Chasing the Norm

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

Month: February, 2009

The Politics of Economics

I’ve already defended Rudd’s essay from the Monthly, so its only fair to post a link to the strongest intellectual take down I’ve seen thus far against his claims. H/t the -Ok real Libertarians- at Catallaxy who note it’s also available in the Weekend Australian.

it is difficult to believe any sensible observer, least of all the Prime Minister of Australia, concluding that the move towards greater openness was a bad thing.
In effect, that move helped create the conditions for the extraordinary economic growth the world experienced from the early 1990s on, and from which Australians benefited so greatly. Labour market reform, along with the competitive disciplines exercised by a more open and integrated world economy, led to a falling off of union militancy, resulting in what is now widely referred to as the “great moderation”. That, in turn, allowed economies to grow, and employment levels to rise, without growth being throttled by inflationary pressures. Lower barriers to trade, both in developed and developing economies, encouraged the search for entrepreneurial opportunities and for gains from trade, fuelling the spectacular entry of China, India and a host of smaller countries into the world economy. And the integration of world financial markets greatly reduced the costs of financial intermediation to businesses and households alike, while accommodating the differences between countries in savings/investment balances that have been a feature of economic growth since the dawn of capitalism.
It was that period of sustained economic growth, and the liberalisation on which it was based, that reduced extreme poverty, doing so far more effectively than could any foreign aid or “Millennium Development Challenge” (on which Mr Rudd places great stress). The percentage of the developing world’s population living on $1 a day or less was nearly cut in half between 1980 and 2004 (from 32 to 17 per cent). Moreover, the levels of extreme poverty were lowest, and the reductions in poverty most enduing, in those developing countries which did the most to open their economies to market forces. And those countries were also far more likely to have low levels of infant mortality, rising levels of life expectancy at age 1, and credible moves to reduce corruption and official arbitrariness, than the countries where governments continued to dominate economic life.4
If human dignity and happiness are our goal, outcomes such as these should lead us to wholeheartedly endorse liberalization, rather than to condemn it.

That said despite its highly researched nature (& footnotes – a welcome addition after an absence of any for Rudd’s) it makes the three problems I’ve noticed in almost all the other right wing responses to his piece:
1) Implying his focus is simply partisan, and therefore saying “keating did it too” is a valid counter-argument;
2) That because Howard didn’t get everything he want in policy, his
3) Refusing to recognize the scope of the intellectual hole the GFC has made against ideas like self-regulating markets; and
4) refusing to grant the basic worth of Government involvement in the market to either regulate, provide welfare and maintain the social order so critical to the possibility of a functioning market economy)

But interestingly perhaps it’s strongest argument, that Rudd offers no positive counter despite claiming “Social Democracy” can save us, seems to simply play into the Prime Ministers political interests. The Monthly Editors boasted Rudd used over 70 references in writing his piece, but the resulting argument is not an intellectual one by any means. Rudd isn’t seeking to recast economics as a discipline, merely carve out a highbrow argument for his governments impending policy actions. It’s a political ploy to impress the intelligencia and press gallery that Rudd has command of the challenge imposed by the Global Financial Crisis, rather than as lost and running on hope and fear as the rest of us.

To launch such an intellectual response (and continue to talk about it, even critically) just plays into Rudd’s hands that this is the real level of his argument. If the Right/Free-Marketeers want to overcome Rudd’s argument, they should see it for the politically motivated piece it is at heart, and simply ignore it. When the economy and public view of the market inevitably rebounds, they will be back in the ascent. That is, so long as some are willing to come through with a serious intellectual engagement on how the GFC has challenged some of the more idealistic claims of the Free-Marketerism without resorting to the old crutch that government is always and ever the reason markets don’t bring us a utopia on earth.

Politically though it makes more sense however to just ignore it. The Australian public largely has, and the media havn’t changed their view that much either. Assuming Rudd was arguing economics instead of politics is paying it too much respect for what it actually is.

Through the looking glass

One of the most vexing questions in all philosophy and social sciences is how language interacts with, shapes and perhaps even creates our observations of the world before us. As Berkely, Kant and others noted, we can never know the thing in itself. We only know our experiences of the world, and as they change, so does the way we view the world.
Usually however, we can be pretty sure that the words in our head correspond to reality, at least allowing us to navigate our way around and survive. If I tell you to get out of the water to avoid a shark, your views about them or even lack of any knowledge of what a “shark” is, wont actually prevent you seeing the moving beast or having it take a bite out of you. We might not know whats really there, but only the (engangered) skeptic would doubt there really is a shark there.

But what if I started calling all fish as “sharks”. You’d be hopping in and out of the water every few minutes, and end up probably ignoring my claims if not wanting to throw me to the “sharks”. Hence our desire to be as specific as possible in our labeling, our survival depends upon it. This applies equally to human constructs. You can’t touch, taste, see, smell, hear or feel a Nation-State, but you can still be significantly harmed by it. Hence our need for accurate reporting. Unfortunately the Internets latest rising star in Political Journalism Politico seems to be betraying that duty. Take this headline post:

Class Warfare returns to Washington

President Barack Obama has spent months recasting Democratic goals on climate change and health care reform from liberal-leaning moral imperatives to hard-core economic necessities.
But when it comes to paying for them, Obama’s creative juices seemed to run dry as he turned Thursday to his party’s most predictable revenue enhancer: taxing the wealthy.
The result: an instant revival of an old and predictable Washington debate.
“This budget makes clear that the era of Big Government is back, and Democrats want you to pay for it,” said House Republican leader John A. Boehner.
And right on cue, Obama defended his $1.3 trillion in tax hikes over 10 years with a little class warfare.
“I know that this will not always sit well with the special interests and their lobbyists here in Washington, who think our budget and tax system is just fine as it is. No wonder — it works for them,” the president said. “I work for the American people, and I’m determined to bring the change that the people voted for last November.”

There is however absolutely nothing in Obama’s actions that could even uncharitably be classified as Class Warfare. Whilst we use the term “war” far too often (war on terror, war on drugs, war on poverty etc) the idea of class warfare has specific meanings from the Communist and Socialist take on the importance of class in shaping the substructure of society. To undertake class warfare you have to actually believe in an idea of not just clashing classes, but that its a zero-sum fight between two rival sides. Obama’s plan on the other hand offers tax cuts to 95% of Americans and a decision to let the Bush tax cuts lapse in 2013. All for the purpose of trying to create a system of universal health care, and drastically reduce a $1.75 Trillion dollar deficit. All at a time where the income inequality gap has dramatically widened and middle class wages virtually stagnated over the last three decades.

Unless there are two classes, the top 5% and the entire rest of the American population, and that 5% finds ideas like deficit reduction and health care a smear on its values, then this is not by any means class warfare.

So what is to explain such a approach to writing the story. We could simply put this down to biased journalism. The writer may be a Republican or fiscal conservative and hence wanting to cast the Presidents actions in a negative light, as the House Republican leader John Boehner does in the article. But there’s a better explanation at work: A journalists reliance on cliches to explain the world before them.

Internet political journalism is tough. There’s thousands of competitors (like this blog) who happily do it for free, and typically they have been frozen out by the Mainstream cable and newspaper organisations, or by political administrations who are yet to warm to the un-tamable world of the internet. Like all journalists they probably need to write a half dozen articles a day, if not before lunchtime. And so they cut corners in taking the time to describe the world before them, and rely on clichés to quickly pump out articles, but in this case it serves only to distort and obscure the world before us.

Politico was a great resource during the election, and Ben Smiths Blog on the site, is great for keeping up with the days events and current distractions of Washingtons political class. But as a source of journalism, the site itself is descending into cliches that are distorting the world they are claiming to bring us unfiltered and clear observations of. It’s difficult enough to know what’s actually happening without accepting second rate efforts by others. At least with bias you can correct for the writers (conscious or unconscious) distortion of whats happening; with those claiming to be offering objective journalism, its just unacceptable.

A friend of capitalism?

Sinclair Davidson of the Australian quasi-libertarian blog Catallaxy, had a letter in the Fin Review recently pushing a familiar right wing interpretation of modern left wing views about the GFC:

Mark Latham points out the obvious problem with the Rudd government’s ETS policy. Mr Rudd thinks that global warming is a consequence of market failure, yet creates a market to ‘solve’ the problem (Review 20 February 2009, pg. 3). Unfortunately, Mr Rudd’s dilemma is more complex and problematic than that. In his The Monthly essay, he rubbishes the so-called efficient markets hypothesis as being the core belief underlying ‘neo-liberal policy prescriptions’. While that view is debatable, it is surprising then that the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme White Paper, released as recently as December last year, waxes lyrical about the importance of the proposed carbon market being efficient. Of course, efficient markets are economically important, but if you really believe that markets cannot be efficient, you cannot also believe that an ETS will result in lower carbon emissions in a cost-effective manner.

This attack is of course a misrepresentation of Rudd & the modern left’s view of markets. They are not moving away from markets or capitalism in any philosophical or significant policy sense. And yet, this straw man that “the left has declared the market dead” is being pushed by both the left and right. Here we have a case where both sides of politics are pushing for a simplification of one sides argument so as to score political points (the left short term-as things get worse-; the right long term -assuming a recovery-).

Yet in the interest of honesty against letters such as above, and because I think the right’s better politically positioned here, its worth detailing just what Rudd wrote. His essay may have made it to the media with a number of bold claims such as “The great neo-liberal experiment of the past 30 years has failed”, but he is a useful proxy for the complexity inherent in the modern lefts view of the markets these days.
For a start, Davidson (echoing the untrustworthy Latham) misrepresents Rudd’s concern with the efficient market theory. Rudd takes it to task not for its efficiency as for the claimed resulting benefit for society :”if the markets are efficient and prices fully informed, there is no reason to believe that asset-price bubbles are probably; and if these do occur, markets will self correct…In the neoliberal view, markets are spontaneous and self-regulating products of civil society, while governments alien and coercive intruders”.

This probably better represents the divide between the modern left and right today. The right seems to hold that markets are naturally occurring and regulating creatures. A product of nature, and as such out to be left as untampered with as possible. Plonk down any group of people together in the wilderness, all with needs and wants and they will form a market to organize the flow of resources between them and in this way achieve the goals and requirements of both the individuals and the society at large.

The left on the other hand sees markets as a social construct that work well when set up on top of other more base requirements for survival (our group of people would first need to establish social norms of interaction (ie no theft, equality), protection from outside threats (security) and protection of the weakest (ensuring the sick or those unable to “pay” would not starve). Once these requirements are met, then they could create a market to trade the surplus food & skills and begin building up the society. And should this market work in a way that damages one of the more base goals (ie someone ends up too wealthy and is able to turn others into defacto slaves) then society needs to step in and change the market to return it to a more acceptable practice

As I mentioned in a recent post, this right wing view about the naturalness of the market occurring wherever humans cohabit, saw some expression in Iraq in 2003, where a guiding principle of the early days of the occupation was that once freed from the constraints of the authoritarian socialist government of Saddam Hussein, a free, efficient and just markets would flourish. Of course it didn’t and was immediately abused by those who had the resources to affect it (tribal leaders, sectarian leaders, and criminal elements) which inevitably led to the people abandoning it as an ineffective way to gain necessary supplies & services, which in turn led to more abuse.

Now, read any of the great neo-liberal texts (such as Friedrich Von Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty) and you will find the rule of law as a central if not defining requirement for society. These were not anarchists (as the picture in my last post joked), but the example of Iraq shows how dependent the market is upon society and is better seen as a social creation, rather than a naturally occurring (or naturally ordering) element of human life.

Thus, even in headline claims by Rudd such as “free-market fundamentalism… has been revealed as little more than personal greed dressed up as an economic philosophy” you can see the caveats. It is not markets, but “free markets”, it is not just supporting markets, but “fundamentalism” that is the real heart of the problem. Almost every time Rudd mentions the target there is some adjective before it such as “extremism” “excessive” “particular brand of”. These are both rhetorical weapons (in a rather well written and argued piece) and also efforts to refine his target from all capitalism to just those specific elements which have caused the problems in the worlds economic markets at this point. Likewise when Rudd makes positive arguments in favour of social democracy he stresses it’s “capacity to balance the private and the public, profit and wages, the market and the state”, identifying the Hawke-Keating governments “ambitious and unapologietic program of economic modernization… harnessing the power of the market to increase innovation, investment and productivity growth”. Indeed whilst the right, from Howard on down to newspaper letter writers is wrapped up in rejecting the straw man it has built for Rudd’s actual position, the old socialist left has been equally grumbling at the number of pointed digs at the “new political voices of the extreme left…and prevent extreme reactions from the far Left… taking hold” found within the essay. Rudd may be advocating social democracy, but of it’s favorite tool tariffs he is scathing “soft or hard, protectionism is a sure-fire way of turning recession into depression”

If you want to know his real view, you need look no further than the end of the introductory paragraphs where Rudd asserts that “Not for the first time in history, the international challenge for social democrats is to save capitalism from itself: to recognise the great strengths of open, competitive markets while rejecting the extreme capitalism and unrestrained greed that have perverted so much of the global financial system in recent times”

Thus no one who’s read Rudd’s essay in the monthly could honestly find a contradiction between his governments support for a Cap and Trade market to deal with Greenhouse Gas’s and his attacks on Neo-Liberalism. But as I mentioned before, there are forces on the left and right who would love to believe that Rudd is claiming the end of capitalism and markets. But it’s simply not the case.

* The headline is taken from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s claim to be the “best friend capitalism ever had” for his efforts to return confidence to the American economic system via his New Deal approach. It’s a glib line, but in outcome he did more than the more puritan like Hoover to actually preserve capitalism and the integral role of markets within society.

Score one for the independents

A few weeks ago, I dismissed the worth of the independents in the senate. This doesn’t exactly make up for it, but it is a sign they have some uses: (Though again well behind the major parties of the Liberals & Greens)

The Government’s plan to introduce mandatory internet censorship has effectively been scuttled, following an independent senator’s decision to join the Greens and Opposition in blocking any legislation required to get the scheme started.

The Opposition’s communications spokesman Nick Minchin has this week obtained independent legal advice saying that if the Government is to pursue a mandatory filtering regime “legislation of some sort will almost certainly be required”.

Senator Nick Xenophon previously indicated he may support a filter that blocks online gambling websites but in a phone interview today he withdrew all support, saying “the more evidence that’s come out, the more questions there are on this”.

Hopefully this spells the doom for the Governments ridiculous plans. As I mentioned in just my last post, liberal ideals are too rarely defended by those who claim to govern in their name (Labor may be social democrat in orientation, but its membership and political base is increasingly going in that direction), and the temptation to embrace a conservative idea (net filtering, maintaining bans on homosexual marriage) for political benefit, offers neither popular support or policy reward.
Rudd woudn’t have lost any votes or support for rejecting the Coalitions plan to filter the internet, and he wont gain any should by some chance (Xenophon has already indicated he is well open to bribery*) the plan pass.

*Actually the reason this is news is that most political observers had presumed Xenophon would support the governments policy if they also sought to severely restrict Online Gambling, a bugbear of the new Senator for South Australia. He may still be willing to change his view.

But for the moment, and those who’ve been involved in protesting this (Watch out for the March in March held here in Canberra) this is good news.

The trouble with Libertarians

This blog is of course called chasing the norm, and the latest hot norm is of course to claim/disclaim the possibility of an alliance between Liberals and Libertarians, at least intellectually if not politically (Libertarians can only offer a few votes, but do represent a solid branch of the Reagan Coalition between Economic Liberals and Social Conservatives, which Liberals would love to rip out). This was a topic brought up in 2006 by Markos Moulitsas (of Daily Kos fame), urging Libertarians to vote Democrat, and has been raised on a number of major blogs recently see here here and here.

If this is marriage is to be one of more than just an American born alliance of political convenience to defeat the currently inept Republican party, then some changes in rhetoric and perception need to occur on both sides. That is to say, I believe most of the differences are political over policy based. They are tough to change, but not insurmountable.

The great difference between Liberals and Libertarianism is the question of Economics. Indeed many of them are proud to say Political Economy is the only issue upon which they vote. Whilst I have great sympathy for the basis of their arguments (leaving aside the fringe wing which want changes like returning to the Gold Standard), this economics and only economics issue is crippling to both the wider appeal of Liberatarianism, and its usefulness as a political ideology. Libertarians are able to be so dogmatic because they wish away so many of the associated issues, despite having a consistent ideological end point with Liberals.
For example Education: Whilst a fully rounded view of Freedom would desire Individuals to be educated to as high a standard as possible so as to make the most of their opportunities and freedoms, and allowing them to be as capable and prosperous individuals as possible (which offers compensatory economic benefits to the society). So on a view of freedom as individual flourishing you would support a universal education system. But on a view of freedom as purely an economic interaction, then government education imposes tax burdens on the individual and crowds out the market for private education providers, thus allowing the individual the freedom to choose their (or their children’s) own level of education (if any), or go into business running a school. Now I doubt many Libertarians actually embrace the idea of vast sections of society choosing not to educate their kids (indeed Libertarianism is such a niche that it’s reserved almost entirely for those who are quite well educated already). Thus & combined with their rhetorical focus almost purely on economic issues, what begins as a respectable duel legged stance of freedom in education (choosing ones education and/or choosing to open a private school) ends up being a economic pronged attack on government solely to allow a few more people to open private schools, whilst degrading the entire education system of the country.

There’s also a problem in the economics here too, that whilst private schools reduce the burden on tax payers (around $4000 a student in Australia), the field of education simply doesn’t offer the potential for a real working market. Whilst perhaps few choices are more important for an individual, our choices are actually very limited for what schools we will send our kids. Only in the largest of cities is there more than a handful of choices (indeed in some towns only one or even no school may be privately economically viable), and yet factors such as geography, closeness to work, the presence of school friends attending, the religion (and the church has been the biggest private educator for millenia) all serve to limit our choice dramatically. What should be a parent choosing the very best school possible for the education and well being of their child often ends up a decision of convenience between no more than 2-3 options without significant information ever likely to be available (you can test drive a ford, or return a broken hair dryer, but what if your kid doesnt like the school, or you dont like some of their attitudes which are hidden behind the glossy brochures).

From a economic driven view of freedom it makes sense for education to be private, but in outcome it ends up a petty and small effort to promote private education (or simply decry government wherever it is found) without actually encouraging significantly better individual choice for parents, or individual freedom for children by receiving a high quality education to enable them to fearlessly engage the world upon graduation.

This sidestepping of experience for a desire for ideological consistency (ie process over outcome) seems well encapsulated by this anecdote from Matt Steinglass:

I keep encountering American libertarians traveling in Vietnam, and each time I think they’re going to be forced to revisit some of their core assumptions; they all like Vietnam because in comparison to other third-world countries there’s no crime, the services actually function, governance works, and therefore it’s a great place to do business and has a thriving and expanding capitalist economy. I imagine they will be forced to perceive the ways in which Vietnam’s extremely group-oriented Confucian culture, where decisions are generally made at the level of the family or the work unit rather than the individual, renders many incentive systems based on individual decision-making hapless and ineffective. (See: much of the US’s “hearts and minds” efforts in the Vietnam War.) And yet each time I find they leave with their convictions happily unscarred by any encounter with reality

I noticed the same effect, though with semi-libertarians now charged with running the government themselves in 2003 when the US run Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq set about making major structural reformations to the shattered country of Iraq. Regardless of the the differences between the USA where they had formulated their ideas and the circumstances they found in Iraq, the CPA’s policies were right out of a Conservative/Libertarian utopia. Everything that could be privatized would be, tariffs and regulation were to be ripped up, and a 15% flat tax instituted. Now whilst other factors like an insurgency rudely interrupted this grand design, in case after case where the reforms had been lead by hired ideologues, they failed or barely functioned (In one notable case, the chief economic advisor to Iraqi proconsul Paul Bremer cheered on Iraqis post invasion theft of state owned bus’s & taxis as a form of ‘robin hood policy’ as it would allow individuals to begin running their own private transport services)

Neither the success in Vietnam of collective approaches, or the failure in Iraq of libertarian ones mean that the theory is at fundamental fault. Instead it demonstrates the need for a context sensitive approach to governance that is fundamentally lacking in much of our political culture, but especially amongst libertarians.
The principles are not wrong, but by focusing on process and not outcome, Libertarians almost abandon their claim to be a political theory (which promotes certain goals like individual freedom) as opposed to being a economic or social theory which seeks structural organization without regard to outcome (for example theocratic theories which preference the organization of society above all other goals)

Libertarianism, especially the earlier thinkers or the more academic ones like Hayek seem to regularly acknowledge the importance of shifting process for outcome to benefit the individual, rather than ideological purity around certain forms of social organization. Take the right to property. Maximum Individual freedom need not logically be built upon a theory of private property, however through the historical process we have come to see that private ownership works as a basis for supporting individual freedom. Despite the pernicious effects it can sometimes have in society, and distorting effects in the market (ie inherited wealth) it is a fundamental basis for our conception of individual freedom. Libertarian philosophy incorporates this element because of its effect, whilst simultaneously rejecting other elements so as to maintain an apparent ideological clarity that ends up harming their claim to be a political philosophy of individual freedom, rather than just an economic theory. To be taken seriously as a political philosophy then political ends like freedom need to drive policy, instead of ideological insistence on certain processes -like private property- which may be aid that political end in other areas. If Libertarianism is more than just “anarchism for rich people” as the cartoon so mocks, then where the evidence demonstrates governments role in enhancing individual freedom (as in Education above), the that must drive the Political Philosophy, rather than simply falling back on the same processes that had increased individual freedom in other areas (such as tariffs & trade)

On the other side however Liberals, if anything may also be justly accused of a reflexive weakness in philosophy, consistently seeking to defend the status quo, rather than pushing for true liberal change as desired. From moral issues such as holding back on Gay Marriage or Euthanasia, to Economic (accepting monopolies such as the supermarkets or protectionism for agriculture) Liberals end up giving Libertarians a clear and coherent opportunity to attack the contradictions in such a theory of governance.

A marriage of Libertarianism and Liberals would be beneficial for both groups. For Libertarians to help shift its principles into the mainstream debate and away from just the field of economics, and for Liberals to use this new public voice to help steel themselves during times of conservative or leftist attack when maintaining the status quo is seen as an easier political path than engaging reform as needed. This does not mean that such philosophies will not differ in their response to challenges such as the economic crisis, but each could learn and mutually benefit from the others expanded role. Their end point is the same, individual freedom. The question is what pragmatic approach achieves that outcome, without causing more social harm than it seeks to benefit. Such an answer differs over time and context. Something that Liberals seem to have learnt if a little too well in their desire to be seen to do the right thing to keep their role in governance, and that Libertarians find almost offensive which works to keep them from having consequence via governance (or as in Iraq abysmal effects). One weak but involved, one strong but isolated. It’s not a marriage made in heaven, but then what of mans hand ever is…

She’s back (but thankfully not for long)

Right on the heels of my post on Female Politicians in Australia, comes the disquieting news that Pauline Hanson is now running for a seat in QLD’s state election. pauline_pantsdown

I suppose it was inevitable that Hanson would pop up, given that elections tend to be quite profitable for her, afterall she made $213’000 courtesy of the AEC in her failed attempt as a senator at the 2007 Federal election. Indeed Hanson has run and failed in most elections for the last decade including, Federally in 1998(as a MP) & 2001 (as a Senator), in 2003 for NSW (in the upper house), the aforementioned 2007 run and now in 2008 is going for a MP spot in QLD.

Hanson has always been a media and political phenomenon far more than an electoral one, a distinction worth remembering in these days of democracies omnipresence. Just because people are talking about you, doesnt mean you the people will be voting for you. Hanson was significant for what she represented, anger at the change and upheaval of globalisation, and a lightning rod for changes conservatives wanted in the national conversation that those on the right and left interpreted as an encouragement for racism. (The former doing, the latter condoning).

But Hanson herself has never been that popular and whilst QLD is her native backyard, we should not expect any more chance of her being elected this time around. For a start, the only time she won an election it was because (despite a last minute disendorsement) she was still listed as a Liberal Party candidate on the electoral ballots.) Her latest run comes after being reduced to a celebrity reality TV star and far from the political debate or even consciousness over the last 4-5 years. She has yet to nominate which seat she will stand for, or even assemble any kind of political operation (Though Possum Pollytics at Crikey has a post up suggesting she will run in Beaudesert).

Secondly, whilst these are tough economic times, Australia is yet to really feel the pinch in job losses, or business closures, and there isn’t the simmering long term resentment that the Government/major parties arnt doing anything about it that there was in 1996-1998. Bligh may well face a tough fight, but few will blame her, or Rudd (or the Liberal National Party) for the economic conditions they face. As such Hanson’s ability to whip up economic discontent will be limited. Likewise for Immigration, after several years debating the topic, the people are exhausted by it. Hanson’s message will play better in rural QLD than most of the country, and she has easily slid from being anti-asian to anti-muslim/Lebanese. However given 9/11 is now 8 years old, and the Lebanese community in QLD is tiny, she wont find a lot to work with. And finally, the election is set for march 21, that is 26 days away. 26 days to persuade tens of thousands of people to vote for her. Of whom many would have not heard of her in a decade, other than as an item of celebrity gossip. 26 days to establish a credible base, whilst the Labor Party (at both state and Federal levels) will turn their full guns on her, and the Liberals once bitten, twice shy (and afraid she will cost them a seat) will be doing all they can to deny her oxygen and credibility.
One final point about this noxious woman. Whatever our personal disgust with her views on race, religion, economics (a 2% tax on everything!), her imprisonment was a breech of justice and the rule of Law. Whilst I dont have a problem with her political opponents aiding legal efforts against her, the judges made major mistakes in reading and interpreting the law. Whilst one could only charitably classify her actions as ‘self-interested’, it was not illegal, and her imprisonment a miscarriage of justice. One that is unacceptable with a normal person and doubly so with a politician (Politicians are just as accountable under the law as everyone else, however the law has been the favoured tactic for centuries to remove and censor popular but radical politicians. The highest possible standard of justice is required in their case to ensure the law, not politics is the cause of any legal sentencing)

Hopefully this is the first and last post I’ll have to make on Hanson. She was a freak electoral result, who showed us only two significant points. 1 – That Politicians (Keating) can not get too far in front of the community when making changes, lest it cause outrage, and that 2 – Politicians (Howard) cant afford to ignore or justify this outrage when it works for their electoral/political benefit. Her story is one of main party failure, not personal capability. She should well lose in March, and with that fifth straight electoral defeat be consigned to the dustbin of Australian Political history.

The soft bigotry of Australian politics

This sentence caught my attention over the morning coffee:

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh will be become the first female elected to the position of state premier in Australia if she retains office in an election to be held on March 21.

This is apparently thought significant by our unnamed correspondent, despite the fact that Rosemary Follett (ACT), Kate Carnell (ACT) and Clare Martin (NT) have all won elections from opposition over the last 18 years.

This reflects two of the soft bigotries that exist in Australian politics: That Territories dont count, and Women are something new in politics.

First the states: Newspapers and politicians seem the only ones who actually think in terms of their own state, or the states as apart from the territories. Everyone feels the need to belong somewhere, but Australia’s states occupy a no-mans land these days between our townships (witness the Sydney-Melbourne rivalry) and our united allegiance as Australians. I can understand a NSW premier trying to talk up the advantages of their own state over others; but that is a show for the media, and doesn’t reflect the country and way australians view the country. Its bad enough territories get less senate representation, weird HOR seat allocations and are irrelevant at referendums, lets drop the pretense that leading a state is somehow a greater honour or tougher gig than leading a territory.

Now to my main point: The election of Bligh (looking a certainty, abet with a reduced majority), will not be a milestone in Australian politics or gender relations in this country. It will tell us nothing about the publics willingness to elect women, nor give renewed hope to those like Gillard or Bishop who long to be the first female PM.
Australian’s already elect women aplenty, it is now a question of timing, luck and talent for who rises and falls. To suggest otherwise, seems to me more evidence of a private worry about the weakness of women as politicians, than a concern about male misogyny. Women undoubtedly do it tougher in politics, but they already win and take on leadership positions, and reducing every individuals setback to wider causes is its own form of soft bigotry. The main problems seem to lie more in the media’s superficial approach to female politicians (can they be mothers & politicians -or why didn’t they have kids- is their make up on right every single second of the day, what kind of clothes are they wearing) than the actual political parties which have women throughout and don’t change their behavior in attacking/defending other politicians on the basis of gender.

Thus, while the Academic research shows that the ALP’s quota for female candidates in winnable seats has been relatively successful and encouraged other parties to select more women for seats, I would argue that it is nearing the end of its usefulness. (On principle I think all affirmative action should have sunset clauses, but it is to be judged on a case by case basis)

As adopted in 1981, and last updated in 2007 the ALP’s National Constitution requires that:

Public Office Preselection
(c) Preselections for public office positions at a State and federal level shall comply with the
affirmative action model in this rule 10(c). PRINCIPLES
(i) The intention of this rule is to produce an outcome where not less than 40% of
seats held by Labor will be filled by women
, and not less than 40% by men (“the
minimum target”).
(iii)The remaining 20% of the seats held by Labor may be filled by candidates of
either gender.

The problem I have with this approach is that Legislatures are supposed to represent the people, not be representative of them. This is why we don’t simply hand over seats on the basis of gender, age, race, religion levels within the community. Instead we seek to elect the best and most capable, who can understand the full range of issues faced within the community. Whilst a situation of no female representatives (or the currently appalling situation of no Indigenous MP’s/Senators) is unacceptable, Affirmative action should only be used to ensure that the path is open, not that it is well trod. Women currently hold in Government the positions of Deputy PM, Health minister, Climate Change minister, Age Care, Youth & Sport, and in opposition those of Foreign Affairs, Finance, and Immigration (Plus Parliamentary Secretaries on both sides). No young girl who is serious about a political career could fail to notice the many women now in top positions in parliament and the possibility of they too ascending to the very top. They don’t need quota’s to get there, and such systems having done their job need to be retired.

The Great Pretender

Mark Twain once said “History may not repeat, but it does rhyme a lot”, an insight many political watchers must be feeling watching Peter Costello once again destabilize the Liberal Party whilst simultaneously damaging his own standing and reputation. Yet, such an observation seems to fly in the face of the Australian media’s Conventional Wisdom that Costello was the best politician of his generation in his dominance of parliament and policy as Treasurer.

It fits a pattern, Costello was the liberal wunderkid, becoming famous as a young barrister taking on the unions in the Dollar Sweets disupte. After a quick rise in 1994, he wisely (or so it is held) chose only to be Downer’s Deputy, and then again in 1995, took the junior position to John Howard, knowing his standing as next in line was cemented, whatever the outcome of the election.

Victories in 1996 & 1998, along with the introduction of the GST, and slowly improving economic circumstances of Australia (whose rise it must be noted began before the Coalition came to power), and a lack of any strong (or even comfortable) parliamentary performers to challenge him, and Costello was seen as the next PM without a doubt, and a political talent without equal.
Yet from here, our story and the conventional narrative for this great political talent; one that still holds, and sends his troops to the fore breaks down. Costello ended the twentieth century pushing for an Australian Republic and pushing for reconciliation with suggestions of a walk for reconciliation (Costello later backed out; blaming his colleagues).

And, of course having done his loyal time, Costello expected the deal to be honoured, and his ascent up the greasy pole to be complete.

Costello then promised to speak freely, and show the Australian people his full command and leadership, but like most of his promises, it never happened. He stayed fixed almost entirely within his comfortable, unchallenged high ground as treasurer during an economic boom. As we later learned, the great political talent maintained the same aloofness even to his colleagues, the few dozen people who’s votes actually mattered and could have given him the leadership. This great political talent never got any closer to the leadership, year after year. Yet Every 18 months he would step out to have a whinge that the top job was not already his. All without ever being willing to challenge, a pattern he maintained during the coalitions death spiral and Howards late night pre-election meeting on stepping down. Costello of course, the great political talent according to the conventional wisdom, didn’t initiate the conversation, wasn’t in the room that mattered, didn’t have his colleagues loyalty, and ended up going down with the ship, in the same position he had been in 13 years before.

And so, the dawn after his white whale was harpooned and brought down, Costello couldn’t even bring himself to accept the burden of leadership. And so as Nelson and now Turnbull lead the party into oblivion, the great political talent, continues to destabilize, and harm his party. His memoirs passed almost without incident, and the Australian political world, apart from a few rubberneck spectators the man himself, and the same political press corps who created the conventional wisdom of his great talent, has moved on.

For all his talent Costello is a man who (as the Chaser boy’s quipped) wouldn’t even challenge for the leadership when it was already his. This great political talent, never once changed his own parties policy stance on a major issue, shifting from being a rare liberal amongst conservatives, to just another mouthpiece for whatever came out of the PM’s office that day. This great political talent never showed to the public any great vision or inspiration in any field beyond economics, and even there what was new came from Howard, what was competent from Treasury. Having had a better opportunity, promotional base, and luck in national conditions suiting his ministry, Costello still managed to never, ever get any closer to the leadership, than he was on 31 January 1995 when Downer resigned and Costello could have taken the leadership.

Peter Costello is clearly a smart, talented, bloke, but if politics is the art of gaining power or using it for the pursuit of one’s ideas and aims, politics is not one of his skills. He may just well be, the worst political talent in Australian political history. So much opportunity, so much ineptness in actually achieving what he wanted. The media should forget this has been never will be. Good on John Hewson for saying so.

Or, just turn to Paul Keating who nailed the man 15 years ago:

Wither Freedom?

Via Andrew Sullivan, comes this intriguing comment by his conservative colleague at the Atlantic Ross Douthat

the battle between social conservatism and social liberalism at the moment isn’t a battle between competing utopias, but a battle over which tragic choice is worse: The choice to stigmatize, which can damage and even ruin lives, or the choice to destigmatize, which can damage and ruin countless lives as well….we’ve come a long way down their road, and I think we know enough about the consequences to say that there would be real gains to human welfare available – for downscale Americans, especially, but not only for them – if we were to go some distance in a more conservative direction.

This may seem a basic utilitarian argument: what are the outcomes of each choice, and how best might we shape society for the greatest happiness. But there is one crucial calculation left out here: Destigmatizing human relationships, that is social liberalism, by its mere presence grants each and every one of us the individual freedom to actually make a choice.

We may not like the outcome of some of these choices, but it is superior in almost every way, whatever the outcome, that such a choice has actually been made by the individual. Without such a choice being available we can not expect the individual to accept responsibility for the outcome, nor equally can we praise the actions of those we think made the “right” choice, if they did not feel they had any other option available to them.

Without freedom, no happiness is possible. No figure in history has ever sought to celebrate the happiness of the slave, whatever his access to good food, social stability, or access to pleasure. That is why utilitarian arguments have always been so centrally concerned with individual freedom, and championed by those like Bentham, Mill or Singer who wish to promote as much individual freedom as possible, rather than social conservatives who, (were it not for their love of pre-received authority) would be natural allies of such a strain of thought. If we truly do need such harsh social shame and stigma to produce positive outcomes, then utilitarian calculations would be perfectly suited to justifying it. But instead, for reasons more of history and religion than logic, Conservatives pretend their claim is a moral one, when at heart they would wish to deny all human choice, and thereby cannot claim any more a sense of morality than we may expect our laptop or toaster to be “moral” in doing what they are engineered to do.

Freedom mis-used, is still freedom. As a society we do desperately need to act to try and fix some of the social ills we see, for example:

We[Australia] have 7.8 million households in this country; over 10% of those have experienced a break-in.
We have 16 million people aged over 15 in this country; 5.5% have experienced sexual assault.
191,000 males between 18 and 25 reported being assaulted in 2005 – 44% of those in bars.

But, it would be meaningless to try and solve these problems by first trying to prevent what makes us human, and is the prerequisite for any life worth living: Individual freedom in the pursuit of happiness.

Of great and petty things

In the 15 months since the Howard Government fell, I’d wager a fair percentage of the publics opinion on that time has shifted. Whilst most are happy under Rudd, they naturally have come to associate the time before as one of prosperity, less economic stress, and stability. So, whilst the current liberal party tears itself apart (though a necessary bloodletting), you can understand why people may be keen to hear what the former PM John Howard thinks and perhaps even re-evaluate him having voted him out in 2007.
Thus, this morning both Fairfax and News Ltd reprinted large swathes of his recent Lecture to the Liberal Party faithful. Indeed as my own philosophy is growing increasingly liberal, I was beginning to wonder if I’d misjudged a politician who could casually reference both Mill and Burke.

Yet one quick skim through the lecture was enough to remind me just how much I detest the lying rodent all over again. Here’s three quick lies & distortions:

1) First Howard claims the subprime crisis was caused by “a laudable social goal to spread home ownership as widely as possible”. As referenced before on this blog, it is quite simply false.

2) Then Howard uses the Liberal Parties deliberately misleading claim that we are suddenly $200b in debt from the $42b stimulus package. Unsurprisingly the impossible maths here means this distortion hasn’t caught on in the publics mind, but its worth turning to the economist Peter Martin to show why its so deliberately wrong:

Kevin Rudd is planning to spend $42 billion over two years, not the $200 billion needed justify the Liberal Party’s calculation. But the bills before the Senate do allow his government to borrow up to $200 billion if needed. It’s like a credit limit. It’s not a debt unless you use it.

3) Finally, Howard promised us that he would be a “very quiet ex-prime minister and not provide a running commentary”. This is about the 6th time Howard has popped up to criticize the Rudd Government since the election, on a spectrum of issues.

It took 15 months for memory to slowly fade and cast a warmer glow on the former PM, and only 5 minutes to bring all the dismay and disgust come flooding back.

Making good on our promises

Ever since taking office, the Rudd government has sought to differentiate itself from the Howard legacy by strongly pushing for a greater NATO focus in Afghanistan, rather than Iraq (See here and here). This not only made tactical sense in that Afghanistan is the real front in the WOT these days, and helped offset any political tags of being weak because of a push to get out of Iraq. (Though it’s noticeable that with incumbency Labor has become virtually unchallenged in foreign affairs, with regular critics like Greig Sheridan quickly changing their tone)

With that in mind, it’s hence rather perplexing why the Rudd government has reacted decided not to help Obama’s increase of 17’000 troops to Afghanistan.

Australia has welcomed the US decision to send 17,000 additional troops to southern Afghanistan.
Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon says it does not change Australia’s role and he says there has been no request from Washington for extra Australian troops.
Mr Fitzgibbon also says he will not be offering to boost Australia’s contribution in Afghanistan….He says he is quietly confident some undercommitted NATO countries are also about to do more.
“There is no doubt that additional troop numbers are critical to securing better progress in Afghanistan, but we also need to properly resource and marry the civil effort,” he said.
“We would always consider such a request from our closest ally but there are a number of tests we would apply and of course we remain not inclined to do more while ever so many NATO countries remain under-committed.”
Australia has about 1,000 soldiers currently deployed in Afghanistan.

Fitzgibbon’s arguments however are contradictory: Last month he was arguing we would only send more troops if other NATO allies contributed; whilst now he is refusing on the grounds that he’s “quietly confident” other nations will act; and therefore we are unnecessary.

Now, it certainly is true that no Australian presence can fundamentally change the situation in Afghanistan; indeed no troop presence of any number or nationality could (Obama shouldn’t be wishing for any Surge 2.0 with these numbers), but they can help create a bit of space for political developments to occur, and more importantly for Australia, sending troops is a sign of good faith and authenticity in our dealings.

The choice not to send troops would be actually acceptable, except for one little fact: Rudd & Fitzgibbon just spent the last two years calling for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan!

With this refusal we look like little more than a cheerleader, unwilling to actually take the steps we regularly call on others to do so. This is damaging, not just in this single case of Afghanistan, but on whatever projects we are hoping to push in the future, for instance our power as a honest bargainer in the Anti-Nuclear Commission I mentioned a few days ago).

And with the caveat of the general small size of our force in mind, I’m also not sure why more troops couldn’t be sent. Whilst there has been some disquiet in recent years about troop deployments in the army, it generally isn’t considered overstretched. We have less than half the number of soldiers operating in the field as we did during the 1999 INTERFET mission to East Timor, at less than 5% of the total permanent ADF size being involved. Indeed Labor’s own pull down from Iraq has reduced our force numbers there from 1500 to just over 120 in Iraq since the election, further reducing the burden. For more knowledgeable heads than mine, such as retired General Jim Molan (who played a major role in Iraq) have suggested that we could spare up to 5’000 more troops for Afghanistan. There are of course other reasons we could use troops, and any deployments are costly of course; but we have committed to this mission, the government has spent nearly 2 years calling for such an increase in troops and focus, and yet now we are turning down helping ?

The only other explanation could be a concern by Rudd that the public wont tolerate higher levels of casualties in Afghanistan, but it there is one real military lesson of the Bush years, it is that the left wing reticence to put soldiers in harms way (as Clinton was famous for) doesn’t bear huge political costs. Bush’s won in 2004 despite losing nearly 1500 troops come the election. Instead his numbers fell because people though the deaths were in vain, that he was not capable of commanding the troops, not because they are against the idea of soldiers doing what soldiers do and sometimes getting shot at. Neither Howard or Rudd suffered any noticeable hit to their popularity when Australian’s have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, and whilst public opinion is split on Afghanistan, the results largely reflect dissatisfaction with the War On Terror in general, and the last comprehensive look was taken before the US election occurred.

If Rudd wants Australia to have a role larger than its material power allows, a large part of that will depend on living up to the image we have created for ourselves. More troops in Afghanistan now wont win the war, but it will please an incoming Obama Administration, make good on the governments constant calls for more focus on Afghanistan, and help pressure those critical NATO allies that they too ought to get involved. And Rudd’s announcement of support needs to occur in the next few days, before the US calls and demands support.

Other than a physical limitation on troops available, there is no good argument for not sending troops. Rudd & Fitzgibbon should have seen this coming (Obama’s been promising it for almost a year) and been ready, or at least had better excuses prepared. Not a good showing by a Labor Government keen to establish its international and Defence credentials.

Update: Rudd has missed his window. I always thought Howard had minimal competence in International Affairs, but he understood Alliance politics as well as anybody. Rudd still has some learning to do, esp if in the next fortnight we see a rolled out announcement of more troops to be deployed. (or the thought strikes perhaps he is playing hard to get, but that doesn’t exactly work when your date is the newly celebrated prom king, and you don’t quite fit the dress you claim to wear.)

Shaking out the Deadwood.

A few weeks ago I dinged Turnbull for his seeming drift as leader of the party. As far as anyone could see, it was the same party, with the same people in charge from 07, just a different name on the leaders door. The problem here was it was a waste of Turnbull’s skills, artificial to his character & world view, and reflected poorly on his authority within the party. Perhaps however I was too hasty in judgment:

Mr Turnbull is convinced the Liberal Party organisation needs to be revamped, its finances restored and new talent injected wherever possible.

Mr Turnbull said yesterday that the decision of Dr Nelson not to contest the next election was “an opportunity to bring new talent in, and every political party has to renew itself all thetime”.

At the moment, Mr Turnbull, or Liberal forces associated with him, have looked at unseating [Federal Party President] Mr Stockdale next month, supplanting party executive director Brian Loughnane, replacing the Senate leadership team of Nick Minchin and Eric Abetz and, once and for all, heading off Peter Costello.

Long-serving Liberals are critical of Mr Turnbull’s style and claim that “he is trying to turn the Liberal Party into the Turnbull Party”.

“This party was founded by Robert Menzies and any attempts to turn it into a personal fiefdom will be resisted,” one said.

Even the fact that Turnbull is trying to change the leadership council for the party is a good sign. It’s a sign he’s feeling confident (or daring) enough to push for change, and for the party offers its only potential revival. Loughane, Costello, Minchin and Abetz are yesterday’s men, as is Nelson. The sooner they are gone, the better for the party. Such changes not only help their media profile but offer an opportunity for updating (and indeed uniting around) a set of core beliefs and identity that can recruit new members, bind old ones and be sold to the public as a set of values to rival Labors. Turnbull also has finally taken the bull by the horns and declared Costello has had his chance. Everyone who follows politics seriously has known this since the moment Costello turned down the leadership on election night, especially the media swags who keep trying to revive it for good copy. Turnbull’s acknowledgment of the obvious is a fair sign he’s realised Costello wont play nice and simply go away, but has to be driven out like the loser he is (Policy wise Costello was a fine politician, politically he is one of the least successful in 30 years given his obvious talents)

But take again a look at that criticism in the highlighted quotes above – The unnamed critic is decrying the idea of the Liberal Party being a Personal Fiefdom by invoking Robert Menzies ? The man who single handedly ruled the party for 20 years and drastically weakened its chances of success after his retirement through a systematic process of sabotaging potential rivals in a way that would have made Joseph Stalin blush. The liberal party was Menzies personal fiefdom (for good and ill), if Turnbull’s critics want to get at him, they could probably benefit by withholding from comparing him to the revered founding father of their party. Just a thought…

Lessons in Satire

I’ve previously written long and lets face it boring posts on Gerard Henderson’s SMH columns. See here and here. But this time, all you need to know about Hendersons column can be found in one single paragraph:

The fact is governments do not create employment, except in so far as they recruit people to the public service. On other occasions, governments make economic decisions which may, or may not, lead to an increase in employment and a decrease in unemployment.

Indeed Henderson is right, for if you excuse by caveat all the things Government do which create employment, then yes you can say government doesn’t create employment. Score one for Gerard.

In the past I’ve sometimes liked Henderson’s columns. He has some intellectual heft behind him, and isn’t a deliberate troll unlike his conservative colleague at the SMH Miranda Devine. But in the last 6 month’s his columns have turned to mush, seemingly reciting US Republican Party talking points about a fortnight after they are discredited in the US press, and hoping no one notices. For instance, re-look at that sentence quoted and now look at the words from the Republican National Chairman Michael Steel on his first day in the top job: (Click through for the video)

The government doesn’t create jobs. Let’s get this notion out of our heads that the government creates jobs. Not in the history of mankind has the government ever created a job. … Those 2 to 4 million jobs that are projected won’t happen. Trust me.

The US being the US, such a claim was taken seriously for about a fortnight, then forgotten, with everyone from economists to liberals to the terminally sane just quietly giggling along in disbelief. But back to Oz.

Now In Henderson’s defense, he does end the column with a slight softening to his rhetoric and acknowledgment of reality :

Unlike government, small business is the main driver in Australia of job creation and job support

This final shift to honesty ought to be applauded, except for one little thing. Henderson also began his column tut-tutting about the governments same slipperiness in language :

Debate over word use is little more than pedantry. However, on occasions, a slight difference in wording constitutes a shift in meaning…On December 8 … the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, specifically said that it would “create up to 75,000 jobs”….On February 3…the claim was that the strategy “will support up to 90,000 jobs

Henderson may just be the greatest satire writer in the country. Who’d have imagined it could come from a dour, conservative intellectual.

Somehow I think Scott Adams is onto something…

Dilberts creator on the stimulus package:

This is yet another situation where smart people are ironically incompetent if left to their own devices. If the world were populated only with the smart and well-informed, we’d all sit around waiting for someone else to spend money first, so they can take the highest risk. Eventually society would crumble and all of us geniuses would be eaten by rats. But if you throw a bunch of clueless bastards into the mix, suddenly the economy is supercharged. Money is flying everywhere, confidence becomes warranted, and the economy flourishes.

Two weeks ago we were all economists, dictating our own versions of how to save the free world. Today we’re all hoping like buggery that the elected smart guys know what they are doing.

In other Dilbert esq news: Brendan Nelson will not be contesting the next election. Mores the pity.

Liberal Hawkishness

Like most people, I am guilty of finding an answer and then looking for justifications when it comes to political decisions. This is simply human nature, and one we all strive to overcome (and having a 3 year PhD is about as good a shake to such instinctive behavior as I can imagine), yet one issue above all swayed my conscience left, right and indecisive: The decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

In the end, I came to oppose the war (and stupidly attended an anti-war protest, an action I now regret), deciding that whilst I thought Iraq had some WMD, they were not of a quality or threat that forced us to act, and given the circumstances the wests limited resources could be better used in other fields of battle. It was one of the longest, hardest decisions I ever took, and in 2007 I undertook a year long honours course to try and help figure out just why the war had gone so wrong. For I am a Liberal Hawk and according to a new essay by Alan Wolfe – One of a dying breed:

….for liberal hawkishness, safeguarding the individual against the evil designs of tyrants all too often comes into conflict with the desire of nations to manage their own future. One may argue that tyrants cannot possibly represent the will of their people because they do not allow their people to express their will. But this is not how most people in most societies around the world see the issue. For them, occupation is occupation, however benign it may appear to the occupiers. One lesson we ought to learn from Iraq, therefore, is that our anti-totalitarianism is their neo-colonialism. Removing a tyrant comes closer to being an expression of humanitarian ideals than extracting a resource, but the techniques used to achieve the former bear a striking resemblance to those that once made the latter ubiquitous throughout the underdeveloped world: troops speaking a different language who from time to time commit collateral damage against innocent by-standers; a blind eye to bribery and corruption; the imposition of one way of life upon another without regard to the niceties of Tocquevillean custom that the occupier otherwise values.

So wither Liberal Interventionism ? On the Liberal/Int. Law side Matthew Yglesias argues that Iraq was never a liberal action to start from (and by defying the rule of law never could be) whilst Andrew Sullivan burned already on this subject (though admirably reformed) puts the conservative case that such debate in the abstract is meaningless.

But there’s something disquieting and misleading in Wolfes efforts at a counter-factual :

Because a liberal intervention in Iraq would have been more likely to achieve its objectives, it would have aroused far more cries of unwanted interference. To be sure, people’s homes might have had electricity sooner and more reliably, a daily trip to work may not have been a near-death experience, and Iraqis surely would have had the best professionals rather than incompetent political hacks advising them on how to build schools and create an electrical grid. Yet no doubt many Iraqis would have hated us all the more, for not only would we be occupying their country, we would be demonstrating on a day-to-day basis how superior our way of life is to theirs. The very act of liberating a people reminds them that they were unable to free themselves.

Whilst such pursuits may be the pursuit of the intellectual class, does anyone really think that people who flock to murders and thieves like Muqtada al-Sadr, Hamas, or the Iraqi criminal world to secure basic services and security would really turn their back on the US for delivering actual peace and security ?

The invasion of Iraq has seriously damaged the idea of Liberal Internationalism, but not because it broke the law, or because the basic ideas are wrong: But because it didn’t work. If it worked the idea would have continued merit. If it worked we would still be embracing the idea. If it worked, we would not be going through soul searching essays after 6 years.

The problem with Iraq was not a lack of plans (as conventional wisdom holds) but a bad plan, as Wolfe lets on “Suppose, as a counterfactual, that…this president, realizing that free market ideology may not necessarily be the best way to jump-start a devastated economy in a war zone, had instituted a planning process that resulted in a revitalized Iraqi energy sector, helping to defray the costs of reconstruction”.

Culture and Identity are of course vital in the make up of the societies we live in, but we are but Darwin’s progeny. If we cant survive, cant eat well and sleep in safety then no culture or identity will sustain solidarity otherwise. This is why the push to drive Liberalism internationally is so important. If we dont help out, who will. We just need to do it right. Sometimes those who view politics want to turn every event, even those as tumultuous and eventful as the invasion of Iraq into great historical truths. And sometimes simply doing it right is all that is needed. After almost 6 years wrangling over this question, and wondering how I should answer the question, that seems to me to be the wisest answer out there. Do it right, or dont bother. Anything else is pointless.