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October 29th 2009 print

Peter Smith

A defining moment

Conservatives are not sociopaths as Jill Singer would have it – uncaring about their fellow human beings – but people whose empathy has developed beyond a child-like response to suffering.

Opposing child-like responses, a sociopath does not make 

Jill Singer (Herald Sun, 29 October) is one of those many people who feel deeply and personally about the plight of refugees and this is admirable, but empathy has to go much further. Conservatives are not sociopaths as Singer would have it – uncaring about their fellow human beings – but people whose empathy has developed beyond a child-like response to suffering. 

The refugee problem in the world is huge. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimated in June this year that there were 16 million refugees and a further 26 million internally displaced people. Behind these statistics there are 42 million people all with an individual story of suffering. For every person we help another will still be in line with an equal claim. 

Australia can’t solve the problem; Western Europe can’t solve it; the US can’t solve it. It can be solved only when those countries that produce refugees embrace cultural and institutional values of tolerance, equal treatment, the rule of law, and democracy, as we have. And essentially that is down to the people who live in those countries, as it was down to our forbears. 

We can best help by encouraging, and providing support for, the spread of democracy; that is, by trying to cure the disease not by providing palliative care. 

What we can’t do is to open our doors widely. First, the numbers noted above would expand without limit because Australia is a very good place to live economically, and people simply seeking a better life would conflate to an even greater extent than now with genuine refugees and displaced people. Second, and critically, we owe a duty of care to our fellow citizens and to our descendents to protect our way of life and standard of living. Our empathy and compassion must also extend to them. We have to protect our hard won – our very hard won – cultural and institutional values. We have to do our best to ensure that we do not create within our midst growing enclaves of people who do not share those values. We have to do our best also to ensure that we have the economic capacity to absorb numbers of people without lowering our own standard of living. Someone has to pay to resettle refugees and provide continuing financial support if they or their descendents do not find employment. It is not a free good.

Wearing your heart on your sleeve, and feeling good about yourself in newspaper offices, is easier when you stop short of examining all of the consequences of your attitudes and/or when you personally can distant yourself from those consequences. How many Ms Singers would invite refugees to spend extended stays in their homes; would provide them with financial support out of their own pockets; would agree to entertain cultural values at variance with their own? 

Consequences are important and an appreciation of them distinguishes the conservative from the left-liberal. The left liberal only sees the benefit of relieving the immediate suffering under their nose. The conservative understands the bigger picture and the need to make hard decisions sometimes; as part of finding practical and lasting solutions that take into account the interests of all affected parties. 

Howard was right to say that we will determine who can come into this country. And Rudd is now right in following the same principle. I would suggest that most people in Australia, if asked, would agree with that principle. That counts because we live in a democracy.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics