Is the left out of ideas?

Dennis Glover in an Op-ed in the Australia argues that the Labor Party is making a steady drift to the centre, and that this drift is due to a general shift to the right of the Australian population as a result of success of think tanks such at the Centre for Independent Studies. In response, Andrew Norton at Catallaxy, argues that while the left could learn from the organizational structure of right wing think tanks such as the CIS, the key point is more importantly that many of the big ideas of social democracy have already been implemented and are with us, and new ones have not been forthcoming:

The right doesn’t have ideas because it has think-tanks, it has think-tanks because it has ideas that need promoting. Ideas come first, and then you build appropriate organisations around them. And if the ideas aren’t there, no matter how much money social democrats raise for a think-tank or advocacy centre they won’t be as politically effective as the right.


This view sees social democracy as essentially victorious and, having acheived many of its main goals, is now a Burkean conservative force fighting a rear gaurd action against neoliberalism which seeks to tear these acheivements down. Clearly “conservative” is not how most of the left would wish to see themselves but I think there is an degree of truth to it and in some ways something to be proud of. Depite flaws, programs such as Medicare have provided a good level of medical care for all members of society at a relatively cheap price, especially when compared with the US system.

As Dennis Glover mentions, increasingly the “new ideas” coming out of the ALP, such as tax breaks for private school parents, are neither new nor left, but rather just a shift towards the right. In some cases I think that shift in policy position is a realisation that the broad consensus has shifted, and in others a desperate bid to try and recover the perceived middle ground.

I don’t want to think narrowly about the policies that would re-elect the ALP. Rather, in the struggle of ideas, what directions should the left be arguing for in general. From my point of view I think the left should accept that some aspects of what has been right wing policy and it should be no longer fought over. For example, if a free market is the best way of generating wealth, rather than fiddle with the market itself, should we just be relying of the tax and welfare system to deliver equity to those disadvantaged rather than minimum wages or other regulations, and concentrating our efforts here.

To do this it seems we need to have a good sense of what we are trying to achieve and what can be achieved. Questions such as, “should we be worried about inequality, i.e. relative poverty, or merely that the welfare of the poor increases in absolute terms?” seem to be vital to know so that policies can actually achieve those goals.

Similarly if we are going to talk about the need to protect the environment, then the question is what for? Are we protecting it merely because of our own benefit, in that it is necessary to preserve human life and that people derive satisfaction from nature, or because the environment has an intrinsic value external to anthropocentric concerns.

I’m not really trying to articulate a new set of ideas myself, but rather interested in discussing if others think that, in Australia, the left needs a new progressive program building on the foundations of the Hawke-Keating-Howard years rather than an essentially conservative one, concerned with rolling back the changes of the right.

Cross Posted at Larvatus Prodeo

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