What’s with all these ‘end of’ theories? First we had Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (1960), then there was Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History (1992), and more recently, The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy (2012) by Tory MP Douglas Carswell. Now it seems we in Australia have our own ‘end of’ prophet – the ABC’s Jonathan Green. Last week he suggested that ‘The next great reform will be of politics itself’, and this week we have ‘We need to subcontract the budget process’. What he seems to have in mind is an end to the two party system – which is roughly true of all these other ‘end of’ writers to which he is a footnote. They all assume in their different ways the end of the two competing sets of political ideas that underlie the two party system.
In last week’s article, Green is arguing that the work of economic reform has been done, leaving governments seeking for purpose. ‘We are stuck with the theme so elegantly essayed in the ’80s and ’90s, of open economies and liberated markets,’ he writes. ‘And next?’ All that is left is apparently ‘fuss around the detail of an economy now making its way in the world.’ ‘[W]e now have an economy working in fundamental accord with accepted best practice. The liberation of an open market economy is pretty much a one-time reform: that job is done, unless some future fashion or orthodoxy should decide that renewed central intervention makes more sense.’
Fundamental accord with best practice? Forgive me, Jonathan, if you are being ironic, but I fear you aren’t. What can this possibly mean? Best practice according to neo-liberal economists like Hayek and Friedman? Fortunately our economy isn’t anywhere near as free from ‘central intervention’ as they would advocate. Best practice in terms of a balanced budget? Even if such a policy were best practice – and it isn’t – we don’t look like achieving it any time soon. But even if we were achieving some sort of ‘best practice’ compared to other countries, this ‘liberation of an open market economy’ would still be an economic system which left unchecked, institutionalises inequality and encourages destruction of the environment and dangerous climate change. It’s pretty easy to answer his ‘And next’ question.
This week, the management of the federal budget has become ‘mired in politics’; ‘the increasingly serious necessity of making our national ends meet, whether through a trimming of largesse, a deepening of the revenue pool, or a combination of the two, seems continual hostage to the siren call of popularity and power.’ The answer? Take it away from those nasty politicians bent on personal advantage, and give it an independent body, for example, ‘an office of Budget Balance’. As Green describes the role of such a body, ‘It might suggest to government that revenue needs to be raised by a certain percentage, or conversely that cuts of a certain severity need to be made: the choices would be political, but there would be no escaping them, and the blame, fundamentally would lie outside of politics, in independently expressed fiscal reality.’
I almost don’t know where to start with this. There’s a lot of evidence that successful societies – ones where there are not great disparities of wealth – most commonly run budget deficits. Modern Monetary Theory teaches us that surplus budgets come at the cost of increased private indebtedness. An ‘independently expressed fiscal reality’ doesn’t exist; the desire to achieve a deficit, a balance or a surplus are all themselves products of a particular economic world view, which results in quite different opinions about what is good for the economy at any given time. Green’s idea sounds a bit like the Republican Balanced Budget Amendment campaign. He says he is concerned about the ‘structural deficit’, and quotes former Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson on the dangers of failing to deal with it. But anyone who describes government spending as ‘largesse’ has me worried.
What Green seems to wilfully ignore in both these articles is that there are winners and losers in market capitalism. The winners are the large corporations, the banks, those already well off and a few entrepreneurs who have made personal fortunes. The losers are the dispossessed, the young, the unemployed, and increasingly the working poor. And also the environment. Anyone taking what Green says at face value would assume that the whole political class is interested only in power for themselves, and that they have no concern for the rest of ‘us’, as if all of our interests were the same. Which they are not. This ‘us’ versus ‘them’ attitude reduces politics to the self-interest of politicians, rather than being a battle between competing economic and social interests. He talks of ‘the hollowly unrepresentative calculus of Liberal versus Labor’, and of ‘the mistrust and misrule into which we have slowly stumbled.’ This is another version of the two party system is terrible, Labor and Liberal are both the same, and as bad as each other. (And while we’re on it, it’s all their fault. The electorate and the media bear no responsibility for the situation.)
Of course politics is about power. You can’t do anything without it. And yes, many of the people we’ve elected to represent us do seem to have a sense of personal entitlement. Disliking politicians is a national sport. But what we don’t need is to confuse not liking them much with seeing them as all holding the same ideas, or representing the same interests. They don’t. That’s why there are two main parties. The Liberals are for low taxes, small government, private provision of services and minimal government intervention in the economy (except in the interests of their major corporate supporters). Labor is for intervention in the economy to promote employment, including through public/private partnerships, public provision of services like health and education, an adequate safety net to reduce inequality, a progressive taxation system and an appropriate response to climate change. Neither side always adheres to their basic philosophies, and this is usually because of the need to get elected. But why are these fundamental differences so hard to grasp? One reason is that journalists like Green wilfully ignore them.
There isn’t a clear distinction in Australian politics between the haves and the have nots; people vote as they do for any number of reasons – some well-thought out, some shallow, some focussed on their own needs, others on the community. What separates the two sides has changed significantly since the implementation of Green’s ‘open economies and liberated markets’. Labor and Liberal have had to respond to a changed electoral dynamic, and aren’t finding it easy. But that doesn’t mean that the policies they espouse are now the same, or in some way more trivial than during the period of economic ‘reform’. The challenges are greater than they ever were, as we struggle to find an equitable response to climate change – not just within Australia, but across the world. The current options are the free market versus the ‘renewed central intervention’ Green speaks so dismissively of. What political battle could be more important? Like it or not, we haven’t come to the end of politics.