather than being sent to be shot at whilst trying to stabilize and re-build in places from the Solomons to Afghanistan, it would be better to have focused on stability and long term development before these countries became problem children in the worlds eyes requiring a police or military solution.
Army_police
Likewise idea’s such as ‘Human Security‘ which change the way we think about security from a national focus to a question of the individual, (including their right to food, shelter and basic liberties, along with their physical safety) have been picked up quite strongly by thinkers within the defence forces. These liberal/left wing ideas are often ignored by a lot of civilian International Relations/Security scholars, who are keen to prove their bona fides and toughness. Yet it is the very people who have to put their lives on the line for these concepts are coming to see their correctness and worth.

Conservatives often take for granted that police favor harsher measures against criminals, and that the defence force wants to cruise the globe in search of foreign monsters to destroy. Though obviously some join these institutions seeking such a struggle, many more have come to see that their chance of coming home alive, and making a real contribution to the world (the reason for which the vast majority undertake these risky careers) require that we move to different strategies and policies. They know first hand the costs of our current failed policies, even if todays political leaders are too weak (or afraid of being labeled weak) to advocate for real change. Liberals and the New Left need to begin to work to give voice to these institutions, to encourage their contribution to the debate. We need to show that policies such as preventative development, and drug legalisation are not abstract feel good ideas, but instead practical, hard headed responses that are coming to be endorsed by those on the ground with the strongest knowledge of our current failed approach. It is time we started listening to them. It is time we on the left dropped these cowardly half-way measures for fear of being called weak, and instead recognise the real strength that comes from open and honest advocacy of policies that offer genuine change and improvement for our fellow citizens both at home and in the wider world.

Photo used under a creative commons licence by user Army.mil

The Free Trade Left

I’ve already raised the issue of ending the ban on parallel imports of books. The Productivity Commission has now released it’s final report and its findings are clear:

the Commission has
• concluded that the PIRs place upward pressure on book prices and that, at times,
the price effect is likely to be substantial. The magnitude of the effect will vary over
time and across book genres.
• Most of the benefits of PIR protection accrue to publishers and authors, with demand
for local printing also increased.
• Most of the costs are met by consumers, who fund these benefits in a nontransparent
manner through higher book prices.
• PIRs are a poor means of promoting culturally significant Australian works.
– They do not differentiate between books of high and low cultural value.
– The bulk of the assistance leaks offshore, and some flows to the printing industry.

Alan Fells, former head of ACCC and now at the Australian New Zealand School of Government has suggested that means a cost of up to $200m for consumers.

But what is most interesting (though if you know your history not surprising) is that most of the push for this end to protectionism has come from the left. It was Chris Bowen, in the Rudd government who initiated the Productivity Commission’s survey. It has been most publicly championed by Bob Carr, former ALP premier of NSW. And has received support from a variety of quite left wing types such as the ACT’s own rising star Andrew Barr (as I noticed this morning via his facebook – who says blogs don’t break news:P). Whilst the libertarians at Catallaxy have of course been forthright in wanting a change, I could only find this lukewarm press release from the Liberals Competition policy shadow minister Luke Hartsuyker, with not a single mention by Malcolm Turnbull.

This may seem counter-intuitive if you think the right is pro-free trade and the left against it. Yet whilst the two party structure of Labor and anti-labor sometimes creates that mould, the history is quite different. The single largest reduction in tariff’s in this country occurred in 1973 under the Whitlam Government. After some drift under the conservative Fraser, Hawke and Keating picked up the mantle and effectively ended the way Australians had run their economy by reducing almost all tariff’s. This was encouraged by Howard (having supped from the classical liberal economics of Reagan and Thatcher), but his own government whilst rhetorically adamant, ended up doing very little on the free trade front. It liberalised small areas such as CD’s (in the way now proposed for books) and seeing the flaws of multilateral deals pushed into bilateral deals with mild success. The two big areas still under the umbrella in agriculture and cars remained protected, or got effective protection through constant handouts. In fact if you examine Australian political history, it has been the moderates and liberals within both the ALP and Liberal Party who have lead the move towards free trade in this country (Howard being the obvious exception). The more conservative forces, much like the union-left have largely been against such moves. Take for instance this piece by Tony Abbott writing in 1995:

‘His [Keating’s] Asian crusade is simply the second phase of a long battle – hitherto fought around Australia’s economic structures – to extripate the legacy of Menzies. The first phase meant changing Australia’s economic structures and breaking down the old business establishment. The second centres on smashing the Crown which he thinks is the ultimate icon of conservative Australia. Asia played little part in his drive to ‘reform’ economic institutions – after all, most Asian governments pursue pragmatic interventionist economic policies similar to those of pre-Keating Australia’ (p220)
Abbott, Tony in Sheridan, Greg (1995) Living with Dragons: Australia confronts its Asian destiny Sydney: Allen & Unwin

Abbott went along with, even championed Howard’s economic ideals, but never was at the forefront of the debate, and with his mentor out of the game, it will be interesting to see which way he turns in his forthcoming book. Whilst the forces of free trade have largely won out (both due to argument and circumstance), don’t be surprised if there is a slight shifting back amongst the right should the conservative forces lead by Abbott take charge. As i’ve predicted many times before, I see the two party system shifting to a more liberals vs conservative basis instead of the weird cross-overs we saw under the Reagan/Howard coalitions, but either party could take either role, depending on their internal struggles. Long story short the “common sense” idea in the media and the general public that the right is pro-free trade and the left against it is not sustainable in current policy nor historically accurate. As the new left begins to develop it’s form, I have little doubt that a strong stand for free trade will be at the heart and soul of its economic system. Only such a system can encourage universal rather than national sentiments, international organisation, healthy free competition and the free flow of ideas and people.

In defence of clear language

Michael Costa in The Australian

The elevation of Chris Bowen and Mark Arbib has little to do with the power and influence of the NSW Right. It is more a reflection of their personal relationships with the Prime Minister than a consolidation of Rudd’s political base in NSW. After all, Rudd pointedly congratulated Arbib on election night for his support in the election and Arbib was critical in helping Rudd obtain the leadership of the federal Labor Party.

Bowen, in his regular newspaper column, has preached in support of Rudd’s critique of neo-liberalism. It appears Bowen silently held these views even while Rudd claimed to be a fiscal conservative. Fortunately for Bowen his leader is now in alignment with his ideology.

Imagine you don’t know anything about politics except that there are two sides. The Liberals and the Conservatives. Now try and understand that sentence. Apparently it was wrong for this Bowen character to support criticisms of the liberal side, whilst his boss claimed to be on the conservative side. But everythings ok now, because they’ve switched sides. Or something…

This cluttered language of economics is the bane of every first year politics tutor. Again and again you have to explain to students that the Conservatives currently embrace liberal economics, which is now called conservative economics. (All of which is made even more confusing in Australia where the Conservative Party is called the Liberal Party).

All this is the result of a curious twist of fate that in the USA the Liberal Party, the Democrats were captured by a southern rump in the 1960’s & 1970’s, whilst in the UK the Labour Party was captured by its union base. Therefore when the new ressurgence of liberal economics occured through the work of Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman and others, the only parties who were willing to even listen to them, were the Conservatives. The Republicans in the USA, and the Tories in the UK. This despite the fact that both Hayek and Friedman rejected the label Conservative for themselves.

Whilst the Conservatives since the 1800’s have generally in favor of more open markets, since they traditionally benefited their wealthy elite constituency, those actually in favor of free markets that encouraged competition and decried unearned wealth (inheritance/Leasers/high interest rate charging lenders etc) have found voices and support on both sides of the aisle in two-party anglo countries. But come the late 1970’s when this new liberal economics was being pushed, and nobody on the left was prepared to listen (it wasn’t an easy sell on the right either, and depended on great individuals like Reagan and Thatcher to convert their party. In Australia where the much less inspiring John Howard lead the fight in the 1970’s & 80’s, it was a long and vicious battle for the economic soul of the Conservative Party – On the other side of the isle, in Government Treasurer Paul Keating (with the general support of the PM Bob Hawke) embraced the new economics, however had to do so in a careful, step by step fashion given their union base. And when these two figures left the stage, the party immediately reverted back to it’s opposition to the new economics (which had become rather synonymous with Conservative politics by then).

Long story short, the convoluted language with which we describe ideology and economic position today really needs to change. It is a hang over from 40 years of economic debate and a quirk of history. It is utterly confusing to most of the public, a barrier to understanding for the interested, and a failed effort at communication by our politicians (some of whom play on it deliberately, such as John Howard’s claim to be conservative whilst undertaking radical steps, or Kevin Rudd’s election claim to be a “fiscal conservative” by which he meant a supporter of liberal economics.

To me it seems the main divide should be the issue of favor for a Open vs a Closed economy. Issues such as welfare states or economic response to a recession are side concerns, and often driven by the tradition of the country (ie Conservatives in the UK & Australia support public healthcare. In the US they dont) than ideological differences. So Rudd at the election pledged to be a strong supporter of a Open economy. Largely he has kept that promise and even been willing (with his deputy Gillard) to march into the Union base of the ALP and uphold that commitment. The Liberal Party has also kept its support for an Open Economy, however it too has been willing to maintain Closed economy support for the monoploy run Australian Wheat Board and all manner of agricultural welfare that supports their coalition partners votes.

These are critical issues that we need to include all the public in as they are discussed. Making the language as clear and accessible as possible is the first start towards making sure we make the right decisions.

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.
monkey
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

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.
obama-lecturn
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.
(LAUGHTER)
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.

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.

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…