Nailing ideological labels

Catallaxy blogger and Centre for Independent Studies thinktank denizen Andrew Norton has a useful article in this morning’s Australian about the distinction between neo-conservatism, ordinary conservatism, neo-liberalism, ordinary liberalism and so on. He suggests that the “neocon” label is inaccurate and even misleading in an Australian context. I agree. The distinctive feature of the “neocons”, as Norton observes, is their foreign policy stance:

Most American conservatives were of the realist school, believing that the US should act internationally only when its security or interests were at stake, or isolationist, believing the US should not meddle overseas.

Prominent neo-conservatives were different. They believed the US should actively promote democracy and freedom abroad, that American values had universal currency and should be the basis of US foreign policy.

These days this is probably the only remaining distinctive neo-conservative view. …

This factor is largely absent in Australia. Certainly John Howard committed Australian troops to the Iraq “coaliion of the willing”, but he fairly clearly did so predominantly because of US alliance considerations rather than any deeply-held conviction about the desirability of aggressively spreading American values throughout the world.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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mark
2022 years ago

I’m not sure I like American values all that much. Sure, compared to Iranian mullahs screaming “UNCLEAN!”, or “Communists” oppressing workers for their own good, Marm and apple pie and rusty back doors have their appeal. But there’s something, y’know, *icky* about their religious conservatism. Ahem.

Anyway, I’ve always thought one of the main features of neocons is that they’re smug right-wingers who used to be smug left-wingers but decided they knew better. Hence “neo”.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

I see ‘American values’ as a bit more fundamental than the sociocultural agenda indelibly associated with the current administration: freedom of speech and association, pluralism, secularism, liberal democratic infrastructure etc.
Theocracy and it’s concomitant social agenda is a minority – albeit a vocal minority – pursuit.

But Mark’s point raises another interesting point. You can devote thousands of column inches to the infinite exactitude of self-definition, in a sociopolitical sense, only to be broad-brushed into whatever category an external observer cares to fit you to suit his/her political purpose.

To a significant extent we’re kind of not the masters of our own destinies here. You can rattle up a thousand good arguments as to why you should be correctly described as a liberal conservative/ liberationist only to be chucked into the RWDB box at the whim of the first casual observer whose purpose it suits.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Humans are compulsive classifiers; it’s how we make sense of reality. The fact that some prick is always misclassifying us doesn’t really matter. It’s my party and I’ll label if I want to.

Norman
Norman
2022 years ago

Ideological labels have long been applied loosely. One of Federal Left Labor’s most rock solid supporters, former Whitlam Minister, Chalie Jones, was one of Parliament’s most right wing members. Charlie was perhaps ahead of his times in that respect; but he was open about it, in a manner you wouldn’t find now, as he joked, “You know me, I think right and vote left.”
Today, internal battles within all political parties, though allegedly over ideology or policy, regularly turn out on closer inspection to be more about sharing the spoils of office. It’s far more likely now, that someone like Charlie would be able to be wooed across. Old concepts of loyalty to a group are much weaker; and loyalty to an ideolog? That can be even more flexible.
What, then, do all these labels mean? If nothing else, they’ve become useful weapons for hitting opponents, or rallying supporters; and in a time dominated by style rather than substance, such weapons are certainly more important than complex policies.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Ken,
I don’t recall our esteemed leader saying we were going to war because of the alliance. There is nothing in the ANZUS alliance to suggest we had to. Even the rubbish that the US was threatened had no direct evidence to back it up.

you aren’t saying Wee Johnny was not being frank with us are you?

Mork
Mork
2022 years ago

Re: “American values” … to take Geoff’s point one step further … I think it escapes Australians a lot of the time what a difference there is between a country of 20 million people and one of 280 million when it comes to identifying anything as “typical” or “characteristic”. I mean, if you know where to look, you can find in the U.S. a population the size of Australia’s that believes pretty much any damn thing.

This incomprehension is exacerbated by the fact that Australia has an extremely homogenous culture: because they can sum up their own culture on a beer coaster, Australians tend to think that they can do the same for any other.

adam
2022 years ago

just to take homer’s point a little further, it’s interesting that we’re to look beyond what howard said to divine why he really took us to war [and i think you’re answer is right, by the way], but we’re to take at face value all that stuff bush said about “bringing democracy” and so forth.

if we don’t look beyond what howard said [ie we ignore his actual motivations, which makes a lot of sense cause we’re also ignoring the american neo-con’s actual motivations], then i think a coherent argument can be made that he has in fact adopted a neo-con perspective on foreign policy issues.

also, the article is in my opinion right to say that neo-conservatism only really describes a foreign policy position.

Mork
Mork
2022 years ago

Adam – I’m not sure why you are so quick to dismiss the idea that the neo-cons want to bring democracy to the middle east.

On the contrary, I think they are determined to do so (in some form) . . . not necessarily for pure altruism (which I guess is the nub of your dissent) but because this is a point on which altruism and American interests converge: they figure that a democracy enema is ultimately the only way to turn the M.E. into something other than a seething mess that threatens U.S. security.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

There’s nothing at all wrong with being a RWDB. I like the tag, it helps me to feel more ‘windswept and interesting’.

trackback
2022 years ago

a libertarian tale of confusions

Aah. At last. We have the beginnings of a debate about conservatism and liberalism in Australia. About time too. What debate there has been on this topic has been of pretty poor. It was kicked off by the confusions about neo-liberalism and neo-conserva…