Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Language, Gender Pronouns and Free Speech

You may have heard about the case of Lindsay Shepherd, a young teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, who was interrogated and censured by a disciplinary panel for showing a video of a television current affairs show debate to her class. The panel consisted of Shepherd's supervising professor, a second professor and a university official. The ostensible reason for the hearing, which Shepherd recorded (and which you can hear here), was that by showing the video of the debate, Shepherd caused 'harm and violence' to her students. You could imagine that appearing before such a panel was pretty intimidating and going by the fact that the interrogation reduced Shepherd to tears, it could be said that she was subject to harm herself.

The video clip (which you can watch here) was of a debate between Professors Jordan Peterson of University of Toronto and Nicholas Matte of University of Waterloo, and others, about the use of gender-neutral pronouns such a 'ze' and 'hir' for people who identify as transgender. The issue has become particularly contentious in Canada since its parliament passed an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act known as Bill C-16, which criminalises the use of pronouns other than that which the person prefers. It puts the use of the wrong pronoun into the same category of crime as, say, advocating for genocide. Professor Peterson objects to the law compelling the use of such pronouns, whereas Professor Matte, who believes that there is no such thing as biological sex, agrees that the law should force people to address transgender people by whichever pronoun they prefer - no matter how many and varied are such pronouns. I have written before about Peterson's stance on this issue and how I believe the use of pronouns should be a matter of manners, not law.

The televised debate was civilised and respectful, if a little heated at times, and most reasonable people would agree that there are valid views on both sides. Leaving aside the merits of the arguments (and believe me, I have a great deal of sympathy for those who identify as transgender), it is symptomatic of a broader issue in Western countries - that of equating certain political and social views with violence in order to abrogate the right to free speech. The motivation of those who promote this equivalence is literally to delegitimise any views they disagree with. Unfortunately this call to ban any dissenting viewpoint is far too common today and is particularly characteristic of those on the political left who call themselves 'social justice warriors'.

A liberal society is one with heterogeneous views that can be debated openly. It necessarily means that some people will be offended and even emotionally hurt by opinions with which they do not agree. I believe there is a large degree of psychological hypochondria amongst those who claim to suffer harm from different views and that, in any event, emotional harm is no reason to compromise what is the most critical prerequisite to a free society - free speech. There is a world of difference between physical assault and having to hear opinions with which you disagree. Equating the two diminishes and legitimises physical violence, but of course that may be the real intention of those who do so. The fact that they they label themselves 'warriors' is in itself revealing.

The paradoxical thing about the transgender language issue is the premise that gender is purely a social construct, which is the view that Professor Matte expresses in the debate. This is the diametrically opposite position to that which gay activists have taken in respect of sexuality. We have come to accept that sexuality is largely inherent and yet we are expected to believe that gender is not inherent at all, despite the fact that sexuality and gender identity are closely linked (which is something that even gender activists would accept). The science is still evolving and we don't begin to understand all the linkages between physical biology and psychological traits such as gender identity, and the idea that the law should be used to be force people to use language that legitimises a particular philosophical viewpoint and to close down any debate - including on the science - is very dangerous. This is precisely Professor Peterson's objection.

It is the same tactic used by the those who advocate for draconian legal responses to climate change. In that case too, the science is far from settled (at least in respect of mankind's carbon emissions causing catastrophic global warming), but any view other than the orthodoxy is equated with Holocaust denial, no matter how scientifically sound is the scepticism. Lindsay Shepherd described her inquisitory hearing as Maoist, and it certainly was. Mao's Red Guards were never satisfied with silence - you had to profess the beliefs you objected to as vehemently as they did or they would persecute you to the death.

The prospect of being hauled before a tribunal for expressing a belief contrary to the consensus is perhaps the most ominous sign that liberal democracy is under real threat. We should all be a little frightened at where this is going.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Secret deal confirms new government's illegitimacy

New Zealand has suffered a non-violent coup d'état. What else would you call the seizure of political power by a bunch of parties, none of whom got anything like a plurality of votes let alone a majority, through a secret agreement that they are not prepared to disclose to the voters? It is certainly not democracy. National Party leader Bill English has called for the release of the secret agreement but new prime minister Jacinda Ardern has refused, despite claiming her government would be more open and transparent.

These people work for us, or at least that is meant to be the case in a liberal democracy. How dare they negotiate a secret agreement to hold power without disclosing to us what is in it? It is bad enough that our MMP electoral system allows power-hungry minority party politicians to hold us all to ransom without them doing secret deals over our how our country is governed. 

I have written before about how this mongrel coalition has no legitimacy and this secret agreement only adds to its bastardy. Readers will know that I am no fan of the National Party, but it is the party with the most right to govern in this country because it got a plurality of support in the election. Bill English should go further than his call for the release of the secret agreement and commit his party to do its utmost to bring this government down as soon as possible.

Monday, November 20, 2017

New Government already seeing unintended consequences

The unfortunate thing about believing that government is the solution to every problem is the Law of Unintended Consequences. This law says that almost any government action will produce unintended, and generally negative, consequences. The new New Zealand Government certainly believes that it has the solution to every problem, real or imagined, that prevails in this country with literally hundreds of new policies in their manifesto and coalition agreement. But they are already seeing unintended consequences of their policies, even before they have had time to enact any of them.

The most obvious example of this was today's headline in Wellington's DominionPost newspaper reporting that the city is heading for its worst rental crisis ever, with a sudden contraction in the number of properties being offered for rent. Property Investor's Association president Richard Bacon blames the new government's policies including the Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill, which is intended to raise the standards of properties offered for rent, saying that many landlords are pulling their properties out of the rental market in anticipation of higher compliance costs. So rather than getting healthier homes, many tenants will be getting no home at all.

Another example is the increase of the minimum wage to $20/hour. Muriel Newman points out in this article (based on figures from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment), that this increase to one of the highest minimum wage levels in the world could destroy over 60,000 jobs. So rather than getting higher wages, many workers will be getting no wages at all.

A third example is the new government's policy of building 100,000 new homes. The details of how they are to go about this are still sketchy but if the government funds and constructs these houses, it will have an enormous effect on our already highly constrained building industry, diverting resources from private house construction. The real cause of the lack of new houses is the Resource Management Act, which enables local government to severely constrain the supply of land for house construction and to impose huge compliance costs on builders and developers, but the government has said it will not touch this draconian law. At the same time, the government intends to pursue a looser monetary policy, which will further inflate the real estate bubble. I am prepared to bet that the unintended consequences of these policies will be to further reduce the supply, and increase the price, of new housing.

I could go on. One doesn't need to be a genius to figure out the unintended consequences of almost every one of the new government's policies - they are obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of economics and human nature. But those with faith in the religion of big government don't want to hear facts and reason.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Year of Trump

You have to admit it, even if you detest Donald Trump and everything he stands for, the last year of US politics has been the most interesting since...well, probably since Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House (and I think there are many parallels between that earlier renegade Republican and Trump). I still find myself laughing aloud at Trump's tweets, the utter bewilderment and denial of Hillary Clinton that she lost to him, and most especially the mainstream media's continued outrage that they have lost control of the political narrative.

Trump hasn't achieved a lot in terms of policy - Obamacare is still in place, the wall hasn't been built, and the tax cuts he wants are bogged down in the congressional swamp - but doing nothing isn't a bad thing for a politician because it means he hasn't stuffed anything up, which is more than you can say for the preceding four presidents. The earnest ingenues in the new coalition government here in New Zealand should take a leaf from Trump's book and work on their golf game rather than pursuing their utopian dreams.

Much is made of Trump's low approval ratings but I wouldn't dismiss his prospects of re-election in 2020 just yet, assuming he decides to run. Three years is an eternity in politics and events may overtake the narrative as they did with George W Bush in 2001. The U.S. economy is finally rebounding, and if you add to that some tax cuts, a major foreign policy success, and a Democratic Party that continues to be its own worst enemy, and we could well see Trump win a second term.

There is much I dislike about Trump and his policies but it would be almost worth putting up with another few years of his cronyism, xenophobia and simplistic economics just to see the mainstream media's reaction to (as Australian rugby star George Gregan once said about the All Blacks losing the Rugby World Cup) "four more years."

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Is the NZ Government the result of a personal grudge?

We learned this week that Winston Peters, the 'kingmaker' in the recent coalition negotiations to form the New Zealand government, is suing four National Party members of parliament, including former prime minister Bill English and deputy Paula Bennett, over the leaking of information that he had been overpaid his state pension for seven years. Peters' lawsuit seems to be a fishing expedition with journalists, National Party officials and even the chief executive of the Ministry of Social Development (the government agency responsible for payment of the pension) being served papers.

The most concerning thing about this matter is not the overpayment itself or the speculative nature of Peters' legal action, but the fact that it reveals an obvious conflict of interest in the coalition negotiations. Peters swore an affidavit in support of his legal action the day before the election, meaning that he was involved in the lawsuit when he sat down to negotiate a possible coalition agreement with the very National Party leadership that he was suing. He should have declared this conflict of interest before the election so that voters could have taken the matter into account or, at the very least, prior to the coalition negotiations getting underway. Ideally he should have recused himself from the coalition discussions and decision-making of his party.

In view of this, it is unsurprising that Peters chose the Labour Party as his coalition partner. I have written before about how Labour and New Zealand First don’t even have a plurality in the new parliament and the fact that the National Party, which has more seats than Labour and New Zealand First combined, would be part of a government under any electoral process other than our shambolic MMP system.

The fact that Peters didn't declare his conflict of interest begs the question whether he entered the negotiations in good faith and whether he had any intention of forming a coalition with National. It makes a mockery of the coalition negotiations and casts further doubt on the legitimacy of the new coalition government. Peters may have a legitimate grievance over the leaking of his confidential superannuation details but that doesn't justify him holding the country to ransom and making decisions of constitutional importance on the basis of a personal grudge. The fact that this is even a possibility raises serious concerns about the health of our democracy.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

100 years of failure and there are still naive Marxists

On this day, one hundred years ago, the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin overthrew the Russian provisional government of Alexander Kerensky, thus ushering in the most brutal political system the modern world has known. Many left-wing commentators continue to laud this as the day the Russians overthrew the repressive Czar, but that event actually happened in March 1917. Lenin and his cohorts seized power in a coup and imposed a totalitarian dictatorship that would last for three quarters of a century and that would kill at least 20 million people of its own people.

Leftists of all persuasions defend Communism on the basis that the political philosophy has never been truly implemented. They also claim that Lenin had noble intentions and that he was innocent of the slaughter that followed. Let us deal with the second of these claims first. Lenin was not a good guy. He overthrew a democratically-elected government and quickly imposed the totalitarianism that would characterise the Soviet regime until its demise. He established the Cheka secret police, the Gulags, secret arrest and detention without trial, summary executions and the mass killings of recalcitrant peasants, workers and soldiers. He also began the mass starvations of the Kulaks (the so-called 'rich' peasants) that was to reach its nadir under Stalin, particularly in the Ukraine.

The first line of defence of Communism for today's leftists - that it has never really been tried - is equally false. Every form of Communism, or even staunch socialism - Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, Juche, and the latest, Chavism - has caused widespread misery for its subjects. Genocide is not an aberration of Communism, it is a characteristic of it. Communism and socialism are based on the philosophical concepts of idealism and materialism, which support the Marxist belief in determinism - that is, that human beings are not individually responsible for their actions and are merely components of the collective species-being. This justifies the sacrifice of any individual to the collective will (that will, of course, being determined by a small leadership elite). Is it any wonder that people who believe this end up killing anyone who stands in their way?

Today's left-wingers believe that their political system is better than any that went before because they control it, but what makes them think they are better than all the fellow travellers who went before them? It is naive arrogance, that is all. Were they ever to find themselves in a position to make good on their beliefs, they wouldn't last five minutes - because there will always be a Stalin or a Mao standing behind them, only too ready and willing to put a bullet in the backs of their heads as they contemplate their benevolent revolution!

Thursday, November 2, 2017

NZ coalition agreement's best clause

Tucked in the very bottom of the coalition agreement between the New Zealand Labour Party and New Zealand First to form the new New Zealand government is a small, incongruous clause that could be missed on first reading. It says the parties agree to "Record a Cabinet minute regarding the lack of process followed prior to the National-led government’s sponsorship of UNSC2334."

United Nations Security Council resolution 2334 condemns Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories and I have written before about why I was so disgusted by my government's sponsorship of it. The Israelis claimed that New Zealand was pressured by the outgoing Obama administration into fronting the resolution (with the US abstaining, presumably so that the Democratic Party did not suffer blowback from the powerful American Jewish lobby). The fact that the new government's coalition agreement acknowledges that due process was not followed suggests that there may be substance to this claim.

New Zealand's stance is in contrast to Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull's lauding of his country's strong relationship with Israel on his recent trip to that country. Turnbull took the opportunity during his visit to celebrate the extraordinarily courage of Australian (and New Zealand) cavalry during the Battle of Beersheba one hundred years ago.

It takes a degree of political courage to stand with Israel today. I am sure the clause in the coalition agreement would not have been welcomed by everyone in the Labour Party caucus and certainly not within the Green Party, their other political partner. I imagine that both the New Zealand First leader, Winston Peters, and deputy leader, Ron Mark (a former soldier who served in the Middle East), had a part to play in insisting on the inclusion of the clause, and for that I salute them.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Three years is plenty to screw up New Zealand

One of the more interesting pieces of work I've done recently is preparing a briefing for clients on the impact on their business of New Zealand's new coalition government. I went through the details of the coalition agreements between Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens and also, with a fine-tooth comb, through their manifestos. I believe I now have a pretty good understanding of all of their promises.

The total cost of new spending over the next few years is more than $15 billion. It is not obvious how they are going to pay for it, with only a few hundred million of new revenue identified. The source of the money, of course, will be new taxes and borrowing (i.e. deferred taxes) - they just weren't honest enough to admit it in the election campaign. They have revealed only that they intend to cancel the previous National Government's proposed tax cuts for next year and that they will establish a Tax Working Group to look at the tax system. The latter sounds to me like a surreptitious means of justifying the higher taxes the coalition will require to fund all that extra spending.

The other shocking aspect of my analysis is the sheer number of new policy initiatives and laws the Labour-led government plans to introduce. I have written before of how there are ordinarily about five hundred pieces of legislation winding their way through Parliament's processes. Expect this to increase substantially. If we are not already one of the most regulated countries in the world, we are about to become so. 

I believe the coalition government won't last more than three years (and possibly considerably less). Unfortunately, three years is plenty to screw up New Zealand, given that they seem to be seriously commited to the task.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

In Defence of Capitalism

The newly-elected (if you can call her grapple for power ‘elected’) New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Arden, has criticised capitalism in her first interview. She said, "If you have hundreds of thousands of children living in homes without enough to survive, that's a blatant failure." The statement is simply untrue. There are not hundreds of thousands of children in New Zealand "without enough to survive." New Zealand has one of the most generous welfare systems in the world and no child is dying from deprivation unless it is caused by the criminal neglect of parents or caregivers, which is thankfully rare in our society. 

Ardern is employing the classic statists' ploy of creating a strawman issue to knock it down with the perennial solution - more taxes, more state control and more power for herself. The truth is, the natural state of humanity is subsistence living. Human beings lived in abject poverty for most of their existence. That began to change early in the 19th Century and today fewer than ten percent of the world's population still lives in historical levels of poverty, a dramatic fall as shown in the following graph. This trend is, of course, against an exponentially growing world population so the absolute numbers of people better off is a double-exponential graph.


What caused this dramatic change over the past two hundred years? It was a combination of events that we collectively call the industrial revolution, but that was the outcome rather than the cause. Historians disagree on the number and precise definition of the factors, but most are in general agreement about the nature of them. They include greater individual freedom, acceptance of the concept of intrinsic rights, and respect for the rule of law and property rights (and the importance of the latter is well-documented by respected Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto). These things provided the foundations of functioning free markets that allowed people to produce more than they could individually consume and to exchange and invest the surplus to produce even more. It meant the value of an individual's labour grew as the wealth that could be generated from that labour grew. The fact that it reduced the proportion of the world's population living in poverty at the same time as the population was growing exponentially meant that the increase in wealth was widespread and was not confined to a small elite.

The problem with defending capitalism is there is no generally accepted definition of what it means. Jacinda Ardern undoubtedly uses the Marxist definition, which is something like the exploitation of labour to provide a return to those who control the monetary resources. Marxists see the economy as a zero sum game and believe any return on capital is money taken from the pockets of workers. This is demonstrably nonsensical - capital enables us to leverage the very limited physical capacity of human beings to produce far more than the sum of individual workers' efforts. A person cannot produce a car or an iPhone, or even a pencil, on his own. Capital is the multiplier that enables people to produce these things, and in far greater numbers and for far greater reward than they could without capital's leverage effect. But capitalism is about more than capital (which is, incidentally, why I am not a fan of the term). Capitalism is the economic, political and social system that enables us to make the most valuable and productive choices with our resources, including our individual labour. It enables us to use our lives to the greatest value. The critical element is individual freedom - the freedom to make personal choices.

The arrogance of politicians like Jacinda Ardern is that they believe they are smarter than the countless people in a free market who make decisions about what is of most value to them, their families and their communities. They think they understand the incredibly complex system that is the modern economy better than the collective knowledge of all the people within it. In Ardern's case, this is spite of the fact that she has never had a full-time job outside of politics. She talks about housing as if she believes that she can create more, and more affordable, houses than all the builders, architects, materials suppliers and contractors in the market. She believes she can make better purchase decisions than all the buyers could make, and better financing decisions than all the bankers, if left to their own devices. The truth is that it is the interference of successive governments in the key market areas of building, land use and mortgage lending that has caused the current housing shortages and excessive prices, and Ardern's further interference will undoubtedly make those problems worse.

You would think a 37-year-old who had never held a truly productive job in her life would have a little more humility than to criticise the economic system that has lifted the vast majority of the world's population out of poverty.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Good luck with that, Jacinda

The people have spoken - well, a minority of them anyway. We have a coalition government that doesn't even have a plurality of the votes. After a month of dithering, the leader of the New Zealand First Party, Winston Peters, who lost his own electoral seat in last month's election and whose party was reduced to 7% of the vote, decided to form a coalition with the New Zealand Labour Party. Combined, the two parties won 44.1% of the party votes - less than the National Party's 44.4% - and yet they have been able to form a government because the Green Party, with 6.3% of the vote, is prepared to support them on 'confidence and supply' (i.e. on budget votes). 

It is not as if the partners to the polyamorous affair have much in common. New Zealand First is a nationalist, protectionist, anti-immigration party and its leader moulds himself on Robert Muldoon, the authoritarian New Zealand prime minister from 1975 to 1984 who took the country to the verge of bankruptcy. Labour is a classic, left-of-centre social democratic party, and the Greens are a typical 'watermelon' alliance of environmentalists and Marxists.

The new prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, is not only New Zealand's youngest premier in over a hundred years, she is the least experienced, having never held a full-time job outside of politics and never having held even an executive position in government. She will need to rule over a rag-tag coalition with less mandate than National to govern and to keep the oldest political fox of them all, Winston Peters, from eating all her chickens. I give it less than twelve months until her government disintegrates and we have another election.

In the meantime, I wish Jacinda Ardern and her coalition good luck and implore them not to stuff up our great little country too much before the big kids take over again.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Greens enable Winston Peters to hold NZ to ransom

I wrote recently about why I thought New Zealand's electoral system was the dumbest in the world, and so it has proved to be. Nearly a month after the election we still don't have a government and while I don't think this is in itself a bad thing, watching our politicians jockeying for power has been unedifying. All the blind ambition, self-aggrandisement and incompetence we have come to expect of our politicians has been on display.

The uniquely unqualified, inexperienced and unproven Labour Party leader, Jacinda Ardern, who will become our prime minister in a Labour-led government, has been displaying a quiet confidence in her public comments. Bill English, the current prime minister and leader of the National Party, which won the largest share of the vote, is more inscrutable. Meanwhile, Winston Peters, whom the media have dubbed the 'kingmaker', cannot contain his delight at being the centre of attention again and continues to make the country wait for his decision. As the Guardian newspaper put it, Winston Peters and the anonymous board of his nationalist New Zealand First Party are holding the country to ransom.

This is all pathetic but the prize for the most damaging self-indulgence must go to the Green Party, the leftist environmentalists who have refused to consider negotiating with the centrist National Party, preferring to give Labour their proxy in coalition negotiations. This has, of course, strengthened Winston Peters' hand, an outcome for which their supporters surely could not have voted. A National-Green coalition could govern without New Zealand First's support and thus even the pretence of negotiations between these two parties would have taken the wind out of Winston Peters' sails. Many commentators have expressed disappointment with the Green's holier-than-thou attitude with even former Party MP Nandor Tanczos calling for his party to enter into negotiations with National.

Winston Peters may be holding the country to ransom but it is the Greens who have given him the means to do so. I hope the voters remember that when it comes to the next election, which, I am picking, may be not that far away.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Hypocrisy of Hollywood

Hollywood has closed ranks against one of its most successful producers, Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused by dozens of actresses of sexual harrassment and even rape. Weinstein has been kicked out of his company and expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. You may think that shows the American film industry has moral integrity, but I don't view it that way. Ironically it was Weinstein himself who said in 2009 that Hollywood 'has the best moral compass' while defending Roman Polanski, the director who is still on the run decades after pleading guilty to raping a 13 year old girl.

Hollywood has known for years that Weinstein was a sexual predator. In 2006, singer and actress Courtney Love publicly warned young aspiring actresses to avoid him. In 2013, comedian Seth MacFarlane joked on stage at the Academy Awards about Weinstein's predatory nature. Actress Rose McGowan, who says she was raped by Weinstein, has condemned Ben Affleck, himself the subject of sexual harrassment claims, for maintaining that he did not know about Weinstein's behaviour (incidentally, McGowan made the claim on Twitter and the social messaging service responded by suspending McGowan's account, a demonstration of that company's poor judgement when it comes to who gets suspended and who doesn't).

One could excuse Hollywood's convenient blindness where Weinstein is concerned if it wasn't for the industry's appalling hypocrisy. The American film industry presents itself as a paragon of liberal sensibility and tolerance, most recently in the attacks of many of its most prominent members on President Trump (e.g. Merryl Streep's speech at the Golden Globe Awards), but the Weinstein affair reveals that misogyny and abusive behaviour in the industry is far worse than anything Trump might have done. 

The holier-than-thou self-congratulation of the industry is sickening. Whether it is director James Cameron on Donald Trump or Leonardo di Caprio on climate change, those who have made a name for themselves directing or acting in films seems to think they have some special sanctity on the political and moral issues of the day. My view is the opposite - their privilege and fame has often distorted their perspective and they have little idea of the challenges facing the ordinary people who fill their box office coffers. They cannot understand, for example, why so many Americans voted for Trump, because they haven't suffered the economic and social privations of people in the 'fly-over' states whom they hold in such contempt. 

It is is the self-righteousness of Hollywood's leading lights that makes Weinstein's crimes all the worse. Perhaps if they all had a little humility, we could condemn Weinstein as an isolated fiend, but I am sure it is their very arrogance that enabled Weinstein to get away with his behaviour for so long.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Mass Customisation of Politics

Business in the social media age is all about mass customisation. Industries such as telecommunications, banking and transportation have figured out that the key to success is to have economies of scale while allowing individuals to have products and services that are tailored to their needs. The commercial behemoths of old that insisted on one-size-fits-all have fallen by the wayside as new businesses exploit flexible manufacturing and service delivery models to accomodate individual consumers' needs.

Politics in the 21st Century is the same. Voters are increasingly unwilling to be boxed into traditional political definitions - left, right, socialist, nationalist. etc. Ironically, this is happening at a time when political labels such as 'extreme', 'Fascist' and 'Nazi' are being bandied about with increasing abandon and usually without justification. 

Many people, myself included, have a political philosophy that does not sit comfortably with most established party manifestos. We are a little bit left, a little bit right, and a whole lot completely outside the spectrum. This is not the same as being purely pragmatic - we have a philosophy that is well thought-out and articulated and are prepared to vote to maximise its realisation. We have little in common with the David Camerons and John Keys of this world who don't believe in anything much and who are willing to do whatever it takes to stitch together a coalition to keep them in power. We may vote for the lesser of evils but it doesn't mean we will accept the bland and uncommitted.

So how do we achieve mass customisation in politics when many countries seem to be locked into a traditional left-of-centre/right-of-centre, two-party paradigm? Partly it is achieved through breaking down the paradigm, and we have seen this with the rise of third parties in many Western countries. The other way it can be achieved is through localisation of politics.

Politics in many countries in recent decades has been characterised by greater centralisation. The European Community is the most obvious example and in the United States we have seen the growth of the federal government at the expense of the state or local government. The problem with this is that it means greater homogenisation and less opportunity for people like me, whose views don't fall into the traditional political buckets, to have our views represented. Localisation of political decisions means we can enjoy, at least at a local level, a more flexible set of policy setttings, and if we are not happy with the decisions of our local government, we can seek out somewhere more compatible with our political views.

It was the intention of America's founding fathers. particularly Jefferson and Hamilton, that the US Republic would be a place where different communities could experiment with different political and social settings, subject only to the universal rights enshrined in the Constitution. America today has become a highly centralised bureaucracy with the Federal Government interfering in every area of Americans lives from health care to what children eat in their school lunches. The complete dominance of US politics by the two major parties means that people who don't fall into the traditional Democrat and Republican camps have no real alternative, except that last year they chose a rebel Republican in Donald Trump to be president. Trump's support came from the disaffected middle and working classes, who rejected the big statism and identity politics of the Democrats and the social conservatism and crony capitalism of the Republicans, and is therefore understandable in terms of the mass customisation paradigm. Brexit was similarly a rejection of the traditional political choices.

Those who insist on seeing today's politics in terms of past dichotomies will continue to be surprised and bewildered by voters' choices. I think that the rejection of tradition political boundaries it is a very positive development but it needs to be accompanied by a decentralisation of political power if voters are to have genuine choices.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Phoney War in NZ politics

In my last post I wrote about how MMP is the world's worst electoral system, but I have to concede that it has one positive attribute (which NotPC points out in this post on Winston Peters) that following every election there is a period of no-government (well, strictly speaking, 'caretaker' government) while the political parties jostle and negotiate to form a coalition. During this political equivalent of the Phoney War, the Wellington political establishment is in a stalemate and no decisions are made on anything of consequence, and that is a very good thing.

The New Zealand Parliament at any time has five hundred pieces of legislation in the pipeline from conception to royal assent. It is a relentless sausage machine that spits out laws that affect all of our lives, often in significant and negative ways. The sheer volume of legislation going through the machine at any time defies belief and no one could seriously argue that all five hundred bills currently in the works are critically important to the functioning of our society. Anything that slows down such a relentless machine cannot be a bad thing.

We need to constrain the ability of our governments to pass legislation. New Zealand has no upper house (having abolished it in 1951) or other constitutional checks on the ability of the House of Representatives to make laws. I have written before about how I like the Texas approach, where the legislature meets for no more than 90 days every two years, which means it simply doesn't have the time to pass too much legislation and has to be very selective in which laws it passes. This is surely one of the reasons Texas has been one of the few success stories in a moribund American economy in recent years.

I hope the coalition negotiations surpass in length those after the 1996 election, which took more than two months. In fact, if those involved could draw out the negotiations for about three years, the country would be much better for it.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The World's Dumbest Electoral System

New Zealand has the world's dumbest electoral system. Saying such a thing in this country provokes the same reaction as when you say, "the world is not suffering catastrophic global warming", but sometimes one must speak truth to power. There is a reason why only one country in the world had the system before New Zealand adopted it and that country (Germany) has special historical reasons for having a system that ensures no single political party can ever govern alone.

Under our Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, you get two votes - the first determines who becomes your local electorate member of parliament, the second is for the party you prefer. The complication comes from the fact that it is the party vote alone that determines the make-up of parliament, which means the electorate vote counts for nothing in terms of legislative power. In effect, winning electorate seats costs a party list seats. A party can get into parliament if they get at least 5% of the party vote even if they have no electorate seats, or if a party gets at least one electorate seats, it's party vote counts as well even if it gets less than 5% support. Confused? Well, you are not alone - by some estimates, 80% of New Zealand voters do not understand how the system works.

The complexity of the system produces some weird effects. Consider the following two scenarios. 


In the first scenario, a centre-left government comprising Labour, New Zealand First and Greens is the most likely outcome because even though National has far more seats than Labour, the latter will be able to form a coalition with fellow opposition parties the Greens and New Zealand First (note that for the sake of simplicity I have ignored smaller parties and the impact of the race-based Maori electorates, which further complicate the picture).

The second scenario is almost exactly the same as the first except that the Greens get 0.1% fewer votes. This means they would be wiped out because they did not reach the magic 5% threshold to get party list seats in parliament (assuming, as is likely the case, they do not win any electorate seats). National would have an overall majority of seats and be able to form a government. So, 0.1% of the votes can completely change the outcome and make the difference between significant representation in parliament for a minor party or none at all. 

The libertarian ACT Party, which is polling at 0.3% in the latest poll, will likely have at least one seat in the next parliament because they will win the Epsom electorate, whereas the Green Party, which is hovering around 5%, may get none. As a libertarian, that is an outcome I would like to see but it is hardly fair.

The system could be easily fixed by separating the effects of the two types of vote. The party vote should determine only the proportion of the party list seats rather than the overall make-up of parliament. In other words, winning an electorate seat wouldn't cost you a party list seat. I believe this is exactly how most New Zealanders imagine MMP works, so it would be aligning the system with expectations. Under this proposal, the 5% threshold could be abolished - or at least lowered to level needed to get one party list seat - and this would eliminate the bizarre effects outlined in the second scenario above.

It is time for a change in our electoral system.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Capitalism is about trust

I was listening to Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson's podcast the other day and he touched on a subject I found really interesting - the importance of trust networks in business transactions. He was talking about eBay (and it is equally true of New Zealand's equivalent, TradeMe) which, when it started out, had third party agents who would guarantee delivery of the goods people had purchased and payment to the seller. Very quickly those agents became redundant for the simple reason that the vast majority of people trading on the site were honest, often scrupulously so. This has been my personal experience - in fact, I have never had a trade in which I wasn't largely satisfied with the result.

eBay works on reputation, which it has formalised in its feedback ratings, but even without a track record of good ratings, the buyers and sellers tend to deal with each other with honesty and trust. I am not sure why people would be surprised by this as it is the common experience of most people in business. Even in the second decade of the 21st Century, many business deals are still sealed with nothing more than a handshake or, at most, emails of offer and acceptance, and in the vast majority of cases there is never a dispute that can't be resolved with a telephone call. I have had my own consulting business for about twenty years and incredibly I have never not been paid for services delivered (although sometimes I have needed to chase payment) and I have never had a dispute over the quality of the services I have delivered. I accept that the nature of my business is one that is especially dependent on personal relationships but I am sure most businesspeople, at least in civilised Western nations, could cite similar experience.

The popular impression of those not in business is that capitalism is dog-eat-dog and everyone is out to rip off everyone else. In my experience this couldn't be further from the truth. Businesspeople are generally incredibly ethical. This shouldn't be a surprise because capitalism by definition is all about voluntary relationships between people and no one wants to engage with another person they do not trust, particularly when there is a financial cost. A free market very quickly exposes fraudulent, shoddy and inadequate products and services, particularly in these days of social media and rating websites like Yelp. A restaurant that gives its customers poor service or a roofer who leaves a home owner with a leaky roof is likely to be exposed online very quickly. On the flip side, good quality products and services are extolled to the world.

The exception is in markets where there is a government imposed monopoly or cartel. Obvious examples of this are the airline industry and health sector, which are so regulated and controlled that you could hardly call them free markets. We endure appalling service in both industries, largely without complaint because complaining would be futile. The other sector where poor service is uncomplainingly accepted is government itself. We often put up with appalling treatment by government agencies and accept that we have no alternative or even the right not to use the services offered.

Government also undermines the trust we see in free markets indirectly through welfare and income redistribution policies. When you get something for nothing through state welfare, you don't need those trust networks that business people rely on. The idea of a fair exchange is corrupted because the state promotes a sense of entitlement - that poor people have a natural right to the earnings of taxpayers - which undermines the integrity of people on both sides of the transfer. There is not even the sense of generosity and gratitude that results from acts of charity. Welfare debases human relationships, which is, I think, the reason why crimes like child abuse are so high amongst welfare dependents, even compared with working people with the same income (see for example this report [PDF]).

Capitalism, perhaps ironically in view of many, brings out the best of human nature.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Campaign finance laws are a subversion of democracy

I watched with interest last week as Gareth Morgan's The Opportunities Party took Television New Zealand to court seeking to overturn the network's decision not to invite Morgan to the televised election debate between the leaders of New Zealand's minor parties. I have nothing but contempt for Morgan because of his naive support for the evil North Korean regime (as Liberty Scott blogged about here) and his ill-informed comments on a range of other subjects such as Israel and terrorism. He has what is perhaps the stupidest policy ever to come out of a New Zealand political party, that of taxing non-income earning assets based on a nominal rate of return, which would mean income-poor people such as the elderly would have to sell their homes.

The fact that Morgan is a fool does not mean he shouldn't have the same opportunities to promote his stupid policies as the other political parties, and this raises the issue of the legal constraints on political funding in this country and in much of the Western world. You can be as dumb as Gareth Morgan and still appreciate that the existing major political parties have a vested interest in keeping small parties from promoting their policies. Incumbent governments, particularly those of a left-wing bent (who believe, perhaps falsely, that they are less likely to attract wealthy benefactors), restrict challengers' access to state and private media and impose campaign funding restrictions that benefit themselves.

In New Zealand we have laws limiting and requiring disclosure of campaign contributions, although the authorities here have been reluctant to prosecute breaches, as for example when the incumbent government broke the law in the 2005 Labour Party 'pledge card' case. We also have state funding for campaign advertising on television and other media and this is allocated on the basis of support for the parties at previous elections, which significantly handicaps any new or emergent party. These laws are made worse by the discriminatory treatment of smaller political parties by media organisations such as Television New Zealand (which, incidentally, is state-owned).

The campaign finance laws in America are particularly onerous, as exemplified by the jailing in 2014 of conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza for making an undeclared political donation, and the US Government's attempts to stop organisations contributing to political debate, which was thwarted by Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. The court decided in that case that campaign contributions are a form of political speech and organisations have the same right to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment as individuals. The American television networks also treat smaller parties with disdain, which was particularly evident in the US Presidential campaigns with the discriminatory treatment of the Libertarian Party's Gary Johnson and Green Party's Jill Stein.

The argument in favour of political funding laws is that they even out the playing field because otherwise a few rich people could heavily influence an election by buying up huge amounts of advertising in the mainstream media. I think this overvalues the role of the mainstream media in elections, particularly in this day when one Youtube commentator can have more viewers than a television network, and it is patronising of voters, who are far less influenced by media campaigns than people think (witness the fact that Donald Trump won the presidency with a fraction of the television advertising spend of Hillary Clinton).

I think the United States Supreme Court got it right for once - political donations are a form of speech and any impingement of them is a restriction on free speech and on freedom of association. I don't think the state should be limiting or contributing to political promotion and that current campaign finance laws are a subversion of democracy and individual rights. Furthermore, I don't believe anyone should have to publicly disclose political donations because this is a breach of the right to privacy. We have the right to vote in secret and this should extend to the contributions to those for whom we may vote.

Friday, September 8, 2017

When security trumps freedom

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety ~ Benjamin Franklin
Many people find the idea of unfettered capitalism scary. Modern 'liberals', who support a high level of freedom in political, social and religious spheres, baulk at the idea of economic freedom on the basis that it fosters inequality. This is something that perplexes libertarians who believe that there is no such thing as freedom without economic freedom, and that if you are not free to choose how you make your living, what you consume and with whom you trade, you cannot be free in other areas of your life.

There are two reasons people do not want freedom in economic matters. The first is that they want others to take care of them. This is a natural tendency of human beings - after all, we spend the first decade or two of our lives being taken care by our parents and many find it a challenge crossing that threshold where they have to take responsibility for their own welfare. The modern welfare state makes it very easy for people to opt out of adulthood. We provide state-subsidised education to people well into their twenties and it is possible to live adequately on welfare benefits for the whole of one's life.

The second reason why people do not want freedom in economic matters is simple envy. People would rather not be free if it means someone will have more wealth than them. This is the malevolent and misanthropic motivation for socialism and the reason left-wingers tend to support higher taxes even when they are not necessary for fiscal reasons. They would rather everyone is worse off than allow a few to be better off than others. It is consistent with the Marxian worldview that sees human existence as a zero-sum game - that if I have more than you, I must have taken some of your share of the fixed pool of wealth.This is demonstrably a nonsense because if it were so, wealth per capita would never increase (as it has done exponentially for the last couple of centuries).

Whichever of these two motivations apply, the results are the same - a willingness to compromise freedom in the name of economic equality even if makes everyone worse off. This is what we are now seeing in Western societies - freedom is being abrogated in all spheres, including traditional touchstones such as freedom of speech and political association. Governments do not, and cannot, distinguish between the economic and social spheres when it comes to applying their authority, which is why socialism inexorably leads to dictatorship, the most recent example being Venezuela today. The left-wing ideal of political, social and religious freedom combined with high levels of economic control, is a case of wanting one's cake and eating it too.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Totalitarian instinct alive and well in New Zealand

Last weekend the New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister made some extraordinary comments at a press conference in announcing the ruling National Party's election policy on drugs. Paula Bennett, announcing a crackdown on criminal gangs manufacturing and dealing in illegal narcotics, said that the National Government, if re-elected, would give police the power to search the cars and houses of the most serious criminal gang members at any time, at the police's discretion. Bennett acknowledged that this would breach the human rights of the individuals concerned but justified the measure on the grounds that serious criminals "have fewer human rights than others". Prime Minister Bill English said he agreed with the proposal stating, "it's good that we don't have a written constitution it's enabled the country to deal with all sorts of issues in a practical effective way."

It is clear from these comments that neither English or Bennett understand the concept of human rights. They would do well to read Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says, "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." If they don't like that authority they could go to an older source, the United States Declaration of Independence, which states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." Any other authoritative source says the same thing - rights are inherent, universal and equal in effect for all human beings. They are not entitlements to be granted or removed by governments at their discretion.

English and Bennett also fail to understand the purpose of a constitution, which is to constrain the government. Constitutions exist, often representing a long history of noble rebellion, because of the totalitarian instinct of all governments, just the sort of totalitarian instinct English and Bennett are now showing. The fact that New Zealand, like Britain, has a constitution based on inheritance and common law rather than a single written document, does not justify disregarding the rights it protects. The documents our constitution is based on, such as the Magna Carta Libertatum (Great Charter of Liberties - to give it its full and more appropriate name) and the English Bill of Rights, make it clear that all New Zealanders are entitled to due process under the law - exactly what Bennett and English seem only too ready to deny some of their citizens.

In my last post I wrote that despite this government's track record of enacting legislation that reduced the rights and freedoms of New Zealanders, I thought they were still the least bad choice in this month's election. I realise now that I was completely wrong. English and Bennett have shown their true colours and any government of which they are a part represents a serious threat to the freedom and democracy in this country. English has since tried to back-peddle on Bennett's comments about human rights, but this wasn't a mere mistake of language - the intent and rationale of what both of them said was clear and they were probably the most chilling words I have ever heard from New Zealand politicians.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

New Zealanders' election dilemma

New Zealanders, at least those with a libertarian leaning, are faced with a familiar dilemma in next month's election - do we vote for socialists with odious principles or conservatives with none?

The current National-led government has been hopeless for those of us who value freedom. It has enacted a plethora of legislation and regulations that reduce our rights to privacy, free speech, equality under the law and even universal suffrage. The GCSB Amendment Act and the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act significantly increased the government's rights to intercept our private communications. The Harmful Digital Communications Act made it an offence to say or publish anything that is 'abusive' or 'insulting'. And the long-promised Resource Legislation Amendment Bill did nothing to lessen the bureaucratic barriers to development but gave unelected Maori tribal elites joint control over local government planning and consent processes. All of this from a party that is supposed to stand for equal citizenship, individual freedom and choice, personal responsibility and limited government. I have nothing but contempt for such hypocrites.

The Labour Party is at least a little more honest about its intentions, announcing increases in state spending across the board. It says it does not plan to increase income tax other than cancelling the derisory tax cuts National has promised for next year, but has said it will introduce new taxes on water (as if water is not already taxed through water rates), visitors to New Zealand, and to set up a tax working group (presumably to figure out how they can get more money out of us).

The Taxpayers Union rates New Zealand First the worst party for election bribes at a cost of more than $13,000 per household, ahead of Labour on more than $11,000, but National is making a late run by more than doubling its bribes in the last week alone. The National Party's lolly scramble is particularly hypocritical after they recast the Labour Party's new election slogan "Let's Do This" as "Let's Tax This."

The only vaguely libertarian party in this election is ACT, but with only one MP and polling under 1%, it is not going to have much influence even in a centre-right government. The best we can hope for is for its sole MP, David Seymour, to continue the sterling work he has been doing pushing for his End of Life Choice Bill allowing voluntary euthanasia.

The least bad option, much as it galls me to say it, is another National-led government tempered by a coalition partner that will constrain its big state ambitions. New Zealand First may be the best choice because it is opposed to the further expansion of Maori tribal privilege, which I think presents a greater long term threat to freedom in this country than that party's profligacy.

It's Hobson's choice.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

I don't have a dog in this fight


Politics in 2017 has degenerated into a Fascism vs Marxism fight
Last week I read a tweet by Mark Steyn about the toppling of Confederate statues and he said that he didn't have a dog in that fight - it was today's Democrats arguing about statues of yesterday's Democrats. The comment is true, of course - it may surprise the historically challenged to learn that the slavery-supporting political party of the Confederacy was the Democratic Party, and if you think that the old Democratic Party is so far removed in time from the progressive Democratic Party of today, then consider that the Democrats had a segregationist presidential candidate (Governor George Wallace) as recently as 1976, and as Steyn pointed out, the last-but-one Democratic president, Bill Clinton, spoke at the funeral of a former Ku Klux Klan 'Exalted Cylcops' (Senator Robert C Byrd).

Steyn's comment about not having a dog in the fight is true for me as well but in a much broader sense than he meant it. I don't have a dog in the fight between the political right and left. Both sides believe that violence is justified in human relations where it serves their particular view of the collective good. They differ on their meaning of collective good - the right usually defining it as the interests of a nation or race, and the left as that of a class or other identity group - but both are prepared to resort to violence in pursuit of their interests. This isn't something that is confined to the extreme ends of the spectrum but is characteristic of mainstream politicians on both sides - like the Missouri state senator who called for Trump's assassination.

I believe that violence has no place in the interactions between human beings and that force may only be used to defend against the initiation of violence by others. This central tenet of my political philosophy means I fit into neither the right or the left of the spectrum. Some have described my views as extreme because my application of the non-aggression principle means the state should not force people to pay tax or to go to war, but I find it is somewhat oxymoronic to be considered an extremist for my non-violent philosophy and I take some comfort from the fact that many considered Mahatma Gandhi's and William Wilberforce's views extreme at the time.

I posed a question on Twitter last week about how in hell has politics degenerated into a Fascism vs Marxism fight in 2017, but the question was rhetorical. In any real dog fight, it is always the most aggressive dog that wins. We have watched the left and right resort to violent protests in recent months and it was inevitable that this would escalate to the point where we are now beginning to see deaths - and the violence isn't all coming from one side. Once the debate turns violent, you can't be surprised that those who are willing to use violence prevail.

Marxism and Fascism are equally repugnant, misanthropic and inherently violent philosophies, and any reasonable person should stand up against those who advocate for either of them. If we allow them to set the rules and the language of our political debate then the discussion will be over and violence will prevail.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Death of Free Speech

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties ~ John Milton
Free speech is the foundation of all other freedoms. There can be no defence of any other rights without the right to express yourself according to your conscience. Anyone who does not understand this does not understand the nature of rights, because true rights are intrinsic to our nature as human beings and can only be defended through the free expression and actions of individuals. Only those who believe that rights are privileges granted by authoritarian leaders could believe that free speech isn't a prerequisite for their preservation.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said that the protection of free speech contained in the First Amendment to the US Constitution was not 'for those who agree with us but...for [those] we hate.' This is self-evident - the right to say something that everyone agrees with doesn't need protecting, it is only the things other people find offensive that do. In other words, the right to free speech is the right to express hate speech.

It astounds me that so many people today appear willing to give up the right to free speech.  A free speech rally in Boston on Saturday drew a small handful of supporters and 15,000 counter-protestors, which led to the police to close down the rally. Leaving aside the newspaper reports that the pro-free-speech people were 'right-wing' (as if that is offensive in itself), I think it is amazing that 15,000 people in the land of the First Amendment would assemble to counter-protest against free speech. 

The irony is that if the counter-protestors achieved their aim, they wouldn't have the right to express their views. This exposes the peril of going down a path of abrogating free speech - if we lose that right, there is no easy way back. How do you advocate for something you don't have the right to advocate for? 

If you can't express your views, the only option left to make your point is violence, but I suspect the counter-protestors know that and it is precisely what they want to bring about.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Toppling Statues

I am in two minds over the issue of the removal of Confederate statues. The Confederacy was founded on the preservation of the evil that was slavery and that is reason enough not to honour it in any way, but on the other hand the destruction of historical statues smacks more than a little of the historical revisionism of 1984.

The toppled statue of a Confederate soldier in North Carolina

The problem is, where do we draw the line? It is a slippery slope and we are already hearing calls to remove statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they were slave owners. Some people are even saying statues of Martin Luther King should be removed because he opposed gay rights. And as someone more reasonably pointed out, where are the protests against the statue of the murderous Lenin in a Seattle park?

I think we should distinguish between the political leaders of the evil systems of the past and those who served their nation in good conscience. I do not have a problem with the statue of Erwin Rommel in Heidenheim in Germany because I think he was the closest thing to an honourable military man in the Nazi regime (and he did try to rid his country of Hitler), and for similar reasons I think statues of General Robert E Lee should remain standing. However, just as I would find a statue of any Nazi political leader offensive (fortunately none exist to the best of my knowledge), I think statues of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his close political cohorts should come down.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Age of Instant Infamy

I am sure that everyone reading this knows of the incident of a London woman being pushed by a jogger into the path of an oncoming bus on Putney Bridge. When I first read this story in the mainstream media, it made a little alarm bell go off in my mind. I thought this was just the sort of incident that the news media would blow up well beyond its local significance and something that was likely to provoke a disproportionate reaction from the hypersensitive British police. Sure enough, I was right on both of these counts.

The media immediately labelled it 'jogger rage', likening it to the conflicts between drivers that often escalate into violence, despite having no evidence that it was the result of a conflict between the individuals concerned. When I viewed the video of the incident (and it was no surprise to learn that there was video of it in a country that has more surveillance cameras than any other in the world), I thought the encounter appeared to be an unfortunate accident.

The Metropolitan Police mounted a hunt for the alleged offender and encouraged the public to come forward with information. They soon had their man - or so they thought. He couldn't have made a better villain if the story had been script-written - a wealthy American investment banker whom everyone could imagine was the sort of selfish and callous individual who would commit such a heinous act. The only problem was that they were wrong - the man they had arrested wasn't even in the country at the time of the incident.

Imagine if you had been that man. Your name is published all around the world and for 48 hours you become one of the most despised people on Earth. He was lucky he had a rock solid alibi because it was definitely a case of guilty until proven innocent. The incident reminds me of the case of the American executive who tweeted a nonsensical, supposedly racist remark about getting AIDS on a forthcoming trip to Africa. She found upon her arrival in South Africa that while in the air she had become a social media pariah and that her employer had bowed to pressure and fired her. You could at least argue in that case the woman had done something wrong, although there is no way it justified the international witch hunt that ensued.

The mainstream media are often to blame for fanning these bushfires of public opinion. They do not control what people say on social media but they often take a holier-than-thou moralist viewpoint that gives legitimacy to the excesses of social media commentary, rather than urging caution. Social media has turned the world into a village, a virtual equivalent of the Salem of The Crucible, and the mainstream media have assumed the role of the village elders who are only too willing to find some witches to burn at the stake of popular opinion. 

We live in an age of instant infamy, when accusation is assumed to be guilt, and we should all shudder to think that we could be next in line.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Left's defence of Turei is remarkably shortsighted

A few weeks ago I wrote about the admission by Metiria Turei, the co-leader of the New Zealand Green Party, that she committed welfare fraud when she was younger. I had intended to leave the matter alone but have found myself drawn back to it, much as one is drawn to the sight of a rotting corpse - it is deeply unpleasant but fascinating nevertheless. More interesting than Turei's admission has been the reaction to it. An opinion poll shows nearly three-quarters of New Zealanders believe that her fraud is unacceptable but, as I said on Lindsay Mitchell's blog, it is discouraging that half of Green Party supporters, and even a significant proportion of National Party voters, think Turei did nothing wrong.

Turei defended her actions by saying it was a choice between feeding her child and complying with the law. A number of commentators have pointed out that her claim doesn't hold water, that she was living with the partner of her child and with her mother at the time she claimed a sole parent benefit. She has said she will not seek a cabinet position if the Greens are part of the government after next month's election but has refused to resign either as co-leader or as an MP. Her attitude compares with the resignation from Parliament of ACT Party MP, David Garrett, for passport fraud, which at least had the mitigation of not benefiting him financially.

This week two Green MPs, Kennedy Graham and David Clendon, resigned in protest against Turei's refusal to step down. It is reassuring to know that there are still some people with integrity in a party in which half of its supporters support benefit fraud. 

The worst thing about Turei's admission is the fact that the political left-wing have rallied behind her rather than condemning her actions. Her Green Party co-leader, James Shaw, has defended her and the new leader of the larger centre-left Labour Party has said she will work in coalition with a Turei-led Green Party. Left-wing bloggers have also defended her

I think the left's defence of Turei shows a remarkable lack of judgement. Do they not realise that the whole taxation-welfare state they so defend is completely dependent on the pretence that it is legally and morally right? The redistributionist system relies on the acquiescence of taxpayers because if enough people decided they did not want to pay their taxes, there is no way the state could enforce it notwithstanding the draconian sanctions available to the tax authorities. Does the left really want us to believe that defrauding the system is acceptable? It is, of course, a double-edged sword and those who are on the receiving end of the redistribution have everything to lose. 

A libertarian like me might look at all this as a good thing - anything that hastens the collapse of the system is to be encouraged. Unfortunately, the end of that road is what we see in Venezuela today and no one who loves freedom and individual self-determination wants to see that in their country.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Manners, courtesy and gender pronouns

English jurist Lord Moulton once said that manners were the mid-point between law and anarchy. He was calling for restraint in what should be the domain of the law and pointing out that not all undesirable human behaviour needs to be legislated against. It is surely an important characteristic of civilised society that up to a certain level human interaction should be self-regulated. We need laws against murder and assault because anyone who would commit such acts would not be restrained by anything as prosaic as manners, but we shouldn't need laws to prescribe how we greet one another.

I have written before about the decline of manners and common courtesy and I believe it is no coincidence that at a time when governments are seeing fit to regulate every manner of human interaction, manners are falling into disuse. The latest area of government intrusion into what should be the preserve of manners is the use of gender pronouns in relation to transgender people. Canada has recently passed a law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression and it has been predicted that it will have the effect of criminalising the use of pronouns other than what the subject wants. Canada seems to be in the vanguard of this because even before the new law was enacted, University of Toronto psychologist Professor Jordan Peterson got into hot water about his refusal to use new gender-neutral pronouns such as 'ze' and 'zir' in compliance with his university's policies. Peterson said he does not object to using whatever traditional pronoun an individual prefers but he objects to the heavy-handed imposition of new language, seeing it as yet another way for post-modern neo-Marxists to enforce control over every area of human interaction.

The way we address each other is a personal matter and very much within the realm of manners. There are traditional rules about the degree of formality that is appropriate in different situations and these are particularly strong in languages other than English that have grammatical rules about when to use the formal/plural third person form of address and the informal/singular. New Zealanders are renown for their informality and personally I find the forms of address that many of my countrymen use (such as calling a stranger 'mate') to be inappropriate and sometimes mildly offensive, but if I am not addressed in the way I prefer, I just politely correct the person. This is the way it should be - a matter of courtesy between the individuals concerned.

The problem with legislating everything is that it kills voluntary action. You cannot legislate to make people think in a particular way and using the cudgels of the law to force behaviour that should be the realm of manners is counterproductive because it destroys trust and mutual respect. If people cannot be left to negotiate even the form of address they use with other people - in other words, if there is no voluntary space left between the law and anarchy - then don't be surprised if more people choose anarchy.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The limits of democracy

New Zealand faces a general election next month and it has got me thinking about the nature of democracy and the collective wisdom (or lack of it) in the electorate. New Zealand has had nine years of a conservative National Party-led government, which has largely continued the policies of the previous nine-year Labour Party-led government, leaving libertarians like myself with Hobson's choice. This election campaign mirrors the recent UK election in many ways with the National Party sitting on a 20-point lead over Labour but with some signs of that lead being eroded and smaller parties like the left-wing Greens and the nationalist New Zealand First likely to determine who governs.

One of the more hypocritical arguments of the political right-of-centre in recent times has been their impassioned defence of democracy. We saw this with Brexit and Trump - their supporters crowed about the people having spoken, as if a plurality of support (and in Trump's case it wasn't even a plurality) justifies any decision in and of itself. Of course, we have seen a corresponding volte-face on the part of the left-wing, which for years has justified increasing intrusion of the state into every area of our lives on the basis of their democratic mandate, and they are suddenly not so enamoured with a system that produced Brexit and a Trump presidency.

If you want an example of voters making consistently bad decisions you only need look at Venezuela. A relatively free and prosperous country two decades ago, Venezuela is now an economic basket case and its voters have just provided a mandate for President Maduro's decisions to strip the country's parliament of its powers and replace it with a new assembly that is stacked with his supporters. Maduro has said that he has a "prison cell waiting" for his political opponents. Admittedly, you could hardly call recent Venezuelan elections free and fair, with estimates of 70% of the populace opposed to Maduro and his Chavismo Socialists, but Maduro maintains that everything he and predecessor Hugo Chavez have done has been with a democratic mandate.

Democracy can be, to paraphase Winston Churchill, the worst of all systems. It shouldn't be an end in itself but rather it should deliver good government that limits its powers to the functions of defending individual rights. Unfettered democracy is often in conflict with these aims because it enables the majority to sacrifice individual rights in the name of collective good. The only way of preventing this is to limit what governments can do even with a popular mandate, through an entrenched constitution. 

The problem is how do you get an entrenched constitution that protects individual rights in a democratic system? We have seen the risks in New Zealand with the former prime minister, Geoffrey Palmer, proposing a constitution that proposes new rights such as to 'an adequate standard of living' that are the antithesis of real rights. A better example is the Constitution for New Freeland proposed by Lindsay Perigo but even its authors would concede that it has no chance of being adopted by democratic mandate. 

Perhaps the only way to get a genuinely rights-respecting constitution is following a revolution when the vacuum of power allows a fresh approach, such as was the case with the American Revolution. On the other hand, the French demonstrated that even the most noble revolutions do not guarantee good outcomes and the American Constitution has proved to be less of a bulwark against government abuses of power than the founders envisaged.

Maybe Churchill was right with the rest of his saying, that democracy is the worst of all possible systems except all the others and that the best we can expect is that the voters will be sensible with the responsibility they have. I hope that is the case in New Zealand next month.

UPDATE: A few hours is a long time in politics - the Labour Party leader, Andrew Little, has resigned following recent poor poll results. Jacinda Ardern is the new leader.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Then they came for Richard Dawkins

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
- Martin Niemöller
Universities are not what they used to be. Once they were places where students and faculty enjoyed greater freedom to express and debate their views than in mainstream society. They were sanctuaries where young people could explore the full smorgasbord of opinions and beliefs about politics, religion, morality and social mores without the constraints of traditional norms. Unfortunately this is no longer the case - they have become a different type of sanctuary, a gilded cage where people are protected from exposure to anything other than a narrow set of acceptable views. This is particularly true of the United States where recently we have seen:
  • Somali-born feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali banned from giving a speech at Brandeis University because her views on Islam's oppression of women were deemed offensive to Muslims
  • British pro-Trump gay activist Milo Yiannopolous forced to cancel his address at UC Berkeley because of violence protests
  • American conservative commentator Anne Coulter disinvited from speaking at UC Berkeley (although later rescinded).
There have been many other incidents that demonstrate that our most fundamental right  - to hold and voice our own opinions, which is surely a prerequisite for all other rights - is now considered less important than the precept that no one should ever be offended by anything.

The latest incident is the cancellation of the appearance at an event hosted by a radio staton in Berkeley of the renown biologist and perhaps the world's greatest science writer, Richard Dawkins, because of his views on Islamist terrorism.

Several years ago I heard Dawkins speak in person and I left the presentation with two main impressions. Firstly, he does not speak as fluently as he writes. This is not unexpected as it is rare that great writers are as eloquent in their spoken words as in those they write, but what Dawkins had to say was riveting in spite of his somewhat awkward delivery style. More importantly, I thought he delivered the most complete and easily understood explanation of the biological basis for evolution by natural selection that I have ever heard or read. 

He described how the cells of all living things are made up of chains of protein molecules that are capable of curling up into an almost infinite variety of shapes, and that these shapes are determined by a digital code that is held in special molecular chains called DNA. He went on to describe what is perhaps the most important discovery in biology - but one that has never occurred to me despite my keen interest in science - that when living things reproduce by replicating from a single fertilised egg cell, they follow the whole of evolution from single-celled organisms to complex higher lifeforms. They are able to do this because all of evolution is stored in the digital code in their DNA and is simply replayed during gestation. In other words, each of us is the output of a computer programme that has stored the knowledge of three billion years of evolution, run over just nine months! This is the reason why the zygotes and early embryos of all animals look so alike - they show the point in evolution when all animals did look alike. 

Dawkins made me see that evolution is not some dry historical fact but is something that plays out in the birth of every baby. I found this fact jaw-dropping and ironically it is perhaps the closest thing I have experienced in my life to a religious revelation. It made me think that every human being needs to hear the story that this man tells so well, and that to ban him from imparting his knowledge to others is to commit a crime against human knowledge.

The political correctness stormtroopers have now come for Richard Dawkins and that makes me ineffably sad because it is precisely their ignorance and intolerance that Dawkins has spent his life trying to overcome. The radio station said it was specifically his criticism of Islam that led them to ban him. Dawkins has been a frequent critic of Christianity and his criticism of Islam is for the most part confined to Islamic extremism, but in the strange world of victim group politics it seems Christianity is fair game but Islam is a no-go area where free speech does not apply.

The size of the space that contains acceptable opinions is becoming smaller and smaller. You may think your views are safe because you are an open-minded, tolerant liberal who celebrates diversity and just wants to live and let live. You are wrong. They are coming for you because it is not so much your views that are under assault as the right to have any opinion of your own.

We all need to speak out in defence of free speech before there is no one left to defend it.