Social Policy Whisperer: Harnessing the economy to the Good Society - a policy strategy for the church and community activists 2015


This is an excerpt from a talk given last night to Social Policy Connections AGM by Dr Paul Smyth (full paper will shortly be available on the SPC website ). It is a call to action for faith-based organisations and advocates, to come out unequivocally and assertively with the message that the Good Society is created in spaces and through narratives that the weakening PaleoLiberal rationale cannot reach or answer.


At the recent Social Policy Connections AGM I was asked to speak about the challenge social policy activists face in getting purchase on a social policy agenda monopolised for a couple of decades by a brand of economics generally hostile to social intervention.   My takeaway message is that this monopoly is now broken.  As Labor MP with responsibilities for social policy, Jenny Macklin said recently: ‘social policy is no longer the Poor Cousin’.  It is time for church and community activists to come in from the cold.  As we know from our own national rugby team, this can be a challenge.  Years of defeat can engender a culture of losing.  A team can forget how to win.  As of 2014, I believe the terms of social policy contest have changed fundamentally.  A new policy window is open and it is time for the sector to switch from defence to attack.

The first strategy is to build the narrative of the good society. In developing a political strategy any group has to think what can be its most useful contribution.   In locating itself in this emerging contest between PaleoLiberalism and Inclusive Growth I think the churches have a huge vested interest in reimagining and reinventing their ideals of solidarity, fellowship and the Good Society as the basis for a new reordering of our economic and social priorities.  Policy terms and labels like Inclusive Growth have to be broken down and translated into ideas and practices which resonate within particular policy communities and public opinion more broadly.

One political casualty of the years of economic rationalism has been the ability to talk persuasively about the values of social justice, solidarity and Christian fellowship. Believe me in the 1980s these were empowering ideas and indeed churches and secular movements engaged in a friendly rivalry over who was their most authentic champion.   Today though, as we see from recent government inquiries promoting the privatisation of government and community services, social policy discourse has become absorbed into the language of market, competition and consumerism to the complete neglect of community and social values.

This is, of course, the way the PaleoLiberals want it to continue. In the words of Treasurer Hockey:

‘It is a simple and proven formula for willing buyers to engage with willing sellers. If we want a product or service we go and buy it with the dividend from the fruits of our own labour.  The producer is happy and the customer is satisfied. The problem arises however when there is a belief that one person has a right to a good or service that someone else will pay for. It is this sense of entitlement that afflicts not only individuals but also entire societies.’

I don’t know just how Joe would square this sentiment with his Christianity. Where is the place for entitlements arising from Christian ideas of social justice?  Where is the scope for that altruism (i.e. serving others for nothing in return) which ought to be the life blood of a Christian society?

Around Inclusive Growth, on the other hand, there are two big ideas with which church thinkers can most usefully engage in the challenge of bringing the Good Society back in as an organising goal of economic and social policy:

  • The first is a variation on what used to be our mainstream lib-lab consensus around a Fair Go. This was premised on the notion that in a free market economy, governments have to intervene to ensure that all citizens have the resources for full economic and social participation in their society.   Today Sen’s theory of capability is a very influential restatement of this social justice value that the state should act to ensure that every individual has access to those resources necessary for converting their capabilities into the way of living that they value.
  • This perspective has been strengthened by the thinking of Roberto Unger on ‘deep freedom’. Here the pursuit of equality is seen to be not about some mean-spirited desire to pluck tall and wealthy poppies but rather to ensure that all individuals are equally free to realise their potentials. This deep freedom of the citizen contrasts with the shallow ‘freedom to choose’ of the consumer in the market place.
  • The second is the New Communitarianism associated among conservatives with Philip Blond and Jesse Norman and among progressives with Maurice Glasman. Norman’s writings on the modern day relevance of Edmund Burke (Edmund Burke, The First Conservative, Basic Books 2013) provide a powerful critique of the narrow conception of the human being associated with ‘rational economic man’. His analysis has three dimensions:
  • Individual self
  • Also a Social self (importance of ‘social capital’, networks’ etc.)
  • In a ‘moral community’ (wellbeing not just an attribute of the individual but associated with the moral vision\ practice of the community eg compare the mafia and the redemptorist communities).

The first strategic challenge then is to engage with the master narratives of economic and social policy highlighting the inadequacies of PaleoLiberalism from a church perspective and creating a more attractive alternative narrative which builds on the concept of Inclusive Growth to show what it looks like when translated into the church languages of justice, fellowship and solidarity.

Posted by Kathy Landvogt