On Friday in Crikey, my occasional houseguest Guy Rundle put John Howard to use as a gun control ambassador. To concede that Howard was good for anything noble could not have been a pleasant thing to do. But, just as Rundle swallows my awful lasagne, he swallowed his loathing for Howard. Momentary discomfort is justified if it saves an American life, or your hostess’ feelings.
In a piece that is substantially better than all of my cooking, Rundle notes that the Second Amendment is as antique as the smooth bore rifles whose ownership it defends. This is a good argument and one US advocates for a much-needed gun control routinely make. This was part of a constitution that described an infant state exposed to attack. The US, of course, grew up to become a beautiful, heavily armed invulnerable sexy hegemon, and to argue that its citizens, who have the unfortunate habit of killing each other both accidentally and with intent, have a “right” to firearms is a bit like arguing for the “right” to scurvy. It was an unpleasant affliction that citizens were once forced to endure and need suffer no longer.
There is not one thing wrong with this kind of argument. Of course, there are plenty of arguments for gun control, the most notable one being the widespread fact of grisly death. But, for mine, there’s a certain appeal, even beyond the issue of a very decent fight like that for gun control, in looking at other stupid, old ideas. The continued enshrinement of an old “right” when the evidence of its harm is clear is a habit even of gun-controlled Australians.
In recent years, one treasurer has called his taxpayers “entitled” and another has urged them to “work, save, invest”. Let’s set aside the fact that Australians, now facing historic downturn in financial and social wealth, are less “entitled” than they have been in some time but are managing to “work, save, invest” in large numbers nonetheless and think about the intellectual age of these slogans. They go back to the time to, say, about 1789 — the year the Second Amendment was ratified.
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Actually, they’re a little older than that. John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government was written precisely one century before, but it took his biggest fan and plagiarist Thomas Jefferson a few years to read it. Here, we can see the beginnings of a persistent idea that the state, which Locke doesn’t much fancy, must exist principally to protect private property. “Men,” says Locke, “have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth”. Which, frankly, is an idea he pulled out of his arse. Still, it’s a foundational idea on which the modern liberal state still stands.
In his engaging study Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, political economist Mark Blyth traces to Locke the beginning of the liberal dilemma favoured by former treasurer Hockey and other “small government” enthusiasts, “The state: can’t live with it, can’t live without it, don’t want to pay for it.” In short, the state exists only to serve the moral agreement men have, apparently, made for unequal possession. To demand a more equal possession is to disturb natural order, you entitled bastards. We will subsidise investors, mining and private health insurance industries and the rest of you naturally unequal people can get nicked.
It’s true that Scott Morrison is a more modern liberal than Hockey, but not by that much. His work, save, invest strategy comes to us from 1776. Adam Smith’s prescription of parsimony informs the current Treasurer, just as it continues to inform many European governments.
Of course, the age of an idea doesn’t necessarily impede its usefulness over time. The scientific method is still pretty useful, and it’s pretty hard to make a good argument against the usefulness of The Golden Rule. The Second Amendment, perhaps not baseless at the time of its ratification, certainly became much worse than useless. But the idea of the state as a means to maintain inequality — and both Locke and Smith explicitly describe its function thus — was probably shit from the get-go.
Irrational fear of government debt, moralising parsimony and the peculiar idea that citizens should save at the same time governments do are not ideas that have always been in fashion. Unlike the Second Amendment, this 18th-century nonsense has been discarded for long periods. But we’ve picked them up from time to time and despite hard evidence that austerity is a sure route to bust, we just can’t currently leave these principles alone.
Screwing people at the bottom half of income distribution doesn’t actually work to stimulate an economy. Let’s even leave aside the fact that such measures have begun to kill people in developed economies more painfully and slowly than firearms and say what economic textbooks have begun to reflect: making the poor poorer diminishes GDP. Wayne Swan understood that inequality is a condition of capitalism, but the sort of inequality his successors are promoting will screw it up.
There is little that is neo about neoliberalism. It’s a fossil of a dangerous idea.
My lasagne is the fossil of old Women’s Weekly cooking. Still. Rundle can eat it again knowing that it only presents mild danger. It’s not very good, but it’s not as potentially fatal as a Second Amendment or neoliberal economics.