On Wednesday the Minister for Finance spoke at the Sydney Institute equating personal wealth with success, deploring tax as a ‘culture of envy’. Defending neoliberal economic policy, he belittled public ownership as ‘socialism’ and by inference declared everything to be for sale. Given every civilisation has a finite life I argue the Minister’s philosophy, universally applied, will bring forward the end date of ours. A poll of the ‘centennials’ indicates they expect themselves to be the first generation to ‘enjoy’ a poorer life style than their parents
The address by Matthias Corman to the Sydney Institute deserves debate and conversation for it touches on the very foundations of what it means to live in a sustainable, meaningful, and life giving world. Where are we in the life cycle of western civilisation and will equating wealth with success lengthen or shorten its life?
What does the minister mean by success? ‘Success’ is a value laden word. He appears to equate it with siloing as much material advantage as possible in private barns. In other words, to the Minister the most successful people in society are the people with the most money and who have the capacity through their toys to demonstrate the most glitter.
I strongly beg to differ. Success is meaningless if it is simply associated with wealth. Material wealth must serve well being; often it seems to diminish it. Because ‘success’ is value laden, its context must relate to virtue. The most successful people are those who have faced difficultly and triumphed. Successful people are those whose esteem and sense of worth has grown through the empowerment they have been able to build in others, their family, their community and nation. Successful people are those who have contributed to a harmonious world.
Now, many wealthy people are successful people, but sadly statistics show that the connection between wealth, community building, or virtue cannot be assumed or taken for granted.
Nor indeed can it even be assumed that wealth has contributed to the wellbeing and contentedness of those who have achieved it.
This is the rub Minister, no one in their right mind will envy people with wealth, unless that wealth contributes to common good; nor will those with sense envy wealth if it has not issued in contentedness. If one is to envy anyone, don’t waste the envy, envy those who have achieved a life of contentedness, such a state does not have direct bearing on wealth, indeed, except for those who live in extreme poverty it is statistically more likely that the contented are not particularly wealthy.
Minister, I do not hold a candle for any political party so my criticism of neoliberal economic policy is not motivated by left or right, but by the simple truth that neo-liberal economics, into which capitalism has morphed in recent decades, has failed and is failing society in the same way that communistic socialism failed societies in the past. Communism failed because it diminished individual well being and incentive. Neo-liberal economics fails because it does not value or undergird societal values upon which we all depend.
Any economic or social policy has to be judged on the outcomes it achieves in wellbeing both for individuals and for society as a whole. The chair of the reserve bank put it very neatly when, in describing the neo-liberalism you clearly support, he said of the banks “sales have replaced service’.
The problem with neo-liberal economics is the entirely fallacious assumption that everything is for sale, everything has a monetary value first, and a social value second. This error is compounded by the assumption that regulation in favour of societal good should be wound back, allowing individual greed to triumph. This ideology assumes everything should be privatised and that nothing or at least very little should be held in public trust for somehow this is ‘socialism’.
It is frequently the case that the very wealthy are not wealthy because they produce anything, or because they contribute anything, but they are wealthy because of the assets they control and the political influence they are able to wield. In many cases these assets have been stripped from public ownership.
I am not entirely sure the percentage of wealth that is garnered from the ‘finance industry’ but it is substantial. Wealth that is gained by short selling, by gambling on shares or currency going up or down contributes absolutely nothing to a sustainable civilisation and should be taxed to the hilt.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being wealthy, unless it is ill-gotten. However, what is done with wealth makes it worthy or unworthy, a cause for admiration or a source of pity.
Those who make the greater contribution to the wellbeing of society are often those who are least rewarded materially. The problem with the economic ideology that you espouse is that it appears they are ‘losers’, people who have not really understood the game. Well I think they have. They have understood that ultimately good is only good if it is common. Success that is measured in terms of wealth is extremely fleeting, but worse, siloed into private hands it can cripple the entire human enterprise. Any student of history knows that the accumulation and squandering of wealth is very high on the list of reasons why the human enterprise so often trips itself up and kingdoms fall.
Minister, the applause you gained from your address at the Sydney Institute, from those who share the same mindset as yourself may have given you a warm inner glow, but I challenge you to a public debate, in a place like the Sydney town hall where matters of this gravitas can be flushed out in an open arena; and where ideas that contest your economic ideology cannot be so easily passed off as the undermining of the socialist left. The challenge to your economic ideology comes from the lesson of history that exalting wealth as the chief measure of success leads in equal measure to the collapse of the human enterprise as socialistic communism.