Chasing the Norm

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

Tag: Political Philosophy

The return of the DLP

In 1954, the ALP split for the third time in its history, with communism, or rather anti-communism being the issue. Herbert ‘doc’ Evatt was not capable of leading the Labor members at that time and he had lost the support of ALP voters after their third straight election loss. Post-war re-configurations of Australian society and a range of distorted personalities (Evatt & B.A Santamaria) combined to split the ALP and keep the party out of power for another 18 years. The Democratic Labor Party while publicly influential never amounted to much electorally or in policy terms, but in a way they represented a strong strain of Australian political thought, one that in some (less divisive) ways is making its comeback today. No chance of a split exists, but it is not hard to see similar philosophical strains within both major political parties, between their conservative wings (for the ALP the workers/union base, for the Liberals a religious upper middle class) and their liberal wings (the ALP’s inner city aspirations and the Liberals business class). Both Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott are firmly members of their own party’s conservative classes, and indeed a longer running sub-stream of Australian Conservatism which found its clearest form in the DLP. They represent in many ways the return of the DLP.
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A Servant of Two Masters

It’s always interesting watching politicians advocate for those who they don’t agree with or in some cases even like. It’s a necessary evil in politics, but still revealing. As a budding student journalist I twice interviewed Bob McMullan, once as Shadow Treasurer under Crean, where he pushed that Crean was a good centrist leader, and once when he was a backbencher with Mark Latham his boss, where again I was told that Latham was a good centrist leader. The Latham Diaries later revealed that by this point Latham had fallen out with most of his colleagues, especially McMullan.

It’s interesting therefore to read George Brandis’ excellent piece on Tony Abbott in todays Oz. Brandis was one of the last supporters of Turnbull, and advocated last year for the Liberal Party to go in a very different direction to Abbott’s ideal, but he puts up a good defence of his new boss (Much like in 2003 when Brandis was about the only Liberal I heard mount a decent argument in parliament in defence of the soon to be ex-Governor General Peter Hollingsworth).
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Twitter’s growing pains

I’ve blogged about twitter before, yet I still find it a valuable service to keep updated of the news, and give me a peak at what journalists & politicians are saying. Only it may not actually be them at the keyboard:

Turnbull sometimes does his own tweets

Turnbull sometimes does his own tweets

It took Barack Obama only 25 characters to shock most of his 2,677, 720 followers to the core. “I have never used Twitter” confessed the leader of the Free World, when pressed on new technology by Chinese students in Shanghai. But, hang on a minute. Wasn’t this the first Social Media Presidency? One of the very first Twitter accounts to be verified? And if Barack says he really is all thumbs, just who is it who is doing all his tweeting?

Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull appeared at ease during the Sydney Media 140 conference in discussion with broadcaster Fran Kelly, leaning comfortably back in his chair. But little did he know that only a few days later, he would looking for a new social media advisor, after his chief on-line strategist, Thomas Tudehope, was revealed to be linked to a version of the popular spoof Hitler “Downfall” video lampooning besieged Liberal politician, Alex Hawke.

The admission that “Tommy Tudehope helps with a lot of it” [Turnbull’s tweeting] during the Media140 interview may well have contributed to the startling resignation. But I believe that what these events may reveal is a key danger of the burgeoning use of social media: politicians leaping on the bandwagon and the consequent use of new media tools for more complex political tricks.

To the twitterati, these revalations are a real outrage, and a slightly heartbreaking one at that. Social media has been seen as a way for direct, personal, unhindered contact between the elites and the masses. To find out it’s instead a staff member who is writing up the information seems to them to break the fundamental trust that they invest in the system. Yet whilst it’s unfortunate, it certainly isn’t surprising, at least no more than the use of speech writers or even media spokespeople. Politicians are immensely busy, their job is to both understand, decide and communicate on the issues of the day, and if they outsource the communication part occasionally, that’s not the worst sin in the world.

As a wanna-be speech writer, this has always been an issue that has interested me. Whilst the best remembered and usually most sucessful politicians are the best communicators (such as Lincoln, Churchill, Reagan, Obama), all used some assistance to cover the sheer workload and variety and forms of communications which they are expected to produce. This isn’t too different from sending out supporters or influential figures to help advocate for your case as happened in the ancient greek agora. Everyone would rather be personally visited by the politician and asked for their support, or hear their arguments and have a chance to respond in person, but it was impossible in a city of 30’000 active citizens, and simply laughable in a country of 21 million or 300 million or 1.6 billion.

We are thankfully emerging from the era of one to mass communication, with the decline of TV & Radio as the main communication sources. But we should not expect that the requirements of politicians are any less, even if we want no more than 140 characters out of them from time to time. To the good politician, such resources are simply another media outlet to be used in so far as they advance their cause. I know some federal politicians read this blog, along with their staffers, and taking a quick pulse check on what’s happening online may give them a heads up on issues the media may be looking at, or the way it is generally trending. But all this means more work, and more time spent hearing talk about themselves, and from competitors for the audiences attention.

The Twitterati are a smart bunch and will soon recover from this (in their hearts they probably knew it from the start). They may have lost the dream of reforming politics through their particular technology, but this happens every time a new technology is created. With its acceptance as a mundane addition the discussion can move to the truly important debates such as the social norms of it’s use, and the right and wrong ways to utilise it. Finaly it allows us to begin to measure its actual impact in real data, rather than against idealistic dreams of a new public sphere, dreams that have been floating around under the label of of E-Politics since at least the mid 1990’s if not in similar form for 2500 years.

Veto players

Over the last few weeks I’ve surprised a few australian readers by saying that Obama will get his healthcare bills through. Right now that still looks the case, but it’s taken a big wobbly in the last 48 hours with Independent senator (and former Democratic VP nominee) Joe Lieberman saying he will filibuster any bill with a public option included (that is prevent it being voted on). It’s pretty unlikely that Lieberman will be coaxed back from this threat (he isn’t a democrat anymore, and even after supprting McCain over Obama, was allowed to keep his chairmanships of key committees), so now seems likely the Public Option will be sacrificed to the gods of the double demons of Debt and Taxes (despite the fact a public option won’t need tax increases and will decrease the debt)

King George III (1760-1820) still causing americans grief after all these years

King George III (1760-1820) still causing Americans grief after all these years

Either way, healthcare once again proves a very good example of Fareed Zakaria’s argument that the biggest challenge facing the US isn’t economic or cultural, but political. It desperately needs to reform its political system if it is to compete in the 21st century. The US founding fathers were geniuses for their time, but they were fleeing the power of a single individual who ruled the state. So in response they created a system with as many blocks and hold ups to passing legislation as possible. Those who occupy such positions are known as veto players. Of course the President is one, as are the Supreme Court, but given the quirks of the US legislators, majority and house leaders, and the committees, there are many many such players in the American system, any one of which can damage or subvert important legislation. This is unlike Westminster systems in the UK/Aus where there are usually only 2 (PM & GG/Queen/rare actual balance of power holding indpendents)

Today the Democrats hold the White House, Congress and the Senate, with strong public support for their legislation. Yet they can’t enact a bill that will lower the debt, free US businesses of crushing health premiums and give coverage to the millions of uninsured Americans, because of a handful of individuals. Because of changes in practice, every bill now needs a super-majority of 60/100 to pass the US senate. These suddenly powerful individuals have all (unlike the President/without the legal guide of the Courts) been elected by a tiny segment of the population, and know the power of name recognition, regional contacts and money can guarantee their re-election however they vote.

The US system is suffering under the weight of its own history. I certainly don’t think Obama has all the right ideas, or that opponents should just shut up and get out of the way. There are many other good alternative models to seek, or even a return to historic uses of veto’s (such as keeping filibusters rare) would be a strong development. But in a globalised world, where challenges like the GFC can strike with frightening speed, governments need to be nimble enough to respond quickly. The US system, because of the historical era it was built in response to is proving unworkable in the modern era. During the last 100 years parliamentary systems have generally proven vastly superior in raining in the scope of the President to dominate the legislature, now they are proving better in responding quickly to the challenges of the day. Quick policy* is not necessarily bad policy, and we need legislative systems capable of making timely, informed decisions in order to respond.

* Progressive in the US have been trying to push through universal health care since FDR in the 1930’s and utterly failed to get anywhere under Clinton. The US under Obama has been debating health care almost exclusively since March. Nothing about this is quick. Which is kind of my point.

Making the audience work for it

Some years back there was a politician doing the rounds of his local suburbs. He had been in parliament a long time, was well liked, and brought many rewards back to the electorate, including a big new bridge making it easier to get into the city. He knocked on one of the doors to find an old lady he counted as a supporter and after some pleasant banter asked if she was going to vote for him again this year. ‘No’ came her surprising reply. ‘Why not’ he asked. ‘I’ve served the district well, I’ve brought many benefits to the area, I even brought in the bridge which I knew you wanted’. Her reply ? ‘Thats what you did last term, what do we get this time?’

Its an old truism of politics, though one rarely endorsed in our overly professionalised political class, that if you want someones help or attention, don’t give them what they want, but make them work to support you instead. That is the best way to truly lock in support. In the 2008 Democratic Primaries, Hillary Clinton quickly out raised Obama by getting her key supporters to all donate the maximum $2300 amount possible. Obama on the other hand went for a significantly greater pool of people all sending in $10 or $25 dollars. And whenever he was struggling he would go to them and ask for more. Now these people often couldn’t afford much, but having already invested in him they were not going to see their investment wasted with his loss. The same logic applied in the full election when he went up against McCain. His supporters not only were far more tied to his cause because they had helped him out, many went from just financial support to actively door knocking to help. His star was tied to theirs, and they worked far harder and longer for him because of this, than if he had tried to simply buy their votes with any lavish election spending promises.
I was reminded of this lesson recently by a great friend of mine who posts over at The Refined Geek. The lucky man is just about to go on his honeymoon, but rather than tell us all, he gave little clues and wrote up a short story that he said claimed all the details needed to find out where they were going. If he had simply told his mates where he was going we would have stopped talking about it weeks ago. But for the last few weeks, and especially last 2 days since the wedding the most consistent topic of conversation has been speculation about where they are going. Because we the audience had to work for the information, we were significantly more involved and ready to dedicate time and effort than had we merely been told what we wanted to know at the start.

And as I write this post, I am just finishing a piece of Toast with Vegemite iSnack 2.0. I rarely ate vegemite as a kid, but the lure of a new type, and one without a name got me interested, and even though I absolutely hate the new name, I’ve had perhaps a half-dozen discussions on it with people in the last few days. And consequently found myself when getting out breakfast supplies, reaching for the Vegemite jar.

So never just give your audience what they want. Make them work for it just a little bit, and they will be significantly more invested in your success and towards the result you want to achieve. People like to be involved more than they want to be rewarded.

Rhetoric and Morality

If you watch much US politics, although some similar elements can be found here in Australia, you’ll notice that the major political players arn’t really talking to each other anymore. Though socratic dialogue on the great issues of the day has never really occurred (or been needed) within modern western democracies, the extent of the gap between the meaning and intent of the language used by the competing groups is stark. There are many reasons for this gap, but perhaps the most critical of them comes down to the issue of morality. Or rather where you seek to measure morality, and the implications that flow on from that. Those in power tend to take morality as a result of outcomes. Those in opposition tend to take morality as a question of intention. The difference between these two is often at the heart of the controversies of modern society, though as shall be noted later, the groups are increasingly hardening around particular takes, the Religious Right around Intention, the Liberal Left around Outcome.

During the time of John Howard or Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Left wing critics of both governments used to point to the cuts in welfare spending, tightening of requirements, stronger support for private services (like health and education) and harsher penalties for those who are seen to be breaking the rules, from ordinary criminals to ‘queue jumping’ refugees. In each of these cases, the government could usually turn around and argue that whilst this looked harsh, that harshness was both needed (like a disciplined parent) and more importantly in the moral stakes, that the outcome of these policies was improved social conditions. Less people dependent on welfare, more money available for social spending, or parents choosing educations in line with their own personal beliefs, and a stronger sense of personal responsibility within the community. Howard and Thatcher both saw themselves as highly moral individuals, but it was demonstrated by their outcomes, not their intentions. Their critics however would rage most strongly at the announcement of individual policies that seemed to offer a harsh intention, within the sometimes counter-intuitive logic of economic liberalism that a lack of control of the market affords greater support for the needy and the wayward. While there are numerous cases of the market and indeed these individual policies causing great immoral harm, their critics were eventually silenced by the clear and successful outcomes. Neither is well liked, but their moral victory rests in the adoption of similar policies by almost all of the mainstream Center-Left (The GFC has given some of the last holdouts a hope of resistance, but its a fleeting one)

Today a similar pattern is evident in the US (and increasingly in Australia) as the Right wing critics attack the government more and more for what they perceive as wrongful intentions, rather than any great concern with outcomes. So Obama’s healthcare policy is dismissed out of hand because it represents a move to big government or away from individual choice, (as was his stimulus package). Torture is seen as perfectly acceptable, because the intention is to protect the homeland, the way this protection occurs of almost no interest. When Obama removes missile defence policies, closes Guantanamo or seeks to negotiate with Iran over Nuclear weapons, the potential outcomes are not a part of the debate, rather they are seen as simply pointers for the troubling moral intentions which are applied to his character. Though 100% of those against him would also be against him where he a white democrat named Bob Jones, or Joe Charles, the difference of his skin colour and background make it easier to apply such devious intentions to his moral character.

Likewise, this view of morality as a question of intention over outcome reflects significantly on the movement that takes on this view. Articulated principles become the guiding lights to the faithful. Not only is it far easier to communicate via principles than complex circumstantial outcomes, intentions as a moral basis allows for greater enforceability as tests can be applied almost any time, to any communication past or present to check for consistency. Morality at this point becomes a question solely of identity. Sarah Palin’s many outright lies have absolutely no impact on the high moral status awarded to her by the Religious Right. She could have an affair and see no damage, but should she endorse anything Obama does, the glass would shatter and she would be seen as immoral and unacceptable. As such you see a far greater willingness to exclude those who come anywhere near agreeing with the chosen enemy, for such an act, even if utterly consistent with one of the principles desired, is taken to be an acceptance of a wayway intention. So while Noel Pearson was of the left and believed in the same social justice ideals as the left, he was instantly discredited for working with Howard (Likewise Frank Brennan for his helping Brian Harradine on Wik). In the US any conservative who gives even mild support for Obama’s healthcare (which will reduce overall costs, and increase the healthcare for all, regardless of income) is ostracized and discredited. If Obama has bad intentions, the thinking goes, only someone with similarly bad intentions could justify supporting anything they do (or at least has lapsed on this cause).

This is a common pattern, Oppositions center around intentions, Governments around outcomes. However, I think we are seeing an increasing hardening of current patterns. That is a big call given Obama has only been in power 8 months, but this is a 30 year change. I had deliberately excluded Ronald Reagan from my first set of examples, because he was a for runner to the Intention driven politics you see in the US. Big government was the enemy, but even as supply side tax cuts sent the budget into deficit, his intentions were seen as still being more moral than his opponents. On the left, the grudging acceptance of capitalism ‘because it works’ has been occurring almost since the early 1940’s when communism lost its sheen, but especially over the last 20 years, as massive economic liberalisation and privatisation has not resulted in a Randian struggle for survival, but increased prosperity, increased support for the disadvantaged, and a more free and tolerant society. The outcomes have forced their change, many may not like capitalism, but there are few arguments from intention (the contest of the market place) replaced mainly by ones of outcome (how to get the poor and disadvantaged the same opportunities the rich are afforded). There is also the increasing social liberalism of those who champion economic liberalism (such as in Libertarians), which is dividing the Religious Right from the vast mainstream of Western Political thought.

In a world where the political divide is seen as a moral one. And a moral divide based not on issues but on how and where you draw your morality, actual civic communication becomes increasingly difficult. One of the primary tasks of all leaders is to communicate how the elites are dealing with the problems faced, and why this is the right course of action for the times. When John Howard was talking economics he was excellent at this type of explanation, and many a left-winger (myself included) would admit to the guilty secret of being swayed by his explanations on economic issues. But when it came to cultural or social issues, he was hopeless, retreating to boilerplate lines about the guiding principles, whilst effectively ignoring them in policy. Obama is much better at this, for he seems to have a clearer vision of the future country he seeks, but he also faces an opposition significantly less inclined to listen than even Howard faced during the Wik or Tampa controversys.

So next time you encounter someone you just can’t reason with politically, or a figure who confuses you in how they could possibly advocate such an immoral position, ask yourself from where they may be seeking to draw their morality. And when communicating with others seek to offer as an explanation the origins of your own morality as an important point of common ground. You probably wont even agree, but recognizing each other as equally worthy moral beings, just utilizing different calculus’s is a vital first step to true public dialog and political engagement.

Market State ? How about My State?

Over at The Interpreter Sam Roggeveen and Hugh White have been discussing their views on the work of Phillip Bobbitt, author of ‘The Shield of Achilles‘ (on the 1914-1990 war between Parliamentary Democracy and Fascism/Communism) and ‘Terror and Consent‘ (on fighting in an era of globalised Terrorism).
Both are important books, and worth reading, though as Sam notes difficult to finish without perseverance. There are moments of brilliance in each. Bobbitt is very good at noting the importance of structure to the actions of agents, both of the state (from city states to Market states) and its challenges (from pirates to terrorists). But as Hugh White notes, it’s sometimes too easy to grant a predictability to established structures. Yet if anything I don’t think that White goes far enough, in that he still talks of states reacting to circumstances, rather than the other challenge that Bobbitt’s Market State idea seems to introduce (though he leaves it aside), that states functions may be outsourced to economic institutions and so reduced from geographic structures to metaphysical identities. If we are entering a period where the states role is less protection, but more about providing opportunities, then why should the place I seek identity from and within, be the same place that gives me economic opportunities?

With economics destined to be handled at the continental (witness the EU/NAFTA) or perhaps even global level, individuals are freed to move, shape and argue for much clearer and more delineated cultural, ethnic and social re-organisation. Rather than the era of enlightened cosmopolitanism capitalists hope for, but rather one where as economic trans-national groupings grow in size and compete, with citizens seeking to join those with the best opportunities, the identity groups we attach ourselves can safely shrink without sacrificing wealth.

Until now, the greatest peril any group seeking homogeneity faced was how to provide for itself. Most groups have dealt with this via the practice of slavery, explicitly in Ancient Athens, implicitly under the Third Reich. But with this outsourced (and assuming hostility between identities remains low) groups can successfully exclude and restrict as pleases them.Why stay in a conservative area when the same jobs are on offer in a liberal one? Why stay in a area where you are a minority than in an area where you are part of the group. Indeed why even share a group with anyone at all unlike you. We will increasingly see people say they are economically citizens of the EU, but identity wise from a very very specific location, or ethnic basis, or even political background, that admits no diversity within.

One interesting term that has been thrown around in International Relations theory papers is that of Neo-Medievalism. Popularised by the great Australian academic Hedley Bull, the changing nature of states suggests a revival of competing lines of authority compared to the clear supreme state sovereignty we have been used to since the mid 17th century. In the Medieval period before this time, the states (as they existed) were content to regularly invade each other on questions of identity (either to convert, or to reclaim isolated fellow believers), and there were multiple sources of authority claiming ownership of the peasants, with Fiefdoms, Monarchies, Churches and Tribal/Ethnic leaders all demanding allegiance. This began to be reduced to just one overarching source with the rise of the modern nation state, which reached its logical conclusion in Fascism with the state being responsible for every single element of social organisation in peoples lives, and even the choice of which of those they would join or be excluded from. Modern democracies par the state back somewhat, but with the rise of international organisations and economic regional groupings, there is a re-emerging overlapping of authority facing individuals. And with that comes reduced group loyalty, or multiple group loyalty. Except where early history relied only on humans natural inclination to differentiate ourselves into groups, the rise of democracy and the idea of self-determination has transformed that desire into a god given right.

The idea of self-determination was by far the most powerful idea of the 20th century. It is one of humanity’s greatest, and also one of our most dangerous. It was necessary to help throw off the colonizers, and integral to the spread of democracy, but it also gives every identifiable group in the world a moral check to be cashed in whenever they want. We are now up to 192 nations and growing. But these are somewhat limited as each of these new states needs economic stability or control of important resources in order to be viable. But as the economic blocks to which we belong grow, there emerges the possibility that identity groups can and will shrink. They will be able to exclude because far less mutual dependence is needed. And so if anything whilst we are breaking down the restrictive walls of the geographic state we are likely to become far more closely tied to the metaphysical binds of identity (however constructed, based on physical or mental differences).

Bobbitt doesn’t walk down this path, in ‘Terror and Consent’ his focus is on the more immediate concern to help preserve states during this transition period from the inevitable backlash each era produces. But if the Market State is the future, or at least we will come to see state membership as akin to a commercial deal, then the pressures to make identity groups much more exclusive will similarly grow. The implications and risk of this are vast and confronting, but we must face them head on. It is pretty hard to argue against the idea that the Kurds or Uighur don’t deserve an independent say over their own affairs, but what about when it is a group of evangelicals, or homosexuals, or conservatives who then want their own area, whilst still remaining fully participating members of the greater regional economic groupings.

Photo used under a Creative Commons licence by user j / f / photos

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.

If they are down, who is up?

As everyone knows US republicans are in serious trouble electorally. Richard Posner attributes this to an intellectual decline amongst US conservatives. Evidence that they arn’t lead by the brightest of sparks is pretty clear. Yet more than individuals this is a question of intellectual clout, energy and influence within the sphere of ideas. The great new-right revolution marrying religious social conservatism and economic liberalisation is clearly over. Following on from this Andrew Norton engages in the interesting question if this decline is found in Australia too.

While Australian conservatism hasn’t failed on its own terms, on the other hand it is not obvious how Australian conservatives will be seen as having solutions to widely-accepted problems in the medium term. Possibly there will be scope for reworking family and social cohesion themes, but just how this will be done I don’t know. Perhaps the most interesting conservative issue at the moment is the charter/bill of rights, because of the significant challenge to our democratic system. But this is largely a negative agenda, and it is not clear whether conservative arguments will resonate with the broader public.

The Australian right is in a down period, with the natural shift in the political cycle. But to me it does not look like a broader crisis, as it does in the US.

I think Norton is broadly right, however I wonder if not this is a problem actually found across the entire spectrum. Progressives in the US have a lot of work to do to help their country catch up to the rest of the first world (such as universal healthcare), but these are not in any way ‘new’ goals. Only on Climate Change, and perhaps gay marriage is there a building ascendancy that new approaches are needed along lines suggested by progressives.
Take the issue of economics. Whilst the New-Right movement has clearly run out of steam and is now trying to defend the status quo, does anyone think the New-Left is offering a real alternative vision ? Rudd may have talked a lot about social democrats needing to ‘save capitalism from itself’, but each area of policy is approached piecemeal and in a pragmatic fashion. There is no clear intellectual ascendancy occurring on the left on economics, just a sudden vacuum prompted by time (It’s 30 years since Thatcher won power), arrogance (WorkChoices/US Deficit) and a psychological bodyblow (the GFC).

The 2007 election was notable for the lack of policy energy either party had. Workchoices was already law and a piece Howard had wanted to implement for two decades, meanwhile Rudd’s ‘education revolution’ proved illusory and largely a question of funding. 2007 was an election about individuals, pragmatism and renewal, rather than broad debates about the future direction of the country (1949) or reflections of an already existing social change (1972). While Labor is now enjoying the fruits of victory, and has made some welcome changes, it is hardly building an image as a progressive government, nor seriously trying to change the public mindset on key issues (outside an electorally motivated attack on free market fundamentalists lead by the largely free market supporting Rudd).

The Liberals are bouncing between moderate and more conservative ideals (indeed this struggle has become the hallmark of the Turnbull leadership unfortunately), but it is issue based and quite well contained within the same field of debate the Howard Government had (with moderates just a bit more vocal, and conservatives more angry). When was the last time Turnbull promoted a new idea? He had plenty in government(ie the pink bats rebate in Rudd’s stimulus package was originally Malcolm’s idea), but has been contained now that he is the leader.

In short there simply isn’t an ideological ascendency on either side of politics at the moment. Neither the Left nor the Right are bubbling away with new ideas. There is some activity amongst environmentalists, but it’s a minor area, and yet to be translated into a unifying political creed in the way the pro-markets economic research came to be associated with ‘freedom’. Neither side is doing a particularly good job of promoting bright new thinkers or intruding into the public sphere with new ideas and debates. I’m trying to do my own bit to think out a new approach for the left, but these are just introductory thoughts of someone more focused on foreign policy than domestic or economic issues (though this blogs posts may seem to indicate otherwise). Then again, I think we only realise these trends once they are already solidly in place and with leaders like Whitlam or Reagan to articulate them for us. Trying to find trends across a range of social science literature is a very tough ask, and the proliferation of avenues for new voices outside the mainstream (and hence easy notice) has made the task that much harder.

Neither the left or right in Australia are in intellectual decline right now, but it’s hard to say either is in ascendancy either.

Picture by Flickr user Mo Morgan used under a creative commons licence

Fukuyama was right

Normally I post a link to someone being serious/foolish and then spend several pages saying why they’re wrong and there’s better ways of looking at the world. This time however, someone being funny, in order to buffer a larger and under-represented point I’ve been wanting the make:

Capitalism is often seen by the public purely as it’s visible (or at least countable) outcomes. Money, Interest, Stocks are what come to mind when you ask people. Yet, much much more than that, Capitalism is a system of trade, lending, and interaction based upon the assessed value of capital assets possessed by the parties. Where barter trade systems consider just the equivalence of one good for another, capitalism adds in considerations of the assets already (or in future owned) and allows those to become part of the exchange (ie a bank lending to you based on the value of your house, or companies selling stocks which offer part of their future profits to those who purchase now).

That is, it is a system that is highly dependent on TRUST between the various participants within the market. It is a significant historical fact that Francis Fukuyama, fresh from his controversial classic ‘the End of History’ charting the ideological victory of democratic capitalism as a way of organizing human societies, would write his second book on the question of ‘Trust’. Fukuyama would argue and through numerous case study seek to demonstrate that ‘in all successful economic societies these communities are united by trust’ (1995:9).

While we are far from the end of the economic recession, we have the US president saying he is beginning to see ‘green shoots’ and much closer to home, even positive retail growth and reductions in unemployment. Whilst these numbers are sure to dip again, and some of the shoots to be bitten by the winter chill, it is likely that at the very least the Western world can now be said to have avoided a 1930’s style depression. This recession will be severe, and take a long time to get out of (not to mention the debt to pay back), but the system has held. And despite Adams pessimism that is because fundamentally people have retained their trust in the system. In the banks to hold their money, in the stock market to chart the worth of companies, and in our political leaders to respond to the challenges and do what they can to marshal resources towards solving the crisis.
Whilst Obama’s economic moves have taken hits from the Left (most notably Paul Krugman and those supporting bank nationalisation) and from the Right (sensible conservative concerns about debt through to the nutty tea baggers), he has largely been seen to chart a pragmatic and responsive policy approach to the current economic challenges. Whilst the media have again tried to use the left-right frame to accuse Obama of becoming a socialist or alternately being captured by the big end of town, the public have responded positively to his efforts. American conceptions of if the country is on the Right Track/Wrong Track have gone up a remarkable 31% since October 2008 when Obama’s victory began to look apparent. In the last 2 months it has gone up 8% and finally moved to positive territory with a 48/44 split. Even better and clearer in its indication is news that 64% of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of the Presidency. Obama and his team may have stumbled at times, and people are still nervous about how the bank stress tests will play out, but for now there is confidence returning.

Closer to home in Australia, and the Prime Minister also enjoys significant public support. While there was a statistically significant drop since April, Labor is in comfortable election winning territory, and the PM is like his American counterpart enjoying 64% satisfaction support. Indeed this comes even as voters express significant disagreement* with the way in which the government has stimulated the economy. Rudd’s job was a little easier given his inheritance of the strong economic management of the Howard government, yet such is the trust that the government is doing what it thinks is right, the public can disagree and still show almost record support for the prime minister.

It goes back to an argument that social democrats have been making since the Industrial Revolution. Whilst their measures distort the market, affect prices and cost individuals, the resulting benefits whether delivered in welfare, working conditions or universal access to services help guarantee public support for the continuation of the capitalist system as the engine of prosperity in the community. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt would repeatedly claim, his New Deal made him the best friend capitalism ever had. He saved it from itself, a mantle Kevin Rudd would claim for himself in his 2009 essay on the Global Financial Crisis. This has often been unfairly compared to a ‘destroying the village in order to save it’ mentality, but whilst there is no guarantee that moving significantly further in the opposite direction is even better at social cohesion and stability (or is worth the cost and distortion of the market), social-democratic policies can be claimed as a useful ballast, maintaining the stability of society.

This indeed is one of the interesting contradictions of politics, in that the reinvigorated capitalist revolution of the 1980’s and 90’s, was largely championed by social conservatives who saw their policies unleash significant social change and damage to the ‘social fabric’ of Burke’s immortal metaphor.

Thankfully Adams social commentary is just a little bit too pessimistic this time. Even though great problems remain, Capitalism retains the trust of the public, and for that our national leaders deserve our support. Now to tell our kids they have to begin helping pay for those same measures …

* I put this down more to voter ignorance, both of economics and the governments approach. Of the $42 billion 2nd stimulus package only 4 billion was cash handouts, with the rest on infrastructure. Yet the media framing has largely been such that the payments are the focus.

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.

Some of us are just cannon fodder

This is just plain unlucky:

A 93-year-old Japanese man has become the first person certified as a survivor of both U.S. atomic bombings at the end of World War II, officials said on Tuesday.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi had already been a certified “hibakusha”, or radiation survivor, of the August 9, 1945, atomic bombing in Nagasaki, but has now been confirmed as surviving the attack on Hiroshima three days earlier as well, city officials said.

Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on a business trip on August 6, 1945, when a US B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on the city. He suffered serious burns to his upper body and spent the night in the city. He then returned to his hometown of Nagasaki just in time for the second attack, city officials said.

For some reason Yamaguchi’s story reminded me of a relative by the name of William Moffett who fought in WW1 for Australia. He enlisted, was shot, recovered, went back to the front lines and promptly got shot again. His view on the whole affair “Some of us are just cannon fodder”. Politics is in my view the greatest intellectual, moral and civil pursuit one could engage their lives in. It gives meaning and it offers the chance to improve human lives and well being. Occasionally however it can also cause great harm and damage. Damage that is generally rained down, not on those who ordered or advocated, but on the Yamaguchi & Moffett’s of the world. The cannon fodder. It’s people like this who help remind me at times when the partisan urge strikes, that politics is not a game. The outcome, measured in the improvement in popular well being is the aim, not individual pride or winning this or that ideological struggle.

Still, how bloody unlucky can you be…

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.

4 months on and no change

malcolmturnbull_30_1_09As Norman Abjorensen writes in Inside Story

A century after Deakin’s social liberals meekly succumbed to Reid’s conservatives to combat a rising Labor Party, the social liberal dream continues to flicker sporadically among modern day Liberal supporters. The conventional wisdom is that John Howard purged the party of social liberals (which he did) and that Malcolm Turnbull represents some kind of social liberal resurgence (which is doubtful). Turnbull might well try to soften the party’s more hardline policies (in the face of staunch opposition from staunch conservatives such as Abbott and Minchin), but any hopes that this heralds the start of a Deakinite revival are entirely misplaced

I’ve been advancing the theory for a couple of years that we are seeing the broad re-alignment of our political parties to Conservative/Liberal lines. The Reagan Coalition (of which Howard made much profit) of Social Conservatives and Economic Liberals has effectively broken down. A lot of the accommodations made by the conservatives arn’t sustainable (witness the populism of Mike Huckabee’s campaign, or the economic incoherence of the current Republicans). Likewise, with growing levels of education, prosperity and legislative protection of workers are sapping the unions of their strength (the 2007 effort against WorkChoices will come to be seen as a high water mark), and fundamentally changing the membership of the ALP. Kevin Rudd was never a member of a Union, and whilst most ALP types will still claim some union heritage, they no longer will drive the leaders world view. And despite the current economic struggles, the debate over capitalism and its benefits as the primary system of economic organization is done.

In light of this, Abjorensen’s point is well made. Turnbull has led his part for 4 months, including a quiet few months over Christmas mid-way through a term, the crucial time if you were to try and achieve real political and philosophical change within the party. Turnbull either hasn’t the numbers to even raise the question (unlikely if he was actually committed) or he simply doesn’t see a point in trying to move the party in a new direction.

As such, I think it is becoming increasingly clear that The Liberal Party is going to hold onto its Conservative turn, and solidify. Whilst the Labor Party will shift from its labor movement origins to one of both increasing Economic and Social Liberalism. It will never acknowledge this shift, but considering the great pressure coming from the Greens, it will have to make the move on issues like Gay Marriage, whilst redressing its economic commitment to the welfare state & social services in terms of a larger open competitive economy (as Rudd has been doing effectively for Education). What union/working class elements that are disgruntled by the change (such as those supporting protectionist or more exclusive nationalistic policies), will quite easily slide over to the Right as they did under Howard, though with less capable manipulation by the Liberal Party once the divisions become starker.

In some ways this is a change a long time in the making, the left has long been more compatible with a liberal approach to the world, seeking liberty and opportunity for the individual, freed from the bounds of tradition, culture and inheritance.

Sadly, the party of Turnbull and co would have to face electoral annihilation, and someone with an ego the size of Menzies before it relinquishes its ‘Liberal’ title, so confusion will remain for those of us Liberal in politics but not party. But at least the lines should be come clearer.

Update: Turns out Chris Bowen the Labor Assistant Treasurer penned similar thoughts 6 months ago, advertising the ALP as the natural home of Liberalism.