The questionable good that our public policy serves


Since the beginning of historical records, humans have pursued wealth and the power it affords, but only relatively recently has the world itself become organised around the service of that wealth. The systems and structures which define the way our world works are financial, geared to the making of profit, and they are global, buoyed by governments whose domestic and foreign policies ensure the continued growth and maintenance of what has become the most powerful ‘empire’ of our times.

We have redefined the nature of human wellbeing and the progress of humanity as that which is measured in terms of limitless economic growth, ever-increasing wealth and material prosperity. We make decisions based on what is good for ‘the economy’ as if it was a living thing and not merely a tool intended to serve the needs of people and the planet.

Capital and the market are now the whizzing hub of society and politics. Almost every aspect of life is being commoditised, counted, measured and assessed according to its economic value. The culture of competition on which this global economic empire is built is seeing the small, the weak and the local losing out to the big, strong and global.

Rampant market-driven consumerism, without which the empire would collapse, is privileging the individual, usually known as ‘the consumer’, over the community and the corporation over the nation (witness the impending and secretively negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement which threatens to grant foreign corporations the right to sue governments for policies and laws that adversely affect their profits regardless of the good those laws do for the population or the environment).

Rapacious greed is all too often rewarded (post-GFC bank bailouts spring to mind), policies that promote equity, social justice, human wellbeing and environmental responsibility are discouraged, and we are suffocating ourselves and the planet with an immovable commitment to continual growth fired by fossil fuels.  

This empire is colonising every field of human life and endeavour. Think about how education is now part of the ‘productivity’ agenda in this country and how essential services such as electricity, healthcare, employment services and prisons are delivered for profit.

All of this is happening in the name of a ‘healthy economy’ and the values that lie beneath this particular version of ‘the economy’, the values of neoliberalism—greed, individualism, materialism, competition and consumerism—remain mostly hidden and unspoken.

The power of the neoliberal agenda lies in a few prevailing mythologies (created and perpetuated by those with power – the ‘winners’) that have captured (imprisoned) our imaginations. One is that everyone will benefit – eventually. Another is that our economic system is values-neutral – it’s just what works; it is the only possible way.

The Jesuit public theologian, David Hollenbach, wrote in his book The Global Face of Public Faith that “public policy should reflect the cultural consensus about the social good”. This is what the ‘public interest’ is – that which promotes the long-term wellbeing of people and the planet that we depend on.

In a context where ‘social good’ or the ‘common good’ is assumed to be economic neoliberalism, what’s in the ‘public interest’ becomes whatever advances the neoliberal economic agenda. And for the powerful servants of neoliberalism it becomes a most useful piece of rhetoric – one cannot argue with a policy which is in the ‘public interest’.

Policy reforms which arise from a different set of values—equity, justice, generosity, cooperation, community, compassion, empathy—and respect for the environment and the dignity of every person, are derided as ‘idealistic’, ‘soft’, ‘ignorant’ and ‘socialist’ (and we all know how that turned out!). They are often described as being the outcome of sectoral or minority concerns and therefore not in ‘the public interest’.  

The concerns of groups and individuals who are marginalised in society, who struggle to be seen let alone have their voices heard, are exactly those we must listen to if we are truly interested in policy reform in the public interest. It is only by allowing ourselves to be confronted by those who suffer as a result of the way things are, that we will understand what truly is in the public interest. For the values of neoliberalism do not serve the wellbeing of our societies. They promote inequity, breed isolation and fracture social cohesion.

The public interest, on the other hand, when well served, will promote a decent society, where people care about each other, celebrate diversity and welcome strangers. A commitment to the public interest will see us working together to nurture a vibrant and robust democracy in which all can participate. We will not be swayed by fear to support policies that punish, harm or exclude. We won’t allow the planet and all the life it supports, including future generations, to be jeopardised by our short-term greed. We’ll care about how all people experience life everyday – those who are homeless, living with a disability or a mental illness or intergenerational disadvantage. We’ll care about the effects on individuals, families and communities of domestic violence or the violence of colonialism and dispossession. We’ll be committed to ensuring that all people can flourish regardless of any of these things. And we’ll demand of our politicians leadership that inspires us to be open, generous, creative and bold and that delivers public policy that consistently and genuinely serves the public interest, for the good of us all and the future of the planet.

Rev. Elenie Poulos is the National Director of UnitingJustice Australia, the justice policy and advocacy unit of the Uniting Church in Australia's national council, the Assembly. This article first appeared in a collection of essays published by the not for profit research company Australia21.

Topic tags: Elenie Poulos, common good, neoliberalism, politics, economics, social justice



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Existing comments

"This is what the ‘public interest’ is – that which promotes the long-term wellbeing of people and the planet that we depend on". Yes, indeed, and I'd argue that it's also a good definition of 'natural law' which underlies Catholic/Christian moral teaching. Elenie is right - 'the Economy' isn't the ultimate good, neither is Natural Law. Both are at the service of the flourishing of good human communities, as she describes. We need to keep the End in sight....

Joan Seymour | 07 April 2015  

This we have allowed by stealth, thinking and believing the rhetoric told to us by the leaders we trust. We begin to believe that we will be a put of this rich new society. But before too long we too are tossed aside as not having enough or not good enough. Then we realise we let this happen and we don't know how to stop it.

Margaret Andrews | 09 April 2015  

Great piece and thanks for it. When the "fundamentals", the bases of our policies are so false and skewed and those with vested interests have such power to keep pushing their private interests it is great to have a summary of what is rotten at the heart of our for want of a better word, "civilization".

Michael D. Breen | 11 April 2015  

Any society which is based on purely materialistic assumptions is bound to fail its citizens in just about every important aspect because it has no real inner direction. Traditional Christian and other religious societies, with all their (sometimes considerable) faults valued human beings as such. Society exists to nurture humanity and to exercise wise stewardship over natural resources. Small institutions, such as the original Co-operative Movement and the Grameen Bank with its microfinance approach can begin to change the world.

Edward Fido | 14 April 2015  


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