The Effects Of The Reformist Ethos
The Western Democratic Tradition by LJM Cooray

Some thoughts on the original values and institutions and the effects of the reformist ethos.

I once listened to a debate between two philosophers, Dr John Gray (a conservative) and Dr Wojeich Sadurski (a democratic socialist in the Rawls tradition), which debate demonstrated the problems I have when listening to philosophers. What both had to say (and this applies to all good philosophers) is that they are internally consistent within their framework and on the basis of their premises. Competing philosophers often appear to me to be proceeding along parallel tracks in their internally consistent conceptual carriages. When Gray tried to relate (somewhat irritably) to Sadurski's emphasis on minorities and poverty, he was pushed into a position of over-emphasising the importance of "exit points" and under-estimating the suffering and problems of minorities and the poor. My hunch (perhaps in my ignorance) is that the ultimate escape or the choice must be based on common sense (refer explanation above) or qualifications on liberty based on morality. The opponent of the reformist's position on minorities and poverty has more than common sense and philosophical arguments to support his position. There is vast body of empirical evidence about the counter productive consequences arising from the use of law and regulation to address the problems of minorities and poverty. It has been said of the Lyndon Johnson war against poverty, "poverty won". The wrong ideas and instruments were used. The "trickle down effect" is contemptuously dismissed by Marxist and socialist philosophers. It is not adequately addressed by their liberal (in the European sense) opponents. To my mind the "trickle down effect" provides a slow, but workable (and to my mind the only method) of countering poverty, in the context of a type of political and social organisation which once prevailed in western nations. Regulationism based on equality, fairness and social justice (as distinct from inter-personal justice) creates more injustice than it redresses, imposes ever increasing limits on liberty and individuality and in terms of benefits to those sought to be helped is counterproductive, regressive and reactionary.

My overriding approach (I do not call it a philosophy) developed in this paper is that freedom is important but the problem of permissible restrictions on freedom and finding the relationship or balance between liberty, individuality and civil life can best be explored by examining the evolution and experience of western society.

My concern for the problems of minorities and exploitation took me through various thought stages (including attachment to liberal democracy, participatory socialist democracy, liberal theology, Christian socialism (of the William Temple and Uniting Church variety) etc to my present position.

My conclusions from these intellectual journeys is that a search for a philosophical definition of freedom or liberalism in the context of the permissible restrictions (like searching for a theory of social change) amounts to looking in a dark room for a black cat which is not there. This is not to say the theories are unimportant. Theories are aids to understanding, but no single theory can do the job. The permissible restrictions on liberty must best be worked out by examining the development of actual societies (eg western society) and the evolved balance between individual and civil life worked out by the interaction of politicians, philosophers, lawyers, theologians, individuals and institutions in the real world. An examination of western history (feudal, limited government and the more recent interventionist/progressivist systems) provide assistance and examples of the positives and the negatives.

I am trying to answer these issues in a multi-volume publication project. A brief and inadequate summary of my approach is contained in a small booklet, which I hastily wrote for the Australian Bicentenary entitled From Bondage to Freedom. It has many shortcomings and some of what is stated therein needs editing. I have had second and further thoughts on other parts. Separation of Powers, Constitutionalism (drawing from both American and British experiences), rule of Law (as explained in Geoffrey Walker's recent work of that title) the common law methodology, the philosophy behind the US Bill of Rights prior to its reformulation by the American Supreme Court, strong local government, local institutions, incorporated associations, independent professions, enterprise, democracy, are all relevant in the working out of a system which balances liberty, individuality and civil life.

The crucial issue is what are the permissible limitations on freedom? This cannot be worked out at a philosophical level. In the ultimate, the extent of freedom in any society is residuary — what is left over from the restrictions imposed by law and social custom and behaviour. Ideas and institutions worked out by the trial and error in an evolutionary mode offer the best possible method. Such evolved institutions will be based on experience (as much as or more so than logic) and will provide scope for criticism from intellectuals and philosophers most of whom will be unable to discern the virtues and advantages of an evolutionary system.

The Constitution places limits on the organs of government. Organs of government must of necessity operate within those limits. The English common law judges provided an underestimated contribution to the working out of legal limitations on freedom. The common law methodology is outlined in my book on Human Rights in Australia. The crucial elements of the common law methodology are: (1) the overriding fault principle with strict liability permitted in exceptional situations and (2) the working out of the underlying principles and concepts in the context of the total system, as distinct from ideology or "the here's a problem, lets do something about it" approach.

The argument in the book referred to above is not that the common law should remain inviolate. Legislative change is inevitable but legislative change should proceed on the basis of the common law methodology.

The law, however, does not operate by itself. It operates in a context. A fault based law operates drawing on popular support and recognised moral values. It is supported by institutions in society which limit government and fragment society and thereby promote individualism, but within the context of an overriding patriotism. The very essence of western development is a movement to limit the powers of the sovereign on the basis that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The strength of the western system lies in the legal and social arrangements which widely distributed public and private power.

In an imperfect world, injustice and minority oppression are inevitable. An attempt to deal with these problems within the above framework provides methods and avenues of gradually redressing injustice. The crucial wrong turning in western society lies in the attempt to regulate through law problems of perceived injustice in the context of ideas of equality, social justice, minority, oppression, without a recourse to the totality of relevant circumstances and without a sense of perspective. Spencer (quoted above) effectively highlights the problems of interventionism.

There were three important issues which are often not mentioned in academic discourse on government: (i) the importance of common sense, human nature (my admittedly subjective understanding of human nature often makes me feel that philosophies such as Rawls are living in a world of fantasy), (ii) the relevance of the moral dimension (as defined above) operating in law and social values as a necessary limitation on liberty and (iii) if the moral is important, can there be a moral dimension without the idea of a transcendental spiritual being?

On what basis is it possible to make a choice between competing philosophies? My ultimate choice between an approach based on the importance of liberalism subject to overriding fault moral principles in law and society over and against the democratic socialist tradition (which I was committed to at one time) was not made on an analysis of the relative merits of competing ideas alone. My choice in the ultimate is made on the basis of religious values and common sense which includes rational thought and analysis of human nature and experience.

There is a close connection between freedom and development. The freedom of Western Civilisation was never the freedom of the wild ass. There was a clear distinction between liberty and licence. Law and social mores provided for restrictions on individual actions. These restrictions in law and social sanctions are being undermined (this is not to defend every aspect of the earlier law and social morality, which was in some respects harsh and needed adaptation for a civilised society).

The Closing of the American Mind: How our Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students, by Allan Bloom, 1987 is a book by an academic on universities which has become a best seller. It is not an easy book to read and is "heavy". It discusses what is wrong with education and the decline of standards and values in America in modern times. This analysis is of equal relevance to all western countries, including Australia.

Mary Kalantezi's review of Dr Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind in the ACES Review Vol 15,No 1, September 1988, appears to accept some of the fundamental criticisms which Bloom has made. She however, concludes the note that Bloom offers no solutions in overcoming the malaise in western society. Her view is that

"a challenge in the face of intellectual and social fragmentation is to develop a socially relevant curriculum, yet one which meets Bloom's demand for coherence and a sense of social purpose".

This is like searching in a dark room for a black cat which is not there.

Kalatezis unwittingly demonstrates the basic problem — the futile search to reconcile irreconcilables and the refusal to acknowledge tensions and contradictions. She echoes the views of many with similar approaches who want freedom, as well as order, individual liberty as well as equality, safety as well as the benefits of risk taking, a wide open society as well as less crime, material wealth as well as spiritual worth, individual liberty as well as collective good and economic and social regulation and political freedom — without stopping to think that each of these values take something away from the other. To use an ungainly but accurate expression, they have forgotten the trade-offs.

The destructive enemies of western civilisation are not the marxists, the neo-marxists, the fascists and other extremists. They are, and always have been a minority, through the small percentage of persons who reject fundamentally western civilisation and/or increasingly seek solutions in violent action or civil disobedience are increasing. The enemies are those who, to use another hackneyed phrase, want to have their cake and eat it at the same time.

What are the solutions? My answer is that often there are no solutions to complicated human problems. The productive and beneficial areas of human history are those where there has been a constructive effort to face up to problems with a sense of realism tinged by idealism.

The basic deficiency of so much of modern reform and progressivism (so called) is that it has not been predicated on an understanding of the values and institutions which were responsible for the rise of western civilisation (of which Australia is a part). These have been consistently undermined. These values and institutions which reflect the wisdom (and also the foolishness) of centuries of development have been attacked rather than creatively developed to meet the emerging and genuine problems of modern life.