Dame Anne Salmond: Balance needed after ravages of neo-liberalism

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is a good example of how his success has become irrelevant. Photo / AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is a good example of how his success has become irrelevant. Photo / AP

Dame Anne Salmond is Distinguished Professor of Maori Studies and Anthropology at the University of Auckland.

No one should be surprised if there is a crisis of mistrust in politicians in New Zealand, and across the Anglo-American world. For the past 30 years, they have been pursuing a philosophy that strikes at the heart of trust and integrity in public life.

The rise and spread of neo-liberalism since the 1980s has been a remarkable phenomenon. At its heart, it is based on a simple, utterly amoral idea " that of the cost-benefit calculating individual. Life is understood as a competitive struggle among individuals. Each seeks to minimise their costs and maximise their benefits.

Once this idea is accepted, a compelling logic unfolds. Those who seek to maximise their benefits are entitled (even required) to minimise their costs " in particular, those costs that benefit others, since the contest is competitive.

This includes taxes. Those who seek to maximise their benefits are entitled to minimise these costs by tax avoidance or tax regimes that reward the successful.

If success itself is a virtue, the question of how that success was achieved becomes irrelevant. This may help to explain the rise of Donald Trump as a political phenomenon, for instance.

In this way of thinking, those who succeed are entitled (even required) to use their success to acquire ever more wealth and power. The logic of neo-liberalism drives relentlessly towards increasing inequality.

If life is understood as a struggle among cost-benefit maximising individuals, the idea of a fair and harmonious society retreats, even vanishes. As Margaret Thatcher famously said, "There is no such thing as society." If one studies human history, however, driven as it is by collective achievement, it is clear she was wrong.

Language, for instance, makes it possible to share ideas across space and time. Kinship enables us to take care of children. Medicine is based on the discoveries and skilled interventions of others. Education passes on ideas and knowledge.

Business works by bringing people together to produce goods and services for others. Values such as truth and justice, decency and generosity foster social cohesion.

Human beings are social animals, through and through.

The idea that there is no such thing as society, however, has many practical implications. If the aim of life is personal success, those who have failed are at fault and must bear the consequences, those who lose their jobs, for instance, or the homeless.

Once the pursuit of individual advantage takes over, many of our collective institutions are corroded. Truth turns to spin or lies. Justice becomes the preserve of the privileged. Ideas of democracy and "a fair go" seem outmoded. In the name of progress, we sacrifice the future of our own children and the planet.

Responsibility for dealing with the fall-out - climate change, environmental degradation, extreme disparities of wealth, housing crises - is handed over to government that, according to neo-liberal dogma, should not interfere with the free play of the "market".

The outcome, as one might expect, is an abject failure to tackle major threats to human prosperity and survival. For this reason, neo-liberalism is sometimes described as one of humanity's worst ideas, along with communism, whose hypercollectivism is the flip side of neo-liberalism's hyperindividualism.

No wonder people are angry. It is time for a new and better balance to be struck between the pursuit of individual aspirations and collective values and interests. Both are vital if communities are to flourish.

In the meantime, we must uphold ideas such as truth and justice, decency and a fair go - in the media, political life, the justice system, education and in business - and fight to protect democratic checks and balances.

Without these values, we are likely to find ourselves adrift with no ethical compass to guide us and heading for the rocks. Much of life in the Anglo-American world looks like that at present.

- NZ Herald

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