What is it to value?

“We’re not commenting on sports here, we’re commenting on people’s lives, so therefore we don’t go clapping for the highest paid person at Goldman Sachs, we don’t go clapping for the highest paid person at UBS or someone else … there’s got to be, I think, a cultural change … years ago, when people talked about society they talked about people who had moment and gravity and who added to society. Now, any sort of pumped up rock star, model, journo, high earning person is a celebrity and in the financial business this has been a big problem and I think we have to do something to shred this sort of celebrity thing … we’ve got to be looking for value from these people and not commenting on them because they’re at the top of the bonus pool this year and they’ve made so much money, I mean it’s obscene and squalid” – Paul Keating, Sydney Writers Festival, 2009

The passage above has a lot of points that speak to what value is to people.

Given this is an election year, you’re going to hear a lot of values talk from both “sides” of politics.

What will get lost in the noise is the larger context of why values are important and the deeper question that no one asks which is “what is it to value anyway?”

You’ll often hear the ALP talk about “Labor values” in order to reaffirm some sort of identity they think they’ve lost and you’ll often hear the conservatives talk about “family values” and “Australian values” which generally goes along the lines of God, country, apple pie, respecting the flag and all of that other stuff which ties into their belief systems around reciprocity and social license.

The question “what is it to value?” leads in to what both parties are really meant to be all about. For example, would a family value an industrial relations policy that took away things like holidays, sick leave, workers compensation and paid overtime?

What would a disabled person or a carer of a disabled person value in the National Disability Insurance Scheme?

What would parents of a child about to start primary school value in an education policy?

What is the value of the superannuation system to average working people?

Would someone who subscribes to a “socially progressive” worldview value opposing a large real estate development even if it meant that such a development would supply jobs and living accommodations while lifting people on low incomes out of their situations?

Would a “conservative” who subscribes to the idea of society evolving through organic change value the role of unions and the union movement?

Would someone who subscribes to the ideology of “neoliberalism” value a policy towards asylum seekers that was aimed at keeping them out of the country?

Of course these questions are based on textbook definitions of different political philosophies which don’t really exist when you deal with policy challenges in the real world and most people have no idea what these kinds of philosophies are, let alone have any knowledge that they exist, but in terms of the values debate underlying the contest of ideas which is meant to be our national conversation, these kind of questions are pretty important.

Instead of a real values debate based on what’s valuable to someone in society, what you’ll probably get is simplistic slogans from both parties such as “fairness” and “freedom” when both parties (and minor parties for that matter) violate these values systems frequently and without a second thought.

I think one of the problems with the national conversation is that many politicians and insiders understand values only as a one dimensional marketing tool rather than speaking to and implementing policies based on what people in the community really value and it’s part of what’s disconnected the public from our national debate.

The key point is that value isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. You value. You don’t subscribe to a “value.” If you understand this, you’re ahead of the game.

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