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What's in a name? Brand confusion muddles writing on think-tanks

By Andrew Norton - posted Tuesday, 26 August 2003

Am I having an identity crisis? In just one article last week, the think-tank I work for was described as neoconservative, neo-liberal, and New Right. Another article characterised us as having a "libertarian/ laissez-faire" philosophy. And we are regularly tagged as conservatives and as economic rationalists.

In truth, this is a categorisation crisis, not an identity crisis. These labels don't all signal the same things, and can't be used as synonyms. The differences on some issues may be minor, but on others diametrically opposed views are branded with the same name.

Recent debates over American foreign policy make the 'neoconservative' label particularly prone to mislead. Neoconservatism emerged in the United States more than 30 years ago. It was made up of American liberals who, in Irving Kristol's words, had been "mugged by reality". The reality at the time was the 1960s and 1970s attack on liberal institutions and bourgeois values by the counter-culture and the radical left.


Back then, neoconservatism was new in two ways. Many of the individuals were themselves new to conservatism, and some of their ideas differed from mainstream conservatives too. In the current context, the most important difference was on foreign policy. Most American conservatives were either of the realist school, believing that America should only act internationally when its security or interests were at stake, or isolationist, believing America should not meddle overseas.

Prominent neoconservatives were different. They believed America should actively promote democracy and freedom abroad, that American values had universal currency and should be the basis of American foreign policy.

These days, this is probably the only remaining distinctive neoconservative view. Though most of the original neoconservatives are still alive, public debate is carried out by second and third generation writers. Their style reflects the movements' origins in the world of New York intellectuals, but foreign policy aside their broad policy agenda has merged into mainstream American conservatism.

The tensions within American conservatism have been very evident this year, with division between those wanting to achieve limited security objectives in the Middle East and those wanting to spread democracy to Iraq and beyond.

When the Sydney Morning Herald describes my employer, the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), as "neoconservative", people who have followed the extensive local coverage of American debates would naturally assume that it backs the neoconservative line.

In fact the CIS's leading foreign policy expert, Owen Harries, specifically opposes this view. Harries, the former editor of the American journal The National Interest, said in an interview with Policy magazine last year that he "spent most of the 1990s arguing not against the Left but against the neoconservatives, arguing for prudence and restraint in American foreign policy, as against the rather gung-ho approach they favoured".


Nor is there much else in Australian conservatism that justifies the "neo" prefix. Only a handful of conservative commentators - Keith Windschuttle, Christopher Pearson and Michael Duffy - started out on the left, and only Windschuttle was prominent prior to his conversion. They are too few to count as a movement, and with Robert Manne doing a back-flip to his youthful leftism the net gain is small.

While they've all pursued issues that other conservatives hadn't taken up in detail, there's nothing that doesn't fit with older conservative concerns. Conservatives were fighting the left over Australian history long before Windschuttle alleged fabrication of Aboriginal history or Duffy rehabilitated John Macarthur.

The highest profile self-confessed conservative is the Prime Minister. His conservatism, too, seems evolved from past conservative beliefs, not something new or striking. The old conservative concern with social cohesion is there but no longer the view, once held by both parties, that racial purity is necessary for that goal. Experience has shown otherwise.

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Article edited by John Carrigan.
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This article was first published in The Australian on 19 August 2003.

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About the Author

Andrew Norton is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and Director of the CIS' Liberalising Learning research programme.

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