TAKING THE LONG VIEW
(As recorded for Radio National's Ockham's Razor 19/10/99)
I spoke recently to a man who is concerned about the sort of society in which his grandchildren will start growing old, somewhere around 2050. Will Australia 2050 be a violent and divided society thrashing around in a polluted and degraded environment? A rich but empty society perhaps? Or will it be the sort of society that he wanted, one offering high quality of life to nearly all Australians?
Much as I might have wished to answer his question, and answer it reassuringly, no one can foresee what a future Australia will be like. Any of those scenarios is possible. Instead, I want to discuss a related question---one without a right answer still but more approachable and not unhelpful. I want to discuss Australia's capacity to successfully manage its longer-term future, by which I mean the next 50 years and beyond. My question is 'What sorts of things, if any, can we do, today and tomorrow, to improve the chances of this being a good society for our grandchildren to live in?' And I will take my vision of the good society from that concerned grandfather---one in which most people in coming generations have the opportunity to enjoy high quality of life. This means people who will be able to satisfy their higher needs for creative activity, participation in community life and respect, as well as for basic needs such as food, shelter, and security.
In any discussion about managing the future it is critically important to articulate, as I just have, what you want from it. As someone said, 'If you don't know where you're going, it doesn't matter which bus you catch'.
So, how might we improve quality of life prospects for our grandchildren? My question appears straightforward enough but it is surely loaded with presumptions.
Most obviously, I'm presuming that the improving of future Australians' quality of life is a task for the community as a whole, acting collectively, and not just one for individuals acting independently. But maybe we're wasting our time trying to act collectively? There is certainly one school of thought which claims that if we each make self-interested decisions an 'invisible hand' will increase community well-being or at least we will do no worse than we would by funding government efforts to improve people's lives. I have to declare my somewhat more visible hand here. I am a meliorist. Meliorism is the optimistic doctrine that the world can be made better by human effort. I believe in the ability of societies, acting through the agency of government, to both envisage a better world and to change the world. This in no way means I am convinced that tomorrow’s world will be a good place to arrive at. Tomorrow’s world may be a bugger of a place which we can do little to avoid but, if we try to make it better, it's unlikely to be worse than if we hadn't tried.
What if the world subjects Australia to global shocks of such ferocity that we're too busy coping and surviving to worry about improving quality of life for anyone, much less future generations? For us, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse are world war, pandemic disease, a global climate shift and global economic collapse. All are plausible possibilities. The only insurance we can take out against such shock-driven futures is active membership of the world community. We have to make plans on the assumption that catastrophe will not strike while simultaneously engaging in dialogue to forestall such catastrophes.
So, catastrophes aside, will the nation state called Australia be around to manage itself for the next 50 years? Many commentators see national governments being reduced to impotence as globalisation proceeds. If I might join the queue of people willing to define globalisation, it is the process under which once-separate societies are moving towards functioning as a single society, albeit one that is pretty chaotic and under-governed. Globalisation may be disturbing but it is certainly not mysterious. It is an accelerating expression of the same great forces that have moulded the world for the last 200 years---capitalism, technological change and the search for political emancipation.
The alternative to the impotent-state view, the one I'm taking today, is that national governments will continue to be important agents of change and stability in a globalising world. I'm presuming that over the next fifty years Australia will remain a middle-ranking first-world power, making a small contribution to global governance while working out its own ways of responding to widespread domestic concerns about various obstacles to high quality of life. The four widely-recognised obstacles I have in mind here are environmental degradation, a shortage of social justice in the form of life opportunities, deteriorating social relationships and a rate of economic growth which, depending on your viewpoint, is either too high or too low.
Just how successful we might be in tackling this obstacle course is an open question. We will be limited in what we can achieve by the constraints of our history and geography, by tradition and custom. And by the effort of adapting to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as some scribbler put it. Conversely, we will be helped by our considerable stocks of capital in all its forms---built and natural capital like roads and national parks; personal and social capital, like educated workers and respect for the law. When it comes to managing the future, we are both future makers and future takers, responding to both opportunities and inevitabilities.
While Australians as individuals are richly talented we do seem to make heavy weather of reforming our outdated institutions---perhaps for the very reason that they have been historically successful. Mind you, even a very flexible society is like a giant oil tanker that takes a long time to turn around. Think of how long it takes to replace a city's housing stock or upgrade the Hume highway, not to mention changing the tax system; I mean really changing it. Some of the big challenges already bearing down on us, apart from lagging institutions, are soil salinisation, an ageing population, worn-out cities and the imminent decline of Australian oil supplies. If our plans for producing high quality of life all round involve major changes to values, institutions and markets we can expect to be busy for some decades; and, almost certainly, we need to start right away.
Now, just one more quibble before rejoining my opening question. Does a desire to improve quality of life for our children's children mean that we don't care about people with limited prospects right now? How much effort should we be putting into thinking about 2050 when we're surrounded by pressing problems today? Street kids and trade deficits and air pollution and you-name-it. The in-principle answer to these questions is that balancing the needs of the present generation against the needs of the future is always a matter of judgement. In practice, we live in a society that suffers badly from short-termism, one where anything past Christmas, to quote Treasurer Costello, is long-term. On this particular matter we have poor judgement. The relative amount of effort we put into thinking about present versus future problems is totally skewed towards the here-and-now. Any debate I can stir up today about how to get things right in 2050 will do no more than start to reverse an obvious imbalance.
Well, having argued for the legitimacy of my topic, I can now get down to business and ask if we have a real choice of strategies for tackling the big impediments to mid-future quality of life. The answer is that we do, provided we also remember that no strategy is going to be rigidly followed for decades and that we need to have open minds if we are to recognise when it is time to change. Beware the person who has found the truth!
There is a very strong conventional wisdom around that, in the face of globalisation, governments can't do much except educate the kids, reduce taxes, run a tight monetary and fiscal policy, provide a minimal safety net for the disadvantaged, cut tariffs and be a cheer squad for business. This is a strategy built around a belief in the power of self-regulated markets to deliver what supporters see as the two most important determinants of high quality of life, namely high environmental quality and a high rate of economic growth. I'll call this an economic growth strategy, a growth-comes-first strategy.
Another strategy with significant support in its various versions can be called conservative development. It is built around the ideas of a big national government, high taxes and a belief in the power of government-funded programs to overcome what supporters see as the two key quality-of-life obstacles, namely environmental degradation and a lack of life opportunities, particularly employment. This is a strategy which seeks to achieve environmental and social goals by non-market means, hopefully without significantly reducing the rate of economic growth.
A third strategy which I call post-materialism starts from the premises that economic growth is very much a mixed blessing and that pathological social relations involving alienation, confrontation and mistrust are a major problem in Australian society. It is built around the ideas of capping the quantities of energy and materials used by the economy, strong regional and local government, moderate taxes, and a belief that a society where people are helped to participate widely in the institutions that affect them will produce brotherly and sisterly relations between people and a dark green economy which allows most people to live in modest comfort.
There's nothing here to frighten the horses. All three of my candidate strategies accept the basic structure of the existing society and present themselves as proposals for evolutionary change over decades, not revolutionary change to escape an intolerable present. All are proactive ‘recipes’ for root change in the way Australian society is managed and stand in contrast to a reactive non-strategy of managing the future by ‘muddling along’, making only pragmatic, electorally-driven changes. All three envisage a mixed economy in which a market system of some kind constitutes the principal means of co-ordination. Much of the difference between the threee strategies lies in the size, shape and reach of government. In fact, most of these strategies' core ideas for change already exist in contemporary Australia, at least in embryonic form; I am merely trying to make these ideas more visible.
Now, while each of these strategies is defensible and not to be arrogantly dismissed, each could go wrong in its own plausible way.
Under the economic growth strategy, even if high growth eventuates, market forces might not protect environmental quality, jobs or social health. Increasing income and wealth inequality could trigger, in the worst possible case, a total breakdown of Australian society.
The conservative development strategy could bog down in pluralistic compromise and bureaucratisation, with business being stifled to the point where growth is choked off and little real progress made in achieving improved environmental quality or people’s access to the tools of opportunity.
Again, the economy could decline sharply under post-materialism’s strong ‘greening’ policies and policies to ensure participation. And, without a healthy economy, it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to finance this strategy's other reforms or avoid widespread poverty.
So, there you have it. We do have real choices but they are not risk-free. My task today has been to convince you of this, not to advocate one strategy over another. I will deem myself successful if this talk, and the book it is based on, fire up a serious debate about where Australian society is going over the next several generationsand how we might plan to get there.
Doug Cocks' recent book on Australian futures has the distinction of finding favour with all sides of Australian politics. Peter Garrett, President of the Australian Conservation Foundation launched it in Sydney and Senator Nick Minchin, Minister for Industry, Science and Tourism, gave copies to all his Cabinet colleagues when he launched it in Canberra in March.
Future Makers, Future Takers is a comparative analysis of the 'big' choices that confront the Australian people when they ask 'How can we best ensure that our grandchildren live in a society where high quality of life is a reality for most people?' Is our best bet to start down an 'economic growth' path built on single-minded pursuit of material prosperity using a strategy of deregulated markets and 'small government'? Or a 'conservative development' path built on the ideas of 'tax and spend' interventionism by a strong centralist government? Or a 'post-materialism' path built on the ideas of capping the physical economy and building political, community and business structures which increasingly value stakeholder participation and collaboration.
Towards the end
Am I saying anything new?
1Having goals is basic
2 Shock-driven, strategy driven or poll-driven
3They provide a framework for challenging current thinking and against which strategies can be tested for their possible outc
4 discusion -== success
One of government's core duties is to represent the interests of the future to the present, personal level = this .
Can a society such as ours ever decide definitively where it wants to be in several generations' time and then make and follow plans to get there? Pluralism tomorrow's Australians not represented
??Do we need a fifty year plan?.....
There are only a certain number of ways of redirecting a society such as ours without contemplating revolution, namely to make it more individualistic, more collectivist or more mutualistic. Because I created my three candidate strategies to each mirror one of these philosophies I believe them to be a good sample of all possible strategies. If I am correct in that, analysing these three strategies for managing Australia's future should expose most of the issues.
[[[[[[[[[And then there are the questions I am not asking.
We could dismiss the quality survival question right now with such arguments as ..nothing we can do (all a lottery) , only one thing to do (tina) , look after the short run and the long run will look after itself (deny people interested in anythiong beyond the next electoral cycle, or democratic societies cannot make long term plans or liberal democratic societies don’t believ in making long term plans
Let me give a collective answer to some of those background questions before getting down to business.
Why did you write this book?
Wrote it to fire up a bit of a debate about where Australian society is going over the next several generations---not the next electoral cycle---and how it might plan to get there, If it does I will regard myself as having been successful.
the answer those grandparents' questions but I can see advanteges in trying to build scenarios ..alerts us to threats and opportunities, long term tasks that we need to start on right now
[[[[After all Mrs Thatcher did say that there is no such thing as society.
[[[[Isn't planning a waste of time? And anyhow, ' What is a good society'? That question has exercised people's minds for thousands of years. And 'Why not the next five hundred years, or the next five years'?
[[[[[My starting point for all this curiosity is my observation that a lot of people are have assumed that we want to create a society which is good to live in, not just for our grandchildren's generation but for generations beyond theirs. The nature of the good society We can only begin to discuss plans for managing the future if
We are both future makers and future takers. We are constantly adapting and reacting to powerful social, political, economic and environmental forces. If, at the end of the present inquiry, we cannot avoid concluding that the future is being determined by powerful irresistible forces we do not like—all take and no make—then such knowledge might at least lessen the pain of living with the consequences.
[[[[[[have to assume (a) we want to (b) can act with some prospect of success(c) wll not be derailed]]]]]]]]]]]]]]]
One feature common to the three strategies is that
In terms of attitudes towards focal issues, the post-materialism strategy represents a refocussing of political debate away from economic growth and from the economy as the dominant institution in modern society. It takes a view of the ‘dilemma of growth’ that differs from the other two strategies, which see further economic growth as good for quality of life. And, unlike the other two strategies, the post-materialism strategy regards sociopathy as a major problem needing to be addressed directly by making all institutions more inclusive and participatory. Post-materialism does not deny that people are self-interested. Rather, it is claiming an enlightened self-interest that sees quality-of-life rewards from living in an actively collaborative and less acquisitive society. In contrast, the economic growth strategy does not recognise further rewards from passing beyond a point of minimal collaboration. These different attitudes are encapsulated in the way each strategy views its primary task:
The primary task under a conservative development strategy is to design a high growth economy which does not threaten environmental and equity values.
The primary task under an economic growth strategy is to deregulate the economy and this will lead to high economic growth and, provided that consumers demand it, will protect environmental and equity values.
The primary task under a post-materialism strategy is to restructure society and its values in ways that foster equity, environmental protection and sociality, without destroying the ability of the economy to provide most Australians with a comfortable but stabilised standard of living.
Strategies define directions for change
We need to consider strategies which offer some prospect of managing the big determinants of a modern society's quality of life---environmental quality, social harmony, social justice and the rate of economic growth.They provide a framework for challenging current thinking and against which strategies can be tested for their possible outcomes in different circumstances
health, education, income distribution, environmental quality, crime, social conflict and so on. Within the scenario of Australia surviving as a capitalist liberal democracy of some sort, two ‘families’ of alternatives emerge from a contemplation of the broad-brush futures and cameo futures collated in this chapter. [[[greatly exaggerated ]]]