The Twenty-First-Century Conservative

core beliefs IIPresent, past and future: The era of big-government post-industrialism that began in the late 1960s has entered its geriatric twilight phase. Look around, what do you see? Global stagnation.

The reaction of voters and governments has varied. Broadly there have been four responses. The first is the institutional Keynesian low-interest-rate approach. This is favoured by organisational elites who today are predominately university-trained Left-liberals of one kind or another. The policy of low interest rates punishes savers, redistributes wealth to mortgagees, and encourages the growth of government debt that future generations will have to pay off at much higher interest rates. The second response is populist nostalgia. It dreams of going back to 1970s-style mercantilist industry protection and welfare-state neo-socialism. The third response is the nothing-has-changed head-in-the-sand approach. Ever-increasing spending on education and health in the big-government postmodern era created jobs, so let’s borrow to keep doing the same. The fourth response, the conservative approach, is to double down on the Thatcher-Reagan-Dry methods of the 1980s: lower taxes, tariff cuts, privatisation, deregulation, and less government spending.

All these responses, in their own ways, have failed. The deficit-spending ultra-cheap-money policies don’t work. Their record of stimulating economies is poor. The populist shelter-shield-protect approach entrenches failed industries and stagnant mendicant regions. The education-and-health industry is a spurious economy. It can’t create wealth, only consume it. Conservative policies of reducing taxes and tariffs, and privatising industries, had good effects. The 1980s Dry hands-off agenda for example enabled the information technology industries to take off. Yet conservative-liberals had only limited success in reducing government regulation and spending. The mix of government-funded health-and-education lobbies, centre-Left parties, Left-liberal universities, and more recently the populist shelter-shield-protect parties have proved effective over time in expanding regulation-and-spending.

Looked at from that angle, it might sound as if a conservative is a kind of classical liberal. After all the British Conservative Prime Minister Robert Peel wagered his premiership on getting Parliament to end the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846. Winston Churchill broke with the Liberal Party and returned to the Conservatives in 1924 because he was a free-trader.[1] But classical liberalism, today embodied in its pure form in libertarian parties, has a poor understanding of national defence. Libertarians mostly are isolationists or pacifists. They also typically endorse the hyper-individualism of postmodern personal life. The monad-like liberty of the libertarians contrasts with the ordered liberty of conservatives. Ordered liberty balances freedom with the pursuit of happiness, prosperity and security. As Churchill put it: people want to be “happy and free, prosperous and safe”.[2] Personal and political liberties rest on durable commitments just as those long-lasting allegiances are the fruit of human liberty. Dynamic modern economies are built on mutually beneficial, freely chosen binding contractual promises. Flourishing households are the result of the enduring mutual commitments of love and fidelity combined with the propensity for judicious mobility, hard work, and saving for the long run. Historically the dual-headed household and the nuclear family were the flexible functional social bases of the most successful modern societies, notably those of coastal north-western Europe and the Anglosphere.[3]

The terms “conservative” and “Conservative Party” came into currency in the United Kingdom in the 1830s. Sometimes it was suggested that a conservative was someone who infused a Whig spirit into Tory politics.[4] But the coining of the term “conservative” in the early 1830s had much more to do in reality with the incipient rise of modern publics, markets, industries and cities. By 1900 Conservative Party electoral success was based on its domination of the newly expanding London suburbs.[5] Court and church were beginning to decline in influence. Consequently old dividing lines in English politics, such as the exclusion of Catholics from public life, were diminishing in importance. Crossing over between Whig and Tory had long been a feature of British politics. Indeed all party politics eventually turns into its opposite. From the 1880s to the 1930s some of the most serious American conservatives, including Grover Cleveland, John W. Davis and Al Smith, were members of the Democratic Party. After the New Deal their numbers steadily shrank.

In the 1980s and 1990s there were still a considerable number of conservative (boll-weevil, blue-dog) Democrats in Congress. They supported conservative policies: lower taxes, reduced regulation, increased Cold War military spending. More and more they were outnumbered and marginalised by liberal-Democrats. The liberal-Democrats included institutional liberals who, like John Kenneth Galbraith, saw liberalism as a union of big government, big unions and big business; activist liberals intent on cultural social engineering; and pseudo-liberal neo-socialists eager to extend executive power in order to increase government spending on domestic social programs. In response conservative-Democrat voters and activists switched political affiliation. They joined the growing conservative wing of the Republican Party. Scoop Jackson Democrats became Republican neo-conservatives. In that, though, they were ultimately little different from the Pittites or the Peelites in British politics who segued from Whigs to Tories and from the Conservative Party to the Liberal Party.


Conservative principles

Much of the political history of the Anglosphere is contained in miniature within the fracture lines of the British Liberal Party, divided as it was between the classic free-trade laissez-faire low-tax Peelite liberalism of William Gladstone and a Left-liberalism that extended from J.S. Mill to J.M. Keynes and William Beveridge. From the 1880s to the 1980s socialism competed with Left-liberalism but then self-deceased. Its followers migrated to radical-liberal pressure groups and public-sector-union-dominated Labor Party politics. Australia’s Liberal Party combined, often uneasily, classic liberals and Left-liberals. John Howard described the party as a coalition of small-l liberals and conservatives, heirs of J.S. Mill and Edmund Burke respectively.[6] Both descriptions are right in different ways. Progressive-liberals can be Left or Right, Dry or Wet, or sometimes both. While conservatives lean toward classic liberal views, conservatives leaven liberalism, of all kinds, with a deep sense of transcendent durability.

The conservative disposition (ironically) is a function of modern society. Modernity periodically unleashes massive forces of change. Some of these are beneficial. Some are destructive. The French Revolution was the great cautionary example of destructive change. At other times modern societies stagnate, like Britain in the 1970s or Japan since 1990. Robin Harris put it well: a conservative is not someone who wants to “return to the past” but rather wants “to shape the future without losing sight of what is and what has been”.[7] The irony is that the most successful modern societies are those that, for all their forward-looking dynamism, have a core ballast that ties together present, past and future. The denizens of these societies handle change well. They drive it, temporise it, and adapt to it. They do this effectively because they recognise in themselves and the larger society a core that is permanent and durable. This core offers a substance, an essence, a heart, that lasts through all of the seasons of change.

Part, but always only part, of this substance—this long-lasting glue of society—is political. In politics what is permanent is principle. Principles have applications. Every generation applies what is permanent to what is passing.

Six principles define the outlook of the political conservative. Each of these has a contemporary application that links what is durable and permanent to the unavoidably perishable moment of our present time.

Limited government. Anglosphere conservatives are sceptical of big government. This does not mean no government, but rather modest government. In the last century the size of government has multiplied, often funded by debts and deficits. The growth of government spending needs constantly to be trimmed. Otherwise real economic growth, the basis of “prosperity and happiness”, is sacrificed. Government taxation-and-allocation crowds out private investment and household consumption.

Elegant government. The expansion of government in the twentieth century provided a model for a ballooning bureaucratic society. Government led the way. Firms, schools, universities and hospitals followed suit. Each became dominated by obsequious language, vacuous procedures, pointless paperwork, bossy experts, stifling standardisation and the proliferation of petty rules. Large-scale social engineering was attempted as myriad administrative regulations were created to regulate behaviour. Over the past century the intricate bureaucratic rules of the administrative state have become as influential as the common law or the broad provisions of classic parliamentary law.

Nightwatchman government. Some functions of government are indispensable. Generally that includes police, emergency services, courts, prisons and the military. Debate though often surrounds the military. It’s an instrument of force, and war is expensive. Prominent Burkean conservatives like the great Robert Nisbet have been virtual pacifists; likewise most libertarians.[8] Fiscal conservatives know that war can drive modern states into crippling debt. National security conservatives on other hand point to the recurring threat of aggressive authoritarian ideologies. Over the course of the last century, militarism, fascism, communism and jihadism have repeatedly attacked liberal democracies. Virulent transnational jihadi-sharia ideologies have frustrated both isolationism and interventionism. This has left conservatives today cautiously charting a course of “isoventionism” mixing policies of enhanced sovereign border control and tougher scrutiny of sharia law nations with surgical intervention and deep scepticism of one-world liberal utopianism.[9]

Self-government. The converse of limited government is the expansion of self-government. In a self-governed state, individuals and households assume key roles from big government. This reverses the logic of the last century. After 1910 governments expanded incessantly. Looking back we see that this expansion occurred principally in the areas of health, education and retirement income. Today 50 per cent of government taxation-and-allocation is devoted to health, education and pensions.[10] If this expenditure behemoth could be reversed then the problem of big bureaucratic government could be fixed. But how? The most practical and promising model is national saving accounts for all citizens. Like taxation it would be compulsory but would replace a major portion of taxation. Moreover, unlike with the tax system, citizens would retain control of how they spent their health and education dollars. Over a lifetime they would be able to move savings between health, education and retirement. Dollars would be spent directly on services rather than being subject to needless resource-consuming round-robin administrative processing and allocation. Savings would purchase routine services and insurance against unpredictable big costs. Negative taxation would apply to the accounts of low-income earners.[11]

Household government. The most successful modern societies—those of north-western Europe and their offshoots, the New World settler societies—had a common social building block: the nuclear family. Historically this family type was the exception, not the rule. It encouraged mobility. It was small (mother, father, children) so it was easy to move elsewhere. In its purest form its members were able to will their property as they wished.[12] Children possessed no formal legal entitlement to parental property and had no obligation to reside in the family household. This encouraged independence and self-reliance, key factors in economic and social dynamism. The resulting social system is often referred to as “individualism”. This is partially true. Liberty-in-property encouraged individual initiative. But it also encouraged behaviour based on couples. This was as much a social system of dualism as individualism. It was built on the deep bonds of love, fidelity and the mutualism of pairs.

Today two-parent (mother-father) households strongly correlate with high levels of human welfare and happiness.[13] The mutual aid and social complementarity of these households mean that they have significantly lower rates of poverty than other household types. Children from two-parent households achieve higher educational success, lower rates of unemployment and lower imprisonment rates. The chief vehicle of human welfare is the double-headed household. Yet post-industrial societies have seen a sharp increase in the percentage of sole-parent and single-person households. Today an astonishing 37 per cent of German households are lone-person households. A quarter of Australian and American households are single-person households and 10 per cent are single-parent households.[14] Historically successful, mutually beneficial dualism is gradually being replaced by lonerism. In some countries like Germany this is demographically crippling; everywhere else it is lacerating for human welfare.

Conciliar government. Anglosphere countries led the way in developing systems of conciliar government. These were built around energetic public life based on robust public speech and law-making that was grounded in vigorous debate. The rise of the bureaucratic society altered this. Executive power increasingly over-determined democratic legislatures. The conciliar governance of previously independent intermediate bodies (such as universities) was replaced by systems of managerial direction ultimately beholden to the state. As bureaucracies spread, free-wheeling speech declined. Weasel words replaced frank speech. In place of honest debate, a pervasive sanitised soft-totalitarian language of anodyne lachrymose keywords proliferated. This language is dishonest, ungainly and vacuous. It is used to defend the indefensible and manufacture phony solutions to non-problems. Sceptics who take issue with the colourless sanctimony, awkward euphemisms and spurious authority of right-minded, self-eulogising pseudo-expertise are routinely castigated in efforts to silence them. Conservatives rely on direct temperate speech and witty iconoclastic rebuttals in dealing with what has become the leaden, monotonous and cumbersome droning of a political class that has forgotten how to debate.


Pitiful slogans

The federal election in Australia in 2016 was a perfect example of the contemporary battle of clichés. The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, campaigned on a three-word slogan “jobs and growth”, which he repeated mechanically hundreds of times. The eyes of the electorate glazed over. His Labor opponent, Bill Shorten, had his own three-word formula: “health and education”. This is what the dying days of the post-industrial era offered: worn banalities and dead truisms congealed in empty slogans. The result of the election was an almost dead-heat with the Liberal-National Coalition emerging with a tenuous one-seat effective majority in the lower house and a politically fraught crossbench-dominated Senate.

When Malcolm Turnbull came to power in September 2015, in a party-room coup that toppled his long-time conservative rival Tony Abbott, he promised the nation “a style of leadership that respects the people’s intelligence”. He pledged a “twenty-first-century government” along with a “national innovation agenda”, “eco-systems of innovation”, “new sources of growth”, “future-proofing”, “business research collaboration” and “training students for the jobs of the future”.[15] The twenty-first century would be a “century of ideas”, driven by “human capital” and “intellectual capital”. This lazy compendium of late post-industrial innovation industry policy blurb a decade previous would have had limited saliency; a decade on, it sounded like a script written by Spike Milligan.

Peter Drucker, an admirer of the great conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter, conceptualised knowledge work in 1959 and the knowledge society in 1969.[16] Friedrich Hayek’s friend and Ludwig Mises’s student Fritz Machlup first analysed in detail knowledge-producing industries and information machines in 1962.[17] In the fifty-five years since Machlup’s work we have had multiple iterations of essentially the same thing: the information economy, the knowledge economy, e-commerce, the digital economy, creative industries, and the ideas economy. In the 1980s statist versions of the information economy idea began to appear. The ALP politician Barry Jones in 1982 projected a world where welfare, education, administration and the transfer of information dominated employment.[18] That would come to pass. In December 2015 Malcolm Turnbull was promising the same old “new” economy. “By unleashing our innovation, unleashing our imagination, being prepared to embrace change, we usher in the ideas boom.” My, what vacuity.

Turnbull’s election campaign was the worst ever conducted by a sitting prime minister since Billy McMahon in 1972. His problem was clear. On what ground can a contemporary Left-Liberal run that the Labor Party does not already occupy? Liberals in the Mill-and-Keynes mould cannot fight elections on privatisation, cutting government spending, free trade or national security because these are all resolutely conservative-liberal positions. Turnbull could not even manage to electioneer on curtailing abusive union power, his ostensible reason for the 2016 double dissolution. He stumped like a rabbit caught in the headlights of history. The underlying reality is that he has no deep belief in anything that differs from his opponents and has no abiding political vision. Small business offers a major future employment pathway for Australians. The Turnbull Liberals offered a tax reduction for small business before the election yet said almost nothing about this during the campaign. Instead they eagerly promised to supplement Australia’s legacy-economy union-dominated wage-and-salary industry superannuation system whilst penalising DIY self-managed superannuants. Even the troubled mendicant Labor state of South Australia in its 2016 budget began to offer employment incentives to small business.

The best post-mortem of the 2016 election was done by Turnbull’s Coalition partners, the National Party.[19] The Nationals’ vote grew while the Liberal vote declined. This implied that the Nationals knew something the Turnbull Liberals did not. In a clear-eyed assessment, Barnaby Joyce’s party complained that voters simply did not understand Turnbull’s jobs-and-growth pitch. This incomprehension was hardly surprising. Not only was the campaign waged in pitiful slogans but it was unclear that the Turnbull-favoured high-tech industries could produce many jobs (productivity and wealth, yes; but relatively few jobs). For their part in the 2016 elections the Nationals avoided the Turnbull’s economy mantra. They refused to talk about “agility”. “Most people live in the old economy,” one National wryly observed, “and they equate the new economy with losing their job and having to find another one.” The Nationals represent the poorest parts of Australia (the regions). So they are aware of the long-term effects of automation on the economy. First agricultural and later manufacturing jobs have disappeared. Now mining and service jobs are going as auto-industrialisation takes hold. Every week stories are reported like BHP Billiton’s plan to use conveyor belts rather than trucks to move ore, its use of drones to check that there are no people in blast areas, or Rio Tinto’s scheme for driverless trains.[20]

Blue-collar and pink-collar voters are never going to get excited about job elimination even if it is true that general economic prosperity is a function of increased productivity as machines replace jobs. The Liberal Party has gone from holding four seats in Western Sydney under John Howard to six seats under Tony Abbott to three seats under Malcolm Turnbull. Western Sydney is the geographic area in Sydney most susceptible to future job elimination due to auto-industrialisation.[21] The Nationals’ approach of “don’t mention the war” paid electoral dividends in the short term. But it is no help in the long run. After all, many of their electorates are in parts of Australia that are going to be severely affected by the current wave of industry automation.[22]

Technological change is implacable and irreversible. That is as old as the first industrial revolution. Hands raised magically against the tide will not work. Nor will statist subsidisation of old industrial economies or populist rage against the banks. Nor will statements eulogising technological disruption as “our friend” if the proponents cannot articulate what kind of work lies on the other side of that disruption.[23] The core of being “happy and free, prosperous and safe” is to be able to work. Technological change is a fact of modern life. It is also the enduring source of successive generations of work. This is where conservatives enter the picture. Conservative notions of “self-government” and “household government” are central to the kind of work that the emerging auto-industrial economy will favour.

The Turnbull Liberals sound as if they were the first-ever to discover information machines. This is not without its ironies. To sandbag votes in the dying industrial economy of South Australia, the Liberal Party announced a forty-year $50 billion submarine project to be built principally in Adelaide, creating 378 jobs directly in South Australia and another 1856 indirectly, out of a total state workforce of 811,000.[24] High-tech manufacturing is important for wealth creation and national defence but not for job creation. The days of mass factory workforces are gone. Four hundred jobs in high-tech manufacturing hardly compares even with the last gasp of old-line mass manufacturing in South Australia—the 1600 jobs in Holden’s Elizabeth manufacturing plant, which closes in 2017. In forty years time there is more than a good chance that Australia’s submarines will be unmanned drones produced in robot-run people-less factories. These will be essential in the future maritime conflict zones of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Important as these vessels are for national defence, they are not going to solve the conundrum of where the occupations of the future are going to come from as automation bites ever more deeply not just in the old primary and secondary industries but increasingly in the post-industrial administrative and service industries.[25]

The Labor Party’s alternative to Malcolm Turnbull’s high-tech industry and business-research collaboration approach is the blind relentless expansion of the public sector—“schools, hospitals, jobs” as Bill Shorten put it.[26] This is post-industrialism circa 1990 writ large. It is burnished with talk of “skilling up Australians”, overcoming “talent hurdles”, and creating “regional innovation hubs”. The inflation of language is a sign of an era ending as ever more florid terms are bandied around by people who cannot distinguish between slickness and significance. Labor matched Turnbull’s jargon-ridden mash-up with their own word salad of incubators, accelerators, angel investors, eco-systems of innovation, debt-free STEM degrees, and gee-whiz “launching pads” to turn Australian-born Silicon Valley employees into “Kangaroo Valley” entrepreneurs. But the party’s sights remained firmly fixed on a 1990s model of post-industrial statism. After the election Shorten appointed six shadow ministers for education.[27] During the election campaign he put in so many appearances at hospitals one might have begun to doubt his health.


Power without authority

If you are unclear on what retro-post-industrialism is, then take a peek at South Australia. The state’s principal industry is no longer manufacturing but rather the manufacture of public servants. It has 81,000 of them, 10 per cent of the state’s workforce (compared with Victoria’s 8.7 per cent).[28] Some public spending is necessary. Economists vary in their assessments of the optimal level. Estimates range between 17 per cent and 30 per cent of a nation’s GDP.[29] Australia’s public spending in 2014 was 36 per cent of GDP.[30] In 1901 it was 17 per cent; in 1972, 27 per cent.[31] Public spending is a curate’s egg. Some of it has demonstrable social and economic value. The remainder is unproductive and unnecessary. As the administrative state has grown over the past century, the volume of superfluous state activity has grown even faster. There are only so many useful things the state can do. The rest is redundant, excessive or gratuitous.

Take the case of health spending. In 1995-96 there were 0.21 managers and administrators for every health practitioner (doctor, nurse or technician) in the Queensland state health system; in 2011-12 the figure was 0.31. Nationwide in 2015 there was one administrator for every 3.4 hospital beds.[32] As regulation grows, administration snowballs. Regulation means process-tasks not just for administrators but for practitioners as well. In 2009 John Graham calculated that $3 billion out of the $7 billion spent on public hospital salaries in New South Wales went to non-practitioners.[33] This was achieved historically by changes in governance and by tying government subsidies to rules, paperwork and audits. Intermediate bodies like hospitals were stripped of their independence. In New South Wales in the 1980s autonomous hospital boards were abolished and replaced by managerial area health systems. A similar process took place in universities, with the abolition of professorial boards.

This poses a problem for Burkean conservatives. Their dilemma is well illustrated by the contemporary American reform conservative Yuval Levin. Echoing the American Burkeans Robert Nisbet and Russell Kirk, Levin argues that conservatives ought to turn their attention from national government to mediating institutions such churches, unions, charities, schools and civic groups.[34] The problem though is that such bodies have been managerialised. Their grass-roots membership has exited. The junk language of the bureaucratic society permeates them. The great prophet of this was James Burnham. The function of state officials, Burnham wryly observed, is to make mountains out of molehills that don’t matter and molehills out of mountains that do.[35] As civil society has been bureaucratised, the same precept has filtered down to most sizable non-government associations, agencies and institutions.

What is the result of the comprehensive bureaucratisation of society? As government grows, long-term economic growth and social outcomes shrink. The Gillard Labor government in 2013 increased federal spending on schools. The outlay consequently grew 23 per cent between 2013 and 2016.  The result of this increase was a decline in Australia’s 2016 NAPLAN writing test scores and no uplift in reading or numeracy scores. Spending more on education frequently correlates with inert or poorer outcomes rather than the desired higher performance. Take the case of the United States. Between 1970 and 2010 US public school spending per K-12 graduating student rose 280 per cent in real terms yet reading, maths and science test scores hardly changed at all.[36] Advocates of the administrative state see such failure only as a reason to spend even more.[37] The focus of state policy is on classroom teaching. But if we look internationally at cities and nations that perform well on the international PISA maths, science and reading tests, what do they have in common? The dominant East Asians (Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan) have a strong cultural emphasis on home learning. The myth of the liberal education acts of the nineteenth century is that students learn a lot in publicly-funded classes. As it turns out, they don’t.

This lack of learning extends to the heady realm of the universities. The Turnbull government’s Higher Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, is a fan of the Gillard-era “demand-driven” enrolment system. Yet 30 per cent of graduates of that system will never in their life work in a job that requires a degree. Only small selective elite universities correlate with high economic performance. Low-unemployment countries invest in vocational education, not in post-industrial universities whose non-traditional disciplines have poor graduate employment and earnings outcomes.

Pre-school children are the latest target of the administrative state. Like higher education, childcare is heavily subsidised. It suffers the same price spiral. Union-imposed pseudo-professional certification of childcare workers inflates childcare costs, negating the value of government subsidies and pushing up family cost-of-living.

Over the past half-century the state grew dramatically as it expanded responsibilities for health and education. Powerful lobbies repeatedly praised the benefits. Yet at least 50 per cent of state-subsidised health and education is consumed in administration of some kind. All attempts to reform this end up being either gimmicks or else make the problem worse. In Australia between 1990 and 2014 the real costs per person of healthcare rose three-fold.[38] There was no medical revolution or technological revolution that could explain this; an ageing population doesn’t explain it either. The simple fact is that government-funded health and education can only deliver services by expanding administrative processes. That is built into the DNA of government. Any hypothetical cost benefit or welfare benefit of having government deliver a service is routinely negated due to the ineradicable costs of the procedures and bureaucracies that accompany state-financed services of any kind. In addition governments struggle vainly to control the overuse of free or subsidised services. In the UK 5.2 million people visit GPs each year because they have blocked noses; 2 million attend emergency departments with minor ailments like stubbed toes.[39]

The public sector today functions as a forceful lobby that pressures government to expand the public sector irrespective of conditions. We saw this in action as the global economy slowed in the 2010s. The Rudd and Gillard governments borrowed heavily to keep spending at all costs. The Abbott and Turnbull governments have struggled to reverse this. Federal government expenditure on government schools is projected to rise 11 per cent in real terms between 2016 and 2020, and public hospitals 9.9 per cent.[40] This will remain so as long as governments are responsible for such services. The only way to stop the fiscal bleeding is to surgically remove whole areas of expenditure from government budgets. The best existing practical option, which is operating successfully in Singapore, is to detach health, education and retirement income provision from the public budget and transfer it to a system of (government-guaranteed) individual savings accounts matched by commensurate tax reductions.[41] This is a basic form of self-government. It permits low-taxing, low-spending, and low-borrowing government and encourages a responsible self-reliant DIY mentality among citizens. A DIY mentality is especially important as DIY enterprise promises to be a major generator of work in the auto-industrial era.

The emerging occupation-growth sectors today are small businesses, micro-businesses, sole traders, partnerships, and work generated by household capitalisation.[42] Australia lags behind the UK and America in these areas. They are part of a larger trend to DIY capitalism with DIY sector businesses, including large businesses, experiencing above-average growth. This is not just an economic phenomenon. It is also social—and it is conservative. First, it is anti-bureaucratic, self-managing. Second, it works best in a social context where individuals for the most part are embedded in households headed by two persons. An independent self-managing society—a civil society—has a conservative bedrock that reaches back many centuries. This is the mutuality of the nuclear household. These households are mobile and flexible. They are able to move as jobs move and they are good at coping with periodic cyclical downturns. As the post-industrial era took hold after 1970, lonerism, sole-parent and single-person households became increasingly ideologically popular. Yet these households correlate strongly with high rates of depression, bad health, low income, unemployment and social housing. The children of these households experience higher than average levels of unhappiness, poverty, educational failure and imprisonment.[43] The one case where postmodern lobbies idealise dual-headed rather than single-headed households is same-sex marriages, which have a poor record of longevity and fidelity.

We don’t want the state to become a match-maker. Yet it can avoid rewarding lonerism by eliminating special benefits that underwrite single-parenting. The Howard-era Family Tax Benefit Part B is one example. Pro-natality policies, such as Peter Costello’s 2002 budget “baby bonus” or Tony Abbott’s unimplemented paid parental leave plan, are not the answer either. Such policies have no demonstrated demographic effect and do little to combat the deep and disturbing cultural shift in the direction of the lone parent and lone householder. Government policy can avoid doing harm. But it can’t repair or redress cultural self-negation. Government, though, is not just a matter of policy. It is also a vehicle of authority.[44] The old vehicles of authority, the churches and the crown, have shrunk to negligible stature. But as John Howard understood, when he argued the case for the Anzac tradition, prime ministers can exercise authority as well as power.

Authority is the dividing line between conservatives and liberal-progressives (of all types, Left or Right). Authority is the capacity to influence that inspires the confidence of the nation. This is achieved, usually in speeches, by connecting the aspirations of a society to what is permanent, durable and reliable in life. John Howard grasped this when he set out a vision for the nation in his 1988 Future Directions and 1995 Headland speeches. He was ridiculed by Left-liberal elites. Yet he understood the flaw of Left-liberalism. It relies on policy to expand the power of the state. Conservatives, as well as exercising power, invoke authority. Authority resonates with electors. You see that in the history of the Liberal Party. Its successful leaders, Menzies and Howard, exercised authority as well as power. Their governments at different times found common ground with liberals of the Left and the Right. These liberals promised progress, yet what they invariably disregarded were the resting places of the human spirit. They emblazoned change but neglected continuity. Not so Menzies and Howard. Both had a subtle ability to tie the contingent policies of the present day to the permanent values that are passed from one generation to another.

It is not just liberal-progressives, Dry or Wet, who encounter this problem. In power John Howard’s gifted conservative understudy, Tony Abbott, produced a series of sound policies on border control, free trade, anti-terrorism, trade union abuses and taxation during his short premiership. Yet he failed to establish his prime ministerial authority. The nation cringed when he appointed Prince Philip as a Knight of the Order of Australia. Monarchy is a well-regarded part of the Australian Commonwealth. But knights belong in fantasy movies. Abbott’s successor, Turnbull, is in no better position. He has failed to match Abbott’s policy fluency and he possesses little or no authority. Re-elected by a tenuous margin recently, one of his first acts was to create a royal commission on juvenile detention. The authority of commissions firmly rests on their impartiality. The impartial administration of justice is one of the oldest principles of good government. Yet the Turnbull government not once but twice appointed commissioners with widely perceived biases. The Achilles heel of all liberal-progressives, whether Wet or Dry, and Malcolm Turnbull is sopping Wet, is a lack of authority. The fundamental lesson of the conservative is that power in a modern society will not last unless it is leavened with authority that ties together past, present and future.


Peter Murphy is Adjunct Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University and the author of Auto-Industrialism: DIY Capitalism and the Rise of the Auto-Industrial Society (Sage, forthcoming).




[1]               In November 1923 Stanley Baldwin announced he was calling an election and the Liberals would campaign on a protectionist platform.

[2]               Churchill, September 19, 1946.

[3]               James Bennett and Michael Lotus, America 3.0 (New York: Encounter Books, 2013).

[4]               The model for this was the cross-over politics of William Pitt the Younger. Pitt was a Whig who passed as both an “independent” Whig and “new” kind of Tory.

[5]               On the growth of “villa Toryism” under Salisbury, see Robin Harris, The Conservatives: A History (London: Transworld, 2011), chapter 7.

[6]               John Howard, Lazarus Rising: A Personal and Political Autobiography (Sydney: HarperCollins, 2010), 213, 654-655.

[7]               Harris, The Conservatives, 61.

[8]               They equate the expansion of the state with the propensity to go to war. See for example Robert Nisbet, The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).

[9]               The term “isoventionism” was coined in the 1980s. See the essay by William Safire, “The Isoventionists” in The New York Times, 28 May, 1984. Safire was a long-time prominent columnist, self-described libertarian conservative republican contrarian iconoclast, and presidential speech writer for Richard Nixon.

[10]             Health, education and pensions combined today is 49 percent of UK public spending and 56 percent of US public spending. Welfare is 14 percent and 7 percent respectively. Data: www.ukpublicspending.co.uk and www.uspublicspending.com.

[11]             A member of the Beveridge Report Committee, the Liberal, later Conservative, British MP Juliet Rhys-Williams conceived the idea of a negative income tax in place of bureaucratic welfare payments. Her excellent reasoning was why churn money through the many costly and opaque administrative hands of the state when a tax payment is simple and transparent. Its very simplicity and transparency though counted against it. See J. Rhys-Williams, A New Look at Britain’s Economic Policy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), 162.

[12]             Daniel Hannan stresses the importance of this liberty-in-property in explaining Anglosphere exceptionalism and prosperity. See his How We Invented Freedom and Why It Matters (London: Head of Zeus, 2013), chapter 4.

[13]             James Bartholomew, The Welfare of Nations (London: Biteback Publishing, 2015), chapter 6.

[14]             In Australia, the figure was 8 percent in 1921 and still 8 percent in 1946. By 1976 it had risen to 16 percent. ABS, Households and Families, 1301.0 Year Book Australia, 2012; David de Vaus and Lixia Qu, “Demographics of living alone”, Australian Family Trends No. 6, AIF, March 2015. Since 1986 the rate of adults living alone has increased in all age cohorts excepting 70-79 year olds, where it has declined. 9.3 percent of Australian adults lived alone in 1986, 11.9 in 1996, and 12.6 in 2011.

[15]             Malcolm Turnbull MP, Launch of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, 7 December, 2015.

[16]             Peter Drucker, Landmarks of Tomorrow (New York: Harper and Row, 1959) and The Age of Discontinuity (New York: Harper Collins, 1969).

[17]             Fritz Malchup, The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1962).

[18]             Barry Jones, Sleepers, Wake! Technology and the Future of Work (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1982), 1.

[19]             Sid Maher, “Federal election 2016: Nationals savage ‘aloof’ Liberals”, The Australian, 6 July, 2016.

[20]             Rhiannon Hoyle, “Drones, Robots Offer Vision of Mining’s Future”, Wall Street Journal, 28 July, 2016.

[21]             Chris Angus, Future workforce trends in NSW: Emerging technologies and their potential impact, Briefing Paper No 13, NSW Parliamentary Research Service, 2015, Figure 15.

[22]             Committee for Economic Development of Australia, Australia’s Future Workforce? (Melbourne: CEDA, 2015), Section 1.4, Table 3.

[23]             In his first statement on becoming Prime Minister, Turnbull declared: “The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative. We can’t be defensive, we can’t future-proof ourselves.

We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it.”

[24]             South Australia Economic Development Board, Economic analysis of Australia’s future submarine program, October 2014, Scenario 2, Table 3.

[25]             The former British Conservative Party leader, William Hague, writing in the UK Telegraph,  25 July, 2016, warned the Theresa May government that “a new industrial revolution is coming” due to artificial intelligence. This new industrial revolution, he noted, will disrupt the jobs, training and qualifications of millions of people. He also observed that governments that fail to meet the challenge of this major transformation will encourage the rise of destructive political populism. At the same time he wondered aloud whether government “industrial strategy” any longer had much to offer the UK.

[26]             Bill Shorten MP, Doorstop with Bill Shorten, Kim Carr and Ed Husic – Jobs of the New Economy, 4 December, 2015.

[27]             Education, Early Childhood Education plus TAFE and Vocational Education, Science and Research, Skills and Apprenticeships, Universities, and Schools.

[28]             South Australia, Department of State Development, South Australian labour force indicators, June 2016; SA Office for the Public Sector, Workforce Information Report 2014-2015; Victorian Public Sector Commission, The State of the Public Sector in Victoria 2013-2014, The Victorian Public Sector Workforce.

[29]             See, e.g., L. Di Matteo, Measuring Government in the Twenty-first Century (Toronto: The Fraser Institute: Toronto, 2013); D. Chobanov, D. and A. Mladenova, What is the optimum size of government (Bulgaria: Institute for Market Economics, 2009); V. Tanzi, “The Economic Role of the State in the 21st Century”, Cato Journal, 25:3, 2005; R. Vedder and L. Gallaway, Government Size and Economic Growth (Washington DC: Joint Economic Committee, 1998); G. Scully, What is the optimal size of government in the US NCPA Policy Report No. 188 (Dallas: National Center for Policy Analysis, 1994); E. Peden, “Productivity in the United States and its relationship to government activity”, Public Choice 69, 1991.

[30]             OECD data, General government spending, total, % of GDP, 2014.

[31]             Julie Novak, Australia’s Big Government, by the Numbers (Melbourne: IPA, 2013).

[32]             Adam Creighton, “Bureaucrats weigh on health as number of administrators blows out”, The Australian, 29 April, 2016.

[33]             John R. Graham, The Past is the Future for Public Hospitals: An Insider’s Perspective on Hospital Administration (Sydney: The Centre for Independent Studies, 2009).

[34]             Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic (New York: Basic Books, 2016); Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Washington DC: Regnery, 2015 [1953, 1986]); Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), The Twilight of Authority (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975).

[35]             James Burnham, Suicide of the West: an essay on the meaning and destiny of liberalism (New York: Encounter Books, 2014 [1964]), 347. The quip came from the novelist Allen Drury.

[36]             Andrew Coulson, “State Education Trends: Academic Performance and Spending over the Past 40 Years”, Policy Analysis No. 746, 18 March, 2014, Figure 1. Source: U.S. Department of Education and NAEP test data.

[37]             Responding to the failure of the Gonski Report funding to raise school performance “Andrew Giles, the opposition assistant education spokesman, said the results underscored the need to keep pouring more money into schools.” The Australian, 3 August, 2016.

[38]             Per person health expenditure in Australia rose in constant prices from $2,969 in 1989-1990 to $6,637 in 2013–2014. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 25 years of health expenditure in Australia 1989–90 to 2013–14, Canberra, AIHW, 2016, Table A2.

[39]             Jesse Norman and Museji Ahmed Takolia, How Much Do We Use the NHS? (London: Centre for Policy Studies, 2014).

[40]             Australian Government Budget 2016-2017, Budget Paper No. 1, Statement 5: Expenses and Net Capital Investment.

[41]             Created in 1955, Singapore’s Central Provident Fund (CPF) was designed as a self-funded defined-benefit retirement scheme. It is built on contributions by employers and employees or by the self-employed. It has grown to include saving for healthcare costs and insurance, home ownership, children’s education, and asset investment as well as retirement.

[42]             The great American sociologist Talcott Parsons noted already in 1961 the phenomenon of household capitalisation that underlies self-employment aggregators like Uber that allow persons to switch household consumption items, like the automobile, into productive capital. See Parsons, “The Link between Character and Society” [1961] in Social Structure and Personality (New York: Free Press, 1964), 230.

[43]             James Bartholomew, The Welfare of Nations, chapter 6.

[44]             On the nature of authority as distinct from power, see Hannah Arendt, “What is authority?” in Between Past and Present (New York: Penguin, 1977 [1968]).

9 thoughts on “The Twenty-First-Century Conservative

  • denandsel@optusnet.com.au says:

    Very well written and insightful. This article is also a little deeper than most political/philosophical trend explanations, one of the best I have read. It makes my Quadrant subs seem good value for money. I would like to see from Peter an article outlining what he thinks should be the new definitions for ‘left’ and ‘right’. I personally think we should now use terms like free market/freedom advocates and totalitarianism and authoritarian.

  • lloveday says:

    Quote: “Spending more on education frequently correlates with inert or poorer outcomes rather than the desired higher performance”.
    Logically so, as much of the extra spending goes to having smaller classes = more teachers = lesser quality teachers on average. If the AFL doubled the number of teams it is obvious that the top players would be more widely spread, and the teams would be individually far inferior to the present ones. So it is with teachers – a good teacher is more important than class size.
    I was in a class of 40 in year 12, my sister in year 8 at the same school in one of 56, but we exited numerate and literate, ready for work or tertiary education.

  • Bwana Neusi says:

    What an excellent article Peter Murphy, which covers so much of what is wrong with the decaying Western Society in which we live.

    What troubles me is that the decay of our culture is inexorable and anarchy is fast becoming the staple by which we live and the conservatives are powerless to stop it.

    The risk with any decaying civilisation is that an aggressive culture will covertly and then overtly seek to dominate and replace our society with its own culture.

  • Don A. Veitch says:

    Another utopian, ‘government’ hating article along weird Austrian lines.
    Conservatives are lost if we now look to Austrian ideas to save us. There are a lot of weird Austrian ideas around –Hapsburgian, Freudian, Wittgenstein, Lorenzían, Hitler, Hayek, Mises, Schwarzenegger. The ‘best’ Nazis were Austrians!

    The article is spiteful about a ‘free lunch’ for students, public servants and Menzies ‘forgotten people’. Austrians have no interest in THEM. Yet in this article we get only attacks on people who aren’t vicious entrepreneurs and only silence on the free ‘bankquet’ for bankers and financiers. Obama bailed out the banks not Mr & Mrs Sixpack.

    Menzies was not Austrian, he was in bed with rural socialists and Australia and its people, prospered. Australian conservatives are not Austrians and ‘Austrians’ are not conservatives. Don’t forget, it was the great Menzies who granted state aid for private schools and bragged in his autobiography how he had built and funded universities. Menzies was no teacher hater, he was more pragmatic, more savvy, that the ‘Austrians’!

    Reagan doubled the deficit, Thatcher de-industrialised. Both disastrous. Their economics did not tackle economic problems (but, admittedly, they could at least win wars – cold and hot wars!!).

    Austrians have no fair dinkum solutions and have closed minds. Debt and deficits would disappear if money manipulators paid a sales tax (a Tobin tax) on their ‘trades’, as normal people pay sales tax on their purchases. Private, banks today, lend 80% for speculation and Ponzi schemes. Schumpeter’s entrepreneurs would thrive if government/ Reserve Bank, LENT (not borrowed), and created credit for productive purposes and infrastructure. Why not competition from a government bank (as in the good old days) which could create credit, rather than usury and un-repayable debt. Most incomes are now repayments to debt collectors.

    The true conservative position in economics is for a mixed economy, NOT the narrow, closed mind of Ayn Rand-Austrian-Nitzchean anarcho-capitalism. This is what the discredited ‘Washington consensus’ has inflicted on us. The article wants more!

    Locke (and later Galbraith), argued for checks and balances against corruption, they argued for countervailing forces to protect from tyranny and that is a central theme for true conservatives, ‘overlooked’ by anarchistic, nihilistic Austrians. Nisbet argued for ‘intermediate institutions (trade unions?). Russell Kirk championed Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams both in favour of strong central government. Kirk supported Christianity and tradition and the nation state.
    ‘Austrians’ are the enemy of Menzies ‘forgotten’ people.

      • Don A. Veitch says:

        Sorry I assumed too much prior knowledge about economic history.
        The Austrian school is the school of economics that took over from Keynesian economics, and now dominates most Anglo-sphere governments, central banks and universities. I was trained as a Keynesian economist.
        The recent decline of wealth is not a left-wing conspiracy from government and trade unions etc. I would argue it is because (since about 1975), ‘Austrian’ economics has taken over.
        My argument is that conservatives don’t have to be extreme laisser-faire libertarians (‘Austrians’). The best conservatives, for example Menzies in Australia, were definately not free traders, libertarians, believers in the magic of the market place.
        Conservatives can choose
        Google the following if you want more.

        Austrian economics: Hayek, Mises, Menger, Haberler, Hazlitt, Rothbard and the Mises Institute.
        Prussian economics: the historical school, cameralism, dirigism, Bismarkian economics, the economics of Friedrich List, Alexander Hamilton and the early American school of economics (Rae, Carey, Clay).

  • brian.doak@bigpond.com says:

    This piece by Peter Murphy becomes more relevant the longer one persists in pursuing it to its seemingly receding conclusion. For the first part the dates are 1800’s then eventually to 1980’s where exhausted at the half way point we read the sub heading ‘Pitiful Slogans’. This is where a time poor reader wants to start; half way through the offering.
    Our QOL editor has done well to read so far ahead and find reference to Turnbull and then include the name in the subheading. One can pity the poor searching traveler crossing the desert following a receding mirage and making distressed comments like Real Oz and the ‘Austrian’ observer.

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