catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

What's Left?

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As his new Quarterly Essay What’s Left? The Death of Social Democracy (an extract here) again makes clear, Clive Hamilton is no orthodox leftist. The mainstream left in Australia has changed – and sought to change, when it is not in office – how the benefits and opportunities of a growing economy are distributed. Though also a redistributionist, Hamilton’s fundamental argument is that the more serious problem we face as a society is not the distribution of wealth, but the social, psychological and environmental costs of creating it in the first place.

Before getting to these familiar themes, Hamilton develops a critique of social democracy he first outlined some years ago. Interestingly, this critique has parallels with arguments made by ‘neo-liberals’, as he calls them. A necessary part of his argument that we should focus less on economic growth is that most of us already earn more than enough to meet our real needs, and that very few Australians are genuinely poor. Though Hamilton cannot bring himself to cite sound Peter Saunders, he agrees with Saunders’ point that the welfare lobby greatly exaggerates the extent of poverty in Australia. Hamilton thinks that ‘entrenched poverty’ is ‘perhaps half’ of tax-and-spend Peter Saunders’ estimate of 12%. So Hamilton thinks it might be 6%, while sound Peter Saunders thinks it is no more than 5%. That’s close enough to cross-ideological agreement for me.

However, I think Hamilton is wrong that mass affluence has exhausted social democracy. To be sure, the widespread genuine poverty of earlier times has largely gone, and young, idealistic lefists these days are more likely to make the environment than the poor their top priority. And though many rank-and-file leftists still display a naive faith in the capacity of the state to do good, tougher-minded people in Labor long ago realised the limitations of state action. As Paul Keating said of the Labor central planners ‘These old guys couldn’t fill in their TA [Travel Allowance] forms, let alone plan an economy’ (quoted in The Latham Diaries). Yet the public still wants the state to provide many services, and arguably the Liberals have won potential Labor voters not by converting them to ‘neo-liberalism’ but by beating the social democrats at their own game of welfare spending.

Perhaps anything that becomes as institutionalised as social democracy is in Australia today loses its buzz; the endless problems of making it work on a day-to-day basis displace the excitement people once felt about the possibility of a better future. Yet the political game continues to be played in social democratic territory. People want their material living standards to be improved, and many millions of voters expect that the state will play a big role in doing that. So while social democrats may be exhausted, social democracy is not.

In another odd agreement, ‘neoliberals’ would, like Hamilton, prefer that this was not so, that politics was about something else. Perhaps this is why both ‘neo-liberalism’ and Hamilton’s unorthodox leftism have a fresher feel to them than social democratic thinking. They both have unfinished agendas to keep people interested and motivated.


Written by Admin

March 11, 2006 at 9:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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