Archive for the ‘Dictionary’ Category

We need a new word for “reform”

August 27th, 2015 44 comments

Hardly anyone bothered to pay attention to the “National Reform Summit” put on by the Oz and the Fin the other day. The word “reform” tells us everything we need to know about this event: yet more invocations of the exhausted policy agenda of the 1980s, all with the implicit message that we need to work harder. Both Jeff Sparrow at Overland and Ben Eltham at New Matilda have pieces today making this point.

“Reform”, meaning “change for the better” was always a problematic concept, but it was a useful word, and we don’t have a good alternative. I don’t think a single replacement is feasible, but I’d like to try out some alternatives, and call for other suggestions

“Redesign” and “restructuring” are reasonably neutral and can be used to indicate a wide range of policy changes, without assuming anything specific. For example, “retirement income policy redesign”.

“Liberalisation” describes a wide range of things for which “reform” is commonly used, for example “drug law liberalisation” or “financial market liberalisation”. This gives a pretty clear indication of the general line of policy change, without the approval implicit in “reform” (except to the extent that support for liberalization in general is assumed).

What is lacking is a good single word term for what was the primary connotation of “reform” until the 1980s, namely, policy changes along social democratic lines. Any suggestions?

Categories: Dictionary, Oz Politics Tags:

Word for Wednesday: Reform (repost)

May 9th, 2013 17 comments

Back in the early days of this blog, I was working on the idea of a new political dictionary, and made a start with a “Word for Wednesday” series. One of them is relevant to this comment from Megan, about whether we should put scare quotes around the word “reform”, to describe policies, advocated as beneficial reforms, but which we believe to be harmful. My general practice on this blog is not to use scare quotes, and I explain why.

As Raymond Williams points out in his excellent little book Keywords, from which I got the idea for this series, reform originally meant ‘restore the original form’ of something. In particular the Reformation was supposed to sweep away the abuses of the Papacy and restore the church to its original purity. As this example indicates, the worldview associated with this usage was one of decline rather than progress. The best one could hope for was to get back to things as they were in the good old days. This view was dominant in Western thinking from Plato to the 17th century.

From the 18th century onwards, reform underwent something of a reversal, since it now typically implied forming something new. But since the associated worldview was now one of progress, the assumption remained that reform entailed change for the better.

From the 18th century to the 1970s, the term reform was typically used to describe policies favored by the moderate left, in opposition to advocates of revolutionary change on one side and of conservatism and reaction on the other. From the 1970s to the end of the 20th century, though, the direction of policy change was reversed, with the rise of neoliberalism. However, the term reform continued to be used, even when the policies it described consisted of the dismantling of earlier reforms.

As a result, critics of neoliberal policies have frequently resorted to the use of “scare quotes”, as in my recent reference to ‘workplace reform’, or to similar alerts like “so-called”. While the automatic assumption prevails that the term reform applies only to desirable changes, such devices are necessary.

Where it’s feasible though, the best approach is to define reform as “any program of systematic change in policies or institutions” and make it clear that there is no implication of approval or disapproval.

Categories: Dictionary Tags:

Soccer or Football

June 16th, 2006 72 comments

Over at Crooked Timber, Kieran Healy raises the vexed question of “Soccer or Football”. I’m firmly in the camp of soccer, or, if you want to get prissy about it, “Association Football”. The various football codes are roughly contemporaneous, and the term football has always been used generically (also to refer to particular codes when there is no great danger of confusion).

If the argument is based on majority usage, the relevant majority for me is among English-speakers in some community of which I am a member. Whether I define this as narrowly as possible (say, people I personally speak to) or as broadly as possible (all English speakers in the world) I don’t get a majority of people using the term “football” to mean “soccer”. I think a claim of this kind is about as justifiable as if the martial arts renamed themselves as just plain “arts” and demanded that the term “art” be used consistently with this.

Quibbles about how much different codes use the feet don’t seem to me to valid, and in any case would not particularly privilege soccer (where the head and hands are used a lot), compared to say, Australian Rules. And the fact that people in non-English speaking countries mainly play soccer and therefore use terms meaning or sounding like football to refer to it cut no ice at all.

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Peter Beinart wants to reclaim “reform”

May 23rd, 2006 15 comments

In this TNR piece (not sure if subscription required), Peter Beinart laments the Republican (mis)appropriation of the word “reform”, saying

“Reform,” in today’s Washington, has come to mean “change I like.” Which is to say, it means almost nothing at all.

However, he doesn’t really make it clear what alternative definition he proposes, and concedes, later on “today’s conservatives are reformers of the most fundamental kind”.

In fact, the whole set of ideas surrounding the terms “reform” and “progressive” are bound up with historicist assumptions that can no longer be sustained, namely that history is moving in a particular (liberal/social democratic/socialist) direction, and that any deviation from this path is bound to be short-lived and self-defeating. Reform is change that is consistent with this direction. But once you have, as Beinart notes, a decade or more of “reforms” that consist mainly of the repeal of earlier reforms, none of these assumptions works.

I’ve tried all sorts of devices, such as the use of scare quotes and phrases like “so-called reform�, before concluding that the best thing is just to define reform as “any program of systematic change in policies or institutions� and make it clear that there is no necessary implication of approval or disapproval, or of consistency with any particular political direction.
Read more…

Categories: Dictionary, Politics (general) Tags:


June 3rd, 2004 3 comments

Robert Samelson argues that we should stop using the word ‘reform’. I’ve grappled with this question for a long term, having been generally critical of the neoliberal policies generally referred to as “microeconomic reform”. I’ve tried all sorts of devices, such as the use of scare quotes and phrases like “so-called reform”, before concluding that the best thing is just to use the word in ways that make it obvious that I am not attaching positive connotations to it.

Over the fold is an old post on the subject (I needed to repost to fix broken links).
Read more…

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Word for Wednesday: contrarian

March 31st, 2004 23 comments

At the suggestion of James Farrell, I’m reviving this regular feature, beginning with a word I’ve used critically on a couple of recent occasions. The following is an extract from my review of Cristopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian You can read the whole thing, including a review of Mark Lilla’s Misadventures of Reckless Minds here

Of all the awkward squad, none is more awkward than Christopher Hitchens. His recent Letters to a Young Contrarian sets out his credo

Hitchens reflects both the best and the worst of the Socratic gadfly. On the one hand, there is the temptation to cynical sneering and the desire to epater le bourgeois. It is almost impossible for a contrarian to avoid this temptation completely, particular since it is often necessary to treat the conventional wisdom with derision. Hitchens himself concedes that he is particularly prone to this vice, noting that ‘a beloved friend once confided to me that my lip — I think he said the upper one — often has a ludicrious and sneering look, and my wife added that it takes on this appearance just when I seem to be least aware of it’. This unattractive tendency also mars the writing of Gore Vidal, whose contribution to the blurb of Unacknowledged Legislators nominates Hitchens as his ‘successor, inheritor, dauphin or delfino.’. But anyone who contributes more to the public debate than reiteration of one of other of Orwell’s ‘smelly orthodoxies’ will recognise this fault in themselves to some extent or other.

A more serious version of the same fault is found in the tendency to pursue intellectual vendettas. One does not need to be an admirer of Bill Clinton to feel that Hitchens’ attacks on him (and Hillary) went way over the top. Clinton may have been venal and sleazy, but he was far from being America’s worst president and he ended up on the right side of most of the issues Hitchens cares about, notably including Bosnia and Kosovo.

On the other hand, the great Socratic virtue is the unwillingness to accept easy answers. Hitchens rightly denounces, for example, the evasions with which many supposed advocates of free speech responded to the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The same insistence on hard truths, is evident in a fascinating essay, originally presented as a Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture, defending George Orwell against the attacks made on him Williams. Since Hitchens clearly admires both men, it would have been easy for him, not to mention his audience, to pass over this topic in a few sentences, and devote his time to aspects of Williams’ work for which he felt more sympathy.

The popularity in Australia and elsewhere of the term ‘pseudo-intellectual’ echoes the ancient frustration of the Athenian courts that condemned Socrates. Like the Athenian demos, the talkback commentators of today are aware that intellectuals are important, and are keen to find examples of the genus worthy of their respect. All that they want in return is that they should not be asked to think.

Socrates would have been a pain to live with, and it is difficult not to feel that his allegedly shrewish wife Xantippe had the worst of the bargain. Nevertheless, as these books show, we need Socratic gadflies to protect us both from bourgeois complacency and from the pretensions of Platonic philosopher-kings.

Coming out of this, I have a question as to the best collective term for critics of the global warming hypothesis. I used “sceptic” for a while, but decided it was inappropriate since, with a handful of exceptions, the people I’m talking about are anything but sceptical when it comes to anything that supports their preconceived views. Then I switched to “contrarian”, but that suffers from many of the same problems. I toyed with “denialist”, but that comes too close to a violation of Godwin’s Law for my liking. I suppose I could just say “critics of the global warming hypothesis”, but that seems clumsy and “global warming critics” means something else altogether. Any suggestions?

Categories: Dictionary, Regular Features Tags:

Managerialism and professionalism, again

September 17th, 2003 4 comments

Linking back to my last post on this topic, Leaderlog has an interesting piece on Why managerialism trumps professionalism. Key point:

Where professionalism at its best is meant to be a mechanism for making things happen with the least interference (which makes a lot of sense in a period of expanding public health and education), when political pressure swings around to preventing things from happening, an internalised ethos is no match for promises of transparency and control.

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Word for Wednesday Professionalism: Definition

September 10th, 2003 4 comments

Professionalism is both an individual characteristic and an ideological position. The primary definition is that of individual professionalism: the idea that membership of a profession carries with it a set of internalised values that will be reflected in the way in which work is carried out and the ethical standards that are adhered to. As an example, a concept of ‘medical professionalism’ would require that doctors prescribe the most appropriate treatment for their patients, rather than one which would yield them higher fees or would meet an externally imposed objective of cost control. Although the term ‘professionalism’ is associated with a fairly specific range of high-status occupations, much the same claim about other occupations is embodied in terms like ‘craftsmanship’ and ‘public service ethosâ.

As an ideological position, professionalism is the assertion that workers with a professional/craft/public service ethos should be given substantial autonomy to undertake their work in the way they judge to be appropriate. This assertion is most obviously opposed to managerialism (see also), which is based on the claims that all forms of productive activity are amenable to generic management techniques and that work is best organised by ‘letting managers manage’.

However, the most important and damaging critiques of professionalism arise from a neoliberal perspective.

Read more…

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Data is not the plural of datum

August 18th, 2003 10 comments

In a recent comments thread, Dave Ricardo notes my observation

Unfortunately the data is only published annually

and asks

Don’t you mean, the data are published only annually?

This is a common error, reflecting a confusion between Latin and English.

In Latin, data is the plural of datum (‘something given’). The word ‘datum’ is used in English, but is an archaism, except for a specialised use in surveying. On standard principles of modern English usage, the correct plural of datum is ‘datums’ and a Google search reveals 158 000 occurrences of this term. (For comparison, ‘data’ occurs over 100 million times).

In English ‘data’ is a mass noun like water or wheat. Hence it can be used in compounds like “data base”, “data processing” and so on, which would be ungrammatical for a plural like ‘datums’. This simply reflects our everyday experience with data which, is that it is a quantity of information, not a collection of facts. For example, it would be natural to refer to “500Kb of data”, but wrong to refer to “500 data”.

Data is normally dealt with as a mass, but it is sometimes important to refer to discrete units, in which case it is appropriate to use the count nouns ‘data point’ or ‘observation’ (drops of water and grains of wheat provide an analogy for other mass nouns). A collection of data points can be referred to as a ‘data set’.

Although lots of people imagine that ‘data’ is a plural count noun, and some try to treat it that way, hardly any do so consistently. To give just one example, I looked for occurrences of the phrases ‘not much data’ (correct for a mass noun) and ‘not many data’ (correct for a count noun) using Google. There were 10 times as many occurrences of ‘not much data’. Moreover, a large proportion of the ‘not many data’ observations were either written by non-native speakers of English or formed part of grammatically correct phrases such as ‘not many data sets’.

Update There is nothing new under the sun. Kevin Drum at Calpundit blogged on the same topic a few months ago, reaching the same conclusion.

Categories: Dictionary Tags:

Word for Wednesday: productivity

August 13th, 2003 10 comments

In a vague sense, productivity means the ratio of outputs to inputs. Improvements in productivity arise from improvements in technology or new and better ways of organising production. Productivity can also decline if productive effort is diverted to wasteful ends, which may happen for a variety o reasons.

In m yexperience, most of the time, reported short-term changes in productivity are spurious, in a sense I’ll try to make more precise below. In thinking about this, I came up with the following proposed test/definition for an increase in productivity (it would also apply, with modification, to a reduction)

A change in productivity is sustainable if additional inputs of labour, capital etc could be added and would generate additional output at the new, higher level of productivity

The idea of this definition is to rule out as many as possible of the sources of spurious productivity gains, including

  • factor composition biases, such as the gain in average productivity from closing the weakest plants in an industry/economy
  • relative factor intensity biases, such as gains in labour productivity from an increase in the capital-labour ratio
  • factor use intensity biases, such as labor hoarding during recessions and work intensification arising from microeconomic reform

The most famous case of factor composition bias was the Thatcher productivity miracle, achieved primarily through plant colsures. Factor intensity bias is a chronic problem, which has been addressed through the construction of measures of multifactor productivity. Increased work intensity was the main source of the Australian productivity miracle in the 1990s.

(Since miracles are invariably spurious, I’ve avoided putting scare quotes around the term.)

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Word for Wednesday: managerialism (again)

July 16th, 2003 11 comments

Nobody agreed with my attempt two weeks ago to link neoliberalism, and particularly ‘new public management’ with the ideology of managerialism, and the supporting academic ‘discipline’ of management as embodied most notably in MBA programs (for more on the reason scare quotes are appropriate see this piece by Henry Farrell).

I agree that the two are superficially dissimilar, and that their practitioners do not have much to say to one another. I also concede that my supporting argument, resting on the proposition that the two are united in opposition to professionalism was inadequate. Still, I believe it is an empirical fact that the two are generally found together and this fact can be given a theoretical basis. So I’m going to reformulate my argument.

The central assumption of new public sector management is that, if organisations are given the right (financial) incentives, they can deliver socially desirable outcomes without reliance either on direct political control or on any assumption that the organisation is committed to some concept of public service. In practice, in the sentence above the first occurrence of ‘organisation’ should be replaced by ‘managers of organisations’ while the second refers to the members of the organisation considered collectively.

So new public sector management embodies the hypothesis that managers can ensure that organisations pursue whatever objectives are determined for them by policymakers choice of incentives. From a free-market viewpoint, the most congenial way this hypothesis could be satisfied would be for the incentives to be transmitted from top management through the levels and departments organisation. In effect, this would imply a system of piecework with the prices mirroring the incentives chosen by policymakers. But if everything could be done by piecework, there would be no need for the organisation and particularly no need for the senior managers.

So in practice, new public sector management applies direct incentives only to top management and assumes that there exist a set of generic management skills that can produce the desired outcomes even when the individual interests of the organisation’ staff are not directly tied to those outcomes. So, new public sector management depends on managerialism.

The converse link is weaker, particularly since managerialism is first and foremost a private sector doctrine. However, it’s clear that, even in the private sector, managerialism and neoliberalism reinforce each other. Managers clearly get more of the autonomy they want in a neoliberal policy setting, and neoliberal policies of Îlight-handedâ regulation are justified by the assumption that, provided the rules of the game are set correctly, unfettered managerial discretion will yield the best possible outcome.

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Word for Wednesday: managerialism (definition)

July 2nd, 2003 17 comments

As with most terms ending in ‘ism’, and therefore imputing an ideological framework, ‘managerialism’ is more often used pejoratively than favorably. Where it is dominant,, ideology appears as common sense and requires no name. The standard assumption, backed up by the existence of university departments of management and business schools generating thousands of MBAs every year, is that management is a science on a par with physics, or at least with economics. As Thomas Frank observes in his One Market Under God‘the management literature as a whole serves primarily as a PR exercise to legitimate management.

Where managerialism needs a name, the choice is usually one that conceals or obfuscates the role and interests of managers as a class. The most important examples are ‘the New Public Administration’ in the public sector and ‘shareholder value’ in the private sector. ‘Shareholder value’ is of particular interest in the way it represents managers as the mere agents of the shareholder principals.

The central doctrine of managerialism is that the differences between such organisations as, for example, a university and a motor-vehicle company, are less important than the similarities, and that the performance of all organisations can be optimised by the application of generic management skills and theory. It follows that the crucial element of institutional reform is the removal of obstacles to ‘the right to manage’.

The rise of managerialism has gone hand in hand with that of the radical program of market-oriented reforms variously referred to as Thatcherism, economic rationalism and neoliberalism. (Despite very different histories, all these terms are now generally used in a pejorative sense). Managerialism may appear inconsistent with traditional free-market thinking in which the ideal form of organisation is that of competitive markets supplied by small firms, in which the manager is also the owner. However, managerialism is entirely consistent with the dominant strand in the neoliberal approach to public policy, which takes the corporation, rather than the small owner-managed firm, as the model for all forms of economic and social organisation.

In particular, managerialism and neoliberalism are at one in their rejection of notions of professionalism. Both managerialists and neoliberals reject as special pleading the idea that there is any fundamental difference between, say, the operations of a hospital and the manufacturing and marketing of soft drinks. In both cases, it is claimed the optimal policy is to design organisations that respond directly to consumer demand, and to operate such institutions using the generic management techniques applicable to corporations of all kind.
The main features of managerialist policy are incessant organisational restructuring,,sharpening of incentives, and expansion in the number, power and remuneration of senior managers, with a corresponding downgrading of the role of skilled workers, and particularly of professionals.

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June 29th, 2003 11 comments

On the cover of today’s Sun-Herald magazine is a story about the Crown Prince of Nepal who slayed his entire family. My immediate reaction was that the subeditor was asleep on the job, but then I thought that perhaps the language had been regularised and I hadn’t noticed. A search on the Fairfax site showed a dozen other instances of slayed, and Google produced 25 000.

I looked for the formerly standard slew and came up with another problem. There were over 700 000 hits, but most of those on the front page used the word as a synonym for large number. Along with raft used in this way, this is something I don’t remember until recently. My guess is that it comes from idiomatic American usage, and has been popularised by journalists looking for short and snappy synonyms. Rather than do any work to check this, I’ll wait for my readers to set me straight (isn’t blogging great!). Just to complicate things further, there’s an engineering use as a verb roughly equivalent to slide around which has gone through the usual processes of adjectivalisation and nominalisation so that it’s now a generic part of speech.

After this, I checked on slain which is unambiguous and, as a past participle, more prone to regularization than the past tense slew. I got 750 000 hits there, suggesting that slayed is still a minority usage.

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Word for Wednesday: Reform

June 25th, 2003 17 comments

As Raymond Williams points out in his excellent little book Keywords, from which I got the idea for this series, reform originally meant ‘restore the original form’ of something. In particular the Reformation was supposed to sweep away the abuses of the Papacy and restore the church to its original purity. As this example indicates, the worldview associated with this usage was one of decline rather than progress. The best one could hope for was to get back to things as they were in the good old days. This view was dominant in Western thinking from Plato to the 17th century.

From the 18th century onwards, reform underwent something of a reversal, since it now typically implied forming something new. But since the associated worldview was now one of progress, the assumption remained that reform entailed change for the better.

From the 18th century to the 1970s, the term reform was typically used to describe policies favored by the moderate left, in opposition to advocates of revolutionary change on one side and of conservatism and reaction on the other. From the 1970s to the end of the 20th century, though, the direction of policy change was reversed, with the rise of neoliberalism. However, the term reform continued to be used, even when the policies it described consisted of the dismantling of earlier reforms.

As a result, critics of neoliberal policies have frequently resorted to the use of “scare quotes”, as in my recent reference to ‘workplace reform’, or to similar alerts like “so-called”. While the automatic assumption prevails that the term reform applies only to desirable changes, such devices are necessary.

Where it’s feasible though, the best approach is to define reform as “any program of systematic change in policies or institutions” and make it clear that there is no implication of approval or disapproval.

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Economic rationalism

June 13th, 2003 6 comments

My Wednesday post on the term ‘rational’ has brought forward some discussion of the term ‘economic rationalism’, which is now most commonly used in a pejorative . One commentator voiced the widely held assumption that the term was coined by Michael Pusey. In reality, the term was used, mostly positively for about 20 years before Pusey wrote Economic Rationalism. And although the term evolved gradually, the person who did most to popularise it was Gough Whitlam. The history of this phrase tells us a lot about the evolution of the economic policy debate in Australia. Read on for a piece I wrote in 1997, describing this history.
Read more…

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Rawls and Bentham

May 19th, 2003 4 comments

Rereading what I said earlier about Rawls and utilitarianism, I think it needs a correction. Rawls really is proposing something different in its approach from classical utilitarianism. In particular, his approach focuses attention on the idea that we might want to pay attention to things like the relative position of different individuals in society rather than simply aggregating utilities across individuals. The most popular way of making this operational has been with social welfare weights that depend on an individual’s rank-order according to some welfare measure. I’m very attracted to this idea, partly because it’s analogous to an idea I developed in the theory of choice under uncertainty called rank-dependent (expected) utility.

Confusion arises with Rawls’ treatment because the maximally risk-averse (or inequality-averse) form of rank-dependence is maximin, just ‘as it is for expected utility. There’s a nice paper on this by Udo Ebert ‘Rawls and Bentham reconciled? in Theory and Decision 24, 215?223.

The other issue is whether you view rank-dependent models of this kind as being alternatives to utilitarianism or generalisations/variants. In the theory of choice under uncertainty, some people (including me) like to talk about generalised expected utility theory while others talk about non-expected utility theory.

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More on utilitarianism

May 17th, 2003 8 comments

There are a couple of things I really like about blogging compared to academic writing. The first is that the relatively terse nature of blogs means that you can take a firm position, without the thicket of qualifications and citations that are needed in academic writing. The other is that the usual boundaries between disciplines and between academics and non-academics are broken down. So I get to see how, for example, sociologists, legal philosophers and businesspeople react to arguments that would normally be confined to economists.

The responses to my short post on utilitarianism illustrated this
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Word for Wednesday: Utilitarianism (definition)

May 14th, 2003 5 comments

Utilitarianism is important because it is the dominant philosophical viewpoint of modern times, although this is obscured by the way it is discussed.

Utilitarianism is usually presented as an ethical postulate, that good actions are those which promote ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ or some such.

Considered as a guide to individual conduct, utilitarianism is impossibly demanding, since it requires complete selflessness (anybody else’s happiness is just as important as yours) without even the reward of a blessed afterlife.

In fact, utilitarianism only makes sense as a public philosophy, that is as a way of assessing public policy, and it’s pretty clear that this is how Bentham intended it. The only philosopher I know who’s made this point is Bob Goodin of ANU. Going further, utilitarianism only makes sense for a basically democratic society, in which everyone is equal in some formal sense. Obviously in an absolute monarchy, public philosophy is just individual ethics for the monarch, and something analogous is true for aristocracies, theocracies and so on.

In its role as a democratic public philosophy, utilitarianism lacks serious competitors. Ideas proposed as alternatives are usually jerry-built modifications of ideas about individual ethics that don’t scale up to the public sphere

With this background, utilitarianism can be seen as the combination of three principles

  • Consequentialism – actions should be judged according to their (likely) consequences
  • Equality – each individual counts equally
  • Happiness as preference-satisfaction – what matters is each individual’s happiness as they choose to pursue it

Within consequentialism, there’s an important dispute over whether it is best to seek, in every decision, the specific action that would (be likely to) produce the best outcome (act-consequentialism) or whether it’s best to find rules of action that produce the best outcomes on average and adhere to those rules on all occasions (rule-consequentialism). This distinction is critical when we come to consider issues of government policy. I plan to elaborate on it in a later post, and also continue previous discussions on equality and happiness.

Update My claim that utilitarianism lacks serious competitors leaves Lawrence Solum “gasping for breath”. He asks “what about Nozick and Rawls?”. My answer
(i) I don’t think Nozick provides a serious alternative to anything
(ii) Rawls attempts to provide an alternative to utilitarianism, but in the end only produces a variant that is more egalitarian than usual because the underlying preferences are more risk averse than most utilitarians assume [Harsanyi derives standard utilitarianism from an almost identical setup].

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Word for Wednesday: Intellectual (definition)

May 7th, 2003 4 comments

Intellectual is a particularly tricky word. Partly this is because it has no generally accepted definition. To make things even more difficult, almost no-one will admit to being one or even knowing one without some sort of qualifying adjective or caveat. I’m happy to call myself a public intellectual for example, and I know a few people who would admit to being ?literary intellectuals?, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a self-confessed intellectual.

Although there are occasional positive uses like this, the term is far more often used negatively, but again, never in a straightforward way. Negative uses are almost always surrounded by scare quotes, as in ‘intellectuals’, or with some similar qualifier as in so-called intellectual or my personal favorite ?pseudo-intellectual.
Read more…

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Word for Wednesday

February 5th, 2003 Comments off

Conservative: As an antonym to ‘progressive’, the term ‘conservative’ is affected by many of the same confusions.
First, a conservative may be one who, like Burke, believes that that social change should be gradual and organic, rather than rapid, top-down and rationalistic.

Second, a conservative may emphasise obligations to society and community rather than, or as a counterbalance to individual rights . Since societies and communities tend to change more slowly than individuals, this is broadly consistent with the first definition. Closely related to this group are conservationists, who seek to conserve the natural environment often at the expense of short-term benefits to individuals.

Third, a conservative may defend more specific traditional institutions such as monarchy or private property.

Fourth, the term ‘conservative’ is used as the official name of some right-of-centre political parties and as a general descriptive term for right-of-centre politics

Given a historicist belief that history inevitably flows in a given direction, defined as ‘progressive’, a conservative is one who seeks to halt or slow down that flow. Assuming further that the trend of history is towards the political left, all these definitions fit together pretty well. Even in this case, a conservative of type 3 must gradually adjust to lost ground. A contemporary supporter of absolute or even limited monarchy in Australia and the UK would not be a conservative but a reactionary.

As with ‘progressives’, though the big problems emerge when the trend of history changes. Consider, for example, the role of trade unions. As long as trade unions were growing in power, conservatives of all types could join in resisting this trend. But now that unions are in decline, there is a sharp conflict between different types of conservatives.

On any abstract definition of conservatism, it’s clear that conservatives should support trade unions. They are traditional institutions dating back to the 19th century and beyond, they endorse conservative values of community solidarity and they are under attack primarily because they are seen as an obstacle to radical change. And of course this attack is being led by Conservatives in the sense of definition 4 and, to a lesser extent, definition 3.

However, whereas the problems with the term ‘progressive’ are, in my view, so severe as to render it useless as a description of political views, this is not true of ‘conservative’. The absence of any monotone linear trend does not invalidate conservatism in the sense of the first definition. Rather it strengthens it. If the policy trends of this decade may be reversed next decade, then in makes sense to move slowly and to distrust impressive-looking theoretical blueprints.

Having witnessed a massive reversal of policy trends in my own lifetime, and having been on the losing side for most of the past few decades, I am now a conservative in the sense of definition 1. I hope that, should the tide of policy debate turn in favour of social democracy once more, social democrats will avoid the hubris that characterized the Left before the 1970s and the Right thereafter, and will favor slow and careful change based on broad social support.

Update Coincidentally, Stephen Barton at Online Opinion has a piece headlined “Conservatism is not evil, stupid nor ignorant – it’s just misunderstood. ” Since he starts by quoting a member of Margaret Thatcher’s radical free-market government, he clearly does not refer to conservatism in the sense of definitions 1 and 2, despite the obligatory nods to Burke and Oakeshott. Rather he lists a number of conservative politicians and activists and asserts that, contrary to popular opinion, they aren’t “evil, stupid nor ignorant’, characteristics he instead attributes to people on the other side like Clinton, Whitlam and Keating.

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Word for Wednesday

January 29th, 2003 Comments off

This is planned to be the first instalment of yet another weekly feature. Each Wednesday, I plan to have a short piece with my definition of, and observations about a word that is used in current social and political debates. Your comments on this idea, as well as on the particular definition, will be most welcome.

Progressive Definition 1: In its political sense, progressive means ‘on the side of progress’. This incorporates a factual assumption that history is moving in some definite direction, and a political program aimed at accelerating that motion and overcoming obstacles to it. Antonyms are ‘conservative’ and ‘reactionary’.

Until about 1975, the facts seemed to be consistent with the idea of steady movement towards some form of democratic socialism. After this, economic and social policies moved substantially in the opposite direction for the rest of the 20th century, with large-scale privatisation and deregulation in many countries. This movement in turn seems to have ceased and even to have partially reversed in countries such as the UK and NZ.

In the 1990s, a new version of progressive rhetoric came into use, focusing on the notion of globalisation as an irresistible force for progress in the direction of free-market liberal democracy. Fukuyama’s End of History was the big text, while Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree was a successful popularisation. Many proponents of this account were unaware of the basic historical fact that world markets were more liberal and globalised in 1900 than in 1970. When this was pointed out, the notion of globalisation as inevitable progress went into decline, although it still has its proponents. The wave of financial crises from the late 1990s reminded people of the fact that unregulated capital markets are the result of policy decisions that may have been mistaken, not the product of inexorable technological forces.

If no clear direction can be discerned in history, or if reversals lasting for decades are possible, the whole idea of ‘progressive’ politics becomes incoherent. Unfortunately, the idea is deeply embedded in political rhetoric and is therefore hard to get rid of. As long as the term ‘progress’ is taken to imply ‘progress towards something better’, people will try to attach its positive connotations to their political programs. Even the connotation of ‘something not necessarily good, but irresistible’, has a lot of rhetorical power, as in ‘you can’t stop progress’ – Marxist historicism is the extreme example of this. Former social democrats like Paul Keating justified adopting the political program of their opponents by appeals to progressive rhetoric, treating current trends as both irresistible and desirable simply by virtue of their currency. At this level, though, ‘progressive’ politics is little more than adherence to prevailing fashion.

It may be possible to salvage some use for the term ‘progressive’ by defining ‘conservative’ as ‘opposed to rapid programmatic policy change’, without reference to specific policy programs, then defining ‘progressive’ as an antonym. I plan to explore this next week.

Progressive Definition 2: In tax policy, a progressive tax system is one in which the proportion of income paid in tax is higher for those on higher taxes. The antonym is ‘regressive’. As I noted in an earlier post, most actual tax systems are based on a mixture of progressive taxes like income taxes and regressive taxes such as payroll and consumption taxes, with the total effect being roughly proportional.

The term ‘progressive’ here, is basically derived from the mathematical fact that the rate of tax increases (progresses) with income, but also gains some support from the fact that progressive taxes are pro-poor and therefore progressive in the sense of Definition 1. This creates problems when we try to assess the distribution of benefits of public expenditure. Mathematically, an expenditure program would be progressive if the benefits flowed disproportionately to those on high incomes – this would mean that progressive taxes and progressive expenditure worked in opposite directions.

In practice, a messy compromise has prevailed. Expenditure patterns are typically compared to a starting point where the benefit is the same for everyone (this is fairly close to the actual situation in most countries). If programs that favor the poor (such as means-tested benefits) predominate, the system is described as progressive. If programs that favor the rich, such as protection of property, predominate, the system is described as regressive.

A bit extra Working out the final incidence of tax and expenditure programs is very complex. But here’s a rough illustration of what happens when you have proportional income taxes and equal expenditure per person – this, and the numbers used, are not too far from the actual situation.

Suppose we divide the population into quartiles by income, and suppose that the bottom quartile gets 10 per cent of all market income, the next quartile gets 20 per cent, then 30 per cent and the top quartile gets 40 per cent. Now suppose there is a proportional tax that collects 40 per cent of national income, and the proceeds are spent in such a way that everyone gets an equal benefit. So the bottom quartile pays taxes equal to 4 per cent of total income, and gets benefits equal to 10 per cent, ending up with 16 per cent. Similarly, the other quartiles end up with 22 per cent, 28 per cent and 34 per cent respectively. So a 4:1 ratio in market income ends up as a roughly 2:1 disparity in final income (including publicly provided goods and services).

Update I’ve added quite a bit of new stuff in response to comments, mainly those of Ken Parish. That way, the comments will help to improve the post. To help readers make sense of the comments thread, I’ll note that paras 3 and 5 were added, and para 4 amended after the first 10 comments were posted. I’m still experimenting with this process, so meta-comments as well as comments on the specific post are most welcome.

I’ll add here that a big source of inspiration has been Raymond Williams’ excellent little book Keywords. I don’t plan to acknowledge specific points I’ve taken from him and at this stage I don’t plan to give etymology as he does, but most things I write in this vein will reflect his influence.

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