Here’s the Thing: Governments – why do we even?

First published at TheVine 7 October 2014

Andrew P Street spits venom and drops mad truth-bombs about the stuff that irks him


We live in dogmatic times in which the people running the country are sticking to their agendas in direct contradiction of the expert advice they’ve been given about what reality is up to.

The examples are many, from Education Minister Christopher Pyne blithely refuting OECD data showing that higher education bestows more benefit to society than the individual, or Environment Minister Greg Hunt insisting that Wikipedia told him climate change is not linked to bushfires despite being told exactly that by the Bureau of Meteorology, to pretty much everything that treasurer Diamond Joe Hockey says regarding the financial crisis which only he can see.

And people have their own political beliefs, of course, and sometimes it can be difficult to work out whether or not a policy is objectively a great idea or a terrible one. One day Pyne could make a genuinely great suggestion regarding education policy – sure, it doesn’t sound likely, as recent experience has demonstrated – but would you necessarily recognise if it happened?

Here’s the thing: it’s not actually that hard to spot good policy. All you have to do is remember why we have governments in the first place: to maintain stability in society.

See, humans are kinda rubbish at survival on our own. We’re naked and weak and we don’t run especially fast and we don’t have tough shells or huge claws or any of those other things that more robust species have.

One major problem is our big stupid heads, which we need because of our enormous brains. We walk upright in part because that’s the best way to distribute that hefty weight, and walking upright necessitates having a narrow pelvis. Combine narrow pelvises and gigantic skulls and you need to give birth to offspring that are basically fetuses that need a hell of a lot of looking after just to survive. In just about every other species a newborn can fend for itself more or less from birth: human babies are notoriously bad at it.

What we do have – the thing that we’re really, really good at – is working together. Our big brains are great at working out what other people are likely to be thinking, and therefore changing our behaviour accordingly so we can work better together. Lots of animals do that, of course, but we’re amazingly good at it.

About ten thousand years ago we started settling down in places rather than moving around, building permanent settlements and inventing stuff like agriculture as a way to feed a growing mass of people.

Societies started to grow, and the societies where people lived better lives became (understandably) more popular with people than those where things were terrible. Stability brought prosperity, and prosperity bought neat stuff like art and science and culture. Turns out that when humans aren’t living hand to mouth, they have time to think about stuff like “y’know, this shovel could be better designed” and “hey, what do you reckon stars are?”

And that’s also where the idea of laws, and for that matter religion, comes from: a series of rules under which society is stable, and in which the constituents live better lives than they otherwise could do on their own. As this became more codified we ended up with things like governments.

And stability doesn’t sound sexy – anarchy gets a cool symbol and everything – but it’s where where big-brained, small-teethed humans turned things to their advantage. We didn’t have to fight, and we had time to think. And that changed everything.

Governments historically have been about law and order, but something happened that made them large players in economics: the invention of tax.

While taxes have existed for centuries – the Romans had them, and tithes to landowners were a fixture of the feudal system – income taxes were initially created specifically to fund wars – Britain brought theirs in to fund their efforts in the French Revolutionary War in 1799, the US introduced them for the Civil War in 1861, and Australia’s first Federal income tax began in 1915 to help support our efforts in WWI.

But once in place, and without expensive killing to fund, governments rapidly worked out that they could very easily be used to pay for stuff that would be very, very useful for society – especially things that were not immediately profitable.

See, private companies exist to make profits. That’s the entire point of them.

In fact, companies that don’t make the most profits they can possibly make run the risk of having shareholders taking legal action against their boards. That’s why companies that make billions in profits every year, like banks, still follow announcements of record profits with news that they’re laying off thousands of workers. It’s not because they need to in order to stay profitable, it’s because they’re basically obliged to cut any costs that they can cut in order to maximise return for shareholders.

The problem is that there are expensive things like defence, education and health that make societies more stable and therefore provide the circumstances for individual prosperity, but are not themselves immediate moneyspinners. Private enterprise does these things somewhere between “not especially well” and “very, very badly”.

And thus these have largely been the things that governments have paid for over the last century: the stuff that is hard to profit from, but that society is the better for having.

Once you conclude that governments are in place to maintain the stability that leads to prosperity, it becomes a hell of a lot easier to tell whether something is a great idea or a terrible one. Is society made better by a particular policy? Does it hurt people, or does it help people?

If that’s your criteria, you don’t need to speculate on whether a leader is a good and moral person or not, or whether a party is sticking to their guns or betraying their base or any of those other pointless questions. You can ask “is this specific piece of legislation or policy actually helpful to people?”

That’s the important question, and the challenge for governments is to answer that question with “yes, and here’s why”, rather than angrily insist that their opinion is more valid than evidence.

(Of course, it helps if you don’t demonise income tax by pretending that it’s an onerous personal burden rather than the incredible collective bargain that it is, and then have the two major political parties in Australia spend two decades competing to cut it back the most, thereby reducing it to the point where they struggle to maintain those necessary services to keep society stable, but that’s a rant for another time…)


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