John Quiggin has a post on people who switch from one side of politics to the other – from “left” to “right” or visa versa. There are profound semantic issues here that, if taken seriously, can trivialise the analysis of such shifts – most of us are, in fact, social democrats. However despite this broad homogeneity of mainstream political views (the Tweedledum/Tweedledee theory of consensus politics, median voter theorems etc.) there does seem to be a recognisably “left” and “right” view of the world. I delayed commenting on JQ’s post because of the slightly pejorative tone it conveyed towards those who have changed their views. JQ (apparently) has never done this – he sorted his political perspectives out initially and has seen no reason to change his broad stance. I congratulate him – temporal consistency is a virtue and suggests initial clear thinking.
I have been much less consistent myself. In my youth I was a left-wing member of the Labor Party who came from a working class background and who flirted with Marxism without ever taking it very seriously. Apart from the litany of Cold War Stalinist atrocities I had read Das Capital as an undergraduate and I could see the problems and the narrowness in Marx’s class-based analysis. I supported an increased role for government in the economy during the Whitlam years but also greatly applauded the sensational 25% tariff cut that Whitlam introduced. This was one of the most profound economic changes ever to impact on the Australian economy and a change that initiated decades of on-going microeconomic reform. My dissatisfaction with Labor reflected my view that Labor comprises incompetent managers and intellectually low-level people who have sentimentality but often not a lot of administrative intelligence. In my original home state of NSW the Labor Party comprise third-raters who cloak their incompetence with hypocrisy and dishonesty. Generally I have maintained this negative view of Labor for decades. I think that, whatever the transparent failings of the Coalition – there are many – they will be better economic managers and generally smarter when it comes to making policy judgements. For this reason I have voted for the Liberal Party for more than 2 decades.
At the last election however I voted for the Greens and at the next election I will vote for Labor mainly because of the criticality I see in the climate change issue. I see it as a long-term priority issue potentially impacting on the survivability of the human species. If Malcolm Turnbull had been leader of the Liberal Party I would have voted for and campaigned on behalf of the Liberals. But my views at this last election also changed because I think the costs of addressing social inequality through redistributive measures were being overstated by conservatives. Maybe my revived social consciousness is partly an age- and income-related change.
I was lucky enough in my youth to get a good university education partly because of a scholarship and partly because university fees were so low in those days. My parents could not otherwise have been able to let me pursue my studies. I was also faced with the prospect of being conscripted to fight in Vietnam, a war I did not support. It was natural for me to be fairly left wing. As I grew older the practical issues of raising a family, buying a house etc. made me less idealistic and more pragmatically right wing. Now that I earn a reasonable income and live quite well I guess I can afford the luxury of being less narrowly focused on economic imperatives. But I just find the more strident varieties of libertarianism illogical and narrow-minded. Those with a doctrinaire pathological hatred of the state are as irrational as those who see the state alone as embodying the common good. Overall my current political stance is a fairly dull endpoint – I think I have returned to the views expressed in Paul Samuelson’s Economics text that I first started reading in 1967. Samuelson argued that markets are generally a good thing and to be preferred to bureaucrats but markets do sometimes fail and market outcomes are often not distributionally fair. The world is uncertain and insurance markets are incomplete so the state has a role to protect those dealt a bad hand of cards by life. Yes, I am a social democrat as, indeed, are almost all Australians.
Hopefully I have converged on a steady state political identity. I cannot see myself ever supporting the Labor Party longer-term but have real problems with the Liberals under Tony Abbott. I guess that the difficulty of working within the Liberal Party to provide a better leadership is something I am just to lazy to do and reforming the trade union dominated Labor Party seems impossible. Hence I will probably continue to snipe from the sidelines.