Sunday, September 12, 2004

Costello's vision

Peter Costello, Australia's treasurer and Prime Ministerial aspirant, recently gave a speech to the Sydney Institute which reveals some of the distinctions between left liberalism, right liberalism and conservatism.

The speech was about the need to protect "social capital" from government interference. What Costello has particularly in mind by "social capital" are all the voluntary non-government organisations like the scouts, the Rotary clubs, school councils, political clubs, churches, bushfire brigades, sports groups and so on.

The fact that Costello is willing to openly defend the idea of social capital is a good thing. It takes him out of the category of extremely dry right liberals who care only about "economic capital". It places him instead within the sphere of more conservative right liberals who recognise that if you want a small state you need a healthy civil society to carry out the tasks that keep a society functioning.

Costello makes very clear his belief that the institutions of civil society can be harmed when the state tries to do too much. He asserts that "if government has a choice between delivering services in a way that enhances engagement and one that does not, then, all other things being equal, it should prefer the former." Further on he makes the related point that "A government should be careful not to usurp the voluntary sector. It should not take away those things that people can and want to do for themselves."

So what do left liberals think of these sentiments? Not surprisingly they are unsympathetic. Left liberals, despite all their talk of community, are usually statists who are comfortable with the idea that the individual should be supported by the state, rather than by the institutions of civil society.

To give just one example of left-liberal dissatisfaction with Costello's speech the editorial of the Melbourne Age gave that ultimate left-liberal put down by claiming that Costello's speech "offered up a white-picket-fence view of Australia" rather than giving "solid pointers to the type of nation Australia should be".

And what about conservatives? What do we think of Mr Costello's speech? On the one hand, conservatives are likely to support the idea that governments should not displace the institutions of civil society.

You have to remember that the trend of liberalism has been to remove impediments to individual autonomy: to anything which might restrict individual choice. For many liberals, it is the "personal" relationships within the civil institutions of society which impede individual autonomy. Therefore, they prefer to replace these "personal" relationships with the more anonymous relationship to a centralised state.

For instance, it was once considered the responsibility of a husband to support his wife financially when she was pregnant or had just given birth. However, to many liberal women the idea of being financially supported by their husbands is considered a restriction on their personal autonomy. They much prefer the idea that they should be supported more anonymously by the state instead.

The problem with preferring state support is that it undermines civil institutions, such as the family. After all, if women no longer need the support of a family structure, then it's easier for both men and women to walk out of marriage, and you get a more unstable and insecure attachment to family life (which has emotional, as well as social consequences).

Conservatives, therefore, are opposed to statism when it is used by liberals to further the cause of individualism at the expense of the institutions of civil society: institutions which have developed around specific human needs, talents and foibles.

It may sound strange at first that statism can be used to achieve a higher degree of individualism, but remember it does so by undermining other closer and more personal institutions which normally surround the individual. Pope Pius XI noted this connection between statism and individualism many years ago when he wrote,

On account of the evil of "individualism," as we called it, things have come to such a pass that the highly developed social life which once flourished in a variety of prosperous and interdependent institutions, has been damaged and all but ruined, leaving virtually only individuals and the State ..." (Quadragesimo Anno)

However, this shared belief between conservatives and right liberals that the state should not displace the institutions of civil society masks an underlying difference.

For conservatives, people are connected in particular ways by qualities that have been given to them: for instance, aspects of masculinity connect men to women as sons, fathers, brothers and husbands, each relationship having its own particular qualities. Similarly, masculinity connects men to each other in a particular way. Individuals are also connected to each other by a shared ethnicity, or by a family relationship and so on.

Liberals generally reject the idea that there are such inherited qualities which define the kinds of relationships we have to other people. They see this as impeding individual autonomy, as restricting our ability to create ourselves as we wish according to individual will and reason.

Liberals therefore prefer to view individuals as starting out as "blank slates," with no necessary connection to other people. This means that liberals have to worry, much more than conservatives, about how to maintain relationships between people, since they see all such relationships as being purely voluntary.

This is what gives Peter Costello's speech its right liberal, rather than conservative, tone. In his vision there are disparate individuals, who are brought together by engagement in voluntary organisations, and it is this engagement which builds up a common interest, and trust and tolerance. Costello is understandably anxious in his speech at signs that this "culture of engagement" is in decline.

In the conservative vision, people are not treated as abstract, disparate individuals but as having a given nature which gives a particular direction to their lives, including the relationships they have to other individuals. The relationships are not a product of a kind of voluntary contract, but of facets of our own nature and of our inherited identity.

Conservatives don't want the state to undermine the institutions and culture which reflect and support these relationships. Peter Costello's defence of civil society against the state is therefore welcome, even if it is motivated by a right liberal vision rather than a conservative one.

(First published at Conservative Central 20/07/2003)

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