Historian Niall Ferguson, in his Civilization: The West and the Rest, notes that:
“For 500 years the West patented six killer applications that set it apart. The first to download them was Japan. Over the last century, one Asian country after another has downloaded these killer apps — competition, modern science, the rule of law and private property rights, modern medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. Those six things are the secret sauce of Western civilization.”
In the light of this it is interesting to consider how Australia fares in relation to these key elements.
The competitive landscape in Australia is challenging. Due to the small market size we tend towards duopolies; but regulated appropriately that can provide sufficient competition. Also it is difficult to get sufficient scale for wholesale competition. While competition at the retail end of the market is much easier to encourage. Issues around cartels and price fixing remain problematic, with our regulators unable to address this effectively through the courts.
Australia is doing better at competition than it used to in the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s but we still have a way to go. The banking industry is probably the poster child for how much more there is to do regarding effective competition.
2) Modern Science
Australia has always ‘punched above its weight’ in science as well as in sport. But with funding cuts and dearth of opportunities for career scientists we are in serious danger of losing this critical advantage.
Also recent research shows that Australian universities are not performing well in relation to international research rankings:
“…few [Australian] universities performed above the international benchmark – only 12 in total which average in the top three ratings at world standard, above world standard or well above world standard.
Behind that is a very long tail, with 29 institutions averaging below or well below world standard.”
Source: Uni research report a blow to big-noters 31 Jan 2011
The other side to modern science is how our society treats science and scientists. Do we still believe in science? Do we still trust what scientists say?
Regarding vaccines – one of the genuine life saving scientific discoveries – we have many well educated people within Australia rejecting them. The anti-vaccine movement seems to be gaining momentum and we are in danger of losing the benefits of herd immunity that earlier vaccination programs gave us.
And then there is the area of climate change. With significant proportions of the Australian population (led by Tony Abbott) believing that nothing has changed and that there is no reason to make any changes to our collective lifestyles or economic choices as a result of climate change.
Also the number of well educated people who are privileging scientifically untested remedies and treatments over scientifically tested ones is increasing. This was discussed well recently by Tanveer Ahmed in Alternative medicine, superstition of our age.
However, I think that, at present, the people who believe in scientific ideas, approaches and solutions still prevail in Australia (for the time being).
3) Rule of Law and Private Property Rights
On this front, thanks to our common law heritage and continued independent judiciary, Australia continues to do well. Our legislative environment is relatively stable and decisions tend to give businesses and private individuals certainty. The rule of law seems safe in Australia for the time being.
I’ve often joked that private property is one of the sacred truths to which we hold dear in Australia. And, apart from the odd geological survey or government resumption of land, private property seems safe here.
Of course Australia does not have any constitutional guarantees of basic human rights nor do we have a nationally legislated Bill of Rights, although some states have legislated independently. But we do have the Australian Human Rights Commission, but even when this body expresses “grave concern” over an issue that does not mean that the Government will necessarily act.
However, there are some concerns regarding the growth in powers sought and granted by government to its agencies to spy on citizens – for example this piece on the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment Act 2010.
4) Modern Medicine
Australia is lucky that a former government introduced universal basic medical care – Medicare – unlike some other countries where many people are unable to afford such care. Due to the availability of good quality food and water together with access to basic medical care (including government funded vaccination programs) our population is healthy. This in spite of increasing obesity and related diseases such as type 2 diabetes.
Medical research continues – with foundations such as the National Health and Medical Research Council and many other private research groups – and Australia remains strong in this area.
5) The Consumer Society
There are two elements to the consumer society – the consumer mindset and consumer behaviour. Australia seems to be retaining a strong consumer mindset and this is occupying all facets of our relations with retailers and service providers (even in non retail contexts).
However, consumer behaviour seems to have shifted since the GFC with retail sales slipping. And since Christmas we have seen the panic from local retailers led by the venerable and somewhat cranky Gerry Harvey based on worries that consumers are turning to online retail over going to a local store.
Our society has become consumerist in its thinking. This means that the consumer mindset is transferred to areas of life that were once not seen as consumer transactions. For example, we now see ourselves as consumers of health services not as patients. Or we see ourselves as consumers of local government services, not as ratepayers.
This change also flows on to our expectations of those “service providers”, generally increasing our expectations. When one is a mere ratepayer one might take whatever the council deigns to offer, but as a consumer one can and will demand better service.
I’m not sure that we have really come to understand this powerful change in the shift to a consumer mindset across so many areas of modern life. It also means that the notion of service in return is a dying idea. As a consumer I receive services, not give them.
6) The Work Ethic
Adults have bemoaned the decline in the work ethic of subsequent generations since the days of Socrates. Australia is no exception. For example this recent article: Gen Y too lazy and unfocused to hire – bosses.
In the past Australians worked hard at a single job, saved up until they could afford things and waited patiently until middle age to get a housing loan. But now, we children of the ‘me‘ generation who have been brought up as consumers first have a different relationship work and credit.
We have seen an erosion of the ability to stay in a single job, where you show loyalty to the employer and they return that loyalty. The recession of the 1990s saw many of us watch people we know turfed out with nothing after years of loyal service. We watched the wave of downsizing and the lionisation of people like Al “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap by business leaders.
The Gen Xs who came out of university during the late 1980s and early 1990s found it hard to get work and learned to be suspicious of employers and their promises. This generation watched many traditional jobs, such as manufacturing, head offshore and service jobs replace them.
The old stoic Australian world view, the one where we just took whatever came at us without asking why, seems to be dead. We have been brought up to know that we have rights, even if they are simply moral rights. Rights as consumers, rights as taxpayers, rights as citizens, rights as students, rights as employees.
All of this changes our approach to work. We are still capable of hard work, many of us do not shy away from hard work. And for that hard work we expect reward. Yet some amongst us do not think that we have a right to demand that they too work. Some think that immediately upon starting work they deserve the rewards that accrue to long term achievement. And I suspect that this attitude is tied up with our consumer mindset and the way that so much in modern life does not appear to call for mastery or apprenticeship.
What’s it all mean?
As an Australian I tend to think ‘she’ll be right mate‘. We are a good country, and the preponderance of our people are good people. We are governed under a democracy that works. We have a free judiciary and our people are not oppressed. We have a tradition of a ‘fair go’ for all and we have a long history of helping the underdog.
As long as we refuse to buy into the politics of fear I suspect we’ll be alright.