catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Disputed words (no, not a post about Costello and Howard)

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Writing dictionaries of contested concepts is a dangerous business. It just invites disagreement. Wearing my Policy editor hat I received today an unsolicited review of Keywords in Australian Politics, a guide for the confused undergraduate. Needless to say, while conceding some attempt at neutrality, the reviewer detected ‘bias’ among the entries.

From the entries I’ve read, I think the authors – Rodney Smith, Ariadne Vromen and Ian Cook – have tried to be as even-handed as possible, and the problems that exist seem to me to be more mistakes or misjudgments than ‘bias’. Something I wrote is even listed as ‘Introductory Reading’ for the ‘Liberalism’ entry. That’s not to say I would fully endorse even that entry. For example, referring to the early classical liberals they say that classical liberals ‘took the view that individuals were primarily concerned with the accumulation of material goods for themselves’. But Adam Smith wrote a whole book called Theory of Moral Sentiments, the opening paragraph of which says:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner…

And so for on several hundred pages – an explicit argument against a narrow interpretation of human motivations. What was interesting about 18th century liberal thinking on self-interest was not that it was part of human nature (which many other thinkers also believed), but that it could be viewed positively: as an alternative to destructive passions or as motivating people to do good for others via the ‘invisible hand’ of the market (Keywords does mention the invisible hand, without capturing how radical the ideas about self-interest behind it still are). The section is better on later liberalisms, though I would regard ‘neoliberalism’ in practice as more concerned with undoing the interest-group state than what ‘social liberals’ had done.

However readers referring to ‘think tanks’ are likely to be sent into confusion with statements like ‘conservative thinktanks that promote the values of neo-liberalism’, especially if they flip to ‘conservatism’ and find ‘liberals’ among their opponents. And couldn’t the Keyword authors find better introductory reading than Damien Cahill’s tendentious work?

The section on ‘individualism’ is less satisfactory than that on liberalism. The debate surrounding individualism is not really about whether ‘people are fundamentally individual or fundamentally social’. In modern society, we are (obviously, I would have thought) fundamentally both. The debate is not sociological but philosophical. Individualists argue for giving heavy moral weighting to individuals and their freedoms; communitarians and collectivists argue against this.

But for one of the most difficult terms for left-of-centre authors to get right, economic rationalism, the authors of Keywords don’t do too badly, sparing us any nonsense about a minimal state and telling us briefly what prompted its emergence and what happened. The only thing they get wrong is saying its equivalent in the US was ‘neoconservatism’. The neoconservatives weren’t very interested in economics and though broadly pro-capitalist – as in Irving Kristol’s book Two Cheers for Capitalism – had little influence on economic debate.

I’m being picky here, though. Much of the book is clear and sensible, and at least tries to define terms that wouldn’t have made it into earlier books of Australian political terminology such as ‘aspiration’, ‘asylum seekers’, ‘culture wars’, and ‘wedge politics’. While I don’t think there is much deliberate ‘bias’ in it, as with many books by left-wing academics they would have saved themselves some errors by finding right-wing referees with a better understanding of non-left thought.


Written by Admin

July 11, 2006 at 9:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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