Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


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.

Obama’s foreign policy fantasies

06 June 2014


Speaking at a commencement ceremony at West Point military academy last week, President Barack Obama delivered a rousing defence of US ‘exceptionalism.’

Responding to critics who accuse his administration of dithering over the Syrian Civil War and conceding the upper hand in Ukraine to President Vladimir Putin, Obama was unequivocal: ‘America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will.’

Although other administration officials have echoed the president’s clarion call for ongoing US global leadership, the West Point address highlighted the disconnect between Obama’s foreign policy fantasies and the hard facts of Russian and Chinese Realpolitik.

Obama insists that ‘American leadership’ can guarantee peace and security, and yet it has proven largely impotent in the face of Russia’s support for the brutal Assad regime, annexation of Crimea, and destabilisation of eastern Ukraine.

Similarly, in the context of a possible reduction in the size of the US army to pre-World War II levels and more than 10% per annum growth in the Chinese military budget, Obama’s celebration of unrivalled ‘American strength’ rings hollow.

Rhetorically, Washington might remain ready to uphold the liberal world order of international law, democratic norms, and human rights.

However, in Syria, Ukraine, East Asia and elsewhere, America appears unwilling to shoulder the costs of enforcing the rules-based international system.

Instead, the United States is poised to become what Robert Kagan, one of the US secretary of state’s advisors, calls ‘a more normal kind of nation, more attuned to its own needs and less to those of the wider world.’

Of course, a US ‘return to normalcy’ might be a positive development. As Cato Institute Senior Fellow Ted Galen Carpenter has argued, there are potential advantages–fewer foreign entanglements and a reduced fiscal burden–if the United States redefines its national interests in narrower terms.

But if Obama accepts the rationale for more modest statecraft and therefore refuses to expend blood and treasure to protect the liberal world order, then he must also reconcile the American people and Washington’s allies and partners to a less grandiose vision of the US role in global affairs.

At West Point, the president did just the opposite.

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.

Helmets for everyone!

06 June 2014

To those who have experienced the sense of freedom and the exhilaration of breeze in their hair, riding a bicycle—how confining and claustrophobic the idea of a helmet! But cycling without a helmet is something about which Australians only can dream. “I ride a bike and I never wear a helmet …” remarked a leading British neurosurgeon at the 2014 Hay Festival in Wales, UK.

Our public health authorities regard cycling as inherently dangerous and risky. Every transport jurisdiction obliges cyclists to wear a helmet, although the Northern Territory exempts those over the age of 17 on footpaths and cycle paths. States introduced mandatory helmet laws in the early 1990s in exchange for ‘black spot’ road funding from a Federal Labor government.

The Queensland government’s recent response to its Parliamentary Inquiry into cycling epitomises a prevailing wisdom about Australia’s helmet laws. It rejected a series of its Inquiry’s modest recommendations to relax them, including a 24-month trial along the lines of the Northern Territory’s model with an exemption in streets with speed limits up to 60 kph.

Australia’s helmet laws are unique—apart from New Zealand’s which followed Australia’s in 1994. In most countries, use of bicycle helmets is voluntary or applies only to children; although laws with exemptions apply in some North American state and provincial jurisdictions and in Finland and Spain.

Epidemiological evidence of the impact of helmet laws on head injuries is doubtful. Despite a similar hourly risk of death from head injury for unhelmeted cyclists and motor vehicle occupants, only cyclists must wear head protection. So far as the effect of Australia’s helmet laws deters cycling, they reduce the health benefits that come with cycling.

Analysis of data after helmet law was introduced in NSW revealed that head injuries fell 40%.It is impossible to determine, however, whether this could be attributed to increased helmet wearing or reduced cycling because of the helmet law.Non-head injuries fell by almost as much as head injuries, suggesting the main explanation was reduced cycling.

Helmet laws impose costs on cyclists associated with purchasing helmets and the inconvenience of wearing them. A cost-benefit analysis of helmet law analysing injury rates before and after its implementation in New Zealand shows that for adults, helmet costs outweigh the value of health savings.

In the Netherlands, where use of bicycles is the world's highest, helmets are a heresy. In Amsterdam the probability of death from a cycling accident for an average cyclist is once each 63,368 years. Hence, even if it were possible to show that use of cycle helmets may reduce relative risk, absolute risk of mortality without them remains extremely small.

Australia’s regime of mandatory helmet law for cyclists is discriminatory, inefficient and infringes personal autonomy. It is another manifestation of public health zealotry. Apart from violating the principle of personal choice on helmet use, evidence supporting compulsion remains in contention. Many Australians nevertheless are accustomed to accepting encroachments on personal liberty. They have no experience of the alternative.

David Gadiel is a senior fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.

Free movement of labour bad for Britain's youth

06 June 2014

peter-saundersMore than a quarter of British people who voted in the recent elections to the European Parliament voted for the UK Independence Party (UKIP). I was one of them.

UKIP wants Britain to leave the EU. It also supports immigration controls in place of the free movement of labour required by EU membership.

A left-wing friend challenged me on this. Wasn’t I being inconsistent, arguing in favour of free markets yet voting for a party that wants to shut down Europe’s free market in labour?

My answer was that free movement of labour worked well when EU countries were at roughly comparable levels of prosperity (which was the case when the European Economic Community was first set up). But today, the EU encompasses poor countries as well as rich ones. Romania’s average wage levels are about one-fifth those in Britain.

A free EU labour market is great for bright, enterprising Romanian workers, who can go to Britain and earn more money. It’s also good for UK employers, who get good workers at a low price, and UK consumers, who can buy cheaper goods and services as a result.

But it is bad for hundreds of thousands of young, relatively low intelligence, poorly-educated, and often lazy Brits with no social skills. They won't and can't compete for the low-level jobs in McDonald’s which Poles and Bulgarians are now doing, so they end up on welfare instead.

If Britain didn’t have a welfare state, free movement of cheap labour from poor countries might work, for Britain’s poorly-motivated youth would have no choice but to compete for whatever low-level jobs are on offer. But with a welfare state, unrestricted immigration cements them into long-term, large-scale welfare dependency instead.

A few years ago I wrote two CIS papers (available here and here) addressing the problem of finding low-skill jobs for low-ability youngsters to do. I argued that if we want to push poorly-motivated youngsters of limited ability off welfare and into work, we have to ensure there are enough routine, low-responsibility, low-skill jobs for them to do.

Countries like Australia and Britain have seen millions of these jobs disappear in recent decades due to global competition (the Chinese are doing them) and new technology (machines are doing them). The minimum wage doesn’t help, either, with wages often set above the value of the work that might potentially be offered.

These problems are made even worse if the low-skill jobs that remain in the country all get taken by keen, young immigrants. It’s great having bright, polite Poles serve me my Macchiato in Costa Coffee, but it means idle British-born kids are rotting their lives away on benefits.

So unless Britain is prepared to scrap its welfare state (unlikely), it needs an immigration policy like Australia's, where you can come in only if you can offer skills the economy needs.

The crunch problem, however, is that Britain is not allowed to introduce an Australian-style strategy of selective immigration based on skills. Australia can do this, because it is a sovereign country. But as an EU member, the UK no longer has the freedom to make such decisions.

Professor Peter Saunders is a senior fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.