Last year Senator George Brandis gave an impressive speech
setting out his political philosophy. I disagree vehemently with this philosophy, believing it to be utterly ruinous for Australia. But I admire the fact that Senator Brandis set out his fundamental, principled beliefs. How else can the really important issues in politics be debated?
Senator Brandis is a so-called "moderate" liberal. In my last post
, I criticised the idea pushed by the media that Liberal Party members like Brandis, Malcolm Fraser, Petro Georgiou, Joe Hockey and Marise Payne are the moderates within the party. Why?
The so-called moderates are really the liberal purists. And that makes them more radical than those in the party who want to fuse liberalism with some aspect of conservatism.
In other words, the division is between purists and fusionists. The purists want to hold to a radically reductionist philosophy in which there is only one supreme value: individual autonomy. The fusionists are confused (in thinking that there is no opposition between liberalism and conservatism), but they are dimly aware of other values.
If you are a reductionist pushing a single value on society you are inevitably going to be more radical than someone aware (at some level) that other values might also need to be considered.
In his speech Senator Brandis makes his criticism of fusion crystal clear. He describes the original coming together of liberals and conservatives in the early nineteenth century as a "political fault line". He then argues that the most significant liberal leaders prior to John Howard always identified as liberal rather than as both liberal and conservative. He quotes, for instance, Alfred Deakin's declaration that "we are liberal always, radical often and never reactionary".
He believes the more recent leadership has tried to "dilute" the commitment to liberalism within the Liberal Party by fusing it with conservatism. John Howard, for instance, was committed to a "broad church of Australian Liberalism" in which it was possible to be a devotee of both Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill. Tony Abbott too has argued that the Liberal Party is "not just liberal in nature".
Let me repeat: for Brandis the battle lines are between liberal purists like himself and fusionists. Which then brings us to the second issue at stake: reductionism.
Brandis asserts very clearly that there can only be one overriding, organising value in society. He calls that value "individual freedom" but he makes it clear that he means "freedom as individual autonomy". He writes, for instance,
the sovereign idea which inspires our side of politics has always been the same: our belief that the paramount public value is the freedom of the individual ...
the most important single thing we must do is renew our commitment to the freedom of the individual, and restore that commitment to the very centre of our political value system: not one among several competing values, but the core value, from which our world view ultimately derives.
in qualifying the Liberal Party's commitment to the freedom of the individual as its core value, and weighing it against what he often called social cohesion, Howard made a profound departure from the tradition of Deakin and Menzies.
Liberalism ... has such a central guiding principle - respect for the freedom of the individual, his dignity and his autonomy; his right ... to be the architect of his own life [i.e. to be a self-determining, self-creating autonomous individual]
Every one of those reforms extended the bounds of human freedom, gave individual men and women greater autonomy ...
Most revealingly, Brandis argues that you need a single value by which to decide political outcomes. There has to be a "higher common principle" or else there is no basis for deciding between competing claims:
But when one tries to bring both liberal and conservative values together, there is no anterior or higher common principle, according to which we can determine whether the question is to be decided according to the outcome dictated by liberal values ... or conservative values ...
For Brandis it is always the liberal value of individual autonomy which is to determine the question. He does not accept the idea that politics might involve the weighing up of many different considerations, purposes and values, with wisdom and prudence being key political talents. Brandis makes it sound as if a radical reductionism is the only possible solution to the fact of competing claims in society.
Of course, as a liberal Brandis portrays the influence of individual autonomy as the sole organising principle of society in wholly positive terms: as creating less uniformity, more freedom, more dignity, more progress, more choice and so on.
But this is not a reality that liberalism could ever have achieved. There is an incoherence to the idea that autonomy alone can bring greater choice and freedom. What, for instance, if the things that matter most to people require a distinct social setting in which people cooperate to achieve certain outcomes? There is no principled basis within liberalism for these social settings to be defended. Therefore, the choices that matter most to people will be lost. Choice will be limited to more trivial affairs, ones that are within the power of an atomised individual to self-determine, such as choice of entertainments, cuisine, travel and hobbies.
And what if the aim of society is always to maximise individual autonomy? Then whatever cannot be self-determined will be looked on negatively as an impediment to individual freedom. But there are many important aspects to life that aren't self-determined, including core aspects of our identity. Liberalism therefore ends up not so much liberating the individual to fully realise himself, but abstracting or alienating the individual.
These, at any rate, are the kinds of arguments which can be levelled against liberal reductionism. Unfortunately, the fusionists have only made more limited arguments against autonomy as the sole organising principle of society. Howard, as mentioned already, claimed only that "social cohesion" also had to be considered as a value. Which is true, but not really the most substantial value to set alongside autonomy. If the political situation is quiet, it leaves little objection in practice to autonomy as the sole consideration.
Tony Abbott for his part has stated that,
Perhaps it's enough to say that in some circumstances freedom and in other circumstances a set of rules is the most effective way to encourage people to be their best selves.
At least Abbott has made some sort of break with the idea of autonomy as the sole organising principle. But, again, he needs to develop the idea much further. It's not just a "set of rules" that needs to be weighed against autonomy. What about a commitment to family life? To a communal tradition? To an ideal of manhood or womanhood? To creating a pleasant and beautiful urban environment? To a standard of manners and morals?
It's not that any one of these values will then become an organising principle of society. Instead, it's up to a society to try to get the balance right between many values, including autonomy. That is what the liberal purists cannot and will not do. They are reductionists, committed to organising society along the lines of a single value, and they therefore constitute the more radical element within the Liberal Party.