JIM COOMBS. What makes good government?

Feb 10, 2018

Recently in P & I the question has been raised as to how we can get better government – parliamentary reform, more professional public service, changes in economic policy and so on. But it is the answer to the question above which seems to have got lost. 

The present government and, to a large extent, the opposition, operates on one answer to the question. The unfettered pursuit of profit is to be the objective of policy, as this provides (so they say) “jobs and growth”. Just any job, just any “business” ? Is this good ? It seems we all work long hours for much the same money in a more hectic and unsatisfying style of life of mindless consumption of more than we need or really even desire.

In one of my other lives I worked as research assistant to Barry Jones, who was then  backbench Labor MP for Lalor. He was at the time preparing a book entitled “Sleepers Wake !” (note the nod to Bach). It was an attempted popularisation of the concept of “Post-Industrialism” which predicted that, with the then (late 70s) advances in technology, the need for more work and consumption would diminish and we would move to a “leisure society” where the good life would be available to all, the emphasis would be on consumption of services, education, the arts and leisure activities such as sport and travel. The main exponent of this view was an American Daniel Bell, whose prognostications I typed out for insertion into the Great Work. As social prediction it sits alongside Marx’s one of imminent proletarian revolution in 1848. It just did not work out that way. But why?

It was about that time that the neoliberal (whatever that means) economic model became the vogue, and the freeing of business enterprises from all forms of restraint would lead to growth and economic advance. Well, it sort of did. In Western–type economies the majority seem to have a lot more goods at their disposal (albeit distributed less equally) but mostly less time to enjoy their SUVs and flat screen TVs and Netflix.

The buzzword was deregulation. Let the businessmen get on with their job, generating profit from whatever they could sell, from dodgy erectile dysfunction remedies to online sports betting, and no doubt some good stuff, like smart phones (?).

Which lumberingly gets me to my point: Isn’t good government one which promotes the things which are good for the people, and discourages those that are bad? Yet the surprise is palpable when the opposition in Tasmania proposed the banning of pokies if elected in a few months time. Now that is government interference in the market for a social objective. Indeed, surely it is the role of government to regulate, and to promote what it sees as good and to stop or discourage what it thinks isn’t. Governments have prohibited the sale of absinthe, viewing it as poisonous. So a good government would do the nation a favour by restricting the advertising of alcohol in connection with sporting events, as they once did with carcinogenic cigarettes. They would restrict or abolish sports betting on the ground of the damage being done by it. “Nanny State”, I already hear the neolibs cry. Tell that to the families destroyed by unhindered promotion of liquor and gambling. Good government looks after its citizens, and if that means taxing unhealthy products like junk food, dubious “complementary” medicines, quack health schemes, well that is their job, or should be. A good government would aim to reduce pollution, and move to adopt advice that some activities cause climate change and move to phase them out where viable non-polluting alternatives are available. It would even move to save the Barrier Reef, the Murray-Darling and endangered species, notwithstanding that “business”  could do well if they didn’t.

On the other side of the coin (not Bitcoin), good governments should promote by tax advantages activities which improve the health and welfare of the citizens.  Remember when they used to subsidise milk drinking for children, who now grow obese for lack of directive taxation of sugary drinks. The wasteful (and economically dangerous) constant speculation on the stock exchange could be made sane by taxation of repeat transactions within a short period. Activities producing real goods and services should receive favourable tax treatment, frivolous or immoral ones should be taxed heavily. I could go on. Even Mao Tse Tung resiled from ”let a thousand flowers bloom”. To say, if it’s “business” and turns a quid, it must be good, is just plain nonsense and a good government would do its job and govern.

Jim Coombs is an almost retired magistrate and former economist.

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