Monday, January 30, 2006

Getting it straight

If you’ve noticed inconsistencies in feminist politics there’s a reason. It’s not that feminists are irrational or hypocritical or unintelligent. There is a deeper problem: the first principles on which feminism is based generate contradictory aims.

Poor feminists! They are locked into a belief system which can never pass the test of consistency because the starting point of their theory calls for opposing outcomes.

Homeward Bound

A good way to illustrate the tensions within feminist theory is to look at the article Homeward Bound. This was published late last year and was written by feminist Linda Hirshman, a retired professor of women’s studies.

Homeward Bound begins with the question of why women are not entering executive positions in larger numbers. Some feminists blame the “glass ceiling”: they believe that women are held back in their careers by male employers or by unfriendly work practices.

Linda Hirshman disagrees. In 2003 she undertook some interesting research. She contacted the women who had announced their weddings in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times in 1996. These were women who belonged to a well-educated elite and who had prestigious jobs.

To Hirshman’s surprise a large percentage of these elite women had opted out of careers and were pursuing motherhood and home life instead. Only five of the thirty women with children she interviewed were working full-time and half were not in paid work at all.

The women had not left full-time work reluctantly. Hirshman found that when they had quit “they were already alienated from their work or at least not committed to a life of work” and at least half “expressed a hope never to work again.”

Choice or judgement?

Why then are women not equally represented in upper management? Hirshman concludes from her research that it’s not due to discrimination in the workplace, but is the result of choices that women are making to leave paid work in order to raise their families at home.

Which raises a considerable problem in how feminists are to reconcile their own theory.

Feminism is basically liberalism applied to the lives of women. The starting point of liberalism is the idea that what makes us human, as distinct from the animals, is that we have the capacity to shape the course of our own lives.

This principle was stated clearly enough by the famous liberal philosopher J.S. Mill, who wrote in his influential work On Liberty (1859) that,

He who lets the world or his portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs his faculties.

This principle makes two clear demands on us. First, we must retain an individual freedom of choice over what we do or seek to become. Second, we must use our faculties of reason and will to plan our own unique, individual life rather than accepting a merely imitative path laid down by tradition.

What, though, if women are naturally drawn to a motherhood role? Then the two liberal demands come into conflict.

On the one hand, if motherhood is what most women would naturally choose to do then it would be “illiberal” to deny them an individual freedom of choice.

But, on the other hand, if women are adopting a traditional role based on gender, they are following a “biological destiny” rather than employing their rational faculties to shape a unique, individual life plan as careerist women might claim to be doing. Accepting this would also seem to be “illiberal”.

Hirshman is not unaware of this conflict in feminist theory. She admits that women who stay at home are justifying their decision in terms of a “choice feminism” and that as soon as feminism accepted the legitimacy of individual choice “the movement had no language” to challenge what was happening.

Hirshman, though, cannot accept the choices that women are making. This is because the other side of the liberal coin is more important to her: the idea that “human flourishing” cannot be found in a traditional role within the family.

She provides us with the following quote from fellow feminist Betty Friedan to support her point of view:

A baked potato is not as big as the world, and vacuuming the living room floor – with or without makeup – is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman’s full capacity. Women are human beings, not stuffed dolls, not animals. Down through the ages man has known that he was set apart from other animals by his mind’s power to have an idea, a vision, and shape the future to it. He shares a need for food and sex with other animals, but when he loves, he loves as a man, and when he discovers and creates and shapes a future different from his past, he is a man, a human being.

Hirshman sets herself against the “choice” aspect of feminism, in which women can choose to be homemakers, and does so by returning to liberal first principles about what makes us distinctively human.

Having determined on an anti-choice feminism, Hirshman does not hold back in attacking the motherhood role. She tells us that the family,

allows for fewer opportunities for human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government. This less-flourishing sphere is not the natural or moral responsibility only of women. Therefore, assigning it to women is unjust. Women assigning it to themselves is equally unjust.

Hirshman believes it is unjust for women to stay at home because it does not accord with liberal views of what it means to be human. There is nothing worse than injustice. Therefore, it does not matter that women are made happy by the motherhood role. Hirshman can write that the “privileged brides of the Times – and their husbands – seem happy” but still judge them to be doing the wrong thing because “what they do is bad for them”.

Hirshman is drawing, in a principled way, on an anti-choice logic within feminist theory which was expressed most stridently in 1975 by the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir who proclaimed that,

No woman should be authorized to stay at home and raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.

So the problem is this: how can feminism be consistent when its first principles generate both an insistence on individual choice but also an equally striking rejection of it?

[Note: conservatives don’t find themselves in this fix, because our starting point is different. Liberals pose things in such a way as to make individuals self-create their own value. Conservatives do not see individuals as creating what is good in man and nature, but as seeking to live by the good already existing as part of the human condition.

Therefore, it would not matter to a conservative woman that the act of creating a new human life was not a unique product of her own mind but part of a “biological destiny”. It would not alter the goodness or significance of the experience of motherhood.]

The rules

Hirshman admits that “Prying women out of their traditional roles is not going to be easy”.

She lists a number of rules to get women out of the home and into management positions.

The first rule is that women should reject arts degrees and choose courses leading to high incomes. She suggests that,

Feminist organizations should produce each year a survey of the most common job opportunities for people with college degrees, along with the average lifetime earnings from each job category ...

The second rule is to treat work seriously. This means that women should not be so concerned with finding work which is socially meaningful, or intellectually rewarding or prestigious. Instead,

The best way to treat work seriously is to find the money. Money is the marker of success in a market economy; it usually accompanies power, and it enables the bearer to wield power, including within the family.

The third rule is to avoid household responsibilities. Hirshman advises women to marry down by finding “a spouse with less social power than you”. Marrying “a pure counterpart,” cautions Hirshman, is “risky”.

The final rule is to have only one baby, as research shows that women with two babies are more likely to opt out and move to the suburbs.

Equality & caste

What impression do you have of these rules? Many people will think that the rules are overly mercenary, and too much based on the pursuit of money and power.

Hirshman does little to dispel such an impression when she says of child-rearing that,

Justice requires that it not be assigned to women on the basis of their gender and at the sacrifice of their access to money, power and honor.

So why does Hirshman place such an emphasis on money and power?

Remember that liberalism starts out with the claim that we are made human by our capacity to shape our own lives.

But what if some people have a greater capacity to shape their lives? Liberalism responds to this problem with a strong egalitarianism: everyone must be equally human and therefore everyone must have the same opportunity to shape their life outcomes.

However, as Hirshman’s mindset warns us, there will always be tension within the liberal view. After all, what really matters in liberalism is the enabling of individual will: this is what defines our humanity. And what gives us the freedom to enact our will? Hirshman’s logical answer is: not equality but power, and money too, since money brings power.

Nor is the idea that we should equalise human wills convincing in terms of liberalism when you consider that we are most free to enact our will when we have power over others. Therefore, having power over others might seem (unofficially) to be an important good within the liberal value system.

If this is correct it might help to explain why feminists often accuse men of acting to consolidate power over women; feminists are assuming that the average man is acting within the same mindset as themselves, in which the significance of our lives depends on obtaining power over others.

It might not be said aloud, but it is not uncommon for feminist politics to be inegalitarian. Hirshman’s article, for example, assumes that women “arrive” when they reach the executive suite. But it can only ever be the case that a small minority of women will be leaders in their field. It’s not possible for all Western women to be rulers at work. Some must be ruled over.

So what Hirshman is attempting to offer is “justice” (in liberal terms) for a small caste of women; most women will necessarily be excluded.

We have here, therefore, a tension within feminism which is unlikely to be resolved. The same principle which generates a concern for equality of will, also motivates feminists to campaign for money and power for an elite of women, as these are held to be the things which matter.

What, though, if you don’t make an “enabling of will” the starting point for your politics? In this case, neither the breaking down of gender distinctions in the name of equality, nor the pursuit of money and power will seem to be necessary to a good life.

A conservative woman who values a love of family, of nation, of nature, of God, will not think it necessary to subordinate marriage and motherhood to a pursuit of money and power. She will not be caught within a political theory which leads her to such a view.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Ignatieff's lesson from the crypt

One interesting result in the Canadian election was the victory of Michael Ignatieff, a Harvard academic who has written widely on the issue of nationalism.

Ignatieff set out his views on nationalism in his book Blood and Belonging, published in 1993. In this work Ignatieff explains that whilst he himself is a cosmopolitan, he nonetheless supports a civic nationalism.

Why a civic nationalism? Ignatieff is a liberal. As such, he believes that individuals should be self-defined. Therefore he rejects ethnic nationalism (in which national identity is based on a common ancestry, culture, language and so on) because,

Ethnic nationalism claims ... that an individual’s deepest attachments are inherited not chosen. It is the national community that defines the individual, not the individuals who define the national community.

The kind of nationalism preferred by Ignatieff is the “official” one operating today based on a common citizenship. He believes that it functions within liberal ideals for the following reason:

According to the civic nationalist creed, what holds a society together is not common roots but law. By subscribing to a set of democratic procedures and values, individuals can reconcile their right to shape their own lives with their need to belong to a community.

For traditionalists, the Ignatieff view seems radical. It spells the end of the European ethnies, as it opens up membership of a nation to anyone who can obtain citizenship. It allows no principled basis for maintaining the distinct European peoples and cultures.

However, the unfortunate fact is that Ignatieff is actually at the more conservative end of the liberal debate on nationalism. Ignatieff still believes in making a distinction between citizens and non-citizens. Many liberals believe that such a distinction is immoral according to liberal principle.

And they have a point. After all, it is a myth that most people choose their citizenship any more than they choose their ethny. In other words, most of us are born into membership of a civic nation, just as much as we are into an ethnic identity.

Furthermore, civic nations still place restrictions on who may or may not become citizens. This means that civic nations are practising “discrimination”, by excluding some people from certain benefits and impeding what they can choose to become.

The more radical position, of rejecting even a civic nationalism, has been explained in a more difficult, academic style by Jeffrey Friedman as follows:

In attacking the privileges of birth, political or economic, liberals of both classical and contemporary vintage give voice to the conviction that one’s humanity, rather than accidental circumstances, should determine one’s rights.

This egalitarianism is traduced by the inescapable particularism of the modern state. A truly liberal society would encompass all human beings. It would extend welfare benefits to all humankind, not just to those born within arbitrary boundaries... (Critical Review, Spring 1996)

The former Australian Prime Mininster, Paul Keating, supports the radical Friedman view. He has lashed out at civic nationalism, complaining that its “exclusiveness” relies on,

constructing arbitrary and parochial distinctions between the civic and the human community ... if you ask what is the common policy of the Le Pens, the Terreblanches, Hansons and Howards of this world, in a word, it is “citizenship”. Who is in and who is out.

Not all liberals, then, support a civic nationalism. Why does Ignatieff?

There are two factors involved in Ignatieff’s answer. The first is straightforward. Ignatieff declares that he is not a nationalist at all, but a cosmopolitan and that cosmopolitans require a strong nation state to enforce social stability and human rights. In his own words,

It is only too apparent that cosmopolitanism is the privilege of those who can take a secure nation-state for granted ... The cosmopolitanism of the great cities – London, Los Angeles, New York, London – depends critically on the rule-enforcing capacities of the nation state ...

In this sense, therefore, cosmopolitans like myself are not beyond the nation; and a cosmopolitan, post-nationalist spirit will always depend, in the end, on the capacity of nation-states to provide security and civility for their citizens.”

I am a civic nationalist, someone who believes in the necessity of nations and in the duty of citizens to defend the capacity of nations to provide the security and rights we all need in order to live cosmopolitan lives.

This is not an illogical argument for a liberal to make, but it’s quite a formal and dry kind of reasoning. There’s a more direct and personal reason given for Ignatieff’s reluctance to totally discard the nation state later in his book when he describes his visit to Ukraine.

Ignatieff’s great grandfather was a Russian aristocrat who bought an estate in Ukraine in 1860 when he was the Russian ambassador to Constantinople. The Ignatieffs lost control of the estate in 1917, and they became Russian emigres who settled in Canada.

When Michael Ignatieff visited Ukraine after it gained independence from the USSR, he toured the estate once owned by his ancestors and described his experiences as follows,

Then to the church, where the bell is tolling and the parishioners are assembling for a special pannihida in memory of our ancestors.

... Now another feeling began to steal over me, a feeling that, like it or not, this was where my family story began, this was where my graves were. Like a tunneler, I had gone through suffocation, and I had tunneled myself back to at least one of my belongings. I could say to myself: the half-seen track of my past does have its start, and I can return to it.

The choir sings, the priest names my father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, the names, some of them Anglo-Saxon, peeking through the seams of his prayers, the choir and their voices singing, the sound filling this church my great-grandfather built.

The priest then shows Ignatieff the crypt in which his aristocratic ancestors are buried and he learns that under the communists it was used as a slaughterhouse. There are cuts made by butchers' knives in the marble of the tombs. Ignatieff continues,

We stand and sing the viechnaya pamyat, the hymn of memory, the priest blesses the graves and then they leave me alone, with a candle.

Nations and graves. Graves and nations. Land is sacred because it is where your ancestors lie. Ancestors must be remembered because human life is a small and trivial thing without the anchoring of the past. Land is worth dying for, because strangers will profane the graves. The graves were profaned. The butchers slaughtered on top of the marble. A person would fight to stop this if he could.

Looking back, I see that time in the crypt as a moment when I began to change, when some element of respect for the national project began to creep into my feelings, when I understood why land and graves matter and why the nations matter which protect both.

So Ignatieff is not entirely denatured. As an emigre, he might not respond to the Canadian ethnic identity, nor, given his Russian origins, to the Ukrainian. But he has illustrious ancestors. And in the crypt of these ancestors he feels a connection to a larger identity which it is right to defend.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Quote of the day

It is necessary and essential for the ABC to always be left of centre - whichever Government is in power.

Gordon Bick, former producer of the ABC current affairs show, Four Corners.

At least Mr Bick is forthright in admitting the political bias of the ABC (Australia's taxpayer funded national broadcaster.)

Women not so oppressed

A British study has found that men are discriminated against when they apply for jobs in IT and accountancy.

The researchers sent fake CVs to employers listing identical qualifications and experience but alternating male and female names.

The CVs sent by the fictional "Philip" fared better when applying for work in engineering, but "Emma" did four times better when applying for accountancy and IT jobs.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

More to offer?

Are identity, belonging and tradition important? Consider the following comments by Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, a prominent Australian psychologist. Writing in support of the idea of national service for young people (Herald Sun, 18/1/2006), he observes that,

one of the main developmental tasks of adolescents is to figure out who you are. Once you’ve done that it’s much easier to set goals, develop strategies to reach them and begin the journey

He notes further that,

a constant theme in youth policy over the past few years is the desirability of building resilience, that capacity to face, overcome and be strengthened by adversity ... A key component of resilience is a sense of belonging...

He then discusses the advantages of young people being,

actively mentored by older men and women who understand and can demonstrate the value of tradition, ritual, teamwork and discipline

So a leading psychologist believes that identity, belonging and tradition are important for the healthy development of young people. But how do you best foster these qualities?

In most societies gender and ethnicity are critical factors. Gender, for example, not only contributes powerfully to a sense of who a person is, but it helps to provide a purpose in action and a code of behaviour. Ethnicity places us within a tradition with its own ideals, to which the individual feels strongly connected.

Professor West of Suffolk College has described the effect of a traditional ethnic nationalism on the sense of identity and belonging of an individual as follows:

... the sense of identity is so strong that it is an inseparable part of the personalities of most of the individuals in the group. People are born and raised to conceive of themselves as being a part of the nation, and rarely lose that self-conception in the course of their lives. There is a feeling of pride and a deep sense of loyalty associated with it.

So if you wanted, say, an English boy to develop healthily during adolescence it would be helpful if you encouraged him to feel connected to his own ethnic tradition and to a masculine identity. But this is not, in fact, what Western societies tend to do. Western societies generally encourage adolescents to abandon a loyalty to the (mainstream) ethnic tradition and to traditional gender identity.

To put it bluntly, if the English boy were to show ethnic pride or a belief in a distinctive masculine identity he would very likely be accused of “racism” or “sexism”.

Why? The answer has to do with the theory of liberalism, which is the dominant form of belief amongst the Western political class. Ironically, gender and ethnicity are unacceptable within the logic of liberalism, precisely because they are so important to self-identity.

Liberal theory claims that our very humanity depends on the fact that we have a freedom to choose who we are and what we do according to our own individual will and reason. But this means that anything deeply embedded in our nature will be seen negatively as an oppressive limitation on our freedom to choose our own individual “self”.

Do we get to choose whether we are male or female? No. Is being male or female important to our self-identity? Yes. Therefore, traditional gender identity constitutes a problem for liberalism in which we are supposed to choose for ourselves the important things about our own lives.

So liberals have mostly claimed that gender identity is not in fact a natural and hardwired part of human nature, but an oppressive social construct to be overthrown. Just last year a Swedish minister, Jens Orback, announced that,

The government considers female and male as social contructions, that means gender patterns are created by upbringing, culture, economic conditions, power structures and political ideologies.

So Swedish boys will not grow up in a climate in which masculinity is considered an essential part of their identity, but will instead be taught something along the lines of masculinity being an outmoded patriarchal construct which is oppressive to women.

Liberalism, then, cannot offer ethnic or gender identity to the young because such forms of identity seem “unprincipled” within a liberal ideology. What then can liberalism offer?

A liberal society can certainly offer “voluntary associations”, such as service clubs or sports clubs, because we individually consent, as an act of our own will, to these commitments.

In his article Dr Carr-Gregg limits himself to the liberal view when he suggests “national voluntary service” as the way to “reconnect” young people and spare them from a “psychological wasteland”.

It would be better if we began to reject the underlying liberal theory which artificially forbids us from enjoying the stronger, more traditional forms of self-identity and connectedness.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

A feminine icon

When I was at uni (more than ten years ago now) one of my disappointments was the mannish style of appearance of the young women on campus. The women would typically wear boots, jeans, a T-shirt, and a windcheater, with no makeup or jewellery or ornamentation of any kind.

They actually managed to look a bit boring, despite being in the full bloom of their womanhood age-wise.

I felt a bit robbed. I thought it a waste of youth, both theirs and mine.

Shortly after I left uni, the Australian fashion designer Alannah Hill rose to prominence. She was the exact opposite, style-wise, of the campus women. She was almost improbably feminine. I was mightily impressed, having been starved of the sight of a feminine woman for so long.

Earlier this year, Alannah Hill was interviewed for The Age newspaper. True to form, she described her fashion philosophy as follows:

I spend most days designing the most romantic clothes so that girls when they wear them will evoke some gush of love from the opposite sex.

Now, I am not suggesting that Alannah Hill is a conservative role model, or that women should aim to dress in quite the full-blown feminine way that she does.

Even so, it's a refreshing change for a woman to admit to wanting to inspire love in a man, and to do so by appearing feminine and romantically attractive. It sure beats campus grunge.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A false allegiance

There was yet another article in The Age yesterday by a feminist academic writing about family and fertility.

This one, though, turned out to be a bit different. Usually, feminists argue that the reason there aren't enough babies is that women want to do paid work and they won't have babies unless governments provide more childcare places and paid maternity leave.

Dr Ceridwen Spark, though, took a different line. She wants it to be possible for women to care for their own children at home. She confesses that she feels ill when it comes time for her daughter to go to childcare and she admits also that her career is not the most important thing in her life. She herself puts this as follows:

Despite being a feminist who loves working part-time, it is not my career that concerns me primarily. Like more and more people in Australia, I am part of the slow-turning tide against the idea that work provides answers to the meaning of life.

What solutions does Dr Spark propose? In part, she wants better funded and therefore higher quality childcare, which is hardly a radical proposal for a feminist to make.

However, she does go beyond this to suggest that parents be given "a real choice between working full-time and not working at all". She proposes that parents be allowed to choose between "a decent parenting allowance and a child-care place".

Now, it's encouraging to find a feminist who really does believe that women should have the option of staying home to look after their children. However, there is a major flaw in Dr Spark's arguments.

Throughout her article, Dr Spark refers to France and Sweden in glowing terms. She calls them "our enlightened friends across the globe" and she asserts that,

In Sweden and France they don't just profess to care about families and fertility. They actually legislate to improve family life and, as Leslie Cannold and Anne Manne have pointed out in their recent books, women have voted with their ovaries and begun to have more children.

It should be said that it's not surprising for an Australian academic to build up the image of France and Sweden in this way. These are the leading social democratic (left-liberal) countries, and academics generally support the left.

But there are two major problems with Dr Spark's claims about Sweden and France. First, what she writes about the birth rates in these countries is factually wrong. The US has a birth rate of 14.5 per 1000 women. France has only 12.8 (only slightly higher than Australia on 12.3) and Sweden has only 10.3, well below the Australian birth rate.

As it happens, the French and Swedish birth rates have fallen over the last 25 years. The birth rate for France between 1975-1980 was 14 compared to 12.8 between 2000-2005, and Sweden's was 11.7 compared to 10.3. So we should not be seeking to follow French and Swedish family policies in the hopes of increasing our birth rate.

Furthermore, the family policies enacted in France and Sweden make it more difficult, not less, for women to opt out of the workforce. The high levels of taxation necessary to pay for Sweden's social programmes means that two incomes are necessary to support a family. So while it's true that women get a period of paid maternity leave, few women are wealthy enough to stay home after the period of leave is over.

It should also be said that the social democratic model, by making the state a provider rather than the family, has led to a faster and more extensive breakdown in family life in Sweden than elsewhere (low rates of marriage and high rates of divorce). How can you praise Swedish family policies when Sweden has managed in some years to suffer a 60% divorce rate?

So whilst it's encouraging that Dr Spark wants women to have the choice to be full-time mothers, she is wrong to place her faith in the family policies of the European social democratic countries, especially those of Sweden, which has such a dismal record for low birth rates, poor family formation, high levels of divorce and excessive taxation.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

IT workers hurt by migration

There are too many entry-level IT workers migrating to Australia. This is the finding of a report by labour market consultant Bob Kinnaird. The key points in his report are:

  • during the last four years 30% of Australian IT graduates could not find work. This is despite enrolments by Australian students in IT courses falling 36%.
  • in spite of this oversupply, the government increased the number of visas to overseas students graduating from Australian universities by 62%.
  • as a result there has been high graduate unemployment and lower wages
Mr Kinnaird found that the situation was not only harming local students, but also those IT workers migrating to Australia. He wrote:

People lured to Australia on the promise of lucrative jobs in IT get here and find they don't have a hope of getting a job. It's a human disaster for these people who, in many cases, uprooted themselves and their families, leaving behind reasonably paid jobs, and find they are worse off when they get here.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Quote of the Day

"the essence of civilisation is not in a multiplication of wants but in the purification of human character."

economist E.F. Schumacher
Small is Beautiful, 1973

Abortion - what a response!!

Yesterday I discussed research showing that abortion tends to harm women's mental health, being linked especially to a later dependence on alcohol and drugs.

In today's Age came the answer from those defending abortion. But what a response! Christine Read, the medical director of the NSW family planning group FPA Health, said,

We think that this is a credible study, but it is drawing a long bow to say that this study means women who have an abortion will have a depression subsequently...

It may be that making the decision to have an abortion was a traumatic one made without support, or the abortion experience may have been difficult because it was difficult to access (or) difficult to pay for.

Now this is too clever. Christine Read is trying to turn the fact that women are getting depressed after abortions into an argument for increasing the level of support for abortions. She does so by arguing that if women were given more money to have abortions, or more time with organisations like her own, then the depression and drug abuse might not occur.

It's a bold argument, but it reveals how deeply Christine Read and others like her are committed to abortion on ideological grounds. Scientific evidence is to be used for one purpose only, which is to promote the use of abortion amongst women.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Does abortion harm women?

The Melbourne Age has an article this morning ("Abortion linked to mental risk" 3rd January 2006) which begins,

Having an abortion as a young woman raises the risk of later mental health problems - including depression, anxiety and drug and alcohol abuse - according to the most detailed long-term study so far.

The findings were that about 15% of women seek an abortion by the age of 25. Of these women about 42% will experience major depression, which is 35% higher than those who choose to continue a pregnancy. An even more striking statistic is that women who have an abortion are twice as likely to drink to dangerous levels and three times more likely to be dependent on illegal drugs than women who do not abort their pregnancy.

The study was undertaken by Professor David Fergusson, who supports "unrestricted access to abortion" and so can hardly be accused of political bias in reaching these findings.

As Professor Fergusson points out, it becomes difficult to justify abortion on the grounds of protecting the mental health of women, when abortion is more likely to have the effect of harming a woman's psychological well-being.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

A leftward shift?

I have often argued that the official right-wing parties are better described as “right-liberal” parties, rather than conservative ones.

The argument runs as follows. The orthodox political philosophy in the West is liberalism. The basic liberal idea is that we are made human by our capacity to choose who we are and what we do through our own individual will and reason. However, this philosophy leaves us as atomised individuals each pursuing our own individual desires. So liberals have to provide some account of how a society made up of millions of such self-seeking individuals can hold together.

There have been many answers. Some philosophers, for instance, have argued that people are naturally good, so that if you take away distorting social constraints, the result will be a more harmonious society.

But the two most influential answers are those belonging to the left and right wing of politics. The classical (right-wing) liberals believed that society could be successfully regulated by the hidden hand of the free market. Even if people acted selfishly for their own profit, the free market would maintain a balance for the progress of society as a whole.

The “new liberals” (left-liberals), however, rejected the market solution. They believed that a society could be regulated in a more deliberately rational way by the state. Beatrice Webb explained this new approach clearly in 1928, when discussing the politics of herself and her husband, Sidney, compared to their recently deceased friend R.B. Haldane:

What bound us together was our common faith in a deliberately organised society – our belief in the application of science to human relations, with a view of betterment. Where we clashed was that he believed more than we did in the existing governing class … whilst we held by the common people, served by an elite of unassuming experts, who would appear no different in status from the common men.

So the clash of politics over the last one hundred years has not been about political fundamentals, but about different solutions to the liberal problem of “regulating individual wills”.

The so-called conservative parties, in reality right-liberal parties, have generally stood for an economic view of man, and a desire to maintain a free market (for instance, through economic deregulation and privatisation). In theory, the right-liberal parties have wanted to limit the role of the state, and so have been more sympathetic to the role of “civil” institutions like the family in providing “services”.

All of which brings us to the new leader of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron. He has been in the news since his ascent to the leadership because of his claim to be creating a “compassionate conservatism”.

The first thing to note about Cameron’s policy speeches is that he is happy to describe his politics, and that of his party, as being liberal. For instance, he has called for the creation of “a modern, progressive, liberal, mainstream opposition to Labour”. He has also said that “today we have a Conservative Party … which wants Britain to be a positive participant in the EU, as a champion of liberal values”.

Cameron, in describing his party as a “champion of liberal values”, is simply confirming its longstanding role as a right liberal party. He keeps to this tradition when he further declares that his party “supports open markets”; is “committed to decentralisation and localism”; and wants to strengthen “our economy by freeing the creators of wealth, especially small businesses, to create the jobs and prosperity we need.”

However, there is no doubt that Cameron has made some shifts leftward in his party’s policies. For instance, both the left and right wing parties generally support feminism, because both accept the view that we should not be “limited” in our choices by something we are born into, such as our sex. Neither the left nor the right wants to accept that gender might influence our life choices, so both assume that any disparity in the representation of the sexes must be caused by an oppressive discrimination.

So on fundamentals the left and right are united on feminist issues. However, it’s been more typical of the left to want to impose quotas to enforce “equality”. The right generally shies away from formal quotas because what’s more important in a market setting is equality of opportunity rather than outcome.

It’s significant, therefore, that Cameron has stated that his party “would aim to select women candidates for at least half the 140 target seats at the next election”. This is more in the style of left-liberal quotas, rather than a typical right-liberalism.

Cameron has also adapted to the left-liberal style in his emphasis on social justice and quality of life. The right liberal parties have typically viewed man primarily in his economic aspect, because they view the market as the mechanism by which human freedom is expressed.

Left-liberals usually don’t see life in such narrowly economic terms, with some even prepared to champion the idea of economic “downshifting”.

That Cameron wishes to reposition his party in this area is clear, not only from the fact that he has established social justice and quality of life policy groups, but also from his statements on the environment, such as the following:

“too often, we’ve allowed the impression to develop that we Conservatives are supporters of economic growth at all costs … The impression that we put the needs of big business before the future of the planet … Well as someone who regularly uses both four wheels and two … and who believes in wealth creation but also that business has vital social and environmental responsibilities ... I say … join me in my mission to put green politics at the top of the national and international agenda.”

Finally, right-liberal parties have generally sought to win office by appealing to genuinely conservative rank and file voters. Cameron has moved decisively against this usual right-wing policy, and has made it clear he is aiming for the left-wing vote, even at the cost of alienating conservatives.

This is most obvious in his willingness to put down white men, such as when he declared that “We will reflect the country we aspire to govern, and the sound of modern Britain is a complex harmony, not a male voice choir”.

Similarly, his decision to drop the worker registration scheme, which controls the number of immigrants from former Eastern Bloc countries, shows a readiness to ignore the preferences of rank and file conservatives.

Will Cameron’s leftward move work? This I don’t claim to know. But one thing it will do is to open up a space in British politics. If Cameron is no longer making an appeal to rank and file conservatives, then there is room for some other party to do so. Perhaps there will be a chance for a more genuinely conservative party to emerge in Britain.