19 January 2021

Tim Soutphommasane: “Our culture has shifted. For a country so sharply defined by our egalitarianism, we’ve grown relaxed about inequality. Maybe this is what happens when neoliberalism shapes our sensibilities. Rather than seeing economic inequality as a symptom of the system going wrong, many of us now see it as a reflection of the natural order of things, as determined by free operation of markets. If the rich enjoy special advantages, enough of us believe they deserve it. Our tolerance of inequality is tied to our faith in meritocracy: the idea that people are rewarded and promoted in society based on their ability. … It’s no accident that we’re seeing so much callousness towards our fellow Australians who’ve been stranded overseas, unable to return home. We’ve heard the refrain that these people should have known better, should have come home immediately — essentially, that their failure to make it back must be counted as their just deserts, and not their misfortune. … If anything, though, the pandemic should challenge us to have greater generosity towards our fellow citizens. We shouldn’t lapse into thinking that the coronavirus and its effects reflect divine judgements about virtue. And nor should we when it comes to income and wealth. Seduced by the ethic of aspiration, many of us have been complacent in accepting meritocracy, without considering that it also serves as a moral justification for the status quo.”