I’ve written elsewhere that I reject the notion that individual success and a strong public realm should be considered mutually exclusive. Our political paradigm sometimes makes people feel like they have to choose between one or the other. – if you want individual success you vote right, if you want good public services you vote left.
Like many things in life, I don’t think it’s that simple. One of my core political beliefs is that we’re all connected. Human beings are social animals, we live together and what happens in one part of our society affects people elsewhere. Kids who don’t get a good education, have an unstable home environment, and poor living conditions can still achieve anything – but statistically we know that they are less likely to reach their potential. I think that’s morally wrong, but aside from that, the social and fiscal costs are huge; wasted human potential means more crime, less work and enterprise, increased health costs, and a decline in social capital – the glue that helps us to trust one another.
On the other hand when we get these things right and build a strong society, individuals are far more likely to flourish, reach their full potential, and contribute back.
That’s why I found recent comments from the government about cutting taxes deeply concerning. New Zealand’s a good place and we have a lot going for us, but we also know that there real problems that need solving:
Hundreds of thousands of children who go without the basics (I call it poverty, but if others want to call it ‘material hardship’, fine – we just need to turn it round)
A decades long under-investment in critical transport infrastructure in Auckland, now creaking at the seams as we surge towards two million people.
Rising crime, a function of unresolved social problems, and also declining real investment in frontline policing.
Schools that have become service centres for the whole community, supporting families and children with complex needs at the same time as educating our kids. They face a massive funding squeeze.
A housing crisis that is locking out a whole generation of young people from home ownership.
These are all real problems, but they are all things that we can change if we make the right choices as a country. Tax cuts won’t solve any of them.
But what would New Zealand be like in ten years time if we chose to invest government surpluses in a focussed effort to eradicate child poverty, modern light rail in Auckland, more frontline police on the beat and building community relationships, a funding boost for our public education system, and affordable homes so that all families have a warm, dry place to live?
We’d be a better, happier country, with fewer downstream fiscal costs, and more people succeeding and contributing.
It takes a bit of vision and courage to steer away from sugar-hit policies like tax cuts and to make long-term investments that take longer than three years to pay off – but isn’t that what we should expect from government?
The alternative is lost human potential, and the other big spending item the government flagged this week – the ‘economic and moral failure’ of more prisons.