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February 23rd 2011 print

James Allan

Conservatives and reform

When Wayne Swan sets up a flood levy that is so shot full with loopholes and gaps that multi-millionaires on river front properties who lost power for three days are not only exempt, but get a nice cheque in the post, his response seems to be to blame the people who take what the rules give them.


Ask yourself this: Can a conservative be in favour of reform?


The question matters because the Gillard government is trying desperately to sell itself as a reforming outfit. And one rhetorical tactic involves simply asserting that since conservatives want to conserve, they can’t be in favour of reform.

Of course in that literal sense I highly doubt there are any ‘conservatives’ on the planet. No one wants to conserve everything. No one thinks he or she lives in the best of all possible worlds.

So how about this for an answer? I figure the gist of conservatism is 1) Realism about human nature; 2) the conviction that the State and government is more likely to screw up than people, whether acting individually or in groups they choose to belong to themselves; and 3) in some countries, but by no means all, many or most of the inherited institutions and practices are worth preserving because odds are they deliver better outcomes and consequences than any explicitly articulated new alternative is likely to do.

On this basis conservatism is justified, if at all, because it delivers better consequences. You hold up the status quo against some mooted alternative. Now if that alternative is in terms of emotive moral abstractions devoid of pretty much all detail (maybe a vague image of all citizens with super-fast internet or amorphous references to a home grown head of state or fuzzy notions of energy efficient roof insulation spending) then conservatives will tend to be opposed.

Sure, it will matter what your starting point is when you talk about reform. People in southern Sudan have little reason to want to conserve anything. By marked contrast, people in Australia are remarkably lucky. They have won the lottery and ended up in a country with (and I know this will annoy so many ABC types) the best written constitution in the world and wonderful legal, linguistic and cultural inheritances.

By chance, in other words, the hurdle for reform on the basis of some mooted alternative being likely to produce better consequences is a pretty high one here in Australia. It’s not impossible, just very, very high. Based on likely future consequences, there is much to conserve Down Under.

Yet accepting all that in no way at all forecloses one from supporting reform. Take free trade. Support for this, in my view, clearly has good consequences. Any inherited roadblocks or practices on the side of mercantilism and protectionism, however Aussie or traditional, ought to be removed. Same goes for most of the reforms undertaken by the Keating and Howard governments.

I would add to those by saying our Australian universities are in desperate need of reform, having become the most pervasively managerialist and over-administered ones in the rich English-speaking world.

I’m sure there are plenty of other areas where many self-styled conservatives here in Australia would agree that reform is needed, in some cases urgently so.

Now let’s turn back to this Gillard government and its attempt to brand itself as a ‘reformist’ one. Notice first off that every single one of its so-called reforms involves taking money from individual citizens and making the State bigger.  

This applies to the carbon tax – a bigger State having more involvement in the economy. This applies to the super mining tax – ditto. This applies to the flood levy – ditto, but only for one year. Same goes for the National Broadband Network scheme. And who can forget the grotesquely named, and even more grotesquely administered, Building the Education Revolution? In fact pretty much everything that Prime Minister Gillard labels ‘reform’ is in fact more government involvement in the economy, meaning its spending as a percentage of GDP will no doubt rise.

Now it is no way at all clear that any of this will produce good long-term consequences. Smart, nice, well-informed people will disagree. But the overwhelming chunk of conservatives (see my point 2) above) will oppose these things. They’re not against reform in the abstract. They’re against these tax and spend proposals, many of which assume that government will do a good job picking winners, that Keynesian government stimulus spending works and is warranted, and that all that extra government revenue-raising and spending won’t crowd out private investment and won’t lead to huge waste and inefficiency.

A tangential concern for this Gillard government is to paint itself as fiscally responsible. But notice that it focuses solely on the criterion of not running a budget deficit.

For conservatives that largely misses the point. The former New Zealand Labour Government of Helen Clark was very careful not to run deficits. But they stuffed up the New Zealand economy nonetheless because they achieved that feat by raising taxes, allowing tax bracket creep, and continually boosting the share of government spending vis-a-vis GDP.

Put differently, it’s how the deficit is eliminated that largely matters (although this Gillard government may not be able to eliminate it in any way at all).

That leads to my point 1) above about being conservative. The idea of human beings as blank slates formed overwhelmingly by social forces and inculcation (say, by men oppressing women or the rich doing that to the poor) is wrong. We’re born, as the Harvard academic Steven Pinker puts it, with a whole bunch of stuff hard-wired into us.

Why does this matter? Well, when Wayne Swan sets up a flood levy that is so shot full with loopholes and gaps that multi-millionaires on river front properties who lost power for three days are not only exempt, but get a nice cheque in the post, his response seems to be to blame the people who take what the rules give them.

What kind of view of human nature does Mr. Swan have? Does this politician who dragged himself up through the Labor Party ranks really think human beings are born wholly altruistic? Does he think a badly crafted levy is fixed by proclaiming that he thinks some who claim the dispensation are offensive (though in more earthy language)? Only by adopting a wholly unrealistic view of human nature could one expect others not to seek to avoid this levy if they legally can, or for that matter, legally to avoid paying as much tax as possible or even to get in on all the largesse being sprayed around under the building the education revolution.

Reform that involves ever more government revenue-raising combined with the naive hope that everyone outside your own political party is saint-like and not made of crooked timber seems doomed not to produce good long-term consequences. It’s not really what most of us think of as reform at all.


James Allan is Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland