Inequality is a feature, not a bug: How to make sense of the Federal Budget.

We’ve all had that conversation at a party.  The one with the person who turns out to hold such staggeringly bigoted, or illogical beliefs that it is impossible to argue with them.  And yet you can’t tear yourself away.  You keep thinking, against all evidence, that if you just explain things to them properly, maybe they’ll come around; look, here are some statistics!  And here, see, here are some well-respected, peer-reviewed studies by experts in the field!  Maybe if I appeal to their better instincts, or draw an analogy with something tangible from their own lives?  No? 

But the reason you can’t connect with them is because the fundamental axioms of their life are so different from yours that there is, simply, no common ground.

That’s the fundamental disconnect that is happening between the Abbott Government and, well, everybody else, from the AMA to the IPA.  Outraged articles reporting on leaked documents that prove the Government knew that the budget would hit the most disadvantaged the hardest miss the point completely.  Of course they knew that.  You’d have to be a completely illiterate idiot with no rational thinking skills at all to miss the point that, if you take a young unemployed person and give them absolutely no money at all for six months, they might find it a wee bit hard to make ends meet.  And this Government is not full of idiots.  To assume that it is, is also to miss the point.  Of course you don’t get to occupy the most privileged positions in society, even if you are a white privately-educated male and therefore have one fuck of a head start on everyone else, if you can’t grasp the basics of budget modelling and social policy.

So, no, they’re not idiots, although I can see that it feels like the only logical explanation once you’ve discounted all the others.  Somehow, believing that a group of highly educated men who are being advised by specialists in their field are idiots is more palatable than believing the truth.

The truth is that they understand entirely the impact of the Budget.  And they’re not only fine with it, they see it as desirable.


Classical conservatism, remember, predicates that society benefits from inequality.  Adam Smith talks about maximising state wealth by paying workers the bare minimum that is necessary for survival.  John Locke considered the main function of government to be the preservation of private property.  Edmund Burke, who was a bit of a dick but meant well, was absolutely convinced that there was a line to be drawn between the ‘common people’, who weren’t worthy of a vote, and government, which featured the best and brightest.  These are guys who are still studied today, because their politics, whilst a tad quaint, have been formative to Western society.  At the heart of their philosophy is the assumption that inequality is good for a country.  It might not be great for individuals, obviously.  But it’s good for the country as a whole.

When left wing commentators write in outrage about the fact that the Government knew that their budget would disadvantage the poor, they’re assuming that this is considered to be a universally bad thing.  They’re appealing to a particular view – that all individuals should be given a fighting chance and a minimal standard of living to preserve their self-respect – and assuming that it’s the only view.  To advocate for anything else would be such insanity that it can’t be contemplated.

But that’s exactly what this Government is doing. They’re thinking about the country as a whole, and approaching the question of governance with a completely different view.  They’re saying that it is only by encouraging inequality that we, as a country, can grow great.


Once you accept that, the Budget makes sense.

Let’s look at education, because to look at everything would be beyond the reach of a humble blog post.  As I dash past the other areas of the Budget, though, let’s not forget that the proposed $7 fee payable by patients as a Medicare gap was specifically modelled to discourage people from going to the doctor.  It’s a feature: not a bug.  

We’re squawking about the fact that deregulated university fees will discourage people from poorer families – those who will be less able to pay off their HECS early – from going to university.  How can the government not see this, we cry.  How can they be so blind?  But that’s because we’re assuming that they’re not trying to orchestrate just that result.  The University of Canberra’s Vice-Chancellor believes that too many people are going to university; policies that force people into accepting blue-collar careers are considered a positive thing.  Catherine Livingstone of the Business Council of Australia agrees.

Even if people do still go to university, the policies will help ensure that the best and brightest careers are retained by the people who deserve them: upper-class men.  Here’s Christopher Pyne, on the 7.30 Report yesterday, where he was asked whether he accepted that changes to HECS will disadvantage women:

women are well-represented amongst the teaching and nursing students. They will not be able to earn the high incomes that say dentists or lawyers will earn.

So that’s alright then.  Women can’t earn high incomes, like dentists or lawyers can. Nothing to see here, carry on with your ironing.  

Quite apart from the fact that Pyne’s answer is completely disingenuous, ignoring as it does the fact that over 60% of law graduates are female, it betrays a deeper assumption about the way that society should work.  A different person, acknowledging that women ‘will not be able to earn the high incomes’ might present that fact as one that needs to be addressed.  Pyne presents it as a defence of his policy.  A feature, not a bug.


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