Backing the wrong horse: why appeals to self-interest won’t convince on carbon tax

Scare campaigns tap into public distrust of politicians.

The carbon tax will have a relatively small impact on household incomes, in most cases for those who are worse off, just a few dollars a week.

So why is it so hard to sell? The posing of this question is part of the answer: selling assumes a price and a product, rather than an idea and a future. Why would a cynical electorate, being told that this will come at no or little cost to almost all of them, see this policy package as in the community’s interest?

The current political pitch on the so-called carbon tax is being framed and sold on how its costs may affect individuals.

Polluting industries squeal about the costs they will pass on to consumers and the loss of jobs. The major parties’ strategies, though from different angles, focus on panicking or reassuring potential voters on personal costs and gains.

The missing element in both sets of rhetoric is any appeal to us, as responsible citizens, to take some collective responsibility for controlling our society’s polluting behaviours.

Selling policy on individual costs and benefits has become the preferred political strategy over the last two decades plus as market driven models policies drive major political parties views that potential voters are venal customers.

This change started with the 80’s paradigm shift, which reduced government to servicing markets as the presumed superior mechanism for distributing resources.

This shift reduced the political legitimacy of the society and the collective will as expressed by the state and reinforced the idea we were just a connected set of individual voters.

These fed into neo-classical economic equations that assume that humans are driven by rational self interest so greed will create wealth for all.

Most voters therefore not are capable of altruism or social concerns, but majorities can be wooed with bribes such as tax cuts, privatisation and growth.

This is clearly typified in Paul Keating’s claim that: “In a two horse race always back self-interest because at least you know it’s trying.” This limited view of human capacity is now showing considerable wear and tear as many markets show hubris and stupidity.

There is also increasing evidence that human beings are not necessarily rational or self-interested and are firmly embedded in social and relational connections. There are many examples of political and social cultures that are much more collectivist than we are, starting with Aboriginal Australians.

Other countries and cultures, from the Nordic usual suspects to most non-European states, still hold social obligations to be both essential and valued, which may inhibit their economic growth but offer possible alternatives to more GDP growth as the only measure of well being.

There are many examples in Australia of unity and community support when we face war, floods and fire.

Even the current carbon debate shows high levels of collectivism in both the supporters and deniers as they act in tribal emotional unity.

The question is therefore why the politicians seem to only make use of our capacity to be communally minded when they want support for military enterprises, nostalgia for past nationalism or to unite in opposition to some unfortunate outgroup, such as boat people or the non-employed.

The fury that currently comes from the Opposition leader Tony Abbott shows he well knows that there is a core communitarian populist concern that he can tap for nasty ends.

Those who use the spectre of selfinterest as the basis for claiming support or opposition to the carbon tax have got it very wrong.

The very processes of some political rallies, shock jock attacks and mobilisation of opposition to the tax is deeply communitarian in its worst aspects.

It is tapping the anger and anxieties of the mob and sits dangerously close to tactics used by past right wing populisms who use hate bases and scapegoats to fuel anger and rouse political action.

The supporters are more eclectic in their tactics and some community initiatives are trying to appeal to our sense of responsibility and future concerns. However, the tactics of the Government are not helpful as their entire campaign seems to be based on proving that few will suffer any financial losses from this massive shift.

This approach can be confusing because surely a tax of this type designed to change behaviours has to hurt; generous compensation obscures this message.

It also fails to appeal to the logic that change means we should all contribute to reducing consumption as well. So some share of the pain would give us a sense of participation and commitment.

This approach would recognise that humans do not mostly share some dominant inherent selfish gene that pushes a universal button and are therefore prefer dollar arguments to all others.

There is increasing evidence and discussion emerging on the importance of social relationships, co-operation and fairness, as the rampant market-based individualism of the global financial crisis undermined continuous growth.

A notable recent contribution from Harvard socio-biologist Martin Nowak explores the high value of cooperation over competitiocn in human evolution and progress, describing how an experiment of pooling resources for climate change clearly over-rode self interest.

A recent article on The Conversation site, David T. Neal quoted research on how most of us prefer to live in places with both fair and more equal distributions of income.

This more collectivist interest can be linked to other research on the importance of social fairness to a sense of well being.

A recent New York Times article, detailed a range of studies into the value of fairness, including experiments by Ernst Fehr on children, many anthropological studies and other indicators that showed that fairness, an essentially social sense, underlies progress based on our capacities to collaborate and trust.

Taxation is an interesting indicator of our collective will and individual needs. On one level, it is resented but on another is seen as providing public goods and pooled risk management.

In a recent lecture, Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Terry Moran quoted a survey by the market research company Quantum which showed that over each of the past 17 years, the proportion of Australians who believed “government has an important role to play both in business, and in taking care of people who can’t help themselves”, has remained virtually constant. Around 85% of Australians – almost six in every seven – support this proposition, he said.

So why the current virulent opposition to any tax increases? His next sentence suggests to me a possible expanation. Moran claims: “This survey reveals an interesting paradox. Reforms that have successfully shifted the role of government and increased the influence of markets have continued, despite views of citizens which favour a strong role for government in the Australian economy and in Australian society.”

How has this been able to happen?

Distrust comes when governments persistently ignore public opinion and the benefits of this are unclear.

Maybe unpopular market shifting may have reduced voter confidence in government decisions on their expenditure priorities.

Various surveys, reported in the studies such as Australian Social Attitudes, explore this issue of the level of support for social spending or lower taxes.

In their contribution to Australian Social Attitudes: The First Report, published by UNSW Press, authors Shaun Wilson, Gabrielle Meagher and Trevor Breusch show there was a drop in support for services and increase of tax cuts in the time that neoliberalism was increasing its hold.

But by this century, more people had shifted back to supporting the funding of more services, particularly health and education.

There are many other surveys that suggest that people want both tax cuts and more services when the questions are separated. Who said we had to be rational?

Distrust of government and politicians is widespread. Pollsters Roy Morgan organisation carries out a regular measure of the image of professions reputation for ethics and honesty.

In 2011, Federal MPs overall ranked 22nd out of 30 in terms of honesty and ethics, while state MPs were ranked 25th - just ahead of real estate agents and car salesman at 28 and 30.

The survey reported the number of respondents who gave Federal MPs a rating of ‘high’ had dropped down to 14%, well down from its highest score of 23% in 2008.

Interestingly, public servants, added to the survey in 2007, scored 30% of ‘highs’. This hierarchy suggests that distrust of politicians runs fairly deep and disappointment at inaction post-2008 has caused some current damage.

The above surveys suggest that we are essentially social beings and do care about others. The electorate is capable of both generosity and commitments to the common good as shown in past specific levies, taxes hypothecated for particular purposes, (such as the gun levy and even the flood levy) are more accepted as the spending is clear.

An Opposition-run scare campaign, based on complete distrust of the Prime Minister, taps into the underlying distrust of politicians and may leave a long term problems for a different government.

There is high anxiety from the recent global financial crisis, continuing scares in Europe and other signs of future insecurity and exploiting this for short term gains may undermine faith in our political system as well as increase self-interest to protect ones own.

If the government appeals to our better angels, as they did in 2007, and campaigned on sharing (minor) pain reducing damage to the planet, maybe they would be doing much better.

Meeting Abbott on the field of greed does not encourage voters to be better citizens than customers.