America, politics and the extended order

Hayek has an enlightening concept of the ‘extended order’ in society.  Society begins around a community order which extends only to the hunting group or whatever and families and clans within it.  Often those groups, later villages are at war with other groups.  As human, economic and social development proceeds trade gets established between groups and an ‘extended order’ evolves – with its own social, economic and cultural institutions which facilitate this new miracle – the co-operation between strangers often at a great distance.

Hayek’s main point is that the culture of the extended order is different to the culture that grew up before it – and to which our brain evolved as part of. So these two cultures are often at war. As he sees it, a lot of calls for governments to intervene involve the application of pre-extended order thinking to the extended order – the call to look after someone in misfortune for instance when the rules of the extended order mean that such intervention will make things worse (because of the incentives it unleashes).

I’m not trying to argue the merits of that argument here except to say that in its most basic form most people would accept it as commonsense.  Different rules, mores and in a way different sympathies should apply between people closely connected to each other and strangers.

If we’ve got some power in the public service or a public company, should we give a job in a public company to our mate, or our brother?  The ethics of doing so are quite different to the ethics of conduct within a family or a proprietory company – at least if we own it.

No doubt this observations have been made before but it seems to me that these kinds of considerations apply very much to political discourse.  As I was watching an interview with a Republican presidential candidate – it seemed to me that it illustrated how different the political discourse is in Australia and the U.S.

I think in the age of the sound bite, the Americans are doing pretty poorly in maintaining an extended order in political culture. I am speaking from memory now, so it will be possible to go back to the interview and gainsay what I’ve said with a few specific instances, but the impression I had from the interview was that the questions the candidate was asked were questions you would ask a friend – as if his bona fides in the conversation were not under any kind of question.

“How will your experience in ten years preaching affect you as our President?”  The candidate expostulated on this with great smoothness, some little charm and a creepy grin occasionally escaping his otherwise well behaved mouth all as part of the script.  It’s not as if in Australia we’d never see a question like that asked.  We’d think of it as a ‘gimmie’.  But in the US so many of the questions are like this.

And all the answers were very clearly the product of media training. They were designed to draw you in to a personal relationship with the candidate.  A relationship that was largely independent of policies – though occasionally the interview circle back to a policy or two to add colour and to remind you of what kind of an interview it was.

The candidate said that as a preacher there wasn’t a kind of social pathology he hadn’t seen.  No kind of person he’d not sat down with, empathised with.  So when he was making a decision he’d be thinking of how it would affect real people in their living rooms.  Not fake people, but real people.  (That’s people like me and you!)  But he didn’t mention what that meant in terms of policies.  Though it’s a fair guess that they’d be ‘real’ policies.  Real people deserve no less.

So much empathy and so little policy!  Then there’s the American penchant for ‘character issues’.  These are strange things that relate to ‘family values’ and various other stuff which generally comes up when one side is trying to trash the reputation of the other.  It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the issue of lying in office.

When I compare this with Australian politics it doesn’t look too good.  It’s not that we conduct politics on a particularly high plane.  Far from it. But I don’t think we infantalise political discourse in that way.  Whether you’re on Kerry O’Brien or A Current Affair, you’ll be asked about the icing on that cake that you’re proposing to put GST on.  You’ll be asked about whether your leadership is safe from the next most powerful politician in your party.

If you’re being interviewed by Michael Duffy it’s much less likely to be adversarial but it will be an adult, not an infantalised conversation in which you try to dump as many sound bites as you can.  And if you’re interviewed on life matters, or even Caroline Jones touchy feely program whose name escapes me you might be asked about your own life and how it relates to your politics, but it will be done in such a way that the search is on for some genuine, unscripted insight into what kind of a person you are.

I think Australian culture manages the extended order of modern politics much better than our poor old rich old, big old cousins across the Pacific.

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D W Griffiths
14 years ago

Nick, I agree completely. I agree so much that I want to jump to the next question: “Why is it so?”. And I can think of several possible answers (there are no doubt more):

1. The US right, in seeking to appeal to a large group of US voters that had no time for many of the left’s attitudes and policy prescriptions, managed to delegitimise analysis in general. (Note: I’m not saying anyone set out to do so, only that it was an effect. This explanation doesn’t require you to particularly favour or dislike the right.) Afficianadoes of fiscal policy might call it the “Laffer turn” in policy analysis – never mind if it’s right, just keep it dirt-simple. Result: Things will change back once the right changes its frequently infantile behaviour. Richard Clarke and Bruce Bartlett are the start of a trend.

2. The US left delegitimised analysis by taking a lot of poor analysis generated by left-wing intellectuals and using it badly. (Note: This explanation does require you to dislike or at least be uncomfortable with a large slice of left-wing thinking over the past 40 years.) Result: Things will change back as the current generation of left-wing intellectuals retires and dies.

3. As issues have become more complex, “character issues” and the like become proxies for governmental ability. Result: Things won’t change back; we’re stuck in this new world. Rush Limbaugh and Andrew Bolt are the face of this century’s politics.

4. As US political discourse has cheapened, audiences have decided they don’t want to see it. Result: Things will change back when a new generation of civil politicians emerge. Barack Obama, Kevin Rudd and Joe Hockey may be the start of a trend.

5. All of the above.

Some of these theories are more US-specific than others. To work towards an answer, we might ask about trends in other parts of the developed world. Is the US the outlier here? Is Australia?

Observations, anyone?

stephen bartos
stephen bartos
14 years ago

Nick, I’d guess you have not watched many politicians’ interviews with Kerry Anne Kennerley recently. Which is not to say I disagree with the general point you make, but that there is a range of types of coverage of politics in both countries. Just as in the US there are sometimes serious policy oriented interviews, in Australia there are sometimes the personal, “assume the audience is just one person who’s listening in our private conversation” (ie villge order) sorts of interviews, or the embarassing ones designed to show the “quirky, fun side” of politicians (who generally look uncomfortable in the role). If someone had the time to do an extended analysis of a large sample of interviews, though, I’d guess it would be likely to confirm your view and show the median point in the Australian political coverage closer to the extended order end of the dial.

Tom Noonan
Tom Noonan
14 years ago

This Hayek guy is the naive evil of a child. “… intervention will make things worse (because of the incentives it unleashes). … most people would accept it as commonsense.” What about the ill, slow, halt and injured etc. Leave them lying by the wayside? No! Jumble them up and stuff them into containers? Well he doesn’t really mean that. The hell he does.