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An open, liberal democracy is not a team

By John Wright - posted Friday, 28 November 2014

The Prime Minister has again used the expression "Team Australia". This may be a fairly harmless way in which he seeks to gain popular support for his proposals. But it is worth reminding ourselves of the ways in which an open, liberal democracy is not "a team".

When we hear the word "team" we perhaps first think of something like a football team or a cricket team. A "team" in this sense is a group of persons who share an aim and have agreed to work together to achieve it. Their aim is usually to win, or to beat other, rival teams. And typically it will be quite clear what needs to be done to win: the way to win is to score more goals or runs than the other team. Each and every member of the team can be assumed to share that aim.

Of course, within a team there may be disagreement about how to score more goals. One team member might believe one particular strategy will maximise the number of goals, another team member might favour another, quite different strategy. But, if they are "team-players", they might agree to go along with the views of their captain or coach on the matter. They may accept that the team as a whole will maximise its chances of victory if all members adopt the same strategy. And so they may all adopt their captain's strategy, even though it might not be exactly the same as the one that would be favoured by an individual player if he were captain.


But note: in a situation like this all the players agree about the overall aim. It is to win, or to score as many goals as possible. That is what a cricket team or a football team is – it is a group working together with the single aim of beating the other team.

But a liberal democracy – particularly a pluralistic liberal democracy – simply need not have any overall aim like that. In an open liberal democracy, there won't just be disagreement about strategies for achieving an aim, there will also be disagreement about what the overall aims ought to be.

What might the overall aim of a country like Australia be? To maximise wealth or economic growth? To get the GDP as high as possible? Perhaps. But maybe not everyone would see that as the overall or over-riding aim. Some might say that we ought not to maximise growth if doing so leads to a great increase in inequality. Others might say we ought not to maximise growth if doing so harms the environment, or exacerbates global warming.

Might the overall aim of our society to be making sure everyone has a job? That's undoubtedly a laudable aim, but some – whether rightly or wrongly – might be concerned about the effects that might have on inflation. Others might see it as one important aim, but not necessarily the over-riding aim.

Keeping interest rates low? Again, many might see that as desirable – but some others – whether reasonably or unreasonably – might be concerned about their returns on loans they have made to others. And perhaps quite a few might dispute whether keeping interest rates low ought to be the over-riding aim of society.

What about making Australia as "free" a place as possible? Perhaps in general terms that is desirable, but sometimes maximising some freedoms can have undesirable consequences. To take a trivial example, if I am free to have my stereo blasting away at all hours I might be impinging on my neighbour's ability to enjoy peace and quiet. Does my claim to freedom outweigh my neighbour's claim to peace and quiet? Different people might give different answers.


The obvious fact is that different people will surely have different views about the overall or over-riding aim or goal of our society. We might regard some such views as silly or irrational, but that is not the point. As a matter of empirical fact, a society like Australia is not like a cricket team where everyone shares the aim of scoring more runs than the opposing team. It is a group of people that do not even agree on an over-riding aim.

It might perhaps be suggested that we do all (or mostly) share one over-riding aim, and that is to do what is best for Australia. But again the difficulty is that people can, and do, have differing conceptions of "what is best for Australia". Is it "best for Australia" to maximise wealth? Some might say fairness is more important, and not always compatible with maximising wealth. Some might say what is best in the long term is care for the environment. Some might most value happiness, or health, or security. And so on.

Of course, this need not mean we must just agree to disagree. Even the overall goals might be amenable to rational discussion, evaluation and modification. But the fact is we do disagree even on the overall goals or aims. Australia is a society and a polity, but it is not a team.

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About the Author

John Wright lectures in philosophy at the University of Newcastle. He has published books in philosophy of science, metaphysics, and ethical issues of economic rationalism.

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