Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Are social movements drivers of progress?

 




In considering this question my focus is on Mikayla Novak’s recent book, Freedom in Contention, Social Movements and Liberal Political Economy.

Mikayla describes social movements as “sustained collective engagement by multiple participants … aiming to effect change within society”. Mikayla provides an enlightening account of the nature of social movements, the role of entrepreneurship within them, the tactics they use, and of factors that contribute to their success. I focus here on Mikayla’s view that social movements have played a critical role in the realization of liberties enjoyed today in the Western democracies. That line of argument is central to the book, and closely linked to the question posed above.

Before going further, I should note that Mikayla uses an “entangled political economy” framework to examine social networks. That framework, developed by Richard Wagner, views individuals and groups as being intertwined in overlapping relationships of different kinds - collaborative or competitive, or consensual or exploitive. In pursuing their goals, social movements have an irrepressible tendency to entangle with other movements, and with economic and political organizations.

In making the case that social movements have contributed to expanding economic, political, and social freedoms, Mikayla discusses the historical role of some important social movements. The American revolution is discussed as the culmination of a movement resisting imposition of unfair taxation. The Anti-Corn Law League is discussed as a movement rallying public support in opposition to agricultural tariffs that benefitted landowners at the expense of consumers. The movements involved in progressive extension of the voting franchise, including female suffrage activism, are discussed as part of a struggle to gain recognition that all individuals should have equal standing to participate in politics. The success of the American Civil Rights Movement in expanding economic, political, and social freedoms is argued to have inspired subsequent movements including anti-war, environmental and feminist movements.

The author’s coverage of contemporary social movements highlights responses to regulation limiting voluntary productive entanglements of an economic nature. Movements discussed include the Tea Party and the campaign to counter restrictive effects of regulation on availability of medication for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Mikayla also highlights the ongoing challenges posed by cultural-institutional environments that fail to prevent those with political influence using it to obtain benefits at the expense of others, and which repress social movement activities. She paints an alarming picture of rising illiberalism:

“Economic freedom has waned, minorities and many other groups around the world are victimized by violent, reactionary backlash dynamics, and, increasingly, we are meeting the end of a police baton or are being haunted by the constant eye of the surveillance state. All in all, the disturbing trend is that illiberalism appears, again, on the rise.” (p 136)

However, that is followed immediately by a more optimistic message about the future of freedom:

“Nevertheless, it is our position that great encouragement should be taken from the demonstrated self-organizational abilities of ordinary people, worldwide, to formulate social movements to demand their liberties and human rights.” (p 136)

Progress

Although Mikayla does not discuss the concept of progress to any great extent, she makes the important point that social evolution tends to be discordant and discontinuous. As a liberal, she focuses on the role of social movements play in the evolution of free and open societies, and expresses strong opposition to “totalizing schemes (drawn up by social movement participants, and by others) aiming at wholesale change to society”.

I believe that social movements have been an important driver of progress, as the concept is defined in my book Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.  I define progress as growth of opportunities for human flourishing – that means growth of opportunities for all individuals to meet their aspirations more fully. I don’t discuss the role of social movements explicitly, but note that social changes accompanying economic progress have played an important role in improving the opportunities available to women and members of minority groups.

My view of cultural evolution as largely benign and emancipative is consistent with the view of social movements that Mikayla presents. There is, however, a slight difference in emphasis. I view cultural evolution as the net result of progressive struggle and conservative resistance, and argue that conservative resistance serves a useful purpose in averting social changes that might later be widely regretted. Mikayla recognizes that counter-movements may be informed by ideological commitments rather than being reactionary, but she leaves the impression that they are more likely to oppose liberal freedoms than to advance them. (See pages 90-91.)

There is also an interesting difference between the items that Mikayla and I discuss as illiberal tendencies. As noted above, Mikayla emphasizes the tendency for minorities and many other groups around the world to be victimized by violent, reactionary backlash dynamics. The things I write about under this heading include cancel culture, attempts to suppress views of opponents, and terrorism. I think we are both right!

Summing up

Mikayla’s book makes an important contribution in reminding readers in the Western democracies of the emancipative role of social movements in realization of economic, political, and social freedoms that they now tend to take for granted.  In that context, social movements have been important drivers of progress, including the spreading of opportunities for more people to meet their aspirations more fully. Although I am somewhat concerned about the illiberal tendencies in some contemporary social movements, I share Mikayla’s optimism about the abilities of ordinary people to formulate social movements to advance and protect liberty.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Do people have a right to choose where they will live?

 

                                        Vietnamese boat people arriving in Australia in 1976


In the Western liberal democracies there are few people who claim that individuals do not have the right to choose where they live. However, many people set limits on the extent to which they recognize that right. They only recognize that foreigners have the right to live in their neighborhood if they meet stringent immigration requirements.

Is that a reasonable view? If people readily accept that individuals should be free to choose where they will live within national borders, why are they reluctant to accept that individuals have a right to choose which country to live in?

If you view national borders as arbitrary lines on maps, it will seem absurd to you that immigration requirements should make it more difficult to re-locate across national borders than within a nation. International migration could normally be expected to be as beneficial as migration within national borders. For example, the potential benefits to both the employees and employers concerned when workers relocate to take up employment opportunities are not necessarily reduced when national borders are crossed. Similarly, the potential benefits to both the grandparents and grandchildren of living in the same locality are not necessarily reduced when national borders are crossed to enable that to happen.


I have been pondering such questions while reading Ilya Somin’s recent book, Free to Move: Foot voting, migration, and political freedom. Somin presents a powerful argument in favour of foot voting – choosing to move to a different country, city, condo etc. because you prefer its rules to the ones you currently live under. Foot voting enables individuals to make a choice that actually matters to them, whereas voting in an election offers individuals only a miniscule chance of affecting the outcome.

I didn’t need to read Somin’s book to be persuaded of the potential value of foot voting. It would be difficult for an economist engaged in public policy not to be aware of those benefits. I also had the benefit of considering the issues involved many years ago when I read Robert Nozick’s famous book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

However, it is one thing to accept the potential benefits of foot voting as an ideal, and quite another to advocate removal of current obstacles to foot voting posed by migration regulations.

Somin suggest that the sovereignty argument – the view that the right to bar migrants is intrinsic to the existence of an independent nation state – has little support among political theorists, although it often arises in public discourse. Somin mentions Donald Trump and his southern border wall proposal in this context, but John Howard, a former Australian prime minister, advanced the argument just as strongly in 2001:

 “National Security … is also about having an uncompromising view about the fundamental right of this country to protect its borders. It's about this nation saying to the world we are a generous open-hearted people, taking more refugees on a per capita basis than any nation except Canada, we have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations. But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.

While national governments continue to exist, it would not be realistic to expect them to refrain from accepting responsibility for migration policy. However, that does not mean that it is beyond the realms of possibility for governments to adopt something more closely approaching an open borders policy. As Somin points out, sovereign nations existed for centuries without exercising a general power to bar peaceful migrants. Most governments made significant efforts to restrict entry only in the late 19th century.

The reason why the sovereignty argument seems persuasive to many people must be related to their perception that illegal or unauthorized migration has adverse consequences. They want immigration regulation enforced because they believe it serves a useful purpose.

Somin discusses in some detail various reasons that have been advanced for immigration restrictions. These include fear of terrorism and crime, possible reduction of wage levels, burdening of the welfare state, destruction of the environment, and the spread of harmful cultural values. He recognizes the validity of some objections to freedom of international migration, but suggests that “keyhole solutions” are available to meet negative side-effects of expanded migration. These keyhole solutions aim to target real problems, minimizing risks of adverse outcomes without imposing unnecessary restrictions on foot voting.

As in many other policy areas, carefully targeted regulation which minimizes adverse side-effects is clearly preferable to blanket bans and restrictions that are directed toward meeting political demands of anti-migrant nationalist groups. Somin recognizes that such groups are the main obstacle to international foot voting.

This brings me back to the sovereignty argument. It seems to me that anti-migrant nationalist groups had greater sway in Australian politics 20 years ago when significant numbers of people seeking refugee status were arriving by boat without prior approval. Under those circumstances it was relatively easy for the opponents of immigration to claim that “people smuggling” and “queue jumping” by refugees was likely to lead to huge social problems.

The government’s action to enforce regulation and discourage unauthorized arrivals seems to have enabled the public debate about immigration levels in Australia to become somewhat more civilized in recent years. It may also have reduced public disquiet about the relatively high migrant intake in recent years (prior to the Covid 19 pandemic).

The sovereignty argument is clearly opposed to recognition that people have a right to choose which country they will live in. Nevertheless, Australians seem generally to have become more relaxed in their attitudes toward high levels of immigration since the government stridently asserted sovereignty by taking effective action to discourage unauthorized arrivals.

Postscript

The last couple of paragraphs have attracted some comment in response to a Facebook post by Boris Karpa: https://www.facebook.com/548209107/posts/10159829476419108/

The issue is whether there is any evidence to back up my assertion that Australians seem generally to have become more relaxed in their attitudes toward high levels of immigration since more effective action was taken to discourage unauthorized arrivals.

Survey evidence certainly suggests that immigration has gone off the radar as a major political issue in Australia over the last decade (Scanlan Foundation, Mapping Social Cohesion, 2020, p24). 

The total number of migrants has increased, but there has been substantial opposition associated with the "somewhat more civilized debate" that I referred to. It now seems possible for people to argue for a lower migrant intake on grounds of pressure on infrastructure, impacts on unskilled wage, and house prices etc. without being accused of racism, or lack of sympathy for refugees.

The refugee intake has not risen much over the last decade. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be survey data on perceptions of whether the current refugee intake is too high or too low for long enough to assess whether attitudes have changed over the last decade. The Scanlan Foundation's report for 2019 suggests that in recent years opinion has been evenly balanced between those who say the intake is too small and those who say it is too large.

I think the Australian public would now be receptive to a larger refugee intake, provided people don’t arrive uninvited. However, that is just my personal view. I guess we will see whether or not I am right over the next year or so. 

Further comments are welcome.

 

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

What purpose is served by utopian thinking?

 


If your immediate response is that no good purpose is served by utopian thinking, it may be because you have the wrong kind of utopianism in mind. Perhaps what has come to mind is the description of an ideal society which could only exist if all humans were angelic, or perhaps it is the failure of some utopians to consider the human costs of attempting to achieve their visions.

Anyone who considers the nature and characteristics of an ideal society is engaged in utopian thinking. In my view, there is one particular type of utopian thinking that has contributed massively to advances in opportunities for individual human flourishing and has potential to continue to do so.

Before I make the case for that kind of utopian thinking, however, I need to discuss the rise of anti-utopianism.

The rise of anti-utopianism

The main threat to discussion of the characteristics of an ideal society seems to be coming from people who view such discussion as irrelevant to the world in which we live. These anti-utopians argue that it is a waste of time to consider whether public policy is consistent with principles that should apply in an ideal society. They see such ideals as irrelevant because outcomes are determined by power struggles.

Anti-utopians do not necessarily subscribe to the view that “might is right”. Their belief that outcomes are determined by power struggles may just lead them to argue that “right” is irrelevant. Their beliefs differ somewhat depending on whether they come from the conservative or progressive side of politics.

Anti-utopians who inhabit the conservative side of politics tend to focus on contests between nations. They argue that such contests are inevitable, and that victory depends primarily on the ferocity of the warriors. They sometimes recognize that religion and ideology have a role in motivating warriors by reinforcing nationalist sentiments. However, they tend to view notions of human rights and morality as “rationalizations of philosophers” that weaken the ferocity of warriors.

Anti-utopians who inhabit the progressive side of politics tend to focus on power struggles between different groups in society - different ethnic and religious groups, women and men, people with different sexual orientation, and so forth. People on the progressive side of politics have traditionally presented a view of an ideal society where everyone has equal opportunities as well as equal rights, but the anti-utopians engaged in identity politics seek affirmative action to be carried far beyond the provision of equal opportunities. Ethical principles are downplayed in the struggle of particular groups to advance their interests at the expense of others.

The arguments of the anti-utopians can be challenged within the framework of the power struggle paradigms they present. For example, conservative anti-utopians tend to overlook the extent to which people are motivated to contribute toward national defence by considerations such as protection of human rights. Progressive anti-utopians tend to overlook the potential for single-minded advocacy of their own interests to encourage other groups to retaliate.

The purpose of utopian thinking

 The best way to challenge the arguments of the anti-utopians is to present some defensible utopian views.

  1. Since human flourishing is an inherently self-directed activity undertaken by individuals, an ideal society must recognize that individuals have the right to flourish in the manner of their own choosing provided they do not interfere with the similar rights of others.
  2. The flourishing of individuals depends on their ability to follow personal values, visions and aspirations that make their lives meaningful. Some of the most basic personal values of individuals – including respect for the lives, property, and liberty of others - are widely shared by people throughout the world.  
  3. Progress toward an ideal society occurs when individuals have greater opportunities to meet their aspirations.

If you would like to see those points explained more fully, please read my recently published book “Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing”. The concept of utopia is only referred to a few times in the book but, as I have just realized, much of the thinking that went into the book is utopian thinking.

Utopian thinking is intrinsic to human flourishing.  

Monday, July 12, 2021

Can historical injustice be redressed?

 


This question arose as I was reading about the theme of this year’s NAIDOC week. NAIDOC week, held this year from 4-11 July, celebrates the history, culture, and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The theme for NAIDOC week this year is “Heal Country”. The role of traditional management practices in protecting land from bushfires and droughts is mentioned specifically as part of the theme, but “country” encompasses all aspects of Indigenous culture.

The NAIDOC committee explains that “Healing Country means embracing First Nation’s cultural knowledge and understanding of Country as part of Australia's national heritage”. Australians, from all walks of life, have shown increasing concern to protect Indigenous cultural heritage. For example, when a mining company blew up an aboriginal sacred site in Western Australia last year, I found myself among the many people who felt that something significant to Australia’s national heritage had been destroyed.

The NAIDOC committee mention redressing historical injustice specifically:

“To Heal Country, we must properly work towards redressing historical injustice.”

However, that follows a statement implying that fundamental grievances would not vanish following “fair and equitable resolution” of “outstanding injustices”:

“In the European settlement of Australia, there were no treaties, no formal settlements, no compacts. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people therefore did not cede sovereignty to our land. It was taken from us. That will remain a continuing source of dispute.”

Working toward redressing historical injustice will not extinguish fundamental grievances. It would be na├»ve to expect that it would. Few humans find it easy to let go of their grievances, even when they accept that their personal interests would be better served by viewing historical events as “water under the bridge”.

Some readers may be thinking at this point that it is futile to attempt to redress historical injustices if such attempts cannot prevent those injustices from being viewed as an ongoing source of “grievances”. I don’t concur with that view. As I see it, the central issues of concern in redressing historical injustices are about justice, or fairness, rather than about attempting to assuage ongoing feelings of grievance felt by descendants of victims.

Historical injustice to Indigenous Australians stems from the failure of governments to recognize and protect their natural rights following colonization. It is arguable that current governments have an obligation to remedy adverse consequences flowing from the failures of their predecessors.

However, it is no easy matter to assess the extent to which opportunities currently available to Indigenous Australians have been adversely affected by historical injustices. A better understanding of history is a necessary step in the direction of any such assessment. It is pleasing to see the NAIDOC committee express the view:

“While we can’t change history, through telling the truth about our nation’s past we certainly can change the way history is viewed.”

The truth includes dispossession of land over much of the country, but it is difficult to generalize about what followed. Jim Belshaw, who knows more about history than I do, describes it recently as involving “uneasy co-existence, resistance and then survival and now, hopefully, recovery”. Even those broad stages might not be equally relevant in all parts of the country.

The truth also includes the existence of the “grave social and economic disadvantage”, referred to by the NAIDOC committee, but that cannot be wholly attributed to historical injustices.

As discussed in my recent book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, there has been massive growth of opportunities for human flourishing over the last 200 years in Western liberal democracies, including Australia. I suggest in the Preface:

“Those of us who have the good fortune to live in Western liberal democracies have opportunities that we might crave if we lived elsewhere in the world”.

I think that applies to the Indigenous people of Australia as well as to other Australians. The opportunities we all currently enjoy should be sufficient to offset any ongoing social and economic consequences of injustices suffered by our ancestors.

So, how can I explain the relatively poor social and economic outcomes of many Indigenous people in Australia? It seems to me that anyone seeking the truth about this should consider the adverse consequences over the last 50 years of extending unemployment benefits and other welfare support to Aboriginal communities in remote areas. Ongoing social and economic disadvantage may be strongly linked to well-meaning efforts during the 1970s to remove discrimination against Indigenous people in access to government welfare support.

That is not a novel idea, but governments have found it difficult to implement welfare policies with more appropriate incentives. There has been little progress toward “closing the gap” in social and economic outcomes. Hopefully, greater involvement of local communities will result in better outcomes in future.

In my view, as discussed in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, the flourishing of humans is intrinsically a matter for individual self-direction, rather than something to fostered by human development experts, or social planners. Social and economic context influence opportunities available, but the capacity of individuals for wise and well-informed self-direction is of central importance to their own flourishing. It is inspiring to see increasing numbers of Indigenous Australians achieving outstanding success in their chosen fields, despite injustices suffered by their ancestors and the limited opportunities currently available in their local communities.