catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Uniting the non-left

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Rudd’s critique of Hayek has touched on some areas where the non-left has been somewhat fragmented since the official end of the Cold War eliminated the major enemy that they all united to oppose. Greg Sheridan wrote a piece back in July 1986, actually before the Fall of the Wall, signalling the need to unite the disparate force of the non-left into a more coherent bundle. This prompted a response which was rejected by The Australian (where Greg’s piece appeared) and by Robert Manne, then editor of Quadrant. It was printed in 1990 in a student Liberal magazine.

The main themes of the rejoinder were as follows:

If these tensions reflect fundamental differences, then the groupings of the ‘non-left’ may fragment into warring factions. No doubt some differences arise from misunderstandings which can be resolved, and some simply reflect the different priorities and interests of individuals. Significant differences are likely to arise in two areas: a) the use of state power to enforce moral principles and b) the domain of economic policy. In each case the nub of the issue is the extent of state intervention that is appropriate.

Greg wanted to see a mix of ideas from cultural conservatives, economic rationalists, possibly the Catholic redistributionism of Belloc as interpreted by B A Santamaria, with a religious component thrown in. My response was a plea for classical liberalism.

Market liberalism aims to protect the private domain of the individual and small groups – including the family – Burke’s ‘little platoons’. This domain is at risk from the hostile activities of individuals and groups who are liable to use brute force or other political means of coercion if they are not kept under control by institutional constraints, a strong liberal tradition and the Rule of Law. In the protected private domain all manner of spiritual and cultural traditions and practices can be nurtured but the barbarism of unchecked power is likely to sweep these things away or else corrupt them by recruiting them to its own purposes, as when Christianity became the official religion of Rome.

Some economic rationalists may need to be reminded that we do not live by bread and technology alone. Our lives gain meaning and purpose from the myths and traditions which constitute our non-material heritage. At a lower but no less important level our daily transactions are dignified and lubricated by civility and good manners. Both the higher and lower orders of this fragile structure of civilisation are perpetuated by cultural practices and by institutions such as the family and the universities. These, like the private domain itself, are under threat from various doctrines and schools of thought that are also part of intellectual heritage. If we lose the capacity to subject our tradition heritage to imaginative criticism we run the risk that the positive tendencies will be driven out by the negatives. Some would say that this process is well advanced.

Economic liberals may sometimes appear to have little interest in these spiritual and cultural matters but this is not entirely true and the impression arises from three reasons. First, it is not possible to talk usefully about every social problem at once and economists tend to talk most about the things they know best. Second, they do not speak with one voice on such matters. Third, they do not see these things as part of the agenda of state policy. Here a basic principle is at stake because they do not aim to impose religious or cultural values, instead they wish to sustain ‘a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends’, as Hayek put it.

Pursuing the Hayekian theme of the rule of law, as a criticism of the local Liberals.

The Rule of Law is a principle that conservatives might be expected to hold dear. But Hayek drew attention to ‘the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty’. Some conservatives tend to share with socialists a willingness to recruit the power of the state to coerce others where the liberal would allow freedom of choice. Conscription for military service (by the Liberal Coalition Government in Australia) was a case in point and retrospective legislation on tax avoidance was a notable example of the Rule of Law being flouted by another ‘Liberal’ government.

Finally, a plea to cultural conservatives to learn some economics, and to classical liberals to be more active on the broad cultural front where the left has occupied the high ground in the institutions of civil society.

Returning to the matter of pooling resources or merging the intellectual traditions of the non-left, the market liberals may wonder whether the conservatives are prepared to lift their understanding of economics and join the push for open markets, especially in labour. Economic rationalists must strongly contest the right of the state to interfere in the marketplace and thus to threaten the fabric of a democratic and capitalist system which has the potential to let everyone pursue their own interests and improve their lot free from material deprivation, intellectual tutelage and moral or physical coercion.

Written by Admin

October 30, 2006 at 2:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses

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  1. “But Hayek drew attention to ‘the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds.”

    Did he, by Jove? And after he drew this attention, did he put forth any evidence to give it substance?
    The dichotomy you draw between free marketeers and Conservatives is a false one; most of us Tories are free-marketeers. What we want is for the Government to as little as posible but to do it well. Small and strong are our watchwords when it comes to the State. And there is the paradox: the bloated State favoured by the social democrats is often stretched too thin and rather piss weak at doing more than increasing the numbers on the public payroll.

    Rococo Liberal

    October 30, 2006 at 2:42 pm

  2. RL

    Conservatives are a little harsh on the social/ cuture side of things. For instance, I think abortion is a terrible blight however there are many conservatives who would like to see an outrite ban.
    Education policy under conservatives would never get better despite their best intentions.

    Conservatives don’t have better management tools, they just think they can do things better than the left however the result is the about the same.

    look at this nonsense the current governmet is doing with this so-called future fund. Despite their best intentions it will turn into a mess, especially when the left get their grimey paws on that nest.

    Consevativates are not free marketeers. At least not totally. They have been a huge disappointment to many of us. Sure the labor reform was a good thing…. but a thousand pages long!!!!! When 1/2 page cutting labor laws maybe with the exception fo safety for now would have been great.

    Take a look at the surplus these guys are running. All from receipts from GST. That’s our money.

    The libs need to re-read their manifesto.


    October 30, 2006 at 2:51 pm

  3. I’m socially liberal too, Rococo. Legalised drugs, abortion, euthanasia. I want the state out of my bedroom as well as my pocket.

    That’s always been a sticking point between conservatives and libertarians, at least as far as I can see.


    October 30, 2006 at 4:14 pm

  4. I am economically liberal, but socially reactionary. I do not have any time for poofs mincing down the aisle, bludgers bonging on with impunity, or wearing brown shoes at any time of the day!

    My motto? Never brown in town!


    October 30, 2006 at 4:52 pm

  5. As far as abortion goes I am all for it, and for many think it should be retroactive.


    October 30, 2006 at 4:53 pm

  6. Rafe,
    Personally, I would prefer an active 4 party system, rather than (as happens at the moment) having the economically (comparatively) liberal shoved into one party and the more (again, comparatively) socialist shoved into the other with no real regard for their viewpoints on non-economic issues. The system would then be to have a conservative party, a liberal (libertarian) party, a democratic “labour” party and a left / socialist party.
    The major problems would be in obtaining a workable government in what would, by its nature, be a series of issue-based coalitions of interests and in trying to work out a voting system..
    On some issues, each could team up with one or two of the others to defeat either one or both of the others. Trying to sort this out would be interesting.
    The difficulty I have always had with the conservatives is neatly summarised in the piece quoted – “complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened…”
    Trying to shove the libertarians and conservtives into one party is always going to be difficult and result in splits that are easy for the left to exploit.

    Andrew Reynolds

    October 30, 2006 at 6:42 pm

  7. First of all, it’s great to see Rafe blog again. I thought for a moment he’s gone down Andrew’s path.

    As to the subject, I am amazed by jc’s comment. Wasn’t I advocating exactly this idea – that conservative and (classical) liberal thougts are fundamentally different, but that political expediency brings them together?


    October 31, 2006 at 2:14 am

  8. SL

    Abortion and euthenasia involve more than one person, and the second person is in a weak position. Therefore, Government intervention is necessary, though not outright prohibition. But this brings up a nice point. If the State regulates abortion and euthenasia,isn’t it actually interefering more “in the bedroom” than if it merely banned them? Don’t we end up with more qangos and commissioners and committees of useless public servants?

    As to drugs, I don’t really give a monkey’s toss whether they are legal, but I suggest that you look Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ again and tell me that you favour unfettered legalisation.

    A lot of rape goes on bedrooms SL. So, with the greatest respect, your sloganeering about keeping the Government out of our boudoirs is a load of old bollocks 🙂

    What libertarians don’t seem to understand is that one can be socially Conservative and still not want the State to legislate to support that Conservatism.

    Cast your mind back to the days before the Great War. Government hardly impinged on the lives of the citizen at all. There was the post office and that was about all most of the people saw of the Government. Yet, we regard people in those times as being morally constricted. This didn’t have much to do with the State, but with SOCIAL constraints. It is those social constraints, in a milder form, that true Conservatives support. Even the lefties have worked this one out. If you are a public person and you commit an act that they consider “sexist” racist” or “homophobic” you’ll lose your livelihood in a minute once the lefties all pile on in the media. Yet you will have contravened no statute, broken no law. Political correctness will have done its work without Government intervention. At most the Government may have indirectly assisted in creating the atmosphere which allows PC to thrive, i.e. by passing ridiculous anti-discrimination laws.

    I’ve always had trouble with the “liberatrian ” position. How does it work when it comes to sensible impingements on our freedoms? Surely a true liberatarian doesn’t want the the State to tell us to stop at traffic lights or to drive on the left? And I ‘m sure that he wouldn’t want the state to have any input into the legislation that prohibits faulty electrical wiring in his bedroom. If the libertarian is happy with the Government butting in its nose in these matters, he can’t oppose abortion regulation on the basis that the Government should keep the hell out of his life and expect to be taken seriously.

    Rococo Liberal

    October 31, 2006 at 8:06 am

  9. Interesting you responded to my 2-liner, rather than Boris & Andrew’s lengthier contributions 😉

    1. The rape in bedrooms is dealt with under the criminal code, Rococo. Refer the justice system. No libertarian of my acquaintance has a problem with the state having a monopoly on criminal justice, although a few of the nuttier Rothbardians might.

    2. Agree on the social constraints, but these are unrelated to legal constrains, and the opportunity cost of enforcing either or both.

    3. I see ‘Gin Lane’ at work every criminal sittings. If you know how to prevent this without costing the state (and everybody else) a small fortune, I’m all ears. Moral: you cannot rescue people from themselves.

    4. I don’t think the state should regulate euthanasia and abortion. Those are private matters.

    5. Please refer me to studies that show that state building codes have improved public safety (note, there is one area where state regulation has improved public safety – Hayek discusses it in some detail, but building codes ain’t it).

    6. If people need the state to tell them which side of the road to drive on, we really are screwed.

    Those points aside, your comment illustrates just how wide the gulf between the two broad ‘right’ positions can be (the original subject of Rafe’s post). Yes, we came together to oppose communism, but many conservatives do do want their socially conservative values enacted in the form of legislation.

    You are so reasonable about it that I can see why Jason originally wanted you to change your moniker from ‘Toryhere’ to ‘Whighere’.

    Just sayin.


    October 31, 2006 at 8:24 am

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