Thursday, November 19, 2015

Paris attacks were actually a skirmish in a war of values

The dust has settled around last Friday's Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris and with the perspective of an elapsed week it is interesting to reflect on the responses to the attacks. French President Francois Hollande has conducted himself surprisingly well, I think, with his almost Churchillian comments ("the terrorists [that] are capable of doing such acts...must know that they will face a France very determined - a France united") and his ordering of immediate military retaliation against Islamic State targets in Syria.

However, there were also plenty of the sort of self-indulgence responses we have come to expect after these tragedies (remember Michelle Obama's "#BringBackOurGirls" hashtag following the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls by Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram), with the guy who dragged a piano to the street outside the Bataclan theatre to play John Lennon's Imagine perhaps being the lamest. There were the usual futile gestures on social media, particularly the Eiffel Tower-cum-Ban-the Bomb symbol and French flag photo on every second Facebook posting. But I think President Obama's response takes the prize for the most disingenuous. He described the events thus: "an attack not just on Paris, it's an attack not just on the people of France, but this is an attack on all of humanity and the universal values we share."

What universal values? Does he really expect us to believe that all of humanity shares a respect for Western values of individual rights, freedom of speech and religion, the rule of law, etc.?  Of course it doesn't. These values are actually fairly unique to that small section of humanity that grew out of Ancient Greece, survived the fall of the Roman Empire and persisted in small pockets during the Dark Ages to finally flourish in the Enlightenment that took hold in Western Europe. But perhaps Obama didn't mean these Enlightenment values, perhaps instead he meant Islamic values such as submission to their god and the killing of those who reject or blaspheme him. Certainly with the way Islam is growing there's a fair chance that those values will be more universal than the values of the Enlightenment.

In the war of values, the West has declared unilateral disarmament. We don't believe in our values anymore and instead believe in nothing, or more precisely, in everything. This is the religion of cultural relativism - that all cultures and beliefs are equal. The only universal value that the West seems to hold dear these days is that no one should have to be offended by anything. Our values have become as unsubstantial and pliable as a squishy tomato.

The problem with this is that fundamentalist adherents to Islam are not relativistic - they believe that Islam is the last religion and that its teachings in the Koran and the Hadith are perfect and absolute. Their values are like a sharp knife to our squishy tomato, so in a contest for the hearts and minds of some of the disaffected youth of Western cities, it is any wonder that the Islamists increasingly win?

The fight against Islamic terrorism is a fight about values and we can't fight it if we have disarmed ourselves. Our values - our original Enlightment values as expressed by John Locke and Thomas Paine - are the right ones, the moral ones, and if we aren't prepared to re-adopt and defend them then we will never win the battle of ideas against the evil of religious fundamentalism. We must decide what we believe in before we can defend it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

New Zealanders on Christmas Island are not refugees

We have heard quite a lot over the last few days about the New Zealanders in Australia's refugee detention centre at Christmas Island. The media have tried to cast these people in the same light as the refugees that make up the largest proportion of detainees but this is clearly fallacious. So let us understand some facts about these people.

Firstly, they are few in number - just 40 in the Christmas Island detention centre and around 500 in total facing deportation from Australia out of a estimated total of around 600,000 New Zealand citizens living there. 

Secondly, almost all of them face deportation because they have committed serious crimes and because they are being deported upon release from prison. Many of them are appealing their deportation order. This is why they are in detention centres.

Thirdly, Australia, like most countries, does not deport its own citizens. We have heard sob stories of people who have been in Australia many decades being deported back to New Zealand, but these people must have been unwilling or unable to obtain citizenship or there would be no question about them being deported. New Zealanders can apply for permanent residency and then citizenship after just twelve months in that country. There are eighteen different categories under which New Zealanders can apply and it is actually encouraged by the Australian Government because they want New Zealand immigrants to be fully functioning members of Australian society.

Finally, New Zealand citizens do not qualify as refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines a refugee as someone who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." That definition does not apply to these New Zealanders.

I have written on this blog about my liberal views on immigration (most recently here and here). I think it is very much in any country's interests to accept all manner of people who want to live productive, independent lives in a new home and I have the utmost sympathy for those fleeing persecution in their original countries. But I accept that it also a country's right to deny entry or to deport those who are determined not to live productive, independent lives. The only issue I have with Australia deporting these undesirable New Zealanders is that we have to accept them back here. 

Perhaps we should put them on the Auckland Islands.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Who paid for the Starship Enterprise?

My last post discussed how the left wing has won the culture war and that this is not surprising when 'every university lecturer, musician, film star, writer and other public figure is parroting the socialist-environmentalist mantra'. This theme was, at least tangentially, the subject of Jonah Goldberg's recent post about the new Star Trek television series to be made by CBS and that got me thinking about the true nature of the society portrayed on Star Trek.

Star Trek's United Federation of Planets is actually a militaristic feudal order. The Federation is governed by an elite supported by an all-powerful military establishment. Their society seems to be based, at best, on chivalry (after all, what is the Enterprise's crew other than a group of futuristic knights?) but, at worst, on militaristic expansion and colonisation of independent planets. They regard any form of commerce as a much lower order of human activity than military service, just like any Earth-bound feudal society. Money appears to have been abolished, at least in polite society, and witness the contempt held for the Ferengi, who are a trading race much more interested in making a profit than in conquering the universe. Of course, the United Federation of Planets is a somewhat milder form of collectivist society than the Borg, whose culture seems to most closely resemble Maoist Communism.

The question I ponder is, who paid for the Starship Enterprise? Consider the enormous economic resources that has to go into its construction - the engineers and scientists than need to be employed to design it, the rare minerals (e.g. dilithium crystals) that need to be mined to build it and to power its engines, and the undoubtedly huge operating costs of its endless missions. All of these need to be paid for somehow. I've always had this uneasy thought that somewhere, hidden away on dozens of colonised planets, there are millions of slaves working to support the Enterprise. Alternatively, a lot of people must be paying a lot of tax to fund it all. In short, the Enterprise must rely on real enterprise, but enterprise doesn't appear to exist in Star Trek society other than as some contemptible activity engaged in by the Ferengi.

I love to study history and one of the characteristics of history that encourages me as a libertarian is that human society tends towards greater freedom. It is not a straight progression and from time to time we regress into barbarism like the Nazi and Communist eras in the 20th Century, but these reversions tend to be increasingly the exceptions rather than rule. So when I imagine the 23rd Century I think it will be incredibly libertarian.

Individual freedom will be large, government will be small. Capitalism will be universal and each individual will be as powerful a player in the market as the biggest corporation is today. True poverty will be a thing of the past because everyone will be able to trade their ideas, skills and products freely with anyone else anywhere on (or beyond) Earth, and body and brain augmentation technologies will mean that everyone will have skills that are valuable in the marketplace. Cronyism, corruption and fraud will be largely absent from human interactions as such behaviour will be instantaneously exposed by the power of communications technology and social media. Money will be virtual and multiplicitous - meaning that there will be dozens, perhaps thousands of competing currencies and the devices we use to do business will instantly exchange between them, selecting the safest and best for our particular needs.

In short, the future will be Utopian, but not in the sense imagined by most who have written about such futures - it will be as far removed from Brave New World as you could imagine, but rather more like the hidden valley in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

There may be a United Federation of Planets, but its real heroes will be the Ferengi. After all, it is undoubtedly the Ferengi who will pay for the Starship Enterprise.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Why the West is looking to more radical candidates

We are seeing an interesting political trend across the globe at the moment and that is the rise of more radical political candidates. It started with the surge of UKIP in Great Britain and the libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul in the United States, and more recently has seen the election of the Marxist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the UK Labour Party and Socialist Bernie Sanders' candidacy for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. You could say Donald Trump is part of the trend, but Trump is less radical than any of the others (although he does represent an anti-establishment sentiment in the Republican Party). While we have yet to see the support for these more radical candidates translate into real political office, it is entirely possible one of them may end up leading their country in the next few years.

So what is happening here? Is it a hardening of "divisive politics" as Barack Obama would have us believe? Well, I guess you could call it that. What I think it is more precisely is a retreat from centrist politics.

If we look at major political shifts in the Western world since the Second World War, it is fair to say that there has been some significant swings. There was definitely a swing to the left up until the late 1970s. Britain, most of Europe, and even the United States saw a huge expansion of the role of the state, the rapid growth of welfare, and a corresponding increase in income taxes until they were at exorbitant levels (e.g. marginal rates of more than 90% in Britain). Then came Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and, here in New Zealand, the Lange-Douglas Labour Government. These leaders hauled back the expansion of the state and reduced taxes. Since 1990 most Western countries have been retreating from the more libertarian policies of Thatcher, Reagan, et al, and we have seen the rise of the 'third way' (as Tony Blair dubbed it), supposedly a middle ground between rampant socialism and hard-edged capitalism.

In reality, the so-called third way was really no way, at least in a philosophical sense. It represented the lack of a political philosophy, an anything-goes (or more precisely anything-that-can-win-an-election) approach to policy making. John Key's government here in New Zealand is the epitome of it and David Cameron in Britain is another archetype. They see themselves as pragmatists and believe everything should be a compromise.

The truth is that most people have a basic political belief system. It might not be very well-defined but they can tell you whether they think the state is too big or whether it should care more for the poor, whether we should raise or lower taxes, whether abortion and gay marriage should be legal, etc. They often hold strong views on these issues and don't like to compromise those views. The politics of compromise actually satisfies no one.

One of the problems for those of us on the classical liberal side of the political spectrum is, as Mark Steyn is fond of saying, we've lost the culture war. When almost every university lecturer, musician, film star, writer and other public figure is parroting the socialist-environmentalist mantra, there is only one side of the debate that is expected to compromise. You see this when President Obama talks about divisive politics - he's not talking about Democrats failing to compromise, is he?

The other problem that we've got is what James Delingpole so poetically calls the 'dog-shit-yoghurt problem'. If I like yoghurt and you like eating dog shit, the pragmatist says we should both eat dog-shit-yoghurt. I'm sure you can see the problem with this compromise, particularly for the yoghurt lover. Libertarians essentially want the government to leave us alone to get on with our lives. We don't need to force our beliefs on anyone else - we just need effective constraints on others forcing us to do things. Socialists want the government to interfere with everyone's lives, not just their own, because socialism doesn't work if it's only for those who want it. So they are always more willing to use force.

I think the polarisation of politics is not a bad thing for libertarians because it forces people to examine the arguments and decide what they really believe. When people have had no choice but to eat dog-shit-yoghurt for years, it is not a bad thing for the yoghurt seller when they are forced to choose between the two dishes.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

ACLU report on Chinese 'credit score' is frightening

Every now and then a news item appears that at first glance looks to be not very consequential but on examination turns out to be something that signals a real tipping point in the political and social environment. Such an article appeared on the ACLU website earlier this month and was subsequently picked up by a few libertarian news sites (but, interestingly, not to any great extent by the mainstream media).

The article states that China is introducing a "comprehensive credit score" system whereby everyone in that country is given a score by the government that is linked to their national identity card. The ACLU article states that,
In addition to measuring your ability to pay, as in the United States, the scores serve as a measure of political compliance. Among the things that will hurt a citizen’s score are posting political opinions without prior permission, or posting information that the regime does not like...
It will hurt your score not only if you do these things, but if any of your friends do them. Imagine the social pressure against disobedience or dissent that this will create.
Anybody can check anyone else’s score online. Among other things, this lets people find out which of their friends may be hurting their scores.
Also used to calculate scores is information about hobbies, lifestyle, and shopping. Buying certain goods will improve your score, while others (such as video games) will lower it...
Sadly, many Chinese appear to be embracing the score as a measure of social worth, with almost 100,000 people bragging about their scores on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
I should point out that some commentators have questioned the accuracy of the report, but it is consistent with the Chinese Communist regime's already rigid control of the internet and social media.

Paul Rahe on the Ricochet blog says, "Totalitarianism is a function of technology. Prior to recent times, governments might claim to be absolute, but they did not have the record-keeping, administrative capacity to make good on that claim. Now they can do so far more easily than ever before — without hiring armies of spies. All that they have to do is follow the population on the Internet and use computers to collect and analyze the data."

I have blogged against the encroachment of government electronic spying on all of our private communications such as the Telecommunications Interception Capability and Security Act brought into law by the New Zealand Government last year. Governments always defend such laws by saying they will only be used against threats to national security. But all around the world governments are also introducing laws against so-called 'hate speech', the definition of which is usually speech that offends someone, with the interpretation of what that means left to officials to decide. Where these two types of law intersect - the means to monitor all social interactions and the criminalisation of unacceptable speech  - you have the ingredients of totalitarianism.

The Chinese credit score, if true, takes the freedom of social media and turns it into what undoubtedly will be a very effective and pervasive social and political control tool. In East Germany one in three of the population were informers for the Stasi secret police. Under this system, China will turn almost everyone into an informer for the state.

We in the West should fear China. At a time when the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, is being fêted in Britain, the Chinese are rapidly expanding their occupation of isolated, disputed islands in the South China Sea and continue to viciously suppress any political opposition at home. But we should fear them most of all because they lend legitimacy to Communist dictatorship and because their clout on the world stage turns our governments into appeasers of their authoritarian rule. 

Totalitarianism is infectious and we all risk catching the disease. That is why their credit score is so frightening.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Irwin Schiff demonstrated the true nature of taxation

Irwin Schiff died last Friday. He was 87 years old, legally blind and had skin and lung cancer. He ended his days shackled to a hospital bed guarded by federal prison officers, having been incarcerated since 2003. His family had appealed in the last few months for his release on compassionate grounds, so he could die with them around him, but the Federal Government denied their request.

What was Irwin Schiff's crime that was so heinous the US Government still considered this terminally-ill, completely incapacitated old man too much of a threat to release? Was he a terrorist or a serial killer? No, he was nothing of the sort - his crime was that he had refused to file an income tax return. The accounts I have read previously about Schiff suggested that he probably did not even owe any income tax (although his convictions included tax evasion for an arbitrarily assessed amount of income).  His refusal to file the return was based on his sincere belief that the Federal Income Tax was unconstitutional (he believed the constitution only for allowed corporate and sales taxes) and that the demand to file a tax return was a violation of the Fifth Amendment prohibition on self-incrimination.

Schiff was almost certainly mistaken in his interpretation of the legality of the income tax (even his lawyers argued in court that he was conscientiously mistaken) and, much as I support his cause, even I think he was foolish as his treatment at the hands of the US Government was entirely predictable. But Schiff made a stand on principle and you have to admire him for that. More importantly, he demonstrated a very important point - that the moral basis for taxation is entirely questionable.

Taxation is the forcible expropriation of people's income and wealth - and the key word is 'forcible'. Politicians of all political persuasions like to refer to taxation euphemistically, as President Obama does when he says we should "ask for the wealthy to pay a little bit more" or "give something back", but there is no asking or giving involved. Taxation is not voluntary - it is extorted from the population with threats of violence, and they are not idle threats, as we see in Irwin Schiff's case and the many jail sentences handed out to New Zealanders for tax evasion in recent years.

I don't expect the vast majority of people who accept the need for an income tax system will change their views on the basis of Irwin Schiff's experience, but I think they should understand and accept that what was done to Schiff was entirely consistent with their view on the morality of income tax. An elderly, incapacitated man chained to a hospital bed is the obvious end state for anyone who choses to defy the rapacious tax-gathering state and people should be honest enough to admit it.

If you would like to know more about Irwin Schiff, read the fitting tribute written by his son, Peter Schiff, on Zero Hedge or Not PC's blog.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

It's time to buy a new Volkswagen

A couple of years ago I bought a Skoda Superb Wagon to replace my wife's older SUV. There was a time when I never thought I would buy a Skoda but these days they are made by Volkswagen Audi Group (VAG) and are terrific cars. The Skoda Superb is basically an Audi A6 with slightly different body panels and a price that is half the Audi's. It has a two litre diesel engine that produces 125Kw of power and 350Nm of torque, which in a car that weighs just 1500Kg means it goes like a scalded cat. And it is incredibly economical, getting around 800km range from a single tank of gas!

You might imagine that I got a little a little upset the other day to hear that Volkswagen has been 'cheating' its emissions tests on its diesel engines. After all, the Skoda has one of those Volkswagen diesel engines under its hood. But I'm not. In fact, I might take the opportunity of VAG's likely sales slump to press the dealer for a really good deal on a new Volkswagen or Audi.

You see, I don't think that Volkswagen has cheated me at all. I've got a damned good car that is beautifully made, economical to run, and fantastic to drive. And frankly, I don't give a shit about the U.S. Government's emissions standards. After all, this is the government that has lied to world repeatedly about everything from the motives behind the murder of its diplomatic staff in Libya to the extent of the recent hacking of government personnel files and whose leader continues to dupe his people about the impact of his climate change policies. I would rather trust Volkswagen to keep my family and the environment safe than the U.S. Government.

Environmental law has become a trojan horse for government interference in every aspect of our business and personal lives. Emissions regulations and taxes have pushed up the price of energy to levels where many people cannot afford to heat their houses or run their cars, impoverishing the elderly and bringing third-world illnesses to the first-world poor. The demands on companies like Volkswagen to comply with draconian, inconsistent and frankly unscientific environmental regulations impose huge costs on us all. Obviously, someone in the Volkswagen organisation, an engineer with a libertarian streak perhaps, became so fed up with trying to achieve the impossible - a smooth, powerful, fuel efficient car that also complied with all the emissions regulations - that they decided to rig the engine computers to fake the tests.

If nothing else, you've got to admire the chutzpah of it. Certainly, it is no reason not to buy a Volkswagen.