Under John Howard, the Liberal Party embraced a form of big-spending conservative social democracy, says Andrew Norton. The most formidable opponents of limited government are conservatives. In a comment on Andrew’s blog, Winton Bates wonders whether this might lead to a realignment in Australian politics.
Andrew says that the answer is no. However bad the Liberals have been under Howard, Labor is likely to be worse. Because "the basic instinct of Labor’s constituency is to favour spending" the party is unlikely to champion the cause of small government.
But maybe Bates’ question about realignment isn’t about whether classical liberals will start voting Labor, maybe it’s about whether classical liberals will maintain their alliance with conservatives. If so, what’s at stake is the intellectual alliances that form around think tanks and political magazines rather the electoral strategies of political parties.
If classical liberals are the only ideological group interested in significant cuts in spending, they have two options. They can decide that tax and spending cuts are so central to their belief system that it’s better to face the world as a small, ideologically pure fringe group than to compromise. Or they can decide to form alliances based on other issues.
Listening to some people you’d think that liberalism was all about cutting tax, slashing welfare, abolishing minimum wages and giving consumers a greater range of choice in the marketplace. But philosophically it’s supposed to be about something more basic — individual liberty. As Friedrich Hayek put it:
Whether [a person] is free or not does not depend on the range of choice but on whether he can expect to shape his course of action in accordance with his present intentions, or whether somebody else has power so to manipulate the conditions as to make him act according to that person’s will rather than his own (p 13).
If it turns out that liberty really is more important than giving rich people back their money, tormenting welfare recipients and smashing unions, then perhaps classical liberals might consider breaking their alliance with conservatives and forming an alliance with other liberals — the kind of people Andrew sometimes calls ‘social liberals.’
In the United States the Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey has suggested an alliance between libertarians and progressives. He argues that while these groups have their differences, they also have a lot in common:
Both generally support a more open immigration policy. Both reject the religious right’s homophobia and blastocystophilia. Both are open to rethinking the country’s draconian drug policies. Both seek to protect the United States from terrorism without gratuitous encroachments on civil liberties or extensions of executive power. And underlying all these policy positions is a shared philosophical commitment to individual autonomy as a core political value.
Australia came close to Lindsey’s vision of ‘progressive fusionism’ during the Hawke and Keating governments. The economic pressures of the 1980s forced thinkers on the left to rethink their economic views. Intellectually, they struggled to combine their commitment to social justice with ‘dry’ economics. But nothing similar has happened on the right. Even those who identify as classical liberals tend to see the market as source of discipline and an engine of meritocracy rather than a place people can exercise autonomy. Few of Australia’s classical liberals are genuinely liberal. Most are market-friendly conservatives.
As Hayek observed, conservatives tend to be elitist. In the end, "the conservative position rests on the belief that in any society there are recognizably superior persons whose inherited standards and values and position ought to be protected and who should have a greater influence on public affairs than others." The major difference between liberals and conservatives is:
… the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty. In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes.
The last few decades have seen the influence of ‘recognisably superior people’ threatened by the cultural liberalisation of the 60s, non-European immigration, multiculturalism, and increasingly free access to information via the internet. Where liberals see increasing tolerance of difference, conservatives see a crisis of authority. And with the war on terror, a whole new rationale for authoritarian policies has emerged.
What stops a realignment from happening in the short term is social networks and personal loyalties. Most of Australia’s classical liberals are woven into organisations and social groups that bind them to conservatives. And as Andrew says, the fusion of liberal and conservative can take place within the one individual — individuals internalise the alliance. As a result, realignment probably won’t happen until this generation of middle-aged classical liberals shuffles off the public stage and makes room for the next generation.