Government for the public good

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    It is perfectly logical to suggest – as I did last week – that those who want to pursue a more just and fair path for our society should not waste time challenging those pedaling the modern neoliberal economy but merely ignore them, freeing themselves to pursue a different and more generous vision for society.

    In a world of ‘free will’, it’s easier said than done, of course. We all spend most of our lives mesmerised by what’s going on in our minds and reacting to others from a complex matrix of our own lifetime experiences, most of them from a very young age. As Gandhi said, changing what’s in our own heads is harder than changing the world.

    Democratic logic has also been hampered by a general lack of voices to cut through the prevailing clamour for the markets to take over more and more of the tasks previously done by governments – despite the lack of evidence that the ideology actually delivers.
    The old Right wing had think tanks and policy institutes to spare. The Left, not so much, though fortunately it often has satire and humour on its side.

    Author, academic and journalist Max Rashbrook speaks tonight at the Fabian Society lecture at the Auckland University’s Owen Glenn Building after the publication of his latest book Government for the Public Good: The Surprising Science of Large-Scale Collective Action.

    Tapping into rich veins of political and social satire, Rashbrook makes a compelling case for government and classic public services that have often proved far more effective than we now generally think, detailing a positive vision for how it could regain our trust and work still better in the modern context.

    Hidden in plain sight since the 1970s, the lessons of Batman (“Holy taxation”) and Monty Python’s comic satire Life of Brian make his message a visceral rather than cerebral one, notably when a member of a revolutionary Jewish sect in the Life of Brian rhetorically asks his co-conspirators what the Romans had ever done for them, and is, to his dismay, presented with a long list of achievements.

    All right, he says in response, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

    It would not be hard to write a similar satire on those who think modern administrations have achieved nothing, says Rashbrook.

    “What has government ever done for us?

    “Not much: just passed laws, kept public order, cleaned up our air and water and defended the realm. Yes, but apart from that? Oh, I don’t know, It’s only provided schools and hospitals, public housing and transport, drinking water and electricity. Yes but.”
    As the author says, the modern list of public services is even longer than that set out in Life of Brian.

    “Most people are born in public hospitals, with a public record of their birth; they typically attend public schools; the most basic legal structure and the courts they use are publicly furnished; virtually all of them receive public funds at some point, in the form of student loans, benefits, disability and illness payments, and pensions; they are employed in the public sector or work under its employment laws; the safety of their food, the construction standards of their houses and a thousand other things are publicly regulated; they rely on public roads and rail, rubbish collection and sewage disposal; and when they die, that too is publicly recorded.”

    We need to refresh a term that described governments as pursuing the public good which has fallen from favour, tainted by a suspicion that no such common ground is possible in a complex modern world and that its fine language cloaks the advancement of narrow interests.

    Rashbrook calls for “a set of shared purposes and standards which are fundamental to the way of life prized by the participants and felt as essential not just for themselves but more broadly”.

    However, since governments can compel whole populations, their actions must be brought back to the idea that they benefit all, or at least a very large majority, he says. Otherwise they will be difficult to support and, lacking shared purpose, societies would fall apart. • Liz Waters

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