Look after the people, they’ll look after the economy.

Thoughts from the President

Robert Knight

Listening to Theresa May on the way to work this morning talk about building a stronger economy got me to thinking. Politicians of a conservative bent always talk about things like ‘jobs and growth’, and getting the economy moving as though it’s the only thing that matters.

To me, what matters are people and the places we live. To me, they are the fundamental elements that constitute the economy. If it wasn’t for people and the places we live, there wouldn’t be an economy. Pretty simple logic in my mind.

Here’s where the issue lies for me. Under the neoliberal policies that most western nations have been enacting for the last three to four decades, we’ve seen the atomisation of society resulting in a population of disengaged individuals who feel demoralised and socially powerless. Social capital, the glue that holds us together and creates the conditions for cooperation, healthy competition, innovation and growth, has been allowed to wither. (This isn’t just an opinion, by the way).

So, how do we turn this around? For starters, we can’t discount people and their hierarchy of needs in the pursuit of economic growth. According to Maslow, meeting physiological, safety, love & belonging, esteem, and self actualisation needs, in ascending order, are the things that give people meaning and purpose, and create a productive citizen. Neoliberal policies, which result in the privatisation and commoditisation of public goods such as health, education, infrastructure & urban planning, housing, art & culture, and a myriad of social programs, fundamentally miss the point, and undercut the value of public ownership and investment in these things.

These public goods are the apparatus upon which our needs are fulfilled. An effective health system and housing supports physiological needs, good urban planning and effective social & law enforcement systems support our safety needs, good social programs supporting families and local community support our love & belonging needs, and among other things, a quality education supports our esteem and self actualisation needs.

Public investment and ownership of public goods is an acknowledgement that we are a society, a species of social primates, not just a bunch of ‘rational’ decision makers in a sterile economic system. It’s when people’s needs are fulfilled that they are best positioned to cooperate, compete, innovate and produce. So critical for a functioning economy.

Thus, here is the critical point. If we put people first, the economy will follow. Not the other way around. Stop listening to people who suggest otherwise.

Robert Knight is the National President of Australian Progressives.

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