Public ideas

Fifty shades of liberalism

It’s hard to pin down what people mean when they talk about liberalism. In the US, even though the republic was founded on liberal principles, to many on the right a “liberal” is a term of scorn referring to someone on the soft left, more concerned with acts of microaggression than on the condition of the masses. There are libertarians, whose political views can range from a belief in legalization of marijuana right up to the beliefs of anarchists and survivalists. Liberalism is often associated with individualism – another term with many meanings, including selfishness.[1]. Then there is the neoliberal movement, based on small government and the unfettered operation of markets as an economic organizing principle. And there is the opposite meaning in everyday usage when we talk about “a liberal dose of cream”.

How about defining liberalism not just as a political concept, but as a way of life, guided by values of reciprocity, fairness, and freedom?

That’s how Alexandre Lefebvre sees liberalism, based on and expanding JS Mill’s ideas.

Lefebvre is professor of politics and philosophy at the University of Sydney. In a 50-minute session on the ABC’s Big Ideas he presents his ideas of liberalism in a structured interview with Brigid Hains, of Aeon Media: Are we all liberals at heart?.

A life guided by the values of liberalism is not an easy-going life. Just as Søren Kierkegaard noted that Christians find it hard to live up to the espoused values of their religion, so too do liberals find it challenging to live up to their guiding principles. There is always present the temptation to put one’s immediate interests ahead of the collective interest, to violate the principle of the “fair go”, a principle Lefebvre sees as a particularly Australian contribution to liberalism, and one that is rooted in our culture.

He relates the “fair go” norm to John Rawls’ idea of an original position. That is, the set of rules of distribution you would choose if you did not know what position you might occupy in that society.

Lefebvre talks mainly about liberalism as a personal philosophy, in the way Roman and Greek philosophers promoted a disciplined and responsible way of life, pointing out the individual and collective rewards from a life so guided. He also touches on liberalism as a political philosophy towards the end of the interview.

Perhaps, in these times of political polarization, it would help us lead a rich collective life if people of goodwill and good sense could come together to form a liberal party, filling a void on our political spectrum.

1. For early meanings of “individualism” and its evolution to mean selfishness, see a 2005 essay in Dissent Orwell and the Australian language.

The planet’s birth rates are falling below replacement levels. Does it matter?

What sets the following 21 countries apart from others – Angola, Afghanistan, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo , Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda?

These countries, mainly in Africa, are the only remaining countries where the fertility rate is greater than 4.2. That is twice the rate of 2.1, which demographers take as the minimum rate for generational replacement.

In 1950 the fertility rate was 4.8 globally, around 2.0 to 3.5 in most “developed” countries (3.1 in Australia), and well above 5.0 in most of Asia and Africa.

The world’s fertility rate is now about 2.2 and should fall to below 2.1 by 2030, by which time only in North Africa, the Middle East, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, will rates be above 2.1. The rates in these remaining regions will fall below 2.1 within the next 50 years. (Australia’s rate is 1.6.)

These figures are from an article in The Lancet Global fertility in 204 countries and territories, 1950–2021, with forecasts to 2100, brought to our attention by Joe Walker.

Nowhere has the reduction in fertility been greater than in Asian countries. We have probably heard about lowering fertility rates in Japan, China and in South Korea (where it is now 0.8). In 1950 in most of Asia the fertility rate was well above 6.0; now (in 2021) the only Asian countries with a rate above 2.1 are Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea.

The authors don’t go into the reasons for this fertility decline. We can be fairly certain, however, that it is long-term and established: the curves presented in the Lancet paper do not show any kinks. And their conclusions are hardly surprising:

These changes will have far-reaching economic and societal consequences due to ageing populations and declining workforces in higher-income countries, combined with an increasing share of livebirths among the already poorest regions of the world.

One might have added, speculatively, that they could have significant effects on countries’ migration policies – countries that have taken few immigrants such as Japan, and countries like Australia that up to now have found it easy to attract immigrants.

With more certainty we can forecast they will result in more demand for health care and support of the aged, making demands on public finances. The issue of tax reform, including the need to raise more public revenue in low-taxed countries, cannot be kicked down the road forever.