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The benefits of diversity, cultural and intellectual

With the Gillard government being consistently outgunned and just plain monstered in public debate, it has more cause than ever to regret the departure of former finance minister Lindsay Tanner, who was one of the few politicians with the ability and inclination to actually explain things to the electorate. His talents were on display again last night when he delivered the annual Walter Lippmann lecture in Melbourne. (No, not that Walter Lippmann  — this one.)

Tanner’s theme was the economic benefits of immigration — not the narrow “arithmetic” sort, but the advantages that flow from greater ethnic and cultural diversity. Multiculturalism, as he put it, is not a matter of “moral vanity or middle-class indulgence”, but an economic necessity.

Tanner painted an unflattering picture of the Australia of John Howard’s treasured 1950s: largely monocultural, hierarchical, anti-intellectual and dominated by “the British army model of business management”. It’s a reminder that always seems necessary, given our tendency to romanticise the past. But without the diversity that immigration has brought, it’s hard to see how Australia could have adapted so well to the challenges of globalisation.

The big advantage comes from being exposed to different habits of thought, to people who see the world differently. Tanner offered what he described as a “killer quote” from John Stuart Mill:

But the economical advantages of commerce are surpassed in importance by those of its effects which are intellectual and moral. It is hardly possible to overrate the value, in the present low state of human improvement, of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar … [T]here is no nation which does not need to borrow from others …”.

I think this is absolutely right. But it struck me that the moral is broader than the one Tanner drew: that the danger is not just a stifling ethnic homogeneity, but groupthink in general.

Specifically, I thought about right-wing or free-market think tanks. It’s a topic that’s in the news particularly with the now-resolved battle for control of the Cato Institute, but we have examples in Australia as well.

In the 1960s and 1970s, those who opposed the prevailing welfarist-Keynesian consensus, feeling shut out from influence in universities and policymaking bodies, established a variety of think tanks to hone and propagate their ideas. They became a rich source of innovative policy suggestions, many of which have been adopted by governments worldwide. Even those who disagreed with them came to respect their contribution to public debate.

But gradually, over the past 20 years or so, the think tank well has dried up. With rare exceptions, the output from those think tanks now seems querulous, repetitive, obscurantist. Their ideas and their thinking have become stale — the jihad against climate science is perhaps the most obvious symptom.

The problem, it seems to me, is that the think tanks sealed themselves off from diversity. Without disagreement, progress is impossible to sustain. Instead of getting jobs in academia and talking to those who came from different intellectual traditions, bright young graduates went into think tanks and just talked to one another. Groupthink took the place of learning; polemics took the place of inquiry.

The resulting ideas deficit has flowed through to the political parties of the right. They have convinced themselves that their opponents have nothing to say, so they feel no obligation to listen or to engage. The lack of any culture of internal debate just makes matters worse.

Tanner’s lesson on the benefits of diversity deserves a hearing beyond just the immigration debate.

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  • 1
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Thursday, 28 June 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    Richardson illustrates the dangers of groupthink with examples from the Right, but very similar criticisms could be levelled at large portions of the environmental movement as well. Look how many potential solutions to climate change are proscribed by Green policy because of thinking that has ossified around positions taken in the 1970s. Or go no further than the preceding article by Macintosh and Denniss, which indicates what happens (or, more to the point, doesn’t) when initiatives are evaluated more on ideological purity than quantifiable results.

  • 2
    Charles Richardson
    Posted Thursday, 28 June 2012 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    @Mark: Fair point, I think the left has definitely got problems with groupthink as well. I gave the example of the right because it seems they took steps to institutionalise their groupthink at a particular point in time (for, I think, understandable reasons, but with very bad consequences). It doesn’t seem to have been such a systematic thing on the left.

  • 3
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Thursday, 28 June 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Very nice Charles. Yep, Tanner was a great loss to the nation when he leftpolitics.

    I’ve stumbled across some very interesting articles lately which made reference to heirarchical organisations, typified by the old British army generals who were against developing tanks because they had horses, good horses.

    It interested me greatly, as the symptoms of a heirarchical organisation were precisely my lived experience at my current employer. Groupthink is certainly one of thee traits, principally because ‘yes-men’ are promoted and lateral thinkers, you know the ones who actually solve problems, are always branded as troublemakers.

    The pity of it is that I work in an esteemed academic institution. They exemplify both groupthink and the laws of heirarchy.

    We know this stuff, but even our supposed brightest can’t be sufficiently self-reflective enough to actually engage the idea and own it.

    It’s one thing to know something, but taking it on requires an emotional journey, an admission of being wrong, and few are able to take that step.

    But the best way to take that step is when you confront another human being who is the embodiment of difference.

    But this is higher thinking, politicians by and large aren’t interested, and the populace is largely bereft.

    Sad times. Maintain the rage Mr Tanner, we miss you.

  • 4
    Mike Smith
    Posted Thursday, 28 June 2012 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    Tanner painted an unflattering picture of the Australia of John Howard’s treasured 1950s: largely monocultural, hierarchical, anti-intellectual and dominated by “the British army model of business management”.

    I thank the migrants for their culinary diversity - and not having to eat vegetables that have been boiled to death. Does anyone remember 50/60 era restaurants? gah.

  • 5
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 28 June 2012 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Tanner’s biggest sin was not thinking the right way -
    like those with the power -
    look where the party’s ended up under those that did?

  • 6
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 28 June 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    And Mike - I could never understand why you wouldn’t put sixpence in
    your mouth, because there was the chance a Chinaman might have done
    the same, but every month when we went to Parramatta the Chinese was
    where we had lunch - then we got our own in Windsor - and every Thursday
    it was Sweet and Sour pork, fried rice, crumbed prawns and chips - decadent and exotic.
    Till then we had to make do with the Blue Bird and George’s Cafes - Greeks, for treats.
    It turned out they were all much like us - surprise! But by then it was the 70’s.

  • 7
    Jillian Blackall
    Posted Thursday, 28 June 2012 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Well said Charles.

  • 8
    Prudence Wawn
    Posted Thursday, 28 June 2012 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    John Stuart Mill’s quote could well be applied to the public vs private school/ selective school debate. There’s dubious value in confining students within ghettoes of the like-minded.
    Tanner for PM

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