The trouble with neoliberalism is it focuses on the how and not on the why.
The result of this headlong pursuit of continuous growth is a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few while the vast majority are mired in poverty. At the same time, environmental degradation in the pursuit of profit, and the waste produced by billions of consumers, is destroying the planet.
Neoliberalism purports to reward individual effort, completely ignoring the fact that we don’t all start from the same place.
It is much easier to build wealth if you start with some assets. It is easier to do well at school if you have somewhere to live and enough to eat. It is easier when your parents can afford to pay for extra tuition or to pay university fees so you don’t start life with a humungous debt. It is easier to find work if you have a car or can afford, and have access to, good public transport. It is easier to fight for your rights when you can afford a barrister. And it is much easier to protect and grow your wealth if you can afford financial advisers and accountants.
Neoliberalism cares nothing about the greater good. Every man and woman for themselves. Lobbyists promote self-interest and the privileged jealously guard their perks. Greed has replaced our sense of community, collective caring and shared responsibility.
Neoliberal governments strive to reduce regulation but businesses exist to maximise profits, not make moral or even ethical choices. They will adhere to the law (usually) but contribute no more than they are forced to do. And even that is questionable. A quick look at the Fairwork Ombudsman site shows hundreds of litigations for underpayments, sham contracting, false or inadequate record-keeping and a litany of other abuses.
Environmental protection regulations are regularly breached with minimal consequences. The Department of the Environment and Energy shows some case judgements but they seem to have dwindled to almost nothing since the Coalition won government.
Conservatives are often religious, insisting on imposing their view of the sanctity of life on everyone. But they complain bitterly about contributing to the cost of raising children or caring for the elderly or providing a safety net for those who cannot work or find employment.
Spending on health, education, welfare and environmental protection is not a cost but an investment in a happier, more productive, more harmonious society. That creates savings itself and benefits everyone.
Increasing company profits, on the other hand, have only benefitted CEOs and shareholders. With company profits at record highs, investors enjoyed a 9.5 per cent per annum increase in dividend payments last year, while workers’ wages remain stuck growing at roughly 2 per cent per annum. Rather than sharing the benefits of a revenue boost, the government wants to give even more back to big business through tax cuts and less to workers through cuts to penalty rates. They want to impose draconian industrial relations laws and hobble workers’ ability to negotiate or protest, all the while protecting shareholders at every turn.
Despite the taxation assistance already given to small businesses, many will continue to struggle until their customers have more disposable income, a fact the government seems unable to understand. Big business lobby groups oppose any increase in the minimum wage but they still think it would be a good idea for the government to give people on welfare a bit more to spend.
The idea that we must decrease company taxes to attract investment is not borne out by the facts. Non-mining investment grew by 14.0% through the year ending March 31, 2018 with many foreign investments coming from countries with lower tax rates.
You can’t tax a profitable business into being unprofitable, but you can, with their contribution, provide a strong judicial system, a safe place to do business where the rule of law is enforced, sophisticated transport and communication infrastructure, a well-educated, healthy workforce and a comparatively stable government. These are the things that attract business investment.
We don’t need more growth. What we need is a better, more equitable distribution of our finite resources. Why should the owners of the capital amass wealth beyond measure built on the work of others who struggle just to survive?
We are a wealthy nation but we have lost our compassion. We have forgotten our duty to protect the vulnerable. We have abandoned our obligation to keep our home clean. We ignore the plight of less fortunate countries.
We have become consumed by greed and gluttony. But that has led to a greater poverty – a poverty of purpose and dignity, as Robert Kennedy said fifty years ago.
“Too much and for too long, we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.
If we judge [our success by Gross National Product], that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.
It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.
It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.
Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.
It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
That same year, 1968, Martin Luther King organized the “Poor People’s Campaign” to address issues of economic justice. The campaign culminated in a march on Washington, D.C., demanding economic aid to the poorest communities of the United States.
He felt that Congress had shown “hostility to the poor” by spending “military funds with alacrity and generosity.” He contrasted this with the situation faced by poor Americans, claiming that Congress had merely provided “poverty funds with miserliness.” He was particularly in support of a guaranteed basic income.
His vision was for change that was more revolutionary than mere reform: he cited systematic flaws of “racism, poverty, militarism and materialism”, and argued that “reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.”
They shot them both that year.
Fifty years later, we are so used to all the things they warned about that we have given up the fight.
It is possible that a visionary leader could get the weight of the people behind them to remind us of what is important, but would the corporate world ever allow it?