IPA Review Editorial, March 2008

Optimism is a feature rarely seen in contemporary public debate. Rather, the media is full of dreary gloom — whether in the areas of biotechnology, nuclear power, over-population, consumerism, the cultural effects of globalisation, or — the big one — climate change, skilled political commentators can have rewarding careers without ever saying anything positive about the state of the world.

Right-of-centre, we are not immune to this cynical pessimism either. Focusing on public policy and politics can often be as depressing to the right as an endangered species list is to the left. Government spending continues to grow, regulation continues to increase, and hardly a day goes by without a piece of legislation or policy announcement that limits liberal freedoms. With the Rudd government now eyeballing the dubious achievements of Tony Blair, it might be hard to avoid having the occasional cry into our collective beers.

And so it can hardly be emphasised enough that, on almost every possible measure, the world is getting better.In this edition of the IPA Review, Louise Staley walks us through the substantial empirical evidence for that proposition. Infant mortality rates are declining rapidly. Nutrition is improving rapidly. Access to clean water and literacy rates; life expectancy and living standards — across the board, these measures are strongly trending upwards. And developing nations are increasingly sharing the bounty.

As a consequence, when so much of the left’s critical energy is being directed towards the climate change issue, it is absolutely essential that liberals and conservatives aggressively remind people that their standard of living has never been higher. It is a tired old cliché, but ‘if history is any guide’ there is every reason to suspect that this state of affairs will continue. The world will keep improving despite the pessimism of our newspaper columnists.

But improvements to our well-being aren’t limited to dry statistics. Globalisation has given us access to more high-quality culture than we could possibly consume in a lifetime. Socially, it is more possible to live the lifestyle that we choose than at any other time in history.

And it is unfortunate that the word ‘consumerism’ has been co-opted by the left as a term of abuse — there are more niche products available to us than ever before. If you love Romanian hip-hop, or bocconcini, or reproduction Georgian furniture, obtaining them is easy and inexpensive. Somehow, the left manage to caricature this explosion of tastes and choices as a failure of the capitalist system — but it is, on the level of the individual, one of capitalism’s greatest strengths.

There are, of course, many areas of the world desperate to share in this bounty, and many areas of Australian society — indigenous communities for one — which are currently missing out. But their challenge is to follow the trail set by the West.And, as Louise Staley confirms, there is good reason for hope. Optimism is, after all, one of liberalism’s key themes.

Elsewhere in this issue, we focus on the need to increase Australia’s immigration levels. John Humphreys argues that the case for free immigration agreements is just as strong as the case for free trade agreements — perhaps even better. Ken Phillips writes about the importance of immigration to resolving the skills shortage, and why the government just doesn’t get it. And Richard Allsop notes that, contrary to popular opinion, the political party that gives the biggest support to expanding immigration may not be the party we immediately think of.

Stefan Theil reveals the perilous state of European education in economics. If Europe is to kick itself out of its sluggish growth, it might want to start with revising its school textbooks. And all eyes in the Liberal Party will be on the Republican Party and the British Tories. Tim Wilson peers behind the Republican primaries to discover the awkward ideological maneuvering in the GOP. And James Campbell picks up the UK Conservative Party at the high point of its decade in opposition, and shows us just how it got there.

But if there is anything to tie these diverse articles together, it is their optimistic tone. When given political and economic freedom, individuals shape their world for the better.