Reclaiming the high ground of morality and economics

Written By: - Date published: 8:57 am, November 9th, 2007 - 19 comments
Categories: International - Tags:

Evan Thornley is a member of the Upper House of the Victorian State Labor govt. He spoke recently at the NZ Labour Party conference about Labour values. He helped set up the internet based campaigning organisation GetUp! which now has over 200,000 members. He’s big on ideas. He started the Australian Fabians and was the catalyst for the launch at the conference of the Fabian Society of New Zealand.

I haven’t managed to track down an electronic copy of his speech yet, but in the meantime here are a few edited excerpts of what Evan had to say about reclaiming the high ground on morality and economics for the left.

“The Scottish Enlightenment turned a small, backward country on the edge of Europe into the intellectiual powerhouse of Western Civilisation.

And what did they do? They invested in broad-based education. They were one of the first places in the world to see investment in the people themselves as the central enabling device for national progress.

But the great progressive history of the Scottish Enlightenment – Adam Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Hume and Stevenson – has been twisted into a rigid and extremist ideology by those that followed.

A deviant form of liberalism took a sharp right hand bend around the time of Hayek and Ayn Rand and kept on driving into the land of Thatcher, Howard and Bush. They are not the inheritors of Adam Smith. He understood the role of markets and the nature of humanity. Not only did he write the “Wealth of Nations” but he also wrote “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”.

Not only did he write about self-regard, but in the same breath spoke of the importance of regard for others. Smith would roll in his grave if he could see where his ideas and his notion of Liberalism has been taken today by the far right.

Similarly, the punitive moralists of right wing politics would have us believe there is a contest between individual responsiblity and community responsiblity.

I sometimes call our opponents the sharp elbows brigade. They believe that for you to have something must mean I cannot. The genius of investing in people – that by investing in people now, we can both have more later – has passed them by. And so they believe that by inflicting damage on you, I will somehow be advantaged and, perhaps even more absurdly, that you will not repsond in kind and inflict damage on me.

So to those on the Right who claim morality as their own, I say who was it who fought to end slavery? Who was it that put an end to kids working in coal mines? Who fought Hitler but opposed a war in Veitnam? (and in NZ, Iraq?) Who was it that fought every step for democracy and the increase of the franchise?

Labour, of course.

If it were left to conservatives, we’d still only have male property owners with a right to vote.

We own the moral high ground. We own the economic high ground. And it is from these commanding heights that Labour enters the battlefield of ideas from a position of strength.”

Hear, hear!

19 comments on “Reclaiming the high ground of morality and economics”

  1. Santa Claws 1

    Isn’t it nice to see TheStupid supporting the ideas of a self-made rich man from a broken home that survived on welfare, even one who worked for McKinsey and Company, and ran an internet business.

    Still I guess it is easier to be a leftie working on re-framing the debate when you have a spare $50 million or so floating around eh? I wonder how much he donated to Labour in AUstralia?

    Its good to know that that Eddie at least won’t be attacking Key’s wealth in the future.

  2. Claws – the funny thing is that he’s would probably dispute the fact that that he is “self-made” in the sense that no-one exists solely as an individual – he no doubt benefited from the intelligence of the keynsianist welfare state in his upbringing, and is no doubt greatful for the opportunities and resources that it provided him to grow as a person and a thinker. This is the point that he’s trying to make that seems to fly right over most market ideologues’ heads – western economies and democracies got where they are through a combination of market principals, and a sustained and broad-based investment in the people that comprise them – not through a doctrinaire adherence to far-right economic theory.

  3. Camryn 3

    I think it’s a weakness to assume one has moral superiority in a left vs right debate. It tends to lead one to assume one side is perfect, and the other completely bust. Black versus white. Since it’s a continuum, that doesn’t make sense.

    I believe that both left versus right are equally moral in intent, but differ in the method they believe will reach to same goal of a strong and comfortable society.

    For example, as a person of right views, I feel that it is a belief in the morality of all people that underpins the right philosophy. I feel that people will spend some of their disposable income on private charity in their self interest because – as moral beings – it makes them feel good.

    I believe this is more efficient than taxation to support state welfare because people don’t see the end result of their taxes as clearly, so they don’t get as much ‘feel good’. Those spending the money also don’t have to be responsive to their customers and donors because it’s an enforced monopoly all round. In the private system, donor, charity, and recipient are closer. This increases efficiency and benefits donor and recipient.

    Of course, I can see the flaws in this view too… the state can be more pervasive and ensure no gaps. So, I support it as a safety net too. This is the best of both worlds, and would seem to align with Adam Smith. Use the invisible hand, but also use the visible hand when it’s better to do so.

  4. Camryn 4

    N.B. I’m talking about economic left vs right, and in that sense call myself a liberal (i.e. less control, therefore right).

    I’m also a social liberal… the morals debate in that sphere is a whole different kettle of fish. It’s even harder to convince a social conservative that I’m as moral as them (“You think gay marriage is OK? But, it makes baby Jesus cry.”) as it is to make an economic welfare-statist believe I’m also moral.

  5. Santa Claws 5

    Roger – Don’t disagree with your statement, but it does make an interesting counterpoint that Key, as National leader is to be despised and sneered at by Cullen and Clark, while Thornley, with a very similar background, and a Labour MP, is accepted as far seeing and wise.

  6. Santa Claws 6

    For a Larf, a couple of promises from the Oz election

    Kevin Rudd:
    The Ombudsman to approve all governement advertising, to ensure it actually contains information.

    Julia Gillard:
    Labor will not tolerate union “thuggery”. ‘The deputy Labor leader Julia Gillard says union thuggery will not be tolerated in the workplace if Labor wins the election.
    (doesn’t mention parliamentary workplaces or picket lines though)

  7. Eddie 7

    Santa Claws you guys just don’t get it. It’s not Key’s wealth anyone objects to, it’s his politics.

  8. r0b 8

    For example, as a person of right views, I feel that it is a belief in the morality of all people that underpins the right philosophy. I feel that people will spend some of their disposable income on private charity in their self interest because – as moral beings – it makes them feel good.

    Camryn – that’s, ummm, quite a world view!

    Can you give us a few (any?) examples of where this works in practice? In what countries (country?) are the needy adequately supported by affluent charity?

    At what time in history has it ever worked this way? Since when did the rich aristocracy ever take care of anyone but themselves? Where, historically, were the moral aristocrats in France, or England, or China, or India?

    Should we base our society on (1) how good we can make the few (too few) rich benefactors feel about themselves, or (2) should we base it on actually delivering practical support. Option 1 has never and will never work, which is why most countries that can afford it go with option 2 and invent a welfare state.

  9. Santa Claws 9

    Eddie – politics like Tax Cuts I suppose?

    And the continual labelling as a ‘currency trader’ – is that an attack on Key’s politics, or a dog-whistle that he is wealthy?

  10. roger nome 10

    Claws – There’s a huge difference politically between Thornly and Key . Thornly believes that those born into socio-economic disadvantage should be given every opportunity to realise their social and economic potential, where as Key thinks it should be largely left to the market- i.e. he doesn’t care about equality of opportunity (i.e.- would he have introduced working for families?).

    BTW DPF why don’t you post under your usual name rather than using this “claws” handle?

  11. Santa Claws 11

    Roger – thats a pretty lame attempt, even for you – is it really you posting under that name, or Robespierre?

    “believes that those born into socio-economic disadvantage should be given every opportunity to realise their social and economic potential”

    Like the Kahui twins, or Coral Ellen Burrows. or Karl Kuckenbecker eh?

    Or providing what are effectively welfare handouts that are so regressive that recipients are effectively trapped at their current income level?

    How do you think views like these of Thornley’s would go down with Cullen?

    “I rise to pay tribute to that humble champion of modern capitalism, the risk-return curve. Because shareholders only make a return when debt-holders have been paid, they undertake greater risk. Accordingly they expect greater returns. That is why financing new investments with equity is more expensive than financing them with debt. That is why people use a mix of the two — to keep the cost of capital low. When a company finds investments that generate returns above the cost of capital, it creates value. That is the genius of capitalism. If you find investments that generate returns above your cost of capital, you would be nuts not to invest in as many of them as possible. If you stall while competitors move, you will quickly become road kill in a competitive marketplace.”

    “Some of those opposite do not understand the difference between debt-funded investment and debt-funded consumption. They must have all paid cash for their houses if they think debt is so bad. If they cared about growth, jobs and creating wealth in our society, then they would want to see new productive investment, and they would want it funded at low cost. If the knuckle-draggers opposite cannot find a bigger problem with the budget than some debt-funded investment, it will be a long and lonely road in opposition for them. ”

    I’ll have to remember these when you start whining about ‘debt funded’ tax cuts next year.

  12. The left keeps mentioning that John Key was a currency trader, so that people think twice when he next starts talking about productive employment.

  13. Camryn 13

    r0b – I’m aware that the extreme system I described doesn’t work in practice. But, I also think that pure welfare states also fail to make the best of both.

    My point is that both left and right are equally entitled to be called moral, and claiming the high ground blinds one to the benefits of other views.

    So, I wouldn’t want my ‘pure’ system. As I said, I prefer it to have a state safety net. It’s not dissimilar to what we have, except I’d say we’re a bit slanted to dependency (I’d rather teach a man to fish, as it were) and Labour’s treatment of charities has smacked of being an attempt to reduce their role. I’d rather we allowed more deductions against tax.

    One more thing – many of the ultra rich to give a lot to charity as well as paying a huge amount of the tax take. The main issue is that the middle class is being pushed out of the charity market by excessive tax. They feel they’ve done it through tax and don’t have enough spare anyway. It’s probably more efficient and effective to let them keep some more of their income so they can spend some on charity. Still, we’ve not been encouraging this for a while so the culture has moved away from charity. Socities bonds have weakened. Shame.

    Sorry this might be a ramble. Typed it on my mobile.

  14. r0b 14

    Camryn – “I’m aware that the extreme system I described doesn’t work in practice.”

    OK, good start.

    “But, I also think that pure welfare states also fail to make the best of both.”

    Welfare states do work. Do they make the most of charitable giving? I don’t know. But it’s such a small percentage of what is needed, that I find it hard to see as significant.

    “My point is that both left and right are equally entitled to be called moral”

    Sorry to disagree. There are of course good and well meaning people on both the left and the right, but in my opinion those on the right are fooling themselves. In all right wing societies / economies of which I aware, wealth moves “up” the social ladder. The disparity been rich and poor increases, the situation of the poor may decline in absolute (as well as relative) terms. In functioning left wing societies / economies of which I am aware the situation of the poor improves in absolute (and possibly also in relative) terms.

    In short, while there are right wing individuals who mean well, I cannot see right wing economic and political action as moral. Good intention is not enough if the outcomes are bad.

    “claiming the high ground blinds one to the benefits of other views.”

    Well that may be a risk, but I think it is a much worse form of blindness to claim that both views are equivalent if they are not.

    “Sorry this might be a ramble. Typed it on my mobile”

    I admire your dedication! I’m barely literate in that new fangled txt…

  15. Camryn 15

    “Welfare states do work. Do they make the most of charitable giving? I don’t know. But it’s such a small percentage of what is needed, that I find it hard to see as significant.”

    It probably wouldn’t be such a small percentage if we hadn’t weakened the culture of giving by replacing it was an excessive tax-driven welfare state. Especially since people get higher utility from giving in person than paying in tax. Also, I know that welfare states work… but they can also be excessive, and should work in complement with private charity by acting as a catch-all safety net. I’m making a statement against “pure” systems.

    “In all right wing societies / economies of which I aware, wealth moves “up” the social ladder. The disparity been rich and poor increases, the situation of the poor may decline in absolute (as well as relative) terms.”

    Depends what you call a right-wing state. I’d call every major Western nation a right-wing state, and they’ve managed to do pretty well these last few decades. My contention is that they do better when they foster private charity rather than try to channel all welfare through the state. As I’ve said, it enhances efficiency, focuses on solutions that get people self-sufficient again (as private donors have no vested interest in long-term dependency), and increases social cohesion. State welfare is faceless and can cause resentment from taxpayers, abuse from recipients because it’s a system not a visible donor, and adds nothing to social cohesion and feelings on personal responsibility for one’s community.

    All I’m saying is that best of both worlds works best, and that private charity has more to add than you think. It’s been 50 years or so since the West increased the state’s role and we’ve forgotten, over time, that people can be be happy to give as well as compelled.

    “In short, while there are right wing individuals who mean well, I cannot see right wing economic and political action as moral. Good intention is not enough if the outcomes are bad.”

    I disagree that the outcomes are bad, so I can’t accept this statement. Like I said, we’re in a largely right-wing economy now. We just disagree about the exact mix.

    I’m in favour of right-type policies to enhance growth, believing it’ll create more money for social programmes as well as reducing the need for them. I think the 80’s and 90’s reforms are part of what has given us the relatively good economy of the last decade. I think it’s a shame that Labour has a spent a little too much in social programmes with little to show for it when we could’ve used the good times to make a major and permanent sea-change in the size of our economy and its ability to support us all.

    It seems you like the Labour mix instead. I respect that, but I’m not convinced that your view on the mix gives better outcomes. Even so, I won’t be saying that you’re less moral because “intentions don’t count”. I’d rather respect your moral intent and I think that if all parties did that then they could more effectively work together to make evidence based appraisals of what mix to employ at given point in time.

  16. r0b 16

    “It probably wouldn’t be such a small percentage if we hadn’t weakened the culture of giving by replacing it was an excessive tax-driven welfare state.”

    Again, no actual examples support this belief. Are charitable donations taking care of America’s poor? Why not?

    “Depends what you call a right-wing state.”

    Yes it does, and I’m now beginning to understand that your definition of right-wing state is very broad and very different from mine.

    “I’d call every major Western nation a right-wing state”

    See – there it is! So far we simply haven’t been speaking the same language. Western nations have ruling political parties that identify as either left or right. To call all of those “right-wing states” is a little bizarre.

    I do understand your definition. You want to call all them all “right-wing states” because of certain aspects of their economies (e.g. in NZ, as per the reforms of the 80’s and 90’s). But that’s a very narrow and idiosyncratic definition. You’re in a world view where the language that you use doesn’t mean (to you) what it means to the rest of us – which is going to make is hard for you to communicate.

    For the record, I’m using the terms “left” and “right” as they are typically used,
    by political parties that self identify (and are regarded by their societies) as either left or right.

    “It seems you like the Labour mix instead. I respect that, but I’m not convinced that your view on the mix gives better outcomes.”

    Then you need to look at the proof. After 8 years of the Labour mix, unemployment is at record lows, the minimum wage has increased hugely, household incomes have increased, fewer are on benefits, crime rates are down, industrial action is down, the economy is strong and growing, the environment is taken seriously, there are many initiatives to support families, we are making provision for future retirements, the list goes on and on. Please, please, look for yourself at the stats. You are a reasonable person, and therefore capable of recognising the truth when you see it.

    We can argue philosophy and terminology until our fingers bleed, but the simple truth is that the Labour mix works (and the National mix does not).

  17. burt 17

    The left are just as bad as you guys claim the right to be when it comes to cutting pay and shitting all over the workers.

    see: http://www.stuff.co.nz/4267908a13.html

    The check-in staff and baggage handlers involved – members of the Service and Food Workers Union – have refused new terms and conditions, which they say will cost them up to $20,000 a year.

    Now remind me agin who’s the majority shareholder in this company ?

  18. Tane 18

    Oh burt. For a macro-level view, look over here:

    National: it’s not worth the pay cut

    As for this situation, yes, the SFWU are being locked out by Air NZ. This is a result of weak employment law. Labour needs to make it stronger by giving workers back the right to strike over outsourcing. National will only make things worse, and will lead to even further pay cuts.

    Neither side is much good for these workers in the current situation, but they’d still be far worse off with National.

  19. Camryn 19

    Meant to reply sooner, but this thread is probably dead now.

    Just wanted to say that left and right are, of course, flexible terms. We use left and right to describe either side of a centre that is constantly moving. The point I was trying to make, badly, is that our current centre is fundamentally on the right hand side of the spectrum of all possible political orientations. Labour is left of that (barely) and National right.

    We can argue not only philosophy and theory, but also statistics and their causative factors until our fingers. You’re going to say Labour has delivered lower unemployment, I’m going to say that it’s in spite of Labour and that the numbers on other forms of state assistance have increased.

    We’re not going to agree on a thread like this, so it’s silly to try. I still think you’re highly pompous for staking a sole claim to morality for the left, and that this self-righteousness is classic leftist behaviour. It would be to your benefit to enter into political discussion without this horrible bias, as it closes your ideas to anything you haven’t already defined as superior.

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