Abbott and Chifley, Salisbury & Spencer

Two comments about the Great Depression by one future Prime Minister and one aspirant to be Prime Minister. In 1944 Ben Chifley declared:

In my electorate, I witnessed the freedom that was enjoyed by 2000 men outside a factory in an attempt to secure the one job that was offering…the freedom to starve and live on the dole…the freedom of the economic individualists whose only God was Mammon and profit

In 2010 Tony Abbott declared:

In some quarters, the Global Financial Crisis, like the Great Depression before it, has been seen as an apocalyptic event rather than as merely a more spectacular version of the cycle of boom and bust to which all markets are prone.

I would have though the Great Depression was an apocalyptic responsible for enormous human suffering and indirectly for the catastrophe of the World War II. Abbott’s viewpoint reflects his fundamentally libertarian economic policy. Much is sometimes made of Abbott’s alleged economic interventionism that supposedly reflects the influence of Catholic social thought. The rhetoric of Liberal politicians concerned to win elections will always disappoint libertarian idealists, but the practice is more favorable. It is broader point that can be made about liberal-conservatism, when capitalism performs it is often justified as an unproblematic application of the idea of ‘freedom’; economic slumps provoke a return to a more traditional conservative pessimism. I have often argued for the significance of Herbert Spencer as a model for contemporary conservatism but Abbott’s comments remind us also of Lord Salisbury British Prime Minister 1885-86, 1886-1902 and 1895-1902. Salisbury’s dismissal of the Disraelian tradition was an inspiration for the Tory right of the 1970s expressed in Maurice Cowling’s Conservative Essays and the Salisbury Review. Maurice Cowling declared in the former work:

If there is a class war – and there is – it is important that it should be handled with subtlety and skill. … it is not freedom that Conservatives want; what they want is the sort of freedom that will maintain existing inequalities or restore lost ones

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