The Great Question

The great question is, "how can I qualify my son to help society?" Not, as we have so frequently thought, "how can I qualify society to help my son?" If human homes are to fulfil their destiny, then we must have frugality and saving for education and progress. - Robert Menzies, May 1942.

During 1942, former Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies broadcast a weekly series of essay's collectively titled, 'The Forgotten People'. They dealt with a range of topics from passing events to "matters of pertinent interest." What they presented to the public was a summarised philosophy which, in a time of war, gathered enough interest to be published into a book of the same name. Two years later, Robert Menzies would go on to be one of the principle founders of the Liberal Party of Australia, into which the prominent non-Labor parties of the time amalgamated becoming the natural custodian of classical liberalism and conservatism in Australian politics. The Forgotten People would be the underlying philosophy and policy guide of one of the most successful governments in Australian history. With Robert Menzies as its leader the Liberal Party won government in 1949 followed by nine consecutive election wins. With Menzies leading as Prime Minister until his retirement in 1966, his party ultimately governed uninterrupted until Gough Whitlam's 'It's Time' victory in the 1972 election.

The reason I have decided to write about this series of essays, is that they were written in a time of fear and tumult, of the kind with a genuine reason to be felt. It was the middle of the Second World War and public debate was dominated by matters never thought about in contemporary Australia. The rationalisation of industry and supply rationing, the well being of fathers, sons, brothers and husbands was on the mind of the public. There was genuine and reasonable fear of conflict reaching Australian shores, and indeed, only months before Menzies' first broadcast, the Japanese had bombed Darwin. Menzies had already made the prognosis at the time of the broadcasts that the way in which Australia conducted itself and the things on which it placed it's premiums for the remainder of the war, would determine its place in the world in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. "We cannot go wrong right up to the peace treaty, and then expect suddenly thereafter to go right", he said. Thus, he made the Australian public aware of their responsibilities to what kind of country they desired Australia to become after the war. The same dichotomy applies to current circumstances.

I have not so far in this endeavour shied away from the forbidden subject of politics and nor will I. It is a prerequisite of a well-maintained democracy to encourage and set a good example of maturity enough to debate and maintain a rational contest of ideas. For this reason I will draw out the historical lessons and political wisdom of Robert Menzies and see what extrapolation these things can offer to our present circumstances. If, in this process my political colour proves different to any reader, I hope he is man enough to go through the emotional process and come to terms with a contrary opinion. With that said, may Menzies's words ring true in the present circumstances: "…whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, the foundations of whatever new order is to come after the war are inevitably being laid down now.” The Covid-19 pandemic has been likened to war, so let us liken the lessons of war to the pandemic. Just as the foundations of whatever new order was to follow the war were inevitably being laid down while it was still being fought, the foundations of the post Covid order are inevitably being laid down now. The pandemic presents problems on three fronts – public health, strategic dependence upon China and the national economy. I will deal mainly with the latter because the effect that the virus has had on the Commonwealth balance sheet seems worse than the effect on public health, apart from the public health effects of the government’s response itself to the virus, and I will explore the China problem another time.

People will argue that the Commonwealth Government is prioritising the economy over human lives. It is the compassionate view of the situation, but not the historically grounded one. To fight a threat to public health or public safety at the expense of the economy is merely to divert public health risk to something of a different nature. Say, from a virus to poverty. It may sound extreme, but the people making the economy over lives argument against the government are the one and same collective character who were pessimistic about the Australian economy to start with. According to their delusions, if the economy gets any worse there will be mass starvation and the workers will revolt in bloody violence on the streets. Of course they’re drinking wine and tapping the keys of an expensive computer with a full belly while making these claims, but in their own minds they are owed something because they live in such a greed ridden society that they had to work to obtain such niceties as wine, good food and computers. God-forbid, the government has so mismanaged the economy (and by that they mean that Newstart is too low) that they have had to forego their Wagyu steak with truffle jus for the third straight month. And do not even get them started on their withdrawals from smashed avo on gluten free rye. If people honestly believe that this is the cost of real economic downturn, they are either too ignorant or too dull to deserve what they do not know how lucky they are to have. Granted, the economy is not in good shape comparative to past performance and future potential. But Imagine being an asylum seeker fresh out of a war zone or real economic collapse arriving in Australia and the biggest perplexions of Australians are that the highest minimum wage in the world is too low and an unemployment allowance doesn’t buy Japanese beef.

This is not to sneer down the nose at those who require the aid of the State to get by. As Menzies so wisely puts it, “We offer no affront – on the contrary we have nothing but the warmest human compassion – toward those whom fate has compelled to live on the bounty of the State, when we say that the greatest element in a strong people is a fierce independence of spirit. This is the only real freedom, and it has as its corollary a brave acceptance of unclouded individual responsibility.” To illustrate the point further, he continues later, “The idea contained by many people that, in a well-constituted world, we shall all live on the State is the quintessence of madness, for what is the state but us? We collectively must provide what we individually receive. The great vice of democracy – a vice which is exacting a bitter retribution from it at this moment – is that for a generation we have been busy getting ourselves onto the list of beneficiaries and removing ourselves from the list of contributors, as if somewhere there was somebody else’s wealth and somebody else’s effort on which we could thrive. To discourage ambition, to envy success, to hate achieved superiority, to distrust independent thought, to sneer at and impute false motives to public service – these are the maladies of modern democracy and of Australian democracy in particular. Yet ambition, effort, thinking, and readiness to serve are not only the design and objectives of self-government but are the essential conditions of its success.”

Let the above words illustrate a lesson that must be learned. The commonwealth government has recently passed the biggest social assistance package in Australia’s history. All well and good if it helps to keep businesses open, or individuals to pay rent and put food on the table. But when Australians are living on borrowed money, the biggest responsibility that the government has, even bigger than a social safety net itself, is ensuring that as few souls as possible become reliant on its teat to get by. The reason being, besides what Menzies has already made clear, that if social welfare is the teat of government, then middle-class Australians are the mammary gland producing the tax sustenance for the unfortunate. Middle class Australians, who Menzies calls “the forgotten people” are the backbone of the country, and in his words, “we shall destroy them at our peril.” What I have to say now is not to gloat, but to set an example. Through frugality and saving my family has fared well in relatively undesirable economic conditions. Thrift and forbearance (which is better insurance than blind hope and luck) in good times means more resources to carry into bad times, and the worst thing a government can do for its constituents is to discourage and penalise thrift and saving. Menzies again says it better than I:

“On occasions of emergency, as in the depression and during the present war, we have hastened to make it clear that the provision made by man for his own retirement and old age is not half as sacrosanct as the provision the State would have made for him had he never saved at all. We have talked of income from savings as if it possessed a somewhat discreditable character.” (franking credits anyone?) “We have taxed it more and more heavily. We have spoken slightingly of the earning of interest at the very moment when we have advocated new pensions and social schemes.”

He continues further on, “If the motto is to be, “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you will die, and if it chances you don’t die, the State will look after you; but if you don’t eat, drink and be merry, and save, we shall take your savings from you”, then the whole business of life will become foundationless.”

Recently it came to light that a social scheme designed to keep people employed by assisting business’ cover the wages of their staff has paid out $60 billion less than forecast. From the federal opposition there came cries of anger that somewhere, someone must be missing out. But, from more rational minds their came celebration that fewer people are relying on government assistance than originally thought and the commonwealth balance sheet would have significantly less red ink than previously suspected. This is something worth celebrating, the biggest economic fall thus far in my lifetime has left fewer people than expected on government assistance to maintain employment and a liveable income and can instead rely on their own effort, skill, frugality and saving. We must make sure that people at all ends of society have the opportunity at a living, but it must be a self-respecting living. “human nature is at its best when it combines dependence upon God with independence of man.”

When this pandemic is over, many things will be different, just as many things were different post World War II. To conclude I will use Menzies’ own conclusion and you will see the similarities for yourself:

“Many great edifices will have fallen, and we shall be able to study foundations as never before, because war will have exposed them. But I do not believe that we shall come out into the overlordship of an all-powerful State on whose benevolence we shall live, spineless and effortless – a State which will dole out bread and ideas with neatly regulated accuracy; where we shall all have our dividend without subscribing our capital; where the government, that almost deity, will nurse us and rear us and maintain us and pension us and bury us; where we shall all be civil servants, and all presumably, since we are all equal, heads of departments.

If the new world is to be a world of men, we must be not pallid and bloodless ghosts, but a community of people whose motto shall be, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. Individual enterprise must drive us forward. That does not mean that we are to return to the old and selfish notions of laissez-faire. The functions of the State will be much more than merely keeping the ring within which the competitors will fight. Our social and industrial obligations will be increased. There will be more law, not less; more control, not less.

But what really happens to us will depend on how many people we have who are of the great and sober and dynamic middle-class – the strivers, the planners, the ambitious ones. We shall destroy them at our peril.”

There are too many similarities between May 1942 and June 2020 to ignore and forget the hard learned lessons of our history. We must see this as a rare opportunity to study our foundations as never before as this pandemic will have laid them bare before us. If, when this is over we will be leaners and grow flabby rather than lifters who grow muscles, then the whole business of life will have become foundationless. The cost of dodging economic collapse will be absorbed by the tax burden of my children, just as the cost of the Global Financial Crisis was absorbed by my own tax burden. The great question therefore must be this: "how can I qualify my son to help society? Not, as we have so frequently thought, "how can I qualify society to help my son?""

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