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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Conservatism: inequality rules « Previous | |Next »
October 16, 2010

I'd always thought that Australian political conservatism stood for a defence of inequality, but, despite its revitalization, this position was never made explicit My understanding is that equality in itself never can be or should be a conservative goal, since Conservatism's emphasis is on the hierarchy of society and preservation of the status quo in the name of order and stability. Equality in itself is a goal of the Left. The defence of inequality is usually coded in terms of placing the emphasis on freedom.

However, in his We simply can't give everyone a great education op-ed in The Australian Christoper Pearson makes his inequality position explicit. Referring to Gillard's view that a driving force for her politics is her passion to lessen the inequality in education he says:

On the question of what every child is entitled to, common sense must tell her that no country can afford a great education - as opposed to an adequate one - for all of its children and that it would be wasted on many of them anyway. To pretend otherwise is to pander to people's fantasies about their children's futures and to class envy about how their own lives might have been had they had more equal opportunity in their younger days.It's all of a piece with her policy of bending the rules to push an ever-increasing percentage of people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, into tertiary education.

Pearson adds that most sensible people understand that until relatively recently, degrees were designed for a small percentage of the population who were particularly gifted. The currency of higher education is already debased and the strategies proposed by the Bradley report, which Gillard commissioned, will only make matters worse.

In the conservative view human beings are seen as driven not by reason but by basic emotions, impulses and self-interest, and their activities can be explained more in terms of their individual human frailty than in terms of the social disadvantages of poverty and inequality. individual genetic differences in talent and ability must inevitably result in some economic inequality of outcome unless governments restrict the freedom of the more talented individuals to turn these talents to their own economic advantage. Economic equality of outcome, therefore, is inconsistent with individual freedom. However, inequality be kept within certain bounds to prevent social breakdown, political upheaval and disorder.

Inequality is an issue due to the “new inequality” resulting from the restructuring of Australian capitalism due to its integration into a more competitive world market for production and consumption change not only in the structure of work and income in a postindustrial order but also the deepening of class divisions along the lines of wealth inequality. What we see happening is a change not only in the structure of work and income in a postindustrial order but also the deepening of class divisions along the lines of wealth inequality.

Whereas politics had always taken precedence over economics throughout Australian political and social thought, neoliberal ideas represent the reversal of this tradition. The need to foster “free” markets at the expense of their social and political effects, as well as the optimism that characterizes such institutional forms, is spreading beyond America itself. The embrace of the market by so much of mainstream Australia thought and culture is at odds with the desires of most Australians to have a welfare state that protects their economic interests.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:10 AM | | Comments (8)


Contemporary Australian political conservatives are opposed to, and critical of, the welfare state and the social democracy that underpins it. Their arguments identify three problems:

1. the threat that bureaucratic regulation and the emergence of the central administrative state and its experts pose to the liberty of property and choice in free markets.

2. the rise of new interest group participation (expanded political pluralism) creates costly regulations and causes economic redistribution from traditional economic elites and corporations to the poor and racial minorities.

3. the problem of moral discord --ie social democracy's welfare policies and left groups frustrate the development of a moral consensus or a shared religious vision of social and political life. This has eroded any principled basis for politics and allowed the emergence of threats to the social and political stability of the nation.

Their arguments are based on the view that it is the genus (or common sense) of the democratic majority as opposed to the desires of bureaucratic experts, emerging interest groups (eg., the Greens), or moral relativists that should give direction to politics. They do not see that the majority can be factional or practice a passionate politics lacking in wisdom and antagonism towards the liberties of minorities.

Inequality is absolutely essential to underpin the conservatives' mental model of the world as a giant zero-sum project, in which we are all competing against each other. They subscribe to the Hobbesian view that one individual can only get a benefit at the expense of someone else: the classical market approach that has only winners and losers in an endless series of social transactions.

In this model, inequality is not only unavoidable, it is also positively desirable because it is the foundation of incentive. Incentive to steal a march on everyone else is the driving force for the innovation and entrepreneurship that drive economic growth. "Hey look, an iPhone, you never would have got that under socialism" is a typical conservative observation I read just yesterday.

As far as conservatives are concerned, a world in which the affluent can enjoy an endless supply of new toys like iPhones more than justifies inequality and entrenched poverty and lots of unlucky souls missing out on university study. Of course the evidence is that iPhones do not add one iota to the long-term happiness of their owners but conservatives would brush aside such research as pointless and unworthy of consideration. Long-term happiness, for them, consists of having things that other people don't; thus their almost constant, neurotic search for enemies who threaten them and their braying cries to defeat them.

Catholic conservatives are about binding moral absolutes and respect for institutional authority.

Equality is usually understood in Australian left of centre politics as make inequalities fairer, or giving people a more equal opportunity to become unequal.

What seem to be lost is the ideal of equality understood as an equality of condition that aims at equalizing what might be called people’s ‘real options’, which involves the equal enabling and empowerment of individuals.

those who defend inequality often caricature equality as the outcomes of all social processes should be the same for everyone. We all have an iPod and look the same.

"Conservatism's emphasisis on...preservationof the status quo".
Thats a Platonic thing, the seeking back to a prelapsarian time and a desire to protect the best of the old. Runs counter to Marx and co's version of creative destruction, that sweeps away something beyond retreival.
But this finally explains Stalinism to me, via De Maistre. Their initial (at least )desire to preserve the revolution caused them to embark ona costly repression that cost millions of lives, whilst carving out the very heart of normative social(ist)theory and practice.
Dying, on the inside, to survive in a contingent and unpredictable hostile new world.

It seems to me that Christopher Pearson fundamentally misunderstands what equality means as he does education. Do conservatives believe there should not be equality before the law? I think not. Perhaps what he is espousing is not conservatism, but egotism.

The proposition of unrestrained free markets is to my mind simply the arrogance of stupidity.

And from egotism to delusion, paranoia and reaction, a short step, wmmbb?
I think its a clumsy defence of self will run riot, also; like a child tantrumming that it'll do what IT wants regardless of concern for others and their feelings and rights.
Like the Leak cartoon on the Murray Darling it has abandoned even the appearance of objectivity, in its attempt to create scapegoats out of the well-intentioned and intelligent, in pursuit of goals that such a mentality itself inevitably must fail to understand the irrelevance and futility thereof.