catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Absolute vs relative political positions

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I never knew a social democrat who wanted to share his underpants with anyone, longed to create a new economic man, or believed that rewards should be divorced from efforts.

That’s commenter James Farrell, defending social democrats against my generalisation that:

The difference between liberals on one side and leftists and conservatives on the other is over how self-interest should be handled. Conservatives and leftists moralise and legislate against it, liberals try to harness it through the market to achieve positive ends.

I think this difference of view has arisen because I was talking about a relative political position whereas James was talking about an absolute political position. In accepting a substantial role for markets in the economy, social democrats impliedly agree that self-interest ought to be harnessed for economic growth – which then generates the tax revenues they need to spend on their social programs. That is their ‘asbolute’ political position, in favour of self-interest’s positive role. But with ‘neoliberals’ arguing for markets to spread further, particularly into sensitive areas like education, the relative position of social democrats in the political debate is against self-interest. For example, Simon Marginson’s criticisms of for-profit providers of university teaching services, or the ACTU worrying that “quality childcare is not compromised in the pursuit of profit”. So when all people on the right hear from the left is this kind of criticism of self-interested motives, it is unsurprising that they associate the left with views opposing self-interest.

The same phenomenon affects the left’s view of the right. Back in the 1990s heyday of the economic rationalism debate there were frequent claims that economic rationalists wanted a minimalist or “night watchman” state. When I analysed all the major spending cutting proposals from the right, the smallest I could find (from Des Moore, if I recall correctly) would have taken us back to the size of the Australian state in the early part of the Whitlam government, ie pretty big by any Australian historical standard, and not remotely resembling the minimal state of left-wing fantasy. But while in absolute terms the right wanted a large state, relative to the status quo they were always arguing for a smaller state, and it was their relative position that defined them.

Similarly, John Howard’s “conservatism” is more relative than absolute. He’s certainly socially (though not economically) conservative relative to the left-wing intelligentsia. But compared to the truly conservative – say the mad mullahs of Iran – he’s a dangerous radical liberal. Even compared to the Australian conservatives of the not-so-distant past he is a dangerous radical liberal, presiding over unprecedented levels of non-European migration and even quietly making it easier for same-sex partners to come to Australia. But because the radical position on that issue is gay marriage, Howard is conservative in a relative sense.

It’s easier to locate people in debates if we refer to their relative rather than their absolute position. That helps identify the points of contention. But I agree with James’ implicit point that we should not forget that absolute positions may not be that far apart.

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Written by Admin

March 20, 2006 at 7:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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