Politics involves three things. Power, Relationships and Compromise. And while Power (who’s up, who’s out) and compromise (who has sold out/who’s principled) are topics of endless conversation, relationships are almost never talked about. They are assumed eternal links, the union movement and labor, doctors and the conservatives. But like glaciers, their slow speed should not be mistaken for weakness and when they do bring change (Howard’s battlers) they fundamentally re-arrange politics far more than any policy or polling issue could hope for.
One of the more interesting relationships to watch over the last decade has been the de facto marriage between Economic Liberals and the small business/corporate World. On the face of it, these two groups should get along famously. The former favour a de-regulation of industries, reduced taxes, and the privatisation of government services. For the business world, this means they have to worry less, pay less, and can do more than previously. But the two groups interests don’t always run in parallel.
The clearest example of this can be found in the US at the moment, in the debate about Health Care Insurance. For the Libertarians/ardent Economic Liberals, Government shouldn’t be involved in the industry (like regulating about pre-existing conditions) and certainly shouldn’t be subsidizing or offering a public run insurance service (like Medicare). Given that health insurance is so critical, in the US businesses have slowly had to adopt a health insurance package as part of their salary offers. The problem with this is that it is very costly (and ties workers to jobs). So US firms that may compete with Canadian or European or Australian firms, have significantly higher overheads. Of course businesses in the Insurance industry love this set up, but for the vast majority of businesses in America, this is just a hassle and a cost. For them, it is far better for Government to provide Health Insurance. In this case the interests of the Economic Liberals and the Business community diverge, which Obama has been exploiting to aid his legislation, and confound the Republicans
In almost all cases, the relationship is dominated the corporate world. Business has resources to pressure politicians, and emotional arguments (you don’t want us to toss the workers onto the street) that dominate the usually more pragmatic than principled support for economic liberalism espoused by western politicians these days. In short the corporate world wears the pants over the economic liberals, and so have avoided most harmful changes save the short term pain of moving to low tariff economies for western countries in the 1980’s & 90’s. That however was offset consistently with increased corporate welfare. This payoff earned the ire of some economic liberals (though somewhat appeased as they had colleagues in government). It means taxes were higher, but whenever changes came through, like reduced tariffs, FTA’s, deregulation of industries, natural challenges (drought) or man made (airlines pre & post 9/11) the government was willing to step in to help the corporate and business world through. It contradicted all good economic policy, but it made pragmatic sense, kept business happy, workers employed and could generally be afforded.
I was thinking of all this whilst reading some recent reviews on the topic of the stimulus package in Australia. On the face of it, the Stimulus package has been a roaring success with Australia, almost alone among countries, staying out of recession. Indeed news today is that unemployment has fallen for September. On the other hand, it’s much much harder to link that spending to the economic performance of the country. We haven’t gone backwards, but nor have we gone forwards. So While the economic liberals point to this as evidence such spending routines are a complete waste of money (Malcolm Turnbull is currently making the exact same point at a press conference this morning), it’s important to note the business community isn’t completely on side with such claims.
For business, the stimulus meant a psychological and fiscal guarantee. It meant the bottom of the economy was never going to fall out, that taxpayers would in effect subsidize their continued operation, and therefore that they could continue to operate as normal. Economists models may try and sideline the role of psychology, but for the business community, such re-assurance is vital. The lure of extra corporate welfare, government spending (school construction for instance) and subsidies (pink bats) at least ensured that the economy would continue as normal, which is the pattern that we have seen. While business owners are also individuals with tax rates and an ideological worry about the debt, it has been noticeable how little energy or emotion came from the corporate world over the stimulus package. They don’t like government, but they knew they needed it. As such, economic liberal politicians who lack this connection to business (Turnbull, The US republicans) have been forced to throw themselves into the fray, without their usual cavalry, -in the form of the business lobbies-, to attack the government. They have become lonely soldiers on the battlefield, as business either holds back, or throws its self-interested lot in with the Keynsean big spenders in the hope of getting some of the loose dollars.
The relationship between economic liberals/libertarians and the small business/corporate world will continue to endure. They’ll patch things up over healthcare, and having seen off the economic crisis, will revert to attacking wasteful government spending and reject any cost cutting/tax rises to pay for the debt. But a smart politician who comes up against this collective force should recognise the fault lines in the relationship. There is a reason Howard (whose dad ran a suburban petrol station) was never keen on competition as an economic principle. There is a reason business is being very quiet about the ‘SOCIALISM!’ that Obama is supposedly introducing with his health care insurance policies, and likewise Rudd and his deficit spending. For this reason, Turnbull and Hockey this morning* are probably wasting their time trying to convince Australians they are the better economic managers by being so concerned about the debt. The public is only superficially concerned about it, and the silence of their favorite barometer, the business world, will tell them all they need to know about why they should stick with Rudd. The same thing happened in 07, when business failed to go into bat for workchoices. Noticing the quiet, the people decided that the policy was an over-reach that wouldn’t help the economy that much, and so could safely be rolled back under Rudd.
* The purpose of Turnbull & Hockey’s press conference this morning was a debt reduction strategy of 25%, which I found out about on Twitter. But when I looked for a news link, not a single one even mentioned the issue of debt. Not the SMH, not The Australian , not the ABC, or news.com.au. I love a good leadership story as much as the next political junkie, but surely just ONE reporter could actually mention the purpose of the press conference or attempt to talk about something different. I’ve seen schools of fish with more independent mindedness.
Update – Finally on the 14th, 6 days after the press conference we get our first serious engagement with the Coalitions 25% cut plans by a major media outlet. I hate that MSM v blogs argument, both are useful and necessary for different reasons, but this is a pretty stark comparison in how the media has become obsessed on personalities to the exclusion of everything else. The Australian people deserve and need better.
As everyone knows US republicans are in serious trouble electorally. Richard Posner attributes this to an intellectual decline amongst US conservatives. Evidence that they arn’t lead by the brightest of sparks is pretty clear. Yet more than individuals this is a question of intellectual clout, energy and influence within the sphere of ideas. The great new-right revolution marrying religious social conservatism and economic liberalisation is clearly over. Following on from this Andrew Norton engages in the interesting question if this decline is found in Australia too.
While Australian conservatism hasn’t failed on its own terms, on the other hand it is not obvious how Australian conservatives will be seen as having solutions to widely-accepted problems in the medium term. Possibly there will be scope for reworking family and social cohesion themes, but just how this will be done I don’t know. Perhaps the most interesting conservative issue at the moment is the charter/bill of rights, because of the significant challenge to our democratic system. But this is largely a negative agenda, and it is not clear whether conservative arguments will resonate with the broader public.
The Australian right is in a down period, with the natural shift in the political cycle. But to me it does not look like a broader crisis, as it does in the US.
I think Norton is broadly right, however I wonder if not this is a problem actually found across the entire spectrum. Progressives in the US have a lot of work to do to help their country catch up to the rest of the first world (such as universal healthcare), but these are not in any way ‘new’ goals. Only on Climate Change, and perhaps gay marriage is there a building ascendancy that new approaches are needed along lines suggested by progressives.
Take the issue of economics. Whilst the New-Right movement has clearly run out of steam and is now trying to defend the status quo, does anyone think the New-Left is offering a real alternative vision ? Rudd may have talked a lot about social democrats needing to ‘save capitalism from itself’, but each area of policy is approached piecemeal and in a pragmatic fashion. There is no clear intellectual ascendancy occurring on the left on economics, just a sudden vacuum prompted by time (It’s 30 years since Thatcher won power), arrogance (WorkChoices/US Deficit) and a psychological bodyblow (the GFC).
The 2007 election was notable for the lack of policy energy either party had. Workchoices was already law and a piece Howard had wanted to implement for two decades, meanwhile Rudd’s ‘education revolution’ proved illusory and largely a question of funding. 2007 was an election about individuals, pragmatism and renewal, rather than broad debates about the future direction of the country (1949) or reflections of an already existing social change (1972). While Labor is now enjoying the fruits of victory, and has made some welcome changes, it is hardly building an image as a progressive government, nor seriously trying to change the public mindset on key issues (outside an electorally motivated attack on free market fundamentalists lead by the largely free market supporting Rudd).
The Liberals are bouncing between moderate and more conservative ideals (indeed this struggle has become the hallmark of the Turnbull leadership unfortunately), but it is issue based and quite well contained within the same field of debate the Howard Government had (with moderates just a bit more vocal, and conservatives more angry). When was the last time Turnbull promoted a new idea? He had plenty in government(ie the pink bats rebate in Rudd’s stimulus package was originally Malcolm’s idea), but has been contained now that he is the leader.
In short there simply isn’t an ideological ascendency on either side of politics at the moment. Neither the Left nor the Right are bubbling away with new ideas. There is some activity amongst environmentalists, but it’s a minor area, and yet to be translated into a unifying political creed in the way the pro-markets economic research came to be associated with ‘freedom’. Neither side is doing a particularly good job of promoting bright new thinkers or intruding into the public sphere with new ideas and debates. I’m trying to do my own bit to think out a new approach for the left, but these are just introductory thoughts of someone more focused on foreign policy than domestic or economic issues (though this blogs posts may seem to indicate otherwise). Then again, I think we only realise these trends once they are already solidly in place and with leaders like Whitlam or Reagan to articulate them for us. Trying to find trends across a range of social science literature is a very tough ask, and the proliferation of avenues for new voices outside the mainstream (and hence easy notice) has made the task that much harder.
Neither the left or right in Australia are in intellectual decline right now, but it’s hard to say either is in ascendancy either.
Picture by Flickr user Mo Morgan used under a creative commons licence
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.
Over a week ago, I posted a longish piece, wondering how to rebuild a left wing political philosophy, in light of the fall of socialism, and the adoption and subsequent bastardization of Liberalism (especially economically) by the right. Where was the left to turn to rebuild their political philosophy? I’ve been musing about this for a while, and I think i’ve come to at least a first point of reference. But before I reveal it, I want to quote and compare it to this post by the new wunder-kid of Conservatism Ross Douthat.
it’s my impression – created, in large part, by reading Helen Epstein’s The Invisible Cure (and if there’s a devastating rebuttal to her arguments, please send it my way) – that an awful lot of the money poured into condom-promotion over the years would have much been better spent promoting “partner reduction” in cultures inclined to promiscuity and de facto polygamy instead. This isn’t the same as promoting abstinence exclusively, and indeed, Epstein is witheringly critical of some of the abstinence-only programs that American dollars have funded in the Bush era. But “partner reduction” is a lot more consonant with the Catholic Church’s longstanding position – that it’s better to promote monogamy and fidelity than to take promiscuity as a given and make it as safe as possible – than you’d think from the overheated talk about how the Vatican’s flat-earth position on condoms has cost millions of lives.
Note the way in which the problem is to be addressed: Through the explicit effort to change human preferences. In this, as in many other issues, especially those related to sex (such as Homosexuality) Conservatives hold a political philosophy in which Humans are imperfect, flawed, and ought to be changed (or controlled at the very least). This is a approach that runs back through the history of western political thought. Thomas Hobbes famous claim that life pre/outside society is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, was used to justify giving the sovereign almost total control over the individual. So long as your security was assured, you could be shaped or changed in any way (Hobbes even re-defined freedom to mere mental desire, so as to help justify and claim labels such as “liberty” for his own totalitarian ideal). Plato’s Republic, perhaps the first piece of political science (at least that has survived) involves the designing of society entirely towards the aim of shaping and changing the next generation of citizens. People were to be classified as men of bronze, men of silver, and men of gold. Where you were born, so you died. But within, the state was to shape and make of you as it wanted and as most suited it’s aims. Change the word men for robot, and Plato’s republic would function identically. (And all this under the aim of seeking a “just” society.)
There is however an outlier within the Conservative Academy. One who is both the most endorsed and yet least understood figure in Conservative political Philosophy: Edmund Burke. Burke shares similar concerns about the imperfect, incapable human nature. Indeed these form the basis for his attack on the French Revolutionaries ideas about reshaping society towards an utopian idea. But instead of demanding his own chains on humanity to keep them from immoral or ignorant behaviour, Burke instead argues we already have a mechanism to deal with such concerns : Tradition. In tradition, and the wisdom of the past ages handed down, systems and institutions have been established which take into account these human excesses and account for them. In the market and (aristocratic) democracy we have the human need to compete (and defeat) given a peaceful, productive outlet. Titans of industry can prove their superiority via words and dollars, not spears or guns. And with a hereditary monarchy to stop anyone from thinking they could become the unrivaled leader, the passions and follies of humanity balance each other out.
Such a view still resonates today, especially within the neo-conservative revolution of the 1980’s & 1990’s. In their reaction to Socialism, they argued that it was entirely beyond the capability of man, any man, to control and sort the levers of the economy. No one could be that smart, that informed, that correct in their decision day after day, in industry after industry. Only the outcome of human desires & knowledge churned through competition in the market could appropriately provide the goods people want, and the price they are willing to pay. It is for this reason, that conservatives (and many others including myself) are understandably concerned about the Obama Administrations decision to involve itself in the way GM & Chrysler are run, including sacking the CEO and pushing for them to build energy efficient cars.
But such a conception is at stark odd’s with social conservative views (as held by the similarly free market, Obama disapproving) of Ross Douthat and his call for “partner reduction” schemes. This is a cognitive dissonance in conservatism that can not hold. And in here, there is an opportunity for the left
So Here is my first suggestion for rebuilding a Left wing political philosophy:
First Principle:That human nature can not be changed, only given outlets.
What this means, is not that we endorse let alone allow every low, defiled or debased act, but instead that when problems arise, it is not what is inside the person that needs fixing, but the system that funnels those needs into unhelpful or harmful ways.
Take the issue of AIDs that Douthat was talking about. Whilst social conservatives may push abstinence or the disquietingly termed “partner reduction”, the left can begin by accepting that yes people like to have sex. And no government, no law, no cop, no punishment in the world will possibly stop such behaviour. Instead we need a system that takes this into account and can in some way deal with the harms that come.
So we need to educate people so they are aware of the risks (such as STD’s, unwanted pregnancy), provide them access to ways to mitigate that risk should they go ahead (the selling of contraceptives from condoms to the pill), and the creation of a social environment where problems can be discussed and raised in open and honest ways. With these three steps, human lust is given a safe outlet. The act is still there, but the harm to individuals who indulge is low. And thus, the cost for the larger society is mitigated.
Or Drug use: All human civilisation has had drug use as an explicit part of their culture, both privately and publicly. Yet today the United States locks up over 253’000 people for drug offences. In fact 20% of their inmate population are there because of issues related to drugs. The aim may have been to remove those who sold, but surely significant percentages of that population are there simply for their own use of illegal substances. And despite the sentences getting harsher, and the prison population rapidly expanding, people still use drugs. People still like drugs. The Conservative policy here is of course to get even tougher, to denounce even louder, to decry and denigrate anything to do with drugs in any way (such as medical marijuana, or harm prevention strategies).
The left wing response however, taking a cue from Burke -where conservatives wont-, is to realise that drug use is a traditional element of human life and society and hence we need to design a system that takes it into account. Just as we abandoned prohibition for Alcohol, so it must be for other drugs (though carefully done, and with appropriate caution in making such a significant change). A system where such drugs are legal would do wonders for society at large. Not only would it promote individual liberty (which is my second Left wing principle and to which I shall return in a later post), but it would instantly end the black market drug trade that funds everyone from the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Cartels in Columbia to the bikie gangs in your local capital city. Likewise the health of citizens would likely improve, -not that drug use is healthy- but because legalising it would ensure some quality protection to stop added substances being added to the product (as is responsible for most of the deaths for those who think they are taking heroin or ecstasy but in reality it’s something else); likewise with the stigma and ‘cool’ of illegal drug use removed, the rate of drug use will drop (Drug usage, including Marijuana is lower in the Netherlands in every category compared to the USA). Meanwhile the government & economy would make billions from the new industry, all finally taxed, instead of slipping into thugs & criminals back pockets.
Whilst he wasn’t speaking only about drugs, US Democratic Senator Jim Webb makes the same point well, as part of his push for Prison Reform:
Let’s start with a premise that I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have five percent of the world’s population; we have 25 percent of the world’s known prison population. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice,”
Each of these area’s ought to be acted on the context, circumstance and details of their own merits. But a clear philosophy can help guide us through the myriad of difficult policy choices. If we start by accepting that Human Nature is an irresistable force, then our attention shifts from trying to chain up or constrain what is harmful or distasteful, and instead giving it safe, even productive outlets. It’s part of the reason the market and democracy work so well, because they give a beneficial outlet to what is usually a harmful human desire: to compete and dominate. Political philosophy has no importance or relevance unless it places the human and the nature of humanity at the base of it’s understanding of the world. In this it is an alien cousin from philosophy with it’s otherworldly systems of logic or religion and it’s spiritual entities beyond the scope of this world.
So my First Principle of a new Left wing Political Philosophy: That human nature can not be changed, only given outlets.
Photo by Flickr user Pierre Stachurska, used under a Creative Commons license.
I’d long wondered why the ALP was pushing the idea of internet censorship. It seemed a badly organised and designed political ploy to bring over the social conservative vote. After all, the Howard Government was equally concerned about the internet, and yet due to its luddite ways seemed unsure of what to do. But had they won another term in office, it’s pretty reasonable to expect they would have pushed a similar nation wide internet filter policy. Yet whilst Rudd attracts some social conservatives through his own image, the move seemed evidence of a a poor understanding of the voters to assume this issue would change what are normally locked in Liberal party supporters. Guy Rundle of Crikey however helps complete the circuit for me:
Throughout that series of struggles[from the 1960’s-70’s], the ALP was — more often than not — on the side of a freer and more open society. It was, in that sense, Australia’s liberal party. For everyone up to and including Keating, the modernisation of Australia manifested in making it a fairer, better society was equally expressed in the idea that ideas, debate and media should be as free as possible, and that each was a condition of the other.
Like New Labour in the UK, the ALP has now abandoned that, for a number of reasons. Once it committed itself to neoliberal economics (“social capitalism”) Labo(u)r became freaked about the social dissolution and rupture, the desocialisation created by turning the polis into a giant market of winners and losers. The tough answer to this is genuine social democracy, in which people have a social being not entirely defined by whether they’re a “winner” or a “loser”. The easy answer is to let the market rip, allow it to change the culture, and then seek to control and reshape people’s behaviour, selling it to them as “protecting the many against the few”.
Politically, this also serves as a way of outflanking the Right on the law and order issue, with a distinctive centre-left twist. The Right can talk about “throwing away the key”, “three strikes”, etc, sounding increasingly olde-worlde, while Labour can offer filters, ASBOs, CCTVs and so on, portraying themselves as both cutting-edge, high-tech, and hardline. And any objection concerning an open society from within its own ranks can be dealt with by reference back to the way in which “rights stopped Labour achieving real change” — high courts striking down tax laws etc etc.
Rundle highlights the critical point that with the left’s economic surrender, it also lost it’s connection to what the good society could look like. Whilst it came naturally to left wing leaders such as Ben Chifley, and Gough Whitlam to talk of great objectives and the struggle towards the light on the hill, modern Labor has almost no idea about what that city of shining gold would look like. It still has it’s values and principles, albeit reduced to child-like slogans “the fair go”, and plenty of smart people to churn over policy ideas and pass them up the chain. So, to be clear it can still govern competently.
But, and this is critical, without an idea of where you are going, you can’t justify any social disruption that may occur along the way. It is for this reason that Rudd and Labor always seem so poll driven. They cant bring themselves to justify upsetting people, or telling them to accept the consequences, because they don’t actually know if the costs are worth it. Any policy therfore gets reduced to questions of how many will it hurt, and if that number passes a certain threshold it is abandoned. This number however doesn’t even have to have any relation to the number who benefit. Hence the prospect that some small % of people will get angry over pornography on the internet, or use it for malicious purposes means the great liberalisation taking place in our society, of people (and businesses) everywhere interacting like never before has to be given safety rails and smoothed out.
As such, whilst little attention or fanfare is made (certainly nothing like the actual moral police on the right would have us do) Labor slowly introduces more and more laws to restrict and “protect”, all assessed and sold on immediate merits and without comparison to how such measures fit into their ideal of what society ought to look like. Take this latest move from the UK:
London cops have been given the power to “disperse” anyone under 16, gathered in groups of two or more, from almost all of central London, after 9PM. The police don’t have to see the kids doing anything wrong, they only have to believe “the presence or behaviour of a group of two or more persons in any public place in the relevant locality has resulted, or is likely to result, in any members of the public being intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed”. If you’re observant, in central London, you may have seen this notice [See Right] casually cable-tied to a lamppost. From afar, it looks like a council planning application, or parking bay suspension. It’s actually notifying you that you’re now subject to an anti-social behaviour order, and the Police (and the not-really-Police Community Support Officers) have special powers to remove you from this area if they feel like it. These dispersal areas cover large swathes of London, and other cities in England. There are now over 1000 such areas.
Ideology is often damned in our politics. It is seen as causing us to be reckless or wasteful. But it serves a very important duty of letting us give perspective to the changes advocated. It shows how each piece fits into the larger picture, and if the inevitable harm any change occurs (though change is the only constant) is justified for some greater social, political or economic goal. These days most of the duties of governance are questions of administration, maintenance and compromise between competing options. In this Labor is still highly skilled, and perhaps at the State level where questions of ideology are largley absent, it has made itself the de facto party of government).
But nationally, this represents a real concern. The lack of coherence that results from such pragmatic approaches to governance creates distortions in society (such as the vast differences in our tax code for various favored groups) that inevitably give rise to anger. The lack of restraint in pragmatic approaches to governance means creeping changes that would be rejected outright on principle are slowly put together. And the lack of an endpoint in pragmatic approaches to governance means that society begins to slowly drift along, without much sense of enthusiasm or energy. This is a gap that can be filled with Nationalism (as Howard occasionally flirted with) or by investing faith in a single person to inspire a new beginning (Such as Obama in the US), but neither path suits the goals and ideals of the left.
This is a big part of the reason why i consider myself a liberal (small l) rather than of the left. Liberalism seems to offer an offset for the costs (individual freedom), buyt with the left there is no end to the list of those to be helped in some way. This is also why there are several good books showing the shortcomings of the left (largely for moral ambivalence & political weakness such as in Nick Cohen’s What’s Left) and yet no real change in left wing political thought is apparent since Anthony Giddens began pushing the ‘Third Way’ back in the early 1990’s. And even that was more a re-branding so as to avoid admitting actual abandonment of now unworkable ideas like socialism.
Political victories in Australia and the US -especially here in Australia won due to the failure of their opponents- will of course distract the left, convince it that it’s in the ascendancy and dampen any desire for fleshing out the ‘vision thing’. But if these are to be truely progressive governments then they will need a place to which to push the boulder of society. Otherwise it will simply become a Sysiphisian task, pushing the boulder of society in one direction to enable social reform, and then back the other way to in some way mitigate the costs or appease the complainers. And on and on and on. Now I’m not seeking utopian end points, and the task of government should largely be one of sensible re-adjustment to the current circumstances and needs of the community. But, without a direction, those corrections end up taking on the bearing of pure drift. And perhaps take us into places we would not like to find ourselves.
The task before the left’s clear: What should the ideal society look like? What is the shining city on a hill to be today ? What ‘crazy’ long term dreams for change are to be had? What ‘never going to happen’ ideas are in need of a revisiting? What ideas that the political will has never existed for could now begin to be built up toward, perhaps over a generations fight. Figure out that, and many of the problems of the left will also be solved. That was what Reagan and Thatcher offered people in their conservative revolution, now it is time for ours. Perhaps then I’d be proud to call myself a left winger again.