SOCIETY: by Lucy SullivanNews Weekly
Five flawed ideas inflicting untold damage on Australia
, August 31, 2013
The five ideas examined here were not new in themselves, but were given a novel breadth in post-World War II Australia (and elsewhere in the Western world), when the distinction between personal and domestic application, as contrasted with public and social, was obliterated.
This resulted in inappropriate and harmful innovations in conceptions of the tasks of government. The adoption of these ideas into public policy began in the 1970s and was maintained into the 1990s while Labor held office, and 11 years of Liberal-National Party government did little to relax their hegemonic grip.
In the Left’s “long march” through both the public mind and society’s institutions, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, the natural conditions of the private and domestic sphere, were, as in the French Revolution, transferred as ideals to the public sphere.
In France, they produced a welter of chaos and violence, “the Terror”, which we have long known is the aftermath of all radical revolutions, whether aspiring to “the universal brotherhood of man” or frankly dictatorial. In Australia, thanks to our entrenched democracy, they merely diminished the effectiveness of government on a wide front, and encouraged individual rapaciousness.
The old, received model of government’s role in social affairs — the outcome of trial and error and preserving what works — is that of evolution. However, that model, once precipitately overthrown, is, as Edmund Burke warned at the time of the French Revolution, not easily reinstated. In Australia of recent times, attempts at recovery continue to be undermined by the ideological cohesiveness of left-wing social and political theory.
Five key left-wing ideas pretend that the liberty, equality and fraternity that are natural to the private sphere are suitable for ordering society in the public sphere as well. Once put into practice, they have marred Australia.
1) Bureaucracy is the enemy of a free society.
In reality, bureaucracy’s function is the protection of equality before the law. This formalisation is not needed in the face-to-face conditions of private life, where undue self-interest and exploitation are largely kept under control by family sentiment and influence; but administrative and regulatory systems are needed in the public sphere to ensure as close as possible an approach to fairness in the implementation of government.
The vituperation of bureaucracy in the 1970s weakened its ability to do its job. People then felt justified in challenging the rules and disrupting their implementation to obtain personal advantage, and public servants were obliged to lend a tender ear. Thus its efficiency was reduced and Australia became a poorly governed and less fair society.
2) “Compassion” should be unconditional in bureaucratic and legal dispensations.
The Christian ethic of love and forgiveness was in the 1960s embodied in the psychiatric profession’s declaration of the infant’s need for unconditional love, and then applied to troubled adults as well. It was further developed as the principle of “non-judgmentalism”. From thereon it became a fault to openly condemn or criticise anyone’s behaviour as wrong, in error or in need of correction or punishment.
This cleared the way for compassion’s entry into public sphere ethics. When extrapolated from the private to the public sphere, it amounted to an infantalising of society. To expect adults to bear the costs of their personal follies or criminal offences was now said to be lacking in compassion.
The importation of compassion and non-judgmentalism into the public sphere undermined our civil and criminal justice systems, our welfare system and our immigration laws. It made a rational bureaucratic system, that acknowledges rights and responsibilities in equal measure, impossible. Compassion was invoked to protect thieves, vandals, thugs and murderers from justice (i.e., from commensurate punishment), and the profligate from sanctions on their access to state assistance.
In schools, it filleted the only real alternatives to physical punishment for controlling and shaping behaviour: disapproval, reprimand and humiliation.
3) Equality means uniformity of social position.
Equality of citizenship and equality before the law are proper to our shared humanity, but, when transferred from a political to an occupational context, the notion of equality encounters the intransigence of individual differences in personality and abilities. Adopting this criterion requires the denial of variation in individual talents, capacities and preferences, and a refusal to acknowledge their obvious dovetailing with the functioning character of the society within which they subsist.
The pursuit of this ideal required that all children should receive the same level of education; that is, that there should be 100 per cent retention through to the end of secondary education and, ideally, of tertiary. The fact that fewer children from less formally educated/lower socio-economic families (but still significant numbers) completed secondary education was, and still is, cited as evidence of class inequality rather than simply a reflection of differences in abilities and interests.
A hundred years of free and compulsory primary education and free secondary education with family subsidies was bound to have had an assortative impact on life-course patterns, with this a predictable outcome.
Generous welfare payments to lower-income families whose children remained at school beyond the compulsory level were introduced, and the goal of close to 100 per cent retention was rapidly achieved in a context of high youth unemployment. The result, predictably, was not to bring all children to an equal educational level, but the creation of lower-level courses suited to the abilities of less academic pupils.
To maintain the illusion that this policy had been successful, technical colleges were re-named universities. Now everyone who stayed the tertiary course could be awarded a degree and, over time, as the two levels existed shoulder to shoulder without distinguishing entry standards, the result was lower tertiary educational levels too.
In the employment field, considerable effort was put into what was called equal employment opportunity (EEO), which under the influence of the same dogma sought to achieve equal proportions from all social categories in all categories of employment. It distorted selection procedures in the public services, and destroyed ties of loyalty between employer and employee as prior service now officially counted for nothing.
Thus goals were set for equality of individuals in the public sphere that can only sensibly exist for political rights — the equality before the law and under the bureaucracy that ensures freedom of individual enterprise — and an onus was placed on government to ensure social elevation of the individual independently of his or her abilities and effort.
Given that we need both doctors and cooks, both nursery teachers and heavy machinery operators, and the individual who is competent in and enjoys the one is unlikely to be equally competent at and enjoying of the other, this is clearly flying in the face of reality.
The concept of social equality that lies behind these approaches can only reasonably be equality of income and equality of esteem for all occupations. The former could, if the will were there, be achieved by legislation, but has never been seriously attempted. The latter is more widespread in society for any job well done than is given credit by the political Left, whose discourse makes it clear they themselves do not hold with it.
The abortive outcome of these ideas in practice clearly demonstrates the absurdities that arise, and the spanner thrown into the machinery of society, when the distinctive properties of public and private sphere ethics are ignored in public policy.
4) Social injustice is responsible for all personal failures, faults and follies.
“Social injustice” became a mantra in the engine of left-wing social policy-making in the 1980s and into the 1990s. As it became clear that occupational equality was not being achieved by these educational and EEO initiatives, “social injustice”, a term without any real denotative meaning, was coined.
The invention in the early 1960s of a statistical, rather than a cost-of-living, “poverty line”, calculated as a percentage of average weekly incomes, became its economic underpinning. Welfare incomes were progressively raised to whatever was the current calculation, tempting more and more of the employed, whose incomes were now identical with welfare incomes, into dependency.
Despite much raised welfare incomes in real terms, the percentage of Australians deemed “living in poverty” rose persistently throughout the 1980s. The reason was, of course, that with so many on welfare, whenever welfare incomes were increased, the poverty line also rose, putting pensions below it once again.
Thankfully, sometime in the 1990s, this measure was quietly discarded, and we no longer hear of the 20 per cent of the population “living in poverty” on incomes equal to average weekly earnings (AWE). “Relative poverty”, in a tautology more cultural that economic, became the social injustice that demanded compassion for and non-punishment of underclass criminal offenders.
The social justice project proved in fact to be a recipe for the production of an underclass. The injustice of taxing working families at a level that forced mothers into the paid workforce, in order to fund equal incomes for the often voluntarily unemployed, went unremarked as a social justice issue.
5) Rights, not laws, are the criterion of justice.
Law is, of course, the matter of rights under another name. The problem with rights outside a system of law is that they are often conflicting. An accepted tradition of common law provides a poultice for this inevitable condition of social life, a sorting out of how the distribution of conflicting rights should lie. While not delivering the impossibility that is pure justice, it at least provides guidance on how to act in cases of dispute, and predictability of legal outcomes on the basis of past judgments.
In a misconceived apeing of nations whose laws have been constructed anew in terms of rights after convulsions that destroyed their legal traditions, rights were legislated as a palimpsest on our long tradition of common law, obscuring the evolved wisdom of how to resolve these conflicts. The new emphasis on rights, in a vacuum, produced a culture of endemic litigation and of festering dissatisfaction with outcomes in which the individual’s self-interested expectations of his/her rights were not realised.
This change of emphasis from law to rights was facilitated by idea number 3, as rights detached from the principle of political equality and attached to private-sphere conceptions of individual fulfilment and personal satisfaction, which society was now expected to find the means to secure.
Rights are now pursued regardless of their implications for the similar rights of others. Thus our culture has been invaded by radical new measures, such as the right to a child, the right to same-sex marriage and, expensively, the right to monetary compensation for the minor unpredictable and unavoidable misfortunes of life’s course.
Of these disruptive ideas, “compassion” and “rights” have proved most durably invasive, and continue to hinder recovery from the other three. Unconditional compassion is not a suitable ethic for an adult society; rights are a poor substitute for a tradition of common law; and a stumbling bureaucracy has grown hydra-headed, reaching ever further into our private lives in an attempt to impose fantasy versions of “equality” and “social justice”.
The wider picture is of government taking over the work of the family — as in its presumption of interfering between parent and child and, in doing so, disrupting the functioning of the family while incapable of providing a functional alternative.
Dr Lucy Sullivan’s recent book, False Promises: Sixties Philosophy Against the Church (available from News Weekly Books), describes in more discursive fashion the development of policies deriving from these ideas and the claims made for them across the period of the 1970s to the 1990s.