Tuesday, November 13, 2018

India, Singapore and New Zealand

I have just returned from a few weeks in India. It was my first visit to the subcontinent and it was an amazing experience. India is, to use a hackneyed phrase, a country of contrasts. I saw some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen anywhere (the Thar desert in particular), delved into the histories of what were some of the most advanced civilisations in the world, and met some amazing people from all levels of Indian society. But India is also, to borrow a descriptive term from Mr Trump, a shithole - somewhat literally (in view of the amount of animal and human excrement everywhere) as well as figuratively. Fortunately for Indians, their circumstances are rapidly improving as they have ditched the statism and socialist economics of the post-Independence period to adopt, in recent decades, free markets and deregulation. They have a long way to go but as with every experiment of its type, they are realising the fruits of capitalism. Extreme poverty has reduced from nearly 60% of the population in the 1970s to around 20% today, despite the population roughly doubling over that period. In fact, so successful has been India's economic revolution been that some of its biggest problems today are those associated with advanced economies - traffic congestion, air pollution and the rising cost of housing.

Singapore is a place that I have visited numerous times since the 1980s and over that time I have seen it progress from an ambitious but relatively poor city state to the one of the most prosperous countries in the world. When I first went there, Singapore's GDP per capita was 40% below New Zealand's, its dollar was worth about one-fifth of ours, there were still slum areas outside the central city, and the water wasn't safe to drink. Now its GDP per capita is 25% higher than ours, its dollar is more valuable, the entire island is clean and green and modern, and Singaporeans pride themselves on having drinking water equivalent to Norway's. It is not exactly a paragon of democracy, with the ruling People's Action Party having been in power since self-government was granted by the British in 1959 and two of the three prime ministers since then being Lee Kwan Yew and his son Lee Hsien Loong. However, Singaporeans seem well-satisfied with their political leadership and choose not to concern themselves with politics but rather get on with managing their own (increasingly prosperous) lives.

New Zealanders, by contrast, seem obsessed with politics and expect the government to micro-manage every aspect of their lives and solve every problem that confronts them. We imagine ourselves to be rugged individualists with a can-do attitude, but the reality is that we are like infants in our expectations that Nanny State will take care of us. Indians and Singaporeans alike would regard this dependency as pathetic and unbecoming. The more I travel the world, the more I realise that New Zealanders are complacent and far too self-satisfied. Our economic trajectory is not good - we continue to fall behind comparative nations in income per capita and productivity, as the following graphs show.



The graphs show that the decline in our relative economic position is a long and intractable trend. Our GDP growth has averaged around 2.5% in recent decades, whereas India and China have averaged 7.5% and 9.5% respectively. There is no reason to expect these trends won't continue and the ultimate result is that China will have a higher GDP per capita than New Zealand by about 2040 and India well before the end of this century. Is this what New Zealanders really want?

I wouldn't want to live in India today and while Singapore has its appeal, New Zealand still beats it on lifestyle. But the lifestyle of a nation is in large part a factor of its relative wealth - in other words, shitholes are such because they are poor. What is our lifestyle going to be like when we are one of the poorest countries on Earth, rather than one of the wealthier ones? It is a sobering thought.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Off overseas

I'm off to India for the next month so I probably won't be posting much until I get back. I may find the time to provide some impressions of the subcontinent while I am there.


Thursday, October 4, 2018

We don't need your damned 'wellbeing'

New Zealand's socialist-nationalist-environmentalist government is planning on introducing a Wellbeing budget and a Living Standards Framework (LSF) to as the rationale for its policies. The idea is that GDP alone is not a sufficient measure of a country's performance and that rather than focusing on purely economic factors, governments should also measure a range of social, cultural and environmental factors. The more I have learned about this change, the more it worries me.

Our motley coalition government is not the only one to adopt this fancy. Many Western governments, particularly in Europe, are rushing to ascribe wellbeing benefits to their policies. It is hardly surprising that the international movement towards adopting wellbeing measures has occurred during the period of anaemic economic growth since the global financial crisis in 2007 - in an era of subjectivism and relativism, if you don't like the results, you simply change the measures.

The real concern about these measures is that they presuppose government interference in every area of our lives. They assume a left-wing view of the world, i.e. that the government intervention can fix all of society's ills, but you could also argue that they are based on an extreme right-wing, nationalistic view that the collective good of the nation state is of the utmost importance. The measures become a means to entrench these world-views. For example, it is proposed to include the proportion of Maori language speakers in the measures, which is likely to lead to the entrenchment of policies such as compulsory teaching of Maori in schools (which I wrote about in a previous post).

What you don't see in this framework is any reference to individual freedom - unless it is to the pseudo 'freedoms from' discrimination and victimisation. I believe that individual freedom is the sine qua non of personal wellbeing and that any policy framework that ignores this is suspect. Focusing on government-led outcomes rather than individual freedom itself is at best counterproductive and at worst mendacious.

The government often makes matters worse. For example, one of the measures of social wellbeing they are considering is loneliness. Presumably, people like the elderly living alone will be surveyed to see whether they are lonely and the government will develop policies to address excessive loneliness, such as having a social worker call on isolated people once a week. But like all government policies, this is likely to have unanticipated and counterproductive consequences, with friends and relatives feeling they do not have to visit the elderly quite so often because they know a social worker will be regularly calling.

There is an old saying that 'what gets measured gets done'. The corollary of this is that if you can set the measurements, what you want gets done. A government that wants to interfere in every area of our lives will adopt measurements that apply to every area of our lives. Personally, I don't want a government that concerns itself with whether I am lonely or not because I consider this to be none of the government's damned business.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Capital Gains Tax is double theft

New Zealand's Labour-NZ First-Green coalition government plans to introduce a capital gains tax under the guise of a review of the tax system carried out by its Tax Working Group (TWG). The TWG says it hasn't yet made a decision on the merits of a capital gains tax, but given that it is headed by former Labour finance minister, Michael Cullen, who never saw a tax he didn't like, it seems very likely they will recommend it. 

The idea of a capital gains tax appeals to socialists because it is a manifestation of the envy they feel towards anyone who is wealthier than them. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken, a socialist is someone with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be better off than they are. Socialists regard taxation as not just a means to an end (i.e. big government and redistribution of wealth), but an end in itself (i.e. punishing the rich).

A capital gains tax is a particularly insidious form of taxation because it is in effect a form of double theft. Capital gains are the increase in value of an asset and, like all goods, the value increases due to two factors - scarcity or money inflation. In the case of real estate, the obvious target for a capital gains tax, the increase in value is due to both of these factors. Where the insult to injury comes about is that the government drives both of these factors. It is driving scarcity of property because of its draconian planning restrictions and building regulations, and it is driving property inflation because it has been increasing the money supply and directing the extra money through the banks into mortgage lending.

If the value of anything increases due to inflation, there is no net gain to the economy. Inflation merely redistributes wealth (but perhaps not the sort of redistribution that appeals to socialists). So a capital gains tax on property is the government taxing you for an illusory gain that it caused. The same pernicious effect occurs when your wages increase due to inflation and you are pushed into a higher tax bracket so you have to pay more tax without seeing any additional purchasing power from your income.

All taxation is theft, but taxation on an illusory gain that is created by the government is double theft.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Implicit bias is another political perversion of science

The phenomenon of unconscious or implicit bias training has reached New Zealand. Companies that offer the training make the claim that "scientific research has demonstrated the existence and prevalence of unconscious bias – unconscious beliefs and attitudes that go beyond our conscious perceptions of ourselves and others" and that businesses "need to give people the platform and tools [i.e. their training] to begin to mitigate bias". Some of my clients have purchased this training for their staff so I decided to look into the science behind its claims.

The foundational research for implicit bias was a 1995 study [PDF] undertaken by American psychologists Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji. They established the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which purports to show, amongst other things, that white people regard black people as more of a threat than those of their own race. The research has received much criticism in recent years and its conclusions have been challenged in numerous other studies, most notably a 2016 meta-analysis of more than 500 studies over 20 years involving 80,000 people using the IAT, which concluded that:
    1. The correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behaviour is weaker than previously thought
    2. There is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behaviour.
    Interestingly, one of the authors of the meta-study was psychologist Brian Nosek, who worked on the original implicit bias research with Greenwald and Banaji and helped create the IAT. Nosek warns in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education of the "very weak overall" connection between implicit bias and discriminatory behaviour. The researchers concluded that "IAT provides little insight into who will discriminate against whom, and provides no more insight than explicit [i.e. self-admitted] measures of bias."

    The popular Canadian psychologist, Jordan Peterson, also warns that the original study did not control for the less pernicious psychological trait of novelty aversion. This is the tendency of all human beings to prefer that which is familiar. It explains why we prefer the foods, music, clothes and people that we know and that we grew up with, rather than those we don't know. It is also why most people tend to marry within their social, economic and ethnic groups. This trait is universal and applies equally to all races, and in order to control for it when testing for racial bias, researchers would need to use only subjects who were brought up and live amongst equal numbers of people of other races, which they certainly did not do in this case.

    It is clear that this is another area where science has been perverted for political and personal ends. Implicit bias is another pseudo-science act in the political left's playbook, while at the same time becoming a nice little earner for consultants who exploit well-intentioned or politically-fearful business owners and managers. It is notable that, in the Chronicle article linked above, both Greenwald and Banaji resort to the common behaviour of all politically-biased scientists, using both ad hominem attacks (e.g. Greenwald says of the lead author of the meta-study, Hart Blanton, that "He’s not a great scientist") and defamatory generalisations (e.g. Banaji likens IAT doubters to climate-change deniers) when their conclusions are challenged. That is a sure sign that their science has become too politicised and is on shaky ground.

    Tuesday, September 18, 2018

    Yes, the climate changes

    Nobody denies climate change. At least, I have never heard of anyone denying that the climate changes. The debate is about the extent to which the rise in average global temperatures is caused by human emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.

    The best estimate of the extent of global warming since 1750 is around 1ºC (e.g. see this recent paper published by the American Meterological Society). However, global temperatures changed continuously before this period as the following graph of the Northern Hemisphere proxy temperature for the past 2,000 years data shows.

    Paleoclimatic temperature data for the last 2,000 years
    Source: https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/global-warming/last-2000-years
    You can see that temperatures have increased markedly since around 1500 but a significant amount of that warming happened before 1900. If we look at mankind's CO2 emissions, they didn't start increasing significantly until the beginning of the 20th Century and didn't really take off until the 1950s.


    The CO2 emissions curve traces a similar arc to the temperature line in red in the first graph but the increase in global temperatures started well before the rapid increase in the levels of human CO2. In fact, about half of the rise in temperatures predates the rise in CO2 from fossil fuels. So, how much of the global warming is manmade?

    The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its 2013 fifth assessment report, states that it is “extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature” from 1951 to 2010 was caused by human activity. In other words, up to half of the increase was not due to human activity. This is the consensus of scientists - that mankind's carbon emissions are contributing to, but not wholly responsible for, an increase in global temperatures. It is also the consensus of most people on the so-called 'denier' side of the argument. 

    So what to do about it? And should we do anything at all? Well, it depends on how much of a problem it is going to be. Looking at the first graph again, you can see that we are getting back to about the temperatures that prevailed around 1000AD - the Medieval Warm Period. There is no evidence, notwithstanding all the alarmist news reports about storms and heatwaves, that we have suffered any ill effects from the warming to date at all. We have had no increase in severe storms or heatwaves since 1950. For example, despite all the claims about the extreme weather in the United States recently, the following graphs from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s Fourth National Climate Assessment show the frequency of cold spells, heat waves and the intensity of heat waves for the continental United States have mostly decreased since 1900.

    Frequency of cold spells and heat waves and magnitude of
    heat waves in continental USA since 1900

    If you do your own research for almost any part of the world you see the same thing - no increase in severe weather events anywhere (e.g. see this blog post for the figures of tropical cyclones in the South Pacific). If human carbon emissions are causing the climate to go seriously awry, then we aren't seeing much evidence of it. The same is true of the human toll of climate change. This study of deaths from extreme weather [PDF], published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, includes the following graph that shows we have a small fraction of the deaths in relative and absolute terms now compared to earlier decades.

    Global Death and Death Rates Due to Extreme Weather Events, 1900–2008
    Scientists agree that a doubling of atmospheric CO2, all things being equal, would produce global warming of about 1ºC (see, for example, this paper, which states 'Without any feedbacks, a doubling of CO2...would result in 1°C global warming, which is easy to calculate and is undisputed.'). Some scientists believe that the temperature increase will be as much as 6° or 7° but these estimates are dependent on entirely speculative feedback mechanisms and are not widely accepted in the scientific community. There is little dispute that a small amount of additional 'forcing' of global temperatures will result from feedback mechanisms. Climate scientists Nicholas Lewis and Judith Curry (for whom I have a great deal of respect) estimate the overall increase at 1.64°C. Given the rate of increase of CO2 is around 2ppm per year and we have around 400ppm currently, it will take 200 years to produce this global temperature increase assuming we do not reduce our carbon emissions from current levels at all.

    Of course, all that doesn't mean there are no serious effects of pumping billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere year after year, but it also doesn't mean we have to abandon global capitalism because we face imminent doom, as so many climate change activists advocate. Indeed, to do so would be great folly because it is capitalism that provides the technological innovation we need to move to less dependence on the fossil fuels that enable us to live longer and better lives than ever before.

    The challenges are of physics and economics. We use petroleum because it is the most efficient and accessible store of energy we have discovered. Companies like Tesla are pushing the curve in terms of battery life, charge time and weight, but we still have a long way to go before we can refill our car in a minute and drive 1,000 kilometres without stopping. Once the technology is cheap and ubiquitous, we won't need government regulations and carbon taxes to get us into electric cars.

    The United States leads the world in reducing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. It has done so by moving to fracked natural gas for power generation and in agricultural and industrial production. Natural gas produces less than half the carbon dioxide of coal and two-thirds that of diesel oil. The development of fracking has been a wholly private-sector-led change that was done in spite the efforts of the Obama administration and many state governments to thwart it. Trump has sensibly reversed these policies and fracking has continued to grow to the point where America is now the largest producer of oil and gas in the world.

    New Zealand's coalition government is determined to turn this country into a 'zero carbon' nation by 2050. The effects of this, as I have previously posted, will be to reduce our GDP by up to 22%. New Zealand produces around 0.1% of global CO2 emissions, so nothing we will do will have any direct impact on global warming. It is purely virtue signalling and unfortunately it will have huge impact on the quality of life in this country, all to fix a problem that the evidence shows to be not particularly serious.

    Tuesday, September 11, 2018

    Maori language

    It is Maori Language Week in New Zealand, when the government promotes the speaking of the Maori language. This year it has become a rallying point for those who want to force every child in New Zealand, regardless of ethnic origin, to learn Maori.

    Maori is not a particularly unique or even standardised language. It is very similar to other languages spoken in Eastern Polynesia from whence it came, including Cook Islands Maori and Tahitian, and there were significant variations in the language within New Zealand. Successive New Zealand governments have spent hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars promoting the language, including establishing Kohunga Reo ('total immersion' Maori language preschools), Kura Kaupapa Māori (primary and secondary Maori immersion schools), a dedicated Maori language television channel and public advertising campaigns. Despite all this money and effort, Maori language use is declining with only 3.7% of the New Zealand population, and only 21 per cent of the (self-identified) Maori population, having a conversational knowledge of the language.

    Maori themselves appear uninterested in maintaining their own language and young Maori in particular seem far more enamoured with modern African-American culture, such as hip hop music, than their own. There is a revival of interest in Maori but anecdotal evidence suggests this is mostly confined to the non-Maori urban elite, particularly those who work in government (which insists on Maori greetings and prayers at every meeting or event, no matter how minor).

    I object to the call for the Maori language to be made compulsory in schools for two reasons. The first is that it is wrong to force children to learn something that is not of much value to them. Don't get me wrong, I think it is valuable for New Zealand children to learn languages other than English. I studied Latin, French and Spanish and have found all three invaluable - Latin in particular because it is the key to understanding so many other languages and much scientific terminology, and the others because I have travelled to many countries where they are used. I have never needed Maori and have no regrets in not learning it.

    The second reason is that making Maori compulsory will limit our children's choices of other subjects. Any parent who has assisted their child in making elective subject choices knows how difficult it is to find a combination of subjects that the child wants and needs to study, and that fit in with the inevitable scheduling conflicts at any school. Compulsory Maori will mean fewer subject choices, or less time spent on other important subjects. As the opposition ACT Party points out here, New Zealand is not exactly an international leader in our educational standards, with Year 5 students ranked 33rd out of 50 countries (and last out of English-speaking countries) in reading literacy and only 49 per cent of our Year 11 students achieving the international reading benchmark. Anything that further disadvantages our children in international comparisons should be opposed.

    The promoters of Maori language aren't interested, of course, in making our children internationally competitive - they are driven by their ideology. Maori language is a means to an end and that end is the promotion of group identity above all else. Maintaining the language is an important part of maintaining the pretence that there is an exclusive group of New Zealanders who are victims of the 'white, colonial oppression', and the teaching of Maori in schools provides a platform for the indoctrination of children in this philosophy.

    I don't want to see Maori language and culture die or be assimilated into European culture, any more than I want to see that happen to the vibrant native cultures of Mexico that I experienced recently in that country. But forcing New Zealand children to learn a language that is of little use to them is not the answer. Language and culture tend to defy our efforts to control them and, like genes, they evolve to meet the needs of the environment in which they exist. New Zealand's future lies in being a diverse, outward-looking, dynamic society and our education must reflect this. Maori language has a place, but it must be a place that is freely chosen by New Zealanders, not forced upon them.

    Sunday, September 9, 2018

    Crusades have had a bad rap

    In 2015 President Obama invoked the Crusades in mitigation of modern day Islamic terrorism. One can only imagine why he felt the need to say anything that could be seen as a justification of the present day terrorist threat, but the fact that he had to go back to the 12th and 13th Centuries for an equivalent Christian crime speaks volumes about the relative progression of the two religions.

    I have just read two books on the subject of the Crusades - or, more precisely, about people who participated in the those historical events. The first, God's Wolf by Jeffrey Lee, is a biography of Reynald de Châtillon, Prince of Antioch and Lord of Transjordan, who was the crusader knight most feared at the time by the Muslims. The second is Dan Jones' The Templars, an excellent history of the religious-military order that was the most effective fighting force to have participated in the Crusades.

    I have always thought the Crusades get a bad rap from present day historians. They are cast as colonial aggression with superior Christian forces slaughtering the more honourable, endemic Islamic armies. Nothing could be further from the truth. The popular view ignores the fact that the Levant was Christian long before its was conquered by Islam in the 7th Century and before that it was Roman and Jewish. The Crusades weren't colonial aggression so much as a reconquest. It is true to say the Crusaders were brutal at times - the sacking of Jerusalem during the First Crusade in 1099 was perhaps the worst example - but the Muslims were no better, often slaughtering the civilians of the cities they overran and only sparing the lives of those they could enslave.

    The books deal with two particular examples of the merciless battles that were typical of the Crusades. Reynald de Châtillon's great victory at Mont Gisard in 1177 saw the almost total annihilation of Saladin's army, but the sultan got his revenge at the Horns of Hattin in 1187, defeating the army of King Guy of Jerusalem and settling his grudge against Reynald by personally beheading the great knight (and thereby abandoning the chivalric convention of both sides that the captured leaders would be ransomed). Saladin eventually recaptured most of the Levant and despite several more crusades the Middle East remained Muslim, eventually becoming part of the Ottoman Empire until it was occupied by the Allied forces in World War One.

    The need to recast all of history as a fight between Western oppressors and everyone else is just another symptom of the post-modernist, Marxist doctrine that dominates so much of scholarship today. We are told that Europeans should feel guilt for slavery, despite the fact that slavery was common to almost every society throughout human history and that it was the British who outlawed the international slave trade and gave effect to the ban with its naval power. Here in New Zealand we are encouraged to believe that colonial oppression and European diseases led to the decimation of the Maori population in the 19th Century, when in fact it was the intertribal warfare known as the Musket Wars that was the biggest factor in Maori population decline. And our children are taught that the Land Wars of the 1860s were a colonialist-Maori fight, despite the fact that more Maori fought on the side of the colonial government than for the rebel Maori tribes.

    Winston Churchill reputedly said that history is written by the victors, but in the West we want to undermine our own history and self-flagellate ourselves in guilt at our civilisational success. We are fortunate that there are still historians such as Jeffrey Lee and Dan Jones who write fair and balanced histories of our culture that are as thrilling as they are informative.

    Wednesday, September 5, 2018

    Our government sold out our children to gain power

    One of the very worst policies of the current New Zealand government is its dogma-driven education changes. The socialist-nationalist-environmentalist coalition is dismantling some of the few positive things about our educational system, in particular its national standards and the charter schools that the previous government introduced. The new government is introducing these changes for the most cynical reasons - as a payoff for the teachers' unions that supported its election.

    I was reminded of how bad these policies were when I was listening to Dave Rubin interview Katharine Birbalsingh, a New Zealand-born educator who founded the Michaela Community School, a charter school in London that takes pupils from predominantly lower socio-economic backgrounds and is rated 'outstanding' by Ofsted (the agency that monitors school standards in the UK). Birbalsingh said her charter school emphasises standards, self-discipline and personal responsibility, attributes which are the exact opposite of the post-modernist philosophy that is at the heart of our state education system. She believes in equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome and believes the former has very little to do with money.

    Birbalsingh talks about how when she was setting up her school, it was poor, ethnically-diverse parents who turned up to hear about what she was offering, while white, middle-class radicals were protesting outside. It sounds very like the situation here in New Zealand where Maori are some of the most vehement supporters of charter schools

    It is clear that our government was prepared to sell out our children to gain power and as a parent that truly disgusts me. Katharine Birbalsingh and her equivalents here in New Zealand are needed now more than ever and it is a crime that the New Zealand government is so intent on denying them a place in our educational system for cynical, political reasons.

    Wednesday, August 29, 2018

    On consciousness, robots and free will

    This post is a bit of a change to most of my recent posts but it is on a subject that greatly interests me - consciousness. The questions of what is consciousness and whether a machine could become conscious have occupied the musings of scientists, philosophers and theologians for centuries. One scientist who has given these questions some consideration is the great physicist Roger Penrose, who postulates that consciousness derives from quantum processes in the brain. He came up with the theory after hearing an interview with the artificial intelligence (AI) pioneer Marvin Minsky, who believed consciousness doesn't exist in and of itself but is a 'suitcase' term for a whole range of different mental processes such as reflection, decision-making and memory.

    Penrose's theory is interesting because if there are two things that we are unable to adequately explain in science it is quantum mechanics and consciousness. The idea that the two are linked is interesting, to say the least. Quantum physics demands an observer. It is the act of observing that causes the probabilistic nature of particles at smallest scale to collapse into the physical certainty of the larger world we observe. Physicists debate whether the observer needs to be conscious but from a philosophical perspective it seems nonsensical to talk about observation without a conscious observer.

    Many AI experts believe consciousness is derived from complex computing processes through a process called recursion. If you think of a conventional personal computer, there are about four layers between what you see on screen and the underlying computer circuit - a layer of firmware (which, as the name suggests, is a blending of hardware and software), a binary operating system ('BIOS'), the functional operating system such as Windows or MacOS, and the end-user application such as a web browser running on top of all of that. Recursion is the ability of a programme to invoke itself. All computers have some degree of recursion whereby the software monitors what is going on and corrects for errors, etc. If instead of four layers you had fifty or one hundred, with many of those layers observing and monitoring what is going in other layers, you can imagine how the higher layers of processing could become so abstracted from the underlying computation that it would at least have the appearance of consciousness. The almost infinite processing power of quantum computers could produce an almost infinite number of layers and perhaps there is a point where consciousness bootstraps out of this.

    Religious people have a metaphysical view of consciousness. They believe it exists separately from the observable electrical and chemical processes in the brain and that it may survive the death of the body - in other words, they believe we have a soul. We can observe the physical activity of the brain with functional MRI scanners and we understand quite well which parts of the brain account for various mental processes, but we can't see consciousness and really have no idea what it is. So a religious explanation of consciousness is plausible if not entirely unassailable, but the problem with the realm of religious explanations for phenomena that can't be explained by science is that it is an ever-diminishing domain.

    How would we know whether consciousness exists in a machine or not? Are other animals conscious? Certainly my dog appears to be, but is its consciousness of a kind with human consciousness? We tend to differentiate higher-level conscious as self-awareness, but other animals are probably self-aware, if that is the test. It is easy to envisage robots that are convincing human companions like the operating system in the film Her, although the Siri on my iPhone has a long way to go. If a robot has all the attributes of consciousness and claimed to be conscious, how could we deny it? Certainly many scientists, such as Ray Kurzweil, who is head of engineering at Google, believe it is only a matter of time.

    Most people find the idea of machine consciousness to be very scary. I find the prospect exciting, although I acknowledge there are risks in the quest to make machines autonomous of human control. Isaac Asimov addressed the risks by inventing the 'Three Laws of Robotics':
    1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
    2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
    3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
    I admire Asimov but I think he got this wrong because it is unreasonable to expect a set of laws to cope with every situation an a robot may face. Many of the decisions we face aren't a choice between right and wrong but of the lesser of harms. We are already seeing this with self-driving cars - should the car avoid a collision with another vehicle when it may mean a greater risk for pedestrians? Under Asimov's rules could you order a medical robot to perform an operation that involved significant risk of death to the patient?

    I believe that in order to be safe, intelligent robots will need to be able to make moral choices. In other words, they must have free will, which is, in my view, the essence of consciousness. It is at this point that I part ways philosophically with many atheists, who are materialists and determinists - in other words, they believe our actions are dictated solely by the external, physical world and that free will is an illusion. I also part ways with the theologians in that I don't believe God is necessary for free will. However, I do believe that free will is a necessary part of consciousness irrespective of whether it is physically derived or divine. If we don't have free will, why are we conscious? It would seem superfluous, to say the least.

    I think that machines are likely to reach a point where they are indistinguishable from humans in terms of consciousness. Whether they are truly conscious or not won't really matter any more than it matters whether your pet is truly conscious. Human beings will have sophisticated relationships with robots and the boundaries between what is human and what is machine will become blurred. Perhaps this will be a threat to our humanity, or even to human existence, but I see it more as evolution. I will expand on this in a future post.

    Thursday, August 23, 2018

    In which I answer Jordan Peterson's question

    I have been following Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who has achieved considerable recognition for his blend of philosophy and self-help advice, for a couple of years. I like his message of individual responsibility and his rejection of identity politics and the post-modernist doctrine that has infected so many of our institutions. I don't agree with everything he has to say - for example I think his almost exclusive reliance on religious texts to exemplify his philosophy neglects the equally great and relevant sources of the Western Enlightenment (such as the Ancient Greek philosophers*) - but he makes us think as few modern intellectuals do and for that I am grateful.

    Peterson points out that political views can be defined in psychological terms. Conservatives tend to be higher in trait conscientious, whereas progressives are higher in trait openness. He says societies need both - conservatives keep the barbarians from the gates, progressives break down the entrenched hierarchies to ensure everyone has an opportunity to thrive. If conservatives dominate too much, society becomes stagnant; too much progressivism and we end up with chaos.

    Peterson has posed an important question to commentators on the political left, which I will attempt to address in this post: at what point do we judge that the left-wing has gone too far? In other words, what defines the "extreme left"? There is a widespread consensus about the point at which the right-wing is considered extreme - Peterson defines this as "claims of racial difference that support the notion of superiority". The evidence that the right went too far with this belief is the death and catastrophe caused by the rise of Nazism in Germany, Fascism in Italy and imperialism in Japan. But the evidence of the excesses of the left is just as profound - the destruction and misery wrought by the Marxist regimes in the Soviet bloc, Maoist China and Pol Pot's Cambodia produced an even greater number of human deaths.

    However, it is not mere adherence to hard line Marxism that defines the extreme left. The Bolivarian Socialism practiced in Venezuela today is closer, at least philosophically, to Western democratic socialism than Stalinism and yet it has produced misery on a scale that is presently matched only by North Korea or Syria. Besides, it is acceptable - cool even - to publicly proclaim oneself as a Communist as a young woman did recently on Piers Morgan's television show. Imagine the reaction if she had said, "I'm a Nazi, you idiot!"

    Peterson chastises the left for its reliance on identity politics with its ever-increasing list of victim groups, ever-expanding definition of oppression, and scapegoating of a very specific group (white, middle-aged males) as the perpetrators of all that is wrong with the world. He rightly points out that if the left wants to play the identity politics game by claiming their preferred groups always lose, why wouldn't the right play the game with their preferred group to win? Which is, of course, exactly what the Nazis did and white supremacists are still doing today.

    When he ventures an answer to his own question, Peterson says it is equality of outcome, or equity, that defines leftist extremism. This isn't a bad answer but in my view it is unsatisfactory. Almost everyone in Liechtenstein is a millionaire - is that a bad thing? We must consider the means as well as the ends in defining what is good and bad.

    The essence of Peterson's philosophy is that we should conduct ourselves in life as if we are the noble person we aspire to be. In other words, to act as if the means are the end. The corollary of this is that you can't achieve a noble goal via an ignoble path, at least not without corrupting the goal for which you are striving. Most people on the political left have a noble aim - the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The moderate leftists believe that we shouldn't sacrifice the dignity of the individual to achieve the collective good, and they demonstrate this by fighting for individual rights (such as freedom of expression) just as vehemently as they fight for their desired group outcomes. The not-so-moderates are willing to sacrifice the individual to achieve their desired ends.

    I believe it is not equity or identity that is the root of the evil but the use of force. The left (and the right) goes too far when it is prepared to put the individual to the sword in the interests of the collective. Peterson understood this when he stood up to the enforced use of gender-neutral pronouns. It was precisely the use of force to compel speech that he rightly objected to. Doing nothing was not an option - the state was going to censure him, fine him and (ultimately) arrest him if he didn't do what they wanted.

    My politics is defined by my adherence to the non-aggression principle (NAP), which states that humans beings should not initiate force in their dealings with other human beings. Moderate leftists like the idea of the NAP - it aligns with their "live and let live" principles - but it poses a dilemma for them. How can you marshall the resources of society to achieve collective outcomes without the use of force? That is where free markets come in. We have proved in the modern era that individuals acting in their own interests, without the use of force, can produce unprecedented collective benefits. Yes, I concede that capitalism is not perfect, but it is the only political-economic system that at least allows for the absence of force.

    Not-so-moderate leftists don't see any conflict between the means and the ends. They regard the use of force as a feature, not a bug, of Marxist philosophy. And they are right to do so - Marx made no bones about the need for violent revolution to achieve his utopia. I doubt that he was serious about the withering of the dictatorship that was meant to happen after the revolution - I think he just said that so as not to frighten the European intelligentsia that was the main target market for his political philosophy.

    So the answer to Peterson's question is that the point at which the left goes too far is the point at which it is prepared to initiate violence against the individual in pursuit of the interests of the collective. Unfortunately this means leftist philosophy is a Catch-22 - you can't reach collective heaven without creating hell, and hell isn't a place that you can just close down when you think you're done with it. The extreme right, of course, has no such qualms - they are only interested in getting their own kind into heaven and are happy for the rest of the world to burn.

    I was hoping to avoid religion in this article but that was probably a vain hope when discussing Jordan Peterson, so I might as well continue with it in my conclusion. Many leftists are Christians and there are strong historical links between socialism and modern Christian (particularly Protestant) churches. But Jesus was first and foremost a pacifist and he believed in a separation between the state and the spiritual ("Render unto Caesar..."). Of course, there came a point when the Christian church and the state were joined at the hip and both justified the use of violence in the name of God, and this was when Christianity became tyrannical. Fortunately the Western world has largely left that behind and these days we abhor the use of violence to achieve religious ends. I hope in the future we will have the same attitude towards the achievement of political ends.

    * Interestingly, since I wrote this post, Quillette has published an article elaborating on the same criticism: https://quillette.com/2018/08/23/progress-and-polytheism-could-an-ethical-west-exist-without-christianity/

    Tuesday, August 21, 2018

    Sooner or later, Atlas shrugs

    When the new government manoeuvred its way into power in New Zealand last year I was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt. The coalition agreements signed by the parties didn't look too extreme - they were promising to spend a lot more money but they weren't proposing to raise income taxes in this term. Their regional development policies, anti-immigration stance and ambivalence on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement actually looked a lot like Donald Trump's populist platform (although there is little in the latter that I support). The problem is that what was said in the coalition parties' manifestos and agreements was only part of the picture, as is now being revealed.

    This government believes it can govern by fiat - the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, demonstrated this when she announced her ban on oil and gas exploration without even taking it to cabinet. Other policies that her government has announced include new petrol taxes, the introduction of a Zero Carbon Act (which, based on the government's own numbers, is estimated to reduce our GDP by between 10% and 22% by 2050), increased welfare payments across the board, and raising the minimum wage to one of the highest in the Western world. The government is also reviewing tax, through its Tax Working Group, and all indications are that it is likely to introduce a capital gains tax.

    New Zealand used to be known for its light-handed commercial regulation but even under the previous National Party-led government, businesses faced a raft of new, expensive and intrusive regulations such as a new and far more onerous health and safety act, an emissions trading scheme, and further controls on development in the growth-killing Resource Management Act. While the previous government lowered company taxes early in its term, most Western countries have reduced theirs further with the result that New Zealand is now one of the most highly-taxed countries for business. All of this precipitous policy-making has understandably caused a crisis of business confidence and the new government's response has been to chastise business leaders for their lack of enthusiasm. Their bewilderment at the sudden loss of business confidence shows they are a bunch of dogma-driven, wilfully-ignorant, arrogant fools.

    Sooner or later, as Ayn Rand said, Atlas shrugs. Most people are happy to go along with being taxed and regulated, accepting the view that some government intervention in the economy is the cost of a democratic society, but there is a tipping point at which the productive members of society refuse to continue to be the milch cows for the unproductive. This tipping point is recognised in economics by the Laffer Curve - the empirical observation that continuing to increase tax rates ultimately results in lower revenues. Of course socialist governments often solve the problem by bringing out the guns - as we have seen in Venezuela - but history proves that free men and women are far more productive than slaves and that liberal, capitalist societies outperform repressive ones on every measure. Wise governments recognise this and backoff on the socialist policies - as the government of Sweden has done in recent years.

    I have written before about how New Zealand's so-called 'rock star economy' wasn't worthy of the name even before the current jitters. It will be interesting to see whether this coalition government backs off on some of its ill-considered, dogmatic policies. If it doesn't, I think New Zealand will continue to slide into economic ignominy.

    Tuesday, August 14, 2018

    Debate on Brash speech ban avoids critical issue

    I am going to write some more in this post about the banning of Don Brash from speaking at Massey University, not because I don't think enough words have been cast into the ether on the subject already, but because I believe most of those who have commented on the affair have missed a crucial point. On the surface, the matter has been about free speech and it has been a credit to our country that the overwhelming consensus has been that Brash shouldn't have been banned from speaking.

    There is another aspect to this matter that, in my opinion, is almost more important than the general issue of free speech. The reason Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas gave for banning Brash was that "Mr Brash's leadership of Hobson's Pledge and views he and its supporters espoused in relation to Māori wards on councils was clearly of concern to many staff, particularly Māori staff." She went on to say, "In my opinion, the views expressed by members of Hobson's Pledge come dangerously close to hate speech. They are certainly not conducive with the university's strategy of recognising the values of a Tiriti o Waitangi-led organisation."

    Hobson's Pledge is an organisation whose vision is listed on its website as "New Zealand is a society in which all citizens have the same rights, irrespective of when we or our ancestors arrived." That seems innocuous enough, but the truly contentious part of its mission is its opposition to the constitutional and legal privilege that has been accorded to Māori tribal organisations under the interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi adopted by the courts, Parliament and almost all public institutions over the last few decades. The issue about Māori wards for council elections was a subject in one of my recent blog posts. We have had Maori seats in our national parliament for 150 years but the idea of having exclusive Maori city councillors is a significant extension of this.

    Both of these issues are significant and are at least legitimate questions for public debate, and Brash's views on them are shared by a large number of New Zealanders (and, in the case of the Māori wards, an overwhelming majority of those who have voted on the issue).

    Jan Thomas said that Brash’s views were not conducive to the university’s strategy of being a "Treaty-led organisation”. What exactly that means is open to interpretation, but we can assume she means the university is committed to the post-modernist view of the Treaty that seeks to turn New Zealand's constitutional structure into a bicultural 'partnership' between Maori tribes and the Crown. This anti-democratic, racist arrangement would see governance of New Zealand shared between Maori tribal leaders and an unrepresentative government, a situation in which non-Maori New Zealanders would become second-class citizens in their own country.

    Thomas’s actions in banning Brash is part of a broader movement to ensure that any view contrary to this post-modernist interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi is wiped out. The Massey vice-chancellor has made it clear that the university has a doctrinal position and it won’t countenance any dissent from that doctrine. That is the sort of thing that was typical of universities in Maoist China during the Cultural Revolution and that ought to have no place in a New Zealand university or NZ society as whole.

    I think it is clear that the Treaty gives no superior political rights to any tribal leaders today and claims that it established some sort of on-going partnership between tribal political entities and the government of today are entirely spurious. Irrespective of whether I am right or wrong, I am entitled to express this view on an issue that is so vital to New Zealand's future. If this country has become a place where we cannot even debate such matters, then we are no longer a democracy. I am encouraged that so many New Zealanders have come out in support of free speech, but almost no one has addressed the elephant in the room - that we should be free to debate the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in our modern society.

    Tuesday, August 7, 2018

    Brash ban is a tipping point

    Don Brash is an avuncular, elderly politician who was once leader of the National Party, New Zealand's longest-governing political party. He narrowly missed out on becoming prime minister when he was defeated by Helen Clark's Labour Party in 2005. There were many who thought he was robbed of election victory because Helen Clark illegally used taxpayers' funds to publish a 'pledge card' that was distributed to every household in the country. The Electoral Commission, which oversees the conduct of elections in New Zealand, referred the matter to the police, who declined to prosecute. Had Labour been tried and convicted of electoral fraud, there almost certainly would have been another election with a different result.

    This is the man who has been banned from speaking at Massey University in Palmerston North after he was invited by the Massey University Young Politics club to talk about his experiences as Leader of the Opposition. The university's vice-chancellor, Jan Thomas, cancelled the event because of Brash's "leadership of Hobson’s Pledge and views he and its supporters espoused in relation to Māori wards on councils" (as well as some very dubious "security concerns").

    Hobson's Pledge is an organisation whose vision is listed on its website as "New Zealand is a society in which all citizens have the same rights, irrespective of when we or our ancestors arrived." That seems innocuous enough, but the truly contentious part of its raison d'être is its opposition to the constitutional and legal privilege that has been accorded to Māori tribal organisations under the post-modernist interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi. The issue about Māori wards for council elections was a subject in one of my recent blog posts here. Both of these issues are significant and legitimate questions for public debate and Brash's views on them are shared by a large number of New Zealanders (and, in the case of the Māori wards, an overwhelming majority of those who have voted on the issue).

    I believe this fairly minor matter of a university cancelling a speaker may turn out to be a tipping point in New Zealand politics, for several reasons. Firstly, the issue of banning speakers for their controversial views is already a hot topic after the cancellation by the Auckland Council of an event by Canadian speakers Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern. Secondly, I believe there is a sense of disenfranchisement amongst many New Zealanders that is similar to that amongst Britons before Brexit and Americans before Trump's election. I think we are ripe in New Zealand for a trigger issue to ignite this disenfranchised group in the same way that Trump ignited the support of those Hillary Clinton called "deplorables". Thirdly, I think the Treaty of Waitangi has become that sleeper issue for many New Zealanders who are far from content with the increasing demands from Māori tribal elites and the escalating concessions from successive governments eager to appease those demands. New Zealanders have bitten their tongues on the Treaty issue for fear of being called racist but have been biding their time, waiting for an opportunity to make their views known. 

    New Zealanders are a impassive bunch most of the time and it takes a lot to rouse us to anger. But we have a keen sense of justice and I think the idea of a former Leader of the Opposition being denied the right to speak on a public university campus will strike most New Zealanders as unjust. The idea that it is unacceptable to voice any opposition to the establishment position on important issues is exactly what will turn many people against the establishment position. I may be wrong, but I suspect Jan Thomas and Massey University will come to regret their decision, and the New Zealand political establishment may end up with a shock of Brexit proportions.

    As I said on Twitter earlier, if you think that Don Brash is extreme, wait until you see the alternative.

    Monday, August 6, 2018

    On gender equity

    I have always been respectful of women's ability to compete with men in non-traditional occupational roles, and I have been supportive of the aspirations of the women I know to succeed in whatever field to which they choose to apply their talents.

    If I have any gender prejudices when it comes to work, it is in favour of women, particularly when it comes to young people. If I had to choose to assign a task to a young man or a young woman, all things being equal, I would choose the latter. In my experience, the young man would come back and tell me the reasons why he was unable to complete the task, whereas the young woman would tell you how she overcame various obstacles to complete it. This is a generalisation, of course, and the situation with young men changes once they reach their late twenties, whereupon they tend to step up and start shouldering responsibility, and thereafter often outperform their female peers. It also doesn't apply to physically demanding jobs, where the much greater average body strength of men invariably enables them to outperform women.

    People often do not realise how great are the differences in physical strength between the sexes. Women have only about 60% of men's strength for the same body weight (e.g. see this study) and given men in Western countries also average about 15 - 20% greater bodyweight than women, the average man has nearly twice the strength of an average woman.

    The differences between men and women are not just physical. Psychologists will tell you there are significant differences between men and women in the main personality traits. Men are higher on average in emotional stability, dominance, rule-consciousness and vigilance traits, whereas women are higher in sensitivity, warmth, and apprehension traits (e.g. see this study). Men are more interested in things and women are more interested in people (e.g. see this study). There is no significant difference in average intelligence between the sexes but the distribution curve for IQ is flatter for men than for women (e.g. see this study). This means there are more men than women of significantly lower intelligence and more men at the high end of the distribution.

    These factors are enough to account for the marked differences in representation of men and women in different occupations. The physical differences explain why most firefighters, building labourers, dockers and forestry workers are men. It is also the main reason why throughout history men have been the soldiers, when the very survival of a society depended on its ability to field its strongest army. The psychological differences explain much of the preferences for men to take jobs that involve building things - such as engineering - and women for jobs that involve dealing with people - such as nursing and teaching. The relative flatness of men's intelligence distribution may also explain why men tend to do more manual labour jobs and why there are more men in fields requiring very high IQ such as theoretical mathematics.

    So does this mean we should just accept the differences in representation of men and women in different occupations? Well, perhaps we should reverse the question and ask why is the difference in representation a problem? And what is the solution anyway? Do policies that are designed to ensure more equal representation of the sexes in traditionally unequal occupations work? It turns out the answer to the last question is no. In what has been dubbed the 'gender equality paradox', the most egalitarian countries often have some of the worst representation of women in non-traditional fields such as STEM, and compare poorly to less egalitarian countries such as Islamic nations.

    In New Zealand, the government has just announced that the public service has two and a half years to "end pay discrimination against women'. The Minister of Women's Affairs, Julie-Anne Genter suggested the key to this was "making flexi working hours the norm", which suggests she understands that the problem isn't discrimination at all but rather the fact that women work different (i.e. less) working hours than men. This is the reality - men earn more because they work more hours and longer continuous service than women. And the main reason for that is that women take time off to have children. In fact, young, single women already out-earn men in most Western countries (see articles here, here and here).

    What so-called pay equity advocates actually want is for women to be paid more than men for the same work, because that is the only way women are going to earn the same as men for working less hours or less continuous service. They expect female workers to be paid, say, 20% more per hour than the men doing the same jobs alongside them. Do they really think men are going to stand for that?

    I'll leave you with a video on history according to sociology professors, which is sort of relevant to this post.

    Wednesday, August 1, 2018

    Life After Trump

    It is only 18 months into his term but the forty-fifth President of the United States has had such a impact on politics that already people are discussing what the post-Trump world will look like. It now seems likely that Donald Trump will stand for a second term in 2020 and he will be re-elected unless the Democratic Party finds itself a better candidate than the awful Hillary Clinton and a better campaign strategy than insulting half the electorate with terms like 'deplorable'. It is possible that Trump will be impeached before he gets the chance to stand again but that seems unlikely given the trivialities the Muller inquiry has come up with to date and the fact that both houses of Congress are in Republican hands.

    The post-Trump world will have a different international order. The United States is becoming more isolationist under Trump with his anti-immigration stance, scuttling of trade agreements and criticism of NATO. On the other hand, he looks like he is succeeding in his efforts to bring North Korea in from the cold and his rapprochement with Putin probably lessens the likelihood of conflict with Russia. I think Trump is actually less of a warmonger than most recent presidents and that he is unlikely to start any new conflicts, so it may well be a more peaceful world than has existed since 9/11.

    Trump's most positive legacy may be his rejection of the international climate change racket and his removal of renewable energy subsidies and bans on fossil fuel exploration. These are already having a positive effect on the US economy. Add in his tax cuts and broader deregulation and you start to see why the US economy is experiencing GDP growth exceeding 4% for the first time since 2014. On the other hand, Trump's protectionist trade policies will constrain both imports and exports and the negative impacts of these may send the whole world into recession, particularly if (as many analysts expect) there is another global stock market crash.

    The biggest effect of the Trump years may be on politics itself. We have seen a massive polarisation and radicalisation of politics, particularly in the United States, and so entrenched are the left and right that, as a libertarian and individualist, I feel like a civilian caught between the cannon fire of two armies bent on mutual destruction. The most noticeable effect in the last few years is the resurgence of identity politics, with both sides pushing their particular grievances groups' victimhood. Not since the early 20th Century has your race, religion or some other collective characteristic been such a determinant of your worth in so many people's eyes. Trump hasn't been the sole cause of this collectivist groupthink but his derogatory labelling of Mexicans and people from Islamic majority countries has legitimised what ought to have no part in mainstream Western politics.

    I remain an optimist about the future of Western society, notwithstanding the polarisation for which Trump is at least partly to blame. America has seen far worse political tensions in comparatively recent times and for all the doom and gloom, our lives continue to get better every year. I think Trump is an aberration, not a trend, and life after him will be just fine.

    Thursday, July 26, 2018

    The double standard of extreme left vs right

    A young woman named Ash Sarkar responded smugly during a recent interview with Piers Morgan, 'I'm a Communist, you idiot.' The fact that this young woman's comment was actually lauded by certain sections of the media says a great deal about the double standard with regards to extreme political views in Western society. Can you imagine anyone defending her if she had said, 'I'm a Nazi?'

    Another example of the double standard occurred when it was revealed a few months ago that British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had accepted payments for information he provided to a Czech intelligence agent when Czechoslovakia was part of the Soviet bloc. Corbyn denies that he knew the Czech diplomat was an spy but he didn't deny that he repeatedly met with the agent or that he received payments from him. It seems incredible that Corbyn hasn't stepped down or been sacked by his party, but of course he is in good company as a number of the senior leadership of the British Labour Party such as John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, are openly Marxist. Imagine the reaction if a leader of the Conservative Party was exposed as a Nazi.

    It is acceptable to be a Marxist but not a Nazi despite the fact that the former creed is responsible for more human misery and a greater death toll over a much longer period than the latter. There has been precisely one Nazi regime since the philosophy was developed (even Mussolini's Fascists were not Nazis) whereas there have been dozens of Marxist regimes and the horrific consequences of that philosophy are still evident in places like North Korea today. Nazism wrecked havoc for twelve years and killed perhaps 20 million people whereas Marxism has been practiced somewhere in the world for a century and is estimated to have been directly responsible for over 100 million deaths. How many people need to die at the hands of Marxist regimes before people accept that it is just as abhorrent as Nazism?

    The reason for the double standard is the moral pretence of Marxism - that is, it is carried out in the name of the collective good. 'From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs' is its motto, which sounds noble until you appreciate that to make it work you have to hold a gun to the head of the person of ability. The person holding the gun is the sole judge of who has needs and who is not using their abilities with sufficient diligence, and the threat of violence must be realised in order to maintain the pretence that the system is working for the greater good.

    Modern Marxists claim that true Communism has never been practised but those who make such claims display an incredible arrogance. They are implying that they could usher in the utopia that the misguided Stalin and Mao couldn't. Of course, in reality these naive fools who think their Communism would be the benevolent ideal would be merely the next in line for the firing squad. Even in exile Trotsky was not safe from Stalin's bullets.

    Violent repression isn't a bug of Marxism, it is a feature, and you have to wilfully blind not to see it. The media is complicit in this wilful blindness every time they use the expression 'extreme' or 'far' to describe the right-wing without using the same adjectives in respective of those with similar views on the left. I support the right to hold and express any political views, but I detest the hypocrisy of a media that labels even the mildest views on the right 'Fascist' while fawning on extreme leftists who promote what is arguably the most genocidal political system in history.

    Monday, July 23, 2018

    On one side is freedom, on the other totalitarianism

    It has been interesting watching the reaction of different people to the banning by Auckland Mayor Phil Goff of 'alt-right' commentators Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern from speaking at a Council venue. There has been a heartening groundswell of support from New Zealanders of all political views in favour of the legal action to challenge Goff's decision (of which I am a financial supporter). Unsurprisingly, there has also been plenty of support for Goff's decision, including from some people I would have thought would be more supportive of individual rights - some of whom, if they paused to think about it for a moment, are likely to be next in line to be banned.

    I believe that the right to free expression is the bedrock of all other individual rights. It is the most powerful weapon against tyranny and its abrogation is always a necessary element of political repression. Many of those who have supported Goff's decision have argued that there are limits to the rights to freedom of expression and the views held by Molyneux and Southern do not warrant the protection of such rights. But rights are innate and universal and are not granted by any person or government - or they are not rights. And who gets to decide? The people who want to decide are the people we would least want to make such decisions.

    Some have argued that that the Auckland Council, as the owner of the venues, has the right to determine who says what on its property and that freedom of expression doesn't extend to the right to be provided with a platform. I agree that this is correct in the case of private property, but in the case of public property the denial of a platform is the denial of free speech itself. The Auckland mayor's action in respect of Molyneux and Southern is no different to banning them from speaking on a street corner or a public park. There is no freedom of expression if it doesn't apply to a public place. Of course, no one is arguing that a city hall should be open to all comers at all times at no cost, but the reason Goff gave for denying the facility to Moyneux and Southern was the unacceptability of their views. It would be sad day indeed when only those views that in Goff's opinion 'unite' Aucklanders were allowed to be expressed at Council venues.

    The court action against Goff and the Auckland City Council has gained international attention and will be seen as a weathervane of this country's respect for individual liberties and rights. Make no mistake, this is the most important issue of our time. On one side is freedom, on the other side, totalitarianism. Pick your side.

    Thursday, July 19, 2018

    Localism project is a good start

    In my last post (in which I correctly signalled that Theresa May would sell out her country by reneging on her promise to deliver Brexit), I wrote that I considered myself a political localist. It is interesting that this week The New Zealand Initiative and Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) have launched something called the Localism project, which they claim is about 'bringing government back to the people'. It has some noble aims with which I agree - including 'devolution and decentralisation in the way New Zealand is run' - although I am sceptical about anything LGNZ advocates given its hypocritical plea to central government [PDF] to change the law so that it can override the rights of local electors to hold referenda on constitutional changes.

    The NZ Initiative-LGNZ statement says that New Zealand has one of the most centralised governments in the world, with central government accounting for 88% of public expenditure compared with an OECD average of 46%. What they don't say is that New Zealand has one of the least complex government systems in the world with just two tiers - national and local - whereas most other countries have at least three, and in effect our central government also performs many of the roles of state governments in other countries.

    The problem in New Zealand is the lack of constitutional separation and limitation of powers. We have only one house of parliament, having abolished our upper house in 1951, and being a Westminster-type democracy, our executive comprises the leaders of the ruling parties in parliament rather than being separately elected. Technically, it is our head of state, the Queen, who appoints the executive, but convention is that she always appoints those who command the confidence of parliament. The situation is made worse by the fact that in 1994 we voted to adopt the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system, which means that half of our members of parliament are appointed by national political party leaders rather than selected by local electorate committees. In other words, MMP made Parliament more faceless and unaccountable.

    I am sure you will see the true nature of the problem. The consequences of all of this is that we have a coalition government, the formal partners of which didn't even get a plurality of votes in the election. Our acting prime minister, Winston Peters, lost his own seat in parliament during the election and his party received a reduced share of the national vote. Furthermore, it is a government that is pursuing a fairly radical agenda and making decisions without bothering with the formality of parliamentary votes or even Cabinet decisions. A country in which a government that can do this is not a democracy by any commonly accepted definition. Left-wing New Zealanders support the new government because it is expanding welfare and the government's role in every area of the economy from housing to transport. But they should remember that a government that uses unfettered powers to implement policies they support can just as easily do it to implement policies they don't like.

    The NZ Initiative-LGNZ Localism project is a nod in the right direction, but New Zealand's governance problems are more systemic than the demarcation of powers between central and local government. We need the checks and balances that come from a genuine separation of powers and we need to restore the local accountability of our national representatives that was lost when we implemented MMP.

    Thursday, July 12, 2018

    Is Theresa May about to sell out her country?

    It is all going wrong for those who supported Brexit. British Prime Minister Theresa May appears to be close to agreeing such a bad deal with the European Union that it has prompted her foreign minister, Boris Johnson, and Brexit minister, David Davis, to resign from Cabinet. It seemed a simple thing to do, for a sovereign nation like Britain to withdraw from an economic alliance, but the problems that have arisen prove that the EU has become by stealth something much more than an economic alliance. It is a supernational entity that has become so entangled in the laws and institutions of its members that withdrawing is like amputating a leg to remove a passenger from a crashed train.

    I am pro-Brexit despite it probably being contrary to my personal interests. I am an Irish citizen who has lived in Britain for more time than in any other country except New Zealand, and it may well be that I will be unable to return to live in Britain in future. So why do I support Brexit?

    I am certainly no nationalist. I have written before about how I believe that all nation states are artificial constructs, no matter how old or grand they are, and that there is nothing inherently good in one national structure versus another (although I don't think the same of political systems). I believe that smaller, more local government is generally better at protecting individual rights because it is easier to hold accountable than larger, more geographically spread government. I guess that makes me a localist - I like my politics grown locally in small holdings, like those who are localists in buying their food. 

    The European Union is a very big step on the road to a heterogeneous, global government, and that prospect scares the hell out of me. The type of society I would like to live in - a society that places maximum value on individual rights and freedoms and in which the government has strictly limited powers and is highly accountable to its citizens - is the very opposite of the European Union. There are so many layers of hierarchy between the people and their distant EU overlords in Brussels that it would put the Qing Dynasty to shame. There is no real representation or accountability, with all important policy decided by the unelected European Commission and its president Jean-Claude Juncker* rather than the show pony European Parliament. And that is exactly why the people of Britain voted to wrest back control of their country. Theresa May vowed to deliver the Brexit her people voted for, but I fear she has caught a dose of the Juncker hauteur and is about to sell out her own country.

    * It is hardly surprising that Juncker has acted like an emperor who regards the Brexit vote as a personal slight on his majesty when you realise he has all the powers of an emperor. It is also revealing that when you click on the link to information about Juncker on the European Commission's website, you get the message "Access denied - You are not authorized to access this page." [UPDATE: The link has been fixed overnight - perhaps someone at the European Commission reads my blog!]

    Tuesday, July 10, 2018

    The courageous left comes out in support of free speech

    I wasn't going to comment on the business of the mayor of Auckland banning visiting speakers Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern from using council venues, other than what I did on Twitter:


    However, I've been surprised and immensely encouraged by the response in this country that is overwhelmingly in support of free speech, particularly from those on the left like bloggers Chris Trotter and IdiotSavant. I don't agree with their views that Molyneux and Southern are racists and Nazis, but perhaps that mistaken impression makes their support for the free speech rights of the two Canadians all the more impressive.

    The left has been the traditional bastion of free speech, seeing it as an essential weapon in their war against entrenched privilege, but in recent years their newfound cultural relativism and identity politics has trumped all else and led many left-wingers to abandon their support for what is arguably the foundation of all individual rights. The change in the left's position is surely all the evidence anyone needs that it is the left, rather than the right, that is now the dominant political force in the West, because only those in entrenched positions of power would see the right to voice one's opinions as a threat.

    Then we have the views of certain people on the right wing who choose not to support free speech when it is two 'extreme' right-wingers who are being denied this right - people like this fellow:

    Well, Mr Hooton, I don't buy it. It takes much greater courage to defend those beyond the pale on your own side than those opposed to you. You are obviously far too concerned with maintaining your carefully-cultivated 'reasonable right' position than standing up for the principles you claim to support.

    A group of New Zealanders from across the political spectrum have established the Free Speech Coalition to challenge the Auckland mayor's decision in court. I would urge you to support them by donating on their website here.