Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Paying MPs less would improve their calibre

An unhealthy characteristic of many politicians today is that they have spent their entire lives in government. In the past a political career was something successful people embarked on later in life as a service to the community in which they had attained their wealth and position, and this model had the advantage of ensuring politicians had experience of the real world outside politics. I was reminded of this the other day when I read an article on the Stuff website reporting that veteran Member of Parliament Trevor Mallard has his eye on the position of Speaker of the House should his Labour Party be elected in next year's election.

Mallard is 62 years old and has been in politics all of his working life. He has been an MP for thirty years and prior to that was a Labour Party official, and he has never had any sort of career outside politics. I have nothing in particular against Mallard and he seems a decent fellow, but he is a good example of his type. Former prime minister Helen Clark is the same and is now attempting to cap off her career with the world's top bureaucratic sinecure, the job of Secretary-General of the United Nations.

The problem with this lack of real-world experience is that politicians come to believe that they have the capability of solving any problem better than people left to their own devices. They believe they are smarter than the rest of the population and that we all need their interference to be able to manage our lives. They think they can make better decisions than all of the rest of us and they arrogantly assume they have better judgement than the market - better than millions of people working in free association with each other to test ideas and to come up with ingenious solutions that no single person could conceive of on his or her own. Such delusions are unsurprising in people who have never had to work in a real job where their income depends on their ability to collaborate with others to produce something of real value to customers.

I think we need to return to the old model of drawing our parliamentary representatives from the ranks of the most successful in society and discouraging them from making long careers in politics. The obvious way to do this is to reduce or eliminate MP's remuneration. I would propose paying them only a small stipend, say around $20,000 per year plus expenses. That would ensure only those who genuinely wished to serve the country and who had a track record of success in other fields were likely to stand for election. It is probably the only job where paying the office-holder less would raise the calibre of the applicant.

The other change that would be needed to make this work is a significant reduction in the amount of time Parliament meets. I think Texas has a model for this - the Texan legislature meets for just 90 days every two years. Not only would this allow for MPs to continue to work in other jobs, it would have the benefit of considerably reducing the amount of legislation that Parliament could pass in the time available. It is no coincidence that Texas is also the most prosperous state in America.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

If the answer is Trump, what is the question?

So Donald J Trump is now the nominated candidate of the Republican Party for this year's US presidential election. I seem to be a lot less surprised by this outcome than many other New Zealanders, probably because I have spent more time in the United States in recent years and have regular contact with a lot more people living in America than the average New Zealander. I don't think you need to be very politically astute to understand why Trump has secured the Republican Party's nomination.

Firstly, there is the fact that America continues to languish in the economic doldrums it has been in since 2008. Despite endless pump-priming by the Federal Reserve, and talking up of the anaemic recovery by President Obama and his bureaucrats, many Americans cannot find work (the unemployment rate for men between the ages of 25 and 54 is 16%) and many are still 'underwater' in terms of wealth, having not regained the equity they lost in property and pension funds during the global financial crisis.

Secondly, there is disillusionment with the existing political institutions to deal with America's problems. Many Americans bought Obama's message of 'hope and change' but after eight years there has been no real change except for a much more expensive compulsory health insurance system, and no hope left. The Republicans are seen as equally hopeless, having been in control of both houses of Congress for the last two years with seemingly nothing to show for it.

Thirdly, there was the uninspiring line-up of alternative candidates in the presidential primaries. As National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg puts it, "the prospect of watching a Bush-Clinton race was so disgusting" that many people decided they would rather have a billionaire buffoon or a dyed-in-the-wool Socialist than either of the candidates from the two dynasties that account for three of the last four presidents.

Trump is a consummate populist, even more so than that other populist, Barack Obama. He doesn't have any discernible political philosophy - his position on any issue, whether it is immigration, trade or terrorism, is whatever will make him popular. Perhaps the only political label you could justifiably put on him is that he is a nationalist. He certainly does not have any credible solutions to America's problems. The Republican Party has decided he is the answer, but no one seems to know what is the question.

How will Trump perform as president? No one knows that either, but I expect that we are going to find out because (as I have written before) I believe he will beat Hillary Clinton to become the next President of the United States.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Britain replaces the Weasel with Big Sister

David Cameron has stepped down and Britain has a new prime minister in Theresa May. If there was any doubt about Cameron's character before, he removed all doubt with his petulant resignation when the Brexit referendum didn't go his way. This is the man who promised the referendum and set the date, so his response shows the most callous disregard for the democratic process that he put in place and for the interests of his country. He is reported as saying, "Why should I do all the hard shit?" to implement the decision of the electorate. Clearly, it has never occurred to him that being prime minister might involve some "hard shit". The only positive thing to come out of all this is that Cameron has ensured he will be regarded for posterity as the monumental fuck-up he really is.

I wrote before the referendum that I didn't delude myself that Britain is suddenly going to become a paragon of individual liberty if a majority votes for Brexit and unfortunately I've already been proved right by the Conservative Party's choice for the new prime minister. Theresa May is no friend of liberty, having introduced as Home Secretary the notorious Investigatory Powers Bill, known as the 'Snoopers' Charter', which is described in this article in The Independent as "the most intrusive surveillance legislation of any democratic country". May wants to force all technology companies to install 'backdoors' to enable spying on mobile phones and supports draconian enforcement of 'cyberbullying'. The Independent article points out that European Union law has more protections for individual privacy and use of data than the UK and raises the risk that May could oppose any equivalent legislation in the UK, leaving Britain without even its current privacy and civil liberties protections.

So, Britain has replaced the Weasel of Westminster with Big Sister, and as a sign of the post-referendum future of Britain, it is very ominous.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Ridiculous and dishonest excuses for housing bubble

Today we have the extraordinary spectacle of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand blaming immigrants for this country's housing price bubble and calling on the government to review immigration policy. This comes after the Prime Minister criticised the Reserve Bank for not acting to restrict the access of property investors to bank loans.

I am not sure which of these two calls is the more ridiculous but both are equally dishonest. The inflation in the property market in is due in large part to the massive expansion in the money supply, which the Reserve Bank manages, fueling demand in the property market, but it is also due to supply-side restrictions driven by an onerous regulatory environment. The latter is mostly due to the byzantine Resource Management Act, which allows territorial authorities to tightly restrict the supply of new land and which imposes huge compliance costs on builders and developers, but also to the increasing burden of a myriad of other laws such as new Health and Safety at Work Act.

It seems that John Key and his officials will do anything but admit the true causes of the housing bubble. Whether you look at demand-side or supply-side issues they are all of the government's making and the fact that two arms of government are blaming each other for the problem makes it clear where the blame lies - and it isn't with immigrants. Instead of looking to scapegoats, the government should be looking at themselves and their policies.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Abortion Post

I usually make a point of avoiding debate about abortion because most people are so rigid in their view on the subject that I don't expect to be able to convince anyone to change their opinion. However, recently I have become tired of reading and listening to people, with whom I otherwise agree, trying to shove their anti-abortion views down my throat. It seems that no matter the topic under discussion - economic liberty, terrorism, climate change, Brexit or whatever - these people aren't happy until they introduce abortion into the conversation. They arrogantly assume that because you agree with them on other issues, you must support their views on abortion as well. They often call themselves libertarians, but it seems that their support for individual liberty stops at the point that the individual has a fetus in her womb.

I believe that all human beings have inherent rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (as a clever chap once wrote), and that all these rights include being able to make decisions in your own interests about your own body. Therefore I support the right of individuals to ingest whatever recreational drugs they like, to take whatever medical treatments they consider to be appropriate, and even to end their lives when they so choose. The only limitation I would place on individuals exercising these rights is that they must be capable of making an informed decision on their own behalf.

A woman who is pregnant and who is competent to make decisions is the only moral judge about what is in her own best interests about her body. Anyone else who thinks they have the right to overrule her decisions in this regard is the moral equivalent of a slave-owner, because to force someone to use their body against their will, and for a purpose she considers contrary to her best interests, is slavery. If you prohibit a woman from making the decision to terminate her pregnancy, you are in effect shackling her and forcing her to sacrifice her interests for yours (or your interpretation of your god's interests).

What about the argument that the fetus is also a human being with the right to life? I think the debate about whether the fetus is a human being or not is a red herring. The fetus is a stage in the development of a human being and so is the embryo and the zygote. The decision on when the product of human fertilisation and gestation becomes a human being is entirely an arbitrary one, on which even the major religions have found it difficult to agree (for example, the official Roman Catholic Church doctrine, on which even many Catholics disagree, is that the gametes are sacred human life and that 'spilling the seed' is, in effect, murder - which is why it opposes the use of condoms). 

I have written before on how real, objectively-determined rights are never in conflict and that holds true for the abortion question. The fully-formed, fully-functioning, pregnant woman has all the inherent rights of a human being, and it is logically and morally nonsensical to claim that something within her body has separate rights that trump hers.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The arrogance of the annointed ones

I thought of the European Union and the reaction to the Brexit vote when I read these words from Thomas Sowell:
In their haste to be wiser and nobler than others, the anointed have misconceived two basic issues. They seem to assume: 1) that they have more knowledge than the average member of the benighted, and 2) that this is the relevant comparison. The real comparison, however, is not between the knowledge possessed by the average member of the educated elite versus the average member of the general public, but rather the total direct knowledge brought to bear through social processes (the competition of the marketplace, social sorting, etc.), involving millions of people, versus the secondhand knowledge of generalities possessed by a smaller elite group.

 H/T Mark J Perry at American Enterprise Institute

Monday, July 4, 2016

Independence Day celebrates individual rights

Today is Independence Day, the day on which Americans celebrate the Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies in America from Great Britain. One thing that is often forgotten is that the American Revolution was a rebellion of Englishmen against their government. They were a remarkable group those revolutionaries, risking their lives by committing treason against the Crown. They were intellectuals like Thomas Jefferson, polymaths like Benjamin Franklin and pragmatists like James Madison. Some, like John Adams, came reluctantly to the cause, while others like George Washington were enthusiastic revolutionaries. What they had in common was a belief that
individuals that are sovereign and that moral governments can only rule with the consent of the governed.

Those brave founders signed a declaration that enunciated a philosophy that was radical for the times. It wasn't completely original - other Englishmen like John Locke and Thomas Paine (who went to America to join the revolution) had already expressed similar sentiments - but it went against the the predominant philosophy that had endured since Aristotle and Socrates - that individuals are sacrificial lambs to the greater good. They turned this prevailing wisdom on its head and said that human beings have inherent rights including the right to pursue their own interests (described in the Declaration as 'the pursuit of happiness') and that these rights cannot be subordinated to anyone's view of the collective good.

The Declaration also stated that governments exist only to protect the rights of individuals. This is, in my view, perhaps the most under-appreciated principle contained in that powerful document. It means there cannot be conflict between the actions of a moral government and the rights of the individual. How can that be true, you ask? Surely part of the role of government is to arbitrate between the conflicting rights of its citizens?

The answer to this dilemma is that there is no conflict between the objectively-determined rights of individuals. Conflict arises because of subjective claims that are not genuine rights (such as 'the right to a job'). The rights that the Declaration refers to are by definition universal and they impose no obligation on anyone other than to respect the same rights in everyone else. There is no conflict between a government that regards its role as solely to protect rights by this definition and the rights of the individual because they are one and the same thing*. This suggests that many, if not most, of the actions of the United States Government today are immoral and inconsistent with the Declaration (and the US is certainly not unique in this regard).

There are many who claim that the Declaration and the US Constitution are anachronistic. I think, on the contrary, both documents were incredibly farsighted. It is not these documents that are the problem today but successive governments abrogation of them.

* I have expanded on this subject before here.