News from the Front Desk, Issue 493: Sometimes urging people to take personal responsibility is a fraudulent strategy for positive change. A con that says it’s all our own fault if the planet blows up.

We need to take shorter showers, recycle, don’t buy plastics, travel less.

If we’re fat or sick or work in an industry that degrades and harms us, we’re urged to take personal responsibility and change things.

We hear it with smoking. We hear it with obesity. It’s personal choice, not superior marketing, or vast industrial scale changes to food manufacturing, work practices, urban planning and the rise of giant shopping centres.

But as one study pointed out in a documentary on ABC a year or two ago, most people in Ireland (and here, we’ll bet) were not obese, until suddenly, in a few short years, many were.

Now the population of an entire country didn’t suddenly start overeating, eating the wrong food or not exercising.

Perhaps it had something to do superior marketing from food companies peddling sugars and fats, or the growth of supermarkets and demise of the grocer and markets. Perhaps it’s the rising pressure to work more, play less, give up family and community for the new car and overseas holiday also had something to do with it.

But everywhere we hear the same story. We need to take personal responsibility.

On Thursday the government was saying if university students fail their subjects they would have their personal responsibility managed for them – by removing any government subsidies they may have. The headline is so pure and simple: you fail, you lose.

The universities will have no trouble managing this, the government spokesman said. They’ve already become admirably entrepreneurial, but it’s such a shame they didn’t spread their entrepreneurial eggs out to more markets than China, he added.

Wait. We thought universities were about higher learning, critique and freedom of expression. (The kind of values the government professes to support. Until it doesn’t.)

But then universities are publicly named and shamed for allowing the Chinese government to dictate what they teach and how – well it’s their personal responsibility to resist the pressure.

And when they are outed for underpaying staff and sacking the rampant casualisation of their workforce (in a perfect mirror to the rest of this economy) same.

None of this has anything to do with the federal government’s financialisation of universities, nor the swarm of people who supported Labor doing the same thing, right? (Let them pay, we heard one well-known economist say at the time. As if the benefits of higher learning accrue only to the individual.)

Nor has it anything to do with taking this most precious of public goods and turning it into the nation’s second biggest export earner, right?

In our environment, it’s the same.

The trouble with focusing on personal responsibility is that it only gets you so far. It doesn’t deal with externalities. Either our impact on these or how they impact on us.

For instance, the air that is fouled by the manufacturers of coal based electricity who were heroes once, agreed, but who when they realised their coal killed people, buried the facts (instead of the coal) and took personal responsibility – for themselves, that is, and for no-one else.

In land management and zoning a similar attitude seems to underpin the notion that we should liberalise zoning and do away with pesky social and environmental values.

Like universities, the notion is that we can commodify land as much as we can commodify learning, or water or the quality of our atmosphere.

This is an ideology that relies on personal responsibility to work it out. It’s code for an ideology with supreme regard for market forces. These will price the scarce resources, so we allocate them to the best and highest use.

Yes. But.

Those who believe that the market should rule and is the perfect decider of value, are not to be scorned. They have a point. There are many things we need to ration. It’s the nature of human life and in a way nature does it every day too. It takes a scarce resource and uses it to the best and highest use.

But nature’s currency is life or death. It’s uncaring about this and may not plan for the benefit of the whole.

In land management issues, When the Reserve Bank of Australia again stepped into the zoning issue and argued last week that liberalised zoning with more higher towers, will lead to cheaper apartments, it’s deferring to the ideology of personal responsibility.

If you don’t want to live in a 100-storey tower that is crammed up against 1000 other 100-storey towers then you don’t have to. But never fear, the prices will fall until some poor sod who can’t afford to live anywhere else takes up the offer.

Never mind that developers do not like falling prices and will stop building if the prices fall. Never mind that it’s in zoning and land management that we come head to head with the flip side of personal choice: social needs and choices. And with the big tension between the two.

(It’s what we pay politicians to do: the horrid job of finding a balance between the two. )

And never mind that though developers demand fully liberalised zoning and no green or red tape, they’d be horrified if they got it, because the value of their product would crash.

To ignore that the externalities of property development are fundamental to its success is to make zoning and development a two-dimensional thing, commodifying it and reducing it to simple demand and supply.

No surprise that one of the authors of the RBA research announced to colleagues this week that he would be taking up a position as chief economist with the Centre for Independent Studies, where he will work on housing and monetary policy.

It was someone from a like-minded place, the Institute of Public Affairs, from memory, who recently on public radio said taxes are not the government’s money. It’s our money that the government takes away from us.

Are such entrepreneurial thinkers happy to pay for the inputs of production such as labour and capital but  ignore that they should probably pay for the vast infrastructure of schools, roads, hospitals and a relatively stable government that makes their enterprise even remotely feasible?

Resolving the tension between the personal and the public is politics. We pay the politicians to do this sometimes dreadful work. The very least we can do is help them and be fully engaged with the process.  So let’s stop treating personal responsibility as some kind of superior value, and realise it’s part of a bigger picture.

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