Governing for all of us or just for business?
Afundamental question facing the Abbott government is whether it will succumb to the General Motors syndrome: what's good for big business is good for Australia. Does its slogan that Australia's now "open for business" actually mean open slather for business?
Will it run the country to please its business backers or to benefit all of us? Because the notion that what big business wants of government always coincides with what's best for the rest of us is a fairytale only a chief executive could believe.
Another way to put it - to clarify the choice Tony Abbott faces - is whether the government will be pro-business or pro-market.
The economic side of our lives is about producing and consuming; you can't have one without the other. To be pro-business is to favour producers, making life easier for them when they ask for help, whereas to be pro-market is to favour consumers, the people market economies are meant to serve.
As Adam Smith put it: "Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production and the welfare of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer."
It's easy to tell yourself that by helping an industry you're helping its customers, though it's more usual to tell yourself you're saving workers' jobs. Business people lobbying to protect their profits almost invariably hide behind their workers' jobs, often making greatly exaggerated claims (claims they're rarely asked to substantiate) about how many jobs will be lost if their demands aren't met.
When you think it through, however, you realise that giving business people the easier life they seek isn't the way to maximise the benefit going to consumers, nor to maximise total employment. You may imagine - as does everyone on the left - that capitalist economies are designed to benefit the owners of capital above all others. In fact, in an efficiently functioning market economy the suppliers of capital get little more than a reasonable return on their investment, with most of the benefit going to consumers in the form of an ever-expanding range of reasonably priced goods and services.
The magic ingredient that brings this about - shifting the benefit from producers to consumers - is competition: competition between the producers but, just as important (and often lacking in our busy lives), competition between consumers and producers as consumers seek out the best deals and the best service. When industries lobby governments for favours, what they're usually seeking is a reduction in the competition they're facing or about to face - all in the name of protecting their workers' jobs, naturally. They're seeking an easier life than the rough and tough life the capitalist system would otherwise serve up to them.
Often they're seeking protection from competition with imports. In the old days protection was achieved by imposing a tariff (import duty) on imported goods; these days a similar effect is achieved by granting the industry a subsidy from the taxpayer. Either way, the protection comes at the expense of the public.
But does it save jobs? It may save them in the particular industry being protected, but only at the expense of employment in the rest of the economy. How so? Consumers are left with less money to spend on the products of other industries. People in the protected industry don't care about that, of course, but the rest of us should.
Longer-term, protection involves keeping your head in the sand and pretending the rest of the world isn't changing. This is unsustainable. When the world we live in changes, we have to adapt to that change or become an industrial museum.
The way to maximise employment for everyone who wants to work is for us to pay the world price for everything and produce those goods and services where we have an advantage, and leave it to others to produce stuff where we don't have an advantage.
So being pro-market means examining requests for help from particular industries from the perspective of the economy as a whole. This avoids another problem: often one industry's request involves being favoured against rival industries.
Give in to one and the others redouble their screams of pain. You can't help 'em all, and if you try to you end up with a mollycoddled, inefficient economy.
Complicating things for the Abbott government is that its Labor predecessor didn't know how to say no to the business lobbies. And the more it said yes to particular industries the more dissatisfied, demanding and contemptuous the rest of business became. Lobbying has become a way of life for big business, and no doubt the whole of business is expecting a bonanza now their own side is back in power.
If Abbott has any sense, he'll get the business lobbies back in their box from the start, telling them the era of rent-seeking is over. He'll stand up to big business the way Labor never could because, unlike it, he need have no fear of losing business's support.
The first place to stand up is against the unending blackmail game General Motors and the other global car makers are playing so successfully against all national governments.
And when he and Joe Hockey start delving into the budget, they'll find quite a few areas of hidden protection, starting with the plan to continue paying a fortune for faulty submarines to be made in Adelaide when much cheaper, better-working subs could be bought off the shelf in the US or Sweden.
Then there's the protection for local pill-making companies (not to mention retail chemists) hidden in the pharmaceutical benefits scheme. And coming up is a bid by manufacturers to be exempted from paying the world price for gas when the eastern states become part of the world gas market in the next year or two. We'll hear a lot more about this one.