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What is it all for?

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 15 February 2017

This essay is a companion piece, or a sequel, to my second one this year, on ‘mating’, which I see as the basic dynamo of human societies - not so much the meeting and mating of boy and girl, but the collective consequences of those matings, the growth and shape of human populations over time. This essay takes the argument a little further.

My work on political attitudes and behaviour suggested that most young people acquire a more or less tepid version of their parents’ political attitudes while they are at home. Things change when they go out into the wider world, where they are also affected by their job, the people they meet, the great events of the time, journeying abroad, and so on. When they meet and mate another set of influences comes to bear: the needs of their children and what is right for them. We do care about our children and, almost universally, we work to ensure they have a better life in some respects than the life we had, or the life others have, at home or abroad. That causes us to develop new political attitudes, which may offset, or reinforce, the ones we grew up with.

What we see as possible in achieving that better life depends a good deal on the prevailing culture of our society. In a traditional village society, things are done a particular way because they have always been done that way, and there are traditional explanations for them, and for the meaning of great events and disasters. In our contemporary, rather secular, research-oriented Western society, problems are thought to have solutions, and great events and disasters have ‘real’ explanations. Even if we disagree about them, our disagreements will be about why we should prefer one evidence-based explanation over another, as is constantly the case in the issue of global warming.


My reading over the summer brought me to think hard about two ways of looking at political possibilities, based on two different cultural frames of thought. I prefer one over the other, and that may be because I am used to it. One of them says that humans cannot design perfect societies and no matter how well we do things there will always people who miss out. There will always be relatively disadvantaged people, people disastrously ill, some damaged in various ways, and we need to accept that. Ultimately, all of us need to take responsibility for ourselves and our own life. Government can’t do everything, and shouldn’t try, because it will make things worse by creating new problems while being unable to finally solve the original ones. I think I have grown up with that set of ideas, and it has its origins in Britain. There are similar perspectives in the other Anglophone societies, Canada, the USA and New Zealand.

There is no single author, but you can find bits and pieces of this tendency in people like Hume, Mill, Burke, James Madison in the USA, de Tocqueville (who admired the political cultures of both Britain and the USA), and more recently theorists like Oakeshott and Popper. The core of this set of ideas is that liberty is the most important criterion of a good society, and each of us needs to act with restraint, so that our liberty does not encroach on the of our fellow citizens. We need liberty and order, and that combination requires understanding and restraint.

Its rival is the set of ideas about possibilities that, while not exactly putting forward the proposition that human beings can design perfect societies, insists that there are grievous problems to do with social structure. If these are dealt with the world will be a much better place for everyone. The people who are the progenitors of this set are by and large not British but Continental. Man was born free, but is everywhere in chains (Marx). Or humans are naturally good, and it is institutional structures that deprave them (Rousseau). In contrast to the perceived importance of ‘liberty’, the Continental goal is ‘equality’. The desire for the equality of everyone leads naturally to centralisation and standardisation, to unitary states rather than federated ones, to the importance of the centre rather than the importance of the locality, and so on.

It leads also to revolutions which, for the most part, replace one set of bad rulers with another, which is why Burke and those who follow him today see the move to overthrow the existing order, the ‘demands’ for this or that, the rush to occupy Wall Street and elsewhere, as the mindless urge to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Continental set of ideas has been popular everywhere for at least a century. It is at the heart of most ‘universalist’ political cries. In the 19th century it underlay the move to provide male suffrage then adult suffrage. It was behind the notion of ‘free, compulsory and secular’ education for everyone, first at the primary level, then at the secondary, then at the tertiary. It is behind universalist notions like the NDIS and the NBN in our country — the belief that it is possible to provide everyone everywhere with the same access to the Internet, or to care for all people who are disabled, whatever the disability and no matter where they live.

These ideas have been popular in our time and before in part because of the growth of the nation state and the growing power of technology. There are good reasons to standardise, to deliver services centrally, to tax centrally, to provide uniform  educational provision and health services. It is often cheaper to do so. We are able to do some things today that were beyond the imagination of most of our grandparents. I expect that we today have little understanding of what may be possible at the end of this century.

The Australian Labor Party, which was never in any real sense ‘socialist’, was the first political party in our country to see the world in these universal terms. The Greens today have imbibed it too. So have the conservatives in politics, to a degree. The UN and its myriad agencies are of course unaware that there is an alternative. But there is. It is the old-fashioned view that our job as parents is to educate to maturity children who see the need for self-reliance, for generosity and help to others, and act that way as citizens in a community.Yes, if there is a catastrophe, then our government has to step in, at whatever the level of catastrophe demands. But from day to day we need to act in a self-reliant and forward-looking way, earning our living, insuring our house, not building on a flood plain, and all the rest of it.


The trouble with the Continental perspective, in my view, is that it leads quickly to the view that each of us would be so much better off if the world were organised differently. And that leads to expectations which again in my view, can be unreasonable. There is no money tree, though plainly many people think there must be one, or some similar pot of gold that is perpetually replenished. I may be wrong, but my feeling is that much of the electorate now has something of a cargo-cult attitude to life. If there is a problem, then it is the government’s job to fix it. If a car firm decides to go elsewhere, that is government’s fault. We have seen many examples of this in the last decade, and political parties act on that assumption, hence the submarine-building endeavour in South Australia.

It may be that we are moving to the right, slowly but steadily, away from the Continental perspectives and back towards the old-fashioned British understanding of life. I do think it is time that we had a political leader who spoke simply and well about the lack of a money tree, about the need for all of us to be as self-reliant as we can be, to say that the national government has a small range of things to do and needs to do those well — and it is not a universal Bandaid. We don’t seem to have one at the moment, but I think the feeing is there within the body politic, and we may get one soon. Of course, we may just go on as we are, with the major parties less and less trusted.

I do not reject either Marx or Rousseau. Marx saw the horror of 19th century industrial life better than anyone and Rousseau offered an alternative to an ancient regime in France that was so bad it would dissolve in its own blood within a generation of Rousseau’s writing. But they spoke of their times. Ours is incomparably better for all people who live in societies like ours. What they left behind is a perspective on life, and what is possible, that seem to me rather irrelevant today. I do not reject the national systems we have, but want to emphasise that the more universalist their ambition the less satisfactory they are likely to be.

My view is that where there is a problem that needs a social solution (and not all do), the best approach is incremental. Make a few little changes, and see if a good result occurs. If it does, make a few more. But do not start with a grand vision and ask government to implement it. That way embarrassment and failure lie.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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