Thursday, October 29, 2015

Why the West is looking to more radical candidates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 22, 2015

ACLU report on Chinese 'credit score' is frightening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Irwin Schiff demonstrated the true nature of taxation

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

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

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

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

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

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