By Harini Amarasuriya
Milton Friedman, the American economist, who was responsible for influencing Governments around the world to adopt neo-liberal economic policies, in the preface to his book Capitalism and Freedom (1982) wrote: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”
He wrote this in the context where the economic crises of the 1970s paved the way for a drastic reshaping of economic policies in the world and of society in general, led by Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA. This turn in economic policy has been described as the ‘neo-liberal turn’ in society.
Almost 40 years after Friedman’s book, we are in the midst of another global crisis – one that has the potential to bring about ‘real change’, albeit quite different to the changes promoted by Friedman in the 1980s.
Indeed, it is ironic that at this moment, when all over the world, there are many signs that the neo-liberal era is ending, to be use a quote from the guru of neo-liberal economics himself, to remind ourselves that “nothing remains unchanged”.
This is particularly ironic, because one of the most distinctive characteristics of neoliberalism was its sense of inevitability. Its proponents simply did not consider the possibility of any alternative way of thinking or of organising society and the economy. The ideological and political basis of neo-liberalism was made invisible, so much so, that in our universities and schools we teach neo-liberal economics, as simply ‘economics’ – not as one school of thought among a plurality of perspectives.
Today, as lives all over the world have been disrupted by the power of a tiny virus, we are forced to question some of the key assumptions on which our societies have been organised. For instance, we have been taught that searching for job security is a sign of ‘risk averseness’, lack of ‘entrepreneurial thinking’ or worse still, lack of drive and initiative. Yet, during these past several months, we have learned how precious job security is and that very few in our society can actually afford to take risks.
We are experiencing the repercussions of weak public services (especially health and education) and that the absence of competent leaders and Governments can influence the death rate during an epidemic. We can see that at times of crisis, rather than the executives, hedge fund managers and captains of industry, society needs teachers, doctors, nurses, delivery persons, farmers, garbage collectors and thousands of others doing the day-to-day, mundane, behind the scenes work of keeping our society going.
The highest paid in our society do not appear on a list of essential workers. We have also begun to appreciate the value of books, films and music as we look for ways to keep ourselves entertained while isolated in our homes. We are beginning to understand that despite orthodox economists telling us that humans are by instinct selfish and motivated only by self-interest and competition, that in times of crisis – we need others, we need to feel and express solidarity and support and that we thrive when we can cooperate with each other.
That some of the best things in life cannot be valued in money terms or its worth in the market place. It is unfortunate, that while Governments around the world are passing legislation to increase spending on public services such as health and education, when there are discussions about basic incomes and wealth taxes, our Government is rushing through Bills to provide even more benefits and advantages to a privileged few. The recent ‘Finance Bill’ passed in Parliament was a case in point.
This Bill basically allows those who did not declare their assets and wealth so that they could cheat on paying taxes and instead invested their wealth in foreign accounts, to use their money for investments within Sri Lanka. So, rather than being called to account for cheating the system and depriving the country of much needed revenue, they are being rewarded.
As a member of the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) in Parliament, I was shocked to learn about the number of tax defaulters in this country – and to see how some of the top companies in Sri Lanka owe millions to the Government in taxes. These are only those who actually declare their profits and earnings.
It is an open secret that there is much more wealth in offshore tax havens. That much of the money that is siphoned off overseas, is money earned through illegal means – including massive levels of Government corruption – means that the country is cheated twice: first through the illegal earnings and then tax avoidance.
This Act now will reward such people by ‘legally’ allowing them to default on payment of taxes. Let us also remember that this same Government has ignored the pleas of thousands of rural women who are trapped in micro-finance debts – the same debts that during elections, various politicians promised to abolish.
None of those politicians (who are now in power) are willing to even talk with these women. To hear our economic pundits, hold forth piously about not encouraging ‘dependency’ and teaching fiscal discipline to rural women living on the edge of poverty, while endorsing tax amnesties for the wealthy, is sickening to say the least.
It is at times such as this that citizens need to be aware, mobilised and organised as never before. Rumblings of radical change can be heard from throughout the world.
Even the IMF has been forced to concede that austerity policies that disproportionately affect the vulnerable in a society and growth without equality or rather growth in the face of growing inequality is not a desirable economic state to be in. More than any economic theory though, the realities of climate change are forcing us to rethink our patterns of consumption and the need to plan and invest in sustainable futures.
Unfortunately, our political leaders and opinion-makers seem to be truly out of step with the changes that are taking place in the rest of the world. This is all the more reason for citizens to lead the way – because the changes that are on the way – and make no mistake – they ARE on the way, are not in the interest of those currently in power.
So, it will be up to the citizens of this country, the vast majority of us who are NOT benefitting from the current status-quo and in fact stand to lose substantially if things continue the way they are, to stand up and demand that we count.