Can we retrieve and renew the idea that we live in a society, and it’s the qualities of how we live with each other than makes life good? Of course the material resources to pay for what we want and need is part of the process, but we seem to have policies and politics that overly focus on economic goals and analysis — not the social ends these should serve.

There are three major distribution systems for the material and non-material resources that make our lives worthwhile: family/community relationships, the formal legalities that make up the state and markets that formalise exchanges and costs. The dominance of any one threatens the balance we need and the critiques of the others. A shorthand critique is too much state means Stalinist over-regulation and control, too much market makes the Mafia and too much community Bosnia or Rwanda.

We have had excessive reliance on corporatism and markets as the major model for too long and society is in trouble. The well-funded part of the community sector is silenced because members have become servants of the state. There is increasing evidence that inequalities, within and between populations, can be toxic when they represent institutional unfairness and there are rising populist and extremist tendencies. Extreme political views. There is increasing disillusion with politics and entrenched disadvantage and despair such as within Aboriginal communities. Those who gain from unfairness feel anxious that others will seek to punish them, the losers will feel passive resentment that they are denied their fair shares.

If people feel risks and rewards are shared fairly, they are open to levels of trust and optimism needed to solve the undoubted problems we face. Our political agenda should reclaim the importance of communality and put economics back in its place. Political debates are now limited to whether our economy is healthy and flourishing and assume that this translates into the common good.

There are multiple failures of the current system, such as the GFC. These should allow us re-assert the importance of policy making for good collective social relationships based on fairness, ethics, hope and trust, and making these the markers of the good society. Politics and public policy discussion need to prioritise and include social goals and the means by which we get there. The focus on us all as customers of society should be over so the state must reframe us as citizens who can care about the common good.

The PM often explains government policy. The poor miss out because they lack access to services that would allow them to compete in the labour market. Were they to be appropriately informed and active consumers of information from My School, and presumably My Hospital, they would be able to consume good education and health care. Then, by working hard and obeying the rules, they would succeed in the competitive market.

This odd mix of Hayek and Samuel Smiles ignores the inequities of laws and institutions, the unfairness of prejudices and the needs we have for belonging and caring for others is a common viewpoint in both major political parties and assumes that societies are made up of competing, self-interested individuals. This atomistic view of human beings denies our social origins and interdependence, and ignores the long histories we inherit that make us who we are and determines what we can do.

The paradigm shift in the eighties removed much of what the earlier part of the century had realised was important to social cohesion: providing collective risk sharing and social security in its widest sense as part of responsibilities of state. The role of government should be much more than as handmaiden of the market, by using its power to make markets work and maybe occasionally intervening to open access to those excluded.

The current paternalistic market-driven view of the growth economy is that the ultimate sinners are those who could, but do not, contribute to productivity and growth that makes welfare increasingly punitive and controlling; ergo income management. There is increase spending on social control mechanisms of prisons to control the anti-social tendencies and creeping social and emotional outbursts such as the constant pleasure seeking of drugs, binge drinkers and obesity.

It is time for discussions on making society better: the basic idea of a fair go and the building social bonds. The politics of education that goes beyond human capital, to learning as pleasurable ways of exploring who we are and what we can do and give to others, as better members of society. Arts and making things should again be there for sharing of pleasures not just investment driven. Relating, rearing, caring and sharing needs to be prioritised as part of being communally supported, and not be seen as financial burdens or unskilled exploitation. The role of the public sphere of government should be to assist the good life by fairly rules, so there is order and respect and collective responsibilities through pooling risks and sharing resources.

To deal with the mixture of threats we face e.g. financial failures, climate, reducing resources and increasing pollutions, we need trust and goodwill towards others so we willingly co-operate for the common good. This involves shifting from macho individualism to more collective mutuality that re-allocates fairly material resources and decision making and control.

Are these not the core of what most of us care about and how we want to live?

This essay is part of Crikey‘s Big Ideas series. We’ve had enough of sound bites set on repeat, glib slogans and half-baked committees  –  we’re looking for the vision thing. One Crikey subscriber will also get the chance to share their Big Idea with our readers: send us a three-line pitch, on an issue of national importance that gets you fired up, to [email protected] with “Big Ideas” in the subject line.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey