More evidence has come out that tax cuts don’t lead to economic growth, and let’s not go into how people ought to measure progress or growth. But isn’t small government, and commensurately low tax rates, what the Neoliberal economists have been telling us is vital for, what, four decades at least?
Of course, only governments should be small; everything else can get as big as it wants and is entirely to do with private ‘merit’; big business, big banks, big private media. Why do we keep believing them? We’re living in a cliché world of – the market will provide, trickle down, meritocracy, the private sector does it better, small government, allocating resources – without nuance or a shred of wisdom and deep connection to the real world of complexity, humanity and earthly dynamics.
It is truly bizarre – or is it the nature of humanity? – that the Neoliberal mythology of small government (which is vastly different from prudent government) has such a hold.
We have always had the examples of the Scandinavian and other European experiences. Refutation of the myth.
We have always had the examples of history where high top-end marginal tax rates and what John Kenneth Galbraith called a ‘thick’ economy (purchasing power spread throughout society and not exclusive to the top percentiles) are at least consistent with economic and social benefit. Refutation of the myth.
We have always had the examples of where communities with high “social capital” – largely unquantifiable things like strong social bonds, trust, belonging, hope, connections, community and local democracy participation, the free creation of art and spontaneity of laughter, a sense of equity and opportunity, serendipitous meeting places, dialogic fora, cavorting with nature and dancing in the thunderstorm – all the things that make life worthwhile – have led to better economic outcomes.
Meanwhile – off planet Earth – Neoliberals in suits in soulless cubicles do their utmost to cut funding to the very initiatives that support that strength of community. And so they destroy a key and empirical underpinning of the economy because they live in a theoretical model rather than the real world. And after all, society doesn’t exist in that model; it is just a collection of individual measured human ‘resources’ the market will efficiently allocate as it does the sale of bricks. So it is a complete waste of taxpayers money to look after community. They cannot see the social, and so they effectively advise its destruction.
The Neoliberal corollary that democracy be replaced by consumer choice is a senseless, ignorant and evil idea. To see no context other than the market is wilful blindness.
We have always had historic example of wealth and power accumulating to a point where oligarchy replaces any pretence at democracy – a consequence of policies that favour power, who then use power to take more, thus increasing power, thus increasing the take … until …… bang.
(You’d think economists would learn about history and the functioning nature of the planet – it ain’t a machine or collection of ‘resources’ waiting for the market to ‘allocate’ – meddle with social or environmental *function* at your peril. To think of society and the planet as Neoliberalism does is incredibly, inexcusably ignorant. Even from that reductionist mechanical premise alone, all that comes from their models has no more status than someone shaking a rattle over an eviscerated chicken.)
So why does the mythology continue in the face of empirical findings, as well as historical or case study example? How can a theory not just *maintain* its power in policy making, but *grow* in power when, firstly, the assumptions are complete delusional nonsense *and*, secondly, the empirical findings are so contradictory, *and*, finally, the logical consequences of tipping over all three social, environmental and economic thresholds are so blindingly obvious to anyone who can imagine within any real-world understanding of both people and our planet?
But understanding people and planet requires a slice of humanity (do Treasury analysts read history or novels?), a connection to the shifting beauty of the planet (do currency traders wander the hills and smell the roses?), and a sense of what is ethical beyond the utilitarian calculations that says if there is money to be made, then it is right (do neoliberals free expensive caged birds?)
Why does the mythology have such sway? Is it not similar to the church of centuries hence, or the cult of Versailles?
I’ll put forward a few arguments that partly explain why. I’d really appreciate knowing what people think.
Reason 1? Partly it is the power of myth in our lives; the paradigms of belief to which we hold, and which in many senses define us. So many people do not examine their beliefs; deconstruct them. And the ‘educated’ are no less prone to belief I would argue – even those who proclaim ‘objectivity’ (even objectivity is very much part of the Modern ontology of separate bits, observer-observed, etc.). I’d go even further and proclaim a heresy; the so-called STEM subjects are more prone to close their minds to the framework of their own mythologies.
The quantitative technocracies that must necessarily narrow their view to what can be socially constructed as measurable and consistent (utility, price, supply, demand) inevitably discount what is hard to measure and contingent (power, joy, hope, freedom). This is not a mistake made by the Arts and Humanities – because the continued reflection and contextual shifting on these things – on life itself and our perspective on life – are their raison d’etre. The fact that we look for the duality is the first problem. STEM thinks itself above the arts, and yet you cannot see, nor create, nor wisely judge without it. STEM to STEAM.
Yet we give some some hierarchical authoritarian ascendancy to the STEM disciplines??? For heaven’s sake why. Because of some fallacy of misplaced concreteness to three significant figures? Because you believe that some abstract number – i.e. a subjective choice to favour this supposedly consistent and measurable thing over that which isn’t – can be called concrete? “Objective” perhaps?
Reason 2? There are those with power whose selfishness and myth of entitlement wield that power to hold the rest of the world in thrall. People once thought of aristocrats this way. They are better, entitled, superior, wiser. The great chain of being placed the lords above the peasant, and the peasants were indoctrinated by the churches and courtrooms to believe the bollocks that the ‘lords’ were there on merit. Now we have the mega-corporate media and their political minions as a replacement for church sermons – the rich man in his castle, the poor man at the gate.
Reason 3? Linked to 2. Is humanity naturally, genetically predisposed to the unquestioned acceptance of any person or idea that proclaims itself an authority, where that authority has majority appeal? Beware the cliché, because that is how authorities roll. Like President Trump repeatedly spouting the nonsense of “clean coal”. Say it often enough and it becomes an alternative fact in the minds of those who want to believe it.
Reason 4? Are we lovers of groups? Do we yearn to belong and be accepted, and wait until the others in the class raise their hands in answer to the teacher’s question to ensure we are in the right camp? Are those who couldn’t care less if they held a different or nuanced view evolutionary outsiders?
I really don’t know the answers. But I do think the answers to how an economic cult could for so long dominate policy making are deeply sociological and psychological – another thing the Neoliberals do not accept.
But the bigger problem is how do we change it. Where is the weakness? Do we work within the obvious ethics of people. Ethics may have a stronger authority than economic and media power. We do not like our people without homes. We do not like our rivers polluted as drains.
We do not like stories of exploited workers by the more powerful. We do not like lies dressed up as truths. These are only the start of the unethical and unwise consequences that will role out from Neoliberal belief. There are many more.
Or do we keep pointing out that their authority is unfounded? Do we point out that the myths are supported by the very powerful whose ethics promote vice and whose dollars are used to manage thought and demote dialogue and any open search for truth.
Do we point out that the religious cult of Neoliberalism accords exactly to Oscar Wilde’s summation of religion; “… like a blind man looking in a black room for a black cat that isn’t there, and finding it.”
Neoliberalism is Wilde’s Black Cat that isn’t there. Now *that* is the definition of misplaced concreteness. And that is what we have.
Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.
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