In a series of posts John Quiggin argues that the era of dry politics is over (see here, here, and here). Andrew Norton almost agrees. He argues that market oriented reform is here to stay, but so is big government. In the US the Weekly Standard‘s Fred Barnes writes that George W Bush " understands why Reagan failed to reduce the size of the federal government and
why Newt Gingrich and the GOP revolutionaries failed as well." It’s because "People
like big government so long as it’s not a huge drag on the economy."
It’s always difficult to spot a trend when you’re in the middle of it. Quiggin likes think of the new acceptance of big government as a renaissance for social democracy, but I suspect that Norton and Barnes are closer to the truth. Governments aren’t about to start starting up supermarkets, banks, or airlines and it’s hard to see a return to the high tariffs of the old Australian settlement. But if tomorrow’s political battles aren’t going to be over how much government taxes and spends or about how much it regulates business then what are they going to be about?
Recently my host at Troppo has been writing about values (see here, here, here). Like many of those in the political centre, Ken is sceptical about the idea that a society can survive without shared values and norms or behaviour. He asks:
Can we reconstruct, within a deregulated global capitalist system, appropriate
modern-day equivalents of those socializing structures to create humans who are
well-rounded citizens and moral agents as well as aggressive economic
Political thinkers as diverse as the Third Way enthusiasts of the 1990s, communitarians, and America’s neoconservatives have all argued that morality has a central place in politics. In the field of welfare reform Steven Teles argues that American elites disagree over the role of values. Big government conservatives like Lawrence Mead argue that the non-working poor should be forced to conform to shared norms. Egalitarian liberals stress society’s moral obligations to the poor and resist moralizing about individual behaviour. And opposed to both these positions are economic liberals like Milton Friedman. These thinkers see welfare reform as a technical issue and are appalled by any intrusion of emotion of values talk into the debate. For them values are a private matter and have no place in politics.
The debate over values is hardly new but perhaps this is where the political zeitgeist is heading. If political alliances formed around positions on moral values what shape would the political landscape have?
If positions on the size and scope of government divided the wets from the drys then positions on the role of values divide the ‘cool’ from the ‘hot.’ People who believe that moral disagreements are just a matter of taste or opinion like their politics ‘cool.’ They argue that religion and morality are private matters which have no place in politics. In contrast, people who believe that the difference between right and wrong is inscribed in our conscience or revealed by God like their politics ‘hot.’ They believe that our political leaders should appeal to the "better angels of our nature".
In a similar way, some people favor a ‘hard’ political style while others prefer a ‘soft’ style. The ‘hard’ school don’t trust individuals to follow the rules or their consciences. They argue that governments, parents, and other social institutions should use force to maintain standards of acceptable behavior. Those who favor a ‘soft’ approach either put personal freedom above social order or believe that human beings are good by nature.
The combination of these two dimension produces four distinct political styles:
Libertarians believe that governments should not pursue moral agendas, instead they should limit themselves to maintaining a framework of laws under which individuals can pursue their own ideas of the good life. This is the ‘cool’ approach. But while they place a high value on freedom libertarians argue that we need a shared set of rules to make sure that we don’t get in each other’s way while we pursue our own self interest. This is what makes libertarian politics ‘hard.’ If you show up in a libertarian’s living room after midnight with their new flat screen TV under your arm he or she is going to curtail your freedom (that’s what the Smith and Wesson under the pillow is for). The state’s job is to enforce contracts, protect property rights and make sure individuals don’t injure each other.
Conservatives believe that morality is the legitimate business of the state. This makes conservative politics ‘hot.’ While libertarians don’t care too much what you do with other consenting adults in the privacy of your bedroom some conservatives do. Conservatives see all human beings as tainted by original sin (or some secular equivalent). All of us have wicked desires that need to be kept in check. Good people exercise self discipline but bad people need to strictly policed. When wickedness runs amok you get AIDS epidemics, crack wars and holocausts. Conservative politics is ‘hard’ because it’s the states job to enforce morality.
Anarchists. Like libertarians, anarchists believe that morality is a matter of opinion or personal taste. But unlike both libertarians and conservatives they are deeply suspicious of the state. They believe that the state’s rules serve the interests of the powerful against the weak and the haves against the have-nots. Resisting the coercive power of the state (and quasi states like multinational corporations) is the only way to stand up for the interests of the powerless and poor. The focus on interests rather than morals is what makes anarchist politics ‘cool.’ The opposition to all forms of social control (apart from the torture of endless consensus-seeking community meetings) is what makes it ‘soft.’
Humanists share the conservative concern with moral politics. But humanist politics is ‘soft’ rather than ‘hard’ because it rejects the idea of natural human wickedness. Humanists see people as naturally good. Like a seed or flower bulb every human being has the potential to grow and bloom. What makes people bad is the environment. Rather than needed external coercion what people really need is an end to poverty and deprivation. Humanist politics is about self actualization, about individuals being able to reach their potential. In our hearts we know what is good, the only conflict we face is with selfishness.
Political life is hotter and harder in the US than it is in Australia. This is due to the influence of conservative right. American conservatives crank up the heat on issues like abortion and drug abuse. For them a single girl’s unwanted pregnancy or a young man’s substance abuse problem is not a medical condition but the result of deliberate immorality. From child poverty to child pornography the diagnosis is the same – moral standards have become lax, our leaders have become too weak to enforce decent standards of behavior. Liberal softness is the root of the problem. Hardness is the solution. The poor must be forced to work, drug addicts should go to jail, and unmarried teenage mothers should be made an example of.
Australia’s political elites seem embarrassed by value talk. Many on the left see moral arguments as a smokescreen over the real conflict – the struggle over who gets what. Those on the libertarian right agree. They see ‘social justice’ talk as part of the new class’ conspiracy to siphon off tax dollars to support their Volvos, protests, and the arts lifestyle. There seems to be a consensus that moral talk is vulgar and unsophisticated, that it’s the kind of thing unscrupulous tabloid columnists indulge in to distract the masses.
Our politicians also seem wary about straying too far from room-temperature politics. Economics is the main game. A politician’s main job is to keep interests rates low and the dole bludgers from getting their hands on your taxes. Even the super-Catholic Tony Abbott doesn’t let his moral abhorrence for abortions stop him from paying them through Medicare.
It’s hard to know whether Australian politics will become more values oriented. But if it does then 70s era institutions like the Centre for Independent Studies will have to reinvent themselves. A moralized public sphere will drive social conservatives and economic liberals apart.