1. Hyde: Exploiting the churches as stalking horses for socialism
2. McGuinness: Wages and the young unemployed
3. Sturgess: Chaining or Changing Australia?
And on Changing Australia’s successor, It’s a Rocky Road: Young People in Australia:
4. Anon: Better ways to achieve Church goals
5. Williams: The “Rocky Road” … stumbling blocks not stepping stones
John Hyde, “Exploiting the churches as stalking horses for socialism,”
The Australian Financial Review, June 8, 1984, p. 15.
I am constantly surprised by the diligence and success with which Socialists, Marxists, Neo-marxists, Neo-socialists and collectivists of all shades seek out, find and employ respectable stalking horses behind which to advance the collectivist society and condemn the liberal society.
One of their more notable recent successes has been to imply a collectivist preference to the Christian Church. One of the most recent shots in that war, which the collectivists have partly won, has been the document Changing Australia, produced by the Anglican Social Responsibilities Commission, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, the Australian Council of Churches, and the Commission on Social Responsibility of the Uniting Church.
Changing Australia adopts the political techniques not of the gospels but of the worst sort of vote-grubbing politicians appealing to the baser human motives of envy, fear and hatred, while offering the sanctimonious warmth of doing good at another’s expense.
Discussing society’s ills in retrospect, it absolves individuals of responsibility by offering them scapegoats in the form of the world economy, multinationals, corporations, and United States bases; in prospect it demands a collective responsibility, enforced by government. It even says “… the loss of integrity is no longer something personal.”
It is all a far cry from that personal moral responsibility which was the subject to the many sermons of my schooldays — and much more comfortable to live with.
Although probably the work of one unnamed author, Changing Australia claims to be a consensus document evolved out of discussion with many groups, “and with the bishops and leaders of the churches.”
Were it not for the implied imprimatur of the Christian churches it would be extremely unimportant — just another piece of badly argued political junk, dishonest in the impression it seeks to convey but not rating much serious attention. As it does seem to speak with the authority of the churches it should be answered.
Several have criticised the author’s assertions and the role of the churches in propagating them. The Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies conducted two one-day seminars at which the skills of theology, economic, philosophy, law and foreign affairs were brought to bear on the publication.
Seldom have I seen anything so delicately carved up. The job was done (not collectively but each according to his own judgment and on his own responsibility) by the Rev Dr John Williams, the Rev Br Paul McGavin, Br Hugh Henry MSC, Professor Lauchlan Chipman, Professor Geoffrey Brennan and Mr Greg Sheridan. The proceedings are to be published next month.
Central to Changing Australia is the author’s notion of economic justice, which is seen as an egalitarian distribution of wealth and income, bearing no relationship to the processes by which wealth is created or to individuals’ contributions to that process. This seems as unjust as the opposite extreme idea, that wealth is gained by merit alone and therefore no redistribution can be justified.
He, or she, attempts to ground the concept of economic justice in the biblical writings and then to apply it to all Australians — Christian and non-Christian alike — by resorting to government compulsion. How like the Ayotollah Khomeini.
Were Changing Australia’s idea of justice to be as well founded in the Bible as it claims to be, it might give devout Christians an insurmountable problem. The Rev Dr Williams shows that it is not. The Bible is not a socialist tract. Although it condemns many means of becoming wealthy, and lays clear obligations upon the wealthy, wealth itself is seen as a sign of God’s favour. A procedural, not an end, pattern of justice is involved. The Bible says nothing about a right to receive as much from mammon as 14 million other Australians but more than nearly all of 5,000 million other people of the world.
I suspect Changing Australia would not appeal to Australians as much if the author had taken the argument to its logical conclusion where Australians are compelled to redistribute most of their high living standard and capital to foreigners.
The problem of wealth is seen as one of distribution rather than creation. Taxes must be higher to pay for higher social welfare benefits but no thought is given to making our economy more productive. It is not even suggested that the least well-off might benefit from greater production.
Unemployment is seen as a major crisis. I do not quarrel with that assessment, but why isn’t the role of the unions and the price of labour considered among the document’s list of possible causes of unemployment?
The tract also deals sloppily with the notion of power. Power is not defined but wealth is seen as its source. Wealth obviously gives an individual more power over his own life but power, as distinct from mere influence, over others’ lives requires the ability to compel obedience.
Short of resort to criminal behaviour, wealth cannot compel; it can only offer. Compulsion is the prerogative of government. Wealth can make offers to unwise government; I am sure it often does, but that circumstance provides at least as good a case for limiting government as for limiting wealth.
All six speakers at the CIS seminar were concerned for Australia that the authority of the church had been employed to support a very one-sided view of the social sciences. At least some of the speakers were concerned for the church also.
The church has a long reputation for intellectual rigour which it can[not] afford to squander. The Roman Catholic Church (Divini Redemptoris) says: “… in the sphere of the social sciences the church has never proposed a definite technical system, since this is not her field.”
I predict that the three churches concerned will come to be more careful how their reputations are appropriated by people with strong political preferences. Men and women of the church will still be encouraged by the church to speak out on the great social issues, but greater care will be taken to ensure that it is well known that it is not the church which speaks, and they will be expected to enhance not diminish the church’s reputation for intellectual discipline.
Finally there is a religious and collectivist society similar in some ways to that advocated by Changing Australia, to which it might have referred its readers. It is Poland.
P. P. McGuinness, “Wages and the young unemployed,”
The Australian Financial Review, September 3, 1984, pp. 2-3.
“We have not helped the young by demanding that they not be employed unless paid excessive wages. We have priced them out of the labour market and we deserve no thanks for that.”
No: these are not the words of the retiring Secretary of the Treasury, John Stone. They were written by the former Minister of Labour in the Whitlam Government, Mr Clyde Cameron, in his book Unions in Crisis.
And, of course, they express the same awareness of the way in which, honestly or dishonestly, unions and others have systematically limited the employment opportunities of young people in the name of protecting their interests, with the result being the social disaster of mass youth unemployment.
Indeed, one of the great mysteries of current discussion about the problem of unemployment in general, and youth unemployment in particular, is the way in which many people, even some economists, claim that the level of wages required to be paid to young people under arbitration awards have nothing to do with levels of unemployment.
The absurdity of the general proposition is obvious: if it were true that wage levels did not affect employment, then wage levels are obviously far too low. Why do the proponents of this view not demand an immediate doubling of wage rates? Why do they not demand that school-leavers be paid immediately the full adult rate? If wage rates are not related to unemployment and output, then by what criterion should they be limited?
Obviously, the matter is not as simple as that. Even the strongest advocates of wage increases realise, even if they do not admit it in so many words, that there is a limit to wage increases at a particular point of time which if exceeded would have harmful effects on the economy and on wage earners.
The argument about youth wages is slightly more complex. For it is an argument about the effects of movements in youth wages (award and actual) relative to the wages of other groups: total wages, adult women, part-time workers, full-time workers, and relative to other sources of income, such as Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme payments, the dole, and other social security benefits.
There are a number of possible forms of the proposition that minimum wages for the young are too high to permit full employment, and that the high level of youth wages is a major cause of the present high level of youth unemployment.
The simplest, which no one presents in this form, is that the level of minimum wages is the sole, direct cause of high levels of youth unemployment. As far as I am aware, no one has argued this. It is a straw man, put up by those who would wish to obfuscate the argument in order to pretend that wages and union activity ought not to be examined in this connection.
The real issue is whether the level of youth wages, and minimum wages for young people, both absolutely and relatively, is a major contributing factor to high youth unemployment.
Let it be said immediately that to say that youth wages are too high is not an argument for cutting the living standards of the young. If the wage level which is compatible with reducing youth unemployment is too low to provide a decent living standard for the young people, then there is a clear case for supplementing it: through social security benefits, through greater family support when this is available, and through forms of scholarship payments based on merit.
But it is hardly a morally acceptable argument to propose that the living standards of 75 per cent of young workers should be maintained by destroying the lives of the 25 per cent of the age group who cannot obtain employment or work experience as a result of the demands of top 75 per cent.
The notion that minimum wages for young workers, and the relativity of these wages to those of other groups in the workforce, have little or no influence on youth employment is a peculiar one. But it has been advanced.
It has also been convincingly refuted in a paper published last year by the Bureau of Labour Market Research entitled “Youth Wages, Employment and the Labour Force”. Despite the complexities and inadequacies of Australian labour market statistics, the only tenable conclusion coming from a careful examination of the facts is that wage levels are a major contributing factor to the relatively high level of youth unemployment.
Most economists, indeed most people capable of logical thinking, would be amazed that anyone could asset the contrary. Competent outside economists cannot understand that the issue is still being debated with passion in Australia.
Thus Dan Mitchell, the prominent American labour economist who is the author of the chapter on the Australian labour market in the forthcoming Brookings Institution survey of the Australian economy, does not consider the matter worthy of debate. Instead, he addresses himself to much more interesting questions, such as the importance of non-wage factors in the level of youth unemployment.
And this, of course, is one of the major issues. Hardly anyone has asserted that wage levels are the only cause of relatively high unemployment amongst the young. The matter is clearly much more complex than that. Nor does it follow that a substantial cut in minimum wages of young people would cure the problem overnight. But it would help.
When considering the causes of high youth unemployment, it is necessary to look not just at the demand side of the labour market, but also the supply side. The demand side is difficult enough to analyse in detail for there have been complex shifts in the pattern of employment in Australia over the last decade or so, and shifts in the relative wage structure affecting women, boys and girls, part-time workers, and so on. There have also been changes in the hiring policies of public and, to a lesser extent, private employers.
Thus the public sector policy of hiring more women and of less discrimination against women has, to a certain extent, offset the impact of equal pay; and throughout the labour market there have been complex substitution effects as a result of changing award wage structures.
But there have also been complex supply-side factors operating. Two of the issues which Mitchell finds interesting are the effects of unemployment benefits and education retention rates for the young on youth unemployment; here there is also the complex problem of dealing with the supply of young labour from those who are not formally in the labour force, as with after-school or vacation employment for schoolchildren and university students.
Here, too, there is a complex network of incentive and disincentive effects: too-high unemployment benefits relative to wages for young people constitute a disincentive to seek work, a high school dropout rate increases the supply of inexperienced and unskilled young people seeking work, low TEAS allowances relative to unemployment benefits tend to increase the proportion of young people seeking work and the dole rather than staying in tertiary education, and so on.
With all these complexities, however, the serious studies of youth unemployment tend to discount the “sociological” factors which are often suggested. Thus there is little evidence of technological unemployment amongst young people, nor even of unemployment due to unwillingness to work, or unreasonable expectations on the part of either job seeker or prospective employer, and so on.
Such factors may be important. The increasing dissatisfaction of the community and employers with the performance of the school system is undoubtedly also important.
But all these factors are simply different ways of expressing the belief that young people are not “worth” the wages which employers have to pay them, that is, that the wages of young people are so high relative to the wages of alternative employees, that the length of training which is needed to make them into productive employees is too long to make their employment a feasible proposition for a business which has to make a profit.
Of course, many employers are prepared to make an investment in young workers, and do not expect them to be immediately productive. But the impact of excessively high levels of beginning wages increases the size of this investment, and naturally leads to some economising on the use of young workers.
There is nothing evil in this. But it is difficult not to reflect on the motives of those who would pretend that such forces do not operate, and so promote unemployment amongst the young; and, as Mr Stone quite rightly and indignantly commented, the real harm is coming from the unholy combination of the unions and the arbitration tribunals.
If, as is certainly the case, wage levels are a major contributing factor to the relatively high levels of youth unemployment, then the villains of the piece are not young people, or employers, or even governments, but the selfish conspiracy of adults to deny employment opportunities (and the development of relevant work-skills) to the young.
Welfare professionals who care less about the young than about their own ideological commitments are also at fault, including many of the self-styled Christians who confuse ideology and theology.
An excellent piece of corrective reading for such people, who equate their feelings with analysis, is provided by a recent essay by Br Paul McGavin, an Anglican who is completing his doctoral thesis on wages policy and employment under the Whitlam Government. In this essay, published by the Centre for Independent Studies in a volume devoted to a scathing demolition of the Australian Council of Churches document “Changing Australia” [Chaining Australia — Church bureaucracies and political economy, edited Geoffrey Brennan and John K. Williams, published by the Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney], McGavin demonstrates that a Christian does not have to ignore all canons of logical analysis in the name of his faith.
Rather, true Christianity, as any true commitment to social welfare and equity, requires a fairly tough and sceptical approach to worldly programs of reform, not the parroting of currently fashionable sociological jargon.
I have always had difficulty with the proposition that the essence of Christianity is “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” It seemed to sit oddly with the teachings of the author of Christianity who compared the kingdom of heaven to a man travelling into a far country who, before he departed, gave his possessions to his servants —
And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; every man according to his several ability …
Moreover, the moral of that tale revealed to me a man who understood the primitive capital market of his day and the time value of money —
Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with interest.
To merely save the capital the Lord had given us was a sin. We were expected to maximise the returns through wise investment.
None of this detracts from the rest of His teachings — how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven and the obligations which men have to their neighbours — but the message of the parable is clear, if embarrassing to Christian socialists.
Christian Socialism was born in 1848, the progeny of two Anglican churchmen, F.D. Maurice and Charles Kingsley. And though retarded in its youth by another socialist movement whose manifesto was published in the same year, more recently Christian socialism has enjoyed a season of popularity. So that today, if liberation theology is unfamiliar to church-goers, the message of Changing Australia is not.
That message is not the one to be found in the Parable of the Talents. Put in its starkest form, it is that socialism is the Gospel of Jesus Christ in action. According to the authors of Changing Australia, the Christian ideal is probably “a society in which the resources available are so fairly shared that no one is considered wealthy but all have some share in poverty. It would be a society in which justice is done.”
There has never been a Christian Capitalist movement. But in recent years Christians who are not as offended by the market as the activists within the Australian Council of Churches apparently are, have begun to explore the ethical dimensions of capitalism. At the forefront of this trend is American scholar, Michael Novak, whose 1982 word, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, seeks to weave Christianity, democratic theory and a healthy regard for modern capital markets, in particular for the corporation, into an integrated philosophical system.
Australian Christians have been surprisingly quick to respond to these international developments. Uniting Church minister, John Williams, sparked a lively debate in the pages of Church and Nation three years ago with the publication of an article, “Christians, the free society and the free market.”
With Brennan and Stent, both Christians and academic economists, Williams contributed to a seminar in late 1982 on The Christian and the State, organised by the Sydney-based, Centre for Independent Studies. In it he offered what is, I think, one of the most telling criticisms of the Christian socialism and liberation theology that has been written in this country. The following passage, though amusing, takes a passing swipe at the foundations of Christian socialism — the assumption that a political system of rights and duties can be derived from the purely person obligation of the Christian to his neighbour. Illustrating his critique of liberation theology, Williams observed:
Were such theologians to re-write the parable of the Good Samaritan they would not posit, as early Christian socialists may have, a “Better Samaritan” who, observing the wounded traveller, hot-footed it back to Jerusalem, called out the militia, extracted money from other wealthy Samaritans, and set up an “aid-to-wounded-travellers” benefit. The liberation theologian would postulate a “Best Samaritan” who would conclude that the victim of theft must have been fairly wealthy in the first place, was undoubtedly the beneficiary of an unjust social and economic order, and that the so-called “robbers” were really freedom fighters valiantly battling against “institutional violence”. He would therefore urge those concerned for social justice to fund the robbers: through, perhaps, the World Council of Samaritan Synagogues.
More recently CRA managing director, John Ralph, has appeared in print defending “Profits and Christianity” — “It is bordering on scandalous,” he told an audience of Christian businessmen recently, “that we meekly allow the concerned and well-meaning members of our Churches to be misled by [Changing Australia], with hardly a word of dissent.”
And Brennan and Williams have again teamed up with the Centre for Independent Studies in a volume which does explicitly dissent from the implicit socialism in Changing Australia. With one exception, the chapters in Changing Australia were originally delivered as conference papers earlier this year, a conference organised by the CIS to scrutinise the assumptions underlying that Christian Socialist Manifesto.
Williams is wielding a weapon he knows well in an artful attack on the notion of social justice. Not only is there no Biblical precedent for the concept of distributive justice, he writes, but “far from condemning the possession of wealth vastly in excess of the norm as evidence of injustice, such wealth is not infrequently adduced by the Bible writers as evidence of “God’s favour”. He moves easily between a rigorous philosophical analysis and his characteristic Williamsical anecdotes. Illustrating the impossibility of producing “just” outcomes in the end-distribution of wealth in a large and complex community with a diversity of values:
The cellist rendering the works of Johann Sebastian Bach but receiving an income dramatically lower than that enjoyed by ‘Boy George’ mincing his way through the works of Johann Sebastian Here-Today-And-Gone-Tomorrow, may well be able to reconcile himself to the truly appalling tastes of the masses as reflected in and through the market. He would be utterly incensed and the victim of profound injustice if such an income distribution were imposed by alleged experts on the basis of personal consideration.
Geoffrey Brennan contributes two pieces. His conference paper looks critically at the claim by the authors of Changing Australia that “There is growing alienation among Australians in their relationships and social structures”, which they associate with “the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small number of people”. Brennan’s reply is simple: the facts of the matter are that, to the extent that we can discern a trend, the distribution of wealth in Australia has become less unequal over time. As in most Western countries, there has been a general increase in the equality of pre-tax, pre-transfer incomes.
If there has been an increase in alienation, then it cannot be associated with a concentration of wealth, since, as best we can tell, that is not what has been happening. On the other hand, if there is such an association, then we should expect less alienation, given the trends. Brennan’s gives a unique Christian gloss to the public choice economics he specialised in at the Virginia Polytechnic and State University. In doing so he raises a problem for the theologians which to my knowledge has never been addressed:
… Changing Australia is quite right in diagnosing that we live in an imperfect world. Our world is, as the Church has always reminded us, a “fallen one”. The problem of institutional design in such an imperfect world is to so order our affairs that, as far as possible, we prevent our moral imperfections from causing total disaster. This is precisely the problem that conventional economics has addressed since the time of Adam Smith and through they heyday of classical ‘political economy’. If we can do organise our economic and political affairs that ordinary corrupt mortals will be led to act in the interests of others from possibly quite base motives (such as greed, desire for power or influence) then so much the better. It would be total moral hubris to ignore possibilities of moderation the negative effects of such behaviour. And in my view, it is perfectly proper for the Christian to seek to design institutional life with an eye to how this transformation of private to public interest might best be effected.
Capitalism’s critics err in their claims that it depends on greed and selfishness to operate effectively. The point which Adam Smith and his successors made was not that such qualities were necessary for the market to function, but that when men had sunk to the level where those were their primary motivations, it would still work. A highly structured, authoritarian society, of course, will not.
But Christians have been right to suspect capitalism for this cause. For if the purely self-interested inventor or factory-owner is able to improve the lot of millions under capitalism, while the saint is left to bless the ones and twos, then capitalism poses special problems for the saint. Moreover, if man can be freed by capitalism, even for a generation or two at a time, from the age-old cycle of famine and plenty, then there is a real possibility that in improving his lot, capitalism will assist man in forgetting his dependence on his Creator. In many respects, capitalism makes religion, at least simple religion which many of us still like to practise, redundant.
At a time when McCarthyist sentiments are still high in relation to tax avoiders, Brennan’s second paper on “Rendering Unto Ceasar …” is a piece of calm reason revealing some of the hypocrisy that has surrounded us on this issue in recent years. Since tax avoidance, by definition, entails the fulfilment of our strict obligations to obey the law, criticism of tax avoidance necessarily implies some higher moral obligation to pay a fair tax, however defined.
Brennan probes the edges of this notion, finding it soft indeed. Fairness in taxation he observes, is a relative matter, and cannot be decided without reference to what everybody else in society is doing. If everyone is avoiding taxes equally, then no fairness question arises from the fact of avoidance, although other problems might. But an individual “motivated solely by considerations of fairness to other taxpayers would … when she found herself paying more than her share, have a moral obligation to pay less, to avoid or evade tax to the appropriate extent.”
It is, of course, impossible to know whether others are paying their share, except to the extent that the law prescribes and to the degree that individuals obey that law:
This fact in itself suggests a notion of a function that the tax law performs — it provides information to citizens about the taxes others are paying. To the extent that the tax law expresses, tolerably accurately, the community standards as to what is a “fair thing”, all those who acknowledge that they ought to pay their fair share do what the law requires because they know that others who have similar fairness norms will be doing likewise; the fairness norms will indeed be fulfilled. On this reckoning, the law expressed fairness norms and creates the possibility of fair tax conduct …
This is merely a restatement of the rule of law, but in its application to Australia’s taxation regime in our recent past, it suggests where much of the blame for the problem lies — with government.
In failing to legislate taxation laws which were widely accepted as “fair”, and in permitting the growth of complicated, technical and easily avoidable taxation code, the Federal Government itself produced a situation where ordinary businessmen, in an effort to produce fairness in their individual cases, were participating regularly in artificial tax avoidance schemes. The outcome must stand as one of the most striking illustrations of the breakdown of the rule of law in our recent history — followed, as it was, by the passage of punitive, even retrospective, laws in an effort to restore some order to the taxation system.
Finally, Brennan asks, where is the moral difference between Bishop Hunthausen and those lovers of peace who refuse to pay taxes to support the military establishment, and those libertarians who, believing that government is not morally justified in providing any more than minimal defence and judicial functions, avoid or evade taxes above what is necessary to support such a state? Christ’s instruction to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” does not assist in resolving these questions, since it begs the question — what is Caesar’s?
Brother Paul McGavin raises as clearly as any of the contributors the central dilemma faced by the Christians active in the political sphere. Often the immediate and short-term route to helping our neighbour in need, especially when it is undertaken through the agencies of government, is not the most charitable.
McGavin draws on his own research on the labour market in his heavily theological chapter, “A Christian Perspective on the Economics of Work and Welfare”. Looking at the impact of the introduction of equal pay for women in the early 1970s, McGavin concludes that “except in areas where there was an offsetting growth in demand for the employment, changes in female relative wages tended to deprive certain women of employment”.
Those who lost their jobs, not surprisingly, were those who could least afford to — those whose home situations were precarious, those married to unskilled labourers, women married to men who had a higher-than-average incidence of retrenchment.
In my view, it is a strange notion of justice for those whose livelihoods are not at risk to be instrumental in forcing an egalitarian wages policy, the practical effect of which is to deprive those in greatest need of access to wage employment.
(It should be added that McGavin makes it clear that he is not opposed to the notion of equal pay, but simply to the arbitrary regulation of the relative wage.)
Similarly he probes the impact of minimum wage regulation upon the young, a second group which has been heavily hit by the recession. “These are issues that greatly exercise my own mind,” McGavin writes. “They involve our society’s treatment of those described in biblical terms as the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.”
And in a stinging attack on Changing Australia and its benign attitude to the closed shop mentality of the unions, McGavin continues:
The call for justice spills across the pages of Changing Australia, and yet the systematic exclusion by the union movement of needy Australians from effective participation in the nation’s labour market merits no devastating comment in a document that purports to herald the kingdom of God on this nation.
Food enough for thought. And food for Christians who have for several years now had to bear the simple-minded, ideological solutions to the nation’s problems offered by the fire-side Christians and socialists that have gathered about the Australian Council of Churches and the social justice commissions.
Chaining Australia makes no attempt at arguing an explicitly Christian political economy. It pretends to be no more than a critique of the naive Christian Socialism expounded in Changing Australia, a response to the proposition that good Christians everywhere must, by virtue of their religiosity, be committed to the Left’s programme for social justice. As such, it is merely the beginning of a dialogue, hopefully a Christian dialogue, which has now begun between socialists within the Church and those who have greater faith in the market processes.
Two recent Church publications, Changing Australia and It’s a Rocky Road, raise vital questions for church leaders and laity on the future role of churches in public policy debates.
Unless the churches can improve the quality of their contributions to public debate then their standing will be badly tarnished.
Both these documents were released under the aegis of the Anglican Social Responsibilities Commission, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, the Commission on Social Responsibility of the Uniting Church and the Australian Council of Churches.
Changing Australia deals with a range of issues — from poverty to war and peace, while It’s a Rocky Road focuses on the problems of young people.
Changing Australia has been subjected to a devastating critique by churchmen and academics in the publication Chaining Australia — Church Bureaucracies and Political Economy published by the Centre for Independent Studies.
And in this Review, the Rev Dr John Williams, an eminent churchman and scholar, argues that It’s a Rocky Road is “as useful as gasoline hurled by well-intentioned but ill-informed people onto a raging bushfire”.
The criticisms of the two church publications can be summarised as follows:
- the analysis of issues is highly selective in the use of sources and statistics, and further
- this selectivity is biased towards the Left
- the solutions often proposed may exacerbate the problems (e.g. unemployment) highlighted in the documents, and in addition
- the policy proposals often lack a clear Christian perspective emphasising government action rather than the traditional Christian values of the family and individual morality.
The criticisms of Changing Australia and It’s a Rocky Road suggest that the social justice commissions of the churches are failing to make a contribution to intelligent discussion and even to reassertion of Christian values in the community.
The churches themselves are, in the public mind, unavoidably being aligned with what are often extremist political positions. It is undesirable from the point of view of the standing of the churches that this continue.
A first step should be a recognition by church leadership that there are clear divisions among experts on how to solve critical problems facing the community and further, that Christian theology in itself provides insufficient guidance to the correct course to follow.
For example, unemployment is certainly one of the major problems facing the community. The Left, in proposing solutions, tends to argue for more government deficit spending, work creation programmes and increased welfare spending.
Market economists on the other hand, maintain that these policy prescriptions are more likely to increase long-term unemployment. Instead, they support reductions in taxes, less government regulation of business and labour markets and measures generally to reduce the power and influence of big unions, big government and big business.
Christian theology cannot answer which prescription — that of the Left or of the market economists — is likely to achieve results. The answer can only come by examining the rigour of the analyses put forward by the two contesting schools of thought.
The stated aim of both Church documents, according to the authors, has been to promote discussion. Yet their very one-sidedness inhibits rather than encourages debate. Documents seeking to stimulate discussion should have reflected the range of expert opinion.
One way to achieve this in the future would be for the public policy documents prepared by the social justice commissions to be examined by a board of experts chosen to represent the range of views on the particular issue being discussed.
Another, and perhaps more effective way, would be for the churches to commission studies from experts, against chosen to represent a range of views, which would appear under each expert’s name. This would avoid the danger of the church being associated with any particular analysis while at the same time encouraging discussions among their laity on issues the churches feel are important.
If the churches wish to contribute to the public policy debate then the time has arrived for them to look closely at the quality of their contributions and the way in which they can best encourage discussion.
Church Social Justice Commissions have recently released an analysis of the problems of young people in Australia today entitled It’s a Rocky Road: Young people in Australia. A Uniting Church Minister, the Rev Dr John Williams, argues that the policy prescriptions of Rocky Road may well add to the social problems faced by young people.
Moral indignation is a morally ambiguous phenomenon.
On the one hand, a society plagued by social evils occasioning little or no moral indignation is a society in serious trouble. On the other hand, a strong case can be made for the claim of the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm that “there is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as moral indignation, which permits envy or fate to be acted out under the guise of virtue”.
Certainly, moral indignation is as best a preliminary to moral action. Sadly, the preliminary not infrequently becomes a substitute for such action. Energy which could be directed to redressing social evils can be and often is syphoned off into an orgy of self-righteous, self-indulgent indignation.
Australia today enjoys an abundance of men and women noisily giving voice to outrages feelings of moral indignation. A massed choir of “caring” people sings a well-rehearsed lament over numerous social evils, both real and imagined. The performance is usually warmly applauded and occasionally receives the ultimate accolade: a rave review by a morally indignant “new class” journalist in a “socially conscious” newspaper.
In 1983 this choir was augmented by an ecclesiastical quartet. The Anglican, Catholic, and Uniting Churches’ Commissions on social justice and social responsibility, and the Australian Council of Churches’ Commission on Church and Society published a joint statement, Changing Australia, calling for “far-reaching changes in Australia’s economic and political system”.
This statement was not received with universal acclaim. One economist described it as “spectacularly inept”; another economist, who has published numerous scholarly papers detailing his research on the causes of involuntary unemployment in general and that of young people in particular, noted that the statement ignored such hard data as is available “on the causes of Australia’s experience of unemployment” and projected upon “Australian society and economy [their] own ideology”.
Such critics would seem to have been ignored, being dismissed by one admirer of Changing Australia as nothing more than manifestations of a hostile “right-wing backlash”. Certainly, the sponsoring Church bodies which produced Changing Australia, are seemingly undismayed. They have produced a successor to Changing Australia, a statement purportedly addressing the situation of young people in Australian society. Entitled It’s a Rocky Road: Young People in Australia, its tenor is indicated by the opening sentence: “Growing up in Australia today is a rocky road”.
The authors’ claims for their statement are relatively modest. The statement is not, they acknowledge, “comprehensive”. It is not “the first or the final word” in the issues addressed. Readers are urged to become “part of the dialogue and part of the action”.
Again, there is much in the statement with which all Christians, and all people of goodwill, would agree. The moral indignation clearly felt by the authors that “more than half of the unemployed in Australia are under 25” is singularly appropriate.
Yet descriptions of social evils and expressions of moral indignation in themselves do nothing to rectify social evils. The causes of the evils in question must be diagnosed and remedies for them prescribed.
It’s a Rocky Road fails lamentably in these tasks.
“Seven important changes are urgently needed to address the most serious needs of many young people”. So assert the authors of It’s a Rocky Road.
What are these changes?
- indexation of all unemployment benefits and education training allowances
- extension of eligibility for the full under-18 unemployment benefit to youths aged 15
- supplementation of the under-18 unemployment benefit and secondary allowances by a living-away-from-home allowance, this allowance being equal to the difference between the full unemployment benefit and the under-18 benefit
- extension of the education allowance to young people aged 15 and over, and an increase of these allowances to the level of the under-18 unemployment benefit
- increasing all education allowances paid to those over 18 to the level of the over-18 unemployment benefit
- introduction of a common training allowance for those over 18 equal to the over-18 unemployment benefit
- income-tested education and training allowances for those over 18 on the basis of the young person’s income alone.
According to the authors, these proposals would cost “less than $850 million” per annum. This cost, they concede, is “considerable”. It is, however, “much less than the cost to the government of the tax cuts given income earners in the 1984 budget”.
In essence, the solution to “the most serious needs of many young people” is a further increase in government spending. Additional burdens are to be placed on the shoulders of tax-payers, predominantly families. Welfare payments, already escalating, are to be escalated further.
Most disturbing the authors of It’s a Rocky Road are utterly defeatist about the reality of involuntary youth unemployment. Admittedly, they proffer some half-hearted suggestions which will allegedly “produce jobs” and lead to an “expansion of employment opportunities” — the creation of community “work co-operatives”, an undertaking by employers to train and develop young workers coupled with an “end to the exploitation” of these workers; an acceptance by unions of such “innovative” approaches to job creation as “shared jobs and part-time employment for those who want it”.
Yet what the authors’ right hand gives, their left hand takes away. The above strategies for increasing employment opportunities are prefaced by the categorical assertion that “there are no prospects for significant improvement in the job situation in the foreseeable future”.
Conspicuous by its absence is any discussion of the relationship between wage levels and involuntary unemployment in general or youth wage rates and involuntary youth unemployment in particular. Unbelievably, one of the most comprehensive economic analyses of youth unemployment undertaken in Australia, the 1983 Bureau of Labour Market Research Report, Youth Wages, Employment, and the Labour Force (BLMR Research Report, No.3, Canberra) is not cited by the authors of Rocky Road. The proposition expounded in the BLMR Report — that the increase during the early 1970s of youth wages relative to adult wages contributed substantially to involuntary youth unemployment — is not even considered, even though that proposition has been widely analysed by Australian researchers (e.g. “Youth Unemployment”, Richard J. Blandy, Australian Bulletin of Labour, vol. 5, no. 3, 1979).
The authors’ moral indignation occasioned by youth unemployment is entirely appropriate. Their refusal even to make passing reference to a widely held explanation of the incidence of such unemployment is the height of moral frivolity.
The authors of It’s a Rocky Road need not have perused government reports or mainstream economic journals to have encountered the suggestions that unrealistic youth wage rates inexorably lead to youth unemployment. Any person struggling to keep a business enterprise vialbe could have told them precisely why more young people are not employed by small business or, for that matter, large corporations.
The Rocky Road also fails to deal with the other recommendations made in the BLMR Report aimed at tackling youth unemployment (see below).
Church leaders are entitled to ask why the BLMR Report, which deals so squarely with the issues raised in Rocky Road, is not even mentioned in its further reading section. If the authors of Rocky Road were not aware of the BLMR Report then clearly the text was inadequately researched. If they were aware of the report they are leaving the churches vulnerable to attacks such as those made recently by Paddy McGuinness, Editor of the Financial Review who said:
If, as is certainly the case, wage levels are a major contributing factor to the relatively high levels of youth unemployment, then the villains of the piece are not young people or employers, or even governments, but the selfish conspiracy of adults to deny employment opportunities (and the development of relevant work-skills) to the young.
Welfare professionals who care less about the young than about their own ideological commitments are also at fault, including many of the self-styled Christians who confuse ideology with theology.
Seven alternative changes
- Free up youth wages
Anyone seriously concerned about youth unemployment, and certainly all Christians should be concerned, cannot but condemn a system which advantages the skilled and well-organised and inflicts unspeakable hurt upon the unskilled and powerless.
Former Secretary to the Treasury, John Stone, argues that governments should legislate to free people under 21 years of age from the compass of wage and salary awards within their jurisdiction. The BLMR Report suggests there should be a major enquiry into the level of youth wages, and that arbitral bodies should take into account employment effects when determining the level of youth wages.
The common thread of these proposals is an attempt to get more young people off the very low level of income support — the dole — and into the workforce. Freeing up youth wages will certainly lift income levels for those now unable to find jobs and may even assist young people already in high productivity areas to earn more. It may reduce income levels for some categories of young people in the workforce. Alternatively youth wages may not grow as rapidly as adult wages. The particular effect on certain categories of youth employment cannot always be predicted. However there is little doubt that more flexible youth wage rates will be to the overall benefit of our younger age groups.
If, by law, the price of a given form of labour is set above the labour’s productive output, employment opportunities simply will not be available. Men and women whose productivity is below the minimum wage level will suffer. Youth most certainly will suffer.
Christians believe that all human beings are equal in the sight of God and thus enjoy equal moral rights. Laws conferring special privileges upon some to the disadvantage of others are thus an anathema. Similarly, laws which make it possible for powerful unions coercively to prevent non-unionists working at wage levels below the arbitrary and unrealistic levels demanded by some unions, hurt the weak and benefit the strong. The BLMR Report suggested that awards that restrict the proportion of young people working with an adult may merit reconsideration. Changes in such restrictions, the Report argues, may have an important effect on youth employment in some industries.
- Reductions in government spending
Most government jobs go not to the unskilled and “marginalised” but to the better educated and more experienced. The BLMR Report pointed out that the numbers of young people employed by governments actually declined, despite the strong employment growth in this sector over the last decade or so.
The jobs in the public sector are in part financed by employment-destroying taxes (e.g. payroll tax) on the private sector where most young people are employed. Cutting back the burden of tax on the private sector would seem to be an essential part of any employment policy.
The poor retention rates in Australian schools have certainly added to the pool of young unemployed. Clearly our schools need to be made more responsive to the wishes of young people — this might encourage more of them to continue with education. One way to provide power to young people is to ensure they have the ability to determine what forms of schooling merits support.
Increased subsidies to non-government schools, educational vouchers, or tax credits are needed if schools are even to know, let along respond to, the perceived needs of consumers. Christians desirous of schools which reinforce Christian values should be free to send their children to such schools, as should other groups in the community holding to particular values.
The word “responsibility” is used in Rocky Road. The reality signified by the word is undermined by the authors’ acceptance and advocacy of the notion that particular groups within the community have some “right” to cannibalistically live on other people. The family, struggling to make ends meet and provide for the needs of its own members, is obligated not merely to fund the plethora of benefits made available to single parent families, but to provide for young people who allegedly have a “right” to financial independence. One might have hoped that Church organisations would have reminded young people and, indeed, the entire community of the lost dimension of social life called responsibility.
- Family support
For most individuals, the family is the primary source of identity and emotional support. Indeed, one would have expected that many of the problems of young pointed to in Rocky Road might have their solution in secure, proper functioning families rather than in further extensions of the welfare system. Measures to strengthen the family should have been the focus of policy proposals in Rocky Road.
By adding to the tax burden carried by most families, and by handing over to government even more of the functions once fulfilled by the family, the policies advocated in Rocky Road contribute more to the problem Australian families face than to any solution to that problem.
The authors of Rocky Road are seemingly reticent to refer to traditional moral values. The “removal of whatever obstructs … the full human development of young people” demanded without any serious consideration of what, given limited resources, this might cost other sectors of the Australian community. A society within which competing special interest groups engage in political battle to secure a larger share of existing wealth is apparently deemed to be in accord with Christian values. The question as to what form of social co-operation best enables people to co-operate so that wealth is produced has not even been asked. Astonishingly for Christians the duties of children to parents or of parents to children are ignored.
It’s a Rocky Road underscores some genuine social evils, but studiously ignores serious studies addressing the causes of these evils and suggesting strategies for attacking these causes. It is strong on moral indignation, but weak on painstaking thought. Indeed, the solutions it proffers to the problems facing young people in Australia are as useful as gasoline hurled by well-intentioned but ill-informed people onto a raging bushfire.
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