Conservationists and conservatives

Don Arthur had an interesting response to my pieces on the precautionary principle and wars of choice[1]. Don correctly observes that this kind of argument can be used in opposition to reform, and is therefore inherently conservative. He mentions, as an instance, the possibility of making this kind of argument against gay marriage.

Don goes on to argue

The welfare state is another area conservatives might want to apply the precautionary principle. Just as environmentalists argue that we should withdraw genetically modified crops from sale until they are proved safe, conservatives could argue that welfare benefits to never-married single mothers should be withdrawn until they are proved non-hazardous to social functioning. After all, the widespread use of income support for alleviating poverty in families where a woman has had a child out of wedlock is relatively recent.

While there’s always room for dispute over what is meant by “relatively recent” here, I don’t think this argument works. The main institutions of the welfare state developed in the first half of last century, before most of us were born, and its extension to single mothers dates back to the 1960s. In this debate, the self-described advocates of welfare reform are those who want to do away with social institutions most of us have grown up with and try something radically new. The fact that reform may be sold as a return to an idealised and largely imaginary past, rather than a leap into the future, doesn’t change this. In fact, reformers of all stripes have used this characterisation of reform, sometimes validly and sometimes not, most obviously in the case of the Reformation[2].

More generally, the set of ideas associated with terms like progressive and conservative are based on the assumption, clearly falsified over the last thirty years or so, that the movement of history is uniformly to the political left. The corollaries (also false, in my view) are that leftists and socialists should favor the removal of obstacles to rapid political change – bicameralism, federalism, separation of powers and so on – and that the the precautionary principle should be viewed with suspicion.

My reading of the 20th century as a whole is that, both in the democracies and elsewhere, it is the right who have made the most effective use of concentrated power. Given the power of the opposed interest, progress in the direction of social democracy can only be made on the basis of broadly-based popular support, sufficient to overcome constitutional obstacles. By contrast, a determined rightwing government like Thatcher’s can ram through its policies on the basis of 40 per cent support, given a plurality-based system of majority government.

Coming back to gay marriage, I think it’s true that a precautionary principle argument would lead one to favor a gradual, one-step-at-a-time shift in the rules, rather than a radical reform based on purely abstract arguments about equality[3]. In the current context where a wide range of legal disabilities for gays have been removed without obviously disastrous consequences, this would suggest that civil unions ought to be the next step.

fn1. I missed this at the time, and picked it up while visiting The View from Benambra where Don’s arguments are amplified, and the Burkean nature of the principle elaborated.

fn2. Raymond Williams in “Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society” (Raymond Williams) is excellent on this, as on most things.

fn3. And, if I were to advocate a reform along these lines, it would be the removal of legal recognition for religious marriages and their replacement by civil unions for all, as is, I think the case in France, though only for heterosexual unions.

18 thoughts on “Conservationists and conservatives

  1. John
    I’m a bit lost.

    1.Are you agreeing with the assumption that:

    “The corollary is that leftists and socialists should favor the removal of obstacles to rapid political change – bicameralism, federalism, separation of powers and so on.”

    2. Or are you saying that the assumption that:

    “leftists and socialists should favor the removal of obstacles to rapid political change – bicameralism, federalism, separation of powers and so on”

    has been shown to be false over the last 30 years.

    I read your paragraph as 2. Is that right?

  2. JQ,

    The “Welfare State” and the Right’s “most effective use of concentrated [state] power” during the twentieth century refer to overlapping but by no means identical programs of government intrusion into social and economic relations between individuals and groups. I believe that you recognise that distinction. But it is useful to make the distinction explicit.

    You also mention the problem of periodisation — the definition of “relatively recent.” As you say, state support for single mothers, for example, has existed since long before most still living first voted.

    Both of these beliefs about the nature of state interventionism, as you mention, are supported by myths about the history of state interventionism.

    Neo-liberals mythologise the novel corrupting effects of creeping socialism in weakening the potency of the free market. They ignore the enormous interventionism in every aspect of social and economic life that pertained in every European country until the mid-decades of the nineteenth century. R. H. Tawney wrote extensively on this, and the Communist Manifesto (1848) was among many other things a funeral oration over the only recently-deceased corpse of state interventionism. (Tory paternalists compose a tiny fringe of political discourse and therefore do not merit discussion.)

    “Progressives” mythologise the triumph of creeping socialism as a case study in the perfection of the eminently perfectible human civilisation. And indeed, as you say, many of these same progressives were in the forefront of campaigning against obstacles to rapid social change in the cause of speeding the march of history. For example, E. P. Thompson copped a lot of flak from leftists more optimistic and more impatient than himself for daring to declare that British Law was a bulwark against tyranny rather than one of tyranny’s more useful battering rams.

    Thus, the major schools of social thought adhere to different versions of the same myths: recentness and motivation for state intervention.

    These myths need to be challenged. Here are major moments of state intervention:

    (The national examples are not intended to be exhaustive)

    1. 1880s and 1890s: (Germany, Britain, Australian colonies, New Zealand) intervention in wage determination, motivated by fear of radicalism.

    2. 1915-1918: (As above, and France) regimentation of the economy to fund and to service the demands of total war.

    3. 1920s: (Germany, Australia, New Zealand) Government ownership of the “commanding heights” of the economy in the cause of rapid national development.

    4. 1930s-1970s: (Most of the Western world) applied Keynesianism and applied pseudo-Keynesianism (as Nixon said, “We’re all Keynesians now”) to bankroll the Cold War and to underpin popular support against domestic communism and other forms of radicalism.

    In all of the above cases, Progressives supported these initiatives. In none of them, except perhaps for Australia during WWI and Germany during the 1920s, did Progressives administer these reforms. Progressive support was therefore not a sufficient condition for their adoption.

    Social Democracy was an important component only in the last of these developments. And a social democratic policies flourished only so long as politically conservative forces maintained, for their own reasons suggested above, consensus. Menzian liberals were characteristic of this consensual tactic.

    Your point about the relative ease of dismantling interventionist practices (Thatcher’s 40% ) is well taken. I believe this is an artifact of the enormous power of mobile capital. Nation states are quickly disciplined by a capital strike.

    International finance may not comprise the big battalions but they are by far the best armed.

  3. Well personally I think welfare re forming of support for single mothers will have little to do with a push by conservatives and more to do with economic imperative. With an aging population and unemployment falling to unprecedented levels in a generation, an all hands on deck approach to able-bodied employment will sound the death knell for young single women thinking that childbirth is a free meal ticket for them for 15 yrs or so. Their married or defacto counterparts, currently enjoy no such luxury, usually returning to work within 6 months or so of childbirth. With an increasing aged tax burden, these women and their spouses will demand likewise from single mothers. Six months support only, then childcare and off to work like us, all you single sisters.

    As for homosexual marriage, or societal recognition of other types of unions(eg polygamy), I think the recent stance by Latham Labor is a recognition that the abandonment of positive affirmation of heterosexual, monogamous marriage has a long way to go, particularly now that the fundies are forcing us to be more introspective about the foundations upon which our society is built. Personally I don’t think the Australian electorate is in any mood for the social tinkerers in such circumstances.

  4. No. We started the 20th century with something like liberal democracy, flirted with socialism and national socialism… and ended up with social democracy.

    The 20th century was the century of the state. We saw the rise of communism, we saw the rise of national socialism, we saw the rise of the welfare state. The trend of the 20th century was clearly socialist. Clearly a trend towards more government intervention.

    In the last 20 years this trend stopped, but it has not reversed. It stopped in large part because the social democrats have already won. Q should rejoice. We now have a “conservative” government that is conserving the highest taxes in our history, conserving medicare, conserving huge welfare payments etc.

  5. Congratulations, Observa, you’ve moved onto a testable empiric argument rather than a faith-based ideological one. Definitely progress.

    Unfortunately, the position you’ve taken fails the empiric test as soon as you crunch the numbers. Firstly, the proportion of mothers working (both sole parents and partnered) has been consistently rising for twenty years, and in the case of sole parents has been rising very rapidly for the last decade. Secondly, those mothers who don’t work tend overwhelmingly to be low-skilled and would add relatively little to national output if they did work (this of course is exactly what you’d expect – any young single women who thinks that “childbirth is a free meal ticket for them for 15 yrs or so” must have a very meagre alternative meal ticket; those for whom the opportunity cost of withdrawal from the workforce is high tend to stay working).

    Putting these together with family formation and population projections implies that keeping single mums at home is eminently affordable if we so wished – which of course says little about whether we should so wish.

  6. Pr Q makes a number of comments in relation to the potential disamentities progressive welfare state, without considering the implications of human bio-diversity.

    In the current context where a wide range of legal disabilities for gays have been removed without obviously disastrous consequences.

    AIDS spread much more rapidly in OECD countries which legalised relations between homosexuals. Perhaps it was just bad luck that legalising homosexuality occurred contemporaneous with the seventies sexual revolution. This freedom caused many “disastrous consequences” after bed-time.
    Homosexuals are citizens alright, and deserve equal civil rights. However marriage is designed as an institution to foster children, which is not the most likely use that gay couples will make of marriage.

    The main institutions of the welfare state developed in the first half of last century, before most of us were born, and its extension to single mothers dates back to the 1960s.

    Progressives must face some tough choices in an era of globalisation and disparities in ehnnic birthrates. Either one ends the policy of “strong” multiculturalism or one ends the universal welfare state.
    The Bismarkian/Beveredgian welfare state was designed for homogenous nations with short life expectancies. We now have heterogenous nations with longer life expectancies. There is an obvious need to recalibrate the settings and qualifications.
    An unconditional welfare state is not efficient and equitable in countries which have opted for the state policy of “strong” multiculturalism ie retention of traditional kinship familial or tribal structures. The Swedish feminist welfare state is an even more extravagant version designed for a unified nation of swots, workaholics and knee-jerk liberals.
    This model is having trouble making ends meet in ultra-civil Sweden and Holland. These nations will gradually reintroduce a policy of race-neutral citizenship to prevent state subsidised ethnic ghettoes from forming.
    The curtailment of the welfare state is inevitable in the US which cannot avoid multiculturalism, owing to its conquistadorial and colonial heritage. AUS is in the process of modifying the modern welfare state to reintroduce paternalism for indigenous peoples, in order to accomodate their traditional social structures.
    In short, as we would expect, a progressive-liberal social policy is suitable for a unified Enlightened nation with a strong sense of citizenship. Problems occur when progressive-liberal modern and “post-modern” institutions is dropped willy-nilly onto pre-modern cultures.
    One cannot have one’s “strong” multicultural cake and eat ones universal welfare state slices too.

  7. Oh, and I’m not sure, Observa, whether you understand how sole parenthood comes about. It is overwhelmingly a product of marriage (de facto or de jure) breakup, rather than ex-nuptial births. The teenage girl who deliberately decides to have a baby rather than work on a checkout all their life certainly exists, but is numerically small beer.

  8. I undertand Don to be arguing that it’s better to argue each issue on its merits rather than invoke a general principle that could be turned against you. Observa is seizing the opportunity to prove him right. But gay rights, family law and welfare are not very good examples, since in both cases the horse has bolted. The revolution has already happened, even if the legislation hasn’t caught up, and the consequences have already played out. No sane person now thinks that the fabric of society will be unravelled by sodomy, no-fault divorce, or welfare for single mothers. Instinctive reactionaries will battle on, but they know they’ve lost the war.

    A better example would be drug reform. Legalising heroin would be real step into the unknown. It’s also a question (unlike, say, nuclear power or GM foods) that divides people on left/right lines. The Greens will always be vulnerable on this one – Bob Brown always comes a cropper on the issue in interviews – and I think it illustrates better than the other examples Don’s double-edged sword caution.

  9. The Bismarkian/Beveredgian welfare state was designed for homogenous nations with short life expectancies.

    Absolutely true, Jack, but in Australia we have never subscribed to Bismarckian (ie earnings related) or Beveridgian (ie contribution related) principles – our welfare state is much closer to either the New Poor Law or the Minimum Income Guarantee approach.

    If we want to change this on grounds of principle (eg poor work incentives for some families, low income replacement rates in retirement) we certainly can, but its alleged unaffordability in the face of an aging and heterogenous population is not a good reason to do so, precisely because the flat-rate means-tested payment approach is very resilient to demographic change.

  10. Jack Strocchi wrote:

    “AIDS spread much more rapidly in OECD countries which legalised relations between homosexuals.”

    Some comparative statistics and evidence of correlations would be useful to support this claim.

    Also, in his next sentence Jack acknowledges that correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation, to whit:

    “Perhaps it was just bad luck that legalising homosexuality occurred contemporaneous with the seventies sexual revolution. This freedom caused many ‘disastrous consequences’ after bed-time.”

    At any rate, the Australian approach, initiated by the Hawke Government with Neal Blewett as Health Minister, of actively involving queer communities (and other “at-risk” communities) in making and implementing HIV/AIDS policy, was far more successful in containing the spread of HIV/AIDS in Australia* than were the authoritarian conservative policies adopted in other OECD countries. Also, looking outside the OECD there are (sadly) no shortage of examples of countries with both illiberal policies towards homosexuality and high incidences of HIV/AIDS and other STDs.


    [* The success of the Hawke/Keating government’s AIDS policies can be gleaned from the following quotes from the Australian HIV & AIDS Statistics Summary, at

    “It is estimated that 13,630 people were living with HIV infection in Australia at the end of 2003. . . In comparison with other industrialised countries, AIDS incidence in Australia (1.5 per 100,000 population) was similar to that in the United Kingdom and Canada. Substantially higher AIDS rates were reported in a number of other Western countries including France (2.2), Spain (3.3) and the United States (15.0 in 2002). . . annual HIV incidence in Australia peaked around 1985. There followed thirteen years of decline, after which the rate of diagnoses remained relatively stable at around 680 per year between 1998 and 2001. Recent estimates show a rise above this level to 831 in 2002 and 792 in 2003.”

  11. “Perhaps it was just bad luck that legalising homosexuality occurred contemporaneous with the seventies sexual revolution. This freedom caused many ‘disastrous consequences’ after bed-time.”

    I don’t even agree with this sentence. The “sexual revolution” was a 60s-70s thing. Queensland got around to it in the early 1990s, before Western Australia and Tasmania.

    “AIDS spread much more rapidly in OECD countries which legalised relations between homosexuals.”

    So why does the U.S. have 10 times the rate of Australia? There are several states in the U.S. that haven’t even taken their anti-gay statues off the books. Roughly 15, I think, although that was a few years ago when I checked.

    Texas had its killed in a court case brought against two men practicing the love that dare not speaks its name. I suspect the source of the D.A.’s outrage was not their identical gender, but that one was black and another was white.

  12. Of course many incremental reforms embody an immanent logic which, taken to its conclusion, would have revolutionary consequences. Ernest Sackville Turner, in his book Roads To Ruin, warned that in one respect the worst enemy of the moderate reformer was the principled radical who sought to make explicit the immanent logic of the reforms and go all the way in one hit.

    Looking at the issue from another end of the telescope, feminist criticisms of conventional liberal notions of (implicitly male) citizenship remind us that 17th and 18th century monarchist and aristocratic reactionary critics of early liberal-democratic demands were fond of pointing out that liberals who argued for the civic equality of all men (rather than accepting the traditional superior status of some men over others) could therefore not possibly argue against also admitting women to equal citizenship (which both the reactionaries and most of the liberal men agreed would be a dreadful thing).

  13. Just to clarify…

    When I said “the widespread use of income support for alleviating poverty in families where a woman has had a child out of wedlock is relatively recent” here’s what I was thinking.

    In countries like Australia and the US:

    1. When income support payments for single parents were created policy makers saw them as payments for widows.

    2. The rise of single parent families headed by never married women is more recent than the payments they access.

    3. The effects conservatives are worried about are likely to take at least 15 years to materialize. Their argument is that welfare dependent families headed by never married women produce poorly socialized children (who commit crimes, end up on welfare etc).

    I’m not convinced by the conservative arguments. They work better (but still not very well) in the US where never married women make up a much larger proportion of the welfare populuation than in Australia.

  14. Derrida, I am well aware that sole parenthood comes about largely through marriage breakup. I personally know 2 women where this is the case and I would have to say that for them, although changing social attitudes to divorce and single parenting(for others)have contributed to sole parenthood, there is no doubt in these two cases acess to SPB has made parenting a more viable choice. Both have largely reared a son each on their own for their 21 yrs of age, similar to my own. One owns her own home, while one rents and the former’s son was educated in a medium ranked Lutheran private school while the latter’s was publicly educated. The former has had assistance with this from the father while the latter has none. Both engaged in additional cash in hand work, child minding and cleaning. The former took up full time work as an office manager once the son turned 15(she was working casually cash in hand at this for a year or so prior), while the latter opted for a maths degree at uni when the govt meal ticket’s time was up. She is dithering about trying not to finish it as they have a teaching job lined up for her when she does. These women were both quite capable of being useful members of the workforce if the govt good oil ceased.

    In the forseeable future my 2 offspring will be too busy working to look after themselves and mum and dad rather than someone else and their offspring(although in my case that won’t be necessary, because MrsO and moi will be busy chewing up any prospective inheritance) Now you have to appreciate here that MrsO and my parents produced 7 offspring, who have in turn sired 14. ie 4 adults produce 7 children and then in the next generation 14 adults produce 14 children which is by all accounts above average. Hence the growing youth shortage and the fit and strong beginning to take over the commanding heights of our economy(ie tradesmen). In future this generation will need youthful mothers(irrespective of their talents) to look after more than one child or perhaps one oldie. They will have to look after many more in our childcare centres and old folks homes, if the more talented mums are to do more talented work.

    There is another thread to all this for the so called progressives to concern themselves with here. You see our welfare state has been built on a foundation of cheap fossil fuels, enabling the few to produce the welfare surplus for the many. Now if we are to seriously tackle Greenhouse, then we will have to cut back on this social largesse with our physical environment. More human physical input and less reliance on fossil fuels. Have a guess what that will do to the size of the modern welfare state?

  15. Observa, Australia and the US, and some other industrialised countries, could begin to seriously tackle Greenhouse by taking advantage of the hitherto unrealised energy efficiency gains that are possible with existing technologies and more effective organisation of transport, land and resource use, etc., all with a net economic benefit. In environmental economics parlance, this is called “picking the low-hanging fruit”.

    However, you probably have a point if we are to achieve the 60% reductions in current global emissions by 2050 which a serious greenhouse response requires. Likewise if the gloomier peak oil scenarios eventuate. Where I could take issue with you is that “the few” (who?) also produce a wealth surplus for a genuinely few, and a consumption surplus for the genuinely many, and on grounds of equity I think these will need to be looked at before we start beating up on those for whom the market economy can’t create suitable jobs.

  16. Well, Observa I can balance your anecdotes with stories from my family of terrible things that happened to people, especially children, before the government extended income support to single mums. But the plural of anecdote is not data – it’s aggregate outcomes we have to look at.

    A Basic Income/Flat Tax proponent would say that your friends’ involvement in the black economy is exactly what you’d expect from a means tested payment – put another way, means tests inherently punish the honest and reward the dishonest.

    But you have not addressed my main point – that we should argue questions such as welfare-to-work or compulsory superannuation on their direct policy merits (as it happens I’m broadly supportive of the former and broadly opposed to the latter). We shouldn’t invent a non-existent fiscal crisis as an excuse.

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