By Brad Elphinstone and Stuart Bruce, 7/4/2016
Malcolm Turnbull has recently declared that while private schools will continue to receive Federal funding, public schools will not. Regardless of whether or not it occurs, it comes on top of the Abbott government’s approach which seemingly aimed to reduce existing levels of equality. This is inferred by the negative gearing debate, the general trend of pursuing tax cuts for big business and the wealthy, and seeking to remove and reduce programs which aim to help the less fortunate and support the next generation in their endeavours. Currently, Turnbull has done little to suggest that he won’t simply follow the Abbott playbook.
Reducing existing levels of equality does not augur well for the country. Research comparing different countries, or states within countries, indicates that societies with higher economic inequality are more likely to have greater levels of mental illness, crime, obesity, and infant mortality, lower high school completion rates, and reduced child wellbeing1. Inequality is therefore likely to have substantial social and economic costs.
In addition, a study conducted in the United States asked people what sort of society they’d like to live in. Respondents were shown three pie charts, each representing a different society. In Society A, the top 20% of earners owned 36% of the wealth, with the next 20% of earners having 21% of the wealth, followed by 18%, 15%, and the bottom quintile of earners owned 11% of the wealth. In Society B, the top 20% of earners owned 84% of the wealth, with the bottom 40% of earners having such little wealth that they were barely visible on the pie chart. Society C was perfectly equal as each quintile of earners owned 20% of the wealth2.
Regardless of gender, income, or whether respondents were left or right-wing in their political affiliation, Societies A and C were overwhelmingly more popular than Society B, with Society A as the most popular overall. It makes sense. In Society A, even if you start at the bottom you still have enough to try and make a living for yourself, and if you end up being a success you deservedly get to share in the biggest slice of the pie. In Society B, if you happen to come from a lower socioeconomic background it seems that the odds are weighed impossibly against you.
Here’s the kicker: Society A was revealed to be Sweden and Society B the United States of America. Even red-blooded, right-wing Republicans unwittingly said they’d rather live in the social democracy of Sweden rather than the Laissez-faire American “free market”.
So, people on average seem to desire a sense of equality. Not Soviet-style communist “equality”, really totalitarianism, where most of the population were equally poor, but the sort of equality where the economic pie is shared fairly, everyone has adequate resources to self-actualise, and to reap a fair reward for their skills and work ethic. Additionally, the evidence clearly suggests that there are far more benefits, even to the wealthy, from living in a more equal rather than a less equal society.
If you’re a highly successful and wealthy business owner with a love for your country, do you want to see more homeless people in the street on the way to work? Do you want your customers, clients, and employees to be less educated, less healthy, less financially secure, and less able to spend on your products or services? Do you want the risk of crime to be higher? Ultimately, policies designed to tackle inequality, rather than “punishing success”, are part of a mutually beneficial system that reinvests in itself to usher in the next generation of wealth and happiness.
Additionally, those who have succeeded have usually done so with assistance from generations of taxpayers and policies which created the conditions for that success. Elizabeth Warren and George Lakoff have argued that successful business owners benefit disproportionately from taxpayer funding. For example, from roads and infrastructure to transport goods; schools, hospitals, and a health-care system which educates and ensures the health of their employees; to the police and fire services which ensure the protection and safety of their businesses.
So, inequality has negative repercussions throughout society, people tend to prefer more equality than less equality, and pursuing policies which increase inequality simply lets those at the top pull the ladder up behind themselves while ignoring the unspoken social contract that has helped make Australia what it is today.
It is ironically in everyone’s self-interest to be more selfless about sharing resources and combating inequality. Based on the evidence, Malcolm Turnbull should be generating policy with the vision of taking Australia into a more equal future because the benefits accrue for everyone. Instead, he seems to be continually capitulating to the far-right ideologues, as the Safe Schools debacle indicated, and the neo-liberal agenda of Liberal Party donors that serves the ultra-wealthy at the expense of everyone else. The suite of policies emerging in the lead-up to the election are a worrying sign and chart a disturbing course for a less equal, and less liveable Australia.
By Dr Brad Elphinstone and Stuart Bruce.
1) Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why more equal societies almost always do better. New York: Bloomsbury Press. (Linkable content: https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/the-spirit-level)
2) Norton, M. I., & Ariely, D. (2011). Building a better America – one wealth quintile at a time. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(1), 9-12.