Freedom of speech

Catallaxy Blogger Andrew Norton has an article in the Oz arguing, among other things that labels like “neoconservative” aren’t really applicable in Australia. In general, the piece is both informative and accurate.

There is, however, one characteristic error. Norton suggests the use of

liberalism or classical liberalism to describe the free marketers who, in the old line, want to keep the government out of the bedroom as well as the boardroom.

This definition omits the crucial preoccupation of classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, freedom of political speech and thought. The problem is illustrated by, say, Jeff Kennett, who fits Norton’s definition perfectly, but would certainly not have been recognised as a liberal by Mill in view of his sustained, and largely successful, efforts to intimidate and silence his critics. A lack of concern with freedom of speech and political thought is the main distinguishing feature of neoliberals, as compared to classical liberals.

16 thoughts on “Freedom of speech

  1. Yes, Andrew’s article is generally pretty good and reasonable, and is spot on re the off the planet SMH article to which he refers. Yet he has also made subtle slides and omissions, which, I guess, just reflects his own preferences. In addition to your distinction, there is of course a mighty historical argument about the extent to which contemporary liberal (neo-classical) economics is continuous or a disjuncture with liberal (classical) economics … and critics will always suggest that the emphasis on ancestry is all about legitimising not explaining the neo-liberal position. The other slides are on his neo-con distinctions, which just would not hold up in many respects against Kristol’s own definition.

  2. What does Norton mean by classical liberalism? He is welcome to claim Hayek as his own, but no twentieth century ideologue could conceivably qualify as ‘classical’. Neoliberal doctrines on social policy would have been anathema to John Stuart Mill, whose nearest present-day equivalent would in fact be someone like John Quiggin. His father – Mill’s, not Quiggin’s as far as I know – fits the bill better, but was conservative and chauvinistic by current standards: he opposed female suffrage, for example. Go further back and you’re talking about Smith, but a particular twenty-first century economic school claiming to be the true heirs to Smith is like a particular twenty-first century Christian sect claiming to be the true heirs to Christ.

  3. For the record on the political freedom of speech issue, I am entirely in favour of it – as is everyone I know, classical, neo and every other form of liberalism you can think of. I’ll be among the first to defend it, if it is ever threatened.

    James should read Mill’s On Liberty if he thinks Mill would have regarded ‘neoliberal’ social policy as ‘anathema’. In Chapter 5 he recognises that people on public support can be punished for idleness (mutual obligation?), and he was against state education. And I doubt Professor Quiggin would want to be associated with Mill’s views on democracy either, since he thought only those who should pay taxes should be allowed to vote.

    Mill, like any other thinker, should be mined for his good ideas, but there is no need to accept the anachronisms or the unpalatable.

  4. “A lack of concern with freedom of speech and political thought is the main distinguishing feature of neoliberals, as compared to classical liberals.” Who specifically does this refer to, John? FWIW I am an enthusiast of both, and consequently I am especially concerned that we don’t attempt to appease or subsidise totalitarian ideologies like Islam, environmentalism and socialism – because of the dangers they pose to freedom of speech and political thought.

    I think if you want to sort out classical liberals from closet conservatives, the litmus test is drug prohibition, as this is a textbook example of the disasters caused by well-meaning nanny statism.

  5. “Neo-conservatism” is far too much of a fad. So many people want to be associated with the movement, yet it is so limited in practice. It means “new conservative”. You can’t be one unless you are “new” to conservatism. And historically, “neo-conservatism” is a trend inspired by foreign policy and culture. It refers to the trend of former leftists becoming alienated from their comrades over matters of war and identity. Rarely is it about economics.

    Edmund Burke was probably the first neo-conservative. He was a radical who split the Whig Party over the French Revolution. Richard Perle is a neo-conservative. He was a liberal Democrat who split over foreign policy. Unfortunately many have suggested that Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney are also in the “neo-conservative” fold. None of these guys have a “neo” bone in their body. There is no point retaining the word if it is to describe someone who was Toryish anyway. Basically you have to be an alienated social democrat to qualify, if the term is to be meaningful.

  6. Kennett’s attempts to silence his critics have been overrated. It’s true he stopped public servants from publicly criticising his government, but it’s not as though he sent in the storm troopers to shut down The Age.

    In later years, Kennett as radio talk show host was so polite and non-confrontational, he was almost mealy mouthed. Stan Zemanek he wasn’t.

  7. classical liberals are called ‘classical’ to distinguish them from liberals in the 20th century US sense of the word – which equates to social democracy. They are not called classcials because they follow only people from the 19th century.

    classical liberals would include Smith, Locke & Mill – and many others such as Ricardo, the US founding fathers, Hayek and Friedman. The confusion about labels has led some to call themselves libertarian – while others think ‘libertarian’ an ugly word and continue to fight for the world liberal.

    Neo-liberal (like economic rationalist) seems to be a term used only by its opponents. They define it as evil, and then conclude that it’s evil. Yawn.

  8. I wonder… is John a neo-socialist? Or perhaps a neo-social-democrat? Maybe he’s a neo-egalitarian?

    It’s been suggested that Tim Dunlop is a neo-Quigginite or that John a neo-Dunlopist but it could just be that as great minds they think alike and are just in neo-agreement on most things.

  9. 24601, if you read Andrew Norton’s piece you’ll find that he uses the term ‘economic rationalist’ favorably and fairly accurately.

    I posted on its history here.

  10. Andrew:

    I won’t patronise you by presupposing you’ve never read Mill’s Principles, but suggest you re-read in particular Chapter 11 of Book 5. If, having done this, you can reassure me that the arguments there are reflective in spirit and emphasis of neo-liberal doctrine, well, then I will breathe a huge sigh of relief.

    My hunch is that you might have some trouble with remarks like:

    ‘Whatever, if left to spontaneous agency, can only be done by joint-stock associations, will often be as well, and sometimes better done, as far as the actual work is concerned, by the state.’

    Indeed I think the role of giant corporations, and the complacency of the neo-liberal attitude to them, would turn out to be the crux of Mill’s objection to neo-liberalism were he to return from the grave. He would be shocked by their influence at every level: their corruption of democratic political processes, their promotion of shallow consumerism, their hostility to industrial democracy, and – to return to John’s original point – their capacity to pervert and suppress the truth (in the interest of the shareholder).


    I have no idea for what purpose the term neo-liberal was originally coined (probably there was more than one), but personally I find it indispensable as a means to differentiate contemporary laissez-faire zealots from nineteenth-century liberals.

  11. James – I’m well aware that there are opinions of Mill’s that don’t fit with 20th or 21st century liberalism of any variety. His views on restricting the franchise fall into this category, as does his wacky Clive Hamiltonish criticism of economic growth (at a time when most people lived in dismal poverty). But we can discard all this, just as we can discard some of Hayek’s views, and concentrate on those ideas or insights that do seem relevant to today. On Liberty is the only book by Mill that is readily available today, and for good reason. The rest of it has dated badly.

    While I think Mill’s complaints about social conformity are exaggerated – indeed were based on his own problems in carrying on a possibly adulterous relationship with a married woman – and the harm principle can be hard to operationalise, there is still much in On Liberty which a contemporary classical liberal could subscribe to.

  12. Incidentally Andrew, I just learned that Clive Hamilton’s book has gone into its fourth reprint (since publication only in April). Maybe some enterprising business man should get those old Mill books back on the shelves … times seem to be a changing …

  13. cs – Though as Hamilton’s arguments are largely repeats of centuries old objections to capitalism and wealth we can probably save on the reprints of old books – and for all its faults at least Growth Fetish is written in easy-to-read modern English. Those interminably long sentences in 18th and 19th century writers can be rather tiring.

    My take on Hamilton’s use of subjective well-being data will appear in Policy in a few months.

  14. Funny thing is Andrew, I love those old long sentences … but my editors don’t … in fact, they won’t tolerate them for even a micro-second … must be the work/life thing I reckon …

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