Review: Hugh Stretton: Selected Writings Edited by Graeme Davison

Stretton was convinced that decision-makers should work towards greater equality for everyone at all levels.
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Hugh Stretton’s Selected Writings, edited by Graeme Davison.

These Selected Writings of Hugh Stretton’s work are a well deserved tribute by Graeme Davison to a man considered one of Australia’s most influential public intellectuals in his time. He was a social scientist who taught modern history and economics at the University of Adelaide from 1954 to 1968. His book, Ideas for Australian Cities, became a bestseller. It was self-published in 1969 after six commercial publishers rejected it.

This selection of Stretton’s writings spans from 1945 to 2001 and has been selected by Davison in part for their contemporary value. Naturally, Stratton’s strong convictions flavour these writings and influence his opinions and advice. He advocated for ‘more equality within and between nations, more satisfying work, more active recreations and less “consumerist” brainwashing’, and believed that ‘earned incomes are better than the dole’.

He was convinced that decision-makers should work towards greater equality for everyone at all levels. As Davison writes, Stretton ‘persuasively argued … the barriers between rich and poor damage both.’ He believed secure employment is much more important than highly paid employment. He advocated affordable housing and universal home ownership. He believed people need to have things so that they can do things. He favoured wealth distribution from prosperous geographic areas to poorer ones. According to Davison, Stretton was influenced by the unequal distribution of resources in housing, schooling, medical services and open spaces in the Paris, Chicago and Los Angeles of the 1970s, which led to violent protests.

Stretton was scathing about the shortcomings and fallacies of many economic theories. As one who had studied and taught economics, his criticisms are convincing. He argued strongly against free trade and made some pretty scathing remarks about Paul Keating, who pioneered much of it in Australia. He shared the problem of those who give good advice, namely a lack of a viable strategy for its implementation beyond his persuasive powers.

The foregoing comments about Stretton demonstrate the value of Davison’s extensive selection. Together with Davison’s helpful and  elucidating introductions to the book and to each section, the book represents roughly at least 10 hours of intensive reading, possibly aimed at undergraduates in sociology. For the casual reader this may be a bit much, but the list of contents makes it easy to focus on an area of particular interest, such as for example‘Technology and Society’ or‘How Not to Argue’. Probably, albeit unfortunately, the people least likely to read this book are practising economists and the current crop of politicians. Both these professions could benefit from familiarity with Stretton’s views, particularly ‘The Case Against Very Free Trade and Very Small Government’ and ‘The Cult of Selfishness’.

Stretton was not without his critics. One of the comments from professional planners at the time of the publication of Australian Cities, was: ‘Where [the book] was right … it was unoriginal, where it was original, it was wrong’. 

But you will gain much by reading with an open mind what Stratton has to say even if you disagree with his opinions. After all, he used to encourage his students to think for themselves.

4 stars ★★★★
Hugh Stretton: Selected Writings
Edited by Graeme Davison

Imprint: La Trobe University Press

Release date: 17 September 2018
RRP: $32.99
Paperback ISBN: 9781760640743
eISBN: 9781743820612
Format: Paperback
Size: 234 x 153mm
Extent: 304pp

Erich Mayer
About the Author
Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog