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The 1995 Boyer Lectures


By Eva Cox

Lecture 4:
(Broadcast: Tuesday, 28th November 1995, 8.30am (Rpt. 8.00pm) on Radio National.)


Diana Gribble:

Welcome to the 1995 Boyer Lectures series entitled titled A TRULY CIVIL SOCIETY.

I'm Diana Gribble. Deputy Chair of the ABC Board. It's my great pleasure to introduce you to Eva Cox, who will be familiar to many of you as a formidable social activist and commentator.

During the past three weeks Eva Cox has argued passionately for a radical re-thinking of our concept of citizenship.

She argues that at a time when the polls are showing a growing anxiety in the Ausralian population and the gap between rich and poor is widening, there is a danger that we will retreat from participating in public life, preferring the comfort of small closed communities.

Today in her fourth lecture, The Companionable State, Eva Cox discusses the pivotal place of central government in building a civil society.

The companionable state

Eva Cox:

I was haunted by a line of poetry which expressed my fears of what might happen to our world as we know it. I found the line in Yeats and here is the verse:

Interestingly, this poem - 'The Second Coming' - has touched enough writers to be constantly quoted in tomes across the political spectrum. Like Yeats, I need a centre which holds. My need is an odd one in some ways, because I also need to make sure the centre is accountable and represents the will of the people. Why would I support a political centre which so often represents other interests?

I am all too aware of the perils, as well as the advantages of the state. I acknowledge that too often the state has represented the interests of capital, colonialism and masculinity. But the alternative of no state is worse.

I want to defend government, the role of the state, the concept of elected officers and their public servants as our servants. I do this at the same time as I acknowledge the problems of public bureaucracies. I have worked directly for ministers, and in the public service. So, I have a healthy scepticism about the way governments work.

We have seen, heard and read a zillion vituperative critiques of central government and state intervention. Arguments against the state have been used by the new right to destroy some of the infrastructure I believe we desperately still need. I want to put the other side and argue that we need to reform rather than discard the interventionist state.

Debates on the relative merits of state intervention versus individual freedom almost always result in more power for the powerful. So those with least power cannot use their 'freedoms'. But the power gap is neither the whole story, nor the most important issue.

Market forces, and the notion of providing for customers rather than citizens, will not improve the relative power positions one whit. The need to mitigate power is why the modern state came into being. It was a product of colonial trade and the industrial revolution in Europe.

The growth of trade, industrial cities and manufacturing outside the home/farm base required the regulation of commercial transactions. Later, in the nineteenth century, social legislation was introduced, often against considerable opposition.

These reforms in factories, education and public health may have been because of a need for more skilled and productive workers. Or they may have been a direct response to the inhumanity of uncontrolled market forces, greed and self interest. None of the reforms resulted from governments plotting to undermine the autonomy of families or communities. It was the condition of the people which required urgent attention.

The state assumed responsibility for some social services, the regulation of some social behaviour and limited power to redistribute resources. Government therefore became significant in developing social cohesion through providing citizens with public education, health care and other public services. Universal access replaced the many scattered and often inadequate informal service provisions.

Education, health care, working conditions, child welfare, pensions, child care, divorce and other forms of social legislation have increasingly become part of the public agenda. We can thank the 'votes for women' campaigns for initiating some of the changes. While some of their proposals were moral policing of the 'lower orders', others provided the base for more recent feminist demands.

Some ill informed, nostalgia merchants claim that the care offered in families and communities was undermined by government. This fiction ignores the fact that care only existed as part of reciprocal feudal and familial obligations. This system was dependent on rural land ownership and was terminally weakened by urbanisation.

The mass of strangers in factories in the new cities did not have reciprocal bonds and mutual obligations. So the State reluctantly became the provider of services and support. These social services then became essential to maintain people's sense of belonging and helped to enforce the obligations of citizenship. They were part of social harmony and cohesion.

Giving to those we care for is easy because we recognise our common humanity. Giving to those who we do not know with the same willingness is harder because it requires our acknowledgment that strangers are like us and entitled to our care. This was the policy view of English sociologist Richard Titmus, and his justification for the welfare state in the post war period. Titmus' comments were made at a time when the roles for the public sector and aspects of state intervention, went well beyond the simple regulation of transactions and the protection of property in the minimal state.

The stimulus for the establishment of the modern welfare state was the rise of fascism and communism in the depression of the 1930s. Europe, America and Australia had shown signs of social disintegration as the veterans from the war joined private armies to protest against unemployment and poverty.

The seeds of fascism fell on some very fertile ground. While Germany stands out as the worst example of totalitarianism, there were fascist-type militias and parties in many countries.

What Nazism showed, in a particularly brutal way, was the banality of evil and the ordinariness of the people involved. The holocaust/shoah was a systematic destruction on the basis of race only, and was supported by many ordinary people who believed the propaganda.

The lessons learned from the rise of Nazism and its control over the people, made the victors of the Second World War concerned not to repeat the errors of the twenties and thirties. The welfare state, Western Governments believed, would prevent 'it' ever happening again.

The peace plans after the Second World War were not just there because of the lobbying of reformers, but because the power brokers saw sense in providing both a welfare state and Keynesian counter cyclical government spending to avoid unemployment.

Yet by the 1970s the welfare state was being questioned and much of the eighties saw it being undermined by radical right wing reform. The Anglophone countries led the debate on limiting the role of the state, and shifting services from the public to the market sector. The UK and USA have unbundled some of the more 'civilised' aspects of the modern state and replaced them with competitive tooth and claw.

Was the post war concept of the state and public sector flawed? Has the welfare state passed its use-by date? Or has it been undermined quite deliberately by certain self interested groups, including media magnates, who want to cut state spending to reduce their possible tax obligations?

What is happening now, fifty years later, offers some uncomfortable similarities to the politics of the 30s. Nationalism, tribalism, and other elements of communal conflict are increasing. So we need to look at how intervention can be used to underscore our common humanity and the idiocy of civil conflict.

Why is the interventionist approach relevant today? For one, it worked. Those countries which had good welfare systems have also had relatively peaceful and cohesive years of post war growth.

If we do not learn from history, we are compelled to repeat the errors. If we continue to undermine the role of government as a benign and universal provider - however inefficient - then we are asking for trouble.

The changes I hope to see would involve the productive interplay of state and community, because it is in this interplay that we can create a truly civil society. The state needs to be part of creating tolerable social structures which are capable of reinventing themselves as open, egalitarian and democratic. Therefore, logically, we need to establish the political frameworks which encourage good citizenship but do not impose them by fiat or by leaving a vacuum.

Central governments and the public sector have had, without significant participation by women, a considerable, albeit sometimes reluctant role, in creating social programs . Carole Pateman, a political philosopher, claims the modern state was initially a sexual contract to protect masculine power and property.

The state's social roles, which could be seen as the more feminised interests, have gradually increased over the past 200 years and have delivered benefits to many of the less powerful, as well as the more powerful.

The advantages of central action are illustrated by the Equal Pay case in Australia. A court set up unequal minimum pay rates, but changed these to equal rates over half a century later. Our centralised wage fixing system has closed the gaps between high and low income earners while collective bargaining in other countries has seen more unequal wage outcomes. These advantages are now under threat.

Feminists have influenced, and can continue to, influence the state. Even though I am more optimistic than Pateman, I recognise that all is not rosy with governments and their concerns. I would be the first to claim there is still too wide a public private split, which means that many of the concerns of women are still not seen as legitimate or serious. These concerns involve men but are, for some obscure reason, left to women to raise, for example male violence and maintenance of children.

However, there have been sufficient reforms over the past decades for us to see that the state is the best hope for positive change. If we can use the power of state structures to contain the powerful, then we can develop the trust levels that comes from a just society. The taxation literature on compliance indicates that the willing payment of taxes depends on taxes being seen as fair - rather than on the actual rates.

Any discussion on the institutions of government must include the dimensions of power, as well as its use and abuse. I realise that there are problems with top down duress, as well as bottom up parochialism, but it is democratic centralised power that gives the outgroups their best chances of ensuring their needs are not overlooked.

The experiences of feminism over the last few decades has shown us that it is only when government acts, that issues such as discrimination, violence in the home and child care services move into the areas of public concern, rather than just being seen as sectional interests.

There would be limited assistance for sole parents, had there not been a Federal Government prepared to act. Even when one state has been innovative, such as with child endowment and widow's pensions, it has only been when the Commonwealth took over, that residents in other states have received payments as well. Human rights laws and Federal legislation have given powers to Aboriginal groups that the states have denied them.

I have been involved in the long fight for child care. This program has required a constant move from Federal to State and vice versa as community groups sought to put children on the agenda. Finally a Federal program has been established and expanded.

We have examples of State governments showing themselves to be limited in their views such as the Tasmanian laws on homosexuality. Changing these laws involved both the Commonwealth Government and the United Nations.

There are many other examples of when the Commonwealth has been more enlightened because distance from local prejudice has sometimes allowed it to pick up the new and the possibly controversial. Feminists and other lobbyists play off the different levels of Government to gain advantage for the less powerful.

The success of these tactics confirms my belief that once the local process has been exhausted, and the problem still remains, we need to be able to go further up and out to seek support. Issues of equity and rights can be escalated past the local level which may be bogged down by the familiar, and so the problems cannot be dealt with at a conceptual distance. Attitudes on race in small towns is a clear example of this. I suspect that being further from the coalface may sometimes make the less politically popular decisions easier.

There are claims in Australia that we are over-governed and that we place too much reliance on Government. There are those who want to abolish the States and those who are always suspicious of the Commonwealth. However, as an activist over the past two decades, I am happy to see what we have remain and even if it stays a little confused and overlapping.

The demonising of state and public power ignores the possibilities of using these powers to mediate and control the powerful. So I am implacably opposed to recreating government as a minimalist option which operates only as a provider of last resort, caring only for those who cannot care for themselves.

A smaller government puts at risk all those areas of concern which do not lend themselves to market solutions. There has never been much business interest in providing help or services to those who have little ability to pay, or in protecting those who cannot afford to buy their own safety.

There is increasing evidence that the more competition takes over from intervention, the more inequalities increase. It is inequality rather than poverty that destroys the social capital, because unfairness creates crises of belief in political systems.

These crises are double edged. The poor who are excluded resent those they see as gaining unfair advantage because of their resources. The well off who pay taxes are likely to see the provision of public services or money only to those who are labelled poor as unfair or overgenerous.

The issues of maldistributed power are exacerbated by market forces increasing inequality. The idea that market providers can be regulated to comply with ethical standards ignores the difficulties that governments have in regulating the powerful.

There is a self destruct button being pushed by some central governments. They are trying to redefine their role as steering, not rowing. Yet the same time, their legitimacy is under question by the electorates. Instead of proving their value by visibly providing indications of their existence, many governments are reducing their roles, their functions and their assets.

Public sectors are, and have been contracting, at least in the English speaking countries. As Australia already has one of the smallest public sectors, further cuts can only create more problems. Our fiscal anorexia may do serious harm. On the other hand, because we have the smallest public sector in the OECD and the lowest tax bill, we do have plenty of room to move up and increase our 'common wealth'.

In Hannah Arendt's schema of the human condition, there is recognition that the nation state and the community have supplanted the family in many of its tasks. The education system has taken over from parents, the health care system has replaced home medicine and our daily reproductive processes are now publicly supported.

Take away the public services, and many people will feel a clear sense of desertion and loss. Fragile forms of private life try to make do on their own resources. Selling off publicly owned assets is also a problem. In the eyes of some citizens, probably poorer ones, public ownership is part of the 'family silver'. Losing these assets is seen as a loss of stability, of our common wealth. The change of public utilities to business enterprises, with user pays costing, is again seen as a loss of public service.

Moves towards reducing government activities ignore the effects that selling off public resources may have on social capital. Arendt uses the image of many families seeing themselves as owners of the nation state. As citizens, they see public services and public ownership of resources as extensions of their personal property to which they have the right of access.

Surveys show the public rejects privatisation. In the same vein, there are also signs that people are prepared to pay more taxes in return for the services they expect from government, despite an almost incessant media campaign against raising taxes.

There are other problems with equating customer and citizen. What we receive from government is paid for by us through taxes, so there is a sense of entitlement which is undermined when some services are targeted only to the poor. Those not entitled to benefits tend to question the rights of recipients and so we return to judging who is worthy of receiving public assistance.

Many taxpayers also expect to have access to government services and do not want to see need defined just in financial terms. They believe that those who pay their taxes are also entitled to government support. Allocating services and resources only to the poor, creates divisions among citizens.

In a good public sector service, there should be a mutual desire to see needs met and problems solved. In a commercial transaction, the satisfaction of the customer is driven by the profit margin and not by customer need. When public services are contracted out, the compliance is to the contractor not the client.

Users of contracted out services have no sense of entitlement and ownership. We have different expectations of public and commercial services. Public services are seen as entitlements and part of the obligations of the state to its citizens. We form different relationships with voluntary associations and with commercial enterprises.

If we lose the social capital which the expanded role of the state has provided, with its implicit and explicit concepts of citizen rights and mutual obligations, there will be serious consequences.

It is ironic that the private sector is increasingly aping the idea of citizenship. New marketing strategies are focusing on creating customer loyalty through clubs and points gained. Marketeers are smarter than public choice theorists in recognising the intangibles which are part of social capital.

The use of sponsorship by corporations is a growing phenomenon as they try to create a form of corporate citizenship. However, a burst of Rotary, or funding with an eye to photo opportunities, are not alternatives or replacements for civic culture.

Business purchasing sports for TV threatens local sporting clubs. These clubs are a classic part of civic cultures and offer opportunities for local meetings, yet they are being supplanted or bought by brands looking for the cachet of voluntary organisations.

So business moves towards the associational model, and government moves towards naked markets.

The other side of sponsorship is the loss of status by government when it seeks commercial sponsors for what are seen as essential services or national treasures. The owner of the rescue helicopter is a bank, the opera is Esso. Cereal makers support nutrition education to enhance their influence and profits. Art prizes are sponsored and so on. No wonder people are confused as to who owns the country!

It is no surprise that we have lost social cohesion. People are expressing an unrealistic fear of crime. Sales of home security devices are increasing. There is more cynicism about government and industry leaders, and generally less faith in people's ability to be decent human beings.

The image of government services as providers of last resort does not improve their legitimacy. As the visible face of government disappears, with fewer services provided directly there is a danger that people will stop identifying any function with government.

So how do we create social cohesion? We need to increase the functions and visibility of governments. We need specific cultures of civic concern - of mutual responsibility - and resources for social capital formation. We need stepped levels of government, the ability to appeal to a higher authority when the lower level fails to connect with a wider agenda. These levels provide the fora for good decisions.

Multi-level decision-making can form a web of broad trust relationships which are part of our social capital - and the web needs to stretch all the way from the family to the national government and supra-national structures.

When we become part of public life, we become more human. This is the vita activa - or 'political life' - which Hannah Arendt names as one of three components of the Human Condition. This concept of citizenship can operate in a formalised framework of state power, as well as in less formal voluntaristic groups. It recognises that responsibilities go with rights and that, in the final analysis, we have to own the governments to whom we entrust power.

We work best when we make decisions collectively, by drawing on each other's experience and by debating different views. The solo decision maker is not, one might say, the full human bottle!

Next week the need for dissent, even from my views!

© Australian Broadcast Corporation 1995