A conservative answer to liberalism’s crisis

This article first appeared in the October 2018 IPA Review. Slight revision by author, November 2018. It is a review of Patrick Deneen’s Why liberalism failed, Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the west, and Roger Scruton’s Conservatism: an invitation to the great tradition. Links included in the piece.

In a famous essay, the economist FA Hayek disassociated himself from conservatism. Despite admiring figures like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, both frequently cited as conservatives, Hayek believed conservatism was simply an unprincipled opposition to change. Conservatism, he argued, accepts that political and social institutions emerge over time through trial and error, but then arbitrarily forecloses on this process. This lack of principle means conservatives cannot persuade anyone not already disposed to agree with them. Ultimately, conservatism is ‘obscurantist’, always falling back upon ‘a claim to superior wisdom, based on some self-arrogated superior quality’, and, contentless as it is, fated always to ‘be dragged along a path not of its own choosing’. Given Hayek’s profound influence on centre-right politics, the challenge for conservatives ever since has been to articulate a systematic explanation of which institutions are deserving of support or reform, and when change ought to be opposed altogether.

This challenge has renewed relevance with the rise of populist movements in the United States and the United Kingdom, and the illiberal direction taken by Poland and Hungary. On one reading, populism validates the political scientist Samuel Huntington’s view that conservatism is simply a perennial argument in favour of the status quo that emerges whenever a significant segment of a society begins to lose faith in its ruling ideology. Populists are reacting to rapid change brought about by globalisation, immigration, and technological innovation. But another way of viewing the current situation is that conservatism is coming back into its own as an ideology, shedding the liberal arguments that it adopted for the Cold War and presenting its own unique vision.

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Cultural pronunciation

This piece originally appeared in the Spectator Australia in July 2018.

When I lived in Sweden, I would watch football with my Swedish mate Rob and struggle with some of the Swedish players’ names. Even now, I cannot roll an ‘r’, let alone roll one into the Swedish ‘g’, as in the common name ‘Berg’—which sounds more like our word ‘berry’ than something into which you might crash a ship. Once, Rob asked, perhaps redundantly, why English commentators never try to say Swedish names properly. I could only tell him that most people don’t know they are saying the names incorrectly, and even if they did know, they would likely pronounce them about as well as me. Being Swedish, Rob found this reasonable. Others, apparently, do not.

Last week, a minor controversy broke out over the way that SBS World Cup presenter Lucy Zelic pronounces players’ names. Following the example of the iconic Les Murray, Zelic often says the names as would native speakers. For this she has been subjected, shamefully, to abuse on social media. Zelic is an excellent professional, who clearly studies the players and the game very closely. Her decision to pronounce the players’ names as she does is not inherently objectionable. However, in response to the criticism, Zelic and her co-host, former Socceroo Craig Foster, moved from the reasonable view that a commentator should know the players’ names to implying the country as a whole needs a multicultural education and everyone should aspire to know all the names of the world. Foster said that Zelic’s pronunciation is ‘what SBS is about… respecting every culture’. He went on, ‘If you can’t get someone’s name right, you’ve got no regard [for him or her]’. Zelic added that the criticism means it is time for SBS to ‘re-educate a different audience’. But this suggestion that respect for others demands native, rather than anglicised, pronunciation is far too high a standard.

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Comfortable and relaxed with conservative populism

This piece first appeared in Meanjin (Autumn 2018).

The last time identity played such an outsized role in Australian politics, then opposition leader John Howard famously stated his ambition for a country in which people should feel ‘comfortable and relaxed’ about the past, present and future. Howard’s phrase has been remembered because, for detractors and supporters, it captures something deep and resonant in the conservative idea of government. It is an idea worth revisiting now, more than 20 years later, as our politics again breaks down over claims of institutional and historic unfairness, and a conservative response that is, depending on how you look at it, either wilful complacency and disregard or an entirely understandable desire to be left in peace.

The purpose of this essay is not to rehash the meaning of Trump and Brexit, to muse about the collapse of the conservative establishment, or to declaim against any specific issue on today’s activist agenda. Instead, I propose to examine the philosophical debate that underlies the political back-and-forth. I will explore the struggle for recognition that animates identity politics. In the concept of recognition, progressives have found a cause to rally behind: differential institutional treatment of members of historically oppressed groups that enables those individuals to participate fully in society, thereby securing their dignity as truly equal citizens. Its absence is held to cause real harm. This is a strong claim that, if correct, implies a justification for the coercion, both state and cultural, of those who contribute, by act or omission, to the continued marginalisation of others.

The question, then, is whether anyone can in good conscience believe that the existing political and cultural institutions of our liberal democracy (which together I refer to as the social order) are preferable to a politics that prioritises the recognition of difference. Or, alternatively, whether such conservatism, indulging in comfort and relaxation not available to all, is an ongoing threat to equal citizenship and individual dignity, and must therefore be excluded from our politics and our society.

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How to stop a crime wave

This piece originally appeared in the IPA Review and can also be found here.

In politics, the range of ideas that the public will accept is known as the Overton Window. Ideas from outside the window can shift the public discourse, changing what people think of as normal.

The same is true for behaviour. People’s conduct is governed by their idea of what is socially acceptable. The more that antisocial behaviour is tolerated, the more it will be normalised, and the more of it society will have. And that is how a crime wave forms.

As those of us living in Melbourne know all too well, this is not only an academic concern. Over the last two years, Victoria has seen robbery rates rise 20 per cent, theft rise 9 per cent, and assault rise 8 per cent. Crime has a habit of begetting more crime, and the failure to crack down on serious offending has seen Melbourne fall into a crime wave.

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Righting wrongs in America

This piece first appeared in the IPA Review and can also be found here. It is a review of Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law, which can be purchased here.

Across the United States, governments at all levels participated in the segregation and consequent impoverishment of African Americans. For 100 years, from the end of the Reconstruction period following the Civil War to the 1970s, federal, state, and county administrations discriminated against African Americans in housing and employment. The effects of this discrimination haunt the US to this day, and demand remedy by the governments that participated in it.

So argues Richard Rothstein in his new book, The Color of Law. Rothstein aims to show that racial segregation in the US was not de facto but rather de jure—that is, a product of government action, sanctioned by the law. He argues that segregation is unconstitutional under the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments and that anyone harmed by breaches of these laws is entitled to a remedy.

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How identity politics divides us

This piece was co-authored with Daniel Wild (Research Fellow, IPA) and first appeared in the IPA Review. It can also be found here.

The idea that Indigenous Australians should have a separate voice in our Parliament, the push to make Australia Day a representation of our divisions rather than our unity, and the calls for formalised diversity quotas are all manifestations of identity politics, where our legal rights are allocated according to our race, gender and sexuality. This identity politics movement seeks to divide us, and poses a threat to the functioning of our liberal democracy.

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Tim’s tawdry trick

This article originally appeared in the Spectator Australia on 6 October 2017.

As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So naturally, when the Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, decided last week to share his view of Trump, Brexit, and conservative populism, he described it as ‘xenophobic and racist’. In the name of ‘equality and non-discrimination’ and ‘rationality and civility’, the populism that has swept the West should be shunned, if not made unlawful altogether.

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