catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Is the Howard government 'neo-liberal'?

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Allan Patience is a poor man’s John Ralston Saul. A struggling academic (currently a visting professor at ANU, but in recent times he’s had scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel appointments at VUT and UPNG), Patience like JRS mixes important thinkers’ names, academic concepts and unsubstantiated assertions about other people’s views with impressions of events or facts and hopes that this can pass as an argument.

An example is his op-ed in today’s Age, headlined ‘the neo-liberal hijack’. After offering un-named right-wing commentators some not always comprehensible insults (how many Age readers would know what ‘stagnant realism’ or ‘old-fashioned positivism’ are, or why they are bad?), he declares that they make an ‘egregious’ error in describing the Howard government as ‘conservative’. Instead, they – both the commentators and the Howard government – are overwhelmingly ‘neo-liberals’.

After mentioning the obligatory big names – Burke, Coleridge, Oakeshott – he launches into a list of conservative attributes that will surprise Age readers: ‘admire the authenticity of different cultures’, ‘poetry over propaganda’, bemusement with religious and political fundamentalism. These are contrasted with neoliberalism. Neoliberals, according to Patience, are obsessed with ‘egoism and selfishness’, believe society doesn’t exist, ‘believe in the malevolent fiction of competitive individuals who co-operate reluctantly to achieve larger, ego-driven goals.’ In this world, ‘only the strongest (i.e. richest) survive. Everything else is inconsequential.’

Needless to say, no big names, or even small names, are attached to this latter description (though we can guess what the ‘society’ comment is an allusion to), since it has no followers of any consequence in Australia – or around the world, for that matter. It’s true that liberals rarely denounce self-interest in the way that followers of other political traditions do, except in when it is the self-interest of bureaucrats and politicians. But nor do contemporary liberals praise it much (some early liberals did, but in drawing favourable comparisions between self-interest and mad passions, not between self-interest and generosity or charity. Making money was a harmless occupation compared to religious warfare.) Instead liberals these days tend to assume that self-interest is a major human motivation. You don’t need to endorse what you assume to exist. With this assumption, the distinctive liberal take on self-interest is to harness it for the ends of others (the market) or to restrain it in the state (the rule of law, the separation of powers, and more ambiguously democracy). This is a long way from egoism.

Patience’s description of ‘neo-liberalism’ is very dubious, but the idea that the Howard government is ‘neo-liberal’ is preposterous. Some of us might wish it was, but the reality disappoints. Much of its liberalism comes from the institutions it inherited, but there have been been a few more-liberal-than-any-other ideology reforms: reduction in trade protection, privatisation, IR reform. There is conservatism evident too, mainly in financial support for the family and a few small-scale issues such as censorship, euthanasia, and gay equality. What’s been more surprising than any of this is the Howard government’s social democracy sans doctrine (with apologies to Albert Metin). Welfare and welfare service (pdf) expenditure have surged ahead during the Howard years, financed by fast-increasing tax revenues through economic growth and bracket creep rate increases, ensuring little change in income inequality.

Given the liberal and social democratic elements of the Howard government’s policies, there is a plausible argument that the government’s conservatism is exaggerated – but not one that ‘neoliberalism’ is a dominant element. For Patience, though, this is a perpetual critique that needs no evidence. He made pretty much the same argument fourteen years before Howard became PM in ‘The Liberal Party and the Failure of Australian Conservatism’ , a chapter in a 1982 book called Australia and the New Right. There he condemned the ‘Liberal Party’s radical laissez-faire doctrine’ (this was before ‘neoliberalism’ became a fashionable term):

…philosophical complexity hardly troubles Malcolm Fraser or his fellow ideologues in the Australian Liberal Party. They plump wholeheartedly for their own brand of radical liberalism and ignore the warnings which conservatism has given for so long about an asocial theory of politics in the modern epoch.

Malcolm Fraser a radical liberal? There aren’t many people who would make that argument – and indeed not even Allan Patience these days:

Within English political history, conservatism is a philosophical tradition stretching back at least to 18th-century Irish Catholic philosopher and MP Edmund Burke. … Malcolm Fraser is an Australian heir to this British tradition.

And what will Howard be heir to in twenty years time, when Patience is rehashing his arguments for some new Liberal PM?

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Written by Admin

January 14, 2006 at 1:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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