Compassion over competition?

It’s over… sort of. Yet something seems missing, something so boring it wouldn’t make it to the debates about the pressing issues of homeless, inequality and the other depressing social indicators.

It’s not so much a policy as a theory which has guided this and other Government’s policy since the Reagan-Thatcher years. A time so brainless it ran on the empty slogan of ‘there is no alternative’.

So what was this missing ingredient in our election pie? Crusty old neo-liberalism, and so called Free Market (for some things but not ideas).  And yes, at this point peoples’ eyes will glaze over. But  this Market idolatry, ushered in without a mandate in 1984 has been the guiding principle of policy-making ever since.

It espouses greed, selfishness (framed as individualism) and much else which is alien to us. It created staggering inequality in a once egalitarian  land,  homelessness where once  the State cared enough to home its less fortunate, and a bewildering sense of self. Who are we? Are we less Kiwi than consumers? Do we all really prefer to competition co-operation? In places as far apart as Edgecumbe or the Las Vegas mass shooting it was clear that homo economicus was the loser.

RNZ’s Morning Report talked to the people of Edgecumbe last week, people who are still struggling with the aftermath of their disastrous floods. One woman commented that they were getting to know more of their neighbours ‘now that the fences aren’t there’. In Las Vegas compassion and a total surrender of self to others, protected hundreds. It’s a human response markedly different from the  Market’s belief that greed is good.

Guardian writer George Monbiot  wrote recently that a study by the Common Cause Foundation, found that a large majority of the 1000 people it surveyed – 74% – identify more strongly with unselfish values than with selfish values. This means that they are more interested in helpfulness, honesty, forgiveness and justice than in money, fame, status and power. The second is that a similar majority – 78% – believes others to be more selfish than they really are. In other words, we have made a terrible mistake about other people’s minds.

The revelation that humanity’s dominant characteristic is, er, humanity will come as no surprise to those who have followed recent developments in behavioural and social sciences. People, these findings suggest, are basically and inherently nice’.

Oxfam touched on the need for inequality and urged a change – soon – in a  briefing paper issued in April 2014:

‘Free public health and education services are a strong weapon in the fight against economic inequality. They mitigate the impact of skewed income distribution, and redistribute by putting ‘virtual income’ into the pockets of the poorest women and men…’

And in 2017:

Oxfam cited the IMF as having identified neoliberalism as a key cause of growing inequality. It also attacked an economy built for the wealthy with what it said  were a list false assumptions.

‘Unless we tackle these false assumptions, we will be unable to turn the situation around’ said the paper which listed some assumptions and flaws in  current thinking:

  • The market is always right, and the role of governments should be minimized. In reality the market has failed to prove itself the best way of organizing and valuing much of our common life or designing our common future. We have seen how corruption and cronyism distort markets at the expense of ordinary people and how the excessive growth of the financial sector. In other words, it exacerbates inequality.
  • The privatisation of public services such as health, education or water has been shown to exclude the poor, and especially women.
  • Oxfam also attacked the idea that our planet’s resources are limitless. ‘This is not only a false assumption, but one which could lead to catastrophic consequences for our planet. Our economic model is based on exploiting our environment and ignoring the limits of what our planet can bear. It is an economic system that is a major driver of runaway climate change. These assumptions need to be overturned, and fast. They are outdated, backward looking, and have failed to deliver both shared prosperity and stability. They are driving us off a cliff. An alternative way of running our economy, a human economy, is needed urgently’.

This year’s election forced pollies to confront the symptoms of our malaise. Whether they will reject a failed formula is another question – and if they do, there should be only one word for our response: Resistance.

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.