Preaching to the (un)converted

Preachers have a lot to offer society, but their authority on politics is often lacking, writes Michael G.

Rarely in Australia, but more often in countries such as the United States, preachers play a part in the shaping of political debate. This can be a very good thing when they have unique experience in situations and events and are able to offer an authorative opinion. But it is a very bad thing when they do not and merely offer platitudes instead of wisdom.

It is the realm of service to their fellow man that preachers, priests and pastors indulge. Much media on religion does much to denigrate it, speaking of paedophile priests, money-hungry churches, and various degrees of dissent and scandal. Little is shown and known of the plentiful good things–from large Catholic hospitals operating to the humble pastor visiting a couple at their home to help save their marriage.

From these good things, preachers draw a raft of insight unknown to many. It is they who know what it is like to have the poor knock on the door of their church and beg for money and shelter; it is they who know the impact of welfare as they counsel drug and alcohol addicts; it is they who know of the degree of struggle from among their congregation and outside it. Much more could be listed than should be contained within this paragraph. Preachers have the benefit of seeing things that the average person does not.

Yet there are severe limitations on the amount of insight that can be offered by preachers commenting on politics. For one, a preacher may not have experience of the kind listed above. Without having seen or been through such things, they have little that can be said of worth.

More importantly, however, is when they do have such experience, but not the appropriate knowledge of how best to deal with these problems of society. Here a comparison with the Greens can be made. The Greens often bring up worthy causes–the environment, and the quality of education and healthcare–with sound reason. But the policy programme suggested to remedy these causes is ignorant because it separates ideals from outcomes.

Preachers fall victim to this trap, too. They are often at the forefront of calls for higher welfare, health, and education spending, and various forms of intervention into the lives of Australians and their businesses. For those familiar with economics, von Mises’ dictum of “if this policy is implemented, will it have the effects you intend?” is appropriate.

Good intentions are not at question; authority on the subject matter is. Knowledge of how to achieve successful outcomes must be combined with practical experience: well-meaning platitudes are not enough. A lot of policy suggestions from preachers would likely have disastrous outcomes and merely harm those they are seeking to protect.

Tony Abbott was wise to comment that “the priesthood gives someone the power to consecrate bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. It doesn’t give someone the power to convert poor logic into good logic.” Preachers have much to offer in diverse political debate. But the maximisation of their impact depends on the realisation of their limitations.

Michael G is completing studies in finance and history at Flinders University and works in banking. He is a Christian (Baptist).

Pluck, pluck, goose

A creative tax policy would greatly benefit the Liberal Party and Australia, writes Michael G.

Rather than oppose new taxes simply because they are new, we should oppose the overall level and efficiency of taxation. In engagement against the resources tax, these two principles should have formed the basis of opposition. In its original form, it was an inefficient tax that increased the overall taxation level: it penalised miners to the point of project cancellation, and the revenue received was not wholly used to cut taxes elsewhere.

However, this should not mean that a substantially modified (further than Gillard’s concessions) mining tax is a bad idea. The implementation of the GST by the previous Liberal government was used to decrease or eliminate taxation elsewhere.  We should always be open to taxation reform even if it introduces new taxes, but provided it satisfies the two principles.

Ultimately, all taxation comes back to penalise the individual and their family. Whether in the form of corporation tax, alcohol taxes, or bank taxes, the payees are not corporations, bottles of beer, or even the banks—but people, regardless of circumstance. Therefore less taxation is always a good thing.

But the means of collection and what is taxed (the efficiency of taxation) matters too. All taxation is an economic distortion of one kind or another, favouring or penalising choices made by people and business. To minimise this distortion is to maximise efficiency. For example, taxes on savings are inefficient, as they distort people’s choices from investment to consumption and therefore inhibit growth.

Internally, the Liberal Party should begin a vigorous debate on the merits of our current taxation system and present ideas for change. For all the criticism of the Henry Review and the response of the Rudd government, not yet has a liberal alternative been offered. In reducing the deficit the opposition must be commended for sticking to a mantra of spending cuts, but we have much more imagination than that.

The art of taxation is to “pluck the goose with the least amount of squawking”. When Labor introduced their mining tax, Australia squawked loud and was set to lose many feathers. But an invigorated Liberal Party can see to it that there is much less squawking—and that the goose can keep more of its coat.

Michael G is completing degrees in finance and history at Flinders University and works in banking.

Captain Catholic?

Many public perceptions of Tony Abbott are not based on fact, writes Michael G.

If there is one thing that disturbs many people about Tony Abbott, it is their perception of his religion and its supposed impact upon his policies and governance. Headline after headline refers to a ‘Mad monk’ a ‘zealot’ or a ‘Captain Catholic’. But is Tony Abbott any of these things, or are they a media creation and then a subsequent public perception of him?

Abbott is a by-the-line Catholic. He is anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, and for traditional ‘family values’. He voted against an abortion drug, supports the inclusion of the Bible as part of the school curriculum, and referred to one’s virginity as a gift. But how extreme are these positions, as he espoused them?

Abortion is a subject that is endlessly debated, and where opponents can be easily labeled as extreme. But splits between no abortion, abortion under certain circumstances, and any circumstances remain in Australian society. From a statistical angle, no particular view can be singled out as having a disproportionate amount of support relative to the Australian population. Abbott is free to vote in line with his views, and this does not make him any sort of extremist.

He supported the study of the Bible as part of the broader school curriculum, in the sense that it has been, and continues to be, the most important piece of literature in Western Civilisation. It is hard to argue with this claim on a historical basis. The newspapers put up the headline “All kids must read the Bible, federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says” which insinuates a kind of religious coercion, when his view was that “I think everyone should have some familiarity with the great texts that are at the core of our civilisation … that includes the Bible.” This kind of stereotyping happens repeatedly, where an oft-mention relating to religion is then twisted to cast Abbott in a poor light.

And as for the virginity issue, Abbott was asked about what kind of advice he would give to his own daughters, not the country. He knew all too well that to address Australia’s young women in such a way would be a mistake, and gave his answers carefully. That did not stop a field day for commentators. Even Julia Gillard snuck in with “Australian women want to make their own choices and they don’t want to be lectured to by Mr. Abbott” which is accurate sentiment, but Abbott wasn’t addressing Australian women in the first place.

Much of what is perceived to be Tony Abbott is an exaggeration of a caricature. His views differ in their vehemence markedly from what they are made out to be. He has no intention of forcing religious instruction upon the children of Australia, does not seek to lecture all of Australia’s women on their sexual lives, and his actual views on issues such as abortion are entirely representative of a considerable swathe of Australia’s populace.

Abbott is not a Mad Monk. He is not a Zealot. He is a Catholic, if not a Captain. Perceptions and misrepresentations of him—just a few are given here—need to be fought back with vigour, particularly among the young. People who voted Liberal previously and thought much of John Howard and Peter Costello (whose views differ little from Abbott’s) need to feel comfortable again within this side of politics. Abbott has to take a much tighter rein on his tongue himself, but the Liberal faithful have much to do among our friends, our neighbours, and in our dealings with the media in order to constrain and correct this problem.

Michael G is completing studies in finance and history at Flinders University and works in banking. He is a Christian (Baptist).

Blame transfer

Michael G explains why a constitutional amendment to cap sovereign debt would benefit all Australians.

There is a regular pattern in Australian politics: the ousting of a debt-laden Labor government and the reinstatement of a conservative coalition that takes the hard measures to reduce that debt. Every time the Australian people have eventually wisened up and made the right decision. It is they that threw out Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating, and in my state of South Australia, John Bannon.

Yet despite their endorsement of the conservative governments that followed, Australians never took a particular liking to the difficult but necessary decisions that had to be made. Reforms to taxation and welfare, and deep cuts in government spending were not popular. Conservatives always pay penance for the sins of the left.

One thing makes all of this possible: the issuance of sovereign debt. To spend, governments have to raise taxes or issue debt. The political cost of raising taxes is immediate: my middle-aged coworkers described Kevin Rudd as a ‘knob’, ‘loser’ and ‘f–king idiot’ in response to his proposed mining tax. By contrast, the political cost of issuing debt is disguised, postponed and ignored.

If I incur debt for consumption—a credit card for consumer goods or a personal loan for a car—it is I and I alone that pays the price. But for politicians, cost and responsibility can be transferred to someone else in an election. Rudd can spend now knowing that if he loses, he can criticise Tony Abbott’s remedies for it later.

In debt-laden Greece, the opposition party that went on a spending binge throughout the 00s now attacks the current government for instituting the measures its behaviour made necessary. Responsible government suffers for doing what is right, and reckless government escapes blame.

Conservatives should opt to oppose not merely wealth transfer, but blame transfer, and seek to amend our constitution to cap the issuance of sovereign debt. If a government of any stripe wishes to increase the size of the state, they should be forced to take the honest route of increasing taxation, and suffer the political consequences immediately.

John Howard’s government altered the Australian psyche through its positive marketing of surpluses and debt avoidance. Due to this Kevin Rudd is unable to spend as profligately as he would if he was the leader of another country. Here, public opinion stands in his way.

And this is why a constitutional amendment would pass: because it is merely a reinforcement of preexisting public opinion. The amendment would maintain the power of people over politicians, end a political blame game for good, and save us from the evils of debt and deficit spending.

Michael G is completing studies in finance and history at Flinders University and works at Bendigo and Adelaide Bank.

Robbing Peer to pay Pavlos

Europe should not rush to bail out the failing Greek economy, writes Michael G.

Events unfolding in Europe at present are a timely reminder of the evil of wealth redistribution, which punishes prudence and rewards recklessness. A group of countries, but one in particular (Germany) are preparing to bail out another (Greece) due to its reckless level of government spending.

Germans are characteristic savers; Greeks are typically spenders. Germany operates a sound and corruption-free taxation system; Greece’s is riddled with fraud and abuse. Germans work until they are 67; Greeks retire at 58.

Yet Germans, who save, are honest, and work long years, are about to begin funding those who do not share these admirable characteristics. The earnings of a working 66 year-old Bavarian will provide for the pension of a retired 59 year-old Cretan.

Such is the outcome of the joint European Union-International Money Fund bailout, which, like all flawed government programmes, prioritises the short term at the expense of the future. The short term outcome of the bailout is to ensure that Greek bondholders are repaid and immediate crisis is averted, and this will be accomplished.

Yet the bailout reinforces the long-running causes of Greece’s ails: it provides the country with even more debt, subsidises its accumulation, and postpones the painful yet necessary austerity measures a bankrupt nation must undertake. Just like the last thing a heroin addict needs is another high, so the last thing a debt addict needs is ever more debt.

The Germans should follow from their own admirable saving habits and steadfastly refuse to spend. This will precipitate the real crisis that Greece requires. An inability to spend is exactly what Greece needs, and exactly what the financial markets will ensure if not for EU-IMF intervention.

There is no question of the level of temporary pain this is for Greeks—deflation, falling incomes and unemployment—but it is necessary pain for long term growth. It is the kind of natural, logical outcome that any person or company would have to endure. It is why we consider spending recklessly to be a bad thing: because it results in terrible consequences. Removing the obstacle to these consequences merely facilitates and encourages more of the problem at hand.

Providing the crisis plays out as it should, it is of immense benefit to the Greeks, for it provides them with that most important economic resource, information: that excessive debt and reckless spending is the primrose path to hell, and honesty and prudence is the tough road to heaven.

Michael G is completing studies in finance and history at Flinders University and works at Bendigo and Adelaide Bank.

The State

The Conservatives in the UK have given Australian centre-right politics an example to follow, writes Michael G.

I sit here at my desk grinning at the ideological brilliance of the Conservatives’ election campaign in the United Kingdom. It is something that is not often seen: a real battle between left and right, between different principles and different ideologies. It is near-unthinkable to see such a thing being played out.

The political debate is not being framed as some wish-washy “everything for everyone” nonsense as is the case here in Australia. No, here is a real difference. Since the right (finally!) are not copying the dogma of the left—supporting ever-greater levels of state interference in our lives—the left is being forced to defend policies thought previously to be consensual.

Gordon Brown and his Labour Party now have to come up with excuses for their own Leviathan—the gigantic and ever-engorging state sector—and to defend its abject retardation of prosperity, its restrictions on individuals’ freedom, and its repulsive collusion with the big banks and big corporations.

David Cameron’s Conservatives have opted not to defend the supreme authority of the state—what a change from here in Australia! The Howard government, despite its many achievements, often defended and extended the state’s centralised rule over people. But the Conservatives want state power reduced and devolved, and truly devolved at that: where the citizenry have real power to constrain and control the state themselves.

The contrast that can be made is stark: that the people can control the state as a society, just as they control the rest of their lives as individuals. The people can be in control, and not at the whim of an unelected bureaucrat, a careerist politician, or a corporation privy to state largesse. Now the public schools are their schools, the public libraries are their libraries, and the public hospitals are their hospitals.

How sad then, is the centre-left option? Where the individual is not in control and neither is society. Public institutions are not to be trusted in the hands of the public. The left have to, in truth, defend the notion that people are utter fools and not capable of taking back responsibility. The citizenry can not be trusted; only the party can be.

There is much to look forward to. Here comes together a conservative respect for traditional institutions of society with liberal notions of greater freedom for individuals. An intellectual debt is owed to Burke, to Hayek, and now to people such as Daniel Hannan.

As a libertarian—classical liberal—with a strong conservative bent, I welcome the possibility of a new era of rigorous centre-right thought, policy, and implementation. The Conservatives in the United Kingdom have given us a lead: may we follow and advance!

Michael G is completing degrees in finance and history at Flinders University, and works at Bendigo and Adelaide Bank.

Roads to nowhere

Government interference could be responsible for massive urban sprawl, writes Michael G.

One of the strangest things I often see the political right criticise is the trend towards densification, public transport, and a lesser reliance on cars. It is assumed that the automobile is the natural form of transport, and a large lot in the suburbs is the natural form of housing.

When the announcement was made to duplicate the one-way Southern Expressway in Adelaide, South Australia, the President of the Real Estate Institute of SA welcomed it, saying that “just [like] the Heysen Tunnels, I think you’ll see the flow-on effect from easy access, [an] increase [in] prices … people will be happier to live further away because the access distance will be reduced.”

He’s right. Land to be bought was there and available, but at the previous price and without the expressway duplicated, it did not gain much interest. People would buy elsewhere, closer to the city, because this would be the better option for them. But with the completion of the Southern Expressway, their choices are distorted, and their decisions are different from what they otherwise would be.

The expressway is in effect a subsidy, a form of welfare, a handout, propping up development where there otherwise wouldn’t have been any. The problems of urban sprawl, traffic jams, higher pollution, and the wasting of people’s lives in their daily commute will result directly from the expressway’s completion.

But a natural course of development continues, however: throughout central Adelaide, within the outer ring route, older houses are knocked down and subdivisions see more and newer houses built. In the city centre, more and more apartment buildings rise towards the sky.

More people are living closer to the best schools, closer to their places of work and worship, and closer to where oppourtunities are and will be.  This is done despite government infrastructure spending encouraging the opposite.

The degree of Adelaide’s urban sprawl is not due to private development, but to government interference. Whether it is the former City of Elizabeth in the north, the masses of housing trust homes in the south, or the Heysen Tunnels in the hills, these were all government projects that distorted people’s erstwhile choices.

Where would people develop without all this interference? With a cessation on the construction of new government-built roads and the removal of heritage and other restrictions on development, where would people then choose to build? I am willing to bet they would not have their first choice more than 30 kilometers from the city centre.

Michael G is completing degrees in finance and history at Flinders University and works at Bendigo and Adelaide Bank.

The intellectual cost of prohibition

Michael G considers the real cost of prohibition.

Most debates on the subjects of prohibition and censorship are usually a combination of sad and amusing. Much of it is too emotional, hotheaded and relies on fear as a motivator. There are usually but two sides: one advocating the restraint of what it sees as repulsive moral filth and another which brazenly advocates not merely the allowance of said filth but its outright celebration.

This is obvious in most ‘social’ debates presented to people, whether they relate to drugs, alcohol, violence, sex or anything else. Every social debate is treated as a one-off individual issue rather than that great overarching one: whether restrictions on certain things or behaviours actually achieve the intended results and benefit people as individuals and society as a whole.

Just because something is prohibited doesn’t mean people will stop doing or using it. Its accessibility may be diminished but all too often its allure is heightened. The intellectual—and not the monetary or ‘social’—cost to prohibition is the most ignored. When something is banned or restricted there are many more costs to individuals and society than simply police enforcement and any associated government spending.

There is an impact upon the mentality and thought patterns of human beings. It is through wisdom and experience that we learn what works and what doesn’t. Civilisation isn’t built and retained on the forced transfer of knowledge but its continued willing acceptance by each generation. The key point I want to make is that when people don’t learn for themselves why good things are good and bad things are bad, they are desensitised to the long-term consequences of them. Children forced to sit in Church pews by their parents don’t know or understand why they’re there, and quickly leave when given the chance. Adults who go through hell on earth and then stumble into a sermon see the difference between two lives and are the strongest adherents.

It is through the possibility of failure that we succeed. Prevention from failing removes the stark contrast between the two choices and the degree of success achieved becomes weaker and more like failure every year. A Chinese importer once discovered that when importing goldfish into Australia, half of the fish would die before arrival as they didn’t need to escape predators. Such indolence resulted in weak fish that inevitably died in high numbers. The importer then added a predator to the water. Living with risk and the possibility of failure—death at the hands of the predator—the goldfish kept moving and exercising. Many more survived.

When the government bans and prohibits things it usurps the protection that would otherwise be provided by people’s own learnt wisdom and experience. Their character as people is degraded. Rather than being in a situation where they have to consider the risk of something and then make a judgment upon it, they are prevented from doing so. Every banning or prohibition of a good or service retards people’s intelligence by stopping them from thinking about it, trying it, and then making their own decision free from arbitrary government bias.

Indeed more often than not the things that harm people and society as a whole are subtly subsidised and encouraged by the government. When people go in to the city to drink to excess on a Friday or Saturday night (“binge drinking” as reported in the media), they may get there and home on subsidised public transport, may spend money on drink given to them by the government as assistance or welfare payments, and enjoy the security provided by government police. The end result is that the risk of their activity in dollar and personal terms is lessened by the government’s action: they don’t have to pay more for transport to get to their destination, are outright given money for drinking, and the price of drinks are lower because the owners of pubs and clubs don’t have to pay for the security required in case of violence.

Rather than taking an inconsistent path of, on one hand, subtly encouraging bad things, but on the other, railing against and banning them, isn’t the best option to let people make up their own minds, their own decisions? Failing to give people the freedom to make their own choices and take their own risks does not merely imply a mistrust of people, but contributes to the destruction of their rationality and intelligence. The extreme mental damage caused in the long-term by bans and prohibitions far outweighs any short-term harm caused by overindulgence in petty evils.

Michael G is completing studies in finance and history at Flinders University and works at Bendigo and Adelaide Bank.