LIONEL ORCHARD. Hugh Stretton in retrospect and prospect: reflections on Graeme Davison’s selected writings.

Oct 27, 2018

Graeme Davison has edited a new selection of Hugh Stretton’s writings. Stretton’s work is widely admired but how relevant is it now? Davison presents an assessment. A response follows.

How should we view Hugh Stretton’s contributions as a social scientist and public intellectual? What should we take and learn from his thought both in itself and as a guide for current times? The recent publication of Graeme Davison’s selection of Stretton’s writings raises these questions anew.

Hugh Stretton trained in history in Melbourne and Oxford in the 1940s. He was appointed as Professor of History at the University of Adelaide at a very early age in 1954, and won wide praise and influence as a teacher and mentor guiding and building a strong history department at the University of Adelaide through the 1950s and 1960s. From the late 1960s to the late 1980s, he continued to teach history while writing important books on how the social and political sciences should be understood and practised, city planning and its reform, capitalism and social democratic reform in changing times, and a collection of political essays on these themes. During this time he was widely engaged in public policy, administration and advocacy particularly in public housing and urban planning. He retired in 1989 but continued his work until 2008 or so, writing books challenging orthodoxies in the social and political sciences, particularly in economics, and building social democratic arguments for changing times. He had a number of overlapping careers of wide influence and gained prominence as a public intellectual.

What were his main arguments? His main critical target across all of his work was the quest to build value-free, objective and axiomatic social science in the fields of politics, economics and sociology. Drawing on debates about historical method, Stretton argued that this quest was and is fundamentally misguided. Given the inherent complexity of society, good social science is always an exercise in selection guided by respect for facts and careful acknowledgement of the values and social purposes shaping the effort. When applied to cities, the task should be to pay more attention to equity and social needs, and respect the complex mix of public, private and household economies expressed in built form. The dominant orthodoxy shaping the capitalist democracies from the late 1970s on has been the neoliberal quest for freer markets and limited government. For Stretton, these arguments miss the complexities of human motivation and have steered politics and public policy in retrograde directions away from the necessary social democratic balancing of public and private choices if a society is to be decent, more equal and efficient. Lastly, Stretton always emphasised the need for an open mind and respect for multiplicity and pluralism in social explanation. His vision was for a ‘pluralist holism’ in social science.   Graeme Davison’s selected writings cover this breadth in Stretton’s writing well. Davison’s selection emphasises Stretton’s grounding as an historian and his writing on cities, urban planning and housing. As a respected Australian urban historian and with advice and comment mainly from historians and urbanists, he  pays less attention but does include material from Stretton’s deeper theoretical work about the nature of the social and political sciences from his first book The Political Sciences (1969) and some essays and papers presenting Stretton’s broader analyses of economic, social and political trends in the capitalist democracies focusing in particular on the travails of social democracy and the rise of neoliberalism. Davison acknowledges that he has paid less attention to Stretton’s later work on economics. The major themes in Stretton’s work including on method in social science and economics are perhaps covered better in Stretton’s own selection in his Political Essays (1987) even if that book is dated and a more difficult read. Davison has chosen pieces that reflect Stretton’s gifts as a writer and communicator rather than linger on his more difficult work. The critical sting in Stretton’s writing is evident but it is a little muted.

In his introduction to the book, Davison ventures an assessment of the relevance of Stretton’s work now. He views Stretton’s contribution in a retrospective rather than prospective way. On the question ‘why read Stretton?’ he answers ‘simply for the pleasure in following a brilliant thinker as he stretches his mind’, because he ‘shows us what it is to be a public intellectual’ and because ‘he memorably articulated a generous, humane and original vision of Australia’.  Nevertheless, he proposes that if Stretton was an intellectual force in the 1970s and 1980s, surely his day has passed. Davison asks rhetorically ‘Haven’t his neoliberal adversaries won the battle of ideas?’ He implies that Stretton’s vision for Australia is now dated and out of touch given social changes and the forces of globalisation. Stretton’s Economics: A New Introduction (1999), which Davison sees as ‘a summa of everything Stretton had thought and written over the previous forty years’ and worth reading is ultimately assessed as ‘an admirable but perhaps quixotic enterprise.’ In any event, Davison suggests there are few to take Stretton’s ideas forward. ‘While his writing was widely read, he won admirers rather than disciples. There are no Strettonians.’ Davison does end on a slightly more optimistic note. Neoliberalism is running out of steam and the search for alternatives grows. Stretton’s work may remind readers of ‘principles and policies that bear reconsideration and perhaps renovation.’

Davison’s assessment reflects a narrow reading of Stretton’s contribution. He views Stretton with a local Australian eye and, as suggested, highlights Stretton’s grounding in history and his work on cities. A broader way to read Stretton is to highlight the lineage from his earliest writing to his last in articulating a radical vision of the social sciences beyond positivist conventions. From The Political Sciences through to Australia Fair (2005), what one not wedded to a defence of particular disciplinary commitments gets in engaging with Stretton are profound arguments of continuing relevance. Stretton’s intellectual framing of the purposes of social science – he avoided the idea of theory – echoes and connects to what are now major international debates in the social sciences, political theory and economics. Two deserve mentio First, ideas about human development and capability associated with Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum provide an important challenge to neoliberalism in ways emphasising the complexity of human needs and purposes beyond narrow self-interest. Their work challenges reductionism in economics and social science in fundamental ways and they articulate a powerful political and public policy agenda of international scope. Des Gasper reminds us of the relation of Stretton’s defence of a value-based social science to Sen’s enterprise while Nussbaum’s work on value ethics and social democracy relates closely to Stretton’s vision.  Secondly, Stretton’s challenge to orthodox economic theory in his late work enjoys an international reputation in the post-autistic economics/real world economics movement now expressed through the World Economics Association. Stretton’s Economic: A New Introduction sits in a growing list of WEA alternative texts.

There may be no Strettonians but there are plenty of intellectuals who share his outlook while his legacy continues to be reflected in thinking at the cutting edge of the social sciences, particularly economics, ethics and public policy.

Lionel Orchard taught public policy at Flinders University. He worked with Hugh Stretton on the book Public Goods, Public Enterprise, Public Choice: Theoretical Foundations of the Contemporary Attack on Government (1994).

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