Burr in the Sock

Sydney Ideas Quarterly Launch 22 May

The role of intellectuals in society is to check the arrogance of fundamentalists and madmen in authority, says Geoff Gallop at the launch of the Sydney Ideas Quarterly.

I feel very honoured to be asked to launch Sydney Ideas Quarterly today. It is a project with which I have been associated since being appointed to the Graduate School of Government at Sydney University in 2006.

I remember well going with Minh Bui Jones and Ian Marsh to outline the concept to the then vice-chancellor Gavin Brown. Gavin pushed us hard on the need for a genuinely critical publication with a literary as well as a public policy focus. His support was crucial, as was that of his successor Michael Spence, in transforming the concept into a reality.

It's so good to see a university fulfilling its mandate as an agent of critical analysis and debate, particularly at a time when so much focus is placed on the narrower - but not unimportant - utilitarian functions of our system of higher education.

In launching Sydney Ideas Quarterly, I thought I would focus on the question of the role of ideas in politics. How do they line up against, say, vested interests when it comes to power and outcomes? Is this 'ideas versus vested interests' the right way to think about the subject? Can we have an open society and political progress without support for ideas and the generation of new ideas?

One person who had a clear and unambiguous view on these questions was John Maynard Keynes. “Ideas shape the course of history,” he said. But more specifically, he asserted, “the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

What I like about this quote is that he refers to both the “practical men” and the “madmen in authority”. How often is it that the impression is given that only the radicals and the reformers - the madmen, as Keynes calls them, are interested in ideas?

Not so, says Keynes. Look also to those who see practical necessities rather than grand ideologies as the guiding light. They too have 'ideas' about what can and should be done or not done. Indeed, I would argue that one of the reasons for the success of conservatism in recent years has been its clear sense of ideology when propagating the 'culture wars' in so many areas of our political, social and economic life.

In fact, there were times when conservatives spoke as if 'values' were paramount, independently of what their application in the real world implied for the less-than-perfect human race. Think of issues like stem cell research, harm-minimisation principles in drug policy, abortion and, of course, the invasion of Iraq.

I'm not sure what the founding father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, would have made of such a heresy. He would probably have concluded that it is a case of religion gone mad!

Hopefully, then, that settles the matter of the role of ideas in the world of the practical men as well as the world of the radicals. Ideas are a form of defence as well as a means of attack. Ideas can be assumptions as well as conclusions. Ideas can be popular or unpopular. Ideas may be new or old.

To quote Keynes again, “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.”


I think the real difference that has emerged in the contemporary debate is between what we might call public policy and what we do call fundamentalism.

I have already alluded to that in my comments on the role of values in conservative thinking. This particular division has also been given some class overtones with links being drawn between fundamentalism and populism. In many jurisdictions this has meant that left-of-centre politics has been on the back foot.

Note, for example, the reaction to the eminently sensible policy of promoting a more competitive economy in the Hawke/Keating years. Here we saw a left-of-centre government promoting economic rationalism (and to some degree a social reform agenda antithetical to the position of the fundamentalists). The stage was set for a populist reaction - and it came in the form of One Nation and following that in the form of the Tampa policies of John Howard.

I believe this case illustrates the extent to which politics was actually a battle of ideas.

State Labor governments were particularly adept at mixing what we might call traditional liberal principles in areas of social reform with tough populist positioning in relation to law and order. They understood the ideological dynamic that was in play between liberalism and populism and sought a balanced approach. This balancing out was in no small measure the reason for its dominance over the Liberal and National Opposition throughout the late 1990s and the early years of the 21st century.

You might respond by saying, surely our political leaders weren't so self-consciously ideological in the way they managed these conflicts between populism and liberalism?

It is true to say that public opinion was playing a role in pushing the populist bandwagon. However, that can't explain the significant commitment to microeconomic reform at both the national and state levels. This was an idea whose time had come in an Australia increasingly buffeted by the cold winds of globalisation.

This was the era of corporatisation and privatisation, deregulation and the level playing field, contracting-out and the purchaser-provider split. None of these policies were particularly popular but they were deemed to be necessary for improved productivity and the public interest. So dominant was the thinking associated with the market solutions that the case was generally presented as 'There is No Alternative'.

It has only been in recent years that the state has begun to make a come-back as governments seek to battle with the challenges of terrorism, climate change and financial chaos. Ideas that had seemed to past their use-by date, such as deficit planning and pump-priming, have re-emerged as part of the armoury used by governments to counter recession and unemployment. Government is seeking to be more strategic and the state is being given a more pro-active role in social and economic life.

Evidence of the growing role of the state can be seen in the ideological dynamic surrounding the case for and against a proposed Charter or Bill of Rights for Australia.

Those advocating a charter point to the growth in executive power and the need to provide adequate checks and balances in relation to issues like immigration and terrorism.

Politics is a constant battle of ideas. Even those with a vested interest need a story within which to envelop their claims for public support. Day in and day out, their stories battle for the support of the public. They come with varying degrees of complexity. Some are general themes of human society and some more limited in their scope and application.


The real question to ask is: how do we assess the merits of the various ideas competing in the political marketplace? This is where the intellectual has a role to play. It is a role that is part public policy (in other words, what does the evidence tell us?) and part prophecy (where will a particular course of action take us as a people and a community?).

It is a case of social science and social and political philosophy, even that of a theological bent. It's partly a case of explaining a people to themselves and partly the more prosaic task of advising on legislation and public policy generally. Political judgement as well as social analysis is a legitimate factor for consideration.

Dialogue and debate are crucial ingredients in the mix.

All too often we find advocates for particular theories or policies make the claim that they are the custodians of an ideas culture. When this takes a political form it can lead to arrogance. Indeed what I might call embedded ideas can be highly resistant to change urged from the outside.

In this way, it is the role of the intellectual and journals like the Sydney Ideas Quarterly to be the burr in the sock of such arrogance. Intellectuals too need their critics.

My conclusion then: people take ideas seriously. So too should politicians and so too should intellectuals. Indeed it is especially important that intellectuals be as self-conscious about the assumptions behind their own thinking as they are critical of others, what, for example, do they assume about what can and can't be delivered in the real world of politics? In other words, ideas about means as well as ends need to be part of the calculus. Political judgement is not an 'add-on' but part of the discussion we need to have about the world of ideas.

This is an edited version of a speech given by Professor Geoff Gallop, former premier of Western Australia and director of the School of Government at the University of Sydney, at the launch of the Sydney Ideas Quarterly on Friday, 22 May 2009, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival