Tasmanian Times


Should freedom ignore fairness?

Delacroix, Liberty leading the people, 1830, Louvre.

At the heart of liberal thinking is a deep commitment to freedom, and the idea that we are responsible for the choices we make in life – the individual and society are better off when we are free to choose our path, and take responsibility for the success or failure. At its best it recognises the natural constraints on choice – lack of access to education and jobs due to prejudice, illness, disability, lack of funds, the wrong parents and other accidents of fate; hence the free tertiary education of the Menzies era.

At the heart of labor philosophy is a deep conviction that a political community must treat citizens as having equal worth, meaning equal concern for their interests and equal respect for themselves as individuals. It does not mean equal treatment because fairness is contextual – the criminal is treated fairly when he gets the punishment he deserves and a gambler when he can enjoy his risk-gotten gains. If we choose the life of a beachcomber we cannot complain when others reap the rewards of a commitment to work. But if we value freedom, fairness argues for all to have this choice.

Much of the destructive force of politics comes from a belief that these ideals of freedom and fairness, because they are often in conflict, are incompatible. The belief is seen in arguments that public spending to iron out inequities of opportunity must compromise a sacred value; it is seen in metaphors about the primrose path, slippery slope and thin end of the wedge, and in charges that the other side is ‘ideological’ – its interpretation of ideals is set in concrete. It is seen in a failure of public intellectuals to rise above the fray – one can peruse editions of Quadrant with no sense of the substantive merit of arguments appealing to freedom, social justice and human rights – it all gets lost in a quasi-religious crusade against ‘political correctness’.

In America the polarisation is now extreme and political argument is at a fever pitch of intolerance and anger. Government is limited by the compromises inherent in a system which sees 90% of Republicans in Congress, and an indecent number of Democrats, receive funds from the NRA, and because Supreme Court judges think abstract Constitutional principles, such as the Bill of Rights, allow them to shape the law as they see fit; so ‘conservative’ justices cite theories of original intent to protect the commercial interests of arms manufacturers but without limiting the right to bear arms to flintlocks and blunderbusses. It means corporate America can, after the Citizens United Case, bid for government at open, public auction.

Australians across the political spectrum are appalled at the actions of Republicans who oppose the Obama health care legislation, and their readiness to risk national security and global financial stability to repeal watered-down versions of a national health scheme. Likewise at the power of the corporate media and health industry to persuade ordinary, working Americans that even this degree of welfare is a betrayal of national values. They are dismayed to find that, if the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity since 1960, it would now be $22 an hour instead of $7.25.

While Australia does not face these risks or anything like them, the standard of political debate is not much better and likely to get worse. In the remainder of this paper I would like to outline two reasons why.

The first is a doctrine of unity which means members represent party leaders, not the public. It means Howard and Downer could, for the sake of long-term security and trading interests, take the nation to war in Iraq without a single member willing to support a Senate inquiry to examine the evidence. (The same failure is especially shameful for Labor because it was, it said, against the war.) It means Liberals can refuse an apology under one leader and celebrate it under the next – and if you read Brendan Nelson’s speech the only reason is political expedience; but it is sad to see so many members unwilling to take a stand on important national issues.

The problem with the doctrine of unity is that it denies politicians owe this duty to the community – the source of their salaries and offices – it lets them off the hook of an obligation to inform themselves and make conscientious judgments of party policy and moral principle; and so they lose the habit and the community loses this resource. It is why this idea of political duty was repudiated by Edmund Burke in one of the most famous speeches in British politics – it is long overdue for prosecution.

This is, however, unlikely because of the belief, probably correct, that Labor lost the election due to a failure of party discipline, seen in disputes over the leadership. No-one, least of all the media, will now distinguish a demeaning struggle for personal power from questions of political morality such as the Iraq War, the apology and same-sex marriage – but the arguments underlying Burke’s priority of conscience must eventually re-surface.

The second problem – an affliction of the Liberal party – is the belief that conservatism is a political philosophy when it is arguably nothing of the sort. Liberals ignore what Burke had to say about the duty of elected members, but miss no opportunity to appeal to his authority as the ‘father of conservative political philosophy’, when they decline to address issues of social justice, human rights and those personal freedoms which reach beyond the law of contract to challenge conventional and religious doctrines dealing with human relationships.

Burke saw himself as a practical man, not a ‘dabbler in abstractions’; with the exception of an early treatise on aesthetics he did not publish philosophical papers and cannot easily be put into a philosophical box; in recent decades leading scholars have argued that his writing is rich in Natural Law ideas, when for over two centuries he has been portrayed as a pragmatic, utilitarian thinker. His fame as a conservative rests largely on his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790, and his efforts to discourage the spread of Jacobin ideas. But he supported the American Revolutionaries and did what he could for Irish Catholics.

Burke saw Prudence as a governing principle in all political affairs and the same cautionary principle led the late HLA Hart, a distinguished legal philosopher, to appraise conservatism – somewhat deflatingly – as a reminder that long-established practices and institutions are likely to have benefits not immediately apparent to the casual observer. This common sense approach is compatible with any political philosophy, certainly one based on Labor ideals.

It has, however, been re-assessed over the years and is now seen as a theory about the limits of human understanding. Those who take this view believe it is not merely hard to foresee the consequences of major change, but impossible to evaluate due to the complexity of the task, and because we cannot know the role of moral ideas in intuitive judgments which, over time, help shape our institutions. Martin Krygier, in his thoughtful essay, ‘In praise of Prejudice’, in his Civil Passions (Black Ink, 2005) conveys something of the appeal of this idea and contrasts it with Kant’s commitment to reason. He cites a passage from Burke which justifies his fame as an advocate for prudential government, and could be read as support for the modern view.

This is intriguing and not just because, as Krygier points out, it draws on post-modernist theory to justify conservative political ideas. If this is how value is created it argues for faith in intuitive judgments by practical men with good intentions, and scepticism of those who insist on reasoning from principles and believe in coherent argument. We should keep this in mind when we next hear someone cite Keynes on practical men being the slaves of yesterday’s theories.

However that may be, there is also a practical test; we need to ask if the conservative theory attributed to Burke and explained by Krygier can withstand a history of resisting social justice reforms which even conservative liberals now accept. The list begins with the great Reform Bill of 1832, and includes the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, old age and disability pensions, the basic wage, unemployment relief, employee and road-accident compensation schemes, as well as national health cover, no-fault divorce, legal aid, and endless regulations to constrain markets in the public interest.

The question is whether this history supports a stronger criticism, also in tune with post-modernist ideas. This is the rationale it offers to ignore abuses which have stood the test of time – like slavery, colonialism, imperialist wars, the class system and other practices which served established interests. The evidence suggests the main effect of treating an appeal for prudence as a theory about the limits of reason is to deny responsibility to judge these practices.

The two problems I have outlined are closely connected because, when politicians give up the doctrine of unity and its demeaning practice of self-subordination, and rely on their own judgment and conscience, they will be making the best judgment they can of the requirement of values they respect, such as the prime values of freedom and fairness discussed in this paper. A full defence of this claim would take more argument than is possible here, but is implicit in the fact that taking a stand ‘on principle’ is also a synonym for acting ‘on conscience’.

Author Credits: [show_post_categories parent="no" parentcategory="writers" show = "category" hyperlink="yes"]


  1. jack

    November 27, 2013 at 2:48 am


    I believe that between 1974 – 1989 tertiary education was free and heavily supported with grants during all of the 70s. Under Menzies there was a building program for new unis and many subsidised programs that saw greater numbers of graduates. But it’s right to say that free tertiary education happened under Whitlam. I don’t think this happened right away in 1972.

    Those fortunate to benefit from a free tertiary education in the Liberal party are too numerous to mention. In fact, I think the last 3 PMs would have. Certainly Pyne, Costello, Kroger and many other ‘economic rationalists’ were happy to get a free tertiary education.

    I wonder if they will provide a refund?

  2. O'Brien

    November 26, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    ‘hence the free tertiary education of the Menzies era.’ ..and there I was thinking free education was a Whitlam initiative.

  3. Simon Warriner

    November 26, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    Is “fairness” the best descriptor for what is being sought?

    I have a fondness for “the common good”. In my view it better describes those outcomes that favour some more than others, but in doing so deliver the greatest good for the greatest number.

    The”doctrine of unity” is naught but the embedding of conflicted interest in our system of governance, and those espousing it should be put against the wall and shot as traitors to the memory of all those who died in the fight against fascism.

    As for the swipe at republicans for opposing the Obama universal health care plan, I suggest the author delve a little deeper. He might find that it is universal, but that some are paying far, far more than others, and more than previously. I have seen reports of family premiums jumping by 300 to 400% per month as new policies take effect. There will be much more about this in the news before long, and it will not be pretty, if what I am seeing has any truth. Now there is another issue that can wait for now.

  4. A.K.

    November 26, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    First you have to determine what freedom is, currently it’s a fallacy as not one citizen on the planet has a fair and equal opportunity to determine and be involved our societies future, every aspect is controlled by ideological elites.

    You can only have freedom and fairness in a society, when societies are run and operated by the people in an equal opportunity situation. In this day and age, you can only get that in an on line referendum style government, anything else is more of the same and nothing will change, ever.

  5. Martin S

    November 26, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    An excellent article. Excellent comments, too.

    I don’t have anything to add, except a no-brainer: whether people deserve the “freedom” to drive those big SUV 4WDs when their work/living doesn’t require it. Hardly fair to the rest of us in terms of pollutants and number of child deaths.

  6. jack

    November 26, 2013 at 11:51 am

    #3 Kim Peart

    This is a good observation and may well be highly correlated with the advent of the Realpolitik in Australia.

    It does not suit our national self image to consider that we effectively turned our back on people’s to our direct north. By following the US in their dangerous, unsophisticated, ignorant and insular policies since the 50s, we assisted to instal tyrants, occupy lands and all but destroy reformist groups that would one day triumph. We rode the US bull in the Asian china shop and now must pay and atone for it.

    Few Asian leaders (or Asians in general) like to point out the truth. Not confronting people is a very Asian value it seems.

    In truth, we aided and abetted tensions and human rights abuse in Asia as if this would be in our interests. We did not have the skills or grace to take a truly humane and independent approach and are now days not worthy to sit at the table and be taken seriously by the Indonesians or many others in ASEAN who were reformists who walked the walk and did the hard yards to overcome post colonial, racist and cold war baggage. We in Australia made sure they had to carry these bags and now blame them for it as if it was a job they wanted. How quaint.

    Its quite funny that we feel no shame, only smugness that somehow we must have been moral in all this, cause we’re all good blokes.

    Most Indonesians are well aware of the tyrants of their past and have managed to transcend many of them, but are stuck with the history, tensions and institutions they produced. Australians, on the other hand, just don’t get it. We did bugger all to help them do it and still look to our north as if the 1950s is still with us. In fact, we are re running it once more in 2013 in case you missed it the first time round.

    Now, call me radical if you like, but an ultra conservative, catholic, royalist who is misty eyed for the 50s is a bit like a red ragged symbol of the colonial past to an Asian bull. It’s actually so comical and out of step that metaphors fail me.

    The reality is, we were not, and are not, a voice for compassion in the region and any switched on person in Asia knows it as they understand the history. The president of Indonesia is very worthy of our respect, as are the people there that we have yet to discover other than through our distorted politics and media. And it is so very badly distorted and in a time capsule. Our national identity is reflected to us like the hall of mirrors at Luna Park.

    Visiting Bali and wearing a Bintang T shirt is not a political education about Asia. It is worshiping at the temple of western insensitivity in Asia. Bewdy mate!

    Australians, let us all rejoice for we are wealthy and free…of compassion.

  7. William Boeder

    November 25, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    Ah bazzabee now that you have revealed your vulnerability to things Abbott and the like, I have 2 names that will castor-oil their way into your present happy World and carry along with them even more of their accompanying powerful emetic forces.

    The anti-the-Tasmanian-people Eric Abetz.
    The mincing Poodle snark Christopher Pyne.

    Perhaps from your font of all knowledge you might advise me as to how in all creation these 2 horribillus-homo-sapiens could end up in our Federal government for surely this pair could not have been honestly elected, or if this was accomplished using the usual smoke and mirrors strategy beloved of the pestilential and still roaming with the Liberal pack, Johnny (The Fibber) Howard?

  8. Bazzabee

    November 25, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    If I remember correctly it was John Kenneth Galbraith who said that “the modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness”.

    Although ‘in fairness’ LOL to Tony Abbott and his mob I very much doubt that anyone of them would undertake such a difficult moral task because if ever Australia had a more selfish and insightless pack of …. feel free to finish the sentence because even mentioning Abbott etal makes me want to puke.

  9. Kim Peart

    November 25, 2013 at 10:16 am

    Could the passing of the “fair go” in Australia be traced to our agreeing to support the killing off and burial by Indonesia of West Papua as a nation in waiting?

  10. jack

    November 24, 2013 at 5:26 pm

    A very worthwhile article.

    The problem is not the ‘freedom’ to choose a path, but the difference in the number of paths available to freely choose from.

    The freedom to choose your own path as an individual born into a family with few resources and options has very different life consequences to those of fortunate birth with an abundance of paths to decide between.

    Watch the 7 Up documentary if you question this.


    A system that perpetuates inherited advantage and disadvantage is only as ‘fair’ as the potential for mobility offered on the basis of INDIVIDUAL effort. Ever noticed how many ultra conservatives love to rattle on about FAMILY? Without the family being a sacred cow, how else could INHERITED privilege be justified?

    But how can the rights of all INDIVIDUALS in society be confused with the right to perpetuate privilege by inheritance? It does not make sense.

    Much of the practical, but sometimes sub conscious ideology, of the new conservative mindset is in reality ‘Birth Right’. It has little to do with individuals and individual choice. Because, how can an individual student living in a working class Tasmanian suburb attending a state school ‘choose’ to be educated as well as a student attending a 20k a year private school?

    In reality, many of the choices of a person < 20 years old that will determine their future are made for them by circumstance. The tired conservative rags to riches legend of the individual 'triumph of the will' is a necessary part of the required lore that enables the 'if I did it why can't you' taunt. The small percentage of people who have emerged from disadvantage (most typically by making crap loads of money in business, and who cares how ethically) are regularly held aloft as the examples of how such freedom of choice is a virtue. Of course, don't factor in the 99% plus who did not make it and can't choose the path they wanted. Don't bother to notice that some of the most venom filled neo conservatives obtained a free education under the Whitlam government policy. However, a lack of natural fairness is not the Liberal ideology of old. It is not really the ideology of Menzies or Fraser either. The drift to the right in Australian politics generally is not really 'political' or an ideology as such. It is a broad social change brought on by increasing wealth. Different ways are being sought to justify inequality, inequity and self interest; meanness by another name. This is far more frightening than a political ideology as it suggests that as a society where many are now well off with options and paths (on both sides of politics) don't really care about fairness. They wrap up self interest in paper thin ideology, but the truth is that a growing body of people care about fairness ever less. The 'fair go' platitude is being replaced with 'I'm alright Jack'. It matters not where you sit politically. If fairness is not even the basis of the justice system, one might ask where it can be found in Australia? Is it an endangered species? Has it been 'eradicated'?

  11. Kim Peart

    November 24, 2013 at 9:26 am

    Can freedom or fairness be considered without acts of Realpolitik firmly in mind?

    “Realpolitik” is a term for actions that are not fair, but must be done for political reasons.

    It was fair that we were working with the Dutch until 1962 for the independence of the whole island of New Guinea, which was leading to a united nation on the northern island of immense wealth.

    The freedom of the western papuans became lost in the dust of Realpolitik, simply to avoid all-out war with Indonesia.

    That war had already begun, with Indonesians invading New Guinea and one of their ships being sunk by the Dutch.

    It was a sad twist of the Cold War that led the United States government to suspend all fairness and force the surrender of West Papua to Indonesia, simply to avoid being drawn into conflict with Indonesia and secure a pro-Western alliance.

    It was a defining moment for Australia when we became party to a slave trade in West Papuan lives, land and wealth, to buy peace (western New Guinea is an area the size of France).

    Now a good slice of our wealth comes from investments in western Papua, pursued beneath the Indonesian flag, as the western Papuans endure a slow-motion genocide.

    Going along with the 1962 deal on western New Guinea has served to define what we are as a people and as with East Timor, until we find the spirit of Eureka with West Papua, we will find it pretty tough going to speak with truth on matters of fairness or freedom.

    Kim Peart

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