While You Weren’t Looking, Freedom Went Up In Smoke

Are we freer today than we were half a century ago? That question is surprisingly hard to answer. The state control over the economy that characterised Australia in the 20th century is quickly being replaced with nanny state controls.

Barriers to trade have been mostly eliminated, and state monopolies eradicated. But accompanying that has been explosive growth in social and environmental regulations. There are now more pages of Commonwealth legislation introduced every year than were passed in the first 40 years of federation.

In our social lives, freedom has both advanced and retreated. For example, restrictions on the sale of alcohol have eased. But they have been replaced by nanny state measures such as smoking bans. In the future, cigar bars will be as distant a memory as the six o’clock swill.

Since smoking bans were enacted this year in Victoria and NSW, sales growth in pubs has dropped significantly. Hotel patronage may return to former levels – international experience seems to indicate that it will – but when smokers return to the pub, they will be less free than they were in October last year.

Unquestionably, advocates of individual liberty and personal responsibility have lost the battle on smoking. That’s not surprising – smoking is reviled by everybody who doesn’t enjoy it. In a liberal state, that disagreement would be sorted out by negotiation; before the bans, many restaurants and hotels already enforced non-smoking areas or disallowed it entirely. But in a nanny state, such negotiations are replaced by force of law.

Similar sentiments lie behind restrictions on poker machines. The gaming industry is a political football to be kicked around at every state election, while individuals who value their freedom to enjoy the pokies are ignored.

In a nanny state, the government morphs into an over-eager insurance company, assuming the role of risk-manager for its citizens. Any risky or unhealthy endeavour has to be eliminated – individuals cannot be trusted to assess the risks themselves.

The next target is food. Numerous proposals are on the table to tackle our expanding waistlines, including banning certain types of fats, banning junk food advertising, and even taxing fatty food.

Earlier this year, the Labor Party hinted that it was considering banning the use of licensed characters such as Shrek in junk- food advertising, should it win government. Last week, the Cancer Council of Australia came out in support of a general ban on junk food ads aimed at children.

However, there is little evidence that such bans work. Both Quebec and Sweden have tried them, but neither have seen any reduction in childhood obesity. There are twice as many overweight children in Sweden as there were 15 years ago, even though the Scandinavian country has had a ban on all advertising aimed at children since 1991.

Furthermore, politicians hurrying to make political capital out of medical problems such as obesity and lung cancer rarely think through the unintended consequences of their policies.

Swedish advertising bans have not reduced obesity, but they have had other results. Losing the revenue from the highest-paying advertising has reduced the quality and quantity of children’s television programs. Similarly, restricting the advertising market has raised the cost of toys in Sweden to 50 per cent above the average European level.

The Australian Government’s hard line on tobacco has had similar consequences. Smokeless tobacco products have been swept up as the nanny state tries to purge society of everything that meets its disapproval.

It is unfortunate that Australia lacks a strong intellectual history emphasising individual liberty and personal responsibility. Our “she’ll be right mate” attitude is easily swamped by our calls for government to intervene in personal decisions.

Laws are passed with little reference to how they will affect our freedom. As a result, individual liberty in Australia is slowly being eroded by neglect.

No Need For Local Films On Public Purse

Some phrases deserve scare quotes more than others. And it’s hard to find a better candidate for the sarcastic use of punctuation marks than the phrase “cultural imperialism”.

After all, the popularity of Hollywood films in Australia hardly resembles the violent military occupation of a foreign nation. If cultural imperialism wasn’t invoked so often, it would be self-evidently absurd.

Nevertheless, many people believe that, somehow, cultural products made by Australians are superior to those made by foreigners. Australians should be watching Australian films, listening to Australian music and reading Australian books.

Cultural nationalists — who come from both the left and right of politics — assume that only after burying ourselves in cultural products produced within our geopolitical borders will we be able to develop a genuine national identity.

This is silly on a number of levels. For instance, what about the poor old states — do we suffer from a lack of films set in Victoria and featuring Victorian voices? Similarly, suburbs could also be considered distinct cultural units. If so, we have an oversupply of television programs set in St Kilda and Brunswick, and an undersupply of those set in Frankston and Dandenong.

At the same time, cultural nationalists argue that if Australia’s culture is not protected by government through regulation, subsidies and broadcast quotas, then that culture is at risk. The market cannot provide what Australians need, and the government has to step in.

But the case for cultural protectionism is weak. Often calls for subsidy are just naked special pleading. These are easy to dismiss — probably the worst thing for both taxpayers and artists would be a special category of welfare for creative industries.

Decades of government subsidies have already fostered dependency in the cultural sector. And relying on government rather than consumers for finance provides little incentive for cultural producers to tailor their work to the demands of the public.

As a result, the steady stream of below-par and ideologically heavy-handed productions funded by the Government has given Australian films a poor reputation. Recent films Candy, Little Fish and 2:37 have depicted urban and middle-class life as awash with drug use, depression and death.

For audiences, the “made in Australia” brand now often has negative connotations. And when critics deliberately go easy on local films, they compound the problem.

Taxpayer support is seen as a right by artists who believe they are serving a higher purpose — rather than satisfying the demands of their audience.

But a culture dependent on government handouts is a weak culture. Throughout history, the most vibrant intellectual and artistic cultures have been those that were decentralised, entrepreneurial and commercial.

The market economy has been the driving force behind most of what we consider to be “great” art. Markets in which consumer choice dominates provide cultural producers with far greater freedom to supply niche products to consumers with diverse tastes. And markets discipline artists to produce accessible work.

French history provides an illustration of both the negative consequences of cultural subsidies and the virtues of marketplace-driven art.

French cinema dominated the first few decades of the 20th century. Indeed, it was so popular that American filmmakers argued that the US required protection.

But as the French government set up lavish film bureaucracies after World War II, its industry atrophied and its films grew less popular. US films now make up 60 per cent of the market in France — in the 1930s, that figure was just 15 per cent.

The reaction against cultural imperialism has the unintended consequence of making cultural industries uncompetitive.

Robert Manne hoped in the latest Monthly that if a Kevin Rudd government was elected that the gulf between the government and the nation’s creative artists would be bridged.

It is hard to imagine how turning more artists into tax-eaters would be good for Australian culture.

A Capital Idea: Move Them Out To Move Us On


Last week, when Canberra was named by the Institute of Public Affairs as one of Australia’s 13 biggest mistakes, the chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory complained that this was another predictable exercise in Canberra-bashing. Presumably, because we also listed the introduction of cane toads into this country as a mistake, we can expect letters from Friends of Cane Toads. But it is legitimate to examine the mistakes Australia has made in the past to avoid making similar ones in the future.

Australians are a remarkably creative, diverse and entrepreneurial people. Politics is slow, backwards-looking and uniform.

Inspired by misguided ideologies and without full understanding of the unintended consequences, it is very easy for governments to make mistakes. Unfortunately, since Federation, this has happened too often.

Australia entered the 20th century with the highest living standards in the world. By the 1970s, we couldn’t even crack the top dozen.

The media provide a good example of government failure. We now live in a world of iPods, YouTube and MySpace. Never has there been so much information and entertainment readily available. But if a service such as YouTube required government-managed airwaves to operate, rather than the free-for-all internet, there is no chance it would have been given a license in Australia.

Since taking over control of the radio-waves with the 1905 Wireless Telegraphy Act, successive Australian governments have needlessly held back the development of wireless telegraphy, AM radio, television, FM radio, subscription and now digital television. Most governments have been open about the reason – to protect the financial viability of existing media companies. Never mind the consumers.

Patrick White’s 1972 Nobel Prize for Literature could not be considered anything but a success, and the government’s response was to inaugurate the Australia Council. But when expatriates such as Germaine Greer criticise Australian culture from afar, they fail to recognise that this too may be a result of government action. How much different would Charles Dickens’ novels have been if he had been living off a government grant?

The US, which has a famously low level of state support for the arts, has a strong, vibrant culture. American artists are forced to respond to the demands of their audience. The result has been a century of innovation and experimentation.

But our large arts bureaucracy, funded by government and beholden to committees rather than consumers, could easily be the cause of our “cultural cringe”. If the government left our creative artists to their own devices, without offering them protection from their fickle audience, perhaps we could finally relax our cringe.

Similarly, when parents decry their children’s reluctance to move out of home, it would be worth considering that they can’t afford to. The imposition of regressive urban planning restrictions by governments has artificially inflated the prices of homes, beginning with the Western Australian Town Planning and Development Act in 1928. These laws have shifted the decision-making powers about how to use land from the land’s owners into the new urban planning establishment. By restricting the supply of housing, prices naturally go up.

Conceivably, fewer of these mistakes would have been made if our politicians, bureaucrats and regulators had been closer to the people they were governing, rather than sequestered away in Canberra. The decision in 1908 to shift the engines of government to a rural area isolated decision-makers from the consequences of their decisions.

If we had left the capital in one of our major cities, some of the folly of Australian history could perhaps have been avoided.

Thankfully, steady reform since the 1970s has partly reversed some of the worst mistakes. But if Australia is currently under the grip of some sort of “neo-liberal orthodoxy”, as is so commonly argued, then the question is not how have advocates of the free market and small government suddenly gained power, but where were they during the first 90 years of our federal system?

If we’d had a strong, liberal free-trade party in Australia that embraced individualism and economic and social freedom, perhaps this would have not been the case. Instead we were stuck with two protectionist conservative parties unwilling to challenge the prevailing dogma.

The bi-partisan reform movement to reverse some of the mistakes of past governments is giving back Australians some measure of control over their own lives. Australians can be justly proud of our successes. Most of our failures have been the fault of governments.

Australia’s 13 biggest mistakes
1. The end of the Reid government (1905)
2. The Harvester Judgement (1907)
3. Wireless Telegraphy Act (1905)
4. The Montreal Olympics (1976)
5. The Uniform Tax cases (1942 and 1957)
6. WA Town Planning and Development Act (1928)
7. Immigration Restriction Act (1901)
8. The Labor Party split (1955)
9. Publication of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859)
10. The release of cane toads (1935)
11. Federal money for science blocks at non-government schools (1963)
12. Patrick White wins the Nobel Prize (1972)
13. Invention of Canberra (1908)
Source: Institute of Public Affairs

Better To Be Alert Than NetAlarmed

The internet will kill your children, or something.

At least, that is the message of the Federal Government ads plastered on the side of every second tram trundling down Swanston Street.

The Government’s approach to internet safety has all the hyperbole and sensationalism of tabloid current affairs programs. This is not surprising. Scare campaigns about the dangers of chatting or stumbling upon nudity usually have little to do with children, and all to do with raising fear in parents. Parents vote.

NetAlert, the initiative that provides those free internet filters that were broken within 30 minutes by a year 10 student, will do little to stop children finding pornography online if they want to. And the mandatory internet filtering that the Government has announced will be expensive and mostly unworkable.

In a further step, last Thursday the Government announced an investigation into sex offenders and pedophiles on social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook. But the policy options raised by the Government — such as segregating adults and children online, mandatory age verification, or requiring parental approval before signing up to sites — will be as ineffective as NetAlert. Bureaucratic obstacles are no defence against individuals determined to cause harm.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Government’s internet policies are not much more than cynical vote-gathering. In the absence of any other ideas for the upcoming election, the Federal Government is asking voters to think of the children.

But what do the children themselves think about internet safety? The Department of Communications kicked an own goal last week when it released a study of the attitudes of parents and kids. Parents were concerned that the internet exposed children to pornography and was full of strangers and chat rooms. Children were more worried about pop-up ads, viruses and substandard internet speeds. Not surprisingly, few were concerned about pornography. Some expressed concerns about interacting with dangerous strangers.

The study did not provide any support for one of the bulwarks of the Government’s policy — the mandatory internet filter. It revealed instead that internet literacy was a more effective protection against any potential danger online.

Regulating MySpace and filtering the internet provide no substitute for education. Governments can have a role to play in educating about online safety; they set the school curriculum and most children attend public schools. The second way governments can approach child safety is through police work. After all, parents should be outraged not that pedophiles could be on MySpace, but that there are pedophiles at large.

Like any matters to do with children, parents have to take the bulk of the responsibility. The most effective approach to internet safety and obscenity is monitoring online activity. The best protection for children is the setting of boundaries.

Too much of the Federal Government’s internet policy is a distraction from these far more effective approaches.

A few months ago, many commentators assumed that the Federal Government had a rabbit to pull out of the hat before this election. Free internet filters and giving Kieran Perkins the title of “Parent Ambassador” are unfortunately more likely to make the Government look like bunnies.

Society Rhetoric Just A Pulp Fiction

In politics, words are designed to obscure. For instance, Kevin Rudd has been telling business groups all week that it is Labor’s job to govern for “society”, not “vested interests”. John Howard, too, argues that his government represents Australian society, not the sectional interests of union thugs portrayed so stereotypically in anti-Labor ads.

Each party claims to represent society against overpaid and overdressed CEOs or overpaid and underdressed union apparatchiks. Whatever “society” is, it must be delighted — no matter who wins the election, it has a friend.

So it’s not surprising that Margaret Thatcher’s declaration in a 1987 interview with the British weekly Women’s Own that “there is no such thing as society” is considered the very epitome of ideological heartlessness.

Of course, her remark is more often than not taken out of context — the Iron Lady was targeting people who routinely place the blame for their misfortunes on others — but at the same time the statement can stand by itself.

Society is so large and so vague a concept that it is meaningless. There are individual men and women, Thatcher went on to argue, and there are families. She could have added friends, and she probably should have added communities — but Thatcher was essentially right. Society is a rhetorical fiction.

No political leader could ever hope to understand, let alone represent, the enormous range of wants and needs of everybody in a country of 21 million people. Individuals are just too diverse to be pressed into a great big lumpen ball of “society”. Furthermore, the boundaries of society are unclear. Does society stop at the water’s edge? Does society stop when we go to work? Is it society, or is it the government that compels us to pay tax? (It sure feels like government.)

The fiction of society also supports some remarkably poor public policy. For example, federal Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews has argued that the new citizenship test is designed to ensure Australia has a cohesive society by formally codifying some Australian values.

The word “value” is just as fraught as the word “society” — 100 philosophers locked in a room wouldn’t be able to decide what it means. Nevertheless, the Federal Government is convinced that as long as potential citizens can identify Sir Edmund Barton in a multiple choice list, Australia’s values will be maintained.

When we try to figure out what might be the shared values of our society, we usually end up repeating bad jokes from Crocodile Dundee. Instead, we should recognise that individuals can have values, and communities can have values, but insisting that everybody in the country recognises our Judaeo-Christian heritage won’t do much for anybody.

It would be better to drop the illusion of society and instead view Australia as a collection of varied and overlapping communities, which are voluntarily entered into and held together by genuinely common interests. These communities can pivot around schools, workplaces and football clubs, and economic, social or cultural interests.

And governments don’t have the burden of encouraging community. Indeed, a community imposed from the top down is not a community at all.

Governments do have a role in removing the impediments to community activity, but dressing up public policy with vacuous rhetoric does nothing more than obscure the importance of genuine community.

Che Chic: You’ve Ignored The Horrors, Now Buy The T-Shirt

Forty years since his death, Che Guevara is selling strong. But his continuing iconic status tells us less about Guevara and more about the irreverence and unpredictability of culture in a capitalist society.

There is hardly a more recognisable symbol of revolutionary chic. Guevara’s image is plastered on T-shirts, backpacks and posters. One online store sells clocks with his iconic portrait to emphasise just how anti-establishment wall-mountable clocks can be.

Che Guevara is the Ralph Lauren polo shirt of the anti-capitalist set. But Guevara doesn’t really represent what the university students who proudly display his image think he does. Guevara was a Marxist guerilla who made a specialty of executing his opponents and prisoners without trial. He pioneered techniques of psychological torture. And he directed “suicide squads” that were sent into battles with no hope of victory.

He also founded Cuba’s concentration camp system, extolled the virtues of class hatred, and persecuted homosexuals.

Even when he wasn’t waging war against civilians, he was still a disaster. After the Cuban revolution, Guevara took a government position as Cuba’s central economic planner, and promptly drove the economy into the ground. Michael Moore and Oliver Stone may flatter the achievements of Fidel Castro, but much of the blame for the poverty of Cuban socialism must be laid at Guevara’s feet.

For this reason, it would be easy to chalk up the modern admiration of Guevara to dormant totalitarian fantasies in the left. But there is already too much self-righteous indignation in politics. Just because someone has a poster of Guevara on their wall, doesn’t immediately imply that they want to send homosexuals to a prison camp and execute those who are not doctrinaire Marxists.

For most people, Guevara is simply a vague symbol of rebelliousness. The modern cult of Guevara loves the rebel, but ignores his cause.

Nevertheless, even that anti-establishment credibility is being seriously devalued. Advertising executives appropriate his image to make their brands seem edgy.

It’s hard to imagine anyone more embedded in the establishment than Prince Harry, yet the third in line to the English throne has paraded around in a Che Guevara T-shirt.

The iconic Guevara has been devalued nearly to the point of meaninglessness. What remains is little more than a striking piece of graphic design with strong colours.

This is hardly surprising. Popular culture has a wonderful habit of appropriating meaningful symbols, processing them into accessible packages, making jokes about them and finally selling them for a profit. The modern cultural economy has a voracious appetite for icons to ridicule and market.

Popular culture turns dictatorship and violence into irony and kitsch.

And Guevara’s portrait is not the only morally ambiguous icon being appropriated for popular consumption.

The popularity of Soviet propaganda posters is undiminished by an awareness of the brutal oppression of Soviet communism. Same too for Chinese communism — posters of Chairman Mao are widely available even as the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution is revealed to the West.

Even Nazism can be the brunt of cultural ridicule. In 1940, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator mocked the effete airs of Adolf Hitler, without diminishing Chaplin’s serious contempt for the Third Reich. Earlier this year, the German comedy Mein Fuehrer: The Truly Truest Truth about Adolf Hitler was a box-office hit.

But Nazi kitsch has not been so comfortably embraced by popular culture — perhaps a testament to our continued inability to fully comprehend the horror of the Holocaust.

Similarly, not every use of the Guevara icon is ironic or in jest. Those who display it in deliberate solidarity with the Argentinian guerilla fighter are either ignorant or morally bankrupt. Guevara was nowhere near the quasi-Jesus figure portrayed in the 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries.

For many of the people who suffered from his attempts at Marxist revolution, a Guevara T-shirt is the moral equivalent of a Stalin T-shirt.

But capitalist culture doesn’t obey moral judgements. Ironically, Che Guevara’s longevity as a cultural symbol has been thanks to the very economic system he sought to destroy.

Waving Goodbye? Fans Will Decide

Rather than jumping up and waving about, well, jumping up and waving, lovers of the Mexican wave can easily look at alternatives to the MCG’s ban.

It’s not the wave itself that causes the problem – the wave is a fun example of the possibilities of spontaneous voluntary co-operation between thousands of people. Management could target the real problem – people throwing projectiles in to the air, disguised by everyone else’s fun.

It would be relatively simple to do so. Bags could be searched upon entry, and anything that could be thrown confiscated, including, presumably, the bags themselves. Food and drink – instant projectiles – would not be sold at the ground. The probably mythical cup of urine would be impossible with a ban on cups.

Security guards and video cameras could identify the culprits.

This method would be costly, and intrusive. Fans might not be happy with paying dramatically higher ticket prices and then being told they cannot bring a drink bottle into the stadium, and once inside have to go hungry.

How important is the wave to enjoyment of cricket? If it is the difference between having fun and not having fun, fans could set up a competing stadium where the wave is allowed. This is a high-cost strategy as well, but entrepreneurs who sense this unfulfilled demand could make a huge amount of money supplying it.

This may seem flippant but it happens all the time in a market economy. When companies stop providing what people enjoy, competitors fill the gap. Private schooling, for instance, has arisen out of dissatisfaction with public education.

If the MCG has imposed too harsh a rule on fans, then they will stop going and start looking for alternatives. The MCG is betting that the new rule will instead increase attendance.

Ultimately, the fans will decide whether the wave should be allowed.

Dobbing And The Community

Australia is a nation founded by people who were dobbed in. Perhaps that’s why one of the first rules we learn in life is not to dob in each other: what happens in the playground, stays in the playground.

This lesson, quite obviously, doesn’t come from our teachers or parents. Dobbing is one of the ways that they can know about our infractions of their rules, such as swearing and sneaking away at lunchtime to buy chips at the 7-Eleven. Our anti-dobbing tradition frustrates this, and means that parents and teachers have to police us themselves.

Whatever its historical basis, Australia’s tradition against dobbing works well. Trust is a foundation of community. Without trust, individuals struggle to develop relationships with others.

We need to know that when we confide in another person, we can reasonably expect the confidence won’t be used against us. When we invite another person into our home, we can reasonably expect they won’t bring a baseball bat and start destroying our possessions.

Trust is vital in a market economy as well. When we buy an item we’ve seen in a store window, we trust the seller to give us that same item in a box.

We expect real estate agents to sell us houses that are actually on the market. In Nigeria, where, after decades of corruption and poverty, levels of trust are abysmally low, houses display placards stating this house is not for sale. One popular scam in that country is to sell houses the scammers do not own.

Trust is at the centre of every personal and economic relationship we have and without it, any community in the meaningful sense of the word is impossible.

Encouragement by the government to dob each other in discourages the formation of that trust. The extreme example of a government actively encouraging the breaking of that trust suggests how important it is. In totalitarian socialist and fascist societies, the state broke down civil society to such an extent that people would report even their own family members for any perceived minor infractions. Memoirs recall citizens being reported not out of desire to do the right thing but out of petty and unrelated personal grievances.

This indicates a further useful consequence of the anti-dob tradition: without being able to appeal to a higher power – parents, teachers or the government – we are forced to sort out interpersonal conflicts ourselves. In most cases, we negotiate with each other, and when we do so, we form and strengthen our relationships.

It also fosters Australia’s egalitarian spirit. Individuals negotiate with each other as equals. Running to the government is un-egalitarian.

The government uses its coercive powers to force a solution to a disagreement. The solution may not be efficient or fair, but it will certainly suit the government. Naturally, then, governments are urging us to abandon our anti-dobbing tradition and call a toll-free number every time we see a neighbour doing something wrong.

We are asked to dob in water cheats, litterers and disgruntled taxi drivers.

The tax office is hoping that all those amateur accountants will monitor their friend’s finances to detect tax cheats: he couldn’t possibly afford that on his salary, could he?

Importantly, mislabelled seafood has its own dob-in hotline: 1800 737 147.

Many dobbing-in schemes are beneficial. Crime Stoppers is a typical example. Few people would object to reporting robbery or assault committed in their neighbourhood.

The terrorism hotline, mocked and ridiculed when it was brought in, is theoretically just as helpful.

Reporting crime or terrorism helps, rather than harms, the viability of our communities by making us feel safer and more confident in our person and possessions. As a result, no one complains. The thief knows that stealing is wrong, and the dobber knows that stealing is wrong. Everybody accepts laws against stealing.

But not everybody accepts all government legislation. Speed limits are a good example of this.

The Victorian Government has set speed limits, for example, at 50 or 60 km/h. Hop into a car for even a few minutes, and you will notice that almost everybody exceeds that. Most cars travel five to 10 km/h over the limit, and few tickets are given out to drivers who do.

In fact, drivers who obey the speed limit can often be more dangerous than those who go at the speed of other drivers. Most of us would be outraged if we were dobbed in by another driver for going 5 km/h over the limit.

Another example of a law that we routinely reject is jaywalking. The semi-regular police blitzes against crossing roads diagonally or against the pedestrian crossing signs are treated with derision by even strong law-and-order folk.

Dobbing in a thief is unobjectionable. But dobbing in a water cheat or a slightly faster driver seems un-Australian or anti-social. This perhaps makes sense: these latter laws are not as well accepted by the individuals and the community.

It’s easy to sympathise with a home owner who waters on the wrong day, or splashes water on the roof of their car to give it a quick rinse. If we dob them in, its seems as if they’re being punished for a crime they didn’t really commit.

This is the cause of the furore over Dob in a Water Cheat: the disconnect between laws Victorians willingly accept and laws treated less seriously.

As more activities become illegal across the state – watering the garden of an even-numbered house on a Wednesday; telling a joke about religion; owning a cigar bar – the Government is going to face more of these reactions.

It’s only when governments make laws that we don’t fully believe in that our two desires – the need to build healthy communities and to obey the law – come into opposition.

Dob-in-your-neighbour initiatives undermine our egalitarian tradition and even our sense of Australian community.

If we have a problem in the playground, will we tell the teacher or sort it out ourselves?