Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Coming Fight for Freedom

Since the 2012 US election I have seen a great deal of pessimism amongst bloggers and commentators about the prospects for individual freedom in the Western world. It seems that the re-election of Barack Obama and the left-wing political victories in France, Greece and other countries are seen as the turning of the tide against classical liberalism in favour of state control and the abrogation of individual rights.

I agree with these commentators that there is little prospect of rational, classical liberal governments being elected in New Zealand or other Western nations over the next few years. Voters have made their choice clear – they want to continue deluding themselves that the welfare pot is forever full and that government interference in every aspect of society and the economy will always guarantee them a better life.

It is clear that it will take something more than a prolonged global economic downturn and the increasing erosion of individual liberties for voters around the world to get the message. No one seriously believes that the economic policies of most Western governments are sustainable beyond another few years and the signs are that severe social disruption is becoming more common in most Western nations the longer the global economic downturn continues.

The end game is now starting to be played out and unfortunately it is not going to be possible for anyone to opt out, any more than it was possible to opt out of the same philosophical fight in the 1930s and 40s. Political demarcations are becoming more pronounced and positions more entrenched. You would have to be a very optimistic person with little sense of history to look at the current situation around the world and believe that it is not going to result in a great deal of bloodshed.  If you think I am being crazy, then ask yourself why the US Department of Homeland Security (whose sole responsibility is domestic security) has recently purchased more than 1.2 billion sniper bullets. Clearly, I am not the only one who is anticipating a significant outbreak of violence in the West.

However, I disagree that the prospects for freedom are all bleak. History teaches us that greater freedom prevails over the long term. I believe that current events are unfolding so quickly that the collapse of the West and the real fight against tyranny are more imminent than most realise. I am sure that in 1940 few people thought they would see the defeat of Fascism in their lifetimes and in the 1980s few Russians would have believed they would see the end of Communism.

Thomas Jefferson said, "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants". Freedom is not lost unless we are not prepared to fight for it.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Right to Bear Arms

I've read much in the last few days about the constitutional right of Americans to bear arms and how this should be limited in view of the terrible events at Newtown, Connecticut.  I am as appalled as anyone about the shooting of teachers and schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School (see the post below) but I think much of the comment about gun control in the US is poorly informed.  It is important to understand why Americans have the constitutional right to bear arms when considering whether and how to further restrict their ownership and use.

The right to bear arms is contained within the Second Amendment to the US Constitution. The words, in the final version ratified by the States and authenticated by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, are as follows:
"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
The amendment made it into the Bill of Rights along with the right to freedom of speech and religion (the 1st Amendment), protection from unreasonable search and seizure (4th) and due process under the law (5th).  Why it is there amongst other unquestionably moral rights is an interesting story.

In 1789 when the Bill of Rights was being written, the United States was a brand new country that had only recently defeated the British in the War of Independence and adopted the US Constitution.  There were concerns that the Federal government would become too powerful and abrogate the rights of the States and the people, in the same way as the British Crown and Parliament had done before the Revolution.  Congress was divided between the Federalists, who believed that there should be a strong federal government, and the Republicans, who believed in a small federal government that was effectively subservient to the States.

The United States did not have a standing army until 1789.  The Continental Army that was led to victory in the War of Independence by George Washington comprised the militias of the thirteen states and was disbanded upon the final defeat of the British at Yorktown except for a small general staff of no more than a few hundred soldiers.

By the time the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791 there had been both external and internal challenges to the unity of the United States.  The risk of renewed war with Great Britain and with revolutionary France, plus the internal Whisky Rebellion and Northwest Indian War, meant many in Congress supported the idea of a strong, standing Federal army.  But in order to garner the supermajority of States needed to pass the Constitutional amendments, those promoting the idea had to offer the States something in return.  That something was the right to bear arms.  The 2nd Amendment was the right demanded by the States to ensure the Federal Government would not be able to use its armed forces to tread upon their rights.  Of course one could say the assurance did not work - after all, the American Civil War was primarily about that same issue: whether the Federal Government had the right to over ride the States on the important issue of slavery.  And in that case it was a very good thing that the Federal Government won.

Today the issue of Federal vs States rights is more salient than ever.  Washington DC and the state capitols are arguing over many important issues - drug enforcement, immigration, health care, etc.  The Federal Government has taken upon itself more and more power, including in recent years the power to torture and kill people without any form of judicial process.  Many Americans think their government has well-overstepped the constraints that the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison intended to impose upon it and in view of this, it is understandable that they would be reluctant to give up the right to bear arms.

Seen in this light, the Second Amendment becomes something more noble and reasonable than merely the right of Americans to defend their person and home against criminals (although that, too, is hardly an ignoble right in my opinion).

All of the above doesn't change the fact that American civilians kill far more of their fellow citizens with firearms than any other country on Earth.  I agree that America needs to debate the issue but I don't think stricter firearms control alone will do much to address the problem (after all, New Zealand has some of the strictest firearms ownership laws in the world and we have had our share of mass killings).  If President Obama wants to introduce tougher gun laws, perhaps he should start talking in the same conversation about limiting the unbridled power of his Government - then more Americans might be more receptive to greater gun control.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Victoria Soto - Hero

In previous posts, I have lamented the lack of heroism in the world today.

In this blog, following the example of Not PC, I would like to post a tribute to a real heroine - Victoria Soto, one of the teachers who gave their lives to save the lives of the children in their care from the despicable coward who committed suicide by mass killing in Newtown, Connecticut.

I will remember Victoria Soto.  I will not remember her killer.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Imagine if David Bain Really is Innocent

New Zealanders have watched the Bain family murder case unfold over the past 18 years with fascination. For any readers who are unfamiliar with the case of David Bain's trials and imprisonment for the murder of his family, there is a reasonable summary of it in David Bain's Wikipedia entry here. It has all the elements of a classic murder mystery - the horrific, bloody crime itself, family intrigue, suggestions of incest, allegations of planted evidence, and the selfless campaigning of those who believe David Bain to be innocent - particularly that of former New Zealand international sportsman, Joe Karam.

I, unlike David Bain's supporters, do not profess any certainty of his innocence. But I have read enough about the case to be sure that he was only convicted of the crime because of the an incompetent and possibly corrupt police investigation and a determined and one-sided presentation of the evidence at his first trial.

Bain was released from prison in 2007 after his conviction was overturned by the Pricy Council in London (at the time, New Zealand's highest appelate court and since removed in favour of a new local Supreme Court). He was retried in 2009 and acquitted on all charges. Since then he and his supporters have been waiting for the Government to decide whether he should receive compensation for wrongful imprisonment. In New Zealand, such claims are considered by the Cabinet acting on the advice of the Minister of Justice. The process usually involves a senior lawyer or judge investigating the merits of the claim and deciding whether, on the balance of probabilities, the person is innocent. Note that this is both a higher and a lower standard of proof than that which applies in a criminal trial where a conviction requires the case to be proved "beyond reasonable doubt", but acquittal does not require proof of innocence, merely failure to prove guilt.

The Minister of Justice in this case, Judith Collins, commissioned a report from Ian Binnie, a retired Canadian Supreme Court judge, to determine whether David Bain should receive compensation. Binnie reported back in September this year, determining that Bain was innocent on the balance of probabilities and that he should receive compensation.

Many New Zealanders still believe David Bain is guilty and it is obvious Judith Collins is among them. She decided she did not like Justice Binnie's recommendations and has appointed Robert Fisher, a New Zealand Queen's Council (a glorified title for a senior lawyer), to review it. Unsurprisingly, Fisher has decided Binnie's report is flawed. Collins' unwillingness to accept Binnie's recommendations is disappointing but hardly unexpected, given she was Minister of Police during the period covering the second trial and would have been receiving advice from her department that has itself been the subject of accusations of criminal conduct in the case. Even as Minister of Justice, she has a fairly obvious conflict of interest because it is the New Zealand justice system itself that is now on trial.

As I say, I don't know whether Bain is truly guilty or innocent. But I do know a conflict of interest when I see one. New Zealand has not seen such a disgraceful handling of an independent judicial review since Prime Minister Muldoon trashed the report of Justice Mahon into the 1979 crash of an Air New Zealand airplane on Mount Erebus in Antartica. There is a clear conflict of interest in Judith Collins' consideration of the Binnie report and she should recuse herself from any further consideration of Bain's bid for compensation. The Prime Minister should appoint a less-interested minister to make the recommendation to Cabinet, or do the job himself.

I believe that on consideration of the balance of wrongs, David Bain should receive compensation. If he is guilty, he has served 13 years in prison through a conviction that was the result of an incompetent and possibly corrupt justice system - and you might say that is good outcome. But consider if he is innocent - not only did he come home one morning in 1994 to find his entire family slaughtered, he has been suffered the further horror of being tried, convicted and imprisoned for the crime he did not commit, and extreme vilification for that crime ever since. The fact that there is a strong possibility of his innocence outweighs everything else in my mind - this man must receive generous compensation and our humble apologies for what we as a society have done to him.