Today’s Guest Poster is Dr Hugh Mackay, who has kindly given The Pub permission to republish the following article, first published on 14th August, 2004 by the “West Australian”. Our thanks to Dr Mackay, and also to Catalyst who sent us a copy of the article some weeks ago.
Drive for US model or Aussie fair go for all?
The Moral Maze
by Hugh Mackay
“You see a bloke driving a Rolls-Royce in America, you say, ‘I’ll have one of those one day’. But sometimes the old Australian (attitude) resents the fact that somebody else has got it. Now, I think that’s changing.”
– John Howard
In a recent interview with the Sydney morning Herald, the Prime Minister expressed warm approval for a change he believes has come over our society: he sees us as more entrepreneurial, more aspirational and “more like America”.
He has special praise for young people who he believes are more upwardly mobile than previous generations, and he plans to develop policies that will encourage us to become a nation of small-business people.
The aspiration to own a Rolls-Royce might once have been gently mocked as evidence of unbridled greed or envy. But in the new economic order, such avaricious motives have become economic virtues because they fuel the engine that drives the mass market. Materialism may not be good for the soul, but it’s good for the economy.
There’s an ethical dimension to this whole debate about aspirations, upward mobility and extravagance. If we were, indeed, to take the US as our model, we’d be looking at a fundamentally different society from the one many of us have dreamt of becoming. Do we want the sickening gap between the top and bottom of society that defines America, with an underclass of “working poor” apparently institutionalised beyond redemption?
Success is one thing; elbowing each other out of the way in our struggle to reach the top of the heap is another. And the economic heap in Australia has become very tall indeed: never before in our history has the distance from top to bottom been as great as it is now. No one would deny the value of enterprise and ambition. But the idea of a grasping, acquisitive society is at odds with the long-standing Australian ideal of an egalitarian society committed to equity, fairness and special consideration for those who are marginalised or disadvantaged by disability, poverty, incompetence, lack of intelligence or sheer bad luck.
That doesn’t mean a society in which everyone has the same amount of money or the same economic status. But every society must make a moral choice: will we encourage untrammelled greed and economic survival of the fittest or will we accept, via the tax and welfare systems, serious responsibility for the wellbeing of those who will never make it on their own, let alone become “entrepreneurial”, no matter how hard they try?
There’s another society the PM didn’t mention – Denmark – that has adopted a radically different approach from America’s when it comes to the distribution of wealth. The Danes don’t just choose nice princesses; they also choose egalitarianism.
Newsweek reported recently that 38 per cent of Denmark’s total income goes to the middle 40 per cent of the population, and the richest 20 per cent of Danes have only 2.9 times more disposable income than the poorest 20 per cent. In Australia, by contrast, the richest 20 per cent of households have 14 times the income of the poorest 20 per cent.
The highly-taxed Danes devote almost one-third of their GDP to “social transfers” that subsidise things like health and education for low-income families.
This redistribution of wealth has created something close to a nation of middle-income people; it has also created a remarkable degree of social stability.
We don’t have to emulate Denmark, but neither do we have to emulate the US. What we must do, sooner or later, is decide whether we want an egalitarian, broadly middle-class society or not.
And because that’s a decision affecting the wellbeing of millions of Australians, it’s a moral choice at least as much as an economic one.