Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table. 3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.
This week, our scholar in residence, James Bartholomew and I participated in an Ethics Centre debate, arguing against the politically-charged motion: Capitalism is destroying us.
For some of us, ‘no’ would seem the obvious answer. After all, capitalism has presided over unprecedented advancements in health, life expectancy, education and living standards. But it is not enough to be armed with evidence, facts and figures. Debates are often a contest of emotions, rather than a battle of ideas. Hence our focus was on the poor — who have been the biggest winners from capitalism.
Even now, around 80,000 people escape extreme poverty each day — and it is decreasing overwhelmingly in countries which have opened up to free trade and private enterprise. Understandably though, many Australians worry about the human impact on the natural environment. But the trends are clear: as countries develop economically, they become more energy efficient, and less carbon-dependent. Even in the United States, carbon emissions are in decline.
Furthermore, the ability of the world to feed 8 billion people is only possible because of market-driven innovations. The world is producing food more efficiently, with less damage to the environment. But we forget the natural environment has always been a threat to human life — which economic development has helped to combat.
Even now, millions of the global poor die each year from household pollution caused by unsafe fuels for cooking and heating. And natural disasters — another environmental danger — formerly killed millions each year. But with safer housing, these numbers have plummeted in recent decades.
Of course, capitalism is not about ‘imposing’ a western way of life on other cultures. But the global poor have just as much right as we do to clean water, nutritious food and safe energy. It is too easy for us in Australia to take these basics for granted — as well as our quality of life and relative wealth.
Our poverty rate sits at just 3% and each new generation of Australians is earning more income than the last generation did at their age — including Millennials. By these measures, capitalism is certainly not destroying us. And it is the only proven system for lifting millions of families out of poverty — everywhere from Bangladesh to Botswana.
The growing concern about academic freedom and free speech on university campuses typically relates to illiberal student activists shutting down debate. But there is potentially a more subtle threat to free speech in higher education coming from foreign governments, especially China.
At a CIS breakfast on Monday, NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes outlined his concerns regarding Australian universities being too reliant on international students — to a point that undermines academic independence.
“When academics who criticise certain countries are hauled before senior diplomats to explain themselves, or when universities self-censor by using teaching materials that conform with foreign government propaganda so as to not upset international student cohorts, we have a duty as educators to speak out”, he said.
This may be controversial in some timid quarters but it shouldn’t be. To be clear, no one is suggesting that having large numbers of international students in Australia is a bad thing. Education is Australia’s third-largest export, and international students are an essential part of our higher education sector and university culture.
But given recent cases where academic independence appears to have been undermined on topics regarding Chinese politics, we should be vigilant.
Of course, some people will argue this problem at universities is imagined or exaggerated. Is there any concrete evidence of widespread political interference from China in Australian higher education? Surely, the more fee-paying international students studying here, the better for our economy? And shouldn’t we be far more concerned about attempts by local university student activists to restrict free speech?
Even if we concede the sceptics may have a point, one thing is certain: this is an issue worth debating. We can’t be afraid of identifying potential overseas threats to our universities’ independence out of fear of upsetting foreign governments.
Kudos to Minister Stokes for kick-starting the debate.
The Sydney Anglican Diocese has provoked controversy by proposing a policy to ensure that all church property is used in ways consistent with Anglican church teaching.
The proposal vetoed activities such as same-sex marriage receptions, meditative yoga, and indigenous smoking ceremonies, and was intended to extend to some 900 church properties. Parts of the policy — those concerned with smoking ceremonies — were withdrawn following protests from indigenous leaders and school principals. But many were still angry at what the church had proposed.
Religious doctrines often seem bizarre to those who do not belong to the faith community. It can be hard, for example, to see what problem believers have with yoga or hosting wedding receptions.
The Sydney Anglican policy emerged from specific Christian beliefs about salvation, the human person, human sexuality, and freedom. To those who share these beliefs, the policy might well make sense. To those who don’t, the whole exercise can — and did — seem bizarre, and simply another example of the irrelevance of religion to mainstream everyday Australian life.
After a fortnight when religious schools have been accused of wanting to expel gay students and church landlords accused of wanting to do the same to gay tenants, religious freedom is still a hot topic. And the reason is that one of the features of being a citizen in an open and free society is having to figure out how to live with those whose worldviews and beliefs are far removed from our own.
Even if we think they are wrong and that their practices are offensive, we must be sure to allow religious people and communities the freedom to interpret the world and the universe as they see fit. And we must also afford them the freedom to order their affairs — including their property use — in ways that align with those beliefs, as long as they do nothing illegal or harmful to others.
Of course, if we don’t like it — and often there is a lot not to like — we are free to criticise it because we live in a society that tolerates freedom of speech and the frank exchange of opinions. But criticising a church for attempting to implement a policy that could have a substantial impact on non-church people is one thing; it is quite another to tell it how to deal with its own property.