Australian egalitarianism in retreat

Frank Stilwell, Fred Argy & Hugh Stretton

Why bother about economic inequality?

Frank Stilwell

Fred Argy's book, Where to from here? Australian egalitarianism under threat, is a welcome publication, because economic inequality matters. Inequality has significant consequences for economic efficiency, social justice and environmental sustainability. Its sources are properly a central concern for political economic analysis. Its reduction is properly a concern for public policy.

That these points even have to be argued is symptomatic of the recent influence of what is known variously as economic rationalism, economic fundamentalism and neoliberalism. It is a viewpoint that has subordinated the concern with economic inequality to narrower concerns with efficiency and growth, even ignoring the ways in which egalitarian policies can contribute to efficiency and growth. John Howard seems to have stopped using the term 'incentivation' to justify the abandonment of an egalitarian commitment in public policy, perhaps because no justification is now deemed necessary.

It was not ever thus.

[Keep reading Frank Stilwell's paper]


Achieving equality of opportunity

Fred Argy

My new book focuses on three of the traditional pillars of economic egalitarianism in Australia:

  • 1. a strong, unconditional, need-based welfare safety net (to minimise the risk of poverty),
  • 2. a broad sharing of national productivity gains (through a "just" wage, progressive taxes and nation development); and
  • 3. equality of opportunity.

These three tenants have become steadily debased over the last quarter of a century and especially in the last decade. In today's talk I will concentrate on equality of opportunity.

As a policy target, equal opportunity is about ensuring that everyone has an equal chance to develop their capacities to the full, so that excessive market inequality - inequality that cannot be explained and justified in terms of differences in effort and talent - is kept to a minimum. By narrowing the disparity in market incomes and thus reducing the need for passive redistribution in the long term, equal opportunity policies strike at the root causes of self-perpetuating disadvantage.

[Keep reading Fred Argy's paper]

Ned Ludd, Adam Smith & Fred Argy

Hugh Stretton

There's a library of recent books by us chatterers journalists and academics complaining about Australian inequalities. Here now is a rare stranger to the business: an expert, experienced, distinguished public service leader who explores the practical possibilities of greater equality in the novel global circumstances in which we find ourselves.

It's a joy to celebrate his work. But I'm not sure how I got into the party, a relic nudging eighty, long retired, and professionally backward looking: a historian nostalgic for a distant past when a nanny state disciplined the rich and cosseted the poor. Twenty years of adventurous government have since convinced our political and business leaders that it is more productive to discipline the poor and cosset the rich.

But if Fred wants to reverse some aspects of that revolution, a historian can at least recall the first time reactionaries tried to stop our productive revolution a couple of centuries ago. So, as I remind you of those original Luddites, don't blame the organisers, they couldn't know about my secret neoliberal sympathies.

[Keep reading Hugh Stretton's paper]