Beyond wet and dry

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:

  Cool Hot
Hard Libertarians Conservatives
Soft Anarchists Humanists

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.

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Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

Welcome aboard, Don.

Not sure what to make of your matrix. It seems a bit, well, disjointed to me. It doesn’t make obvious sense to me, but I’ll be interested to read what the other readers think of it.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Yes, welcome aboard Don. I’m too buggered to comment in any detail now. I’m going straight to bed. I’ll think about your matrix in the morning. But where do communitarians fit? I identify with some aspects of the communitarian project, although not the nanny-ish part. I guess it’s a subset of humanism, but with a particular, distinctive concern about values. So maybe they’re the hottest of the humanists, and not quite as soft as other humanists given some of the rather authoritarian prescriptions of Etzioni and Glendon (who would no doubt resent being called a humanist anyway).

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
2022 years ago

Hi Don,

I take it you’re on the team at Troppo Armadillo, now, which will be great for me, as I’ve never managed the technology for keeping track of infrequently updated blogs.

I won’t try to respond to a piece like this in comments, except to say that, in proposing a renaissance of social democracy, I don’t see a literal resurrection of the Bretton Woods era. I just think that the future will owe more to traditional social democracy than to the explicit alternatives currently available, namely neoliberalism and the Third Way.

The timing of this is great, as I’ve just decided to start work on a big piece with the provision title “After Economic Rationalism”. Usually there’s a fair gap between deciding to start work and actually starting, but with this stimulus I might buckle down straight away.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

Interesting thanks. I’m still digesting it but one thing leapt out:

“Political life is hotter and harder in the US than it is in Australia. This is due to the influence of conservative right. ”

I think it is the other way round, If in the US, the conservative right have greater influence it is perhaps because the US is “hotter” and “harder”.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

I doubt we are headed down the US road here. The most moralistic part of the political spectrum is the latte left (sorry to use a pejorative term, but there are no neutral terms to quickly identify the people we are talking about) – but their campaigns about refugees and for truth about Iraq etc seem to have fallen flat. The public isn’t interested and the right can barely be bothered debating them. And part of the reason for this is their uncompromising, moralising tone in a political culture which prefers pragmatic trade-offs.

I doubt the Australian right could ever resemble the US right. Australian conservatism is very mild by comparison, partly due to the relatively secular nature of Australian society. We don’t have any of the charismatic evangelical leaders meddling in politics that the US does. Despite all the fuss surrounding Family First I doubt they will get more than few percent of the vote.

In my view, Australian politics in the medium term will be mainly about service delivery, and the compromises reached will be pragmatic mixes of public and private.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

I tend to agree with Andrew. Clearly the era of purist neoliberal rhetoric is over, but I doubt that we’ll revert to a big government, Keynesian-style settlement.

Moreover, I also doubt that the $14 billion worth of new spending promises of both parties are going to be sustainable. David Uren suggested in the Oz today that Treasury’s forward 4 year surplus estimate is based on distinctly flimsy assumptions. It may well be that whoever wins will need to eat humble pie and renege on promises down the track.

We’re probably in the latter part of a very prolonged boom, where everyone including the politicians have convinced themselves that it will never end, and that they really can keep spending money like a drunken sailor. Fiscal reality will eventually return, possibly the hard way, and the Treasury bureaucrats will regain the ascendancy. Of course I may be wrong, but I suspect John Quiggin’s prediction of a new era of big government social demcoracy is just wishful thinking. Both Latham and Costello are reasonably convinced adherents to neoliberal orthodoxy, despite being seduced by the pragmatic necessities of the current bidding war. I think the 2004 election period spending binge will come to be seen as a momentary aberration in a long-term pattern of reasonable fiscal prudence.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Don, nice to see you over here. I’m sceptical about John’s claim. Big government does not equal social democracy. To me, the two defining characteristics of social democracy are a concern for distributive justice and a long term project for equality of opportunity through equalising life chances by whittling away the effects of intergenerational reproduction of inequality (through inherited wealth, cultural capital etc). Central to both is universalism in public services and a distaste for private provision of public goods. Take the traditional attitude of the British government to private education for instance, and the genuine concern that has existed in British Labour at times over the reproduction of privilege through elite education (British Labour being a far more intellectual and ideological party than the ALP historically, I think it can be reasonably argued – even Blair finds it necessary to seek a genuinely erudite underpinning for his ‘project’). The other defining characteristic of social democracy is a skepticism towards markets as an allocator – and a willingness to intervene in product markets as well as labour markets (as in the policies of German and Swedish governments to promote the concentration of industry and drive small businesses paying low wages out of the market in favour of efficient firms competing on quality and paying high wages).

Conservatism has traditionally stood for a strong (and perforce big) state. The neo-liberal turn is really a shift more in the encouragement of individual selfishness and a reversal of historic trends towards redistribution in the opposite direction – to those who are already advantaged in the game of life. Thus, for me, Howard is no social democrat. Neo-liberalism was always much more rhetoric than reality – under Thatcher certainly – and Howard’s turn away from the rhetoric is pretty meaningless. The underlying trend towards the reversal of a political culture which privileged a public interest over selfish private interests is still there – if not more starkly because now the nakedness of the appeal to greed is evident.

On the cool-hot thing – I disagree with you about anarchism historically. I’m not sure how much of the literature you’ve read, but anarchism actually embodies values – in the sense that it’s believed that true self-realisation only comes with taking responsibility for one’s self – but one’s self as a social being who realises that self interest is nothing if there is not voluntary co-operation with others. That’s why libertarians – to the degree that they are sometimes labelled or pose as anarchists – are not. Marx’ vision of the species-being without alienation was much the same as that of the classic anarchist texts such as Kropotkin’s ‘Mutual Aid’. It’s hard to find these days but the publication of the exchanges between Lenin and Kropotkin is an extremely good statement of what anarchism is actually about – as of course are Emma Goldman’s writings – and for a contemporary source, Michael Moorcock’s political texts. In the history of ‘actually existing’ anarchism, the experience of the Spanish anarchists – particularly in Catalonia – also demonstrates that anarchist politics is not ‘cool’. I think your analysis would benefit from specifying what morality is. Anarchists would hold that what is moral is respect for others and mutual cooperation, and that entails variation in personal choices – the true morality if you like being an orientation towards the other rather than a personal code.

I do agree with you, though, that anarchism ought not to involve a claim that humans are naturally good (this is perhaps a philosophical difference with Marxism). But perhaps that’s another story.

2022 years ago


I agree with you about anarchism and values. I needed a one word name for the cell so I chose ‘anarchist.’ I don’t mean it to imply anything about people who adopt the label for themselves.

The ‘libertarian’ label has similar problems. There are some leftists who are ‘cool’ and ‘hard.’

I guess I could just call the cells ‘cool/hard’ etc.

2022 years ago

The Australian settlement

Don Arthur, a great but infrequent blogger, has joined the crew at Troppo Armadillo, which will be a great location for him, I think. His first post is a response to my argument that the era of neoliberalism/economic rationalism is…