Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Is it just me or has anyone else noted how the escalating hysteria about (a) the "black armband theory of history" and (b) "border protection" just continues to highlight the inconsistency between the two positions. And it is a particularly fun debate because you get to put it in the context of that most favoured of economic concepts - property rights. How come if it is so important that "we chose who should come here" should we assume previous generations' decision to invade was okay?

And does the absence of a concept of individual property in that early period justify the position? Not really, because the justification of the current position is about communal property - the overall thing called Australia (including those islands currently proscribed by regulation). So previous inhabitants had just as much right to chose who should come.

Perhaps it just reveals the simple corollary of the institutional underpinning of capitalist economies, that posession is nine-tenths of the law. But more importantly it reveals the uselessness of trying to decide these questions on the basis of absolutes. These are both relative questions and need to be discussed within a context. And as that context changes - either with time or frame of reference - the conclusions may be different. How firmly I should believe in my conclusions can be tested by some simple "sensitivity" analysis - how much do my conclusions vary if I change the context.

Our internal debate about our relationship with indigenes and our debate about people whose home lands are such that they will risk much to seek to relocate both draw us to current questions of economic development. And to discuss that we go to the really big questions of defining progress. That's for another conversation - but I'll declare my bias - I'm happy that I and my children live in 2003 and would prefer to live in this year now than in any preceeding year. And I think that the institutional (and associated cultural) developments that have accompanied this have been generally good. So these changes are clearly worth imposing on others - it is the altruistic thing to do - far more than "preserving cultures".

But just as the development of capitalism varied depending on the fine detail of the fuedalism it replaced in different parts of Europe, there is no one "model" of liberal democracy. And certainly the success of developing liberal democracies will need to be sensitive to the initial conditions experienced.

But equally our own institutions must essentially be continually questioned. Constitutional debate in general is therefore of far greater significance than usually recognised. And it is not merely about republics versus monarchies, or federalism versus centralism. It includes the relationships between the much vaunted three wings of government. It includes the way the citizens select their representatives and their relationships with them. "Judicial activism" is of itself not wrong - without judicial activism in eras past there would be no contract law.

This is so self-evident (to me at least) I wonder why more of the national discourse is not engaged in these debates I suspect it is because of the false distinction between the absolutists and the relativists - and one camp is so certain in truth that it must at all times defend what we have, and the other so entranced by a misunderstood extrapolation of "anything goes" that debate is not properly joined. The right is conservative not by dint of reason, but as justification, the left dispersed, disorganised and confused or - at its worst - merely oppositional, defining itself merely as what it is not rather than what it is.

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