A mixture of horror, dismay and disappointment amongst my right-wing Facebook friends greeted Tony Abbott’s UK Diary column in this week’s “Spectator”, in which The Once And The Future Prime Minister (just kidding, his name would have to be Arthur for that to be true) praises the very same sentiments that recently dis-May-ed (sorry) my right-wing Facebook friends in Great Britain:
Bill Clinton was lionised for the dictum it’s ‘the economy, stupid’ but being all-about-economics has done little good for any centre right leader. Now, Theresa May is saying, in effect: ‘society, stupid’. A budget surplus is important but it’s not an end in itself. A strong economy is vital but we live in a community not an economy. May’s speech last week to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham would be a must-watch if it were shorter but it’s certainly a must-read. Conservatives must avoid the ‘extremes of socialism and libertarianism’, she declared. It’s important to have worker directors of companies, she said, because all of us contribute to their success. Of course, this 21st century version of Randolph Churchill’s Tory Democracy and Disraeli’s One Nation Conservatism is easier to invoke than to implement. Still, my sense is that this could be a light bulb moment for the global centre-right.
I’m giving you Abbott’s key paragraphs in a reverse order because I think they logically flow better that way:
Britain’s new PM is not the first mainstream centre-right politician to wrestle with this pervasive mood that ‘I’m doing it tough and no one is on my side’ but I think she might be closer to a sensible response than anyone else. In Australia, as in Britain, government spending is too high. Government’s operations are wasteful. Everyone knows that Woolies and Coles are more efficient than Centrelink but most people feel that they have more of a say over government than they do over big business. Only political leaders of the left can safely embrace markets because it confuses their opponents and because they can credibly say that they won’t allow too much of a good thing. Maybe – just maybe – it’s time for the sensible right to abandon the Reaganite doctrine that government-is-the-problem-not-the-solution and to start really believing in the good that government can do. Perhaps vulnerable voters will only accept the need to take more responsibility for their own lives when they’re sure that government is still there for them if it doesn’t work.
So Tony – not for the first time either – came out as a government-friendly kind of a conservative. I was only surprised that everyone seemed surprised. Firstly, because the “government is the problem, not the solution” strain of political thinking has been a significant phenomenon pretty much only in America, where this sort of libertarianism has found a fertile soil for a variety of unique historical and cultural reasons. It has been virtually non-existent throughout the continental Europe, and very much a minority view throughout the rest of the Anglosphere, even on the right side of politics. It seems an even more of a fringe position now, at the time of the Trump phenomenon in the United States and the rise of populism elsewhere. Secondly, Tony Abbott has always been that kind of a guy. Not for nothing did Peter Costello always see him as a DLPer rather than a Liberal.
I will always be a small government right-winger because somebody has to be. Also, I don’t mind holding unpopular or losing views – again, this flag has to be continually waved so that people know that there are alternative views to their current cherished orthodoxies, even if they disagree with these alternative views. Tony – and Theresa May, and Donald Trump – are free to think and say whatever they want; they can wave their own flags.
There is no doubt that the concept of a large and activist government is immensely popular throughout the world, including the developed world. I don’t agree with that view, but I can understand it.
The government-is-the-solution-not-the-problem view has everything going for it – except honesty.
Most people would like their government to be doing a lot of things for them and for their community. But no one actually wants to pay for it. There is an expectation that someone else – perhaps the ubiquitous “rich” or the equally ubiquitous “big corporations” – should foot the bill for the Big Government being caring and sharing. What people don’t seem to realise is that their government is now so big that even if you made all the wealthy individual and corporate tax evaders pay (as it should be done), even if you made them pay more – “their fair share” – hell, even if you actually expropriated, communist-style, all the wealth of the “1%” and the Forbes 500 or BRW 200, it would be just a drop in the ocean. Our appetites and expectations vastly outstrip our resources.
I would have a lot more respect for the Big Government people – even if I still didn’t agree with them – if they could actually properly finance their Leviathan. I want some honest socialists and social democrats, or honest populists and Abbott/May conservatives, to stand up and tell the voters: all the stuff you want – new roads and infrastructure, free education and health care, child care, pensions, welfare support, clean energy, etc. etc. etc. – will require us to take 70 per cent of your income and that of companies to properly implement. If both the politicians and the voters would put their money where their mouth is I might hate the outcome but I would respect the process.
But neither the politicians nor the voters have the guts to do what’s right and necessary to implement their dream vision. And so everyone passes the buck, and the most popular way to pass that buck is to pass it to the future generations by borrowing stacks of money to pay for what the government and the voters want but are unwilling to pay themselves. This is the intellectually and morally bankrupt reality throughout the world, and particularly throughout the developed world.
According to the figures released by the International Monetary Fund a few days ago, the total global debt is now the highest it has ever been, at $152 trillion, or 225 per cent of the world GDP. Most of that debt is private, but somewhere between one-third and a half is public. This is what Big Government looks like. Private debt, whether incurred by individuals or businesses, goes largely to finance investment; government debt, no matter how much the spin doctors nowadays tout every public largess to be an investment, goes largely to finance recurrent expenditure – not to build better roads but to pay for health care, welfare and other entitlements. Abbott acknowledges that government spending is now too high and often wasteful. But people want more of the “good government”, so you can’t actually cut anything. And there are always more expectations and more needs.
Maybe, as Tony Abbott says, the governments are the solution and can do good. But until such time the governments – and the people who elect them – can fully pay for all these solutions and all that good, the whole system is a sham, a dishonest and immoral sleight of hand built on a lie that everyone can have their cake and eat it too – forever – even if all you have are two eggs and a spoonful of flour. The “sensible right” can have it all; I’ll just get off at the “Insensible” stop and walk home.
Arthur Chrenkoff blogs at The Daily Chrenk where this piece also appears