Human survival and wellbeing must become the ethical basis of all government.
In March this year an Australian initiative, the Commission for the Human Future (CHF), identified ten inter-related (‘systemic’) catastrophic risks which face human civilization: decline of key natural resources, especially water; collapse of ecosystems that support life, and the mass extinction of species; human population demand beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity; global warming, sea level rise and changes in climate affecting all human activity; universal pollution and all life by chemicals; rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality; weapons of mass destruction; pandemics of untreatable disease; advent of uncontrolled technologies; and a global failure to act preventively on these risks. The CHF’s Surviving and Thriving in the 21stCenturyargues that ‘human survival and wellbeing’ must become the ethical basis of all government.
The Commission is rediscovering the rationale that the philosopher Thomas Hobbes offered in the seventeenth century for the state as the sovereign public authority. Hobbes considered the fundamental question: do we want our lives to be shaped by a private struggle for survival that degenerates into the war of all against all? Or are we willing to accept a civil and public order that enables us to enjoy peace, personal security, and successful management of our collective challenges?
The Commission has emphasised the crucial role of government at a time when we may be readier to understand this than of late. Perhaps the most interesting (and reassuring) aspect of the COVID-19 crisis is that it has provoked a reassertion of the centrality of government for social and personal security. With some exceptions (Trump in the USA, Bolsanaro in Brazil) most governments around the world have not hesitated to prioritise the health of their citizens over the demands of the global market economy.
They have understood that their first obligation is to secure their national populations rather than enable private capital to continue business as usual. With this understanding has come deference to health experts who have guided policy responses to the pandemic and cross-partisan suspension of hostilities in favour of political unity in the face of national crisis. We have discovered politicians can eschew the shrill tonality of ideological point-scoring and adopt a civil and measured public pedagogy. Our politicians, we realise, can actually govern.
We had reason to expect otherwise. For many years the conduct of our politicians has been designed to ‘wedge’ opponents and play to the 24-hour news cycle. Public policy has been caught in a vicious circle:
- Politicians privilege their political advisers, whose role is to protect them in the competition for electoral power, over advice from non-partisan professionals in public office;
- The independence of the public service has been undermined by the politicisation of policy;
- The capacity of the public service has been reduced by ongoing cutbacks and the contracting out of government work to private agencies; and
- The neoliberal conception of government as a partner of private corporations has made it seem arbitrary to suggest that public policy is something different from what it is that these corporations want government to do. The degradation, if not the outright corruption, of public office over the last thirty years resides in the substitution of private interest for public interest.
In ‘the recovery’ of ‘the economy’ from the ravages of the current pandemic, governments will be more interventionist than at any time in the last thirty years. Whether to shore up essential services, boost the power of Treasury, increase public investment in infrastructure, continue controls on international travel, or (re)develop a national manufacturing sector, for the foreseeable future governments will be both more activist and more focused on the economic security of the nation.
Does this mean that the neoliberal model of government is at long last dead? Not necessarily. In 1944, Karl Polanyi pointed out that the so-called self-regulating market economy is actually a set of institutions, practices, and ways of thinking instituted by means of the authority and power of the state. The Austrian school of Ordo-liberalism openly espoused a type of capitalist constitutionalism that they opposed to the social democratic one.
For Ordoliberals, the role of the state is to provide the institutional framework for the market economy and the property rights that it instantiates. In Australia competition policy is a good example of this ‘institutional design’ approach. So, as we anticipate new forms of government activism, the key question to ask is: will it develop a ‘mixed’ economy where the public interest guides state intervention, or does it aim only to put hyper-capitalism back on its feet?
To be sure, any constraints placed on the global market to secure the health of national populations works against the grain of the neoliberal institutional design. As Quinn Slobodian in his recent book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism(2018) has shown, globalism is an approach that protects private capital rights from national-democratic governments. The global market economy is intendedto trump democracy. It is this institutional design approach that underpins the ‘open for business’ rhetoric of the neoliberal mode of government. In espouses a contemporary form of Social Darwinism. Those who successfully compete on the global market are legitimate winners compared to those who cannot (or refuse to).
As we can see from the object lesson of Trump’s America, when property right is accorded priority over personal security in the context of a global pandemic, personal security is jettisoned. Trump’s rhetoric is pitched against both democratic government and the ethics of public office. What has been remarkable about the Australian Coalition Government’s response to the pandemic has been its prioritising of personal security over property rights. This is how it has rediscovered what good government means. Yet will the government revert to type when getting the economy going again as the pandemic subsides? There are signs it is prepared to go on fighting the same old culture wars: to promote fossil fuel industries, increase the leverage of employers in relation to employees in industrial awards, and compromise the entitlements of Australian workers to superannuation.
We know now that political parties in Australia can govern for the public interest when they must. It is vital that we demand they continue to do so and step up ourselves to contribute to the renewal of good government.
Anna Yeatman, FASSA, is an emeritus professor in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University. Her prior appointment was as a professorial research fellow in the Whitlam Institute at Western Sydney University.