Monthly Archives: December 2010

Pesky democracy interferes with market

Outside of North Korea, there are few who really suffer from “a lack of understanding of the role of profits in the functioning of the economy”, despite what Judith Sloane imagines (‘Profit is not a dirty word when it generates economic growth and raises living standards’, The Australian, 27/12).

But what does not follow from this is her contention that only unregulated profit-seeking is effective in “promoting efficient use of resources and ensuring resources are directed to their most productive ends”. This is wishful, naive 19th century economics, which has been thoroughly debunked by modern theory, and by the observable facts: while economic systems undeniably find their own equilibria, these may not be optimal for the participants, and for some may be disastrous. That is why regulation is necessary, why it is often called for by the electorate, and why laws which, say, restrict bank exit fees are not qualitatively different from laws against theft.

To mock, as Sloane does, the notion that “governments can decide on the social and economic outcomes they see as desirable…, and a combination of laws, regulations and jawboning will ensure these are achieved” is to mock democracy itself.

Shipwreck caused by kindness

In ‘Tragic results of Labor’s compassion’ (The Australian, 27/12) Chris Kenny draws completely different conclusions from precisely the same evidence, depending on who was in government at the time.

The drownings at Christmas Island he ascribes to Labor’s refugee policy, which he deems soft because, while it does feature arbitrary detention, it lacks forced repatriation. Howard’s policy, he says, was “cruel to be kind. We will never know how many lives it saved by removing the incentive for dangerous voyages.”

But we get some idea how many it didn’t save, when Kenny demolishes his own argument by mentioning the 353 people who drowned when the SIEV X sank, under Howard’s policies.

Let’s get it straight: Howard’s “make the fire hotter to keep people in the frying pan” approach was designed to prevent entry, not deaths, and there is no evidence that it did either. Even if it had, that doesn’t mean we must return to it, as there are many other ways to obviate the risks some refugees take without trying to match the cruelties they are running from.

The causes of global refugee movements are tectonic in scale. To imagine that local policy adjustments have a substantial effect on them is solipsistic. Two points on a graph do not constitute a trend, nor does temporal coincidence constitute causation. That, incidentally, is why Howard is not culpable for the Sieve X tragedy – only for his lies about it.

Kitchen sink at Wikileaks

Brendan O’Neill throws the kitchen sink at Julian Assange and his supporters without once touching on any of the issues (‘Left bows down to false WikiLeaks prophet’, 21/12).

We are told Assange is vain, his supporters love the sound of their own voices, they complained that Assange was imprisoned even though it was only temporary, some of them carry pictures of him, they tried to prosecute the Pope, and so on.

If O’Neill’s argument is that Wikileaks has done wrong, what was revealed should have remained covered up, and the U.S. is entitled to make an example of Assange using dirty black-ops, then he should say so – although this would sound a little jarring coming from a self-styled libertarian.

In fact his whole contention that this is a left-wing issue is off-target, the modern Right having thankfully disowned its authoritarian heritage.

O’Neill desperately tries to conclude that by releasing otherwise unobtainable information, Wikileaks has somehow trivialised Truth itself overnight by rendering people unable to discover it on their own, and then contradicts himself: “…only through engaging with the world… gathering facts and objectively analysing them, that we can arrive at any truth worth its name”, pretty much describing what Wikileaks, as opposed to say, Fox News, is trying to achieve.

Not bias but natural selection

Another identical verse is added to The Australian’s one-note song about left- wing bias in the media (‘The price we pay when journalists lose the plot’, 18/12), wherein the ostensibly laudable fact that journalists are increasingly tertiary educated is downgraded to a “malaise” by adding the tired Howard-era weasel-word “elite”. Let’s look at that word.

If elite means “among the most highly qualified and accomplished”, then surely all is as it should be. If it meant “from a privileged background and undeserving of one’s position” (the kind of elite the Left has always opposed), suspicions should be aroused; but The Australian is not saying that, only implying it by exploiting the ambiguity of the word.

Quoting its own correspondent and erstwhile Liberal Party employee Chris Kenny, The Australian accuses this elite of “disdain for the vulgarity, ignorance and prejudices of working families and their suburbs”. Apart from the insult to “working families” (a catch-all slogan borrowed from Labor), should journalists now be vulgar, ignorant and prejudiced, as well as uneducated, to evade the charge of elitism?

But in a sense The Australian is right. Intelligence and education both correlate strongly with progressive political views. This is not a local or recent phenomenon, is manifest in occupations like journalism where those two qualities are important, and is not so much a bias as a form of natural selection. Do we feign surprise at right-wing tendencies amongst military personnel, or social conservatism amongst priests?

To the beleaguered minority who work in such jobs but do not share these views, like Mr Kenny, it may seem that the entire world is divided along these lines, but that illusion does not support the grandiose claim that this constitutes a “fault line in Australia”.

The Australian’s position as the local flagship of a decidedly conservative global media conglomerate which dominates this country’s press makes the irony of that posture excruciating.

To those who blame a shipwreck on a lack of cruelty

To those who believe Australia is “soft” on refugees: clearly you have never visited any of our detention centres. Those at Maribyrnong and Villawood are thinly-disguised punitive jails, with privately-employed guards controlling every movement and even every word, not only of the detainees but also of visitors like me, in an attempt to stage- manage the event. The stories I heard there, while I was not being minded, were horrifying.

The infamous Woomera centre was little more than a crude prison camp, which due to its isolation, descended into hellish brutality, a process likely to be repeated as more “regional facilities” are opened.

Unlike a jail, none of these detainees have been convicted or even accused of any wrongdoing, in contravention of every local and international legal principle on arbitrary detention, making incarceration all the more bitter.

To those who blame a shipwreck on a lack of cruelty: short of actually, say, whipping detainees, how much hotter do you want to make the fire, in your determination to make other human beings stay in their frying pan?

Something has profoundly and sadly changed in the soul of a country which once welcomed thousands of refugees from wars in Europe and Indochina, but would now try do outdo the cruelties they are fleeing, build endless prisons, even fill them with children, rather than share the tiniest fraction of a percent of one of the richest nations on earth with some of its most in need.

Liberals against self-interest?

Peter van Onselen rightly points out the vacuousness of political parties touting obvious goals, like prosperity, as if they were policy (‘Self-interest proves strongest motivator’, The Australian, 18/12). However, in the process he incidentally exposes a moral conceit at the heart of market-liberalism.

That regulated labor markets are a barrier to prosperity is an article of faith among market-liberals, despite the many counter-examples around the world.

So, to a market-liberal, a party that doesn’t deregulate the labor market is not motivated by prosperity, but the greedy self-interest of the voters, who refuse to sacrifice themselves for the good of the market.

Although he doesn’t say so, it sounds as if van Onselen yearns for system where the purity of the market could unfold without the pesky self-interest of the population, expressed through the ballot-box, getting in the way.