Incivility OK if it helps reduce the size of government


A civilized society is one whose members do not humiliate each other…

Avishai Margalit

The Centre for Independent Studies is arguing for incivility. In a recent paper Nicole Billante and Peter Saunders say:

Excessive civility threatens to squash innovation and fresh-thinking, particularly in politics. One of the complaints about so-called ‘political correctness’ in intellectual circles, for example, is that it makes it impossible to express opinions or explore evidence which might give offence, even if they might turn out to be true or valid (pdf).

What kind of evidence are they talking about? How about this — Charles Murray‘s idea that blacks are, on average, cognitively inferior to whites and that the cause is probably genetic. Imagine standing before a mixed audience and reading this passage on differences in IQ from Murray’s book The Bell Curve:

Translated into centiles, this means that the average white person tests higher than about 84 percent of the population of blacks and that the average black person tests higher than about 16 percent of the population of whites (p269).

Murray uses this as part of an argument against egalitarianism which he says "overestimates the ability of political interventions to shape human character and capabilities" (p 532). He argues that groups who do poorly in market societies do so because a high proportion of their members lack cognitive ability and moral character. It’s not difficult to see why someone might be offended by this. If you believe that you’ve been systematically discriminated against and denied opportunity, it must be galling to have it garnished with insults disguised as science.

According to Billante and Saunders "Civility is behaviour in public which demonstrates respect for others and which entails curtailing one’s own immediate self-interest when appropriate." The kinds of civility they approve of are things like saying please and thank you, avoiding the use of nasty four letter words, and getting up for old ladies on the bus. The kind of incivility they approve of includes humiliating entire categories of people by portraying them as stupid, lazy, negligent and criminal.

For example, in 2000 the Centre for Independent Studies published Lucy Sullivan‘s monograph Behavioural Poverty. Sullivan’s argument was that the majority of poor individuals were victims of their own immoral and dysfunctional behaviour. "Poverty in Australia today" she wrote "is not financial, but behavioural."

What makes these kinds of studies so un-civil is that their conclusions will not "turn out to be true or valid". The reason that most social science academics reject these ideas is not because they are in the grip of some reality-distorting ideology, but because there’s so little evidence for them. The truth is that countries like Australia and the United States have deep seated social arrangements which make it more difficult for members of some groups to get ahead than for others.

Think tanks like the Centre for Independent Studies exist to make ideas like those about ‘behavioural poverty’ seem intellectually respectable. If the majority of university experts refuse to take them seriously then the think tanks will scrounge around to find the handful who will and then amplify their voices to make it sound as if there’s a genuine academic controversy. If the price of smaller government is incivility, it’s a price the CIS is prepared to charge to somebody else’s account.


Before we get into comments, let’s deal with one of the most common objections to the idea that poverty is explained by structural rather than individual causes. The claim here is not that all poor individuals are paragons of virtue while all rich people are wicked exploiters and discriminators. Everyone knows that some people who are poor drink too much, abuse drugs, and neglect their children. And yes, some people on low incomes are nasty to be around. Everyone also understands that if you don’t want to live in poverty there are things you can do to reduce your risk — stay at school, don’t get pregnant when you’re 16 and unmarried, don’t get addicted to drugs, don’t gamble etc. And yes, helping individuals escape from poverty will often involve encouraging them to change their behaviour. Here’s a newsflash — even radical left wingers know these things. Ever see a left wing sociology professor tell her kids that it doesn’t matter whether they do their homework?

The question at issue is this. If everyone who lives in poverty became a model citizen would poverty and disadvantage disappear? The answer is no.


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Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
15 years ago

Sometimes, Don, I get the feeling that you and I are reading different documents from different Centres for Independent Studies.

Also, and I’m sure that Andrew Norton were shortly make this point, the CIS is not some uniform, homogenous talk shop. Just yesterday I was reading a tax policy monograph which blamed poverty on unemployment. The closest lookin for behavioural poverty would be good old EMTRs.

I also think that your argument answers its own problems. On the one hand you want to take the stick to Charles Murray as “incivil” but on the other you pointed out that Charles Murray gets no respect because his argument is fairly pissweak.

To put it otherwise: where reason can answer daft ideas, it should trump civility. This is probably what the CIS are getting at, and it’s the part of your own agenda you may wish to embrace with more enthusiasm.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago


Your attempted defence of CIS might have more persuasive force if it weren’t for the following facts:

(a) Saunders is the CIS’s Social Research Director, not just one of many fellows or associates, and the supposed undesirability of “political correctness” along with the supposed desirability of “civility (by which they seem to mean “shallow” good manners entirely divorced from repect or tolerance of diversity) are recurrent memes at CIS (as they are among conservatives generally);

(b) Saunders and Billante’s article to which Don’s post refers cites Charles Murray’s research no less than 3 times in a 13 page article. Manifestly it IS one of the examples they had in mind of “respectable” ideas being allegedly stifled by political correctness;

(c) Murray’s “research” on supposed racially-based intellectual inferiority is indeed poisonous nonsense, as I discussed previously here at some length.

Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago


There’s an excluded middle in your post the size of an elephant.

You say “The question at issue is this. If everyone who lives in poverty became a model citizen would poverty and disadvantage disappear? The answer is no.”

That’s dead right. (or left as the case may be).

Likewise if policy did everything it could – with funds, programs, anti-discrimination legislation, early intervention you name it, “would poverty and disadvantage disappear? The answer is no.”

So why pose the question that way?

From the little I know Murray’s stuff on race is odious, so by all means go for your life. If you want to hop into the IPA then that’s fine too. IPA authors may have the kind of agenda you say they do.

On the other hand your language seems to take you much further.

What you’re doing at the same time as hopping into Murray et al is participating in and perpetuating a left project which began nobly when social mores were very different, when most people considered it shameful to receive government handouts.

In his autobiography Tom Uren talks of how deeply galling, how humiliating it was in the depression for his Mum to receive charity only after someone had said she was ‘ok’ and so deserved some charity. I can certainly sympathise.

In response, part of the project of the welfare state and its supporters was to shut down this stigmatising distinction between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor – and as is the way with us fallen creatures, integral to that project was the stigmatisation those who insisted that the distinction was important.

Who is right? Who knows?

But some of us who reckon we’re pretty well disposed to the poor think that, however much help they receive – and we’re in favour of them getting all the help that can reasonably given them – the way they behave is probably THE most important determinant of their future wellbeing (however much cash or outside help they get).

And an insistance that one must never say anything that can ever be interpreted as ‘blaming the victim’ is undermining the ability for those on the left to even really think about the issues or to participate in social discourse which seeks to stigmatise irresponsible and socially destructive behaviour.

In an earlier post when I raised the issues of the (well documented) culture of black underachievers in some schools stigmatising achievement you said you ‘violently disagreed’ with what I’d said though – as it seemed to me – you misunderstood what I was saying. So it’s damn difficult to get these things on the agenda without being stigmatised as racist or generally unsympathetic with the plight of the poor.

As I’ve told you in personal discussions, I’ve had personal experience of the problems I’m speaking about trying to tell a conference about the difficulties of hiring low skill labour from the perspective of a (once naive and patient) and (still) well-meaning employer. I tried to explain why our own perseverence was economically irrational in the face of the fairly irresponsible and unmotivated behaviour of those we gave jobs to.

They didn’t do anything particularly terrible. But I thought those considering such things would appreciate seeing it from the side of the fence that must pay the bills if we’re to further lower unemployment.

But no. I’d blamed the victim, and so was an embarrasment. I was the only employer to speak at the conference but what I’d said was simply ignored. I was personally stigmatised – though that’s neither here nor there. But it led me to wonder whether those who had done so were being poor friends indeed to those whom they claimed to be helping.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

What Nicholas said. I’ve had similar experiences speaking as one of the few employer members of the NT ALP (as I was back in the days when I WAS an ALP member).

“Mutual obligation” policies ostensibly aim at solving this conundrum (personal behaviour/choices as the major determinant of poverty), but have been cynically misused by the Howard government and even (though to a lesser extent) by the Blair government in the UK.

Most people readily accept the necessity of linking behaviour, obligations and consequences on an ordinary interpersonal level, and even when it becomes institutionalised. Phillip Adams perennially champions a Melbourne social worker by the name of John Embling, whose welfare practices with disadvantaged youth are squarely based on “tough love” principles. Yet for some reason, as soon as such approaches are embraced by government, almost everyone on the left becomes terminally and closed-mindedly hostile. Why?

Nicholas Gruen
Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
15 years ago

As I understand it John Embling finds it difficult to get funding, though one imagines he’s as good as they get – and to a substantial extent is funded from do-gooders like myself following up Phillip Adams’ columns. (Though I’ve not given for a while – just out of neglect – not seeing the columns for a few years and giving money elsewhere). He’s getting pretty exhausted and ill – I think I heard or read Phillip Adams say.

15 years ago

“The poor are always with us.”

I’d like to be poor, but its not allowed.

I’ve chosen to be poor in a world where that option is not longer allowed (Holy Orders all in decline)(and I still own a lot of ‘stuff’!) I spent a lot of time with released lunatics, social work advocates and been thieved on by right wing badly-behaved poor people (they like stealing from us because we’re “greenies”)(they buy winnie blues with coins stolen from our cars’ ashtrays).

And Recently a 13 girl opened her front door across the road and was bashed unconscious— interrupted break-in.

As well I’ve started and am running a number of co-operative businesses through the years and had all the hassle of small business administrative and management troubles.

Regardless whether we can fix these people, regardless whether they refuse opportunities or are structurally locked out, I’ve experienced all sides of this debate, and all I am left with is reflecting on my own agency.

Its a “tending my own garden” sorta thing, as a teenage anarchist, ended up as a quietistic liberal (liberalism as a possible working compromise for everyone) is a bit of a come down but, it does have a lesson, I’ll put it as a list of questions…

How do we do good without be do gooders, or preachers? What stops us doing good? Ourselves and others? In what measure?

Above all why do we push our biases (ideology) that we feel so strongly onto others, isn’t it enough that they drive us? Why can’t we appreciate it is those drives that create our social interactions, and use that in our planning?

Poverty itself is not a problem, for some its something to escape, though of course what they are escaping is often bad behaviour. The poverty is just read a symbol of that ‘immorality’. A personal slum clearance.

For others its an indicator of how just a society is, by whether one can escape it or not.

Whether it collective or personal, escape is the key.

That there are people who want to keep the lower orders in place, with lives nasty, vicious and incivil is a concern. They are evolutionary recidivists, and have not escaped the vision of society governed by alphas.

If they whinge that they dare not speak their name, and then say the end is nigh because their desire to dominate others, is living in a welll of loneliness, well, diddums.

I judge them, I reject them. They are evolutionary unfit.

But they aren’t being censored, they are just discovering (because of the success of the modern economies, and being rejected) that there is no context for their bias/preference/ideology, and need to blame someone for their irrelevance.

Like the thirteen year old getting it in the face when she had the hide to open her front door. She needed a good smacking.

She wasn’t even a greenie.

Most incivil behaviour is alpha behaviour, entitled, righteous, driven and meaningless to a society and economy gone beyond it.

15 years ago

I like ken’s point: “Most people readily accept the necessity of linking behaviour, obligations and consequences on an ordinary interpersonal level”

I wonder how well centrelink makes these judgements. Some research into how much cheating is going on in the system would be interesting.

As Gruen has pointed out elsewhere, Australia seems to be doing fairly well with regards to limiting and targetting welfare, so i guess its a good start.

15 years ago

You know Don, I read your post. And then I re-read it. And then I realised you have no idea about what this so-called recent CIS paper was talking about. Go on, keep making a fool of yourself. It seems pretty easy.

15 years ago

Keep trying Don. Nobody really knows what you are talking about. I tried. I tried.

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

Talisker – Sorry if your comments took a while to appear on the site. I had to fish them out of the moderation queue.

Scott Wickstein
15 years ago

Don says “The question at issue is this. If everyone who lives in poverty became a model citizen would poverty and disadvantage disappear? The answer is no.”

How do you know?