27. The Spirit Of Inquiry And The Critical Spirit
From 'The Australian Achievement' by LJM Cooray (1996)

Why is it that the values and institutions of the democratic order are under attack, notwithstanding their great achievements? A major reason for this could be said to be a perverted or distorted critical spirit. The spirit of free inquiry is an integral part of western civilisation and liberal values. It has made a great contribution to the rise of western civilisation. It is the difference between democracy and dictatorship. It has been responsible for social, political and economic development. The spirit of free inquiry has spawned many an invention in science and technology. It has been the basic thread running through the rise and achievements of western civilisation.

However, a recent trend, based on a deep seated antagonism, is to increasingly turn the spirit of free inquiry on the values and institutions of the western democratic order. These values and institutions are subjected to popular as well as academic critical analyses (as distinct from evaluations) which expose, accurately or with exaggerations and distortions, the manner in which they function and operate. They are tested against ideal or near absolute standards or values. By comparison, socialist and communist institutions and systems are analysed by reference to sub-human considerations. Another technique is to compare the practice of the operation of the democratic order (often with exaggerations) with the theory of socialism.

The academic analyses are conducted at various levels empirical (often with selective data collection or predetermined hypotheses) or theoretical and abstract. The main weaknesses in these approaches are the missing dimensions — the benefits are not examined and criticism does not move towards evaluation. The realities of human nature and the differences between human beings, the inevitability of man made and natural accidents and disasters and the harshness of, and the problems arising from, the environment are not considered. No comparative study is made with other systems. No, or little, allowance is made for imperfections, that will exist in any human situation. The human limitations that will affect the judgement and horizons of the drafters and administrators of legislation are not taken into account. Reforms are formulated without consideration of the financial costs and possible counter productive effects. The consequent restrictions on freedom, initiative and the striving for excellence that are necessary consequences of government regulation are not appreciated. The strengths of the pre-existing evolved situations are not taken into consideration. The problems which arise from government action and the unpredictability of the practical operation of legislation (the practice being very different from the stated aims) and the cost and financial implications for government and for the tax-paying community are ignored.

Many critical analyses of human problems and solutions, based on proposals for legislation leading to government regulation of the economy and social matters, proceed on the identification of a problem and a perceived need for action. The proponents of the need for action to deal with a problem or an injustice do not ask the question whether it is practical and possible to draft a law and put it into effect. The need leads to regulation without a consideration of the possibilities. They do not take account of the complexities involved in forecasting human action and interaction, the natural limitations in the hearts and minds of the men who will be the legislators and the administrators, the restrictive effects of regulations on human action and initiative and the financial costs of regulation for business, for those affected and for government (the financial costs for government being borne by the tax payer).

The spirit of free inquiry is now competing with a critical spirit. There is now a "critical spirit" in education, media, politics and society which has been directed towards criticism and not evaluation. A further dimension is that the education system and the public affairs media close themselves (with varying degrees of aggressiveness and intolerance) to those contrary viewpoints and perspectives which relate to freedom and the achievements of the western democratic order. The standpoint which prevails is that of increasing denigration of freedom, of private enterprise and of related values and institutions. The prevailing belief is that government regulation can solve problems and that there must be more of it. This new critical spirit is running in a narrow channel and is becoming self destructive. It is no longer open to other views and philosophies — including those which were responsible for the rise of western civilisation. Freedom and tradition are consciously and unconsciously suppressed and censored in politics, the media and academia.

The abuse of the critical spirit has been spearheaded by the social science faculties, departments and schools within universities in the western world. Social scientists are suffering from an inferiority complex. They have watched with awe and envy the achievements of science and technology and the extent to which the spirit of free inquiry has been responsible for such achievements. Social scientists, in trying to emulate the real scientists, have overlooked the fact that they write about things which are affected in different ways by human behaviour. A nation or a society or a section of a nation or society consists of individuals and each individual is in some respects an island unto himself. Individuals are not subject to inevitable movements as the objects dealt with in the sciences are. Human behaviour is determined by countless variables, including free choice.

In this context it seems futile to attempt to develop absolute or near absolute concepts, theories and solutions for human problems in the same way, or almost the same way, that scientists in the natural and physical sciences attempt to develop concepts, theories and solutions. Social scientists too often do not realise the factors which limit and inhibit the studies they are pursuing.

The above comments are not intended to deny the inherent value of all empirical social science research. There has been much valuable research. But a great deal of research has emanated from the social sciences which ignores or fails to give due weight to basic common sense perspectives, the values and institutions of the western order, the lessons of history and the reality of a world composed of individuals each one different from the other.

The values and institutions of the western democratic order constitute a pretty rotten system if particular facets or problems are analysed, without a sense of perspective. It is a pretty rotten system until the alternatives are considered. What is needed is not merely criticism. It is necessary to proceed beyond criticism to evaluation. This is what most critics of the system fail to do. They fail to look at the negative and positive factors and to proceed therefrom to make a fair evaluation and only then to suggest possible reform.

Commonsense (which is not common) leads to the perspective that there are no easy (or sometimes even difficult) solutions to human problems, be they in relation to law, government, politics, society, the economy or whatever. The problems of our times have been compounded by those seeking quick solutions to human problems. The simple commonsense answer is that there are often no solutions other than the band aid remedies so reviled by activists. In seeking to apply half-baked, narrowly focused solutions to complex problems and relationships, the activists are themselves guilty of "band aid" quackery. Human beings and the forces of the environment (fire, water, winds, etc) being what they are, there will always be problems — great problems. Will freedom and limited government or ever increasing government regulation by law makers and bureaucrats be more likely to help humankind to cope? Which is the better alternative? This is the issue but it is seldom viewed in these terms, particularly by academics and would be regulators.