Australia chases America’s decline
Have you noticed how the term “alarmist” only ever gets applied to climate science, and never economics? Make persistent, incorrect claims about fiscal apocalypse, and that’s just prudential. Government debt? The road to Greece. Reforming negative gearing? The road to Cuba. Not long ago Dan Tehan compared Bill Shorten to Fidel Castro, and Mathias Cormann said Labor’s policies reminded him of communist East Germany, as though a return to Howard-era tax rates was putting up the Berlin Wall. It’s the Bronwyn Bishop mode of political discourse, where everything is socialism (except a quarter-million-dollar taxpayer-funded yearly pension).
This “reds under the bed” rhetorical excess doesn’t just come from another time, but from another place, specifically America, which has been the lodestar for Australian conservatism for the past generation. A visit to the United States, especially to a Washington think tank or foreign relations spook-fest, has been an antipodean right-wing rite of passage for years now. It comes with a kind of yokel’s epiphany, where the industry, energy and entrepreneurialism of the US proves irresistible. Everyone from Nick Cater to Alexander Downer to David Leyonhjelm has looked to the American model of limited government for inspiration, especially in industrial relations.
Some have even become permanent fixtures states-side. The former Ashfield councillor Nick Adams, best known in inner-west Sydney for his plan to eliminate the area’s pigeons, is now a Fox News commentator and secular evangelist for this vision. “American success – by design, not accident – is the most significant refutation of leftist ideals…” he wrote. “The people of America have been the most enterprising, market-oriented, individualistic and averse to taxation and regulation that have ever walked the earth.” There, with the grace of God, goes Australia. This was always a hard sell – Christopher Pyne doomed his higher education reforms in a single sentence when he said “we have much to learn” from our “friends in the United States”. But more than that, the current condition of America acts not as an inspiration, but as a warning.
Visit the US, and you will find not a thrusting republic in its pomp, but a society sinking dangerously close to Second World status, right down to the strong-man leader. Even on the fringes of major cities it’s hard to miss the pockmarked roads and withering bridges, the post offices that feel somehow Soviet operating as de facto homeless shelters. In some states, working people are paid so poorly their own employers organise food-drives for them. The average net worth of a black family in Boston? It’s $8.
“The eagle is soaring,” foreign affairs journalist Greg Sheridan wrote in 2003, in one of his purplest passages. “The bald eagle of American power is aloft, high above the humble earth, and everything it sees is splendid.” Now the eagle is barely hanging onto its perch. You might think this de-soaring would provoke some quietude, or at least acknowledgement that building schools in Kabul instead of Kansas hasn’t turned out very well. Instead, Australian conservatives are doubling down, slating the yawning inequalities and teetering infrastructure to the usual suspects: Obama, regulation, taxes. These clichés have become the litany of a suicide cult.
There is even an attempt to rebrand this failure as a success. “Trump is about to build America a grand future,” Grace Collier wrote in The Australian, “and we are about to have our future come crashing down around our heads.” According to John Roskam of the Institute of Public Affairs, record low faith in government means “the libertarian moment might be at hand sooner than we think”. This is an outfit that has done more than any other to try to introduce American-style “market reforms” domestically, and it still believes not only that the poison is the cure, but that it tastes delicious, too.
In private, Australian libertarians and classical liberals complain that America is not really a free market at all, but an access market, beholden to lobbyists. Anyone used to dealing with doctrinaire state socialists will recognise that style of “no true Scotsman” fallacy – “if only the real thing had been tried!” – and it’s true the system is corrupted. But libertarians are not working for anti-trust regulators, they’re working against those regulators, for think tanks and lobbying arms and anti-red-tape Republicans. “The game is rigged,” they say, then get a job as a carnie on sideshow alley.
Doing so, they create incentives that are not just perverse, but depraved. The US federal government, for example, does not allow the use of pre-fill tax returns. This is a perplexing decision – pre-filling is a virtually costless efficiency that would save billions of dollars and millions of hours a year. But for trivial lobbying sums, tax software companies pay congress members to block the introduction of this technological gimme, and enlist anti-tax conservatives to the cause as well. “The idea that one of the benefits is to reduce the psychic cost of tax filing,” said the notorious anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, “reminds me of the argument for the guillotine, which was that it was more humane.” America not only cuts off its nose to spite its face, but calls in professionals to assist with the procedure.
It’s common to hear a little schadenfreude in descriptions of America’s necrotic heartland. These are areas full of people who have famously “voted against their interests”, or at least voted for the party most enthusiastic about the war spending and free trade agreements that helped junk the rust belt. But these were not presented as risky gambles but as competitions. Competitions Americans believed themselves destined to win, sometimes by divine right. For a place supposed to be so allergic to collectivism, it turns out individuals were willing to take personal humiliation if they could retain their dignity via patriotic proxy. But national humiliation has proved unbearable.
All this should be giving serious conservatives serious pause. They seem unperturbed though, content to stick to zombie phrases about workplace “flexibility” and “people making their own decisions”. This paid-for union bashing is half-hearted because even the bosses here aren’t interested. Business in Australia is cosy and risk-averse, and a real culture of entrepreneurship might stop idiot scions becoming company directors via golf. But America really believed it all, even as the costs mounted to the point of near social and cultural bankruptcy.
Like the Second Amendment, the concept of small government is a beautiful idea. It is an essential belief in the wisdom of people, their ability to spontaneously co-ordinate and build intricate social fabrics with no plan other than mutual interest. Its recently ascendant form was championed by Friedrich Hayek, who believed that regulation mainly interfered with this natural human condition, and that rolling back the state would reaffirm these bonds. This position was dubious in the 1970s; today, it is deluded. As government in the US has shrivelled, society has shrivelled with it, leaving spare communities battered by the storms of globalisation and automation. The result has not been communion but discord.
The idea that racism is precipitated by “economic anxiety” has become almost a cliché, even a source of mockery. It has an almost euphemistic quality, like “tired and emotional”. But the Australian experience has shown that fears about immigration can twin closely with unemployment rates, and it’s predictable that an increasingly Darwinian social environment returns the crudest and most violent forms of social domination. It is not valorising white tears to examine these catalysts, any more than it is excusing criminals to investigate the precursors to crime.
Spend a day following comments-section trolls to their personal social media pages, if you can stand it. Scrolling through this stuff, you start to see how few antidotes to social dislocation now exist. This coterie of angry young grandpas and spelling vandals from places such as the Hunter hinterland are often people with no partners, no friends, no congregation, no union membership, no meaningful or consistent work. Their unhinged memes seem to have no audience. It is not difficult to be anti-social when society seems invested so little in you.
The meagre government services these people consume – free healthcare, a pension, disability or otherwise, some attempts to smooth the ructions in failing industries – do not turn them into mendicants. They are sometimes the only link to wider society, or even other people, that these people have. But there are still those who look across the threadbare conditions of many Australians and think they are paid too well, and too regularly, and that government already helps them too much. Tony Abbott’s 2014 budget was the most recent substantive effort to rip the rug away from this strata of society, but there will be more. It’s telling that one of its central and most controversial measures – the GP co-payment – was aimed at repelling the lonely and atomised away from doctors, and chose a price signal as the mechanism.
That policy suite was really an attempt to turn Australia into an American-style society, an attempt that was forcefully rejected. The Coalition seemed wrong-footed by the response, just as they had underestimated hostility to the WorkChoices package of industrial relations “reforms” many years before. Still, there is no sign America’s decline has taught its disciples anything. In fact, America’s ongoing degradation is regarded as a crisis too good to waste. If they won’t learn this lesson through a failed natural experiment, then they must be taught it. Liberal Party ideologies have tried once to turn Australia into America. They must not be allowed to do it again.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 9, 2017 as "Sancho Panza’s lament". Subscribe here.