Is the struggle for equality of opportunity over?

Equality of opportunity was one of the big themes of Gough Whitlam’s 1969 and 1972 campaigns. His 1972 policy speech promised "a new drive for equality of opportunities" through reforms to education, health and urban planning. He argued that opportunity depends on the kind of investments only government can make. In his 1985 book The Whitlam Government 1972–1975 he drew on Abraham Lincoln for support:

There is, of course, nothing novel in this idea of action by governments to promote community welfare. Before he became President, Abraham Lincoln wrote: "The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done but which they cannot, by individual effort do at all, or do so well for themselves" (p 3).

Today we’re more likely to associate this Lincoln quote with Tony Abbott or his government’s Commission of Audit. But Whitlam argued that there were important things people could not achieve on their own. Equality of opportunity was one of them. According to Whitlam, for many Australians the doors to opportunity begin closing in early childhood. In the pre-school years "inequality is rivetted on a child for a lifetime", he said. He argued that "Education should be the great instrument for the promotion of equality" but "Under the Liberals it has become a weapon for perpetuating inequality and promoting privilege." According to Whitlam, only government can make sure every Australian has access to a quality education all the way from pre-school to university.

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Humiliation and the dole: a forgotten debate

A decent society is one whose institutions do not humiliate people - Avishai Margalit

Menzies

The Great Depression stripped many Australian workers of their dignity. For many, applying for government relief was like begging for charity. Instead of giving unemployed workers cash, state governments doled out relief through tickets that could be redeemed for food. The recipient would then present their ticket to the milkman, the baker, the butcher and the grocer and recieve their rations. Often they would have to work for this ‘dole’. To get any kind of relief, applicants had to show that they had exhausted all their resources and were incapable of supporting themselves or their families. Many found this means test humiliating.

In the wake of the depression it was harder for people to believe that unemployment was always the result of laziness or personal inadequacy. To many Australian, it no longer seemed decent to humiliate unemployed workers as a way of deterring idleness and dependency. When legislation to create unemployment benefits came before the House of Representatives, Labor MP Thomas Willams declared that the scheme: "will go a long way towards ensuring that the precious children of this vast and undeveloped continent will never suffer the shame and degradation which seared the souls of the children of this country during the depression" (p 2353 pdf).

But while the major political parties agreed that Australia needed a modern social security system, they could not agree about how it would work. The Labor government wanted unemployment benefits to be funded out of tax revenue. But Robert Menzies wanted an insurance scheme funded out of contributions. He argued:

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‘Learn or earn’ is the politicians’ equivalent of Stairway to Heaven

stairway

According to the Australian, the Abbott government’s first budget will include tough new "learn or earn" Measures designed to force young people off the dole and into education, training or work. "One thing the government doesn’t want to do is to continue to pay people to stay at home and do nothing," a senior government source said.

There’s a sign on the wall

There’s a scene in the movie Wayne’s World where Wayne goes to a guitar store, picks up a Fender Stratocaster and starts playing Stairway to Heaven. The clerk grabs the guitar and points to sign on the wall – "No Stairway to Heaven" [video]. For decades, guitar students have been learning the song’s intro by heart and playing it to impress their friends. But guitar store staff are not impressed. They’ve heard it too many times.

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Think tanks – Influence isn’t always about offering practical solutions

Many people say the best way to influence government is to give policymakers practical solutions to problems they care about. According to this perspective, academics and think tanks scholars can get it wrong by spending too much time analysing problems and their causes. Policymakers don’t care about theory, they just want policies and programs that work.

Applied to think tanks, this pragmatic approach means identifying the most important problems policymakers are dealing with and producing products that explain how best to solve them within the constraints of electoral politics, institutional structure and government budgets. In Australia, the Grattan Institute seems to embody this approach. It promotes itself as a source of "Independent, rigorous and practical solutions to Australia’s most pressing problems."

The trouble with this view is that think tank scholars have sometimes succeeded by doing exactly the opposite. For example, Charles Murray is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential think tank scholars in the United States. His accent to influence began in the early 1980s with Losing Ground, a book that rejected the conventional understanding that poverty was the problem and welfare was the solution. According to Murray, welfare dependency was the problem, entrenched poverty was one of its symptoms and the solution was to abolish government welfare programs.

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The forgotten issue of drunken pensioners

old man drinking beer

Researchers warn that substance abuse among the elderly will double by 2020, but few journalists or policymakers worry about age pensioners squandering welfare money on alcohol and drugs. Things were different in 1905–6 when a royal commission looked at establishing a Commonwealth funded old age pension scheme in Australia. The commissioners recommended: "That a penalty should be imposed for supplying an old-age pensioner with intoxicating drink."

By 1901 both Victoria and New South Wales had established old-age pension schemes. And it wasn’t long before newspapers were running stories about pensioners spending all their money on drink. According to a 1901 report in Sydney’s Evening News:

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What’s the point of Work for the Dole?

Work for the Dole doesn’t work, says economist Jeff Borland. Citing a study he and Yi-Ping Tseng carried out using data from the late 1990s, he argues that it does nothing to create long-term employment opportunities and too little to build skills. But maybe Borland is missing the point. Maybe Work for the Dole isn’t meant to help participants find work.

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Did Hayek support a basic income guarantee?

A recent Swiss proposal for a basic income guarantee has sparked interest from commentators on both the left and right. In a discussion of libertarian arguments for the proposal, Bleeding Heart Libertarians blogger Matt Zwolinski suggests that the classical liberal economist Friedrich Hayek supported a basic income guarantee. He relies on a quote from Volume 3 of Hayek’s Law, Legislation and Liberty:

The assurance of a certain minimum income for everyone, or a sort of floor below which nobody need fall even when he is unable to provide for himself, appears not only to be a wholly legitimate protection against a risk common to all, but a necessary part of the Great Society in which the individual no longer has specific claims on the members of the particular small group into which he was born (p 395).

A number of writers, including Zwolinski, his fellow blogger at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Kevin Vallier and Julie Novak of the Institute of Public Affairs seem to interpret this as a proposal for the government to pay every citizen a basic income, regardless of their income, assets or willingness to work. I think this is a misinterpretation of Hayek’s position. What Hayek actually proposed was a means tested scheme restricted to those who are unable to earn a living in the market.

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Show don’t tell — What swing voters mean by ‘vision’

When political parties want to convey vision they typically reach for slogans packed with values words like ‘fairness’ and ‘strength’. But according to Ben Shimshon of BritainThinks: "Those grand vision words are almost always taken as a signal that what’s being said is just more ‘politician speak’, and voters’ keenly honed filters screen it out alongside all the other white noise."

Shimson says that parties should try to show rather than tell. What they need is not focus group tested slogans, but a handful of symbolic policies that show voters what the party values and what it thinks needs to change:

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Kludge and how think tanks and policy wonks make it worse

Think tank scholars and policy wonks strive to be both practical and clever. Being practical means proposing policies that have a good chance of getting taken up by government in the short term. And being clever means policies that generate big benefits at little or no cost. But according to American political scientist Steven Teles, the short term benefits of practicality and cleverness have long term costs.

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