Decline of manners? – a personal and political response

I don’t know whether others have noticed it, but there seems to be a developing meme on the conservative side of politics lamenting the “decline of manners”, musing about its causes and what might be done about it. Of course, it might in part be a deliberate Tory response to Mark Latham’s ‘symbolic’ issue nonsense (reading to kids etc), but maybe there’s more to it. Then again, maybe there’s not.

The first I noticed of the emerging manners meme was this article published in the wake of the killing of cricketer David Hookes. It quoted John Howard (of all people):

John Howard said some members of Australian society had become too quick to resort to violence and people now felt less safe in public places than in the past. “Part of the problem is that there has been a breakdown in manners and courtesy,” Mr Howard told Radio 2GB.

“If you overlook the ordinary courtesies, that leads to an indifference to people’s wellbeing over time. I think if we were a more civil, polite country then we would have, in some cases, a little less violence.”

Then, two or three weeks ago, the Weekend Oz magazine published a feature by Shelley Gare on the ‘decline of manners’. It also quoted John Howard, this time suggesting that manners might be improved if more Australian kids worked at Maccas. Presumably they’d at least be taught to say “Have a nice day“!!!

Then, a little later, I turned on the Nine Network Morning program one day, and stumbled on a panel discussion about the ‘decline of manners’. It included RWDB bovver boy ‘intellectual’ journalist Andrew Bolt, who opined that the decline of civility might have something to do with ‘reality’ TV shows like Survivor and Big Brother, where contestants were ruthlessly ejected by popular vote, being treated as competitors and disposable commodities rather than real people with feelings.

Of course, what Bolt conveniently omitted was the fact that this competitive ethos of commodification of people is exactly what he and his neoliberal ilk have deliberately fostered for the last 20 years or so. The same bare-faced hypocrisy is evident in the response of the ‘evil’ Peter Saunders (the Centre for Independent Studies one), who was quoted in Gare’s feature and in the earlier SMH story):

Professor Peter Saunders, of the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), welcomed Mr Howard’s stance.

“It’s dangerous for politicians to take a moral lead but someone has to,” he said.

“There is some evidence to support the basic argument that if you let the small things like manners go, you end up with big problems, like violence.”

The CIS issued a report 15 months ago, Six Questions About Civility, which found that much of the public believed civility to be in decline. Behaviour such as swearing, graffiti, vandalism – even the failure of people to give up their bus seat to those in need – was taken as evidence that civility had slipped.

The authors said, however, that this might reflect not so much an overall decline in civility as it did less consensus about what good-mannered behaviour now meant.

They noted that new technology, changes in the status of women and relations between generations caused confusion about how to behave publicly.

Note that the emphasis by conservatives like Howard and Saunders is on declining civility as a purely individual phenomenon, in terms of its causation, responsibility and solutions. More left-leaning commentators like Eva Cox and Michael Pusey tend equally to accept that modern society exhibits a decline in civility, but look instead at social and economic causes:

Eva Cox, who delivered the 1995 Boyer Lectures urging a more civil society, argued that an obsession with economics had turned citizens into consumers and weakened our sense of community. “Politicians who create an atmosphere of fear and anxiety let the genie out of the bottle,” she said yesterday. “They use fear for their political ends and this spins off into violence in the community.”

The senior academic in social sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney questioned “politicians who speak of core promises and non-core promises and lie about children overboard and then lecture people on bad manners.” …

Michael Pusey, a professor of sociology at the University of NSW, said that the “aggressive-re-engineering of our institutions had brought a decline in trust”, adding: “There’s a tendency for people to view others as competitors rather than friendly strangers.”

The author of The Experience of Middle Australia: The dark side of economic reform said: “The erosion of civil society leads to mistrust, hostility and even violence. It has eroded the bonds of kinship and mutual tolerance.

As befits an avowed centrist, I reckon both the individual and social/political components are important. That is, it is important to identify and address political, social, cultural and historical factors leading to changes in behaviour (as leftists do), but it’s also important not to absolve individuals of personal responsibility for their own behaviour.

Now, before we get any further into this topic (and to forestall nitpickers), I should note that the discussion so far contains an inherent assumption that there actually has been a real decline in manners and civility. Saunders and Billante’s study (see below) found that just about everyone thinks there has been, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. It could be just a case of the old inter-generational refrain: “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way, oh what’s the matter with kids today?“. But even if that’s so, the ubiquity of this feeling of declining civility indicates that people are unhappy with things as they are, and aspire to a more civil society. Since I can’t immediately think of any methodology that would enable us to test whether civility really has declined, I’ll keep assuming for present purposes that it has!

Moreover, when I speak of ‘manners’ or ‘civility’, I’m not talking just about opening a door for a woman, or giving up a bus seat for an old person, or even knowing which fork to use for the entree. I’m referring to the whole notion of community and social relations, of which individual manners and civility are merely surface manifestations. Even broadening the notion of ‘civility’ to mean ‘community’, however, we need to examine both the personal and political dimension. The right wants to look only at the former, and the left only at the latter. Hence, we see the following unconvincing distinction in Saunders and Billante’s paper:

This insight links our interest in civility to earlier CIS work on ‘social capital’. The idea of social capital relates to the spirit of mutual trust and norms of reciprocity which enable members of a social group to cooperate spontaneously to achieve shared outcomes. A spirit of mutual cooperation and ‘give-and-take’ enables us to get more done more efficiently than when people have to be monitored, regulated or coerced.

Clearly there are similarities here with the core idea of civility¢â¬âthat of showing respect for others. But they are not the same thing. Civility differs from social capital in two ways. First, it is an attribute of individuals whereas social capital refers to the quality of relationships. Individuals are civil or uncivil¢â¬âthis is something they are taught, and they bring this virtue with them when they enter social situations. Social capital, by contrast, is the quality of relations between individuals¢â¬âtrust and reciprocity are based in relationships, not people.

But just about any philosopher from Wittgenstein onwards would point out that it isn’t possible in any meaningful sense to separate individual behaviour from its social and historical context, although that isn’t the same as saying that individuals bear no personal responsibility for their actions.

Moreover, the conservative spin on Putnam’s notion of ‘social capital’ is yet another attempt to conjure the removal of government as having any legitimate role in fostering or maintaining community or social cohesion. Hence the Tories’ emphasis on things like volunteerism and charitable giving to the exclusion of any form of government welfare or social justice provision.

As I observed the other day while discussing communitarianism, it doesn’t really make much sense to bemoan the loss of community and propose measures like reading to children, while ignoring the role of labour market phenomena like casualisation and outsourcing in creating a society where people are so stressed and insecure that caring for each other becomes a luxury they can’t afford. In the neoliberals’ market-based utopian society, it becomes an entirely rational individual response to view others as “competitors rather than friendly strangers“. In fact, that was exactly what neoliberal social engineers like CIS and the HR Nicholls Society set out to achieve: a workforce motivated to become more ‘productive’ and hard-working by fear of sacking. For those same people now to bemoan the decline of manners is hypocrisy at its most breathtaking.

Nevertheless, I don’t think we should ignore the personal. While agreeing with the lefties in some respects, I also embrace the communitarian observation (especially associated with American legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon), that citizens in modern western societies are overly obsessed with their civil rights to the exclusion of their civic duties. It’s a theme I mused about in passing in another long post the other day (I wonder if quoting yourself is a tad pretentious?):

“Self-determination” requires that the self-determining rights-holders must enjoy the fruits of their decisions and actions, whether they’re positive or negative. Otherwise it isn’t self-determination at all, it’s indistinguishable from a temper tantrum where an immature teenager stamps her foot, pouts and claims “I can do whatever I like and you can’t do anything about it. I have rights, you know!”

But rights by definition involve corresponding duties. It’s mostly understood that any right involves a corresponding duty to respect the similar rights of others, and that this mutuality principle puts an inherent constraint on the exercise of rights. However, it’s less widely accepted that any right also necessarily implies a broad duty that it must generally be exercised in a socially responsible manner. Of course, that can’t mean that every single individual exercise of a right must itself be responsible. That would involve at least two problems. First, a right constrained in that way would hardly be a right at all, it would be mostly just an obligation. Secondly, who decides whether a right has been exercised “responsibly”?

But in a more general (and not immediately legally enforceable) sense the responsibility constraint is a critically important one to be understood and observed. Unless you accept the archaic notion of “natural rights” that are God-given, fundamental and immutable, rights are by definition purely social constructs. They certainly don’t exist in the State of Nature “red in tooth and claw”. Even latter day rights theorists like Rawls, Nozick and Ronald Dworkin have been unable to demonstrate that the existence or content of any right can be determined intellectually by any process independent of the particular historical and social structure that spawned it. Of course, that proposition was almost self-evident to thinkers like Sartre, Foucault and Derrida, or even Wittgenstein, although it need not (and should not IMO) lead to an extreme pose of moral relativism where all positions are equally valid and legitimate.

Once we accept that rights are purely social constructs, we must also accept that their continued existence and general recognition will be dependent on maintenance of broad public acceptance that such rights are appropriate and supportable in the public interest. If any right (including the right of indigenous self-determination) is consistently exercised in a manner that most people see as seriously irresponsible, then the social support that ultimately creates and sustains that right will eventually fall away. A right to self-determination exercised in a way that actually perpetuates welfare dependency, rather than independent self-sufficiency, will eventually come to be seen as unsupportable by the vast majority of citizens. Legal or constitutional entrenchment of rights can certainly restrain the immediate practical effect of loss of public support for their continued existence, especially where short-term popular passions involve unfair “tyranny of the majority”. But not even a constitutionally-entrenched bill of rights will prevent their erosion and eventual extinction if a particular right is exercised irresponsibly for long enough. Even if the people don’t vote to curtail them, judicial interpretations by constitutional courts will eventually reflect prevailing public opinion, albeit after a time lag. Hence the US Supreme Court in the nineteenth century had little difficulty interpreting the Bill of Rights as mostly just guaranteeing the laissez-faire economic freedoms of large corporations.

The current bipartisan resolve in Australia to abolish ATSIC is most easily seen as a manifestation of this social phenomenon of eroding public support for a right leading to its extinction, because of endemic irresponsible behaviour over a long period of time. …

Mary Ann Glendon’s thoughts about rights and duties are also worth extracting. Although her analysis focuses on US society and the ‘rights culture’ developed by a Supreme Court that has (at least until recently) extended the scope of the constitutional Bill of Rights in a fairly activist way, I still think her remarks have some relevance to Australian society:

Buried deep in our rights dialect is an unexpressed premise that we roam at large in a land of strangers, where we presumptively have no obligations toward others except to avoid the active infliction of harm. This legalistic assumption is one that fits poorly with the American tradition of generosity toward the stranger, as well as with the trend in our history to expand the concept of the community for which we accept common responsibility. …

In democratic regimes, highly visible acknowledgements of governmental obligations to come to the aid of citizens in need . . . can help to promote responsiveness and responsibility in the political process. …

Neglect of the social dimension of personhood has made it extremely difficult for us to develop an adequate conceptual apparatus for taking into account the sorts of groups within which human character, competence, and capacity for citizenship are formed. In a society where the seedbeds of civic virtue-families, neighborhoods, religious associations, and other communities-can no longer be taken for granted, this is no trifling matter. …

Where do citizens acquire the capacity to care about the common good? Where do people learn to view others with respect and concern? . . . Where does a boy or girl develop the healthy independence of mind and self-confidence to participate effectively in government and exercise responsible leadership? …

Because individuals are partly constituted in and through relationships with others, a liberal politics dedicated to full and free human development cannot afford to ignore the settings that are most conducive to the fulfillment of that ideal.

I don’t think we can afford to ignore these ideas and concerns as merely the rantings of a conservative catholic American lawyer who wants to have her cake and eat it too. However, there’s an unacknowledged problem in this communitarian focus on social duties. Much of the communitarian critique either assumes the existence of a homogeneous culture that no longer exists (if it ever did) in either the US or Australia, or yearns for the impossible (and for many citizens, undesirable) ideal of recreating that homogeneity. Troppo commenter Mark Bahner touched on that issue the other day:

The other aspect of the communitarianism debate that I think Latham doesn’t grasp (or to the degree that he does – he instinctively drifts towards the authoritarian side) is the very heated debate in North American political theory between Liberals and Communitarians in the early 90s. This is basically a recognition that liberalism rests on a relatively homogenous society – and the communitarians, seeing that it was more and more heteregeneous, essentially tried to re-homogenise things at the level of values. Latham’s ‘redefinition’ of multiculturalism is consistent with this – as is his rhetorical invocation of the ‘average Aussie’ as opposed to what he sees as the pathologies of identity politics.

But I’m not at all sure that the fact of a heterogeneous, multicultural society makes the quest for a reconstituted sense of community a futile one, or that we would be wasting our time seeking to formulate an agreed set of core rights, duties and values that help to define and maintain that sense of community. There will inevitably be some rights and duties that will find greater resonance in some parts of the community than others. The duty to support elderly relatives is still regarded as critical in many Asian-Australian ethnic sub-communities, and women’s rights have a different meaning among many Muslim Australians (although that’s a tension I reckon we need to address).

We’ll need to accept too that not all rights and duties are fit to be legally enforceable. Legal and moral rights and duties are not necessarily the same thing. For example, I personally reckon that all citizens in a democratic society have a moral duty to participate in the political process, at least to the extent of informing themselves about the broad outlines of the issues of the day and exercising their vote intelligently. But I accept that a fair proportion of citizens won’t bother to do so, and I don’t think they should be subject to punishment for that moral deficit (not least because some of them may simply have prioritised their civic duties, and put scarce time with the family ahead of political participation).

Ultimately the problem that I, like the communitarians, run into is in formulating workable mechanisms that could assist in reconstituting a sense of community in twenty-first entury Australia, without at the same time sacrificing the freedom, and mutual respect for diversity that many of us value. John Howard might yearn for 50s-style white picket fence suburbia, but I certainly don’t. Saunders and Billante have a point when they observe:

Civility is an essential virtue in a free society, for without it, both free market capitalism and liberal democracy risk degenerating into anarchy or repression. While this prospect is not in the immediate future for Australia, a perceived decline in civility is already affecting our everyday freedoms. As the self-regulation of civility declines, so government intervention takes over.

In the analysis of civility, as in research on other ethically-charged areas of social life such as family relations, the relief of poverty or the schooling of our children, we come up against the core problem of balancing the freedom of the individual against the obligations which we owe to the society in which we live. We must work out ways in which government policies can be used to enrich and preserve liberty, not erode and destroy it.

We need to think about what, if anything, public policy can and should be doing to protect and promote civil virtues and values in contemporary Australia. …

Although the instruments exist through which we could pursue an effective campaign to renew public civility, it is by no means clear that we should use them for this purpose. For classical liberals, there is something rather disturbing about a policy decision that deliberately enlists schools, opinion leaders, the mass media and the police in promoting a core set of values about how people ‘should’ think and behave. Is this not dangerously authoritarian?

Such cautious instincts should be taken seriously. We do not want a ‘Singapore solution’ to the civility problem in which we eradicate anti-social behaviour at the expense of individual liberties and cultural pluralism. Better to put up with chewing gum on the pavements than policemen in the newsrooms.

But this is not a black-and-white, either/or dilemma. After all, even radical libertarians will accept that there must be some common agreement on the rules by which we are all constrained to live, and there is little serious disagreement about imposing and enforcing norms of behaviour governing things like robbery and homicide. The question, therefore, is not whether we should use available instruments to promote and defend core values¢â¬âit is rather one of identifying and defining what those core values are.

Maybe a weblog isn’t such a bad place to try to initiate an open discussion aimed at “identifying and defining what those core values are“.

PS – Saunders and Billante’s paper concludes with the following quote from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

When the happiness or misery of others depends in any respect upon our conduct, we dare not, as self-love might suggest to us, prefer the interest of one to that of many. . . . One individual must never prefer himself so much even to any other individual as to hurt or injure that other in order to benefit himself, though the benefit to the one should be much greater than the hurt or injury to the other.

How Smith, the great-grandfather of feral neoliberal capitalism, managed to square the circle and reconcile his commendable and compassionate moral philosophy with the dog-eat-dog economic system he also advocated, is the subject of another long post I wrote a couple of years ago. In essence, Smith simply assumed that men would enter the unregulated marketplace as fully-formed moral agents, adequately socialised by family, church and community to be reasonably considerate of their fellow men while also competing with them for economic advantage. However, the end result of several decades of (relatively) unregulated capitalism has been the partial destruction of that socialising structure of family, church and community. Can we reconstruct, within a deregulated global capitalist system, appropriate modern-day equivalents of those socialising structures to create humans who are well-rounded citizens and moral agents as well as aggressive economic competitors? That’s the multi-billion dollar question worrying neoliberals, as they sense increasing public alienation from a system that too often delivers material plenty without increasing individual happiness and fulfillment.

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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2022 years ago

A very short history of manners.

Olduvai Gorge -50,000 pre-CE
“Hungry! Gimme!”

Capri – 32 CE
“Please almighty Ceaser Tiberius, accept this fresh caught lobster from a humble fisherman”
“It could be poisoned! Rub it in his face!”

Geneva – 1989 CE
“Shit, Tim, you’ve just invented the world wide web. You gonna copyright it now and make a motza?
“No. Let everyone do with it what they can and have fun, share ideas and make a motza.”

I don’t think manners are getting worse.

2022 years ago

Great post ken.

Perhaps the intolerance of individuals to ideas and values that conflict with their own is more noticable now that the institutions of society are legally obliged to treat people equally?

Common values aren’t constructed, despite what politicians think. They develop as a consequence of encouraging tolerance.

Richard O
Richard O
2022 years ago

I second Kez, a super post Ken.

I found the point you made… “I’m referring to the whole notion of community and social relations, of which individual manners and civility are merely surface manifestations. Even broadening the notion of ‘civility’ to mean ‘community’, however, we need to examine both the personal and political dimension. The right wants to look only at the former, and the left only at the latter.”…really sums up the frustration I sometimes feel when thinking about our society and the way that the opinion writers in the media take such polar positions. Looking at the Letters to the Editor pages in the papers, the recent flag flying issue in the schools really brought out the Howard haters. However all I believe Howard is trying to do is create symbols of unity, in his unfortunately inept fashion. As one who tends towards the side of the RWDBs, I still yearn for a leader who can articulate my concept of a “good” society to the people of Australia. Of course my concept may be quite different to your concept. Although I will vote for the coalition, Howard leaves me feeling dissatisfied in this area. I would prefer John Anderson any day – but that isn’t going to happen.

Thanks for posting such a though provoking article.

2022 years ago

It is manners and a sense of reciprocity that allows a community to communicate easily. This easiness is also missing in some of the Aboriginal communities I’ve been in briefly. The old people say the young ones – 2 generations of them now, need to learn ‘culture’. And the younger ones mostly pay lip service to this. Is this ‘culture’ less about how to move around their country and survive than how to communicate with and respect each other right now on the verandahs, at the fishing holes and in public policy forums. A shift in the survival mode.
-and to conventional manners.
Sometimes it is innapropriate to say a pleased hello to a relative of the man they refer to as your husband. A white fella who doesn’t know can be amusing and forgiven for the breach. And told the right way. Everyone in the community is expected to know who everybody is and how to behave – but the mode of living is changing and so these connections are also changing – the example given is possibly longstanding and suprising only to me. However it makes me wonder about how these old conventions translate around the kitchen tables in our cities and towns. In NSW I did a couple of years seasonal work and travelled with indigenous extended families from around Wellington – they knew who everybody was, but their ‘manners’ were not as explicit as those I experienced Roper River, central Arnhemland.
Similar thing is happening in my own culture. Take the use of please and thankyou. There is a subtle shift – ( it is just my perception) – that it is the spirit of please and thankyou that is important now not the actual words. Those words were keys when I was a kid. Goodmorning Mrs… also not necessary anymore – sincere smile or silent greeting works fine. There are jillions of examples of these shifts in both the cultures I’ve had anything to do with – the passing trappings of civility rather than a passing civility?

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Are you still on for shopping for pavers and perspex later? I’ve just about had a gutful of marking for today.

Al Bundy
Al Bundy
2022 years ago

Interesting points, Ken. A warning though: If there were a Standard & Poors in the free marketplace of ideas that is the blogosphere, you’d be in danger of losing your ‘Centrist ++’ rating.

…However, the end result of several decades of (relatively) unregulated capitalism has been the partial destruction of that socialising structure of family, church and community…

You appear to single out competition as the underlying cause of all social breakdown. How can one be civil to a competitor? It’s all dog eat dog, after all, isn’t it?

Not in my world. The other day I rang up a cabinet maker for quotes on some kitchen work. They were booked out until the end of August. They recommended one of their ‘competitors’ who specialised in the sort of work I was seeking to get done. I could give you plenty more examples, but I hope you get my point.

Capitalism is simply the rational exercising of the entrepreneurial spirit in the optimisation of production to secure maximum returns from inputs. Thus spoke Weber. It takes a leap into Marxism to start rattling off the the evils of laissez faire.

In fact, is there any evidence to suggest that countries of a socialist bent have fared better in the ‘community’ stakes?

But let’s get to that question of core values.

I’ll give you mine. In no particular order, I believe in:

1. Respect for property
2. Personal liberty
3. Acceptance of responsibility
4. Do unto others (which pretty well wraps up the useful bits of the Ten Commandments viz murder, coveting thy neighbour’s donkey etc)

I suppose this makes me a hideous neoliberal. Curiously, you’ll find me to be courteous fellow.

(Oh, and as for that unreformed pinko Ross Gittins and his smarmy demolition of Wooden and Heady, you’ve really got to wonder what Freddy Hilmer’s playing at, don’t you? Why would you employ an economics editor that believes wealth to be so irrelevant to the important things of life?

Sure, money can’t buy you happiness, Gitto, but it can provide you with the means to pursue it. It’s tough chasing the pointy tip of Maslow’s pyramid unless you’ve got the readies to cover the boring bits underneath.)

Frankly, if you’re trying to track down the root causes behind the erosion of community, you might think about one word. Cynicism. Could there be a more divisive development than the loss of trust in our fellows, the endless search for ulterior motives, and the post-modernistic dismissal of anything that might hint of fraternal pride?

And if it’s cynicism you want, look no further than the Left, particularly its eager clarions in the media.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago


I accept most aspects of the so-called neoliberal recipe; especially the desirability of global free trade as the best means of spreading prosperity. I acept that the “creative destruction” of competitive capitalism is the best means of achieving this and (probably) maximising both material wealth and individual consumer choice. I also accept that the rule of law and respect for property rights are critically important aspects in maintaining that system. What I DON’T accept is that:
(a) private is always better; in fact public ownership is better in a natural monopoly situation;
(b) that the default position should be lack of regulation – there are plenty of areas where the interests of capital are not synonymous with the public interest (consumer protection, environment and labour relations are obvious areas);
(c) that the market can create, maximise or maintain equality of opportunity, which I regard as the minimal condition for a free, fair and happy society. That implies sufficient redistributive taxation to ensure that everyone (irrespective of income or assets) has access to decent education and training, and basic health care.

If the above disqualifies me from a centrist label in your eyes, I won’t be losing any sleep over it.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ken, there was a study – based on survey evidence analysed quantitatively – in the Journal of Sociology a few years ago by a bloke from Tassie Uni called Tim Phillips into “everyday incivility”. As I recall, the findings were that older people were generally ruder than younger people. The paper won an award.

Ron Mead
Ron Mead
2022 years ago

“public ownership is better in a natural monopoly situation”.

Hard not to agree with this proposition. No doubt this includes water management, electricity grids, fixed telephone cables but not mobile networks, rail lines but not necessarily operations, police and defence forces, and you can no doubt think of some others.

Unfortunately Telstra has been an example of a completely stuffed up “privatisation”. It would have been better for the fixed infrastructure and its development and maintenance to have remained in public hands and all the operational telecommunications to be privately and competitively owned. Instead we have the very worst of all possibilities. In any case I can see the day in the not too distant future when fixed line telephones are completely obsolete.

Unfortunately there are still far too many businesses in government ownership that aren’t natural monopolies. We certainly don’t need a public broadcaster – we don’t have public newspapers. Fairfax does its job of replicating the ABC in print anyway.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago


I disagree. This shouldn’t surprise you. I personally find the ultra-liberal account of capitalism as a civilising force to be more compelling.

For how does capitalism work? It works by coordinating millions of people without coercion. The price system rapidly transmits information about what should be done to people who want to do it. In short, while some people will see others as competitors, the system means that one way or another, we are all cooperating.

Consider that no other system in history has managed to harmonise the interests of such radically different cultures around the globe. You mention that societies are becoming less homogenous, yet self-interest is a nigh universal trait.

Now I guess I’m one of these “conservative” types, but to be honest I don’t find civility to be too lacking. I suspect that the mix of rudeness and politeness is dictated by a reasonably dynamic, but reasonably self-correcting, evolutionarily stable set of memes and genes.

I also disagree on the “natural monopoly” line: I think it’s just a theory invented to give the monopolists a fat wodge of cash. As to Telstra, I also submit that it was stuffed up. The infrastructure should have been auctioned off per-metre, per-exchange and per-item.

2022 years ago

not coercive? How does that marry with the generations of folk who’ve worked in sweatshops and worse to survive?

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

If people who wished for better manners in society were able by example to show them in Parliament then they may just have some credibility.
Of course this should never be applied to the blogosphere.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

Jen, if you can find me systematic evidence that people are being forced into textile trade against their will, then I’ll show you statism; the natural opposite of capitalism.

Working in sweatshops evidently sucks, because people who do it leave when a better job turns up. But likewise, people move into these sweatshops because the sweatfarms, sweatyards and sweatstreets are less pleasant, well-paid or healthy.

2022 years ago

who said anything about textiles? My point is that capitalism favours those, who, for whatever reason are good at accumulating capital. Those who aren’t good at getting and hanging on to this worlds goods have less freedom than those who are. I’m not sure what I think about this. Not yet.
What if an individual loves a task that earns little/no money?
Does reward?payment?the means to live always have to depend on demand?
What value do we put on satisfying ourselves?
What truly interests me is how fixed some of the positions on the blog become.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

I noticed a fabulous photograph over on the wonderful Boynton, of some unidentified event at Swinburne School. This shot has the camera, which gives us a broad time frame of the fifties or the early sixties; this later shot in the series is even more revealing of the times.

It was an era when children called adults “sir”, when Mum was Mrs Joseph Bloggs, when hats and gloves made the respectable woman, where the people in this photo would have probably agreed that married women should be forced out of the Swinburne teaching community. Their husbands were secretly annoyed they had already missed out on the six o’clock swill.

Is that what we call a more civil society?

2022 years ago

by way of response -‘the past is a foreign country’- Dave m’dear.
I love people like that – they still exist and they make excellent afternoon tea – the height of civility.

I hope my ankles don’t swell when I get really old – I don’t want them folding over my docs.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

And then there’s the jug arse (whatever that is) that will stop you getting into those tight jeans. You may have to convert to tent-shaped floral mu-mus from K-Mart. But I’ll love you just the same, twilight passion in a zimmer frame.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

It rhymes Ken. And I love those people too Jen, its just that en masse they terrify me.

It’s like my mother turning up in Yellow Submarine.

2022 years ago

Not Declining, Changing

The decline of social civility – a somewhat esoteric subject for some and one that I happened across a few…