The liberal inheritance
November 13 2006
Extract from the Sir John Latham Memorial Lecture,
Sydney, November 8, 2006
The history wars and the culture wars are a fraud, declares Kevin Rudd. In the latest edition of The Monthly magazine, the Labor frontbencher says they are the creation of that wily coyote, John Howard, who wants to divert people's attention while behind their backs he devotes himself to the real business of imposing an “unrestrained market capitalism” that sweeps all before it.
The result, according to Rudd, is that family relations and community institutions are being laid waste by the unforgiving forces of neo-liberalism, materialism and consumerism.
Rudd draws heavily on a chapter in the recent book, Beyond Left and Right, by University of Technology Sydney lecturer David McKnight, who denounces the social consequences of Friedrich von Hayek's theories of neo-liberalism.
Rudd quotes McKnight saying: “Hayek's intellectual paradigm has turbo-charged the privatised, marketised economy, which is relentlessly encroaching on the life world of family, friends and community. The invisible hand is clutching at the invisible heart and slowly choking it.”
Unfortunately for Rudd, McKnight took his evidence about social change from feminist authors whose data is jaundiced and out-of-date.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics' Australian Social Trends 2006 , the Howard decade has not overseen the demise of family, church and community. On the contrary, Australian families are thriving.
Between 1995 and 2005 the total number of families increased by 15 per cent to 5.5 million. The overall fertility rate has not changed much but the internal trends are good, with the proportion of births to young single women down, and the proportion to older married women up. The divorce rate is down overall, and quite dramatically so in families with children under 18.
Women's employment has increased slightly, more in part-time than full-time work, while men have significantly increased their use of flexible work arrangements to share in the care of their children, up from 24 to 30 per cent in a decade. The growth in jobs has seen the proportion of families where no parent is employed fall from 8.4 to 5.3 per cent.
The social indicators of community tell the same story. The proportion of people acting as volunteers has leapt from 24 to 34 per cent. Parents are pleased about a greater choice of schools. Christianity is enjoying a strong revival in the new, outer suburbs.
There is no mystery about why any of this has occurred. You don't need a sociologist to tell you that economic prosperity fosters happier families and better communities. Rudd should get himself a less ideological advisor on social policy.
Indeed, David McKnight's accusation that neo-liberalism ruins family life is disingenuous. As a radical journalist in the 1970s and 80s, McKnight lived through the period when family breakdown rates soared, and he knows the real causes originated mostly on the left of the political spectrum, including:
the 1960s sexual revolution which promoted promiscuity as the key to happiness;
the radical feminist movement which told women to throw out their husbands because all men were beasts;
the revolution in the divorce laws made by leftist divorcee Lionel Murphy and administered by the Family Court of feminist divorcee Elizabeth Evatt;
the Whitlam government's introduction of welfare for single mothers which made the state a substitute for the father as family provider;
and the rapid rise of unemployment in the late 1970s and early 1980s which devastated many Australian families and for which the much-maligned neo-liberalism has proven itself the only cure.
Rudd's economic solution to the problems he misidentifies is to return to social democracy. At present, enough Australians remember the consequences of social democracy to make this a hard package to sell. Social democracy eventually gives you the banana republic.
Either that or the European variety of corporate capitalism with low economic and population growth, high unemployment, and a highly regulated, environmentally virtuous, unadventurous society.
Rudd has, however, done us all a favour by also sparking a different debate about religion in politics, which has for too long been a taboo topic.
Despite its tolerance of diversity, Australia remains a Christian country. Even its secularists think in Christian terms.
It's an old critique of Marxism that its millenarian promise of a socialist utopia was little more than a secular Christian heresy. Ben Chifley's “light on the hill” was an example of the same promise to seek heaven on earth.
I've argued elsewhere that evangelical Christianity, which aimed to apply the principles of the gospels to social life, was one of Australia 's two founding creeds and remains alive and well today.
You can still see it in action everywhere. Our middle class, tertiary-educated left, with its campaign for the 3Rs of refugees, reconciliation and republic, is essentially evangelical.
These days, there are fewer Protestants among the movement and more Catholics -- most notably William Deane and the Brennan family -- while the majority are now secularist, though no less evangelical for that.
The other great intellectual influence on Australia 's foundation, the Scottish Enlightenment, was sceptical of the claims of all religion, but was not hostile to them. Rudd correctly observes that the Scottish Enlightenment's great thinker, Adam Smith, was primarily a moral philosopher who cared about the poor and wanted to alleviate their condition as much as any church pastor.
As Gertrude Himmelfarb has shown in her superb book Roads to Modernity, the ideas of the Enlightenment in Britain were conveyed to the populace by the Church, especially the evangelicals and the Wesleyans.
In Australian history, Manning Clark's notion that there was a fundamental clash between Christianity and Enlightenment secularism was wrong. As in Britain , the Australian churches were happy to spread scientific ideas -- Darwinism excepted -- and to promote the notion of material progress. The principle that united both the Christian vision and the secular scientific mindset was a belief in the objectivity of reason and truth.
That is why the deep ideological chasm that has opened up so visibly today between the evangelical Left and those it labels neo-liberals is so out of character with our history.
Neo-liberalism is actually the wrong term. What we have today is a revival of traditional liberalism, the Scottish Enlightenment variety of Adam Smith.
In Australia, that kind of liberalism once thrived in the Free Trade Party and in the writings of Australia 's greatest nineteenth century liberal thinker Bruce Smith. It suffered a political eclipse in the early twentieth century but enjoyed an overdue revival in the 1980s.
To portray this kind of liberalism as the font of greed and selfishness and the destroyer of family and community not only seriously misunderstands it but also misreads Australian history and the forces that have made us what we are.
Keith Windschuttle is author of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History and, most recently, The White Australia Policy (both, Macleay Press). This is an extract from the Sir John Latham Memorial Lecture at a Quadrant dinner in Sydney last Wednesday night. His website is www.sydneyline.com