Dont Panic by Cassandra Wilkinson

[22 August 2007]

By David Pullar

Breathe deeply

Unlike her classical namesake, Cassandra Wilkinson is anything but a doomsayer. In this, her first book, the former political hack and current community radio manager takes aim at the scaremongers who populate our newspaper columns, talkback chats, and bestseller lists—and for the most part she hits her targets.

Don’t Panic considers a litany of complaints about the modern world and finds that in most cases evidence is nowhere to be found. The book’s focus is Australian (naturally enough as that is where Wilkinson is based) but its insights are more universal. The heart of the book is the question: are the best decisions and plans made out of fear or optimism?

Wilkinson’s thesis is that most predictors of doom have an agenda and that they use panic and fear to further their own ends. This could be a thirst for power (direct or indirect) or it could be an ad hoc attempt at influencing public debate and policy in a certain direction. This is a highly sceptical starting point and does not include the important and prophetic voices of people with genuine concerns. Nevertheless, it provides the necessary impetus to critically evaluate all the major gripes with early-century Australia.

While it is admirable to review the available facts, Wilkinson’s methodology is heavily reliant on statistics, which gives the reader pause for consideration. Although this can hardly be faulted—the critics Wilkinson seeks to critique are often gleefully loose with the truth and highly selective (or inadequate) in their use of facts. Further, many commentators rely on a subjective feeling that “things used to be better” thus a statistical survey is an improvement in the debate and in many cases the best available option. If at worst she is a little selective herself, then Wilkinson has at least provided an alternative viewpoint in the debate. Two wrongs do not make a right, but two questionable statistics at least drive some readers to do their own research before forming an opinion.

And Wilkinson’s statistics show that things, generally, are on the up. Crime is generally stable or diminishing. Living standards in the West are vastly improved. Starvation and famine are rarer and an entire continent, Asia, has come in leaps and bounds in only 50 years. Wilkinson takes these to suggest that capitalism and free markets have brought greater prosperity.

This may not be the whole story, as the critics of trade and capitalism would argue. While they rarely focus on the absolute gains—the statistics cited by Wilkinson are hard to ignore – they raised valid points with respect to the distribution of these gains. On this topic, the economic rationalists have a harder time disputing.

One view, pioneered by Indian economist Amartya Sen and championed by Wilkinson and others, is that the countries that have remained absolutely poor have done so as a result of poorly functioning markets and undemocratic institutions. However, using this argument to address all questions of inequality is simplistic.

Asia has come a long way in the last few decades and considerably more than notably undemocratic countries in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Further, Sen’s observation that famines never occur in functioning democracies is demonstrably true. The flaw is in the undemocratic (even totalitarian) nature of several prosperous nations in Asia, suggesting that the situation is more complex than at first appearance.

Nevertheless, Wilkinson gives an interesting and challenging look at what’s good about capitalism. When she has finished with this strident defence, Wilkinson moves on to critique the cultural pessimists. Claims of the breakdown of family and community, declining moral standards and rising artistic philistinism are addressed with vigour, if not cohesion. With this discussion, Wilkinson crosses into territory explored more comprehensively last year in Kate Crawford’s Adult Themes and runs into many of the same obstacles.

Unlike economic welfare, cultural standards have few objective measures. As a consequence, commentators tend to fall into anecdotal slanging matches in which one side decries the lack of a latter-day Dickens and the other points to obscure fields of performance art in response. It all adds up to something not terribly convincing, but at least interesting. That the debate will never be resolved one way or another is not a reason for the defenders of modern culture to put up and shut up.

Curiously, the only field in which Wilkinson argues for a certain level of concern (and where the book earns the “nearly” in its title) is global terrorism. Nevertheless, she remains true to her level-headed purpose and counsels that the only answer is—you guessed it—liberal, capitalist democracy. No great revelation here, but a good antidote to those who would use the terrorist threat as an excuse for curtailing civil liberties.

Many readers of a more liberal bent may be concerned at the philosophy outlined by Wilkinson. Whereas she is correct that panic can be used to drive irresponsible or misjudged action, satisfaction and complacency can be used to drive irresponsible inaction. On this matter, it is likely that Wilkinson would be in agreement. Her solution is that corrective and beneficial social action is best undertaken within the framework of peaceful, panic-free democracy.

And she may have a point. Actions that are only possible in free, liberal market economies such as pro-environment consumer choices and the debt-forgiveness campaign appear to be making headway and instituting real change. So Wilkinson would counsel us all to have a cup of tea, breathe deeply and then think about what we can do to make the world better still.

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