How the economic rationalists tried to steal our hearts and minds

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Sunday, 12 April 2015 18:30 by Ken Wolff

At the start of the year in my piece ‘Proud to be a bigot’ I mentioned that, before Abbott, Australian governments tended to look after those who were ‘down on their luck’. It was a phrase with which I grew up. People who were unemployed were not ‘dole bludgers’ then, nor even just bludgers (although there may have been a few, bludgers were usually identified when they were in work): they were ‘down on their luck’. I began to wonder why that approach has disappeared.

A key aspect of the phrase ‘down on their luck’ is that it is an egalitarian phrase. In an egalitarian society, success and failure are more usually attributed to luck rather than personal attributes because almost by definition personal achievement breaches the personal equality of egalitarianism. While there are always degrees of success, even in an egalitarian society, success is down-played or shared — either by emphasising the role of others or distributing the monetary rewards of success by throwing parties and ‘barbies’, or buying extra ‘rounds’ at the pub. Acknowledging personal achievement was usually limited to sports people and, to a lesser extent, performers and artists — although we were also good at cutting down the ‘tall poppies’.

We seem to have gone back to something closer to the ‘undeserving poor’ of Victorian times. That, in itself, provides a clue to the change. People are undeserving if they are perceived not to have made enough effort on their own behalf. It follows the logic that ‘if I am successful or moderately well-off then anyone can be’ if only they make the effort. It focuses on the individual and the effort made by the individual, not on initial conditions or community responsibility nor even the common good. And we all know who promotes such ideas: the neo-liberals, the economic rationalists, the free-marketers and, politically, the current Liberal party and the IPA behind it. Somehow they have managed to change us without many of us even noticing. Although loathe to say it, the Labor party has also contributed by accepting the free market philosophy.

Between the gold rushes and the 1890s, Australia was considered a ‘working man’s paradise’. The depression of the 1890s changed that somewhat but also fostered the growth of unionism and the birth of the Labor party to represent workers’ interests. That meant that by 1911 Australia was still considered a great country for the ‘working man’ with higher wages than in many other countries, shorter hours than the US and Canada and more holidays. Australia was also a world leader in social reforms, including universal suffrage, and was known for not having as large a gap between rich and poor as most industrial countries — it was effectively largely egalitarian.

For the purposes of this discussion, we can ignore 1914 to 1950, because it was dominated by two world wars and the great depression which obviously impacted working life and government approaches in ways specific to those events.

I think the first change came with the election of the Menzies’ government in 1949. Menzies’ new Liberal party focused on the small businessmen, the shopkeepers and small-scale entrepreneurs with the cry that these were the ‘forgotten people’ of Australia — which was partly true, as least as far as the pre-existing political parties were concerned. Of course, that emphasis also gave an emphasis to the ‘market’ but in Australia at the time it was still a market protected by government (through tariffs on imported goods) and was to remain so for the next three decades. Protection of the market also gave some protection to the workers: and there was also the Arbitration Commission and the ‘basic wage’ which helped maintain the standard of living of workers.

The major change came after the ‘stagflation’ and oil crises of the 1970s. Governments, led by the Thatcher and Reagan governments, began abandoning Keynesian economics, which had allowed for a degree of government management of the economy and the market, in favour of what is known in Australia as ‘economic rationalism’, or overseas as ‘market liberalism’. The latter name actually explains it better — market freedom. In articles last year I discussed the liberal view of individual self-interested freedom and that is the view that underlies market liberalism. It is the antithesis of egalitarianism and the ‘fair go’.

Also, following World War II, America had become the world’s dominant economy (and still is, although China threatens to surpass it in the coming years). The American ethos has always been focused on the individual and the idea that anyone can rise to the top by their own efforts, even from the humblest beginnings: Abraham Lincoln was often touted as an example. That meant that some looked to the American ethos, rather than an Australian ethos, as the exemplar for economic success. And, of course, modern market liberalism (as opposed to the old English version of the 1800s) also rose to prominence in America.

Reinforcing the changes was the appearance and growth of multi-national corporations and their creation of a global economy. The multi-national corporations loved market liberalism and they had the power to enforce it. They could threaten recalcitrant governments with the withdrawal of investment. Even a government trying to protect its workers knew that such withdrawal would reduce jobs, perhaps slow the national economy, even reduce wages, so that its efforts to protect workers would be in vain. Of course, it was rarely an open threat, more a reminder that the multi-national could do business elsewhere if the government was not favourably disposed towards it in such things as wages and working conditions or did not allow its other products to enter the country without high tariffs. Countries even vied to attract such companies, offering them incentives to invest, in contradiction of free market principles, but such incentives were never turned down on the basis that they breached principles — no, the other principle of self-interest won out.

Underlying all this is competition. Since the 1980s we have been continuously told that competition is the key to an efficient economy and that government regulation reduces competition and efficiency. And to make competition work, individuals need to be competitive in their approach.

I think all those circumstances created a ‘perfect storm’ to undermine the Australian ethos of egalitarianism and the ‘fair go’.

Hawke and Keating succumbed to the international pressure and the advice of the economic ‘experts’, including those at Treasury. While the changes they made did improve our economic situation, it was still threatening our ethos. The trick was to try to maintain both and to some extent they achieved that with the ‘Accord’ but it was a delicate balancing act that also left the ‘fair go’ in the balance.

Even small businesses were influenced by the new approaches. Previously, many small businesses were happy to co-exist with other similar businesses. An example was the old ‘corner stores’ which were dotted throughout the suburbs on every second or third corner. Everyone could walk to a local store. There are other factors that led to the demise of such stores, including changes in transport and food storage, but the people who ran those stores knew they were providing a local service, not just a business. They made a living but were basically little or no wealthier than the neighbours they served. As the world changed some hung on, still providing a local service, but they could no longer ‘compete’ and people eventually sought the cheaper prices at the supermarkets (even though they had to travel further to access them).

Small businesses that survived became more competitive. Some managed to grow by taking over or forcing out their competition or they banded together (and gave up their independence) in order to ‘compete’. For the most part, the idea of providing a service was relegated to second place. (Although I see that it is making a come-back, now as a means of gaining an advantage in the market.)

Companies began running seminars for their workers extolling the virtues of competition, of the need to out-perform and out-do their rivals. You have only to walk past some real estate offices early in the morning and hear them chanting and cheering and psyching themselves to sell, sell, sell in the coming day. In the case of the real estate office, the emphasis is not just on out-performing its rivals but fostering competition between its own sales-people, promoting success by out-selling one’s colleagues.

That whole approach has encroached at the personal level and is readily displayed in job interviews. Even in the public service, I was once told that I ‘did not sell myself’ at interviews: my reply was ‘if I wanted to “sell” myself, I would have been a salesman, not a public servant’. Being able to ‘sell’ oneself in an interview is often not a valid indication of a person’s worth as a worker but it has become the competition in the interview, not the value or quality of a person’s work, that often determines who ‘wins’ the job. Even the fact that it is now more common to refer to a person ‘winning’ a job is an indication of a fundamental shift in values. Previously we would simply ‘go’ for a job and would be asked whether we ‘got’ it.

Some people now appear captured by the philosophy of the new economic world. In their personal undertakings they are competitive; they brag of their successes and claim the credit for themselves; they are concerned for themselves, not for their neighbours and may no longer care about fitting in with their neighbours. The economic rationalists have indeed stolen their hearts and minds.

I have my own theory that even if an ethos is ignored for long periods, people return to it in times of struggle or when they feel threatened because it remains in the collective consciousness. Howard abandoned the balance between the new world and the old ethos, that Hawke and Keating had tried to achieve with the ‘Accord’, when he introduced Workchoices. Abbott is taking the approach to the next level by imposing the underlying philosophy of market liberalism across society and not just to the economy. And, at last, people are seeing that as a step too far. It seems that, while many in the population may see individual self-interest as important for economic pursuits, they have not been convinced that it applies to society and are drawing a line in the sand. When it comes to social issues the ‘fair go’ still lingers or, as I suggest, is being resurrected as a threat is perceived to the way our society functions.

Labor needs to keep returning to the ‘fair go’. Not only does it resonate with a significant proportion of voters, it forces the Liberals to respond because, here in Australia, it would be political suicide to leave only one major party apparently defending the ‘fair go’. The Liberals, however, have trouble defending it because it is their approach threatening it and because their approach is, as I suggested earlier, the antithesis of the ‘fair go’. It leads to such bizarre statements as Hockey asking if it’s fair that the rich pay more tax (in dollar terms); or is it fair that three months’ worth of our taxes is required for those on welfare; or that poor people don’t drive as much as rich people, so a petrol tax is actually ‘progressive’. When reference to the ‘fair go’ can create such contortions by the Liberals, it is an idea worth pursuing.

And as for the economic rationalists stealing our hearts and minds, they almost succeeded — but not quite.

What do you think?

About Ken

As you are here reading TPS, we presume you are not one of those who were conned by the economic rationalists into abandoning our values in the name of economic success. But perhaps you know of some who were. Or perhaps you disagree with Ken’s view. Please let us know and leave a comment.

Come back next week for 2353’s ‘Instant experts’ which raises some pertinent questions about the expertise required of our politicians when they are expected to run our economy, our defence, our health system and so on. Are they qualified for such specific tasks? Should they be?