Friday, December 9, 2022

How has the Neoplatonism of my youth influenced my current beliefs?

 


The kid in the photo believed that the material world is an illusion. Those beliefs about the nature of reality probably led him to be somewhat less materialistic than he would otherwise have been. However, an observer would have had to look closely to find any evidence that he, and his school colleagues who held similar beliefs, were behaving as though they did not believe the account of reality provided by their sense organs. They didn’t attempt to survive without food, to defy gravity by jumping off tall buildings, or to do much else to suggest that they had a different view of reality than most other teenagers living in Australia in 1960. The main difference an astute observer would have seen was their practice of treating illness as an error of thinking and viewing medical intervention as unnecessary and undesirable under most circumstances.

I am writing this article because a few people who have known me at different times of my life might be interested to know something about the process by which my beliefs have changed over the years.

Youthful preoccupations

When I was a child, I liked sitting on the gate post of a fence separating our garden from the farmyard. That was my favorite spot for observing what the horses, sheep dogs, cows, pet lambs, humans etc. were doing in the farmyard. One day when I was sitting there – I would have been about 6 years old - my father told me that everything I saw in the farmyard was an illusion. I thought at first that he was joking, but he was in the process of informing me that he had decided to attend the Christian Science church and had arranged for me to attend their Sunday school.

Over subsequent years, I gradually became immersed in the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, and her book, Science and Health (S&H). The final 3 years of my secondary education were spent as a border at Huntingtower, a school run by Christian Scientists in the Melbourne suburb of Mount Waverley. At that time, the school only accepted students who had a family background in Christian Science. Huntingtower still has a focus on the individual personal development of students and provides excellent educational opportunities. I am grateful that one of my aunts paid the fees to enable me to attend that school.

I have long been aware that there was some similarity between Mrs. Eddy’s teachings and the philosophy of Plato. I now see a closer resemblance to the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. Plotinus believed that “The One”, the absolutely simple first principle of all, was the cause of being for everything else in the universe.  Mrs. Eddy wrote: 

“Principle and its idea is one, and this one is God, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent Being, and His reflection is man and the universe” (S&H, 465-6).

The Neoplatonists saw life’s purpose as being “to bring back the god in us to the divine in the All”. Mrs. Eddy urged her followers:

We must form perfect models in thought and look at them continually, or we shall never carve them out in grand and noble lives. Let unselfishness, goodness, mercy, justice, health, holiness, love — the kingdom of heaven — reign within us, and sin, disease, and death will diminish until they finally disappear” (S&H, 248).

Secular pursuits

I abandoned Neoplatonism at the end of my teen years. At that time, I didn’t consciously reject that belief system even though I can remember becoming increasingly frustrated at the difficulty of attempting to follow Mrs. Eddy’s injunction: “Stand porter at the door of thought” (S&H, 392). My social life and academic interests made me less inclined to spend time engaging in what I was coming to view as speculations about the nature of “ultimate reality”.  I was beginning to study economics, so my thinking focused increasingly on how human aspirations could best be met. At that time, I became interested in the writings of J S Mill on liberty and utilitarianism.

Over the years, my philosophic interests developed along with a work career focused on public policy relating to economic development, international trade, productivity growth and technological progress. That led to increasing interest in the role of liberty in economic progress, and human flourishing more generally.

As a consequence of my interest in human flourishing, I have come to view Aristotle as the greatest of the philosophers of Ancient Greece. My book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, explains the framework of my current thinking.

These days, the idea that the evidence of our senses is illusory seems as strange to me as it was when I was the child sitting on the gate post. Our senses provide the direct experience of reality that members of our species require to thrive. Since we are conscious beings, we are aware of our own use of maps, and models (both metaphorical and actual) to communicate and reason about what we experience. However, we also know that maps and models do not always correspond to reality. The search for truth is about seeking better maps and models.

The lurking questions

There were two questions lurking in the back of my mind after I had abandoned Neoplatonism. First, how could a change in thinking bring about the healing of serious illnesses which seemed to have a physical cause? Second, why did the same techniques sometimes fail to provide the lasting healings hoped for in respect of disorders that seemed to have a psychological rather than physical cause?

I do not doubt the veracity of most of the large number of testimonials that church members presented about healings that they experienced. As I remember it, most of the church members I knew either had personal experience of healings themselves or were family members of people who had obtained healings. The prevalence of healings seems to me to be the most obvious factor explaining the rapid growth of this church in the first half of the 20th century, when medical science was less advanced than it is today. Advances in medicine provide the most obvious explanation for the decline in church membership in recent decades.

I think the answer to my first question lies in the potential impact of a change of an individual’s thinking on their body’s natural defences against disease. For example, a substantial amount of evidence has accumulated about the relationship between psychological stress and the human immune system. There is a lot of advice available about the importance of stress management in maintaining good health, and about how to manage stress via physical exercise, breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, and so forth. However, I don’t think many people give enough attention to the potential for negative thinking associated with medication to influence its efficacy. Before you decide to take any medication prescribed to you, it seems to me to be wise to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of how the medication works and the impacts that most users experience. If that doesn’t provide a basis for you to expect positive outcomes, perhaps you should seek another opinion.

My answer to the question of why lasting healings didn’t always occur in respect of psychological disorders is that an appropriate change of thinking had not actually occurred. That was not necessarily attributable to insufficient vigilance as “porter at the door of thought”. In my own experience, I think the opposite was the case. Trying hard to keep fear of stuttering and blocking out of my mind resulted in greater fear of disfluency than I would otherwise have experienced.  The reason for that became clear when someone suggested that I try the “don’t think of a pink elephant” exercise. The exercise consists of trying very hard not to think about pink elephants and then observing what images come to mind. Deliberate attempts to suppress thoughts makes them more likely to occupy your mind.

The questions lurking in the back of my mind made me receptive to Neuro-Semantics – a model of how we create and embody meaning developed by Michael Hall and Bobby Bodenhamer - when I learned about it 20 years ago. For present purposes, I think the message of Neuro-Semantics can best be  illustrated by the following quote from an article by Michael Hall entitled, “The Inner Game of Frame”:   

‘The frames we set about our experiences are much, much, much more important and critical than our experiences.  In this, “there is no good or bad but thinking makes it so” as Shakespeare noted.  In this, “men are not disturbed by things, they are disturbed by their interpretation of things.”  In this, “as we think in our heart, so we are.”  In this we have the cognitive-behavioral foundation for human functioning.’

Readers of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, will find a reference to Hall’s views on the importance of frames of meaning in the discussion of why people do not always move on to satisfying higher needs, as Abraham Maslow suggested they would, once their basic needs have been met (p 168-9).

Beyond utilitarianism

One aspect of Mrs. Eddy’s teachings that I have held on to is the idea that the identity of the individual person is a metaphysical concept. Mrs. Eddy made the point persuasively as follows:

‘If the real man is in the material body, you take away a portion of the man when you amputate a limb; the surgeon destroys manhood, and worms annihilate it. But the loss of a limb or injury to a tissue is sometimes the quickener of manliness; and the unfortunate cripple may present more nobility than the statuesque athlete, — teaching us by his very deprivations, that “a man’s a man, for a’ that.” ‘ (S&H, 172)

The Neoplatonism of my youth has also left me receptive to the idea that to fully flourish we need to be willing to transcend utilitarian preoccupations. That idea is, of course, also present in Aristotle’s view that practice of the virtues is central to individual flourishing. In Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I summarised my current view as follows:

Liberty and technological progress give us potential to obtain more of the basic goods of flourishing humans. To fully flourish, however, we need to be willing to transcend utilitarian preoccupations and to contemplate what our human nature requires of us as individuals. Perhaps it is in our nature to bring wonder into our lives by seeking the essence of truth, beauty, and goodness. If so, we may take pleasure in doing that, whilst rejecting the idea that it is appropriate to employ the metrics of pleasure and pain to assess the worth of our endeavors” (197).

Postscript

I neglected to mention my guru, Tim Gallwey. I have been a fan of Tim Gallwey's books for the last 20 years. I found "The Inner Game of Golf" particularly helpful in aspects of my life that have little to do with golf. Tim Gallwey's insights about the inner game of golf helped me to see some personal problems in perspective. (By the way, I play golf about once a year and play no better might be expected!)

Gallwey's messages about the importance of self-trust and ways to circumvent self-doubt comes through strongly in his books.

In this video Tim Gallwey talks about the personal philosophy that motivates him.


Monday, November 21, 2022

Does voting just encourage them?

 

A couple of weeks ago the thought struck me that it was about time I wrote something about the personal ethics of voting. That turned out to be more difficult than I had anticipated.

At first, I thought that I should argue that it is unethical to vote because politics is a dirty business. As a person who often espouses principles of libertarianism and decentralism (see the preceding post on this blog) I see voting as akin to online shopping with known fraudsters – you know that the package of goods they deliver will never be the same as the one you thought you were buying. You should avoid shopping with known fraudsters, and you should avoid voting because whoever you vote for a politician will be elected.

Then I thought of some problems with that analogy. What happens if you really need the goods that the politicians are advertising? Who will mend the potholes in your road if you don’t vote for a politician who promises to get it done? Perhaps you might tell me that you and your neighbours could organise a working bee and do it yourself. Good idea!

However, if you don’t vote, who will restrain government spending? I expect that the more cynical among you will respond that no-one will restrain government spending, irrespective of whether you vote, or who you vote for.


When my reasoning took me to that point, I couldn’t immediately think of an appropriate response. That was when I decided that to bring clarity to my mind I should read again the book, “Don’t Vote – It just encourages the bastards, by the late, great P J O’Rourke.  My discussion of the book provides only a small sample of the humor and wisdom in it. Despite having been written over 12 years ago, the book contains insightful comments about people who are still on the political stage in America, including Donald Trump. However, that is somewhat tangential to the focus of this article.

You might think that this book would make a strong case against voting, but the old saying about not judging a book by its cover does seems to apply in this instance. O’Rourke suggests that voting does have a purpose: “We vote to throw the bastards out”.  The problem, as I see it, is that when enough voters manage to persuade each other to vote to throw politicians out of office, that doesn’t establish a regime of peaceful human flourishing without any interfering politicians. Voters throw out one lot of politicians by voting another lot into office.

One of the funniest parts of the book is a listing of the personality characteristics of people who are drawn to politics. The first item on the list is “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity”. After listing 9 other characteristics, O’Rourke acknowledges that he has just quoted from the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder.

Nevertheless, O’Rourke acknowledges that “individual politicians are, after all, individuals like the rest of us and should be judged individually”:

“It would be wrong—very tempting, but wrong—to think of them all as simply bastards”.

He elaborates:

“I’ve spent some time with politicians. I like politicians. I’m friends with politicians from both sides of the aisle. Politicians are fine until they stick their noses into things they don’t understand, such as most things. Then politicians turn into rachet-jawed purveyors of monkey doodle and baked wind.”

Unfortunately, I must agree. The politicians I have met personally have all been likeable. When you meet them, they seem to be pleasant people (perhaps in the same way that the scammers who seek my friendship on Facebook often seem pleasant). A few politicians I have met even had their hearts and heads in the right places. The one who comes to mind most readily is Bert Kelly, an Australian politician whom I have written about previously.

Sometimes when I see a politician performing on TV, I wonder how a nice person like her, or him, ended up like that – I mean, like a bad actor saying things they don't believe. The fact that their future political careers are at stake is no consolation.

Is there something inherently evil about politics? O’Rourke writes:

“Maybe politics is inherently evil. Maybe politics is so evil that anything we do for it, even attempting to supply it with morality, just feeds the beast. I trust this isn’t true but I can’t say the thought doesn’t trouble me.”

That thought troubles me, too.

In his discussion of morality in politics, O’Rourke introduces (on page 88) the Venn diagram, reproduced at the top of this article. He drew the two circles to intersect, implying that there can be such a thing as moral political behavior.

It seems to me to be appropriate to maintain some optimism about democratic political processes. They don’t do much to protect our liberty and pursuit of happiness, but not many of us would freely choose to live under any of the available alternative forms of government. Many people claimed that democracy could not exist as a permanent form of government because it would not take long for citizens to learn that they could vote themselves largesse out of the public treasury. Indeed, that is largely what democratic politics has been about for as long as it has existed. Yet democracy survives! Perhaps democracy’s secret of success has been the existence of sufficient voters and politicians who have been willing to stop playing politics when crises have become imminent.

I often wish that I could be apolitical, but O’Rourke has persuaded me that is not practicable:

“The democratic political process is like the process of our children going through adolescence. There’s not much we can do to improve it and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We cannot, however, just declare ourselves to be apolitical any more than we can declare ourselves to be “aparental.” Here are the car keys, son. Dad’s stash is in the nightstand drawer. Why don’t you take my ATM card while you’re at it? See you when you’re thirty.”

It certainly appears that there is not much that we, as individuals, can do to change the outcomes of the political process. The chance that your vote will be decisive is miniscule. But people do talk about politics and influence one another about how they will cast their votes. Paradoxically, even those of us who would like to be apolitical can make a difference if we decide that we don’t like the direction that politics is taking and choose to vote.

Before concluding, I should offer a personal explanation about the relevance of the personal ethics of voting to me, as a person who lives in a country where voting is compulsory. It is possible to choose not to vote in Australia without displaying a great deal of courage. It is possible to attend a polling place, chat with your neighbours, eat a “democracy sausage”, exchange greetings with people offering “how to vote” literature, have your name ticked off on the voting roll, be handed voting papers, and still not cast a valid vote. In a secret ballot, no-one knows what you write on the voting papers before you put them into the ballot boxes.

Conclusion

When I began writing this article, I was not sure whether I would end up persuading myself to vote, or to have nothing to do with the political process. P J O’Rourke helped me to persuade myself that there is such a thing as moral political behavior.

Democratic politics is certainly a dirty business. It doesn’t do much to protect liberty or the pursuit of happiness, but most of us would choose to put up with democratic immorality rather than to live under any of the currently available alternative forms of governance. Paradoxically, the survival of democracies may be attributable to the willingness of sufficient numbers of voters and politicians to refrain from playing politics – to stop raiding the public treasury - when crises become imminent.

Although the chances of an individual vote being decisive are miniscule, individuals do influence one another in how they cast their votes. Individuals who don’t like the way politics is heading are more likely to improve outcomes if they choose to vote and encourage other like-minded people to do likewise, rather than choosing to refrain from having anything to do with the political process.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Are you also a decentralist?

 


Max Borders shares his personal philosophy of life in his book, The Decentralist: Mission, morality and meaning in the age of crypto. His aim in doing that it to persuade readers to become decentralists.


I decided that I was already a decentralist before I had finished reading the introduction. The fundamental point is that decentralism is required because individuals need to pursue happiness in different ways. The mission of decentralists is to create conditions for radical pluralism – a garden of forking paths. Sometimes we flourish by walking together; at other times we need to take different paths in order to flourish. The garden of forking paths creates opportunities for people to blaze different trails.

There is no easily accessible summary of the main principles of decentralism espoused in the book, so I have attempted to write one:

  • In navigating our lives, we recognize the existence of centralized political authority while fostering parallel consent-based systems which have potential to underthrow (rather than overthrow) centralized authority.
  • We choose persuasion in preference to compulsion.
  • To better govern ourselves and to communicate with moral suasion, we recognize that human minds are governed by emotion and instinctual energy, as well as by reason.
  • We create and foster “flow systems” with a high degree of flexibility and eschew attempting to control or regulate society.
  • We advocate an evolving technological ecosystem that can bring about a decentralized transformation in governance, finance, enterprise, aid, and even defence.
  • We aspire to moral practice (excellent character) that encompasses non-violence, integrity, compassion, stewardship, and rationality.
  • We advocate the daily practice of mindfulness to help guide us in our commitments to realize the consensual society.
  • We believe that the potential for widespread acceptance of the values of decentralism is the culmination of humanity’s stepwise journey from a focus on survival values, through a range of intermediate stages which have provided expanding opportunities for human flourishing.
  • We accept and seek to apply the principles of a free market.
  • We seek to make our lives meaningful at an individual level by learning to tell the “story of me” (Who? What? Why? Where? How? When?) and at a social level, “the story of us” (development, mutual understandings, shared conceptions of the good).

I agree with those principles. Max Borders persuaded me a few years ago to look forward to the social singularity. Hopefully the ethical principles he advocates for the age of crypto will help that vision to be achieved.

Some ideas in The Decentralist seem to me to be wacky but they are not central to the ethos of decentralism. I strongly disagree with the suggestion that we should dispense with “the idea of truth as something to be discovered in the world instead of experienced by the subject” (p 123). An untrue story is not made true by being widely accepted and told frequently. We cannot prevent reality from biting our bums merely by embracing delusions about it.

The book is easy to read. The digital gimmicky of the presentation style will no doubt appeal to many readers. Each chapter elaborates a number of concepts corresponding to the chapter number. So, in Chapter 1, we have “one revolution”, in Chapter 2, “two hands”, in Chapter 3, “three governors”, and so forth. Those who would prefer to read a book covering a similar range of issues, and advancing similar views using a more conventional style of scholarly discussion, are welcome to read my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

From my perspective, the most interesting chapter of The Decentralist is Chapter 3, which considers implications for communication of classifying people as thinkers, relaters, and movers, depending on whether their minds are governed primarily by their heads, their hearts, or gut instincts. I had previously been introduced to the idea that humans have brains in hearts and guts as well as heads, and should seek alignment between them. When we speak metaphorically of following our hearts, keeping cool heads, and being gutsy, we are expressing ideas that are deeply entrenched in human culture (and even anatomy, perhaps). I was also aware of marketing techniques appealing to emotion and instinct. However, I had not previously given explicit consideration to the potential for normal persuasive communications to benefit from attention to emotional and instinctive needs of readers, as well as to their need to be given reasons to change their minds.

This book, itself, combines appeals to emotion, reason, and instinct in persuasive communication. For example, the introduction appeals to emotion in its discussion of an individual’s desire to be happy, it appeals to reason in its discussion of broader aspects of human flourishing, and it appeals to instinct in recognizing the importance of action in pursuit of the differing goals of individuals. The metaphor of a garden of forking paths seems to me to be a wonderful way to combine those concepts.

Conclusion

The Decentralist strongly supports the view that individuals have greatest opportunities to flourish under conditions where they are free to choose for themselves which path to take. The personal philosophy that Max Borders espouses in this book will hopefully persuade many more people to adopt the ethics of decentralism.


Thursday, November 3, 2022

What is the best management metaphor?

 


Did you know that the word ‘metaphor’ is itself a metaphor? I just learnt that the word is a metaphor for carrying something beyond – it combines meta (beyond) and phoro (to carry).

Metaphors are ubiquitous.

The function of metaphors (together with similes and analogies) seems to be to assist conscious comprehension of the real world, and communication about it. It is possible to believe, as I do, that we need metaphors to consciously comprehend and communicate what we experience, while still maintaining that we have direct experience of the real world. In our attempt to understand this process of conscious comprehension and communication it is common to use the metaphor of a mind that creates maps or models of reality. However, if we are wise, we keep reminding ourselves that the map is not the territory, and the model is not reality.

I am focusing here on management metaphors because a few weeks ago I was struck by the thought that the potential for competition between use of sporting and musical metaphors in a workplace could be a source of humour. At the time I was trying to think of a topic for a humorous speech to present at Toastmasters. The speech turned out to be somewhat entertaining rather than uproariously funny, but the process of preparing it led me to think more deeply about management metaphors.

The story

The speech began with Sam Musico, who had just been recruited to the firm, being taken to meet the Boss in his office. As was his custom, the Boss asked him what sport he followed. Sam replied that he didn’t follow any sport, he was interested in music. The Boss then leaned on his bookcase, and looked Sam up and down, before saying:

“That’s OK, Sam. Just keep your eye on the ball. I hope to see you kick lots of goals!”

Asked later if he knew what the Boss was talking about, Sam said:

“I think he means to say that he wants me to stay in tune. And he hopes to see me become a virtuoso!”

Anyhow, to cut the story short, Sam did very well when working in our firm. After a few years, he left us and went off to play in the big league, and became a highly successful manager. One day, when we were discussing who to invite to speak to our annual management seminar, the Boss said: “Sam had become a management maestro. We should invite him.”

So, we asked Sam to talk on the topic: How to become a management maestro.

Sam began his speech by quoting a famous management guru who once wrote: 

A successful manager of a business is like “the conductor of a symphony orchestra, through whose effort, vision and leadership, individual instrumental parts that are so much noise by themselves, become the living whole of music.”

Then Sam told us he had a different view. He read us a poem he had written:

“An orchestra doesn’t need a maestro,

The gestures he makes are just for show.

The players focus on the composer’s score,

But your audience wants you to do much more.

Like a jazz band, the success of your enterprise,

Depends on players learning to improvise.

So, the metaphor I’m here to broach,

Is the ethos of a football coach”.

After the seminar was over, the Boss said: “You know, I think Sam might have learnt a thing or two about management while he worked here!”.

The message

The purpose of my speech was to entertain rather than to argue that the sports coach metaphor is the best management metaphor under all circumstances.

The management guru, whose words are quoted above, was Peter Drucker (The Practice of Management, 1954). I left his name out of the speech because the quote was selective. Drucker went on to say: “But the conductor has the composer’s score: he is only interpreter. The manager is both composer and conductor”.

The orchestra metaphor might be appropriate in some contexts. In proposing his orchestra metaphor, Drucker might have had manufacturing industry in mind. It could be argued that, from a management perspective, a manufacturing firm has more in common with a symphony orchestra than with a jazz band, or football team. This video of dancing robots assembling cars may help make the point.

The actual role of the maestro is another issue lurking in the background. The maestro’s responsibilities extend beyond waving his arms around during an orchestral performance. Henry Mintzberg explains that in his blog post, The maestro myth of managing, which provided some inspiration for Sam’s poem. In some respects, the maestro’s role is similar to that of a football coach.

My bottom line (if I may add a business metaphor to the mix) is that the sports coach metaphor is relevant to many aspects of management. However, to claim that the sports coach metaphor is always better than other management metaphors would be like claiming that a map of Australia is always better than other maps. Just as the best map to use depend on the territory that you are considering, the best management metaphor to use depends on the context that you are considering.


Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Do women value equality and security more than freedom?

 


Some things I have read recently led me begin to wonder whether there is a general tendency for women to value equality and security more highly than freedom.  As a social movement, feminism has obviously been more strongly associated with egalitarianism than with libertarianism. It might also be possible to construct an argument that the traditional roles of women in society might also make them inclined to have greater concerns for ‘sharing and caring’, and hence have a bias toward egalitarianism. The role of women in caring for children might also be expected to lead them to place high value on economic security.

However, such speculation does not shed much light on the question of whether there is a general tendency for women to value equality and security more highly than freedom.

As it happens, the World Values Survey has relevant data on the relative values placed on freedom, equality, and security for 59 countries, from surveys conducted over the period 2017 to 2022. The relevant questions were worded as follows:

  • “Most people consider both freedom and equality to be important, but if you had to choose between them, which one would you consider more important?”
  • “Most people consider both freedom and security to be important, but if you had to choose between them, which one would you consider more important?”

That wording leaves some ambiguity about the specific meaning that survey respondents attach to freedom, equality, and security. Nevertheless, the charts I have constructed using this data show some interesting patterns.

The chart presented at the top of this article plots the percentage of women who place higher value on freedom than on security against the percentage who place higher value on freedom than on equality. What do I observe?

  • First, there seems to be a general tendency for the value that women place on freedom relative to both equality and security to be higher in the high-income liberal democracies than in other countries.
  • Second, the percentages who view freedom as more important than equality are generally much higher than the percentages who view freedom as more important than security.
  • Third, some of the outliers are interesting. For example, in Zimbabwe a high percentage of women say that freedom is more important than equality, but only a small percentage say freedom is more important than security. Perhaps that reflects the existence of tyrannical government and distrust of egalitarian ideology, combined with a desperate economic situation and a high incidence of crime which leads women to place high value on security.

Are women less inclined than men to place a high value on freedom? The next two charts shed some light on that. Gender comparison 1 (below) shows the percentages of females and males who view freedom to be more important than equality. The comparison suggests that women have a tendency to place a slightly higher value on equality, but the differences between women and men are small in most countries.

 


 Gender comparison 2 (below) enables a comparison to be made of the percentages of females and males who view freedom to be more important than equality. This chart shows a much different pattern to that shown in Gender comparison 1. The chart shows that women have a tendency to place a much higher value on security, and that the differences between women and men are substantial in most countries.

 


Conclusions

In most countries, the percentage of women who value freedom more highly than equality is much higher than the percentage who value freedom more highly than security.

In general, women are only slightly less inclined than men to value freedom more highly than equality. However, women are much less inclined than men to value freedom more highly than security.

The results suggest to me that women’s support of liberty may be dampened by their concerns about economic security (if they perceive a trade-off to be required). However, the results do not support the view that there is a general bias towards egalitarianism among women in the high-income liberal democracies. 


Thursday, October 6, 2022

Should we expect our heroes to be perfect?

 


When I am asked who my heroes are, I have often said that I don’t have any these days. If asked why, my response has been that my heroes all turned out to have feet of clay.


I began to reconsider that view while reading Kay Nolte Smith’s novel, Elegy for a Soprano. The main character in the book, Dinah Mitchell, finds out that she was an adopted child and learns that her natural mother is her idol, Vardis Wolf, a famous opera star. Vardis’ magnificently successful career is attributable to her natural talent, support of her friends and admirers, and her own dedication to developing her skills. She views her singing career as having the utmost importance. However, Dinah eventually learns that Vardis has a dark secret. When her singing career was just beginning, Vardis did something which showed complete disregard for the value of the life of another human.

After that brief sketch, readers might wonder why the novel induced me to reconsider my original view about heroes. You might expect me to say that no-one should be surprised if their idols turn out to have dark secrets. Heroes inevitably disappoint us!

So, what was it about the novel that has induced me to reconsider my view? Kay Nolte Smith managed to convey the complexity of Vardis’ character well enough for me to still admire her achievements, while feeling horrified by some aspects of her behavior. The author showed great skill in providing plausible explanations of the attitudes and behaviors of each of all the main characters in the novel.

The novel contains some discussion of whether people have a basic need to have heroes. It points to a difference between hero worship – viewing the hero as a sacred idol – and viewing a hero as a role model in respect of some aspect of your life. At that point the author quotes the passage from Longfellow’s poem A Psalm of Life which is reproduced at the top of this article.

It makes sense to me to look for opportunities to learn how others manage to achieve superior performance in various fields, and to recognize outstanding accomplishments. That has been my view for as long as I remember.

So, where do I end up? I now see no problem is referring to people who have superior performance or outstanding accomplishment as my heroes, provided I attach an appropriate qualification. They are entrepreneurial heroes, academic heroes, sporting heroes, artistic heroes, and so forth. I will not be surprised if I learn that most of my heroes are far from perfect in many aspects of their lives, and that some may even have dark secrets.

It is possible to recognize heroic achievements without engaging in idolatry.

Addendum

Some readers may be interested in how I came to read Elegy for a Soprano. A few months ago I stumbled across an article by Daniel Kian Mc Kiernan, an American Economist, entitled ‘Ayn Rand and Me’ on his blog An Oeconomist. The article is critical of Ayn Rand but, unlike most Rand critics, the author seems to me to be seeking to offer a balanced appraisal. The article ends thus:

“By the way, I want to mention a book by another author, The Watcher (1981) by Kay Nolte Smith. Smith was at one time amongst those personally associated with Rand, but (like many) eventually left. The Watcher is a novel that successfully fused much of what virtue is to be found in Randian fiction with a deep sense of empathy. And its heroes don't simply march relentlessly towards triumph, but reach back to save people who ought not to be lost.”

That led me to read The Watcher. I was impressed, and decided to find out more about Kay Nolte Smith. A reviewer of her works suggested that Elegy for a Soprano was a better novel than The Watcher, and I am inclined to agree.

One reviewer has suggested that Elegy for a Soprano is inhabited by the ghost of Ayn Rand, as well as that of Maria Callas. With regard to Rand, I think it is worth noting that while Vardis Wolf could be described as a Nietzschean egoist, Ayn Rand sought to distance her views from those of Nietzsche in her later writings. For example, she wrote:

“Nietzschean egoists … are a product of the altruist morality and represent the other side of the altruist coin: the men who believe that any action, regardless of its nature, is good if it is intended for one’s own benefit.”  


Tuesday, September 13, 2022

What happened to creative capitalism?

 


The question I have posed above strikes me as being delightfully ambiguous. It could be asking what happened to bring to an end the era in which creative capitalism brought about high rates of productivity growth. Alternatively, it could be asking what happened to the concept of “creative capitalism” that Bill Gates presented to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2008.

My focus here is on the second interpretation, but I will end up discussing what has happened to the creativity of capitalism in the more traditional sense.

Why am I interested in the particular form of corporate social responsibility (CSR) that Bill Gates referred to as “creative capitalism”? I don’t hear the Gates concept being much talked about these days, but I think that variants of this form of CSR have become more common over the last decade or so. It is worth considering whether Gates’ approach to CSR is changing corporate sectors in ways that may directly hamper the traditional creativity of capitalism, or indirectly hamper it via impacts on economic policies pursued by governments.


That is why I decided that the time had come to read Creative Capitalism, a book edited by Michael Kinsley, which was published in 2008. The book consists mainly of comments by eminent economists on the “creative capitalism” concept that Bill Gates presented to the WEF. I should confess at this point that deciding to read the book didn’t require me to judge that it might be worth buying. A copy was given to me last year by a friend who was downsizing his library. The book was sitting in my “unread” pile for many months waiting for me to show some interest. I am now glad I read it!

In the next section I will outline Gates’ concept and briefly discuss the different reactions of economists writing 14 years ago. That will be followed by consideration of possible consequences of changes in the nature of capitalism that seem to stem from Gates’ concept and similar ideas.

Gates’ concept

Bill Gates advocated a new approach to capitalism in which businesses would give more attention to recognition and reputation. As he put it:

Recognition enhances a company’s reputation and appeals to customers; above all it attracts good people to the organisation. As such, recognition triggers a market-based reward for good behavior.”

Gates advanced this view in the context of considering how self-interest could be harnessed to provide more rapid improvement in the well-being of poor people. However, pursuit of recognition seems to have become a strong motivator for the environmental and social objectives that are increasingly espoused by corporates. Gates does not mention the potential for pursuit of recognition for good behavior to have a positive influence on investors, but that also seems to have emerged as an important factor in recent years.

My review of the contributions of commentators is highly selective. I just focus here on what I see as the main points that were raised.

Some of the commentators suggested that entrepreneurs with philanthropic objectives might do better to do what Gates did, rather than to follow the approach he advocated in his speech to the WEF. Like some others before him, Gates pursued profits until he become extraordinarily wealthy and then established a foundation to pursue philanthropic objectives. An argument in support of that approach is that the pursuit of multiple “bottom lines” by companies adds to the difficulty of measuring their performance to ensure that executives can be held accountable for outcomes. 

Several of the commentators referred to Milton Friedman’s view, in Capitalism and Freedom, that CSR is a “fundamentally subversive doctrine” because, in a free society, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud” (p 133).

However, others pointed out that Gates’ proposal is consistent with a free society because he was suggesting that corporates can obtain a market-based reward for choosing to pursue non-pecuniary objectives of employees and consumers. Similarly, it is consistent with a free society for companies to seek to pursue non-pecuniary objectives of the shareholders who own them.

Consequences

It is likely that an increasing tendency for corporates to pursue non-pecuniary objectives would have a negative impact on measured productivity growth. However, that may be largely a problem in the measurement of productivity. Measures of productivity growth are biased to the extent that output indicators do not incorporate non-pecuniary goods that contribute human flourishing. If corporates are efficient vehicles for the pursuit of the non-pecuniary objectives of their shareholders, employees, and customers, it seems reasonable to suppose that pursuit of those objectives would contribute to the flourishing of the people concerned.

“The unknown ideal”

What happens if a company is not an efficient vehicle for the pursuit of the non-pecuniary objectives of its shareholders, employees, and customers?

In considering this question it is important to recognize that corporate sectors consist of large numbers of individual firms which compete for labor, capital, and customers. Individual firms are free to give different weight to different objectives. Some may see their only role as profit maximization, and may even seek recognition by asserting that they see that as a social responsibility. Others may seek a reputation for social responsibility by undertaking marketing exercises, without changing their practices. At the other extreme, some companies may devote themselves largely to pursuit of one or more non-pecuniary objectives, providing only minimal financial returns to shareholders.

It is customary for economists to assert that the market is capable of weeding out firms that are following inefficient strategies. Applying the usual market test, it appears reasonable to suppose that if individual companies pursuing the non-pecuniary objectives of workers, consumers, and shareholders are able to survive, the strategies they are following must pass the market’s efficiency test.

The Hayek quote at the top of this article is followed by his assertion that the argument for liberty rests on “the belief that it will, on balance, release more forces for the good than for the bad” (Constitution of Liberty, p 31). In considering how best to describe the spontaneous order of a free society, Hayek later suggested that capitalism “is an appropriate name at most for the partial realization of such a system in a certain historical phase, but always misleading because it suggests a system which mainly benefits the capitalists, while in fact it is a system which imposes upon enterprise a discipline under which the managers chafe and which each endeavours to escape” (“Law, Legislation, and Liberty”, V1, p 62)

The corporatist quagmire

Unfortunately, in the real world at present, the ability of the market to weed out inefficient firms and the strategies they adopt is greatly hindered by government intervention and expectations of future government intervention. If firms believe that pursuit of certain goals will be rewarded by governments, they have an incentive to establish reputations for pursuing those goals. Firms also have an incentive to seek government assistance as a reward for good behavior. The increasing prevalence of such interactions has led to the development of corporatist, rent-seeking cultures that have contributed to a long-term decline in rates of productivity growth in high-income countries.

It is also important to note that, in the realm of politics, what some people view as good behavior is often viewed in a different light by others. For example, political opinions differ on whether or not it is good for pension funds to take account of environmental policies in their allocation of funds. Investors are often uncertain about which view will prevail in the political arena. Such economic policy uncertainty adds to the normal commercial risks of investment. An example which comes readily to mind is the impact of policy uncertainty on future investment in gas-fired electricity generation in industrialized countries. Normal commercial considerations might suggest that is likely to be a profitable investment to meet demand for electricity when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining, but investors have to contend with the possibility that further regulatory interventions to discourage use of fossil fuels will render such investment unprofitable. It is reasonable to predict that blackouts will be more common in jurisdictions where such policy uncertainty prevails.

Political ideologies of governments also seem to be changing in ways that make it more difficult for markets to weed out firms adopting inefficient strategies. Over the last decade or so, the progressive side of politics has encouraged corporates to establish reputations for “woke progressivism”. That seems to have induced political conservatives to become increasingly disenchanted with corporates. That disenchantment has added to the antagonism associated with the increased tendency of many conservatives to espouse economic nationalism and populist views opposed to the corporate sector’s interest in free trade, international capital mobility, and technological progress.

As politics comes to play an increasing role in the investment decisions of businesses, economic growth rates of industrialized countries are likely to decline. Since governments find it difficult to disappoint the expectations of voters, government spending is unlikely to be constrained to a correspond extent. Major economic crises seem likely to become more common. (I have discussed these issues more fully in Chapter 6 of Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.)  

The obvious solution

Immediately after the passage in which Milton Friedman suggested that the social responsibility of business was to serve the interests of stockholders, he suggested that the social responsibility of union leaders is to serve the interests of their members. He then went on to write:

It is the responsibility of the rest of us to establish a framework of law such that an individual in pursuing his own interest is, to quote Adam Smith … “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. …” (Capitalism and Freedom, p 133).

Unfortunately, it seems likely that major economic crises will need to be endured before governments of industrialized countries once again see merit in confining themselves to core responsibilities in the manner that Adam Smith suggested.

Conclusion

Companies are increasingly choosing to adopt strategies to improve their reputations with employees, customers, and investors who have interests in social and environmental issues. That would not pose a problem in the context of the spontaneous order of a free society. Pursuit of multiple objectives may add to problems in holding executives accountable for an individual firm’s performance, but free markets are capable of weeding out firms that follow inefficient strategies.

Unfortunately, however, industrialized countries are now corporatist quagmires in which the ability of markets to weed out firms that adopt inefficient strategies is greatly hindered by government intervention and expectations of future government intervention. The obvious solution is to reduce government intervention in markets, but major economic crises will probably need to be endured before that happens.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

What implications does a livewired brain have for personal development?


 


I was pondering this question while reading David Eagleman’s book, Livewired: the inside story of the ever-changing brain. Eagleman is a neuroscientist, writing about neuroplasticity for a popular audience. My interest in brain plasticity was aroused over a decade ago when I read Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself, and speculated about some implications of his assertion that “to keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus”.

Eagleman prefers “livewired” to “plastic” because the latter term may bring to mind plastic molds rather than flexibility. He suggests that we need the concept of liveware “to grasp this dynamic, adaptable, information-seeking system”.

By the way, Eagleman’s book has left me thinking that in 50 years’ time, people who are shown the above cartoon will still be able to see the humor in it.

The livewired brain

In my view, the most important point that Eagleman makes is that the human brain arrives in the world unfinished: “despite some genetic pre-specification, nature’s approach to growing a brain relies on receiving a vast set of experiences, such as social interaction, conversation, play, exposure to the world, and the rest of the landscape of normal human affairs”.

Experiences during early childhood are to a large extent determinative. If infants don’t have appropriate social and sensory interaction, their brains become malformed and pathological.

As brains mature, neural maps become increasingly solidified. As brains get good at certain jobs, they become less able to attempt others. Adult brains keep most of their connections in place to hold on to what has been learned, with only small areas remaining flexible. Nevertheless, even in the elderly an active mental life fosters new connections.

Eagleman distills the main features of livewiring into seven principles:

  1. Brains match themselves to their input, e.g. when a person is born blind the occipital cortex is completely taken over by other senses.
  2. Brains wrap around the inputs to leverage whatever information streams in. It is possible for one sensory channel to carry another channel’s information, e.g. with appropriate equipment, the brain is able to learn to use information coming from the skin as if it is coming from the eyes.
  3. Brains learn by putting out actions and evaluating feedback, e.g. that is how we learn to communicate with other people, how we can learn to control machinery, and how a damaged spinal cord can be bypassed using signals passed directly from a brain to a muscle stimulator.
  4. Brains retain what matters to them; flexibility is turned on and off in small spots based on relevance; what is learned in one area is passed to an area in the cortex for more permanent storage; the cortical changes involve the addition of new cellular material; brains have a different system for extracting generalities in the environment (slow learning) and for episodic memory (fast learning). “Everything new is understood through the filter of the old.”
  5. Brain lock down stable information. Some parts of the brain are more flexible than others, depending on the input. Brains adjust themselves depending on how you spend your time. When learners direct their own learning, relevance and reward are both present and allow brains to reconfigure.
  6. Plasticity arises because different parts of the system are engaged in a competitive struggle for survival. Competition in the brain forest is analogous to the competition between trees and bushes in a rain forest. The principles of competition poise the brain “on the hair-trigger edge of change”.
  7. Brains build internal models of the world; by paying attention, our brains notice whenever predictions are incorrect and are able to adjust their internal models.

Eagleman argues that the computer hardware/ software analogy tends to lead people astray in thinking about brain function. He suggests that as neurologists illuminate the principles of brain function, those principles will be gainfully employed to create self-configuring devices that use their interaction with the world to complete the patterns of their own wiring.

The book ends with this thought:

“We generally go through life thinking there’s me and there’s the world. But as we’ve seen in this book, who you are emerges from everything you’ve interacted with: your environment, all of your experiences, your friends, your enemies, your culture, your belief system, your era—all of it.”

That could be interpreted by social engineers as an invitation to seek to modify our brains by shaping our environments. I prefer to see it as an invitation to individuals to think about their belief systems and the choices they make that influence their personal environments because their beliefs and choices can have a profound impact on their own personal development. I will explain later the links between personal environment, social capital and individual flourishing.

The idea that individuals can make choices about their personal environments implies the existence of free will. Eagleman is somewhat skeptical about the existence of free will but he speculates that it may be a property of the whole brain as a complex network or system.  He acknowledges that organisms display the property of free will in their interactions with their environments. Self-direction seems to be implicitly acknowledged in the discussion of some topics in Livewired.  For example, there seems to be implicit acknowledgment that individuals may choose what they practice in the discussion of the ten-thousand-hour rule concerning the need for practice to acquire expertise. Self-direction also seems to be implicit in choices many elderly people are making to keep their brains active.

More fundamentally, if brains learn by putting out actions and evaluating feedback it seems reasonable to expect such behavior to encompass actions that are consciously self-directed as well as those occurring without conscious awareness. The idea that by paying attention our brains notice whenever predictions are incorrect and are able to adjust their internal models seems to me to suggest a role for conscious self-direction. If humans are capable of building robots which can adjust their internal models in the light of experience, it seems reasonable to expect individual humans to be capable of using some of the principles of brain function to create better versions of themselves.

The knowledge that human brains are livewired suggests to me that it is not unduly optimistic to believe that individuals begin life with huge potential for self-directed personal development and that this potential in never entirely extinguished as they grow older.

Directing attention to achieve cognitive integrity

Self-direction implies an ability to direct one’s attention sufficiently to consider the consequences of alternative courses of action. An ability to direct one’s attention is a meta-cognitive capacity – it entails a degree of control over one’s own thought processes.  

You might be thinking that exercising control over thought processes is difficult enough for psychologically healthy people, so it must be impossible for people suffering from addictions, obsessions and delusions. However, in a Psychology Today article, Gena Gorlin, a psychologist, has pointed to evidence that people who appear to have a diminished capacity for rational deliberation in some aspects of their lives, can actually be helped by therapies which help them to exercise agency and acquire relevant knowledge.


In a scholarly contribution, published in 2019, Gena Gorlin and a co-author introduced the concept of cognitive integrity to describe “the metacognitive choice to engage in active, reality-oriented cognition”. (Eugenia I. Gorlin and Reinier Schuur, ‘Nurturing our Better Nature: a proposal for Cognitive Integrity as a Foundation for Autonomous Living’, Behavior Genetics, 2019, 49: 154-167. Independent scholars may be able to obtain access by following links on Gena Gorlin’s web site.)

Cognitive integrity is both a state of mental activity and a trait-like disposition. It stands in contrast to passive cognitive processing – being driven by unconsciously activated intention – and active pretense, or self-deception. The pretense of cognition occurs when we procrastinate and make lame excuses to ourselves to avoid doing things that we have chosen to do. Among other things, self-deception can also involve negatively distorted self-assessments, inaccurate causal attribution for life events, and false memories. Those cognitive biases are common among individuals with depression and anxiety.

Gena Gorlin posits that people who engage in repeated exercise of cognitive integrity earn self-trust. By contrast, those who engage in frequent self-deception are likely to harbor an increasing sense of insecurity about their own abilities.

It seems to me that there is a strong overlap between people who practice cognitive integrity and people who are self-authoring and self-transforming, according to definitions adopted by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow. A self-authoring mind is self-directed and can generate an internal belief system or ideology. A self-transforming mind can step back from and reflect on the limits of personal ideology. You can read more about that and how I see it as linked to personal integrity in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing (pp 171-173). There is also relevant discussion on this blog.

Personal development as a multi-stage process

The information we have about the livewired nature of brains is suggestive of substantial potential for individual personal development throughout life. The process of personal development can be seen as a multi-stage process involving interaction between a person’s family and social environment and the degree of cognitive integrity they achieve.

In Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I make use of an analytical framework proposed by the economist, Gary Becker, to propose that the extent to which an individual flourishes at any time during her or his life, is a function of personal capital and social capital.

Personal capital includes all personal resources, natural abilities, skills acquired through education and on-the-job training, and preferences, values and habits acquired from past experiences. For example, habit formation causes previous consumption patterns to have a large impact on current preferences. Those habits can either enhance or inhibit an individual’s flourishing.

Social capital incorporates the influence of other people—family, friends, peer groups, communities. People want respect, acceptance, recognition, prestige, and so on from others and often alter their behavior to obtain it. Social capital can have a positive or negative impact on an individual’s flourishing. For example, peer pressure on a teenager could lead to sexual promiscuity, or to healthy exercise.

This framework recognizes that present choices and experiences affect personal capital in the future, which in turn affects future flourishing. It is difficult to modify the social capital of the networks to which individuals currently belong, but they may have opportunities to leave networks that damage their prospects of flourishing, and to join other networks.

I wrote:

“The journey of life is a multi-stage process. At each stage, the extent that we can flourish depends on effective use of personal capital we have developed in earlier stages, and alertness to opportunities for further investment in personal capital. Investment in personal capital can help us to forge mutually beneficial relationships with others and, if necessary, to enter more favorable social networks. As we flourish, our priorities may change, bringing about changes in preferences and behaviors. At each stage of adult life, flourishing requires values consistent with wise and well-informed self-direction.”


Wednesday, August 10, 2022

How should Bill Carmichael's transparency project be pursued now?

 


Unfortunately, few readers of this blog will know anything about Bill Carmichael or his transparency project. My main purpose here is therefore to explain who he was and why the question I have posed above is worth considering.

W.B. (Bill) Carmichael died recently at the age of 93. In his obituary,  Gary Banks, former chair of the Australian Productivity Commission, described Bill aptly as “an unsung hero” of the Australian Public Service (APS).

In my experience, most members of the APS who are working on economic policy like to claim that they are contributing to the well-being of the public at large. However, I find it difficult to accept such claims unless the people concerned can demonstrate that they are actively seeking to either undo mistakes that governments have made, or to discourage governments from making more mistakes.

Bill Carmichael made a huge contribution in helping to undo mistakes that Australian governments made over many decades in insulating much of the economy from international competition. His efforts in support of trade liberalization have helped Australians to enjoy greater benefits from trade and greater productivity growth than would otherwise have been possible.

Alf Rattigan’s right-hand man

Bill’s contribution to trade liberalization was largely behind the scenes, helping Alf Rattigan, the former chairman of the Tariff Board, to pursue his reform efforts. Rattigan argued successfully that tariff reform was required because industries that had been given high levels of government assistance to compete with imports were inherently less efficient users of resources than those requiring lower levels of assistance or none at all.

As Gary Banks’ obituary indicates, Bill played an important role in developing strategies, writing the key speeches that Alf Rattigan delivered, dealing with difficult bureaucrats, and engaging with economic journalists who were highly influential in informing politicians and the public about the costs of protection and the benefits of international competition. Bill’s contribution reached its pinnacle in the early 1970s when the Industries Assistance Commission (IAC) was established with an economy-wide mandate to ensure greater transparency to processes for provision of government assistance to all industries.

Bill eventually became chairman of the IAC. However, in my view, his most important contribution was made in helping to establish the organisation and ensure that it had access to the professional economic expertise it required to undertake research and produce quality reports.

Bill’s transparency project

Bill Carmichael’s interest in the transparency of trade policy did not end after he retired from the IAC in 1988. My reference to Bill’s transparency project relates specifically to the efforts he made during his retirement to bring greater transparency to trade negotiations. These efforts were made in collaboration with Greg Cutbush, Malcolm Bosworth, and other economists. The best way to describe that project is to quote some passages from an article in which Bill suggested that Australians are being misled about our trade negotiations and agreements. The article, entitled ‘Trade Policy Lessons from Australia’,  was published by East Asia Forum in 2016.

Bill wrote:

The goal of trade policy is not limited to increasing export opportunities. Nor is it just about improving trade balances. Rather trade policy is about taking opportunities to improve the economy’s productive base. When assessing a nation’s experience with bilateral trade agreements, this is the test that should be applied.

In each bilateral agreement Australia has completed to date, projections of the potential gains for Australia, based on unimpeded access to all markets of the other country involved, were released prior to negotiations. These studies did not, and could not, project what was actually achieved in the ensuing negotiations. The quite modest outcomes for Australia from those negotiations meant the projected gains conveyed nothing about what was eventually achieved. Yet the projections were still quoted to support the agreements after they were signed, as though they reflected actual outcomes.

This approach to accounting for the outcome of trade agreements has meant that Australia has missed opportunities for productivity gains. So how, given Australia’s recent experiences, can trade policy and negotiations be better conducted in future?

Australia cannot change how it negotiated its agreements with the United States, Japan, South Korea and China. But policymakers can refine their approach to future negotiations. Australia’s trade policy should be guided by a model based on its conduct in the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations. The Uruguay Round confirmed that the domestic decisions needed to secure gains from unilateral liberalisation and those required to secure the full gains available from negotiations have converged.

The negotiations in the Uruguay Round took place at a time when former prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were reducing Australia’s barriers to trade unilaterally. Their productivity-enhancing reforms were subsequently offered and accepted in the Uruguay negotiations as Australia’s contribution to global trade reform. Consequently, Australia secured all the gains available from trade negotiations: the major gains in productivity from reducing the barriers protecting less competitive industries, as well as securing greater access to external markets.

This was the kind of win–win outcome negotiators should seek from all trade agreements. It made a substantial contribution to the prosperity Australia has since enjoyed. 

In future trade negotiations, the Productivity Commission — Australia’s independent policy review institution — could provide a basis for market-opening offers by conducting a public inquiry and reporting to government before negotiations get underway.”

In a subsequent paper, publicly endorsed by a group of trade economists, Bill argued:

“If we are to close the gap between trade diplomacy and economic reality, we need to respect three lessons from experience: first, a major part of our gains from trade agreements depends on what we take to the negotiating table, not what we hope to take away from it ; second, liberalising through trade negotiations cannot be pursued simply as an extension of foreign policy ; and third, … future bilateral agreements should be subject to cost-benefit analysis before ratification.”

How should Bill’s project be pursued?

I raise this question without much optimism that greater transparency of trade policy can be achieved in the short term. There is no more reason to be optimistic that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will suddenly become receptive to ideas that challenge its claims about the benefits of trade agreements it has negotiated than there was to be optimistic that its predecessor, the Department of Trade and Industry, would be receptive in the 1960s to the ideas of Rattigan and Carmichael which challenged the protectionist orthodoxy of that department. Added to this, it is difficult to ignore signs that protectionist sentiment is on the rise again in Australia in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic and fears that a further deterioration in international relations could lead to disruption of international shipping.

Nevertheless, as Bill might say, none of that should stop us from pursuing longer-term goals.  I hope that some people reading this will feel motivated to think constructively about how Bill Carmichael’s transparency project could be pursued as a longer-term exercise in institutional reform.