Debate: Is Australia too conservative?

If Australian democracy is getting too conservative, as the affirmative team suggest, what does that mean?

In a speech just before her death, the radical freedom novelist Ayn Rand described contemporary conservatism as the “God, family, tradition swamp”.

I do not believe that is not a particularly appealing trio. Waleed and myself have been asked to contest the statement view that Australia is getting too conservative, but, and I’ll only speak for myself here, I am far from a conservative.

No conservative would believe in the total and immediate abolition of all industry subsidies and trade barriers, getting the government out of the marriage business, a reduction in the armed forces, and opening the borders to almost all immigrants who wanted to come here.

That’s where I stand.

But the idea that Australian democracy has become too conservative is wrong.

On the first, it seems clear that Australian democracy has little interest in conserving anything. The last few decades have seen rapid and overwhelming social and economic change – much of which has been propelled by governments liberalising the legal framework governing individual relations and the structure of the economy.

Every year, the federal government passes more than 6000 pages of legislation. This should not strike any of us as if the government seeks to “conserve” anything.

Yet in these most unconservative times, it seems as though everybody is bending over backwards to claim the mantra of authentic Australian conservatism.

Kevin Rudd famously described himself as an economic conservative. One pillar of that conservatism was, apparently, a belief in balanced budgets. We’ll let belief through to the keeper, as he did. Another pillar was a belief in an independent reserve bank – a belief which every side of Australian politics shares and nobody had ever accused Rudd of doubting.

Tony Abbott is described – and describes himself – as the archetypal Australian conservative. Abbott’s views do tend to what we commonly consider to be social conservatism. He’s opposed to gay marriage – but not, importantly, homosexuality in general. That’s not unusual. Opposition to gay marriage is the norm in federal parliament.

But then he’s a long term supporter of workplace deregulation, which, however you look at it, is a repudiation of a system of industrial relations that dates back nearly to federation. Uprooting that system, for whatever reason, is hardly a “conservative” thing to do.

Ditto with the way Abbott, and the Howard government, sought to do it – to shift industrial relations powers from the states to the Commonwealth government.

In other words, further eroding the structure of government which we have inherited from the Australian founders.

Abbott has described the states as “Australia’s biggest political problem”. He has a plan to fix it.

Then there are the regular claims that the true “conservative party” are the Greens. This has a hint of truth to it, beyond the simple linguistic relationship between the word conserve and conservative.

On Twitter the other day the state Greens MP Greg Barber wrote that he believed “we need a new political philosophy, where politicians see themselves as trustees, not liquidators of environmental inheritance”. In other words, politicians benevolently and selflessly safe keep the world for future generations – it is hard not to see the shadow of 19th century Toryism in Barber’s words.

A conservative in the 19th century was opposed to the free market Whigs who are the intellectual ancestors of the free marketeers who now describe themselves as conservatives.

Don’t worry – I’m confused too.

A conservative in Russia in 1994 was a communist. A conservative in Iran 2010 is a theocrat.

We describe evangelical Christians as “conservatives”, although in their enthusiasm, they are closer to the French revolutionaries Edmund Burke criticised than the sober masses he defended.

We describe the advocates of the invasion of Iraq as conservatives, although there is hardly anything conservative about invading a country, eliminating its leadership, disbanding its army, and just hoping democracy will spring forth out of the sectarian strife which results.

My point isn’t to say that conservatism is a meaningless word. But just to say that simply describing someone or something as conservative is fraught with difficulty.

Of course, we’re all guilty of this. Conservatism is a convenient cipher for a set of policy views and attitudes we associate with people who willingly adopt the word.

Conservatism is a discreet and specific philosophy.

There is a substantial body of political and philosophical literature which has defined and developed a conservative philosophy of government.

In fact, it’s almost a misnomer to call it a philosophy at all. Instead, let’s call it a disposition.

And, despite the contention of our friends in the affirmative, it is an exceeding rare disposition in Australian politics.

Certainly few in federal parliament could justifiably describe themselves as conservative.

Here’s why.

Conservatism is the anti-ideology. Conservatism has no political program. It is the only political movement that has no plan, no vision for the future, no picture in its mind of the ideal world.

In fact, it’s not really fair to call it a “movement” at all – a value system that rejects the idea that society should progress towards a goal can’t be described as moving anywhere at all.

Progressives imagine human nature to be mutable – that the way we see and react to the world is a symptom of environmental factors, and that as a consequence, that environment can be changed.

Conservatives see human nature as immutable – that there are constants which no planner could ever change. Some self-described conservatives may revere tradition, and place the cultural and social norms of the past on a pedestal, but “conservatism” – that is, the philosophy of conservatism – sees tradition as merely a reflection of these immutable truths.

The true conservative is not opposed to change. Changes occur, outside the realm of politics, and societies have to adjust to cope. Change can be regretted, it can even be restrained, but it should not be opposed.

“When it is not necessary to change, it is not necessary to change”, said the conservative Viscount Falkland who tried, and failed, to keep England from descending into civil war in the seventeenth century.

Change must be organic. It does not come from planners or idealists, but from below. The conservative believes it should come incrementally. It should be limited.

Just as conservatives resist visions of the ideal world, they resist plans to achieve that ideal world. The conservative intellectual Michael Oakeshott – and more than any other, Oakeshott is the modern go-to thinker for conservative thought, a genuine heir to Edmund Burke – gave the reasons for this as due to different types of knowledge.

There is knowledge that can be learnt – knowledge that can be contained in books, to be studied, to give us the impression that we have expertise in an area. Planners focus on this sort of knowledge. If we want to completely revolutionise a social institution, social science data must be studied, social experiments run, academic papers written, and conferences held to devise the perfect way to enact change. This is technical knowledge – like devising and reading a recipe from a cookbook.

But Oakeshott argued that there is other knowledge which planners cannot access. He calls this “traditional knowledge” – the knowledge inbuilt in those social institutions which planners are unfamiliar with. As we all know, following a recipe is easy. But if you do not have the knowledge built up from years of cooking – like how to cut vegetables, how to sift flower, what parts of the chicken to discard – your dinner may look and taste awful nevertheless.

It’s not just a matter of developing more complicated recipes. Much traditional knowledge resists being written down. There is no formula for speedy chopping – you have to build that skill up over years, learning the balance of your favourite chef’s knife.

Planners may be able to write the recipe for social change. But the recipe can never be comprehensive. And, a conservative would argue, if you have the hubris to completely redraw the contours of society, you’re inevitably going to make mistakes. You’re going to discard things which you might think are anachronistic, or out-of-date, but are, unbeknowenst to you, the foundations on which that society is huilt.

You might think that this sort of thinking forms the mainstay of Australia’s right of centre political thought.

After all, you’ve all heard the clichés about how governments cannot pick winners, and how government planning always fails.

Conservatives share a scepticism of central planning and government coordination with classical liberals, and economic rationalists, and radical libertarians such as myself. The writing of Ludwig Mises and Friedrich Hayek were devoted to emphasising  how little we know about what we think we can plan.

But Oakeshott’s conservatism and classical liberalism sharply diverge. For those economic rationalists which dominate Australian politics, on the left and the right, and the Hayekians which Kevin Rudd believed had hijacked the Liberal Party, are motivated by a vision of an ideal future.

Even if that future is white picket fences, and a small population – it’s still a vision. The ultimate rejection of Oakeshottian conservatism.

Nostalgia is not conservatism. Conservatism is about more than just pining for the past – it’s not white faces behind white picket fences.

And populism is not conservatism. There’s nothing inherently conservative about “Stop The Boats.”

All sides of politics are animated by a vision of future Australia, whether it’s a small Australia or a big Australia, a multicultural Australia or a ethnically-homogenous Australia, whether it’s an Australia focused on manufacturing or mining, on services or industry, on wireless broadband or fibre-optic broadband, or one where the government is more involved in the economy or less involved.

This is quite different from the conservatism described by Michael Oakeshott when he writes that:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

In Australia, all sides of politics are searching for a plan for the future. All sides of politics are animated by a vision of a future Australia – one shaped by the economic, social and political reform they prefer. All sides of politics claim the mantle of economic modernisation.

So is Australian democracy too conservative? Obviously not.