Us and the US
[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’. That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings. That format will be followed in the précis. The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Patriotism; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings; Afterword. Each chapter is about 1400 words.]
The United States was commenced by deeply religious people. Americans know that ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’, but some things require mature judgment and discernment before being applied to life here on earth.
Both the first colonists and the later waves of settlers and migrants went to America to create wealth. Government at either end was not part of the business. America was the primal NGO. Australia was very different. In the beginning it was the definitive not-for-profit operation, a jail. The colonies in Australia were closely regulated by military delegates of London and then colonial legislatures. Government intervention was both thorough and inevitable. Most importantly, most people coming to Australia did so at the cost of government. Government therefore played a far bigger role in public life in Australia. It’s rare to see government creating wealth; that’s not its job.
There was and is a much greater emphasis on individual effort and reward in the U S. There was correspondingly much more reliance on government intervention and protection in Australia. The Americans have stronger notions of legal protection of civil rights in general; the Australians have stronger notions about the legal regulation for the distribution of wealth.
The agricultural resources were much better in the U S and small farmers could and did flourish. There was more water and good soil in the U S. Government in both London and the colonies sought to encourage a yeoman type of small farmer in Australia, but conditions there did not suit that development. In the south and east in the U S, wealth was concentrated in tobacco and cotton, built on cheap land and the free labour of convicts and then slaves. Throughout the rest of the country, the sources of wealth were more evenly spread, except that the north-east was heavily focussed on industry, enabling the U S to become the arsenal of the free world. In Australia, wealth was concentrated on wool at first, that was initially also built on cheap – free – land and the free labour of convicts, and from there the transition would go to gold and then to minerals generally.
In America, people tend to admire those who succeed financially – that is, after all, the whole bloody point. In Australia, people lean to a kind of suspicion informed by envy of people who get very rich. They do not believe that people get very rich honestly; they do in truth see the very wealthy, especially the quick or new ones, as crooks; at the very least, they think that these people will not have paid tax, and so they have got where they have unfairly.
America and Australia are capitalist countries. That is to say, they believe that business and the creation of wealth should be left to business people, and not to government. These business people are what we call entrepreneurs. The driver is competition. The impression you might get is that the Americans are more ready than Australia and others to apply the logic of competition in capitalism – the prize goes to the winners, and the others are thanked for taking part.
Both countries have had to deal with unhealthy aggregations of wealth. The Australians had to deal with splitting up the unduly and unfairly large holdings of the squatters, but the attempt to set up a ‘yeoman’ type model of farming failed. America pioneered laws to break up combinations or trusts that were intended or likely to stifle competition. These laws are known as anti-trust or competition laws, and Australia has adopted the U S model. The common law recognises that you can start up in business with the view to wiping out the competition that you find already there –and in applying anti-trust laws, the courts recognise that competition is naturally ruthless – competitors are in one sense engaged in trying to lessen and therefore ‘injure’ the business of each other. The balance is very fine.
The Australian government intervenes with the distribution of profits by providing binding adjudications on wage issues. Here Australia does things that would be unthinkable in America. It has for more than a century settled industrial disputes by making decisions that are given the force of law putting a floor under wages across various industries across the nation. It has been able to do this because trade unions in Australia have a legal definition and protection, industrial bargaining power, and community tolerance if not respect that they do not have in America. This in turn has, as it did in England, helped the Labour Movement, as it is called, to maintain a political party.
The sustained and broad intervention of government in industrial relations, the strength of the unions, although now declining, and the presence of a political party with at least an historical tie to the workers, all represent very big differences in the lives of the working people, and the political outlook generally, in Australia compared to America. If, as most believe, Americans have to work harder and longer for their wages, at least some of the reasons might be found in this different industrial background.
To what extent then should it the Australian government intervene to look after those of its electors who have not done so well and who might fairly be said to need if not deserve help? Should government adjust the means of some to meet the needs of others? However you frame the issue, or the criteria for its resolution, the kind of answer that you have got so far in the U S has been very different to that which you get in Australia, Britain, Germany, France, or the rest of Western Europe. Its agonies over health care now make the point.
The English Welfare State followed similar progress in Germany; New Zealand and Australia were already going the same away; but the wording of section 8 of the U S (‘Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes….to provide for the ….general Welfare of the United States’), has produced nothing like those consequences in America. When it comes to welfare the U S is the lone state in the Western world. Like ‘tax’, ‘welfare’ is not a word used in polite company.
Australia has, unusually, gone one step further, almost on its own. If you combine the last two tendencies that we have been looking at – regulating the distribution of wages and providing for the aged and sick – you get in Australia a universal system of compulsory superannuation. Employees of all kinds have to put away a percentage of their wages to secure their life when they stop work. The system has its burdens and its wrinkles, but it is described by some qualified people outside of it as a model for others.
They are the main differences between America and Australia on wealth. The discussion shows that the terms Right and Left are passé, and that an injunction to provide for ‘Welfare’ may produce a result that makes no sense to others who think they have it – it also shows that old fashioned terms like liberalism, socialism, nanny state, free choice, individualism, or entitlements may not advance the discussion one iota. Sticks and stones will break your bones, but welfare requires taxes; labels, slogans, and nostrums do not make policy, and they make bloody awful politics. The inheritors of the empirical tradition are better off working with results rather than with formulae, with experience rather than with theory, and with the world as it is rather than with a Dreamtime or Fantasyland.