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Free-floating contempt


Nick Henderson

By

October 5th, 2018


With much-needed wit and humour, Nick diagnoses the otherwise very troubling illness that currently plagues public discourse – reductivist economic arguments.


Public discourse is not what it used to be. In an era when our offence-meter is immediately dialed up to 10, entirely useful discussions can be averted by immediately questioning each other’s sources before descending into ad hominem name-calling. Progressives are now more commonly referred to as snowflakes, conservatives as Nazis.

So strap yourself in, dear reader, because I’m going to apply this partisan line of thought to the field of economics. All you’ll need is an average memory and a distinct willingness to overlook the nuances of decidedly complicated issues of public policy.

Before I dive in, I’d like to make absolutely clear that the following arguments are, by and large, satirical. The increased polarisation of our political, social and economic discourse in the developed world is merely a symptom of a much broader issue – we are losing our ability to constructively disagree with each other.

This piece is an illustration of how small slices of logic can be exploited to produce unproductive results. This technique has been adopted disturbingly often by our leaders and public figures of late, provided they haven’t skipped straight to name-calling. You’ve probably already pictured one or two current leaders who fit this mold. So, bearing that in mind, let’s gear up for Nick’s guide to shallow, aggressive economic arguments.

Arguing with progressives

What a bunch of babies. Don’t these bleeding hearts know the pitfalls of government intervention? Maybe one of your hippie friends has been moaning about the amount of coal we’re digging up to, what, produce affordable electricity? Maybe your friend has just realised that for the past three years, they’ve agreed to wait tables for cash payments substantially below the award wage, and now they’re scouring the Liberal Party frontbench for someone to blame besides themselves.

At the crux of any leftist’s argument is the notion that our government has the power to make everything better if we ask nicely. They might do this by providing goods and services themselves over the private sector, or by slapping regulations on industry to “enhance” performance.

Both of these activities require extensive bureaucracy, to be paid for, of course, by the taxpayer. Thus we have our holy trinity of government activity – public provision, regulation and taxation. Let’s create a rule for each one.

Rule 1: Public provision is inefficient. Any good or service produced by government lacks a key feature offered by the private sector – competition. When government decides to occupy a slice of the economy, they have no incentive to cut costs and run things efficiently, because what’s the worst that can happen? Government can’t go out of business. So when your snowflake friend highlights their hatred of big business (i.e. their love of big government), hypothesise how much better a given sector runs when exposed to the competitive free market. Why do your packages take so long to arrive in the mail? Because government-owned Australia Post has a monopoly on the postal service.

Rule 2: Regulation distorts the free market and violates freedom. This one is simple – whenever government puts their clumsy regulatory hands on a market, a range of unintended consequences result. Let’s say your left-leaning friend is crying about the lowering of award wages in their industry. The problem is, as you will surely point out, high minimum wages stop others from entering the labour market at all. High minimum wages might be handy for those under the protective legislative wing of government, but what about the people that now can’t find work at all?

Rule 3: Taxation distorts the free market and violates freedom. Jacking up income and corporate taxes in order to fund government activities has its own pitfalls. How can we expect entrepreneurs to innovate and grow our economy when we strip their profit margins away? Capital will go overseas to somewhere it can be used more effectively, leaving Australia as a backwater, free from the hassles of competition and prosperity. Another great move, big government!

Pretty much any argument to expand government power can be refuted using one of the three rules, provided you’re willing to get creative. Yet if you can’t make headway with the above arguments, you always have one final ace in the hole: attack the person’s entitlement, and don’t forget to draw on at least one of the following: avocados, lattes, and Centrelink dependence.

Arguing with conservatives

I now turn my attention to the xenophobic empty suits who only care about destroying our planet and channeling money up to the evil businessmen who preside over the New World Order. Based on the above section, we can see that every economic argument made by the right revolves around the notion that markets are efficient and we should leave them alone. But you, dear reader, know far better than to believe what big business tells you to. You’re not going to eat at their table, are you?

Let me introduce you to any economically-inclined left-winger’s best friend: market failure. Types of market failure include monopoly power, information asymmetry, public goods and externalities. Mix and match any of these to produce the following counter-arguments to our unenlightened friends on the right:

Rule 1: Public provision is necessary and important. If the government isn’t going to pay for your security, healthcare, roads and public parks, who is? Who’s going to uphold your property rights, and ensure rule of law? These are all public goods, and if left to the private sector, there simply won’t be enough of them. If your libertarian friend is making a dumb argument about privatising the postal service, point out that it’s a natural monopoly and competing postal infrastructure would be a waste of resources.

Rule 2: Regulation is necessary and important. The global financial crisis is your friend on this one. Leave the private sector (especially those soulless investment bankers) to themselves and they have the power to derail the entire world economy. Pretty important that we keep them in check then, right? Then there’s externalities; do we really expect the private sector to hold back production to prevent pollution, climate change, and the bleaching of our reef? Maybe Pauline Hanson wants our reef, like the rest of Australia, to be as white as possible – but you certainly don’t, do you?

Rule 3: Taxation is necessary and important. Well, we obviously need to tax people to fund the provision required by rule 1, and the bureaucracy required to oversee rule 2. For our purposes, avoid arguments about efficiency and stick with questions of equity and redistribution. Our poorest citizens don’t deserve to be left in the dark, they deserve a helping hand when they’re down. Not that your average amoral reactionary would understand this.

These rules should help counter any arguments made by the right against the necessity of government. However, if you still haven’t closed out the argument, wait until your opponent inevitably says something about government inefficiency. At this point you can dig the knife in with an original quote such as “trickle-down economics doesn’t work” or, my personal favourite, “neoliberalism has failed”.

Arguing with centrists

This one’s really easy. Stop being such a fence-sitter and get some proper opinions, you wuss.

Image source: Unsplash.com

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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