Are we somehow fearful of the freedoms we have inherited during the past 50 years?
HUGH Mackay always makes me stop and think.
He is considered by some to be a ‘rock star’ social commentator, whose opinion is valued because he is independently minded and usually says something thought provoking.
So I really enjoyed his take on the subject of Australians’ generosity, given in a speech he gave last week while promoting his new book, through the University of Western Australia’s Business School.
As I have written many times in news articles, our lack of generosity is a big issue to many people because Australians are richer than many other nations on a per-capita basis, and yet they tend to be less charitable.
In WA, that situation is even more pronounced. We are wealthier than the rest of the nation but we give less.
There are several reasons for this, such as the role of the welfare state and the government in Australia, which fills gaps that in the US, for example, are the responsibility of charities and philanthropy.
Nevertheless, excuses aside we not just tight with our money, we are following a global trend towards getting tighter. That’s bad enough in some nations but worse here where philanthropy comes off such a low base.
Naturally, this is a situation that doesn’t bode well for those needing charitable funds.
Anyway I was interested in Mr Mackay’s thoughts on why this mean-spiritedness was occurring.
One of the reasons he suggested was the immaturity of Australia when it came to wealth generation. As a modern nation we are barely 200 years old. Naturally, when it comes to WA, that issue is exacerbated because this state’s wealthy are most often self-made, or second generation.
History shows us, he said, that the new rich, the nouveau riche, are often the problem in this respect – and have been in the past in older countries that have now changed their philanthropic patterns.
“One of the things about people that are suddenly and quite often unexpectedly very rich is that, in the short term, they tend to be more selfish, more protective of what they have got and more likely to raise their children with a sense of entitlement,” Mr Mackay said.
This is a very interesting point.
You might think those who have made money quickly might be complacent about it and generous in realising their good fortune.
Instead, the opposite is true. Perhaps the feeling is that some of this good fortune is due to luck, being in the right place at the right time – like being born in WA during the past 50 years. To some extent, people recognise that this money is partially unearned. That is the rub, if it is a windfall, no amount of hard work can earn it again if it is lost.
And therefore we have a society that is not miserly but cautious. Mr Mackay goes ones step further to suggest we are even anxious.
As we become richer we isolate ourselves in bigger houses, cocoon ourselves away with electronic gadgets, we have fewer children and therefore less reason to widen our social circles; and we have time to contemplate the moral dilemmas that face the world.
It seems that day-to-day survival is no longer the issue, yet we become more rather than less anxious as a consequence.
I found that quite illuminating. The richer we become the more time we have to look beyond our immediate circumstances, and the more we worry about the bigger picture. Let’s be honest, you need to be extremely wealthy in the global context to be able to afford to chain yourself to a tree to stop the logging of native forestry.
Similarly you need to be comparatively well off to afford the time to ring a talkback radio station to express your concern about the influx of boat people.
Mr Mackay said that the result of this anxiety was the need for more rules to try and control these areas that previously never troubled us.
“There is a pro-regulation mentality which seems to have us by the throat at the moment is a direct result of our feelings of anxiety,” he said.
“We want more rules; as soon as something happens that we don’t approve of we think we should have tougher regulations to control this.
“That is a dangerous trend for us, as is our increasingly defensive response to our anxiety.”
While this is very much a summary of what Mr Mackay was talking about, I wondered about how it was that the richer we became – for that is partly a reflection of our bigger houses and smaller families – the more vulnerable we are to the voices from extreme ends of politics that want to regulate everything in our lives.
Overall, I found Mr Mackay’s thoughts fascinating because of what he tells us about ourselves.
During the past 30 years Australia has thrown off the shackles of regulation and become liberated in so many respects. Yet, as a result, we have become more anxious, a state that creates intense navel-gazing and selfishness, which ultimately prompts the need for more rules to come back.
Perhaps this anxiety is one generation seeking to lock in the benefits of recent liberalisation before it has to compete again with the next. Rules and regulations typically suit the incumbent rather than the newcomer.
So where does the leadership come to help reverse this situation, to make us more at ease with ourselves, and therefore more generous in spirit?
Oddly enough, and despite the popular demand for government-led regulation Mr Mackay suggests is prevalent, the private sector institutions are the prime movers in this regard.
“The institutions which tend to be most effective in stimulating things like regrowth of neighbourhoods and communities or connections between people are commercial institutions rather than political or other institutions,” he said.
“What is really shaping our cities, suburbs and towns is commercial activity and commercial development.”
So, what’s the message from all this? Stop trying to get the government to sort out your woes. Firstly, your anxiety may be misplaced and self-created and, secondly, bureaucracy doesn’t have the answers.