Sunday, January 30, 2005

A falsehood exposed

In 1973 the Roe vs Wade decision struck down anti-abortion laws in America. This was a victory for NARAL, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. In its campaigns, NARAL made much use of the argument that 10,000 American women died every year from backyard abortions. Now the co-founder of NARAL, Dr Bernard Nathanson, has admitted that the 10,000 figure was simply fabricated for political purposes. The true figure for 1972 was 41. This is how Dr Nathanson explains things:

I confess that I knew the figures were totally false - but the overriding concern was to get the laws eliminated, and anything within reason that had to be done was permissible.

As this interesting article by David van Gend explains, it seems that it is advances in medicine, and not legalisation, which has caused a dramatic decline in deaths from abortion procedures. It was due to improvements in medicine, rather than any changes to the law, that deaths from illegal abortions declined from about 100 a year in Australia in the 1930s to just 1 in 1969.

Meanwhile, very extensive research from Finland shows that women who undergo abortions are 6.5 times more likely to suicide in the following year than women who completed the pregnancy. (There are graphs showing the research results here.)

So it certainly should not be assumed that legalising abortion leads to a lower female mortality rate. First, because illegal abortions have been made safer by modern medical treatment, and second, because legalisation increases the total number of abortions, which increases the total number of female deaths by suicide.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Sports boss slams borders

Liberalism is so pervasive an orthodoxy that it even influences the mindset of sports administrators.

Andrew Demetriou is the head of the Australian Football League. In making the main speech at an Australia Day luncheon this week, he attacked the Howard Government for being too hardline on illegal immigrants.

According to Mr Demetriou Australia has become a "conservative country ... in recent years" in its attitude to newcomers. Mr Demetriou contrasted the more "wary" attitude to newcomers today to his Cypriot parents' reception in Australia in 1951. Back then people "were allowed to be whatever they wanted to be, without prejudice."

For Mr Demetriou, restoring this attitude means accepting illegal immigrants. "I want our boundaries to be open and our welcome without prejudice," he said.

At least Mr Demetriou has articulated the liberal thought process nicely for us. The starting point for liberals is the idea that we should be self-created by our own will and reason. This is the idea being expressed by Mr Demetriou when claiming that his parents "were allowed to be whatever they wanted to be". They could, he is claiming, follow their own will in creating who they were to be.

Logically, being able to be whatever we want to includes being able to choose which country we belong to. By choosing this for ourselves, an important part of our identity becomes (in theory anyway) self-determined. However, to be able to choose which country we belong to requires that we have a world with open borders.

So Mr Demetriou is being consistent in his speech in following through with his liberal principles.

Of course, conservatives don't accept the same starting point as liberals. We don't believe that a freedom to be self-created is the fundamental basis of political morality.

This means that conservatives are at liberty to uphold traditional, ethnic forms of communal identity. We consider the importance of such traditions to outweigh the desire to create a "self-authored" individual. It doesn't matter so much to us that we don't get to choose for ourselves our own particular ethnic tradition, as "getting to choose" is not the key in determining what we think is right, or conducive to individual well-being, or even conducive to individual freedom.

Upholding a traditional national identity requires controlled borders, not open ones. It means also that our commitment to helping others must be to aid them primarily within their own cultures and countries, rather than to encourage large-scale population transfers.

Jesus' death a political statement?

One of the contenders for the leadership of the Australian Labor Party is committed Anglican Kevin Rudd. Mr Rudd has some striking views about the connection between politics and Christianity.

In a recent profile in the Herald Sun (22/1/05 - not yet online) he says that Jesus "told us to feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless and so on - he put no division between the spiritual and the professional". The professional? Is Mr Rudd redefining Chritian charity here to make it more technocratic or welfarist?

Even more challenging is his view that "Jesus was a profoundly spiritual person but his death was a major political statement." The crucifixion as a political statement? I've never heard this claimed before, and it seems very difficult to reconcile with Christian orthodoxy.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Liberalism & the nation: TV rules

Liberals are captive to their first principles.

Take the issue of nationalism. The general attitude adopted by liberals to nationalism has little to do with their own preferences or experiences. Nor has it much to do with their study of the moral consequences of nationalism, or the place of national identity in the life of man.

Instead, their attitude is largely predetermined by the underlying principle of liberal individualism. The logical process goes something like the following:

1) The liberal principle that we should be subject only to our own individual will and reason so that we might be self-created in any direction.

2) Traditional nationalism is based on an ethnic tradition (a shared ancestry, language, religion, culture, history etc) that we are born into rather than choosing for ourselves. It is something that shapes who we are but which is outside the sphere of our individual will and reason.

3) Eventually and inevitably, the more consistent, radical or intellectual liberals recognise the incompatibility between the first point (the basic liberal idea that we should be subject only to our individual will and reason) and the second point (traditional nationalism)

4) Traditional nationalism then becomes increasingly disallowed as a public policy. It finally becomes politically incorrect to support it, and any remnant expression of it is damned as "racist" or "xenophobic".

The process by which the liberal attitude is formed is logical in the sense that it flows rationally from a first principle. However, the first principle itself is arbitrary inasmuch as it can't be either proved or disproved logically. It's simply an assertion about what ought to order human life.

TV rules

It's helpful for conservatives to note that there are differences in the way that liberals move through the logic of their position. In particular, there are characteristic differences in the attitude of left liberals and right liberals.

Left liberals tend to be more "anti" their own national tradition. They have a more alienated and pessimistic view of what their own mainstream national tradition represents. They are also more inclined to favour state intervention in both the economy and society.

Right liberals on the other hand are generally more positive in their attitude to their own country (though they are unwilling to uphold a traditional national identity). They tend also to be assimilationist, preferring everyone to merge into a common culture. Right liberals also prefer the free market to state intervention.

The recent debate in Australia over TV rules helps to illustrate these differences. Australia currently has local content laws which require TV stations to broadcast a certain percentage of Australian made television. It is possible though that some of the local content rules might be traded away as part of free trade negotiations between Australia and the United States.

The Australian TV industry, which is dominated by left liberal types, is horrified by this prospect. At the recent Australian Film Industry awards, actor after actor made speeches condemning any loss of the local content laws.

The interesting thing is that in doing so, they made an appeal to Australian nationalism. They claimed to be protecting a distinctively Australian culture against foreign influences.

This is in stark contrast to the more familiar inter-nationalism of left liberals. The inconsistency is perhaps most obvious in the case of the left liberal journalist Phillip Adams. A few years ago he campaigned for "Project True Blue" which aimed to "keep Australian faces and Australian stories on our screens" in order to maintain "part of our power as a nation to define and express our culture."

Yet Phillip Adams has also openly expressed his belief that "national borders─are fairly silly and should be laughed at."

The situation then is that left liberals are generally internationalists who condemn their own nations as racist or sexist. They are capable, though, of expressing a sympathy with nationalism when it is specifically a case of protecting an industry they depend on, and defending state regulation against free trade.

Right liberals

In contrast to the left, right liberals like Andrew Bolt and Tim Blair have argued for the dismantling of local content laws in favour of free trade.

They were quick to use the usual anti-nationalist rhetoric of the left against the left itself. Bolt, for instance, claimed that a column by playwright David Williamson "brayed that old Bunyip nationalism" and that Australian artists were simply "terrified" of being "swamped" by US films.

Bolt advised Australian artists to "Embrace the world, don't try to lock it out."

Tim Blair attacked Williamson for wanting to be "quarantined from market and social forces" and he compared the "xenophobia" of Australian artists to that of populist politician Pauline Hanson.


As is so often the case, the debate around TV rules was dominated by left liberals versus right liberals.

It's important that conservatives not fall in too closely with either side. It's true that the left liberals used nationalism to try to defend local content laws. However, the same left liberals then use these laws to produce TV shows which mostly attack and undermine the traditional Australian national identity.

The right liberals, for their part, might be generally less "anti" their country than left liberals. But the debate on TV rules showed just how far they are from supporting a traditional nationalism: they were willing to use the standard anti-nationalist rhetoric of the left to attack the local content laws.

For conservatives, it's important that an individual is naturally immersed in the culture of his own country. This strengthens the normal identity we have with the tradition to which we belong.

Local content laws are a reasonable way to help to achieve this aim. They ensure a certain amount of local culture on television, without requiring too much direct involvement in cultural production by the state.

The only reason such laws don't work so well in Australia is that we don't have a cultural class who are sufficiently sympathetic to their own tradition. But for this, the local content laws are not to blame.

(First published at Conservative Central 28/12/2003)

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Depraved hero?

The film Kinsey has just been released in Australia. From reading the reviews in the press, a certain picture of the life of Alfred Kinsey emerges. He was a dedicated scientist, meticulously researching the lives of wasps until he discovered how ignorant Americans were about sex (he learnt this from his own virginal experiences on his wedding night, and from reluctantly being given a marriage class to teach as a young professor at Indiana University.)

Determined to gather scientific information about sex, he set about his pioneering work to study the sex lives of Americans. In 1948 he published his work Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male which revolutionised attitudes to sex by showing how common a wide range of sexual practices were, such as homosexuality, pre-marital sex and adultery. Kinsey is therefore to be regarded as a courageous scientist, who overcame ignorance so that people could enjoy sexual liberation.

What a great view of the man! Trouble is, it's bunkum. The real Kinsey was something very different, as the following facts demonstrate.

1) Kinsey was not some innocent, sexually naive wasp scientist who was "accidentally" made aware of the sexuality issue when given a university class to teach. According to a biographer, James H. Jones, Kinsey as a teenager was already a nudist, a masochist and had same-sex attractions. According to Jones, Kinsey wanted early on to have his sexual preferences regarded as normal, and realised that to achieve this it was best if he cast himself in the role of a "detached scientist".

Kinsey was not, in fact, the first to follow this path. In Germany, the homosexual Magnus Hirschfeld had campaigned to decriminalise homosexuality in the 1890s. In 1919 Hirschfeld established an Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin, along much the same lines as Kinsey's own later institute at Indiana University. As one supporter of Hirschfeld has admitted,

Although he preferred to project himself as an objective researcher and scientist, Hirschfeld himself was gay and a transvestite, and participated in the gay subculture of Germany. For these activities he gained the epithet "Tante Magnesia" - "Auntie Magnesia".

2) In 1948 American culture was not exactly sexually innocent. An older, more conservative sexual morality seems to have broken down in the early 1920s. Miles Franklin, an Australian novelist, wrote in her biography that,

When I returned to New York in 1923 Freud had swept the field. The Puritan dams were broken ... Margery Currey said all the numerous office girls with whom she was in contact had 'been through it'. The lid was right off virtue, men told me.

When American soldiers arrived in Australia in the early 1940s, the strength of the "playboy" ethos amongst them was strongly noted and criticised. (It was still considered unmasculine in Australia at the time to be a "ladies man".)

So Kinsey was not really courageously swimming against the stream, but rather pushing on an existing current. That's one reason why his work Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male was so well received in America, despite its tremendous flaws.

3) Important aspects of Kinsey's work are unscientific and inaccurate. For instance, Kinsey claimed that 10% of people are homosexual and up to 35% of people are bisexual, thereby demonstrating how "normal" homosexuality is. These figures, though, were not obtained by random sampling. Instead, Kinsey interviewed volunteers, whom he sought from various groups, including sex offenders in prison and male prostitutes.

There have been many large-scale scientific studies since Kinsey, none of which come even close to claiming that 10% of the population is homosexual. There were two major surveys in the 1990s, one from Britain and one from France, which both arrived at a figure of 1.1% for men. If you include men who have ever in their lives had homosexual sex, the figure (in the French study) rises to 4.1%.

4) Kinsey was not a mild-mannered scientific type, engaged in a detached observation of people's sex lives. He was an extremely depraved man, even by today's standards, determined to prove that all sexual behaviour was normal (he once said that there were only three sexual abnormalities: abstinence, celibacy and delayed marriage).

As examples of Kinsey's unwell condition, consider the following: Kinsey crudely attempted to circumcise himself with a pen-knife, he was once hospitalised after another particularly severe masochistic incident, he once tried to force a tooth-brush into his own urethra, he encouraged his own wife to commit adultery with a co-worker, and most disturbing of all, he believed that children were sexual from birth and he trained pedophiles to record information about the responses of children they were raping.

So the image presented by the media of Kinsey doesn't fit the facts. Why then do so many journalists persist in looking up to Kinsey as an admirable figure? Herald Sun film reviewer, Leigh Paatsch, for instance, claims that the film Kinsey examines his life "even-handedly" and that,

The man's only mistake was to speak loudly about sex when the moral majority preferred it to be whispered as a dirty little secret.

In other words, Leigh Paatsch not only fails to condemn Kinsey, he effectively says that Kinsey made no mistakes except to upset the prudish majority.

The reason why Kinsey still commands respect, I think, is that his work fits in well with the basic liberal principle, so influential today, that there should be no impediments to individual will. Most intellectuals have accepted this idea, and this makes them sympathetic to the direction of Kinsey's work. Kinsey, after all, tried to prove that restrictions on human sexuality were simply "repressions" established by nothing more than irrational social convention.

If Kinsey is right, then there are no justifiable limits to individual will in the field of sexuality. It becomes a case of "anything goes", in which we are free to choose, according to our own will, in any direction.

It is a shared commitment to this ideological principle which leads reviewers like Nicki Gostin to praise Kinsey for his "respect for individuals" or Phillipa Hawker to note Kinsey's discovery that sexuality is "not as fixed" as might have been supposed or Phillip McCarthy to claim that Kinsey "helped end the tyranny of one-size-fits-all-sex".

Such reviewers are more interested in the liberal morality of an unimpeded individual will, rather than the more conservative belief that there exists an objective morality for the individual to live up to, and that some forms of sexual behaviour are less healthy, less elevated and more destructive than others.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Sweden an economic power?

Sweden is often looked to by the Australian left as a kind of model social-democratic country. The left like Sweden because it's a country in which there is a high level of state intervention. For instance, in Sweden mothers of young children are financially supported publicly by a long-term paid maternity scheme, rather than privately by their husbands.

For conservatives, this is a problem as it undermines, in an artificial way, the traditional family. It's not surprising to conservatives that Sweden suffers from both low rates of marriage and high rates of divorce.

Conservatives are also likely to wonder what the economic effects of having such a high-taxing interventionist state must be. Surely, the fact that tax revenues in Sweden are more than 50% of GDP must put Sweden at a competitive disadvantage?

Confirmation of this comes in a recent economic study by Swedish economist Nils Karlson. Karlson points out four remarkable facts showing how poorly the Swedish economy has performed in recent times. These facts are:

1) No new net jobs have been produced in the Swedish private sector since 1950.

2) None of the top 50 companies on the Stockholm stock exchange has been started since 1970.

3) In 2003, one quarter of the workforce lived on various kinds of public welfare programmes, such as pre-pension schemes and unemployment benefits.

4) A majority of the adult population are either employed by the state or gain a majority of their income from public subsidies.

There's a more detailed explanation of the study in this article by Richard Rahn. It's written from a right-liberal perspective (a liberal who prefers to leave things to market forces rather than state intervention), rather than a conservative one, but it does make a good case against Swedish style social democracy.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Who is oppressed?

Back in the 90s Australian feminists often turned to the circumcision of girls in northern Africa as proof of their theory that men were an oppressor group and women a victim group.

The argument only works though if it's only the case of northern Africa that's considered. In southern Africa it's actually not girls but young men who undergo dangerous forms of circumsion.

An article in the Melbourne Herald Sun this week (Pointed end to men's ritual 5/1/05 - not online) discussed the issue of dangerous circumcision ceremonies for young men in South Africa. According to Sizwe Kupelo of the Eastern Cape provincial health department "at least 10 young men had died during the current initiation period" in the Eastern Cape alone.

So, if you look at the whole of Africa it's not clear at all that only women are the victims of dangerous circumcision pratices. It appears that young men also suffer badly through such customs. You won't hear feminists publicising this, though, as it upsets their political assumption that you can divide society into male oppressors and the female oppressed.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Medical science vs liberalism

In the Herald Sun this morning there's an article about a serious eye disease (mac. degeneration, from which famous Australian authoress Colleen McCullough suffers), which can cause a progressive loss of vision. What is politically interesting about the article is that two of the risk factors listed for the disease are "gender" (being a woman) and "race" (being caucasion).

So here is more proof that race and gender are not merely "social constructs", as liberals like to claim, but have such a real existence that they influence the incidence of serious medical conditions.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

The UN gets it right?

After the tragic tsunami there was the inevitable debate in the media here in Australia. Do we help by providing funds for people to rebuild their lives in their own country or do we simply shift the affected populations to Australia? Those of us who believe it better to allow people to rebuild in their own countries were accused by the left of being heartless, lacking compassion and so on.

So I was especially interested in the comments of Carolyn Hardy, who is the chief executive of UNICEF Australia. You normally expect the UN to promote very left-liberal, politically correct views. But Carolyn Hardy took what I believe to be a very realistic, more conservative view of the situation.

This is how the Melbourne Age (7/1/05) reported her response to the idea that orphans should immediately be sent to Australia for adoption by Australian couples,

Ms Hardy said UNICEF was trying to help children stay in their own communities by finding extended family members to care for them.

While Australians wanting to adopt were acting with generosity, Ms Hardy said removing a child from their culture, language, customs and communities would add to their loss.

In effect Carolyn Hardy is recognising the importance to individuals of forms of connectedness like those of family and ethnicity. She is going against the reigning political ideology in doing so, as liberalism insists that the bonds of family and ethnic identity are "prisons" from which individuals need to be liberated.

PS. Congratulations Australia for such generosity in providing funds to tsunami affected countries. As of today Australian government aid totals over 1 billion dollars, and private donations to charities total well over 100 million.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Thinking about D.H. Lawrence

I'm not sure that conservatives have ever paid much attention to the English poet and novelist D.H.Lawrence. This is a pity because Lawrence had a deeply creative mind and, at times, was supportive of the conservative view.

Take for instance the following comments by Lawrence on freedom, marriage and the family:

It is marriage, perhaps, which had given man the best of his freedom, given him his little kingdom of his own within the big kingdom of the state ... It is a true freedom because it is a true fulfilment, for man, woman and children. Do we then want to break marriage? If we do break it, it means we all fall to a far greater extent under the direct sway of the State.

This statement goes directly against the grain of modern liberalism in two different ways. Firstly, when liberals talk about freedom what they mean is individual autonomy: the freedom of individuals to be unimpeded, so that they can define themselves and behave according to their own will.

Because liberals define freedom in this way, they react strongly against the restraints of marriage, as these are felt to impede the individual. That's why Michael Ignatieff can describe a father walking out on his children as an act of the "liberal imagination" as it upholds an individual's wishes against "the devouring claims of family life".

The problem for conservatives with this liberal understanding of freedom is that it is ultimately alienating and soul destroying. It is a kind of freedom which leaves the individual feeling witheringly unengaged rather than truly free.

You get a sense of this in the life experiences of Alice James, the spinster sister of the American novelist Henry James. Alice felt more lonely than free in her unmarried and unimpeded state. Her biographer introduces a family reunion with her brothers in 1889 with the following description:

As the three of them sat and talked, as they exchanged memories and opinions, the afternoon became for Alice a soul-quickening experience wherein the family itself seemed to come richly back into being, a revived and reintegrated presence. Her isolation was overcome for the moment by the sense of being once again a surrounded and nourished member of that family.

"What a strange experience it was," she wrote, "to have what had seemed so dead and gone all these years suddenly bloom before one, a flowing oasis in this alien desert, redolent with the exquisite family perfume of the days gone by, made of the allusions, the memories and the point of view in common, so that my floating-particle sense was lost for an hour or so ... "

Unfortunately her brothers had to depart some time later. Her biographer notes that,

Alice likened herself to a creature who, after a season of fresh air, was once more shut down, closed in, to the sound of 'a hopeless and all too familiar click.' She strove anew to adjust herself to the condition and, with the help of a quotation from Flaubert about the soul enlarging itself through suffering, tried to believe that she could do so.

But she confessed with bleak clarity that she could never allow it to be "anything else than a cruel and unnatural fate for a woman to live alone, to have no one to care and 'do for' daily is not only a sorrow but a sterilizing process."

Alice James had all the autonomy that anyone could ask for but was not free. She knew that her spinsterhood had left an important part of her nature unfulfilled. It is in this sense that D.H.Lawrence was right to withstand liberal orthodoxy and to define freedom in terms of fulfilment rather than the unimpeded will.

There is a second way in which Lawrence's statement on the family runs counter to much of modern liberalism. Lawrence perceived that a decline in the family would only mean that we would "all fall to a far greater extent under the sway of the state."

There are some liberals (usually left liberals) who would be happy for this to happen. Because they identify freedom with autonomy, they don't like the dependence that members of a family have on each other. Such liberals prefer an individual to rely more anonymously on the support of the central state, rather than on members of their own family.

Pope Pius XI identified this trend in liberal societies as long ago as 1931, declaring that:

On account of the evil of individualism, things have come to such a pass that the highly developed social life which once flourished in a variety of prosperous institutions organically linked with each other, has been damaged and all but ruined, leaving thus virtually only individuals and the state.

To give one recent example of this trend, there is the call in Australia for the state to pay the costs of maternity leave for mothers. This replaces the more traditional ideal in which men were paid a living wage to enable them to support their wives.

It is true that the traditional system leaves women dependent on their husbands and therefore not autonomous by the liberal definition. However, the family itself becomes proudly self-sufficient, and husbands develop a strong connection to their family through their role as providers.

What happens when the liberal system is allowed to take over is best seen in Sweden, where the family is most under the control of a bureaucratic state.

In Sweden women receive a generous maternity leave payment. However, because taxes are so high (with a 56.3% government share of expenditure) few women have the choice to stay home after the official maternity leave period is over. Effectively, they have lost the choice to determine their own motherhood role. Also the decline in the male role in the family has contributed to a massive 65% divorce rate.

It is possible, therefore, to claim that Swedish women are more "autonomous" than elsewhere, but I think that few of us would consider them more free. To go into a marriage knowing that it has a two thirds chance of failure, to work mostly to pay state taxes, and to lose the choice to care for your own children (beyond a point determined by the state) hardly seems to be a state of freedom.

Living homeland

There is another quote by Lawrence which sets him against liberal orthodoxy. Writing about the spirit of place he observes that,

Men are free when they are in a living homeland, not when they are straying and breaking away. Men are free when they are obeying some deep, inward voice of religious belief ... Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, active in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose ...

Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing. Men are only free when they are doing what the deepest self likes.

Note that Lawrence associates freedom with the continuation of important human attachments, such as a connection to a "living homeland".

The whole trend of modern liberalism is to assert the opposite: such attachments are thought to impinge on individual freedom, because we do not choose them through our own will.

Lawrence's reply to liberalism is that in throwing off such attachments, we lose what is important in our lives. So, although we have an unimpeded will we don't feel free.

To put it another way, the freedom to choose anything, except the things which are most important to us, is not a true freedom.


What Lawrence said and did was not always in line with conservative principles.

In fact, Lawrence was mostly influenced by the philosophy of vitalism. Vitalists reacted against the sterilising effects of liberalism, by seeking out powerful and energising life experiences.

That's why Lawrence could write that "What the blood feels, and believes, and says, is always true."

There is, however, no sense in this principle that some things are inherently good and true, whilst others are wrong. Instead, anything which is a strong enough instinct or impulse becomes right.

One consequence of this is that Lawrence believed we would be better off if we acted openly on our deeper sex impulses, even if these were "Dionysian". Hence the desire for open descriptions of sexuality and raw sex language in books like Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Vitalism also helps to explain the inconsistency in Lawrence's ideas and behaviour. For instance, despite his professed concern not to "break marriage", Lawrence broke up his wife's first marriage (and her relationship with her children) in order run off with her. Perhaps Lawrence felt that if this was in his blood it ought to be acted on.

Lawrence is not, therefore, to be taken as a prophet of conservatism. His philosophy did allow him though to break from liberal orthodoxy and to uphold some forms of conservative connectedness (most especially, it might be said, to nature). For this he can be of particular interest to conservative readers.

(First published at Conservative Central 22/11/2003)

Is Melanie Phillips conservative?

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author, perhaps best known for her columns for the Daily Mail. She has recently established her own website which features a statement of her political beliefs. This allows us to judge whether she is at heart a liberal or a conservative.

First principles

The first principle of liberalism is a belief in individual autonomy, in which individuals are left unimpeded to create themselves in any direction according to their own individual reason or will.

Conservatives prefer to uphold important attachments or forms of connection against the liberal principle of individual autonomy.

So, which principle does Melanie Phillips prefer? The liberal one of autonomy or the conservative one of attachment?

In her statement of belief she makes her preference clear. She criticises the prevailing idea that the "individual had to be free from all attachments to family, culture, nation, institutions, and traditions that might fetter freedom of choice."

Similarly she voices disapproval of "this radical individualism" which "worships autonomy and deems obligation to be oppressive."

She asserts that "Values dismissed as conservative are actually universal: attachment, commitment to individuals and institutions, ties of duty, trust and fidelity."

And she writes of people having a "fundamental need for attachments" and of liberty being "threatened by the relativistic pursuit of autonomy and rights."

In criticising a radical individualism which worships autonomy, and in defending attachments, such as those to family, culture and nation, Melanie Phillips is clearly a conservative in terms of her first principles.

Second principles

Given that her first principles are conservative, you would expect that Melanie Phillips would also tend to adopt the follow on principles of conservatism.

Which in fact she does. For instance, she rejects the liberal idea that human nature is malleable and perfectible and that therefore a utopia can be created by large-scale socio-economic changes.

She supports instead the conservative view that,

Human nature is not perfectible. It is neither intrinsically good or bad. Instead, human beings are capable of both good and bad deeds ...

... Small incremental steps are the most secure way of bringing about beneficial change. Radicalism or revolution are likely to implode and leave us worse off than before.

The liberal version of equality is also clearly rejected by Melanie Phillips. She observes that,

The trump card played by all group rightists is 'equality', the claim that all they ask is to be treated the same as everyone else. This, though, is another debasement of the language ... (equality) has come to mean ... identical means and outcomes. Yet people are not identical. Their behaviour and circumstances are very different from each other. To treat them as identical may therefore be unfair or harmful.

Finally, Melanie Phillips is also a critic of liberal attitudes to progress. She complains that "progress has been reduced to a hedonistic selfishness" and that,

it has become a positive merit to stand for nothing since this means that nothing can stand in the way of change ... The term progress has become vacuous, meaning merely change for change's sake. All tradition thus becomes a suitable case for disposal ... The idea that all pre-existing traditions or values are by definition just so much unprogressive baggage is as philistine as it is risible.


However, despite the obvious affinity with conservatism, Melanie Phillips continues to label herself as a liberal progressive.

She does so by drawing a distinction between liberalism and libertarianism. For her, the focus of authentic liberalism is on moral obligation, whereas it is only libertarianism which has recklessly pursued individual autonomy.

As she puts it, "we have to rescue progress from the so-called progressives. We need a liberal, not a libertarian, social order with deeper values than contract and other criteria for progress than material advances. Moral restraint is the glue that provides social cohesion."

The problem with this approach is that historically all the major liberal thinkers assumed that autonomy─the freedom to do what we have a will to do─was the fundamental principle to be achieved.

It's true that some liberal thinkers believed that to maximise this kind of freedom it was necessary to apply some limits (such as laws or voluntary moral restraint) in order to prevent social chaos.

The Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, for instance, believed in the establishment of laws, by consent, for the protection of life, liberty and property. For this reason he asserts that "Freedom then is not what Sir Robert Filmer tells us, a liberty for everyone to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied to any laws." Instead, "the freedom of men under government is ... a liberty to follow my will in all things, where the rule prescribes not."

Note, though, that the only limitation is the need to obey laws which protect individual rights; apart from this liberty is still conceived to be "a liberty to follow my will in all things."

The pursuit of autonomy was therefore a core feature of Enlightenment liberalism, rather than a later libertarian deviation.

Nor can the average liberal of today really be described as a libertarian. Most mainstream liberals still believe in the legitimacy of government restrictions on the individual (whether economic or social) in a way that libertarians don't.

Liberals, for instance, might want softer drug laws, but libertarians go further and reject the idea that government has any place in regulating such matters.

Therefore, it's hard to support Melanie Phillip's notion that our society of today has been created by libertarians rather than genuine liberals. It's truer to say that we have reached an advanced stage of liberalism, in which there is much less emphasis on voluntary moral restraint than in previous generations.

To go back to an earlier stage of liberalism, in which there was more of an effort to distinguish "true liberty" (autonomy with moral restraint) from "wild license" (no restraints) would no doubt be an improvement on the current situation.

But it would leave the overall dynamic of liberalism in place, and not prevent a gradual return to the way things are now.

Melanie Phillips is, I believe, a conservative at heart, but she wants politically to be a conservative liberal (or more exactly an older style liberal). It will be interesting to read in her columns exactly which of these tendencies proves the strongest.

(First published at Conservative Central 16/11/2003)

Update: 28/03/2008 I had hoped that Melanie Phillips might move toward a traditionalist conservatism but she hasn't. She has remained closer to a right liberal politics.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

A significant letter

Susan Barclay is, as far as I know, just a rank and file left-liberal living in the charming Victorian country town of Castlemaine.

She is noteworthy, though, because she has written a letter to the Age newspaper expressing her deep political convictions. Her line of reasoning in this letter tells us something about the basic principles held to even by grassroots liberals.

Her actual claim, that Prime Minister John Howard can be compared to Adolf Hitler, is boring nonsense. But her line of reasoning is significant. She writes that like Adolf Hitler John Howard is trying to promote an ideal, in Mr Howard's case,

an idyllic view of the perfect model of the 1950s society, the stable, quietly hard-working family, raising two or three quiet, well-behaved children.

Now what, you may ask, is so bad about promoting such an ideal? Susan Barclay gives the liberal answer as follows,

I do not want to be ... squashed into a box defined by someone else. We have the right to choose what, and how, to be. That is the nature of being human.

To Susan Barclay's credit, she has come up here with a most concise and accurate summary of liberal belief. This is the driving principle of liberal politics: that to be fully human we have to be self-created by our own individual will and reason. You can go all the way back to the Renaissance humanist writer Pico della Mirandola for the origins of this principle. Pico, in the late 1400s, imagined God saying to man that,

You, constrained by no limits, in accordance with your own free will ... shall ordain for yourself the limits of your nature ... We have made you ... so that with freedom of choice, as though the maker and moulder of yourself, you may fashion yourself in whatever shape you shall prefer.

The adoption of this principle has had enormous consequences for Western societies. The fact that we are not allowed to be "other-defined" means that any form of identity or connectedness which is not voluntarily chosen becomes illegitimate. And this rules out, amongst other things, traditional national identities (because they are based on an inherited ethnicity), traditional forms of family life (because they are not diverse or fluid enough to allow for individual "negotiation"), and traditional gender identity & gender roles (because they are an inherited "biological destiny").

It is Susan Barclay's fear that Mr Howard is a conservative who believes in traditional ideals, which would prevent her from being "self-defined". She need not worry. In 2002 Mr Howard congratulated feminists for having broken down gender "stereotypes" and he has provided funds to promote women into engineering courses and onto boards of management. Mr Howard, just like Susan Barclay, believes in removing inherited gender as a factor shaping or influencing people's lives.

The pity is that there is not yet a genuinely conservative movement in Australian politics, to provide a truer bogeyman for nervous liberals like Susan Barclay.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

A return to "coolie" labour?

Australian capitalism is progressing all the way to the .... nineteenth century. An economic development board for the Sunraysia district (a dry, sparsely populated area of northern Victoria and parts of South Australia and NSW) has reached an agreement with a Chinese company to import up to 10,000 workers to pick fruit.

10,000 Chinese workers for the Sunraysia district! It's like importing an entire workforce, and, although it may not be polite to say so, it's not dissimilar to the colonial plantation economies of the nineteenth century which also relied on imported "coolie" (cheap Chinese or Indian) labour.

The plan has not been accepted yet by the Federal Government (and hopefully won't be), and has met the opposition of the Australian Workers Union (AWU). This union is actually attempting to do its job and defend the working conditions of its members.

The National Secretary of the AWU, Bill Shorten, said of the plan that,
The AWU is already sceptical that fruit growers are providing the legal minimum wages and conditions for fruit pickers. We are concerned that the mass importation of cheap Chinese labour will be used to drive down Australian pay rates, safety standards (and conditions).

So-called guest labourers from China will be vulnerable to exploitation by employers and middle-men ... It is hypocritical of citrus growers to increase their prices during shortages in the supply of labour. If market forces are good enough for employers' prices, then they should be good enough for workers' wages.

One conclusion to draw from all this is that conservatives can't be uncritical of the workings of capitalism. It's true that conservatives will prefer a market system to a communist style state controlled economy. However, the profit motive doesn't always lead people to act in the interests of their own communities. There have to be rules in place, within which the profit motive can operate, but which protect the higher values of the community. It's for this reason that I can't agree with those who try to define conservatism primarily as a defence of the free market.