Move over Lance Armstrong, the Budget is coming


Lance ArmstrongBy the time the Federal Budget comes around most readers have switched off. But the process and the ideas that have framed this coming budget deserve cool reflection.

The Government's preparation for the Budget has highlighted the need — confected or otherwise — to address the deficit, and so for the whole community to make sacrifices for the national good. It has defined the good of the nation in purely economic terms. Its underlying assumption is that economic health, and so the common good, is furthered by strengthening competition between individuals in a free market.

The difficulty with this assumption is that heightened competitiveness does not foster interest in the common or national good but creates a narrower focus on the interests of the individual or group. In the process it subverts competition itself. The use of drugs in cycling or in football illustrates the point. Doing what it takes meant taking competition out of the game by sidelining the competitors and excluding them from the possibility of winning.

This paradox can be seen in the making of the Budget. The Government certainly faces a difficulty in financing its contribution to the national good over the longer term. It needs to address the deficit. But this problem does not come directly from the rise in expenditure but from the fall in revenue. That shortfall should have been looked at by consulting how to care for the needs of the community, especially the most disadvantaged, and in that context by asking how appropriately to increase revenue and cut costs. That would be the cooperative way.

Instead it worked competitively. It turned it into a competition between the better off and the disadvantaged and proceeded to rig the competition. It appointed a Committee of Audit which didn't include anyone to represent the social needs of the community. All its members shared the view that economic growth demanded a reduction in the financial commitments of government. The committee predictably focused on cutting expenditure. This established a competition between winners and losers.

That the poorer members of society would lose was made likely by the composition and brief of the committee. It was made certain when the subsidies given the wealthy through negative gearing on property and through superannuation were protected. Savings then had to be made by reducing programs and services available to the less wealthy.

So it is predictable that in the Budget the financial burden will fall on the unemployed, on the ill without private insurance, on education and on those most disconnected from society. The result will be to protect the wealth of those better off and to isolate those worse off. The cult of competitiveness had led to a rigged competition in which the national interest will not be served.

Governments and the parties they represent, of course, will promise that they stand above competition and so can be trusted to ensure that the common good is protected. But in political life, too, competitiveness reigns. It leads individuals and parties to seek their own good at the expense of the common good.

The New South Wales Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC) has shown the length to which politicians and parties will go to fund their parties and to win government. Their readiness to do whatever it takes has led them to conspire with developers and other corporate figures for their mutual advantage.

Highly competitive donors certainly considered that their donation would give them an edge in gaining government licenses and contracts. Here, too, unbridled competiveness destroyed competition as well as placing individual gain above a principled care for the common good and the environment. Move over Lance Armstrong.

It would be a brave call to argue that the sordidness of public life revealed by ICAC is characteristic only of New South Wales. It seems more likely to reflect the absence at Federal level and in the other states of effective and independent commissions of corruption, and to the lack of legislation to ban politicians and political parties from receiving donations from people who stand to gain from their decisions, and from charging for access.

Whatever of this, few Australians now regard politicians of major parties as credible defendants of the common good. Their competitiveness is seen to place the gain to their party or themselves before the national good. Nor does it inspire hope that their budgets will be fair.

The view that that the economy should serve the whole community, especially its most disadvantaged, and that people who enter public life should be inspired by the desire to serve the community and not to advantage themselves or their parties certainly sounds very old-fashioned. That is not how things are done now.

But when we look at the results of fashionable competitiveness even old-fashioned cooperation looks good.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, work safety, Korea, MH370



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Existing comments

Thank you Andrew. Your article applies some of the thinking of Pope Francis as presented in EVANGELII GAUDIUM. 203. The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies. . . . Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all. 204. We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.

John Francis Collins | 08 May 2014  

A thoughtful article Andrew , the trouble is that those who are less able to care for themselves are always the loosers in a competitive sphere, and the winners increase and continue to increase their winning margin. One last thought ,an old cliché, " No matter who you vote for you always get a politician."

David | 08 May 2014  

This article is truly prophetic, Andrew, in the sense that it does not just critique the Commission of Audit; the political class or the way that Australian politics operates today but points forward to the likely consequences of where this is all leading: a much bleaker and more inegalitarian Australian society more reminiscent of the 18th and 19th Centuries here than the 20th. This sort of society would be an unmitigated disaster. I think we need to rediscover a sort of inclusive national identity which sees sensible and necessary social welfare as a must for nurturing a decent society. We already lag behind the Scandinavian and other progressive European countries in this regard. Of course we need to balance the budget and live within our means but not by applying "reverse Robin Hood" strategies. We need to focus on assisting and nurturing families because they are where most people are nurtured and learn to be contributing members of society. Some proposed economic policies will, I fear, lead to more family poverty and breakdown with all the consequent social ills. If you want to see where the current Coalition politic thinking and action are leading you only need to have a good look at the USA. I would hate to be poor and without medical insurance there.

Edward Fido | 08 May 2014  

“heightened competitiveness does not foster interest in the common or national good but creates a narrower focus on the interests of the individual or group. In the process it subverts competition itself.” I’m not sure if this is the case. What seems to increase temptations to cheat in situations of heightened competition is not heightened competitiveness itself, but the increased allure of the goal which also incidentally gives rise to the heightened competitiveness. Suppose Lance Armstrong is challenged to compete a course by himself within a set time, with the offer of a million dollars in prize money if successful. This is not a competition. But would he be tempted to cheat to achieve the target if it were difficult to achieve otherwise? Arguably yes. Suppose now the prize money is lifted to two million. (Again, not a competition, so no “increased competitiveness” here.) But would he be tempted more? Arguably yes, again. Human nature being what it is, in situations when the material goal is made more attractive, temptations to attain it by immoral means increase. This applies in all walks of life, not just, or especially, in situations of competition.

HH | 08 May 2014  

Politicians as defendants? Maybe.

Michael Duck | 08 May 2014  

HH - "Human nature being what it is..." It would be a tyro's mistake in basic logic to presume that your understanding of what 'human nature' is coextensive with the understanding of everyone else. Your case rests on this presumption.

David Timbs | 08 May 2014  

DT I don't think the veracity of my point depends on the presumption that my understanding of human nature is the same as that of everyone else. After all, everyone else could be wrong at this point. I think it depends rather on the presumption that my understanding of human nature is correct, which of course, human nature being what it is (as someone famously said recently) may not turn out to be true. And the same could be said for Fr H and his thesis, as I understand it.

HH | 08 May 2014  

HH. What a strange argument. In the case you present Armstrong is competing against the clock. The clock is set by another. He is competing against the clock setter. You do not need to ride next to each other to compete. You appear to want to exploit the effects of Original Sin rather than co operating with God in overcoming it. Human nature is open to both needs and values. Not all needs are consistent with the dictates of the gospel. With the grace of God some stand ready to be transformed. This is what conversion is. Human nature is fallen. It is not however totally corrupt. Simply to say "human nature being what it is" is to banish the whole Gospel project to the realm of the Sanctuary. Jesus did not just observe the money changers exploiting the religious system in the temple and say "human nature being what it is". Jesus called it for what it was; exploitation. The strong, in terms of connections and location, exploiting the weak in terms of those wishing to enter the temple. Andrew Hamilton is a messenger of the gospel. You appear to accept fallen human nature as it is.

John Francis Collins | 08 May 2014  

The economic realism we are being asked to embrace is, I think, economic brutalism. Those who penned and are poised to put into practice these new government initiatives should remember Gordon Gekko and his "greed is good" credo. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone quoted that credo in 2009 when addressing the Italian Senate and speaking of the 2007-2008 financial crisis saying that the "free market" had been replaced by the "greed market". Greed and crass materialism seem to have taken over all aspects of our lives: even sport. Lance Armstrong, I suspect, wanted to win because of the incredible financial rewards involved in winning including sponsorship. Sport is now big business. I think materialism is something which has penetrated to some people's very cores. Even in Christianity you have the rise of Prosperity Theology in certain churches. To go against this mendacious prevailing materialism you go against the big battalions. Paradoxically, the only worthwhile long term civilisations seem to have been based on the belief that something more than economics shapes our ends and that we are all part of the one society. We need to rediscover this spiritual perspective urgently. Articles like this help to move people in the right direction. They are much needed.

Edward Fido | 08 May 2014  

HH's understanding of "human nature" seems to be more in line with the Protestant credo of saving the "wretch" in the hymn Amazing Grace, rather than the Catholic idea of saving the inherently good "soul".

AURELIUS | 09 May 2014  

JFC, thanks, but my position is not wacko. Competition (cum/com + petere) in the central case occurs when two or more rivals under specified rules strive to emerge as superior in a particular discipline. So the clock setter is certainly not a central case competitor: if Armstrong fails to make the set time, the clock setter is not thereby deemed to be a superior cyclist to Armstrong. Nor, a fortiori, can an inanimate object be deemed a central case “competitor”. I therefore repeat: Armstrong in my scenario is facing a challenge, not a competition. Beyond that, and notwithstanding our differences, nothing I or Fr H wrote here, even if one or both of us is very wrong, is remotely incompatible with official Catholic doctrine, unless one insists on the most wildly improbable and uncharitable interpretations. I'm loath to use the expression, but: 'Chill out!' … even for hopelessly rigid traddies like me, there’s a bit of room to move in the Catholic theological playground. Beyond even that, I believe my anthropological thesis as expressed above stands as yet unrefuted. But, “human nature, … blah blah blah”, that may not last. C’est la vie! Cheers.

Name | 09 May 2014  

Excellent article, well written and well put.

JK | 10 May 2014  

What a great analysis of the problems at the heart of this week's budget and the accompanying rhetoric. I have looked for someone - perhaps the Labor Party ??? - to challenge the myths and the process in the name of social capital and equity. This analysis goes way beyond that. Thank you Andrew Hamilton.

Marie Dunn | 13 May 2014  

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