catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Do we support national downshifting?

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Like Clive Hamilton, Richard Eckersley is in revolt against the modern world. They both argue that it does not serve our true interests, and that we would be better off living simpler, lower-consumption lives in community with others. Hamilton maintains that – he and the downshifters aside – we have been conned by advertising into believing that happpiness comes from material possessions (see my critique of this here (pdf)). At a conference I attended late last year, and again in the SMH this morning, Eckersley takes an even more ambitious line of argument – that we already want a different way of living, but that the government ignores our true preferences. He writes:

Offered two positive scenarios of Australia’s future – one focused on individual wealth, economic growth and efficiency and enjoying “the good life”, the other on community, family, equality and environmental sustainability – 73 per cent expected the former, but 93 per cent preferred the latter. …. We no longer believe in the “official story” of the future on which our governments base their policies. Environmentalists and scientists have won the minds of the public.

Er, no. This is a classic case of a question engineered to provide the answer the researcher wanted. These are not the alternatives we face, since only environmental sustainability has a serious tension with economic growth. Though the latest phase of economic growth has led to increased market-income inequality (substantially reduced by redistribution), that wasn’t true of the post-war growth. It is those who lack wealth who are missing out on community and family, rather than growth or wealth being harmful to social connection.

There is no credible polling evidence that shows majorities wanting to change to a low-growth strategy. Hamilton’s own research shows that most people believe that they need (that’s need, not just want) more money than they actually have. A low-growth strategy is not going to deliver that. If people are asked without a leading question what are the three most important things the government should be doing something about, the proportion nominating the environment is always well under 20%, with large majorities wanting attention to health and education – traditional big-spending items for governments, which rely on economic growth to finance them. When given a chance to vote for the party that supports the low-growth agenda, only about 7% of Australians took it.

While all governments pursue some unpopular policies, they are responsive, within the bounds of feasibility, to the broad aspirations of the electorate. That’s why they aim for growth, and not national downshifting.

Written by Admin

January 12, 2006 at 9:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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