Power to the People

Conservatives in Western politics have been playing the same tune for a lot of years now. At a time when the dreaded socialists the world over have been forced to reinvent themselves many times over in the past 100 years, for better or worse as the case may be, the conservatives keep dusting off the same old pipe band and hitting the streets.

It occurred to me maybe in my 30s that at root I'm quite a conservative person. But that what that term had come to mean because of its use politically i.e. moralistic wowser, beat up the unions etc. didn't at all describe my own conservatism. To me being conservative means recognising that most of the times there's no need to fiddle with things or to try to impose control on them, because you'll mostly just muck things up. You'll be a busybody, in every sense of that word.

BUT on the other hand I would run a mile from the extension on that put by most conservatives today that this means that the world should be run as a sort of 'anything goes' game. The problem with conservatives today is that they have a good instinct in not trusting fiddling and control, but then seem to deliberately fail to acknowledge all the various fiddling and control mechanisms out there which don't have a big 'union' or 'liberal' (the Satanic conservative enemy in the US) sticker plastered across their foreheads. So they rabbit on about individual liberty and freedom and letting things work themselves out, while at the same time wilfully ignoring all of the exact opposite tendencies in corporate life to do just the opposite. They're selective in their conservatism, it's too narrowly focused.

Also they make the mistake of thinking that leaving the locus of most activity at the individual level means that any organisation or other collective grouping is an evil that has to be smashed (except for their clubs, business and professional associations etc.). Now this to me again is a false focus for them to have. It's one thing to reject attempts to control everything with over-arching bodies, and quite another to not allow individuals to form collective groupings of their own free will, for their own purposes. They actually seem to believe that groupings of any kind are some sort of myth, an unrepresentative evil imposed upon individuals. But it's absolutely clear that very often individuals want to form into collective groups that then perform some function for them. Like insurance, but the examples are legion.

Take Tony Abbott, Australian opposition politician and one-time health minister, in today's Australian newspaper, dusting off the same tired old conservative rubbish about how to run a health system (or schools - the same model is used there too).

A coalition government would devolve the running of the nation's public hospitals to the private sector, community groups and charities, opposition frontbencher Tony Abbott says.

The enemy apparently is the public servants. The very well-heeled doctors, a traditional conservative group (in the too-narrow sense of the term) of course always agree on this one, having blamed everything wrong with the health system on the 'bloody bureaucrats' for decades. Next Abbott trots out more of the standard fare:

His vision includes the establishment of local hospital boards with the power to appoint their own chief executive and the ability to retain revenue from privately-insured patients.

Now you might think this is letting the locus of control of things be where the action is, at the 'local' coalface. But what the conservatives always do here is strip away all of the good groupings that individuals have set up over many years, to distribute resources evenly and ensure equity and efficiency - all the dreaded bureaucracies and government and other agencies - leaving nothing but a naked, emaciated local body with power and influence large enough to do nothing more than terrorise the local folk, with every prejudice and incompetence found in the loons and rank opportunists they manage to recruit to the local board.

The Commonwealth, under a coalition government, would devolve management of public hospitals in the same the way it did for the employment services network and nursing homes.

Well bugger me but didn't the disaster of the employment services network under the coalition government resonate with anybody? You'd hope so, but maybe it didn't - the unmitigated gall to say this in public after the monumental cock-ups of the past 10 years in this area leads me to think that people have just forgotten. And how often do we hear about rampant corruption and cronyism and just sheer bloody incompetence where things are managed at 'local' levels, and an agency or other larger body has to step in and restore order? Local government, anyone?

The tyranny of the old local parish has been forgotten. Strip-mining all of the collective mechanisms out of health and dumping the lot back on local boards can only lead to gross inefficiencies at best, and cronyism at worst. It amazes me that the same people who normally go into bat for big business, where economies of scale are (rightly) valued, can't fathom that the same economies of scale need to be there in health, education and government itself. By all means strip away 'top-down' control freaks who think they can manage the lot from some capital city, but leave the bloody networks and scaling mecahnisms in place that allow for a much more efficient and equitable process. As opponents to Abbott-type schemes in education always point out, how does a local board in Deniliquin attract top teachers? What's to stop local dickheads lording over the commnity via their seats on the board, judging potential teachers and doctors on spurious moral grounds, as happens in the US?

When you look at the history of Medicare here and at public health systems in many other countries, it sticks out as clear as the gap payment on a specialist's bill that the central reason for pursuing these things isn't a grand socialist vision of control. Quite the opposite. As Neal Blewett (then health minister) said back in the 1980s in Australia:

Dr Blewett...described the legislation as 'a major social reform' that would 'embody a health insurance system that is simple, fair and affordable'. He also emphasised the 'universality of cover' as being 'desirable from an equity point of view' and 'in terms of efficiency and reduced administrative costs'.

There it is. Simplicity, equity and efficiency. And reduced administrative costs. Should all be music to any conservative's ears. Alas it isn't because they can't see past their stupid, tired belief that big things are bad and little things are good (with the exception of their clubs, of course). The economists who designed Medicare were actually of conservative leaning, and to this day say over and over that it was nothing about bringing socialism to the masses, and everything about making the system efficient, less bureaucratic and more fair.

The hypocrisy of it all is highlighted by the massive government subsidies to private health insurance. You would think that a viable industry would be one that thrived, and that government 'handouts' here would be as bad as they are elsewhere (to this type of thinker). And not just the subsidies, but also the penalties to those who don't take out private cover.

Talk about free willl and liberating the individual.

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