Friday, January 14, 2022

Should the Treaty of Waitangi dictate how NZ is governed today?

In 1877, the Supreme Court of New Zealand declared the Treaty of Waitangi to be a "simple nullity" and said it had no force in law. Today, the Treaty, which was signed in 1840, is regarded as the founding document of New Zealand and it increasingly has the status of inviolable constitutional law. It has achieved this status only since 1975 when the Treaty of Waitangi Act established the Waitangi Tribunal to make recommendations on Maori claims for breach of the Treaty. That and subsequent acts have enshrined in law the concept of a "Treaty partnership" between the Crown (i.e. the New Zealand Government through its head of state, Queen Elizabeth II) and Maori tribes.

The Treaty is a simple document consisting of three articles. In the first article, Maori ceded sovereignty or "kawanatanga katoa" (most often translated as "governance") over their lands to the Crown. The second article guaranteed Maori "exclusive and undisturbed possession" or "tino rangatiratanga" over their property. The third article gave Maori the protection and all rights accorded to British subjects. The Treaty does not say anything explicitly about a governing partnership.

In any event, the Treaty of Waitangi was just that - a treaty, not a constitution - and it was never intended to be a detailed prescription for governing New Zealand. If proof of this is required, consider the many laws and proclamations that followed the signing of the Treaty, which provided the actual constitutional framework for New Zealand as a separate state with its own government:
  • The New Zealand Government Act, passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom in August 1840, providing for the establishment of a colonial administration in New Zealand separate from that of New South Wales.
  • The royal charter of November 1840 that allowed for the establishment of the New Zealand as a colony in its own right and the establishment of the Legislative Council and Provincial Councils.
  • The declaration on 3rd May 1841 of New Zealand as a Crown colony with William Hobson as its first Governor.
  • The New Zealand Constitution Act 1846, passed by UK Parliament, empowering the government in New Zealand.
  • The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, which repealed the earlier Constitution Act.
  • The royal proclamation in September 1907 of New Zealand as a Dominion.
  • The 1931 Statute of Westminster Act and 1947 Statute of Westminster Adoption Act that made New Zealand an independent nation.
One interesting aside is that the reason there was two New Zealand Constitution Acts is that the first one was suspended for six years because Governor George Grey opposed provisions that established separate Maori and European districts - so clearly consideration of separate Maori political structures is not a new thing.

New Zealanders of all stripes have been very accepting of the need to redress historical wrongs perpetrated towards Maori. For the most part, these wrongs have been redressed by way of monetary and property settlements to the present-day Maori tribal authorities. But New Zealanders have become concerned as these claims have become more outlandish, encouraged in part by poorly-drafted legislation that has become the enabler for spurious claims for possession of everything from water resources to the entire coastline of New Zealand. But even these claims pale against the agenda that was outlined in a document that the current New Zealand Government tried to keep secret - the report known as He Puapua [PDF download].

He Puapua proposes that ultimately New Zealand will be split into three spheres of governance:
  • Rangitiratanga - in which Maori exclusively govern "people and places"
  • Kawanatanga - the sphere of Crown governance
  • Joint - in which Maori and the Crown share governance over matters of joint concern.
The document suggests that the effect of this will be three parliaments - one for Maori, one for non-Maori and a joint one. In effect, the 16% of the population with some Maori ancestry will be on constitutional parity with non-Maori, i.e. the Maori suffrage will be worth six times the non-Maori vote. This is already reflected in the Ardern Government's health reforms - with a Maori and non-Maori health funding agency and the right of veto of one over the decisions of other - and in the Three Waters reforms. Of course, no one is proposing that Maori pay half of the taxes to fund these ambitions.

I believe that individual human beings are sovereign and that, in Thomas Jefferson's inimitable words, governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Consistent with this belief is the principle that any group of people, whether defined by geography, ethnicity, language, religion or some other factor of importance to themselves, has the right to self-determination. Therefore I believe that if people of Maori descent (or of a particular tribe) want to govern themselves, they are entitled to do so, but by the same token, people should not be forced to be subject to a polity to which they have no means of consenting. There is also a practical problem of having different legal jurisdictions in the same territory, which He Puapua recognises when it says, "self-determination...require[s] spaces and places for Māori to exercise authority, decision-making and choice within New Zealand’s territories."

I can imagine a future where Maori tribes govern their distinct territories within the Realm of New Zealand, in a similar arrangement to Tokelau. Northland tribes, for example, might decide to reconstitute the Confederation of United Tribes that signed the 1835 Declaration of Independence, and Tuhoe are likely to want to implement the self-governance that was envisaged (but never implemented) under the 1896 Urewera District Native Reserves Act. People in those territories would still be New Zealanders but they could determine their own laws within a constitutional framework that reserves some powers and responsibilities, such as foreign policy and defence, to the national government. Populations that did not wish to be part of the self-governing territory, for example predominantly non-Maori towns and cities, could opt not to join it.

It is up to the people of this country today to determine how they should be governed. Our form of government was not, and should not be, prescribed by a treaty between Queen Victoria and Maori chiefs nearly two centuries ago. The Treaty of Waitangi is an important founding document of New Zealand but it should not be used to abrogate the rights of modern day New Zealanders. Debating what the actual words of the Treaty were intended to mean is of limited value in informing how New Zealand should be governed today. More important than the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi are the fundamental principles on which modern, liberal democracies are based - the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the rule of law, equality before the law, secure property rights and the right of due process. We should honour the Treaty of Waitangi to the extent that it is consistent with these fundamental principles, not as an alternative to them.

One of the problems with much of the debate about the Treaty and proposals for Maori self-determination is that those involved seem to regard the Crown as a separate entity to the people of New Zealand. This is a false assumption - the Crown's legitimacy today is solely through the consent of the people of New Zealand and if sufficient New Zealanders so decided, we could abolish the Crown in New Zealand and become a republic, as Barbados has just done. The debate about Maori self-determination needs to involve all of the people of New Zealand, not just some government ministers and officials in back rooms who claim to represent the Crown. The people of New Zealand must consent to any constitutional changes, unless those proposing them are thinking they can impose them by force (unfortunately it appears that this is the case, given the arrogant and dictatorial approach that is already apparent in the current Government's approach to these reforms).

I believe most New Zealanders want to accommodate Maori aspirations for self-determination, but few will be prepared to accept the imposition of new constitutional arrangements that have the effect of making non-Maori second-class citizens in their own country. A government that sets itself against the will of its people cannot last - or at least, not as a democratic government. We need a genuinely open debate on how New Zealand is to be governed in future without anyone who expresses a contrary view being labeled racist. I have always thought the most important clause in the Treaty of Waitangi was Article 3, which envisaged that we would all be British subjects - in modern parlance, equal citizens. That is the aspiration that should drive all consideration of how New Zealand is to be governed in future.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Why Lockdown Libertarians are Wrong

Libertarians have been divided over whether governments should have locked down entire populations to stop the spread of Covid-19. Perhaps that split is not surprising - the libertarian movement has always been a broad church with a range of views from a religious-conservative right to an anarchist left. Most libertarians agree that some government is desirable but that its role should be limited to protecting the genuine rights of individual citizens. They also agree that rights don't exist at the discretion of governments, but rather the opposite - that governments exist at the behest of individuals, each of whom has their own inherent rights that can't be taken away. As Thomas Jefferson wrote so eloquently in the US Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...
The last sentence is perhaps the most important - the only legitimate function of governments is to protect individual rights and governments should be limited to this function. In other words, we delegate to governments the powers to protect our rights and nothing more. This begs the question, what are the legitimate actions of government in protecting our rights? Almost everyone agrees that stopping the initiation of violence against us is a legitimate action of government, even if that requires the government to use violence in our defence. If someone is intent on murdering us, we accept that the government can use force to detain or, if necessary, even kill that person. But what about someone intent on infecting us with a deadly disease?

The case of Typhoid Mary in the United States was a classic legal case in the early 20th Century. Mary Mallon was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid, then a very deadly disease. Public health authorities asked her to self-isolate and she refused, continuing her work as a cook, infecting hundreds and causing the deaths of at least five people. Ultimately, she was forcibly detained for the remainder of her life. Few people today would dispute that the authorities were right to detain her - she was a real danger to the lives of people she came in contact with and she refused to voluntarily remove the deadly threat she presented to others.

Covid-19, like typhoid, can be spread by asymptomatic carriers of the disease. However, Covid-19 is far less deadly than typhoid, with a global case fatality rate (CFR) of 1-2% (which drops exponentially with age and is decreasing rapidly across all ages as vaccination rates increase). This compares with an untreated typhoid CFR of 10-20% (and even when treated with modern antibiotics, typhoid still has a similar CFR to Covid-19). Typhoid Mary's case was exceptional precisely because they locked her up, and even in her case that was a controversial decision at the time. With Covid-19, governments are locking up entire populations (at least to the equivalent level of house arrest).

I agree that extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and that threats to life not only justify but require governments to act to safeguard us. The alternative is anarchy and I am not an anarchist. I agree that someone who is infected with a deadly disease should be detained if necessary to protect everyone else. However, I do not accept that governments have the right to lockdown entire populations in response to Covid-19 for the following reasons:
  1. Covid-19 is not a sufficient threat to justify such an indiscriminate response
  2. Lockdowns are an ineffective public health response and there are alternatives
  3. Lockdowns are a slippery slope that will be very hard to reverse.
I will address each of these reasons below.

We live in a time when the precautionary principle seems to apply to many public policy questions, whether it is climate change, natural disasters or public health. The problem with this principle of almost complete avoidance of risk is that the costs of mitigation are never considered and the alternatives often dismissed. Thus in New Zealand we have spent billions of dollars earthquake proofing buildings since the Christchurch quakes, when that money would almost certainly save more lives if it was spent on improving cancer treatment or building safe roads. The optimal risk management involves weighing the threat against the cost of mitigation and the alternatives. There are a number of considerations that have not been adequately considered in decisions on Covid-19 policy, including:
  • the vast majority of people being locked down are not infectious
  • Covid-19 does not represent a deadly risk to all but the most vulnerable in the population
  • the economic, social and health impacts of lockdowns are huge
  • there are alternatives to the wholesale abrogation of individual rights.
A more reasonable response would be to protect by isolation only those most vulnerable - the elderly and those with co-morbidities - and let the rest of the population go about its business. This is the approach taken in Sweden, Israel and a few other countries, which, although they have experienced far more deaths than New Zealand, have a lower Covid mortality than many countries with the most draconian lockdowns. It is also the approach recommended in the Great Barrington Declaration, which has been signed by thousands of epidemiologists and public health experts worldwide. The authors of the Declaration have pointed out that the costs of the lockdowns, even on people's health, almost certainly exceed the benefits in saving lives.

Finally, there is the slippery slope issue. Already public health authorities concerned about influenza and climate change policy advocates are pushing for lockdowns to be adopted to mitigate those risks. You may think it is unlikely that the public would accept such responses to those issues, but eighteen months ago no one thought the citizens of Western countries would accept the Covid-19 lockdowns. It has always been much easier to give up freedoms than to reestablish them and we forget that the liberal, rights-based order is a rare phenomenon in human history that sits on a fragile foundations. We can and do regress, as the people of China and Russia are discovering to their cost today, and dictatorial governments always have sound reasons to justify their policies.

Rights-based freedoms should not be given up cheaply and in my view preventing Covid-19 amongst the general population does not justify the cost, particularly as the CFR trends towards zero. What is done is done but we need to ensure we are not captured by the sunk cost fallacy and continue the lockdowns for fear of losing the benefits. We need to evaluate our Covid policies objectively from this point on. Australia has shown the way in determinedly coming out of lockdown and I hope the Ardern Government has the courage to do the same.

In the meantime, libertarians need to rediscover their principles.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Equity vs Rights

There is a realignment of politics that has been occurring around the world for some time. The traditional battle lines between the left and the right are no longer relevant in an age where progressive leaders align with global corporations to suppress free speech and conservative parties are attracting support from low income, working people. The new battle lines are becoming clear. On one side is the globalist, corporatist, governing elites; on the other side is the demos, the hoi polloi, the hard-working common people who keep the world functioning. It is a fight between those who think they are uniquely qualified to run everyone else's lives and those who want to be left alone to run their own lives.

The first group consists of those who regard every issue as a justification for expanding the power of government, whether it is climate change, economic inequality or Covid-19. It doesn't matter what the problem is, the answer is always more steps down the road towards totalitarianism - banning behaviour and views they consider undesirable, intruding more on our privacy, seizing more money from the most productive in society, and restricting movement and freedom of association. These are the people with the power in our society - they are highly organised, very well funded, have almost exclusive control of the mainstream and new media, and are in lockstep on every issue. 

On the other side is a disorganised rabble that often doesn't even know it shares a common interest. Many don't have a strong political philosophy but they tend to be sceptical about the extent of the problems the powerful profess to be concerned about and the solutions promoted by the elites. They accept that humans do have some impact on the climate, that economic inequality is growing by some measures, and that Covid-19 is a real killer, but they are smart enough to realise that they are the ones expected to bear the greatest costs of the solutions while the elites reap the benefits.

The issues are similar across the world but vary in degree from country to country. In the United States, race is the key issue. In Europe, immigration is the main battleground, and national and religious identity are important factors. Here in New Zealand it is Maori tribal rule, rather than race per se, that is the principle cause that the elite has adopted.

Identity politics is at the root of all these fights. The key question is whether your value as a human being is related to some immutable characteristics such as your ancestry, sex or gender and sexuality, or whether it is related to factors that you have some control over, such as your moral character, your behaviour and your achievements. More than three thousand years of Western civilisation led to a social system that put the greatest value on the latter factors - it was the gradual recognition of the dignity and sovereignty of the individual that paved the road to modern, liberal society. This philosophical thread can be traced through Judaism, Athenian democracy, the Roman republic, Christianity, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the abolition of slavery and the establishment of universal suffrage. There was much backsliding along the way, but the direction was overwhelmingly towards judging people as equal in rights regardless of their inherited characteristics.

Equity - equality of outcome - is the professed goal of those on the authoritarian side, but equity is the opposite of equality as understood by Enlightenment thinkers. John Locke, who has as much claim to be called the father of the Enlightenment as anyone, defined equality as the "equal freedom" and said it was dependent upon "not being subject to the will or authority of any other man". In other words, Locke realised that rights are all about the absence of force. 

Equity is the opposite - it means subjecting everyone to the levelling power of some all-powerful authority that must "harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions." Alexander Solzhenitsyn recognised this conflict when he said, "Human beings are born with different capacities. If they are free, they are not equal. And if they are equal, they are not free." 

Those who value equity above all else believe that the means justify the end. If you believe that the purpose of the individual is to serve the good of the collective, there is no limit to what can and should be done to individuals to achieve this. If you believe people are good or bad because of their immutable characteristics, there is no possibility of redemption for their original sins (viz. "white guilt"). And if you believe that the way to achieve equality is to bring those who are "privileged" down to size, sooner or later you are going to start chopping off feet.

Covid-19 has provided governments with the justification for repressing the rights-based freedoms we have taken for granted for decades - freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and freedom to operate a business or to go about your work. But governments have been selective in their application of these restrictions - certain businesses considered essential by some arbitrary criteria were allowed to remain open during lockdowns (e.g. in New Zealand supermarkets were open but not butchers), and protests and even violence by groups such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion have been condoned, while small, peaceful gatherings of people that the authorities disapprove of have been treated as insurrections. In other words, Covid-19 has established the principle that rights are the property of the government to bestow on those they see fit, and a privilege to be denied to those who do not have the government's favour.

The former prime minister of New Zealand, John Key, said this very explicitly when talking recently about Covid-19 vaccinations: "If you want to get the young people who are not being vaccinated, to be vaccinated, take away some of their rights." This demonstrates his utter ignorance of the nature of rights. I don't intend to get into a detailed discussion here about the metaphysical and ethical basis of rights, as I have written many earlier posts on the subject, but while philosophers might disagree about the nature and source of rights, almost all agree that rights don't exist at the discretion of governments. The fact that the Nazi regime killed six million Jews in the Holocaust doesn't mean Jews didn't have the right to life. If John Key believes the government can take away rights of young people who aren't vaccinated, then, like many political leaders today, he shares some philosophical principles (or, at least, the lack of them) with the Nazis. Perhaps it is not surprising that his government was only too willing to violate New Zealanders' rights while in power

Philosophers also agree that rights are universal - that they must be capable of being enjoyed by every person - and that they are mutually exclusive - we must each be able to exercise our rights without impinging on others' enjoyment of their rights. The latter is illustrated by the axiom, "your right to swing your arm stops just short of my nose." It is also why there is no such thing as "the right to a roof over your head" (to quote a common shibboleth of the left in New Zealand) - if you have such a right, others must be forced to provide it. I am sure the plantation owners in antebellum America thought they had the right to the free labour of the slaves in their fields (and they certainly had the legal right) but today almost no one would agree that slave ownership is a legitimate right.

Those who promote the equity agenda say it is about the rights of the disadvantaged, but equity is the antithesis of rights precisely because it requires real rights to be sacrificed to grant these arbitrary rights to others. And it is not as if governments that promote equity really act to protect the rights of the disadvantaged. The Ardern Government here in New Zealand has made equity a central plank of all their policies and if we take housing as a prominent example, their policies have significantly worsened housing affordability with the greatest impact on those on the lowest incomes. They have responded by passing laws to further restrict the rights of property-owning New Zealanders in a classic example of how the creation of arbitrary rights by governments depends on the erosion of real rights. The right to a roof over one's head has ended up denying many more New Zealanders homes than if they had simply respected New Zealanders' property rights (i.e. the right to enjoy the product of one's life and liberty) and let the market respond to the need for more housing.

Equity is a threat to real rights precisely because it is so insidious. It sounds like it is about fairness and dignity, and the motives of many promoting it are essentially noble. But few who promote it think through the implications of trying to enforce equality of outcomes on a diverse population with different needs and aspirations, and creating an all-powerful state apparatus to allocate resources according to inherent characteristics such as race and sex. Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago, described how the relentless pursuit of equality of outcome inevitably leads to gulags and genocide. Let's hope the West wakes up to the implications of equity before we get there.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

The Lying Hounds in the Mainstream Media

The mainstream media, particularly those here in New Zealand, seem to get worse by the day. They have abandoned any pretence of objectivity, politically impartiality and journalist integrity, and have become blatant propagandists for the governments they support and their establishment fellow-travellers. Actually, propaganda is probably too mild a term for what they churn out - that suggests a subtlety and a careful nurturing of the most favourable facts - but much of what the media publish is downright lies.

One of the very worst offenders is the New Zealand media outlet, Newshub. If you had seen the headline below on the Newshub site a couple of days ago you'd have thought that New Zealand had narrowly avoided an armed coup.

In fact, if you read all the way through the story it became apparent (despite Newshub's attempt to obscure the facts) that just one mentally unstable woman had been arrested in Auckland for protesting against the latest Covid-19 lockdown. The "19 arrested" referred to the number detained by police around the country for breaching lockdown for any reason. A conspiracy to overthrown the government? Only in the febrile imagination of the Newshub reporter.  

A later headline dropped the reference to "failed bid to overthrow Government" but still referred to a "chilling threat". However, they made the mistake of showing the woman in question wearing a colander on her head - as you can see below. A chilling threat to New Zealand democracy, indeed! Clearly, someone at Newhub was sufficiently self-aware to have pulled the ridiculous headline, but the story that remained on the website was just as much a bucket of horse manure as the first version. It quoted a University of Waikato Professor of Law warning that we need to take the threat of terrorism from the "anti-vax movement" seriously and equating anyone who might oppose compulsory vaccination with the Christchurch mosque shooter. Have these people no shame?

Karl du Fresne, the former editor of The Dominion newspaper and one of New Zealand's most respected journalists, has written that the propaganda in the New Zealand mainstream media is not surprising because the Ardern Government has created a $55 million so-called Public Interest Journalism Fund to "support New Zealand’s media to continue to produce stories that keep New Zealanders informed and engaged and support a healthy democracy" the Government likes. The money comes with blatant political strings attached, including supporting the Government's agenda on Maori separatism, countering so-called Covid-19 "misinformation" and various other propaganda conditions. Du Fresne has dubbed the taxpayer-funded propaganda programme the "Pravda Project", undoubtedly because the initiative is well on its way to achieving the aims of that Soviet journal - unalloyed support for the governing party and its doctrine.

The rest of the world has more than its share of establishment cheerleaders amongst the mainstream media - the venerable New York Times was so wrong-footed by the election of Trump in 2016 that its publisher issued a mea culpa admitting to its bias and promising to do better - and everyone knows where CNN, MSNBC and FoxNews stand politically, but few of them resort to such blatant lying as the media here.

I no longer subscribe to any mainstream media publications in New Zealand, having long since voted with my wallet on where I get my news (I subscribe to a number of international news services and online magazines) so I cannot do any more than try to ignore the excrement that they egest. But I urge anyone reading this to cancel your subscription, if you still have one. No doubt the Ardern Government's propaganda fund will keep them in their nefarious business for a while longer, but the fewer subscribers they have, the more pressure they will be under to change their ways.

UPDATE: Lindsay Mitchell notices a trend in departures from the MagicTalk radio network. With the incentive of the Ardern Government’s Pravda fund, it is hardly surprising NZ media outlets are quietly getting rid of any dissenting voices.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Elimination is futile

New Zealanders became complacent, even a little arrogant, about the country's Covid-19 status. We managed to keep the disease at bay for more than a year since our last strict lockdown in March and April 2020. We had a couple of more localised and less severe lockdowns in Auckland and a recent one in Wellington, but those were short-lived and we almost forgot that this disease could return. Even when Australia had new outbreaks, we thought the impact on New Zealand would be limited to closing the border rather than being a sign of worse to come. That was until last week when the Ardern Government abruptly announced, on the basis of a single confirmed community case in Auckland, the highest level of lockdown for the entire country. The response seems justified in hindsight with more than 100 community cases now confirmed including some in Wellington.

Most of the rest of the world accepted a long time ago that an elimination strategy was futile and that some level of transmission in the community was not only manageable but would ultimately contribute to herd immunity. New Zealand and Australia thought differently and imagined that their geography could protect them. In the short term, the strategy was successful - both countries achieved zero community transmissions for a while, but at a cost of turning our countries into hermit kingdoms, which don't allow travellers from overseas unless they go through two weeks of confinement in an hotel room.

Most Covid-19 experts believe the disease will become endemic - in other words, it will never be completely eliminated. Thinking of this disease like smallpox, which the world has eliminated, is wrong - you need to think of it like the common cold, which is a coronavirus in many of its variants, or the more deadly influenza. We accept that these diseases are endemic and we are sceptical about claims of eliminating them. So why do we delude ourselves about eliminating the very similar Covid-19?

The more reasonable argument for locking down is that we are doing it until the population achieves herd immunity through vaccination. Unfortunately, the latest news from Israel, which vaccinated most of its population before anyone else, is that infections are now increasing amongst the vaccinated. This may be because the effect of the vaccines wanes over time or due to the more virulent strains such as the "delta" variant, but whatever the reason, we have to accept that for now vaccination isn't a reliable pathway to elimination.

If we are determined to lock down every time we have an outbreak, no matter how small, and we know that the disease cannot be eliminated, that means we will be locking down intermittently for the rest of our lives. Is this really what we want?

Let us not delude ourselves - locking down is a massive and unprecedented infringement of civil liberties. We are all effectively under house arrest. Never before have governments locked down entire populations including healthy people to combat a disease - not for the Black Death, the 1918 Influenza, the polio epidemics of the early 20th Century, or for SARS (Covid-1) in 2002. And notwithstanding how our prime minister presents it, this is not a we're-all-in-this-together, voluntary exercise - the lockdowns are being enforced by the agents of the state with draconian powers and brutal tactics.

I accept that restrictions on social interaction are necessary to combat epidemics, particularly those like Covid-19 that are highly infectious and transmissible while non-symptomatic. However, like all risk mitigations, there has to be a balancing of benefits against costs and a rational consideration of the alternatives. We cannot continue to lock down for the rest of our lives. As I wrote last year when we were in lockdown, it will destroy our economy, our "social cohesion" (to use a phrase our Government seems to be very fond of) and paradoxically our health (through delays and cancellations in treatments of other illnesses), at a cost that far exceeds the that of Covid-19 infections.

Sooner or later we have to have the courage to accept that elimination of Covid-19 is futile and that we can tolerate a level of transmission without the knee-jerk reaction of national lockdowns. The only question is when we will be prepared to accept that. If the Ardern Government had been more competent in negotiating the supply of vaccines and we had been at the front of the queue as they promised rather than the worst in the OECD for vaccination rates, then we might be in a stronger position to accept the ongoing risk of exposure to Covid-19. Add to that the fact that after eighteen months we still don't have a quarantine system that can reliably keep infected people entering New Zealand from infecting the wider community, and we have to conclude that if lockdown is really the only option still available to us, then Jacinda Ardern and her ministers are to blame.

Note: As I was writing this, I saw that Rodney Hide has published on his blog a rough cost-benefit analysis of lockdowns. He concludes that lockdowns are not worth two days of lost economic activity. While I think his analysis is overly simplistic, he's probably got the ratio about right.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Afghanistan is America's Suez Crisis

Twenty years after the United States invaded Afghanistan to remove the Taliban regime that was harbouring the architects of the 9/11 attacks, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is back with more territory and with the same murderous intent to subjugate its people.

What was the point of it all? President George W. Bush's stated intention was to destroy Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organisation that launched the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, which was based in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. But it took until Barack Obama's presidency ten years later before a US special operations team eventually killed Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda (whom it turned out was actually being harboured by America's supposed ally, Pakistan). But cutting off the head of Al-Qaeda meant that, like a modern day Medusa, it spawned a dozen other evil organisations in Iraq, Syria, Mali and other Islamic countries.

Today, with Kabul, the Afghan capital, and most of the rest of the country again in Taliban hands (they now hold more territory than in 2001), Western nations scrambling to evacuate their diplomats and citizens from a chaotic Kabul airport, and local allies abandoned to the dubious mercy of the country's new rulers, it is indeed hard to know what the point of it all was. It's not even as though we in the West have taught the Islamic extremists in the Taliban any lessons other than about our own perfidy. By all reports, the Taliban is already settling scores, carrying out executions and demanding child "brides" from conquered communities. Far from being chastened, the Taliban is reiterating their commitment to the fundamentalist Islamic goal of a global caliphate.

The Americans might have had some humility in setting out on their Afghanistan adventure if they had a sense of history, for that country has been the graveyard of empires including the British in the 19th Century and the Soviets in the 20th Century. But the Western experience of Afghanistan goes back much further than that - all the way to Alexander the Great, who married an Afghani princess, Roxanne, to help ensure the compliance of the region's rulers once he had conquered it. Perhaps Joe Biden should have followed Alexander's example and sought a second wife from among the daughters of the Taliban leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar. In Biden's case, a young second wife might have had the added benefit of staving off his obvious senescence, although I suspect it is too late for that.

Here in New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern seems to have taken on board some of that American hubris and is lecturing the Taliban from afar to uphold Western standards of human rights because "the whole world will be watching." I'm sure the Taliban leaders are quaking in their boots. Meanwhile, Ardern has ordered New Zealand soldiers and a Royal New Zealand Airforce C-130 Hercules aircraft to mount a mission to Afghanistan to evacuate New Zealanders from the country. Quite how she intends this will happen when not even the Americans can evacuate their people in an orderly manner, is beyond me, but an appreciation for the reality on the ground has never been Ardern's strong point.

I don't believe the United States should have occupied Afghanistan for twenty years. There was a justification for American troops entering the country following the 9-11 attacks to track down Al-Qaeda, but that should have been a special forces mission, not a wholesale invasion of the entire country. It is not that I think the United States was morally wrong to invade - I believe, as Ayn Rand said, that although it is not a free nation’s duty to liberate other nations but it has the right to do it, when and if it so chooses

The problem here is that it was in no one's interests, least of all that of the United States, to spend twenty years trying to establish a liberal democracy in a place that has no cultural traditions on which to build such institutions. What is worse is that the United States ruled through a system of corrupt, cronyist, favours - as Jacob Siegel quotes on Bari Weiss's excellent Common Sense substack, "the biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan was the United States". You can't establish a moral order by immoral means. But having occupied Afghanistan and destroyed its existing institutions, however illiberal they were, America's politicians and military leaders had a minimal obligation to leave the place no worse than they found it, and they can't even claim to have done that. President Joe Biden is responsible for the lives of the Afghans who helped the Americans during their twenty-year experiment in nation-building, many of whom will now be tortured, mutilated and killed for what the Taliban sees as their traitorous and blasphemous conduct.

The fallout of the fall of Afghanistan will last for years. America has shown that once again it lacks the national vigour, moral authority and self-belief to fulfil the objectives of its military interventions. Afghanistan is already being talked about as this generation's Vietnam. I think America's Suez Crisis might be a more accurate comparison, because it was that event that signalled the decline of Britain's imperial might more than any other. I feel sorry for the Afghans who must face the extreme theocratic and misanthropic whims of their new rulers, but I also feel a bit sorry for Americans, who must be bewildered at how the greatest military power in history has once again been made to look ineffectual and irrelevant.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Our Brave New World

Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. ~ Ronald Reagan
Several years ago my daughter was studying Brave New World in her secondary school English class and she told me about an exercise that the teacher conducted with the class. For those of you who may not be familiar with the Aldous Huxley novel, it imagines a future in which people are ostensibly free, but where babies are selectively bred to be in one of five classes, from the Alphas - the ruling elite - to the Epsilons - the worker drones. Parenthood has been abolished and children are incubated and raised by the state, and sex is seen as a transaction - a source only of mindless relief, along with Soma, the state-sanctioned narcotic that everyone is encouraged to consume.

The exercise that my daughter's teacher gave the class was to write about which of the classes you would want to be in - the Alphas, who have the greatest abilities but also the greatest responsibility, or one of the lower classes. My daughter, I am proud to say, wanted to be an Alpha. What surprised her and me was that the vast majority of her fellow pupils wanted to be in one of the lower classes, living in (what they imagined to be) blissful ignorance. And this wasn't some lower-decile school where the children came from working-class families, this was a private school comprising the offspring of some of the country's intellectual and social elite (but perhaps that is not surprising).

I didn't think much of it at the time, but in the present world of Covid lockdowns and the reintroduction of discrimination by inherent characteristics such as race in name of "equity", the lemming-like preferences of my daughter's classmates don't seem so bizarre. We are turning into a society where people prefer to be locked up in their houses and subject to all manner of social restrictions than to be free to determine their own actions and to take responsibility for their choices. And if you think that the selective breeding in Brave New World is a little too fanciful, bear in mind that studies in America show that assortative mating (i.e. selecting a long-term partner from within your own social class) is increasing and may be a contributor to increasing economic inequality.

The other great dystopian novels of the 20th Century, 1984 and Fahrenheit-451 are coming true in their own ways too. Monopolistic, state-sanctioned control of the electronic media that pervades our lives, the labelling of dissenting opinion as "fake news", and the creation of a whole category of oxymoronic expressions such as "free speech doesn't include hate speech", are surely blatant examples of 1984's Telescreens, Thoughtcrime and Newspeak. The censorship and withdrawal of books because their authors have said something that doesn't accord with the political orthodoxy makes the book-burning world of Fahrenheit-451 look remarkably prescient.

Eighteen months ago no one predicted that we would respond to a pandemic by locking down healthy people in their homes. It had never been done in history - not for the Black Death, the 1918 influenza pandemic, the repeated polio epidemics of the early 20th Century, or SARS-1. We looked aghast at China locking up entire cities in early 2020 and said such an authoritarian response would never fly in Western countries. And yet here we are.

I hear you say that this is all just a temporary blip on the trajectory of ever-increasing liberty and prosperity. We had to give up a little freedom for Covid, and if the mainstream media is complicit in controlling opinions that are not conducive to "social cohesion" (to use an expression that has been used to justify the Ardern Government's proposed hate speech laws), well, that is not a bad thing. Besides, everything will all be back to normal once Covid is conquered, won't it?

If you think that, you haven't been listening. Just this week there have been stories about how we won't be returning to normal anytime soon, perhaps not ever. Public health experts here in New Zealand are already saying we need to treat influenza just the same as Covid - with continuation of lockdowns, border restrictions and masks in public. New Zealanders overwhelmingly support this, according to research released by the prime minister's office, with 91% saying they do not see things returning to normal even after most of the population has been vaccinated against Covid. Isn't this starting to look a little bit like Brave New World?

For those of us who love freedom, it is hard to know how to respond to this mass Stockholm Syndrome. I am by nature an optimist and console myself with the positivity of The Rational Optimist and Human Progress, but I am also a keen student of history and I see many parallels between our present time and the late 1920s/early 1930s with its cultural decadence, the resurgence of authoritarian regimes to challenge the liberal world order, and the acceptance of extremist violence as a normal part of Western political discourse. In the last four decades we have enjoyed the greatest period of freedom, (relative) peace and prosperity in human history, but I fear that we are about to discover that those words by Ronald Reagan that appear at the top of this post are true.