Social reform and frozen meat

First published in The Australian, April 9, 2013

NICK CATER

ACADEMIC feminist Eva Cox believes that balancing the budget is a bit blokey. On a recent episode of ABC1’s Q&A, she decried the “hairy-chested” fixation on fiscal rectitude. “Economics is a very failed discipline,” she said, “and it really doesn’t deal with the things that really count.” Instead, she urged us to start talking about “the society we want to live in”.

The free and easy use of the collective pronoun “we” is one of the many grating habits of passionate social reformers, as Cox likes to describe herself. Frankly, some of us have our doubts about a welfare-charged Coxian utopia in which Adam Smith is banished to the outer darkness.

We should have called a halt to this nonsense years ago, but the conservative side of politics seems to turn to jelly in front of a do-gooder shaking the tin. As a consequence, the passionate, social reforming sector of the economy has grown exponentially while the rest of us pick up the tab.

The conservatives have surrendered so much ground in the contest of ideas that it is difficult to single out any particular concession that allowed the heresy to take hold that social reform is virtuous and economic reform is a vice. Until the second half of the last century, the two went side by side. Outside of the Communist Party most agreed that an expanding free market would lessen the friction of everyday life and ensure greater prosperity for all.

The idea that greed drives capitalism is a relatively modern misconception. Avarice is a very different thing from personal ambition and it was the instinct to better oneself and one’s family that inspired the growth of settled Australia from the arrival of the First Fleet.

As Robert Menzies put it in his Forgotten People speech: “Frugal people who strive for and obtain the margin above these materially necessary things are the whole foundation of a really active and developing national life.”

From the dawning of the Enlightenment, the utilitarian value of science was unchallenged; its application was for the greater good; industry and enterprise were the means by which it spread. Industrialists had no need to atone by making symbolic gestures of social responsibility; they got on with producing better and cheaper products that made the good life more affordable.

The birth of the frozen meat trade in the late 19th century is a case study in innovative entrepreneurial reform. In 1865 Joseph Brown examined the plight of London’s poor and observed: “The skeleton in the closet of England, is that her people are underfed … I have observed, and not without a feeling of pain, the diminishing power of English women to suckle their offspring.”

In Australia, by contrast, surplus mutton was boiled into tallow for candles and soap. The solution, Brown wrote, was free trade. “Can nations be occupied in a more Christian work than the conferring of mutual benefits doubly blessing all, for all at once are both givers and receivers?”

Wool trader Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, already one of the richest men on the continent, saw an opening. If he were in business today, Mort would be declared one of Craig Emerson’s “fabulously rich”. Back then he was a harbinger of progress. In 1874, he served lamb for 300 guests and revealed in an after-dinner speech that the livestock had been slaughtered 15 months earlier and frozen using ammonia compression technology.

It was the end of famine, he declared. God had blessed mankind with abundant food mankind but had not yet got the hang of its distribution. “Where the food is, the people are not; and where the people are, the food is not,” Mort said. “It is, however, in the power of man to adjust these things.”

There might have been a bob or two in the frozen meat trade for Mort had he not died of pleuro-pneumonia four years later before the technique had been perfected. By 1910, however, the per-capita consumption of imported meat in Britain had risen by 12.7kg and the British were measurably more healthy. In their 1913 book, A History of the Frozen Meat Trade, James Critchell and Joseph Raymond noted that business “hangs on the slender piston rod of a refrigerating machine, yet feeds nations with a regularity that defies famine”.

One suspects that a contemporary Q&A audience would have disapproved of the flamboyant Mort, just as they distrust Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart. Palmer plans to build a replica of the Titanic; Mort spent his wealth on Elizabethan armour and French antique furniture, which was put on ostentatious display at his gothic Darling Point mansion.

Yet Mort’s legacy of social reform is undeniable, while the endless discussion about “the society we want to live in”, with no thought as to how we will pay for it, simply goes round in circles. In her 1995 Boyer Lecture on the subject, Cox confessed: “I have no recipe for a future magic pudding. The complexity of human society, I suspect, defies the easy answers.”

Indeed it does, if you discount applied science, free markets and competitive enterprise.