Books Australia

Of the people

12 January 2019

9:00 AM

12 January 2019

9:00 AM

This must be the first occasion when a book on politics, written in Australia, has  been listed among the year’s top four by the Wall Street Journal. This may well confirm the recent finding by the  London think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, that Australia is one of the world’s ten most influential nations.

The WSJ’s Barton Swain leads his latest selection with The New Authoritarianism by Salvatore Babones from Sydney University and a Spectator Australia contributor.   He recently came to prominence defending the Ramsay Centre’s proposal to teach on  Western Civilisation in selected Australian universities.

Nevertheless, Barton Swaim was unable to identify the author’s ideological affiliations. In fact the book is so balanced and unbiassed the ABC should engage Dr Barbones to help them find that standard of political impartiality the BBC’s Lord Reith bequeathed as the gold standard for all public broadcasters.

This book has many qualities. Among these is that anyone with common sense and who is interested in the subject can easily understand and enjoy it. And like Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, it has that other great virtue, it is short – a little over a hundred pages. Just like President Trump’s New Year Message, incidentally less than one eighth of President Macron’s.

The reaction of the world’s elites to Donald Trump’s election encouraged Dr Babones to redefine those great three Anglo-American political traditions, conservatism, liberalism and progressivism. He imaginatively finds the essence of these in Abraham Lincoln’s definition of democracy as  government ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’. He argues persuasively that when these three are in balance they all contribute to the health and vitality of democracy, but when they are out of balance they can destroy it.

While critical of Trump, he does not agree with the elites’ obsession that Trump is dangerously authoritarian. Nor does he accept that Trump is the leader of some white supremacist revolution sweeping America; rather, Trump emerged from one of the most open and balanced democratic candidate selection processes in the world. (Contrast that with Australia’s which are among the most closed and undemocratic in the West.) Instead of mindlessly accusing Trump, Babones concludes that the new authoritarianism of the 21st century is, paradoxically, a liberal one, a tyranny of experts.  I had come to a similar view, without the same depth, in my 2003 book, The Twilight of The Elites. Assuming the elites to be in permanent retreat under the Howard ascendancy, I had not appreciated that Kevin Rudd would be able to persuade even the editor of the Australian that he was a fiscal conservative, a younger John Howard and sweep into office under camouflage.

While there is always a danger in being governed by experts, under the Westminster system and Britain’s unwritten constitution, at least expert advice was always no more than that: advice. In acknowledging that his biggest blunder was taking Britain back onto the Gold Standard in 1925, Churchill had accepted what he could have refused,  the near total unanimity of the financial experts. Churchill, who embodies the marriage  of conservativism and liberalism with a decent touch of progressivism, was so burnt by experts over his long career that Andrew Roberts speculates that this experience may well have given him the fortunate strength to stand up to experts and the establishment over appeasement.

Unfortunately, an institutionalised tyranny of experts emerged following American independence, the result of the 1803 judicial coup in Marbury v. Madison. The courts were already independent; this had come from the English 1688 Glorious Revolution. But the new American Supreme Court had to go further, seizing what was unknown to the English courts, the power to review the acts of the two other arms of government under the principle of judicial supremacy.

How dangerous this constitutional tyranny of expert judges could be was demonstrated in 1857 in Dred Scott v. Sandford. There the Court declared slavery constitutionally protected, with blacks never able to become citizens or to sue. The Court thus destroyed the Missouri Compromise between North and South, leading, some think inevitably, to the Civil War.

That was only one of a string of decisions by which the judges put in place almost irrepealable legislation under the guise of  mere  constitutional interpretation. As Babones notes, the judges thus effectively legislated beyond democratic repeal parts of the liberal agenda. By way of contrast, in Britain, such legislation had to be put in place by securing a popular mandate and then putting those proposals through Parliament.

The high water point of this US debacle seemed for decades to be in Roe v. Wade (1973) that rather than being a matter for the states, abortion was constitutionally guaranteed, as the founders had never intended.

But since the advent of the Trump administration, some judges have gone even further. Now valid determinations of the President, especially but not only on immigration and the protection of the borders, are being blocked mainly by statutory lower federal judges, not because of the law, but because of the President’s politics. The judges are doing serious damage to the polity. The electors are surely entitled to assume that a President is entitled to govern according to the agenda with which he won the election.

Sadly, the weakness of the American system of government by expert judges has been exported elsewhere, so we are seeing too many political decisions thwarted by politician judges. With her accession to the EU and the creation of a Supreme Court, we have seen this phenomenon emerging in the UK .

Babones is right to point to the most serious problem confronting democracy, the tyranny of experts exacerbated through  Gramsci’s long march through the institutions. As I have mentioned here before there is a solution, and that is by making both politicians and judges accountable. For details, go to:

This is a superb book. Anyone interested in politics must read it; it is one of those rare tracts which is constantly rewarding.

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