Popular Authoritarianism

By Ergas, Henry | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Popular Authoritarianism


Ergas, Henry, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


Henry Ergar uncovers method in the Rudd government's madness.

Robespierre is on the loose in Melbourne's well-heeled suburb of Toorak. Bluerinsed heads tumbling into the basket of the guillotine? The thought causes a certain frisson. Unfortunately, far from being humorous, the reality is sinister.

The Greens' candidate in December's Higgins by-election, Clive Hamilton, believes that disputing climate change may be even worse than denying the Holocaust.

Hamilton is a professor, of philosophy no less. But it does not seem to have occurred to him that denying historical fact may be different from disputing a complex scientific hypothesis about the future. As Mark Twain observed, it seems quite unlikely that drawing such distinctions 'could have offered difficulties to any but a trained philosopher.'

As for equating the evil of intentional mass murder with the harm that might come from climate change, it suggests a startling lack of moral compass. No doubt, if we got it badly wrong on climate change, great suffering could result. But that would be no less true if we accepted the claims about climate change and they proved to be false than if we rejected those claims and they proved to be correct. That is what makes the decision difficult, and in a real sense, tragic. But getting it wrong is surely different from throwing children into gas chambers.

The trouble, however, goes deeper. What Hamilton is really saying is that those who disagree with him are not merely incorrect: they are evil. In fact, they are murderers, wantonly risking 'the lives of hundreds of millions in the future'. And we know how murderers should be dealt with.

This is the logic that leads to the guillotine, the gulags, and the killing fields. Hamilton's embrace of that logic is what makes him a fanatic, a man unable to accept the fallibility inherent in human judgment. What is distressing, however, is that he is not alone.

The hacked emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia show how far the rot has spread within the scientific community. I doubt the researchers involved view the issues in Hamilton's moralising terms. Their emails, far from being moralistic, reek of the spitefulness of third rate common rooms. What is clear, however, is that these researchers regard scepticism as a dirty word.

Yet scepticism is the price knowledge pays for truth. We question our current theories because that questioning is the means by which they will be displaced by better theories in future. The moment scepticism is abandoned for orthodoxy, scientific inquiry degenerates into pseudo-science, like genetics in Lysenko's Russia.

The failure to understand the value of questioning goes much further than the researchers whose emails were leaked.

Consider the Prime Minister's recent speech on climate change to the Lowy Institute. Kevin Rudd is no fanatic. But what he said at the Lowy Institute is that the debate about climate change is closed, and that any questioning of it is fundamentally illegitimate. He therefore challenged Malcolm Turnbull to prevent further discussion of the issue within the coalition.

Since when do we have gag rules about policy issues? I thought democratic centralism (Lenin's notion, which like so-called 'people's democracy' had nothing democratic about it, that political parties should be monoliths, presenting a single, agreed view to the world) had collapsed with the Berlin wall.

Rather, we should encourage views to be put and tested, including views that are unpopular. That should be the political system's key function: not to fake a consensus but to build it, and where it cannot be built, to express and explain the differences. Of course, decisions must be taken, but even then, it is entirely appropriate that debate should continue.

That is what distinguishes democracy, which is first and foremost an open process of deliberation, from authoritarianism.

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