Two articles in this edition of the IPA Review appear to be starkly contradictory.
On the one hand, the IPA’s Julie Novak writes on page 12 that everything is getting better. Living standards in Australia have dramatically increased over the past three decades as consumer goods have become significantly cheaper. The hours of work required to buy essential and consumer goods have fallen sharply—and not just for the wealthy, but the poor as well.
But on page 6, IPA staff have compiled an impressive—and depressing—list of the ‘Dirty Dozen’: Australia’s twelve most determined and influential opponents of freedom. On issues as diverse as the Nanny State, free speech and civil liberties, the opponents of freedom have worked tirelessly to increase government control over our lives. Too often, they have found a very willing ear in governments across the country.
It’s tempting to think that on many issues, the opponents of freedom are prevailing. But the fact that material living standards are improving exponentially suggests they are not. There are four important reasons why.
Firstly, despite the best efforts of opponents of freedom, human ingenuity and innovation are not easily stifled. There’s no question that human flourishing is maximised under conditions of liberty. It’s no coincidence that the greatest scientific, artistic and economic advances occur in free societies. But even under trying circumstances, entrepreneurs and inventors continue to make progress and meet the needs of their societies. That’s why even under oppressive communist regimes like in Cuba, you can always find a black market.That’s why TVs, washing machines and fridges can still get better and cheaper even under a mountain of regulation, taxation and government meddling.
Secondly, technological evolution is making it easier every year to sidestep the state. Thanks to the internet even in oppressive regimes information is more widely available than ever before. Government censors are easier to sidestep. China is a case in point. Although the government didn’t intend to liberalise the political sphere as it opened up its economy, the economic growth and technological change unleashed has made that inevitable. Despite efforts to block global social media networks and Western technology firms like Facebook and Twitter, even the government-sanctioned alternatives like Weibo have helped open up public debate, including for criticism of the communist regime.
Emerging technologies like 3D printing, which allows individuals to manufacture a rapidly growing array of goods in their own homes, threatens to make government bans and controls increasingly irrelevant. This is a far deeper and more significant expansion of freedom than just improved material living standards, and there is very little that the opponents of freedom can do about it.
Thirdly, although freedom may be on the defensive in much of the Western world, it is making meaningful progress elsewhere in the globe, to everyone’s benefit. China’s limited embrace of economic liberalisation hasn’t just helped lift 600 million Chinese out of poverty since 1980, it has also helped living standards in the West, as productivity gains lead to even more affordable consumer goods.
Finally, there are many reasons for hope in Australia. Although the past few years have seen some of the most serious threats to our liberties, we should never forget how the opponents of freedom have been thwarted. Stephen Conroy’s attack on press freedom and Nicola Roxon’s anti-free speech legislation were both defeated before they were enacted, and Julia Gillard’s carbon tax is about to be repealed. They were defeated thanks to an outcry from the Australian people, who guard their freedoms far more jealously than the opponents of freedom hoped.
The opponents of freedom certainly haven’t won yet.