Chasing the Norm

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

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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.
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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

Liberals and Markets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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