John Howard rewards excellence: what kind?

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Before the Budget, Mr Howard defended tax cuts for wealthy Australians. He said that excellence should be rewarded, and that the politics of envy should be discouraged. His reference to excellence spoke the language of values. It was also an example of the complexity of values and of the unfortunate use to which the language of values can be put.

Most of us would agree with Mr Howard that excellence is to be valued highly. Those who display it deserve honour, and even reward. But if we ask what kind of excellence wealthy people display, we might make the conversation complicated.

The obvious answer is that they are excellent at making money. This demands high skills, organisational ability and determination. But we may hesitate to attribute excellence to all those who are dogged and successful in making money. Drug bosses and hitmen display great determination and often make a great deal of money. But because they do so in illegal and destructive ways, we would not associate them with excellence. We might hesitate even to attribute excellence to all people who become rich from legal activities: tobacco company executives, for example, who have kept from public knowledge the harmful effects of their product, or share traders whose skill is to make small investors part with their shares well below their market value. Musing further, would we ascribe excellence to people who flaunt their wealth extravagantly or treat their employees abusively?

John HowardIt seems that when we speak of excellence, we inevitably want to include some element of moral nobility. We think that a person of excellence will naturally be an excellent human being. We are correspondingly disappointed when we find people with exceptional skills or good fortune to be miserable specimens of humanity. Excellence is a value when it is morally directed. Only then does it evoke respect.

Should excellence in the making of money be rewarded? If excellence is simply a skill, without any moral component, it could be argued that the wealthy already have received their reward. Tax cuts should then be decided by what is good for all Australians as a whole. If they have excellence in the proper, moral sense of the word, they will want to judge tax cuts in this way. This conversation does not necessarily constitute the politics of envy. Indeed, to argue that people should be rewarded simply on the grounds of wealth, without reference to the wider good of all Australians would seem to be the politics of greed.

Budget 2006-07Nevertheless, the virtue of most of us is tested by greed. We do not ask too many questions when people offer to give us something for nothing. That larceny in the blood perhaps lies at the heart of politicians attributing excellence to those who are good at making money. It is the rhetoric of the Judas Kiss, where the speaker communicates one thing directly in words, but has a less acceptable message for another audience. So, Judas kissed Jesus in greeting. The kiss also indicated to the soldier the person they were to seize. The ambiguity of the kiss gave Judas later deniability.

In politics the Judas Kiss is often used by politicians in a way that claims a moral perspective, but covertly supports attitudes inconsistent with it. For example, ‘I am against racial prejudice, but I can understand people being upset at Muslims moving into the area.’

The All Time Australian 200 Rich ListExcellence is a fertile field for the Judas Kiss. On school brochures, pictures of beautifully dressed, fair headed, blue eyed boys wearing football boots, with a violin under one arm and a computer in the other, illustrate the excellence of which the school mission statement speaks. The hidden message is that this is the kind of company your children will keep at school, and take with them into a prosperous life. The moral content of excellence is stripped in the communication.

The Prime Minister’s message lies in the same field. It speaks of values and honour. But it appeals to the larceny in the blood and to our natural tendency to be interested in wealth for its own sake, independently of how it is made and how it is used for the common good. The message undermines the values.



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There is no reason not to give tax cuts to all people including those at the top end of the scale. After all, these are the people who tend to be the ones investing in growth and job creation.
Stephen | 03 November 2007


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