Peter Smith

Ponzi governments

Protesting in favour of self-reliance

I am currently reading Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong. The authors JeanBenoît Nadeau and Julia Barlow make the telling point that whenever they rented a car in Paris they checked the protest schedule in the daily newspaper, right next to the weather forecast. Apparently, so the authors claim, the penchant of the French for protesting almost anything in the streets stems from the tradition set by the French Revolution.

It is therefore unremarkable that there are protests about President Sarkozy’s intention to increase the retirement age. Some have questioned why students should be out there protesting when they face the burden of paying pension entitlements over coming years. It is surely more difficult to imagine radical students missing the opportunity to protest.

My surprise is that I can’t find any grand rhetorical flourish that the French government is using to sell the austerity measures. You would think that the French would be better at that than us – seemingly not on this occasion. My recommendation is that the French look to some communist propaganda posters for inspiration or alternatively, and just as good, to the Gillard government. I would suggest “Your work and my work for la belle France” adapted from a Soviet poster or “Secure and sustainable pension reforms for la belle France” adapted from the Gillard government’s labelling of Australia’s increase in the pension age. Austerity measures generally could be described as “fearless creative and competent” Soviet-style; or, even better, “stronger fairer simpler” Australian style; as used in labelling tax increases on the mining industry.

Labelling, or more pertinently propaganda, might help in rolling back entitlement programs and I’ll come back to it.

In the meantime, it helps in edging back welfare entitlements to concentrate on measures which have no immediate impact. Like increasing the pension entitlement age or by making it harder to qualify in future for certain benefits. Actually reducing entitlements by eliminating programs or by reducing benefit payments is very hard to do. Paul Pierson, Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher and the Politics of Retrenchment, observed that most welfare programs survived Reagan and Thatcher. If Thatcher and Reagan couldn’t do it; is it likely that Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron and other European leaders will succeed? I leave aside President Obama; clearly his heart would not be in it. And I leave aside, hopefully until experience proves otherwise; Mr paid parental leave, Tony Abbott.

Because of the effect of overwhelming government debt steeling resolve, some progress will be made in Europe. Perhaps some will be made in the United States – if the Republicans win back Congress this year and the Presidency in 2012. At the same time, it would be short-sighted to see this all as more than a blip. Once the acuteness of the debt crisis has passed things will get back to normal. Governments will succumb to the vested interests and constituencies, now aided by most of the media, which press for government-sponsored entitlements, and guard them strenuously once they are in place.

One woman in France interviewed by the BBC was reported as complaining that, “the government has the money but they want people to pay it”. It would be a mistake to think of this comment as uneducated and dismiss it. Her view underscores the cargo cult which abounds in Western society. Everywhere people talk about what government should do with no apparent thought as to who exactly will pay. It is like whole communities being party to giant Ponzi schemes. Even on Fox News you get laudatory comments about some features of Obamacare; such as keeping children on their parents’ health insurance cover until they’re are 26, or forcing insurance companies to cover people with pre-existing conditions, as though these things were free goods.

It may be time to copy the communists. Ms Gillard has made a start in Australia. More needs to be done. We need expansive, continuous and impactful government ‘propaganda’, extolling the virtue of self-reliance and telling us that the only money government has to spend is ours. It would be helpful too, if they explained how inept, reckless, wasteful, self-serving, and profligate they generally are, and have been, in husbanding our money. Gillard would be particularly persuasive in selling this message based on her own track record.

If governments won’t do it, then maybe taxpayers’ associations or other organisations with a conservative bent should get more bolshie-like and organise street protests in favour of self-reliance – in France and elsewhere in Europe. You would have to say that this is unlikely to happen and even less likely to happen in Australia. People who just want more and more of those free entitlements are far more vocal and strident than those who want them stopped and rolled back. To ever be part of a righteous street protest against government spending, you would probably have to move to the US and join the Tea Party crowd.


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