Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: Left

Wither States Rights?

australia_flagIn a pleasing sign, the ACT assembly, with the support of the ACT Labor Party and the Greens has passed a bill allowing same-sex couples to have a legally binding ceremony. Gay couples can already bind themselves into a legal union, a change reluctantly accepted by the federal government, but last year Rudd decided that allowing that union to be publicly celebrated would be too much like marriage. The word petty doesn’t even begin to describe such a complaint. The Labor Party chose not to to support such unions at its national conference, and it’s probable that Rudd will again veto the legislation.

This raises a challenge for progressive however. Despite spending the 20th century fighting states rights, recognising it for the conservative impediment it was, in many areas such as social or environmental law, progressive ideals are best served by giving local communities far more of a say. Hopes in the federal labor party have faltered, as it has looked to ensure nation-wide support (rather than just majority support), and shown great hesitancy to risk taking. Interestingly, this shift is also occuring at the same time as the Liberal Party has just finished fundamentally walking away from promoting a states rights agenda. So should Progressives deliver the killing blow to states rights, or are recent developments signs that this is more prosperous ground than previously thought?

For future historians, one of the most important facets of the Prime Ministership of John Howard, was the virtual death of the States Right’s viewpoint within the conservative parties. Howard invoked the idea himself comonly when in Fraser’s government and during the 1980’s wilderness in opposition; by the time he returned for a second showdown, the heat was largely gone. Against Keating Howard positioned himself as one who would govern “for all Australia” against the sectional and geographic interest groups, a stance he would keep throughout his time in government. He wouldn’t even support his home state NSW in the State of Origin games, such was his desire not to be seen as supporting one state over others (or even supporting the states at all!)

There’s ample evidence (such as from Costello’s memoirs and Howard’s own musings on the subject) that this was a practical solution, rather than a philosophical shift, and came in response to a current political threat. Namely that the people would blame the federal government regardless of who was responsible, and that the State Governments were largely hostile to going along with Howard on most issues, most of the time. That said, the shift also re-enforced Howard’s growing sense of control and dominance, as he increasingly sought to leave his mark on the country, and deliver on the public trust invested in him through 4 separate elections. Howard not only changed the country, he also changed his party. Time in government converted many to similar views, and Howard’s views became gospel as older members retired, and younger, more impressionable ones came in. Practice eventually becomes principle, and the Liberal Party today under Turnbull, Abbott & Minchin has barely touched this criticism of states rights, despite its favored son status for conservatives in opposition for the last 108 years in this country.

This change in conservative thinking should have progressives cheering. After all, states have been (and were designed in the 1890’s Constitutional Conventions to be) strong impediments to any social change that may have upset the status quo or reduced the influence of men of property (Hence the Senate starting life as a States House, to review what the mobs in the House of Representatives proposed). Equally, there is good evidence that there was a big influence from current American trends on Australia’s constitution writers (especially Griffith and Barton) which lead to pushing a very minor, restricted federal government. Most people who follow politics will have heard of section 51. of the constitution. The reason it is well known however is that it is the only section which distinctly lays out the powers of the federal government. Anything not mentioned is assumed to be entirely under State control. Our constitution is not there to guarantee the rights and liberties of the citizens, it is there almost exclusively to give chains to the States to tether down the inevitable King Kong of National Government that they were reluctantly accepting.

So, given this history, the end of conservative support for states rights ought to be a good thing. The example of the ACT however suggests that there is an alternative: that progressives should now look to focus on the states where they can pass such legislation, or better marshal power such as to stop at the source developments such as the Tamar Valley Pulp Mill or the Mary River Dam. While Federal Labor supported the former and has just rejected the later, both were pushed by their state governments, which have fallen under the sway of and indeed often become corrupted by development companies as progressives look federally. Those with talent and a desire for being in parliament on the progressive side are almost universally looking towards Federal Seats, leaving many also-rans and backroom hacks in charge of the station (See Rees Government). Likewise on issues such as drugs, euthanasia, public transport, land use, and household trends (such as towards environmental efficiency) these issues either are still state issues, or have a greater chance of change at a state level.

So progressives are in a bind. They have an unparalleled opportunity to sign the death knell to the states rights argument from preventing progressive change, perhaps even to reform/do away with the entire states system (as the decidedly non-progressive Banaby Joyce advocates). Such changes would this be good policy in removing inefficiencies, ensuring uniform standards and laws, and overcome vested interests on national issues (everything from fixing the Murray-Darling to introducing a R18+ rating for computer games).

Yet the barriers to passing progressive legislation are significantly lower at a state level these days, with a cumulative effect in practice, meaning good progressive policy in one state tends to end up in the others (eventually). Equally many potential problems (such as corrupt/badly designed development) can be addressed before they become major issues. Add in the ‘common wisdom’ that progressives are more trusted on day to day domestic issues, whilst conservatives for outward looking concerns (the so-called daddy/mommy divide), which if not quite true at least benefits progressives electorally at a local level. Then again, they must also consider the thought experiment that if the situation reversed and a Federal Government introduced same-sex marriages and a single state dissented, would they keep supporting states rights.

For ACT residents it has been rumored that the Minister for Territories Brendan O’Connor would like to see a change to let the ACT govern itself, relieving the Federal Government from having to decide on such issues, as same-sex marriage. Nothing has occurred yet, and won’t before this bill is due to be addressed, but it would be a very positive sign considering the significant discrimination faced electorally by ACT residents.

No change has been bigger in Australia’s political landscape than the isolation of state government concerns from the dialogue of federal politics. Yet whilst this has come about because Conservatives under Howard walked away from their historical position, progressives ought to take their finger off the trigger for a moment or two to consider the real benefit of such a change. We are yet to see if Rudd will go ahead with his election ‘promise’ to takeover the health system, but if so similar moves in education wouldn’t be too far behind.

Certainly something to keep an eye on, the historic forces are shifting, but it may be a while till we see where the pieces finally come to lie.

Photo by jemasmith used under a Creative Commons Licence

Embrace the Waste!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s real lefties: Cops and Soldiers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Free Trade Left

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the Cocoon

Shorter Janet Albrechtsenn: Al Qaeda are among Obama’s supporters, and the release of terrorists under Bush is evidence Obama is weak on security, and the US only “allegedly” tortured people. albrechtsen

Fire this petty woman now. Hire someone with the intellectual honesty to actually advocate for conservative principles rather than this disingenuous and cheap point scoring effort which has become her stock in trade. She offers nothing new, nothing interesting, nothing of value. I’d say a big reason people are reading less and less papers and instead turning online is because the quality of mainstream columnists is so low.

Still her a column does make one (unintentional) point very clear: Whilst conservatives were tribal in their united defense of Bush and Howard (with only a few defections in the dying days), the Left has both elected, then sought to held accountable its own side. Witness the similar levels of criticism against Rudd from election supporters in Australia. Of course there are blind followers everywhere on the spectrum, but the stark shift between the subservience offered by the right to their own leaders, against the accountability demanded by the left when they are in charge is stark.

A Human Political Philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Principle:That human nature can not be changed, only given outlets.
human-nature
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.

Where does the left path lead?

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_curfew

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.