Inequality is the human condition, Bill

By Andrew L. Urban

Whaddaya mean by ‘tackling inequality’, Bill? Don’t you know that inequality is built into the human condition? You can’t wish it away, spend it away or tax it away. “The current tax system isn’t fair,” you told reporters (July 24, 2017). “We’ve got a good record on tax reform and we will be outlining more tax reforms soon. Tackling inequality is a growth strategy.” If you believe some tax reform will result in less inequality you need a large scotch and a long rest. It is dangerously naïve.

By referring to tax reform as a tool to lessen inequality, you are clearly talking about some form of (unattainable) income-related equality. We already have things like the progressive tax system, which requires the well paid to pay more for the upkeep of the nation than the less well paid (and unpaid). The top 1% pay 17% of the total income tax take, the top 10% pay about 50% of it. It is also recognised in many other policies, from education to health care. The Medicare levy is a percentage of income (rising with rising income); the higher the income, the bigger the contribution to the common pool. Of course you know this, Bill, but you wish to capitalise on envy, promising a solution that is really a mirage.

Our day-to-day understanding of equality is the state of equal rights, status and opportunity. Which of these in Australian society need tackling by your party if/when in Government?

You are really talking not so much about inequality as about the plaything of politicians, tax measures (not to be confused with tax reform), and by the sound of it you will try to flatten the incomes of Australians even further by increasing the tax payable by those on higher incomes (higher than what, I wonder?) and redistributing it to the lower income earners. What else could you mean?

By using the words ‘fair’ and ‘inequality’ in the same statement, you are trying to fool us into equating these two concepts. Labour has always had a problem really understanding both fairness and equality, and clearly it still does. What is the unwanted / unreasonable inequality between a leader of the Federal opposition and a pensioner, Bill? Is it income? Pension? Opportunity? Power? Access to the media to be heard? Which of these are you planning to ‘tackle’?

What is fair to you may not be fair to me and vice versa; the concept of fairness is highly subjective. Ask your mate Kevin Rudd. The criteria for assessing fairness is a matter for debate, as with income taxes. A low income earner regards it ‘fair’ they pay no tax. A high income earner regards it fair they pay a ‘fair’ amount of tax. The moment you try to put a figure on that ‘fair’ you have an argument. So please don’t pretend there is a universally agreed, accepted and paid ‘fair’ tax rate or that you – the Labour Party – can set one.

For starters, a high income earner (like you, say) has attained high income through years of study and hard work (no?) and ability (no?) and ambition (no?). High income is the reward. High income generally reflects the high value that society places on the highly productive, most ‘useful’ members. Usually … usually…

My cousin is a brain surgeon, one of the best in the world. I watched him operate one day, his steady, sure hands and eyes giving yet another patient a better quality of life. He does it every day. He spent years studying, decades, and still studies. His private life is severely compromised by the incessant demands of his patients, day and indeed, nights. Evenings. Family dinners. Outings. And he is not alone in the medical profession. A specialist I know takes calls and text messages from his patients 24/7, even on his holiday. These are dedicated, highly capable people, terribly important to society. There are few of them, in comparison to people like me, say (or even you Bill) whose inputs to society can easily be replaced. Not theirs. There are many more bakers and butchers than surgeons and medical specialists. If it were not so and there were many more brain surgeons than bakers, bread would be even more expensive than it is and the incomes of bakers would be higher, too. That’s simple economics as you know. It is the ‘natural inequality’ of our world.

If you take, say, 70% of my cousin’s wages and give it to me, will you have ‘tackled’ inequality – or just created a new one?

So what is it you are really talking about, Bill, with your promise to ‘tackle inequality’? How is that a ‘growth strategy’? They are different things. Growth in this context is higher productivity, generating greater wealth, delivering more and better public services, higher wages, etc. Inequality is the permanent human condition. You can provide pensions and universal health care but try to redistribute wealth so that the poor get much, much more and the rich get much, much less, and you are failing your fairness test, I would have thought, not to mention crashing at the ballot box or sabotaging our economy. And you would still be left with inequality: the unskilled poor and the socially disadvantaged remain poor and disadvantaged.

Oranges will always be oranges, apples always apples. They are equals as fruit, but very different in skin, texture and taste. In my school, we were all treated equally but some kids ran faster than others, jumped higher and threw further. They came first. Inequality can be imposed by oppressive policies (as in Communism, say) but deep down, it is also a function of our genes.

Humans lucky enough to be born into an enlightened society like ours will – certainly should – have equality of opportunity, through education and community support where needed, irrespective of their genes. We all have equal rights, but equality? There is no such thing.

You ever read Animal Farm, Bill? There are always pigs …

Footnote: Bill is Labour MP Bill Shorten, Leader of the Opposition

Also published in The Spectator Australia, August 5, 2017

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