Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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    Saturday, August 23, 2003
    Busy travelling - a quiz result in lieu of a post:
    Interesting result - not what I expected at all given my disdain for the high reputation of Confucius. I suppose one can't completely escape one's cultural influences.

    You were Confucius!

    Your life began in 551 B.C. in the
    Chinese village of Zou. You worked as a
    teacher until age 35, when you became advisor
    to the exiled Duke Zhou for a time. Later you
    became a magistrate and even the Grand Minister
    of Justice of Lu Province for a time. After a
    while, you took to wandering with your handful
    of disciples and unfortunately found that high-
    ranking nobles in many courts were plotting to
    have you killed. You continued, however, to
    speak on morality and honesty until you finally
    retired and spent your remaining days writing.
    You died at the age of 72.

    Which Leader Were You in a Past Life?
    brought to you by Quizilla

    Friday, August 22, 2003
    Courts on trial?

    The three-year sentence handed down to Pauline Hanson has been widely criticised, even by her political opponents (Anthony Green gives a good account of what she did wrong and why it was a technicality here). The Herald-Sun Voteline, a useful baromoter of the intensity of mass opinion, scored a huge 9040 calls, 93% in Hanson's favour. By comparison, populist questions on university fees get only a few hundred calls. This decision can only further undermine the standing of the legal system. The Australian Election Study (though with its characteristic annoying minor question changes) has asked people their opinion of the courts. In 1993, 62% expressed confidence in the courts and legal system. By 2001, confidence in the legal system was down to 36%. The Morgan Poll question on ethics and honesty has only asked questions about judges for the last few years, but it shows a small upward trend to the mid 60% range. Though even these figures are less than the judiciary would have hoped for, I don't think the main complaint is dishonesty, it is bad decisions like this one on Hanson. High Court Chief Justice Murray Gleeson is the subject of an interesting interview in this morning's Australian Financial Review (subscription required), which covers some of the issues surrounding judicial activism and criticism of the courts.

    Thursday, August 21, 2003
    Liberalism and democracy

    John Quiggin has linked to an old post of his trying to argue that classical/neo liberals are not in favour of or weak on democracy. Historically, it is true that liberals have worried about democracy, fearing the ‘tyranny of the majority’. But in the West, this issue has long since been resolved in democracy’s favour, and political campaigns in favour of more liberty – or legal campaigns where that is possible. The classical liberal movement of the last twenty years has 100% been conducted through the normal democratic means, trying to persuade people that we are right, or at least the best alternative.

    So far as I can tell, there are only two anti-democratic forces at work in Australian politics. There is the push for greater judicial control through a Bill of Rights, a power grab by lawyers (for examples, click here, and here).

    Classical liberal opinion is divided on a Bill of Rights, though I think more are against (see this article in the CIS journal Policy by a social democrat but reflecting widespread views), but most public advocates of a Bill of Rights would regard themselves as on the left of politics.

    Further to the left, there are assorted socialists, anti-globalisation etc protestors who while being too weak to formally challenge democratic institutions do try to deprive others of democratic freedoms, such as the right to hold meetings or express views they disagree with.

    Neither of these represent fundamental challenges to Australian democracy, but if Quiggin is looking for anti-democratic forces he’ll find more on his side of politics than mine.

    In countries without democratic traditions there is more controversy, and this takes us back to the original neoconservative debate. A substantial body of neocon opinion wants to create liberal democracies around the world. Against this, there is an argument, most recently made by Fareed Zakaria, that it is more important to establish freedom than democracy (though democracy would be an eventual goal). For neocon Robert Kagan’s blistering attack on Zakaria and Zakaria’s response check out The New Republic’s archives, good value subscription required. The Islamic world poses particular problems, since elections may result in appalling theocracies. In the second and third worlds I believe a pragmatic approach is required, with a rebuttable presumption in favour of democracy. In the Western first world the question is entirely settled.

    Wednesday, August 20, 2003
    Classical liberalism and free speech

    John Quiggin has taken issue with my classification of most people who write for the CIS as classical liberals, arguing that – he is rather brief so apologies if I mischaracterise his position – we lack concern for political freedom of speech and thought. Quiggin’s evidence for this is that Jeff Kennett tried to ‘intimidate and silence his critics’.

    This is very unconvincing. I don’t remember Kennett ever claiming to be a classical liberal, even if some of his policies were consistent with classical liberalism. To the extent Kennett was a political bully, I doubt any classical liberal endorsed it.

    In any case, saying Kennett threatened freedom of speech is a bit like all those conservatives who ran around in the mid-1990s complaining about the ‘soft totalitarianism’ of political correctness, in what struck me as a self-refuting assertion. Under Kennett, there was no political censorship of the media, protests regularly clogged the city streets, and of course enough people got the anti-Jeff message that he lost office in 1999.

    Sometimes it takes a bit of courage to have your say, whether you are coming up against a militant feminist at a university or an assertive Victorian Premier. But you are not going to end up in legal trouble (unless you are a racist).

    It’s true that on the whole Australian classical liberals haven’t written much about political freedom of speech. I can think of only half a dozen or so things I have written, on racial vilification laws and political correctness. But this is not because political freedom of speech isn’t valuable; it is because it isn’t threatened.
    Are we working too hard?

    Another part of the ACTU’s agenda is to control working hours, and to coincide with this the leftist academic Sharon Beder has an op-ed in today’s Sydney Morning Herald. I don’t want to trivialise the problems of those genuinely struggling with the work-family balance, but this is another case of leftists tyring to impose their values on others. The Australian Bureau of Statistics' Social Trends 2003
    has an article on longer hours
    , and finds that most of those actually working more than 49 hours a week are content with this. 65% wanted to work the same hours for the same pay, 8% wanted to work more hours for more pay, 16% wanted to work less but earn the same, and 11% wanted to work fewer hours and earn less.

    Beder would claim that this majority are only content with their hours because they are trapped by rising levels of debt. While this is an intuitively plausible connection, Beder provides no evidence for it, and it is inconsistent with an easing off of the proportion of the workforce working long hours over the last few years while debt continues to rise. A better explanation may be that most people who work long hours are self-employed or managers, whose workloads fluctuate with the economic cycle.

    Do you want to pay more tax?

    Meanwhile in Melbourne another bossy Sharan who thinks she knows best, ACTU President Sharan Burrow, is trying to convince us that we want to pay more tax. Peter Saunders takes a
    sceptical view of that.

    Tuesday, August 19, 2003
    Insecure opinion

    As part of its campaign for more regulation of the labour market, the ACTU yesterday released an opinion poll which, among other things, found that 64% of those polled believed job security was getting worse. Now this is an improvement - a 2000 poll by the same pollster found that 79% believed Australian workers were less secure in their jobs than they had been 10 years ago. Yet it still shows that on this issue public opinion is completely at odds with reality - there is no subjective or objective evidence to support it. The actual retrenchment rate (as of 2002) is 3.9%- well below the 6.4% it had been in the earliest survey I have found so far, 1976, and indeed the lowest figure I have found.

    Though people over-estimate their own likelihood of losing their job they are still more optimistic about their own prospects than job prospects generally. The regular Morgan polls on this issue show that 79% believed that their job was safe in 2002, a higher figure than when this survey was first done in the mid-1970s, and only 3 points off the highest level ever recorded.

    Soon I am going to write the section about this in my paper on economic reform and public opinion. I have various theories about why public opinion misses the mark: over-extrapolation from media reports about job losses, persistent unemployment causing people to be more worried about what happens if they lose their job, rising 'casual' employment, lagged fears from the early 1990s recession, and endless (though false) claims from assorted leftists that job security is getting worse. Any other ideas welcome.

    Wilson da Silva's article last week on think-tanks copped a lot of criticism from bloggers for the careless way he threw around a variety of labels as if they all meant the same thing. I've written a few articles on political labels over the years, including 'Naming the Right" in the December 2001 Quadrant. Back then, I did not even consider 'neoconservative' worth covering as it was used so infrequently. It seemed to be a distintively American phenomenon (on which I had written my Honours thesis in 1989). But with the neoconservative foreign policy view that American values should be spread abroad getting coverage here, the term has come into use - and misuse as I argue in today's Australian. I hope my little clarification of what the various labels mean (and what Hayek stands for) will help Wilson da Silva the next time he writes about think-tanks.

    Monday, August 18, 2003
    So much for auction theory

    Last Friday the readers of the Melbourne tabloid Herald-Sun newspaper were treated to some academic insight into the weekend's then forthcoming auctions for the four units featured in Channel Nine's The Block. Joshua Gans of the Melbourne Business School predicted on the basis of auction theory that "Amity and Phil have the best chance while Fiona and Adam are in the worst position". As it turned out, Amity and Phil did worst, selling their unit for $655,000, and Fiona and Adam did best, selling their property for $751,000. In fairness, Gans did note that things are not equal, because the apartments were decorated in different styles, and of course one anomalous result does not disprove his theory. But the Herald-Sun punters are unlikely to be impressed by such caveats.

    Sunday, August 17, 2003
    Digicam Review

    Ok, it's been a while coming, but here is my thoughts on the Fuiji Finepix 602Z that I purchased last year.




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