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until they are proved safe, conservatives could argue that welfare benefits to never-married single mothers should be withdrawn until they are proved non-hazardous to social functioning.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.

What I’m reading, and more

I’ve been reading a lot of different things lately, and might write a few reviews over the Christmas break. I just finished
“Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

a sort of historical fantasy set amid the great scientific discoveries and political turmoil of the late 17th century.

It’s great fun, with a great evocation of the period and plenty of sly digs at the modern reader (I liked the Duke of Monmouth as the Dan Quayle of the 1685 campaign). At the same time, I can’t help feeling I’ve completely missed the point here. As I said, the style is that of fantasy, but the novel seems to be entirely historically accurate apart from the fact that the members of the Cabal have been replaced by new characters with the same acronym, some of whom play a minor role in the story, and that one of the key characters comes from the island of Qwghlm[1], apparently a British possession[2].

I don’t know exactly what gives here: maybe a reader can point me in the right direction. A lot of readers had much the same reaction to “Jonathan Strange which I loved.

There’s a whole Metaweb (a type of wiki apparently) about all this, which may be worth exploring.

In a completely different department, I’ve been watching the Slim Dusty memorial concert which my wife taped. Although he’s normally pigeonholed as country, a lot of his songs (particularly the early ones) appeal to folkies like me. In the free assocation department, I notice that another crossover performer, Ted Egan, is now Administrator of the Northern Territory Well done!

Moving on to sporting news, karate training has finished for the year, with the traditional 1000-punch workout. Very cathartic! If you’re in Brisbane, and want to study karate in traditional style, with a genuine master of the art, Seiyushin is for you. Also, we went last night to see the Bullets go down by one point against the Sydney Kings. It’s a great night out, taking the ferry down the river to Southbank for dinner, going on to the game and home again by ferry, but it would have been perfect if only one more shot had rolled in instead of rimming out.

fn1. Given my Manx heritage, the idea that Qwghlm is the Isle of Man seems appealing. Certainly the name has a certain resonance, though its disemvowellment makes it hard to interpret.

fn2. I don’t claim to be an expert on 17th century history, so there may be some other things I’ve missed.

A good few weeks for Europe

The last few weeks have been good ones for Europe, and for the EU, with the success of the democratic campaign for fresh elections in Ukraine, the court decision in Britain prohibiting indefinite detention without trial and now the decision of the EU to begin accession talks with Turkey (missed the obvious pun there). Negotiations with Iran were also a qualified success, certainly by comparison with the futile sabre-rattling coming out of Washington.

I predicted in February that the start of the EU admission process for Turkey would be the biggest geopolitical event of the year. Things dind’t go precisely to plan, but in the end it didn’t matter. Tobias Schwarz at a Fistful of Euros has more
Read More »

Weekend reflections

A bit late, again, but weekend reflections is back.

It’s your chance to make comments on any topic of your choosing, to be written and read at the leisurely pace of the weekend. I welcome pieces a little longer than the usual comments, but not full-length essays. If you want to draw attention to something longer, try an extract or summary with a link. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language.

Pugnacious professors

Via Henry Farrell, and Michael Froomkin comes the news thatIf you want a chair, you should throw away your razor:

A correlation between having a beard and being a professor has been uncovered by scientists, suggesting a reason for discrimination against women in academia….A study of 1,800 male academics has revealed professors are twice as likely as lecturers to have bristles….One theory is that being unshorn makes men more likely to be appointed to professorships, as facial hair is linked with high testosterone and aggression.

I don’t suppose I can point to my peaceloving nature as evidence against this claim.

The interest rate riddle

The US current account deficit came in yesterday at $164.7 billion for the third quarter of 2004, lower than expected but still a new record. The previous day saw the trade balance for October, also a record deficit. As usual General Glut has detailed coverage.

In the face of all this, long-term interest rates, as measured by the yield on 10-year Treasury bonds, are falling. The rate is currently about 4.2 per cent. By looking at inflation-protected bonds (TIPS) it’s possible to work out that this is made up of an expected CPI inflation rate of 2.5 per cent and a real interest rate of 1.7 per cent. As the Fed has increased short-term rates, the margin between long and short rates is falling, and seems likely to go close to zero.

This makes no sense at all to me. Given the near-certainty of further depreciation of the $US in the long run, who would buy 10-year bonds at rates like this, who would hold them if they had them, and why doesn’t someone like Soros short them? The answer to the first question appears to be “non-US central banks”, the answer to the second must have something to do with institutional inertia. As regards the third, and relying on introspection, the answer may be that the market can remain irrational longer than Soros can remain solvent (certainly that explains my non-participation). Soros took a hammering, if I recall correctly, betting against the NASDAQ in 1998, and the fact that he was proved right in the end is cold comfort.

Since I don’t believe that capital markets are efficient or collectively rational in the short or medium term, this kind of thing doesn’t pose a fundamental problem for my worldview. Still, I can never quite stop being surprised when asset prices are so obviously wrong.