Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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    Friday, December 19, 2003
    The Surfdom Roadie turns his nose up at some fresh crow - bloody well-cooked, the Catallaxy style.

    Tim Dunlop has started a blog flame war over Howard's legacy that he cannot win.

    In the course of my blog wanderings I came accross this pique of cheek from the Cyber-Surfing blogger, who musters the nerve to criticise my predictions about Labor's propensity to play me-tooism to Howard's ideological agenda:

    All this rather puts the lie to Jack Strocchi's recent observation that even if he loses, Howard will win:

    "Howard may not win the election, but the fact that his rivals are falling over themselves to fall inline with his policies means that his victories will live on beyond him, and that it is still to early to gaze in vindictive awe at his 'shattered visage'."

    Admittedly he wrote this before Latham took over, but even then, as I said at the time, it was a stretch. I think it is an even bigger stretch now

    I will be happy to eat crow over my pessimism over Latham's electoral prospects, since I am broadly sympathetic with his world view. But I don't think there is much chance of that happening. When you have got the real thing, why go for a policy-derivative substitute with an aversive personality?

    But this only rubs in the bi-partisan durability of Howard's legacy. It is TD who should be doing the crow-eating since my prediction that the ALP would chose a leader and platform who conforms to Howard's neo-liberal/neo-conservative ideological agenda appears to have been spot on, validated by independent commentators and Latham's policy flip-flops.

    It is TD's prediction, the Howard-specific agenda would be consigned to the Dustbin of History, that is itself Historical Dustbin-headed.

    Latham follows Howard on virtually all items mentioned in my Howard's UnHoly Trinity blog: military security, economic prosperity & civic identity.

    Latham apes Howard on:

    • raising the threshold on the top-marginal tax rate

    • getting tough on people smugglers

    • opposing touchy-feely symbolic identity politics

    • maintaining the GST

    • encouraging small business

    Even where Latham used to differ on Howard, he is in the process of back-pedalling. He has stopped talking about dropping the negative gearing house price inflating tax break. And Latham recently suffered the indignity of kissing the ring of the US ambassador, in order to mitigate the offence of his anti-GWB remarks, wrapped in the US flag to boot. Howard would never dare stoop to such US-obsequuties.

    As experieced (and paid) commentator, James Morrow, astutely points out, Latham's policies are hard to differentiate from Howard, so the non-Left is on a hiding to nothing:
    Indeed, when talk turns to economics, Latham is a born Liberal...used to write columns in The Australian Financial Review, headlined "The poor need capitalism" and "It's time for Labor to jettison the Left"... with illegal immigration -- a hot-button issue for the Left if there ever was one -- Latham proves to be just as conservative as Howard, and indeed most Australians. Much to the annoyance of his more Left-leaning colleagues
    So TD is wrong that Howard's legacy is ephemeral. It lives on in the new poster-boy of the frustrated Left.

    It really does not get any better than that.

    The illiberal French

    All liberal societies have a separation of church (or synagogue, or mosque) and state. The purpose of this, however, was not to create secular societies, but to protect both church and state by so far as possible removing religious issues from political contention. Instead of trying to prescribe religious orthodoxy through the state, religious matters would be left to individual choice.

    In trying to ban Muslim headscarves and other prominent displays of religious belief from government schools the French are, I think, making a big mistake. They are turning religious identity into a political issue. The consequences of this are hard to predict in detail, but this pointless provocation of a very large minority, and a minority with a global history of violence, cannot be good for France. Schools themselves should not express any religious view, but pupils' silent expressions of who they are present no challenge to the secular state or any other important value or institution.

    Update: Jacob Levy notes that the French ban also applies to visible political symbols, such as badges. Since political views are generally less integral to personal identity than religion I'm less concerned by this ban, but it still seems like overkill. The whole episode highlights the potential dangers of state control of any important service, since unreasonable conditions can be attached while leaving people dependent on the service with few alternatives. A strong argument for tolerance can be found in Chandran Kukathas's new book The Liberal Archipelago, which I review in the latest issue of Policy. My review is not yet on-line, but the magazine is available in many newsagents.

    Thursday, December 18, 2003
    Dictionary confusion

    A copy of the new Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary turned up in the office today. I checked for their definition of 'economic rationalism', which is 'the theory or practice of a government using narrow definitions of efficiency and productivity (including privatisation, deregulation and low government spending) as measures of economic success, without regard to government's traditional economic responsibilities to the public sector and the welfare state.'

    If dictionaries are intended to help readers understand things then this is a hopelessly bad entry. Privatisation, deregulation and and low government spending are not definitions, wide or narrow, of efficiency or productivity. We can argue about causal relationships between them, but they certainly do not define each other. I doubt many people, economic rationalists or otherwise, would see efficiency or productivity as measures of economic success. They are generally necessary conditions of some real measures of economic success, such as rising living standards, and so they are certainly important economic indicators. But they are means to ends. And a plausible argument can be made that a central purpose of the economic rationalist reform agenda, started by the Hawke-Keating Labor government, and continued by the big spending Howard-Costello government, was precisely to finance, and therefore protect, 'traditional economic responsibilities to the public sector and the welfare state'.

    On the other hand, dictionaries record usage. Words mean what people mean when they say them, and so new words enter the language all the time, and old words see their meanings evolve. On this basis, the Concise Oxford definition reflects the utter confusion experienced by most of the left and the conservative right when using the term 'economic rationalism'. They have no idea what they are talking about, and nor will anyone who looks up 'economic rationalism' in the Concise Oxford.

    Sunday, December 14, 2003
    Uncivil car alarms

    An interesting op-ed in The New York Times argues that car alarms are bad for civility.

    Personally, I think this is true. They are bad for my civility. Frankly, I think people with car alarms deserve to have their cars stolen, and like 99% of people in an American survey I do not call the police when I hear one. Though I don't - unlike some Americans reported in the article - puncture the tires of cars with alarms blaring, or throw my toaster at them, I can well understand the sentiment.

    Given that car alarms don't reduce car theft, all they do is wake people up, drown out conversation, and terrify pets. There's legislation to ban them in New York; let's hope that this is the start of a trend.




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