Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: Liberalism

Cloudy Day Thoughts

A rainy, dark Sunday afternoon seems a perfect time to make a post and point I’ve been meaning to address for a while: Euthanasia should be legal.

Actually i’ll go further, the very fact that it is not, is the ultimate constraint on freedom in the modern world. More than the restriction of drugs, the prohibition of homosexuals from marriage, or the tax paid by each of us. By making Euthanasia illegal, we are day after day agreeing to the proposition that Government has the right to control our bodies even as we exit this world. It is morally no different to giving government the right to choose when and how each of us are born, and must be removed from our laws and protected in our constitution.

The damage which this law does daily can be no better seen than through a recent court case:

In a landmark decision, Western Australia’s chief judge Wayne Martin said the Brightwater Care Group would not be criminally responsible if it stopped feeding and hydrating severely paralysed Christian Rossiter, 49. Martin said Rossiter had the right to direct his own treatment, and that food and water “should not be administered against his wishes”.The ruling sets a legal precedent in Australia, where assisting someone to take their own life is a crime punishable by life in prison in some states

The judge found Rossiter was not terminally ill or dying and had the mental capacity to make an informed decision about stopping his treatment. Martin ordered that medical staff fully explain to Rossiter the consequences of ceasing nutrition and hydration through a tube into his stomach. In a statement read to the court Friday, the former stockbroker and outdoor adventurer said he was unable to undertake the most basic of human functions. “I am unable to blow my nose,” he said. “I am unable to wipe the tears from my eyes.”He made a public plea last week to be allowed to end his suffering, which he described as a “living hell”.

“I’m Christian Rossiter and I’d like to die. I am a prisoner in my own body. I can’t move,” he told reporters.

So long as Euthanasia is illegal we are as a society accepting the jail of the human body, as appropriate for the enslavement of the human spirit. We punish and decry those who act to imprison a fellow member of society, be it their family members or a random stranger. But when an individuals own body becomes that coffin, far more effective and painfully than anything man could think up, we witness governments and ‘moral’ societies lining up around the world to demand that individual endures and suffers as long as is physically possible. When nature makes the body a prison, we have somehow come to see it as moral to become its prison guards.

Rossiter’s case captures the horns of the dilemma for a society which grants the individual only partial authority over their body. We already accept that individuals can reject medical treatment. Your doctor can’t force you to take your flu tablets, your dentist can’t fill that cavity without your consent, no one can stop teenager boys breaking their arms by riding skateboards, and for those with religious objections (such as Jehovah Witnesses with Blood Transfusions) we will let people choose their type of treatment. Rossiter won on similar grounds, he is able to choose to reject a certain treatment (forced feeding) but is not allowed to choose an alternative treatment (assisted suicide).

And so he will starve to death. Slowly, painfully and with the tools for his desired release within meters of him but untouchable due to the law.

Death is of course a scary thing, and addressing the fear that Euthanasia will be used in a utilitarian or bureaucratic means to simply end the life of the disabled or elderly is central to changing the law. In the USA at the moment, critical health care reform is being dragged down with the suggestion (courtesy of the now unemployed Sarah Palin) that unproductive, disabled, poor or elderly members of society would face ‘death panels’ a claim which even the cowardly lion of the NYT has called ‘false’. That such an idea could gain leverage whilst plainly unrelated to the actual legislation on the table demonstrates the widespread social concerns and challenges that overcoming this great bondage on individuals would require in the real fight. The great unspoken fear is of course the return of society and government having control over life in the practice eugenics, as was seen in western society as recently as the 1920’s, and practiced under the Nazis regime (China and India’s overwhelmingly male next generation also suggests similar practices at work). And yet if we really were incapable of avoiding the past’s crimes, then no society at all would be possible. All democracy would become tyranny, all authority abused, all prejudices encouraged, all freedom revoked. And yet whilst relapse is always possible, that is plainly not the experience of human kind. Over the last 400 years much of humanity has come to fall within the bounds of the rule of law, directed at the protection of the individual, with the rest eager to catch up. In such tight confines and with oversight, what is proposed is as far from the social control of totalitarian regimes as is possible. For euthanasia is worthy only, i repeat only as a means of freeing the individual within that most private of private spheres: their own body. Indeed it is more correctly our current tortured half-way house that seems to accept the idea of society choosing how and when individuals die. Legal Euthanasia is not the beginnings of eugenics, but rather the final refutation of it and its barbarous principle of granting society and government authority for that which it does not and can never have: the individuals own body.

Others run the other way, suggest this is a question of nature’s authority and not to be interfered with. These same people however likely see nothing but god’s will and love at work in the great acts of nurses, doctors and medicine to fight back against death, to extend our lives, and enhance the quality of our time on this planet. These people are not hypocrits, but rather in their fear of the unknown they have tried to invest in an amoral environment virtues of good or ill. God may be loving, but bacteria is not moral, nor is the lightening strike or flash flood. Nature has no care for our life or death. Only human beings who have consciousness of others, and a sense of morality can recognize the issues. From the importance of life to the morality of a dignified death. Instead of championing this moral demand, those of this view seek to outsource their responsibility.

In light of this fear, Politicians, the so called leaders of our communities have also hastily retreated from addressing the issue. In 1997 the Northern Territory government passed legislation allowing for Euthanasia, but it was soon repealed by the Federal Government under a Private Members bill of Kevin Andrews. Half-hearted moves were made also here in the ACT, and in 2008 with new leadership of both major parties in place, Bob Brown announced the Greens would again be pushing to over-turn Commonwealth legislation in this area. However much as on the issues of drug prohibition and marriage equality, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has shown no willingness to move or even listen to argument on changes in these areas. Yet the polls seem to indicate that the vast majority of Australia’s support the individual having their control, with only some minorities such as Catholics or Aborigines rejecting the law on religious grounds. Indeed we are held by our politicians to be so frightened and incapable of discussing this that they lined up in 2005 to make it illegal to even discuss methods of suicide online.

Whilst Rossiter’s death (like that of Terry Schiavo in the USA several years back) is public, the elderly and infirm have been taking their own lives in indignity and humiliation for many many years. Once proud members of the ‘greatest generation’ have been found with plastic bags on their head, stomach’s full of pills, or at the bottom of staircases. Having sacrificed so much, having seen so much, having given all the strength they ever had, the government today stands between them and final control over the manner and timing of their final exit. And so, hiding from family members and the law they take their own life, becoming in their final act criminals of the state. Their crime is to want to have some control, some independence and dignity.

There are challenges to be overcome and safeguards to be put in place. Full legislation would require at least a few years open public discussion before it is comfortably accepted. But if we are to be a free society we must remove these abhorrent laws. We must accord all adult, mentally firm members of society both the freedom and the dignity to have final say over the way in which they pass into death. Anything less is to condemn our fellow citizens to pain and humiliation for an issue which we have no right as a society to interfere with. Just as human society today recognizes it wrong for one individual to take the life of another, we will one day come to recognize it wrong to give society control over the life of each one of us as to the time and manner of our passing.

Affable Alfred

Today marks the 153rd birthday of Alfred Deakin. ‘Affable Alfred’ as he was known departed us 90 years ago, (though mentally was going quiet some years before that), but for any who value Australia, the Australian political system and way of life, he can not be forgotten.

Back in early 2000-2001 the taskforce set up to celebrate the centenary of Australian Federation, ran add’s asking ‘what sort of a nation would forget its first PM’, but whilst Barton is a notable figure, a more important question would be how could we have forgotten the man who established Australia as we know it today. Whilst he doesn’t always appear on lists of Australia’s founding fathers (Parkes, Barton and Wentworth usually dominate), no man can make a better claim for having laid the foundation of modern Australia than Alfred Deakin.

Deakin was a barrister, journalist and scholar before entering Parliament at age 23. He was instrumental in the development of advanced irrigation techniques in Australia, having traveled to India and the United States to learn their techniques both ancient and modern. Whilst having every opportunity of staying on to become Victorian Premier, in the 1890’s Deakin turned his attention to Federation and was one of the leading advocates. Whilst parochial Victorians contend he ought to have been our first PM, Barton was probably the better choice. A former cricket umpire, he brought an order and stability to the chamber for the first 2 years that was sorely desired in later times. Meanwhile, his first choice as colleague and deputy Alfred Deakin undertook the real work of the government, introducing most of its major pieces of legislation such as the White Australia Policy. In September 1903, Barton resigned as PM for a spot on the high court, and Deakin became PM. He was to be PM three times, covering the entire first decade of Parliament. He introduced protectionism for Australian industries, copyright law, quarantine protection, established the census and meterology bureau and as I mentioned recently was instrumental in kick starting Australian foreign policy and development of its own defence force.

The Prime Minister and Deputy in 1901. Deakin on Right

The Prime Minister and Deputy in 1901. Deakin on Right

It took Australia over 80 years to move beyond some of his key policies such as protectionism and White Australia, yet in political organisation his influence is still keenly at work. Today we see debates about whether the Liberals should move in a moderate or conservative direction, with Deakin brought up as the archetypal Small-L liberal character they should emulate. In 1904 he voluntarily resigned as PM (no election was called) and allowed the Labor government under Chris Watson to take office. This hugely significant and generous move both forced Labor to become more professional by giving them a taste of the demands of office, also brought them instant credibility paving the way for their wholehearted involvement within the political process of Australia. Had this move not taken place, the Labour movement may have decided peaceful political engagement was useless and turned to more radical means, by keeping them inside the process, within sight of government, Deakin (who was somewhat sympathetic) guaranteed their peaceful, pragmatic form.

Deakin however lead the Protectionist Party (the opposition were the Free Trade party, with labor the minority ‘3rd cricket team’ of the chamber in Deakin’s unbeatable phrase) who were slowly dwindling in strength. In 1908 however he decided that a merger had to happen, both for the stability of the Australian government, and the political pressures of the day. Deakin was closer in ideology to the Labor party, however rejecting their caucus driven system (and they in turn rejecting his liberalism) he turned to the free trade party to form the ‘Fusion’ Party. The first major non-labor party setting up the essential two party system in Australia as it remains today. The possibility that Deakin could have sided with Labor remains one of the great ‘what if’s’ of Australian history, tantalizing in its prospects for all those who’s sympathies lie in between the two parties, supporting neither the union wing of labor, nor the conservative wing of non-labor. If you have ever cursed or praised the two party system in Australia, or marveled at it’s century long stability as a democracy (a rare rare feat in this world) then it is Deakin to whom you owe recognition.

He visited London twice in a representative role, in 1900 helping persuade the British Imperial parliament to support the passage of the Australian Constitution Bill, and later as Prime Minister. He wow’ed English audiences both times with his rhetoric and oratory, being regarded, as one of the best ever heard by a generation of English aristocrats and politicians who had only recently witnessed the passing of the likes of Disraeli and Gladstone. Deakin however was much more than just a politician, an intellectuals mind with a spiritual bent, he was a great reader and scholar, and remained a keen commentator for much of his time in parliament. Indeed whilst PM (and completely unknown to his colleagues) he often filed anonymous commentary for the London Times, even giving his own actions a whack when he had made mistakes or failed to anticipate his colleagues intentions. His penmanship was only discovered long after he had retired from federal parliament. His other works such as his recollection of the story of federation, remain some of the key documents in Australian political history, and keen visitors can even still read his extensive diaries at the National Library of Australia in Canberra (though be warned, his writing is rather hard to read at first!).

This anecdote to me reveals another crucial and charming feature of Deakin’s life and mind. Despite all his achievements and successes, perhaps unrivaled in Australian political history, politics was always a distraction for Deakin. Had the pressures of the colony and his compatriots not invaded, he would have been much happier to have simply lived as a poet, scholar and writer, quiet and alone in his study. In 1908 whilst PM, whilst deciding the future of Australian politics he wrote:

‘Measuring happiness by quantityt its fullest source for me has come from books. A life of activity and of considerable public adventure and reward with all its delights and ambitions, has so far as I can judge yielded less than reading…more and more the height, depth and breadth of life I have led in and through letters expands as I recall it, until I wonder whether I have not lived more, and more intensely in and through books’

Whilst Howard and Rudd are both big readers, (and the latter clearly likes to put pen to paper) can you imagine either political animal making such a claim. Both men live lives entirely obsessed with politics, with anything else seemingly reduced to its ability to help or hinder their political interests. Deakin however, whose achievements dominate both of them combined however was always slightly torn between the demands of the public and his own wish for a private meditative life, as a writer and scholar if not mystic. The last PM to have even seemingly wished for a private non-political life, Paul Keating was pilloried for his love of classical music and French architecture; just imagine what today’s press would make of a man who claimed to see spirits and communicate with the other side, or who wrote poetry.

Deakin may not offer many great policy lessons to current politicians, but in the art of politics, and of the good life there is few finer figures to view and emulate. He was, always, true to his own views and values, willing to play the game, but also happy to walk away from it all should it have required a compromise too far. he voluntarily gave up or refused power on several occasions in both the victorian and national parliaments*, awaiting the right opportunity, keenly aware of the streaming passage of time, taking him away from his study, his home life, his books and his thoughts. Yet when brought into the public he rarely failed to charm, delight and impress, not just a statesman who held his country together in its rocky first decade, but by all including his enemies long recognised and respected as a kind and gentle man. That too is his legacy, and part of the great Australian tradition, which decries the intolerant, shallow attitudes which seem to proliferate in this mcmansion new Australia. It is for these reasons that today, August 3 2009, 153 years after Deakin was born, we ought to remember his legacy for each of us individually, and for this country at large.

* In 1879 when first elected, Deakin resigned on his very first day in the Parliament due to complaints of a shortage of ballot papers in some areas of his electorate. He told the parliament ‘If I am the representative of the majority of electors… I will be returned again. If I am not their representative I have no right here’. He was soon returned. This his very first office for a very ambitious young man. But power without honour was no power at all for him.

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.

Ideology and theories of Human Nature

There’s a good piece over at TNR discussing Obama’s move to embrace whats termed ‘Behavioral Economics’, rather than the more traditional models as a way to seek out his agenda. And whilst a good read of a growing field, this paragraph really stood out:

Barack Obama has the type of mind–orderly, analytical, well-read–that takes naturally to the study of ideas. But he’s always been uncomfortable describing himself in ideological terms. Is he a liberal? During the campaign, Obama would mock those who applied the label to him: “There’s nothing liberal about wanting to reduce money in politics,” he’d say. “There’s nothing liberal about wanting to make sure [our soldiers] are treated properly when they come home.”…

Rather than force markets to conform to his wishes, he shapes their calculus so they conclude (on their own) that their interests coincide with his wishes… In the mid-’70s, Charles Schultze, Jimmy Carter’s top White House economic adviser, sketched out a version of the conceit in a book called The Public Use of Private Interest. Schultze favored “harnessing the ‘base’ motive of material self-interest to promote the common good”–say, by taxing rather than outlawing harmful activities. A generation later, the behavioral theorists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, both informal advisers to the Obama campaign, hatched a descendant of this approach. In their own book, Thaler and Sunstein suggested that the government inculcate desirable habits like saving and philanthropy through a series of gentle “nudges.”

(Sunstein is now head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Obama)

But whats striking in this, is that this idea of harnessing the self-interest of the individual towards the common weal is precisely what makes a Liberal. Along with beliefs in freedom and the sanctity and primacy of the individual, Liberalism is distinct as a political theory for its inclusion of Self-Interest as the basic nature of humanity, and a force to be utilised for what public benefit that could be found, rather than turned inward or repressed. Unlike Conservatives and Social Democrats who see ills and flaws in human nature that need to be educated out and controlled by prohibition, Liberals seek to leave human nature, but seek outlets for it to flow in positive directions. This is why liberalism has always been the political ideology primarily tied to the market. Markets work to filter our private self-interest and desire for domination, into a form of profitable exchange that is peaceful, and prosperous. The more self-interested we are, almost the better in our engagement with the market (such as drive for competition that seeks out new markets, reduces prices, invents new products or services and drives out inefficiencies or failing businesses).

For me, it is this acceptance of human nature as neither good nor evil, but as a essentially constant that ought to be funneled for public and private good, that makes it at once the most pragmatic and sensible of political theories and worthy of being called by such a name. It does not seek to harness humanity towards some great goal, but merely identify common tools for interaction, instituted and maintained through good governance that enable the great and glorious seething mass of humanity, with all its contradictions, foibles, and beauty to make good on its promises to protect the poor, give freedom and dignity to the individual, and protect the society at large from the inevitable barbarians at the gates.

Obama doesn’t seem to like the word, his training is after all law not politics or philosophy, but in his endorsement of such schools of thought he is, however unconsciously more true to the ideal of a liberal than perhaps any number of his left wing colleagues who gather under such a banner. Human nature can’t always be shaped for positive purposes, but we have many benefits to be gained, many social ills spared, and many laws and restrictions that could be removed if we were to once more and forthrightly make such a principle at the heart of our understanding of how to govern humanity: Like a great carpenter, by going with the grain of humanity, not roughly against its form, no matter how great our final visions may be.

The political marketplace

By now most of you have seen this hard-hitting speech by Member of the European Parliament Backbencher & Conservative Daniel Hannan.

As speeches go, it’s a nice effort, clear and concise, and whilst relying a little too heavily on common instead of economics sense it makes a few good points. It’s interesting therefore to see Hannan’s own reaction to the video going viral:

When I woke up this morning, my phone was clogged with texts, my email inbox with messages. Overnight, the YouTube clip of my remarks had attracted over 36,000 hits. By today, it was the most watched video in Britain…..Breaking the press monopoly is one thing. But the internet has also broken the political monopoly. Ten or even five years ago, when the Minister for Widgets put out a press release, the mere fact of his position guaranteed a measure of coverage. Nowadays, a politician must compel attention by virtue of what he is saying, not his position.

It’s all a bit unsettling for professional journalists and politicians. But it’s good news for libertarians of every stripe. Lefties have always relied on control, as much of information as of physical resources. Such control is no longer technically feasible.

I want to raise two contradictory points here, so as to really assess what is going on. First, politicians have always known that bold or controversial claims always attract far more attention, and this is what compels journalists to listen to them, and secondly, this is not necessarily a good thing.

To the first: Ever since there have been politicians, the need to say something that captures the ear and quickens the pulse of your listener has been the politicians basic requirement. Whilst legislators may themselves appoint Solon’s to fix problems, and wise elder statesmen for Head of State roles, to get into the legislature itself you need to be bold. Some like Winston Churchill just seemed to attract controversy wherever they went in life, and combined this with actual administrative and parliamentary ability. Some, develop it over time, and through sheer determination force the media to pay them attention such as former PM John Howard. And some are fools who say the first thing that pops into their head, or deliberately make outrageous claims so as to gain attention. Such as Pauline Hanson.
In short, this is not a new phenomena. I’ve been reading David Day’s biography of Andrew Fisher recently (5th Prime Minister of Australia), and time and again the mild mannered, careful and cautious Fisher had to either get a running mate who could attract attention, effectively run his own left wing paper so as to be heard, or spend most of his waking hours visiting communities so as to be head. He proved a very capable parliamentarian, and all who met him were impressed by his talents, yet as a politician he struggled in large part due to his own cautious temperament. Something that proved of great virtue when Prime Minister. A further example. Whilst probably not cut out for the Parliamentary life, and certainly not adverse to saying controversial things(letting women vote for instance), John Stuart Mill, Englands greatest ever philosopher, barely won one term. Mill’s difficulty in public stemmed in part because he did not deign to be controversial on the stump, and preferred to discuss rather than rant, and sometimes even grant the point of his opponents, so as to make his own position clearer. Voters didn’t much like this and soon kicked him out. In short, the need for politicians to say something noticeable over something sensible is as old as the profession. And whilst the argument can be made that the standard of debate and political literacy (ie references to philosophy or literature) has surely dropped, it never was that high in the first place.

So when Hannan says that finally a politician must “compel by virtue of what he is saying”, he’s not saying anything particularly new. And whilst he uses the word “virtue”, controversy, outrageousness, and deliberate hyperbole all seem a better fit. Hannan is not the first, nor the wisest to criticise Browns many economic failings, but because he was concise and willing to dip a bit into hyperbole it got attention.

Now, to the second point: is this a good thing or not? Well yes and no. The internet is clearly a wonderfully democratising tool, of which this blog is evidence. Yet as we’ve seen -and again I want to stress how over the top politics and its coverage has always been- and by adding a million new voices, both online, and now elected officials around the globe (I’m an Australian, talking about a British Member of a European Parliament, who I was first linked to by a man living in America), then the overall level at which you have to speak has to keep rising and rising. In short, I fear we are slowly drowning out the more sober and softly spoken voices, in favour of the brash and the bold. Cable TV is the all too easy example of this, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh do more to influence the political thought of Americans today than all the University Professors in the country combined. In large part, that is their own fault, and our own fault. There are no excuses for an inability to communicate. But whilst democratising, this does run the risk of debasing just as much.

For this reason, as strong as my democratic spirits are, I dont see a justification for having a popularly elected president for Australia’s republic, over someone chosen by 2/3rds of the House of Representatives. Afterall, who would the public pick, but someone who has made their name entirely outside the field of politics. Anyone who has spent their lives learning & talking about political issues necessary for a head of state role, is either too unknown (from Uni Professors to elder Community figures like Major Michael General Jeffery or Quentin Bryce) or too controversial (Hawke, Keating, Howard). Instead it would be former sports stars, or perhaps a TV news reader or former actor. In other words, the greater the number of voices involved in the decision, the more likely someone entirely unqualified will take attention and hence the position.

So Hannan is right to welcome in the challenge to the stuffy control that the political media still exercises over the political process. I can’t count how many times I’ve ranted to journalist friends at the herd like nature of the press gallery for following the same story and refusing to let new voices in. As a liberal who pushes issues outside the mainstream approval such as legalising Marijuana, Homosexual Marriage, and severely cutting down on our middle class welfare state, I know all too well the impossibility of getting such views heard.

But there isn’t always a correlation between ability to say something that will get noticed, and ability to actually govern. Winning elections is a very different skill from governing well, as George W. Bush proved eloquently. So whilst I think it’s great that Hannan’s speech got noticed, lets neither convince ourselves this is a new era of politics, nor that it is a change without its own associated problems and risks.

(I was going to put in the self-pittying point that such a conclusion is neither bold nor controversial so wont be heard, but what’s the point as no one will read that either :P)

Of Liberals and Stem Cells

The debate over stem cells is one that ought of course be left to the scientific community. There great public can no more know the exact nature of what the research is (should they want to stop it) than their open support can ensure its success as a field of research (should they want to encourage it). We wont know what we turn up, until we do, that’s why it’s called research, and why so much of the ethical debate related to stem cell’s is so misguided.

But whilst the conservative position is clear and has its own moral logic (that life must not be consciously tampered with), there’s a certain amount of confusion about the Liberal position. As such you get -fair minded- criticism’s of the Liberal approach such as this occurring regularly in the press:

the comments I’ve received from readers about Obama’s stem-cell decision worry me. Many people on both sides seem ill-informed or self-deluded about basic scientific questions. Liberals are denying the simple fact that human embryos are the beginnings of people. Conservatives are pretending that adult stem cells are more powerful than embryonic ones. If ordinary people want to govern science policy, they need to educate themselves so they can govern well.
….
Third, Levin describes the moral question this way:
If (as modern biology informs us) conception initiates a human life, and if (as the Declaration of Independence asserts) every human life is equally deserving of some minimal protections, government support for the destruction of human embryos for research raises profound moral problems.
I cringe at this interpretation of the Declaration. Levin believes that equality means a five-day-old embryo has the same right to life as a 5-year-old girl. I just can’t buy that. I’m a gradualist. I value the five-day-old embryo because it’s on its way to becoming the 5-year-old girl. But it’s not there yet. It hasn’t acquired the sentience and cognition that characterize a full-fledged human being.

If we don’t draw moral lines against the exploitation of embryos, we may end up obliterating respect for human life generally. But if we’re so afraid of that prospect that we refuse to draw lines permitting the use of any embryos under any conditions, we may end up obliterating the moral difference between embryos and full-grown people. Liberals should think seriously about the first scenario. Conservatives should think just as seriously about the second.

Yet despite the author ‘cringing’ at such an interpretation, he still returns to it in adopting wishy-washy words to describe the Liberal position. Liberals are accused of “denying the simple fact that human embryos are the beginnings of people” without any discussion of just what “the beginnings of people” means morally. Billions of women have had miscarriages which have dumped similar stem cells, many before the mother was even aware of the pregnancy. This is a simple fact of life.
Likewise other key cells sperm cells are in their way the beginnings of people, just as are ovarian eggs. Yet these are naturally and regularly are dumped by the human body, and even the churches have largely given up the fight to stop it. But this is still claimed to be a “simple fact” that Liberals somehow deny in their view of stem cells as just that: Cells.

Likewise as we come to the end of the piece, Liberals are warned that this encouragement for research on certain cells (as opposed I guess to studying how heart valves are repaired, or skin cancer cells removed or foot fungus manages to affect the skins cells growth) risks the apochalyptic sounding risk of “obliterating respect for human life”, as if the Nazi’s eugenics program came before and led to the rhetorical demonisation of entire peoples, instead of the other way around.

In both cases whilst the consequences of the conservative effort are clear: No research that may benefit the well being of the living, efforts to legislate against practices which occur daily in human beings and are discarded naturally, the consequence of the Liberals position is unknown. So we get treated to such claims as it will cause the human race to stop caring about the human race, or bromides about “simple facts” of the moral universe that are anything but.

So here is roughly the Liberal thinking on Stem Cells
1) The relieving of pain and suffering is our supreme moral agenda.
2) The well being of conscious humans is far superior to that of cells which neither feel, think, or act.
3) Nothing alive should be disrespected, even though it bears less authority than that of the life of a Human Being (It’s no surprise Animal Welfare groups sprung from Liberal thinkers)
4) We don’t know the potential benefits or risks of each decision until we come to actually encounter it. The allowance of stem cell research doesn’t automatically mean we will later be faced with issues of human cloning or human eugenics. Such steps may never be possible, just as potential benefits (greatly extended life, cure for cancer, AIDS or something else wondrous) are also unknown. The moral weight of our decision is only known then, when potential outcomes come into focus, not now when they are entirely shadowed and impossible to see.
5) Following on from that, we are no more likely to justify moral abuse tomorrow than we are today, simply because we have made one decision now on the facts to encourage research or action in a certain direction. The briefest study of politics, especially within democratic societies will show the self-correcting and pendulum nature of human debates. Debates that are usually only ended when such a great mass of evidence occurs as to make it near nonsensical to object. (Ie that Communism is an immoral practice) There is no slippery slope. We can climb off at any point in time, and regularly do.
6) There is little way the general public can understand the complexity of such issues and whilst society certainly ought to make it’s general moral principles clear, it is not something we can asses that directly and certainly one’s we cant assess whilst still hypothetical’s.

But here’s the kicker: Stem Cells arn’t a matter of Liberal ideology, or moral theory. They were unknown until recently, and once we know more about them (or discover ways to replicate the results with artificial cells) may never be a point of contention in the future. They are simply a scientific opportunity that offers the potential to relieve and overcome significant human suffering, and we are dealing with material that is not, and never could be a human being, despite being alive. Just as the fly buzzing around your room is, or the 80’000 bacteria that cover your skin right now are, or those floating in through your window.

Liberals no more want human cloning or depraved eugenics than conservatives do. But they are at least willing to make a decision based on the actual facts before us (is anyone hurt by using stem cells:no, can research stem cells help: yes) than on hypotheticals far down the road (could human cloning result from mad scientists). That is the difference between Liberals and Conservatives on the issue. One is dealing with the current facts, respecting that future generations can also make informed moral choices if they do not like the path taken, the other claiming a moral foresight and knowledge that both is far greater than that of any future generation is capable, and one which knows before the research is done what path and outcome will result.

Update:
Ross Douthat (who is due to become the NYT’s next conservative columnist) take a new twist in response to similar arguments instead arguing that the Conservative position here against Stem Cells despite the loss of similar entities naturally and regularly in nature/fertility clinics/ is a democratically driven compromise position:

pro-lifers have done what you’re supposed to do in a democracy, which is to meet the general public where they are. This doesn’t make them insincere; it makes them sensible. (By Kinsley’s screwy logic, a supporter of universal health care in a country where half the country’s uninsured and there’s no chance of passing single-payer would be “morally unserious” if he concentrated his energy on, say, mandating health care for newborns; after all, what about the millions of people who aren’t newborns?)

But here Douthats comparison here doesn’t work, running on the simplistic logic that half a defense is still better than nothing. Yet unlike the clear benefit that would be benefited from mandating healthcare for newborns despite the millions who arnt newborns in his coutner example, there simply is no benefit in stopping the legislation against stem cells, either practically or morally. They arn’t half or a comprromise between respecting life and being willing to use it callously, they dont even qualify as a object of definite recognition. Which is why all the moral outrage has to be directed at hypothetical and potential moral problems such as cloning. As Michael Kingsly writes “There is NO “medical ethical quandary” involved in the decade-long dispute over stem cells”. The debate is over the potential for future research, rather than anything currently engaged. But apparently defending something that isn’t worth defending, on the basis of hypothetical potentials, all the whilst your intention is effectively to legislate against something that occurs naturally anyway by the millions.
That is, the anti-stem cell position is one that since it cant defend it on the current circumstances is explicitly based on a deliberate leap to future possibilities in a universe where consent for immoral practices is already presumed), and a position that is effectively legislating against something that occurs naturally and regularly in the world. If none of this impresses you as sensible, then it’s claimed to be valid in its own right simply as a compromise position held within a democracy (which is a pragmatic not a moral argument, which by invoking allows in a whole host of other pragmatic arguments (such as the benefits the research could have to alleviate pain and suffering amongst the sick) that conservatives have desperately tried to avoid talking about by claiming this is a moral issue to be decided on moral grounds alone. And all this filed under a post Douthat actually labels “Stem Cells and Moral Seriousness”.

Score one for the independents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trouble with Libertarians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wither Freedom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Government kills one more

The war on Drugs chalks up another dead kid :
Girl Dies of Overdose at Big Day Out

A friend of the family told 6PR Radio that the girl took three ecstasy tablets before entering the festival’s gates after she spotted police searching people for drugs.The witness said the girl then went on a ride with friends when she began to shake and her lips turned blue.ecstasy
Within moments she collapsed and was taken to hospital, where she died early this morning.
Steve Allsop, from the National Drug Research Institute, said taking any pill was a gamble.
“One of the risks is that people don’t know what it is they’re taking. What they were taking one week will vary the next week. The problem with a drug such as ecstasy is that people are lulled into a false sense of security about what they’re taking,” he said.

Three factors caused this girls death.
1) She chose to take an intoxicating substance for the purpose of enjoying a festival
2) Since there is no regulation or standards for the manafacture of this substance, we have no idea what was in the pills (and by the sound of the quick onset of trouble, it quite likely was something much more nefarious)
3) Because posession and use is heavily penalized, this girl acted in a much more risky fashion than otherwise would have.

Along with 38% of adult Australians, this girl chose to break the law and take an illegal drug. No act of law breaking in this sense can ever be condoned. And yet because of the nature of these laws, and how we implement them, this girl is dead. She took a risk, but government policy pulled the trigger by denying her any chance to know what was in those substances, and encouraged extra risky behavior as a rational response to the way we implement our laws.

I dont think we should legalize all drugs, some have just too harmful an effect on society as they destroy the individuals who take them (breaking Mill’s harm principle). But every case like this is tragic, simply because it didn’t have to happen. But here we are. One dead kid, half a country who have broken the law (15% who do so regularly) and as free a flow of drugs in our society as there has ever been.

What a great outcome…

Liberals and their Government

Towards the end of the Conservative love affair with G.W. Bush came the common refrain that Bush was actually a closet liberal in his big government spending ways.

Whilst government is often a critical element of many liberal policies in ensuring education, health care, and a social safety net, what I object to is the idea held by the right/large elements of the press that Liberals think increased government spending is an intrinsic good in itself. That just making something a part of the Government books is a benefit to society regardless of the policy outcome. But this is simply not true. Liberal policy arguments never make government spending a positive value in and of itself, instead it is usually seen as the only viable way in which some services can be delivered in cases of market absence (defence) or regular failure (education).

As such, it’s nice to see some of the bigger left wing voices actually talking about the issue:

Kevin Drum:

I am, oddly enough, not really in favor of vastly increased funding for other social programs. Some increased funding is OK, but it should be kept under pretty strict scrutiny — and not just on the generic grounds that all spending ought to be monitored carefully to make sure it’s effective and pruned away when it’s not.

Here’s why. I’m obviously more open to high government spending than most conservatives, but even liberals think there’s a limit to how much of the economy ought to be under government control

Matthew Yglesias:

Nobody on the left ever really talks about the issue of exactly how big we can envision big government getting down the road… Markets, doing their work, will make those sectors more and more efficient leading them to shrink as a share of the overall economic pie. What will be left is big government. Or, rather, bigger and bigger government. Teaching kids. Taking care of the elderly. Patrolling the streets. Making the SUPERTRAINS run on time. And it’s going to be fine.
Which isn’t to say we should crank spending up to 93 percent of GDP next year. .

Unfortunately both Drum and Yglesias advocate increased government spending, but at least they are beginning to open up the debate on just what Liberals, now that we are in power in America and here in Australia really want to do, and what government spending is needed to facilitate that. Because as you can see in both arguments listed above, though increased government spending is called for, it is always for a specific purpose, rather than anything intrinsic in its own benefit (though Yglesias somewhat defends such thoughts)

But at least the debate is beginning to be held. The Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd may rightly be declaring the death of NeoLiberalism due to the GFC, but that doesnt mean we need to abandon Liberalisms principles. Government shouldn’t be any larger than it absolutely must be. Welfare spending should be tightly targeted and intended to return people to society, rather than a continuous handout for those who could otherwise provide for themselves, and taxes should be as low as can be accommodated without leaving government broke.

Government is a force for good in society, but increased government doesnt automatically mean increased good. It has to be tied to specific priorities and fields. And where we can get rid of it, or leave people to themselves then it should be a principle of all liberals who decry the heavy hand of stigma, tradition or bureaucracy to force people to act otherwise than they might have chosen. Inevitably this idea of liberalism will mean some trade off’s. Reducing government nannying on tobacco lets us more earnestly stop its refusal to accept Gay Marriage. In both cases the individual should be supreme, and in both cases Government is not in control of the behaviour of people. Smoking rates are going down because society, not government has changed its view. In reverse society is increasingly embracing homosexuals as normal members of the community deserving the full recognition and support of the law. Likewise for efforts to prevent internet filtering or censorship of Video Games.

Liberalism is in a period of re-birth at the moment, but we need to be careful that the practices of a decades defense of government and the already existing programs from the harmful ravages of the right, doesnt translate into an automatic desire to expand or continue defending every dollar, now that the programs are in friendlier hands. It will take time and confidence before liberals can happily urge the removal of some ineffectual or pointless government spending without worrying that it will allow the Conservative and the callous to leap on it as proof Government is the problem. As Barack Obama urged in his inaguration speech:

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works – whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.

If nothing else, such a confidence would help prevent Conservatives recasting failures of their own efforts as somehow sins not of their own making. Bush wasn’t a liberal in his big government ways. He was just a big spender, just as John Howard was here in Australia from 1996-2007. Nothing more, nothing less.