In this extract from Curing Affluenza (Black Inc), Dr Richard Denniss tackles a root cause of the affluenza epidemic – neoliberalism. Until recently, Denniss was the head of the Australia Institute and is now its chief economist. He has spent the last 20 years working in policy in academia, federal politics and think tanks. He is co-author of Affluenza and Minority Policy and the author of Econobabble and writes regularly for The Australian Financial Review, The Canberra Times and The Monthly.
For decades, billions of people have been told by the high priests of economics and finance that greed and selfishness are the dominant human motivators, that rational people think only about themselves, that collective solutions to collective problems are inefficient, and that rising inequality gives people an incentive to work harder. What could go wrong?
Over the same period, faith in democratic institutions around the world has been falling, and cynicism towards politicians has been rising. While there is no one cause of this decline across different countries with different constitutions, it is hard to believe that endless repetition of the argument that governments are inefficient, that politicians are incompetent, and that faith in the goodwill of others is naive has had no effect on our expectations of elected officials.
A culture that glorifies the pursuit of individual goals is a culture that enables the rapid spread of affluenza. If citizens believe their community will do nothing to help those at the bottom, they have a stronger incentive to claw their way to the top – and even to stand on a few other people to get there. To build a strong sense of community, people need to settle down, engage regularly with their neighbours and develop a sense of shared goals. But many of the preferred policy tools from the neoliberal toolbox do not help bring people and communities closer together; rather, they work to drive people apart. For example, the combination of insecure work that is hard to get and harder to keep and punitive approaches to welfare does more to keep people on their toes than to help them put down deep roots in their communities or in their workplaces.
A culture that links personal security to personal financial prosperity also encourages the acceptance of affluenza. If you believe that the only way to protect yourself, or your community, is to amass financial assets, then it makes sense to favour what is supposedly good for the economy over what you believe is good for your own family, your health, your environment or your community. And a culture that has been trained to see tax as a burden – both on individuals and on the economy – is a culture that (understandably) will struggle with the idea that collecting more money in tax and spending it on high-quality health, education and transport will lighten the load of modern life. Neoliberalism tells us to trust the market but not our elected representatives.
Markets have played a significant role in human societies throughout recorded history. But the idea that the market should shape our personal and cultural values is a very new one, and very inconsistently applied. Try asking a conservative politician if abortion is legitimate as long as the person seeking the abortion and the person offering the abortion can agree on a fair price. Even in notionally communist countries, markets play a role in what, how and for whom things are produced. The question is not whether markets are good or bad at providing services, but whether they are better or worse than publicly funded services, co-operatively funded services or self-funded services.
Neoliberalism has played a powerful role in shrinking the size of the Overton window in most countries. But a society that wants to abandon neoliberalism doesn’t need to invent a new paradigm – it simply needs to restore its faith in the wide range of options, from public provision of services to co-operatives, that neoliberalism has so successfully erased from the policy menu. Similarly, a society that wants to develop an alternative to neoliberalism needs to restore its faith in itself and its institutions, and to develop new ideas, test them, refine them and roll them out over time. It’s been done plenty of times before.
Curing Affluenza by Richard Denniss is published by Black Inc.