Friday, December 16, 2016

The Year of the Deplorables (and some Greats)

Two Thousand and Sixteen will be remembered as the year of the Deplorables. The clever, considerate, right-thinking people that run the governments of Britain and the US had been doing what they always do - looking after their subjects who are too stupid to look after themselves - when the ungrateful hoards turned their backs and voted for Brexit and Trump. This was despite almost the entire news media, the smart people in academia and the bureaucracy, and most of the lovely people in the entertainment industry, telling them how they should vote and how racist, sexist and xenophobic they were to even consider not choosing Remain and Hillary. I mean, how dumb and ungrateful can people get?

The so-called Islamic State organisation claimed responsibility for bombings and terrorist attacks in Brussels, Baghdad, KabulPakistan, Germany, Ohio, Cairo and Turkey (to name just a few) and there was the terrible attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida - but of course the thousands of deaths from terrorism in the name of Islam paled into insignificance against the true horror (if you believe Western governments and the mainstream media) that was Islamophobia, particularly that fomented by Donald Trump.

We had the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro with an opening ceremony that tried to out-propagandise the London one, this time on environmentalism, which was a bit rich considering Brazil has destroyed more rainforest than any other on earth and the host city was so polluted some athletes refused to compete because of fears for their health.

On the subject of sports, Ireland broke an 111-year losing streak by finally beating the All Blacks, the Chicago Cubs overcame the Curse of the Billy Goat to win the World Series (for which I was in North America, so had to take an interest), Novak Djokovic was finally dethroned after 200 weeks as the number one men's tennis player in the world by Andy Murray, and Muhammed Ali, whom I thought truly was The Greatest, died.

We also lost David Bowie, who died just after releasing a last album that presaged his death, followed by Prince and, later in the year, the eloquent Leonard Cohen, and Bud Spencer - the star of spaghetti westerns that I loved in my childhood. On a happier note, the Cuban people finally got rid of their murderous dictator, Fidel Castro, and hopefully his brother Raul won't be far behind.

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature and promptly proved he didn't deserve it by saying the award "was truly beyond words", and all of the rest of United States' Nobel winners were immigrants, demonstrating once again that immigrants usually aren't bludgers and criminals.

At the end of the year an undistinguished New Zealand prime minister (whose name I've already forgotten) resigned to be replaced, the other chap.

And if some of the above depresses you, a Swedish author has a wonderful advent calendar on Twitter that makes you realise that 2016 was one of the best years ever to be alive on Earth (H/T Not PC).

Finally, I would like to thank those of you who read and commented on my blog. I have tried to keep up the regular posts, although overseas travel and some busy periods in my work thwarted my best intentions. As always, I resolve to do better next year. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Trump is right on China

China is a totalitarian dictatorship. The Chinese Communist Party continues to maintain an iron grip on power in spite of a degree of economic liberalisation over the past 40 years. The regime made it clear that it was not willing to countenance any challenge to its political hegemony in 1989 by unleashing its military might against its own defenceless citizens in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. If there was any doubt about the Communist Party's continued intentions in this regard, it has been dispelled by the more recent repression of the independence movement in the western Xinjiang province, the blocking of two separatist candidates from taking their seats in the Hong Kong legislature, and the continued imprisonment without trial of anyone who speaks out against the government such as the world-renown artist Ai Wei Wei. Most recently the Chinese government has begun to assert its military might outside its borders, particularly in the South China Sea where it has taken control of, and built military bases on, a number of small islands and atolls that are much more legitimately the territory of Japan, Vietnam, Phillipines and Indonesia.

In 1971 the United Nations switched from recognising the Nationalist China regime in Taipei to the Communist regime in Beijing. This was a expedient solution to the dilemma that faced the international community - the largest national population on Earth was represented by a government that had lost a civil war and now only governed a fraction of the original nation. Other countries that were similarly divided, such as Korea and Germany, split into separate nations both of which were recognised by the international community, but the Communist regime in Beijing has been completely intransigent on the question of separate recognition for Taiwan, and its 'One China' policy continues to prevail in international affairs.

Taiwan today is a relatively free, democratic and liberal state with one of the highest standards of living in the region. It is peaceful and non-aggressive but has a powerful military to deter invasion by the Communist forces just 100 miles away. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party supports independence from mainland China but all parties in Taiwan measure their language on the issue for fear of provoking the enormous dragon across the strait.

The international community has tiptoed around China's sensitivities for decades, tolerating the Communist Party's crimes against its own people and its belligerent foreign policy with barely a diplomatic frown. The United States in particular has courted China since Richard Nixon broke the isolation with his historic visit in 1972 and under Barack Obama there has been scarcely a peep from Washington about China's increasingly aggressive expansion into the South China Sea.

Donald Trump is still a month from his presidential inauguration and yet he is signalling a very different policy towards China. It started with his acceptance of a congratulatory telephone call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, which prompted a chilly reaction from Beijing. Trump was not phased by the critical response and in an interview he stated that his acceptance of the One China policy is linked to China's positions on its currency (which he claims China has deliberately kept undervalued), the South China Sea expansion and its continued support for North Korea.

History has taught us that appeasement of tyrants is ultimately more dangerous than standing up to them. Ronald Reagan took a much more aggressive stance towards the Soviet Union than his predecessors and history ultimately judged his actions to be right. China is in many ways a more challenging adversary than the Soviet empire was in the late 1980s, and Trump has not exactly demonstrated the composure and judgement that Reagan, for all his faults, showed as president. Trump is playing a bold hand and whether he has the nous to force China into compromise on the issues he has identified, or he precipitates a trade war or worse, is yet to be seen. But he is right to draw a line between support for the One China policy and the issues he has raised. It is past time for the international community to grow a spine in its dealings with China.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

On Immigration, Sovereignty and the Modern Nation State

Donald Trump made immigration a central issue of his election campaign, claiming that immigrants take Americans jobs and commit a disproportionate number of crimes. I disagree with Trump that immigrants steal jobs or that they make a country less safe. The evidence from countries that have had high levels of immigration historically, such as the United States, is that immigrants create more jobs and commit less crimes than the 'native' populations. I believe that the benefits immigrants bring almost always outweigh any negative factors such as social disharmony and that anyone who comes to a country with peaceful intentions and who is self-supporting should be welcomed.

Trump's view of immigration is a typically collectivist one. Collectivists believe the rights of the group, i.e. the nation state, the race, the socio-economic segment or however they define it, should prevail over the rights of the individual. In the case of immigration, they believe the collective rights of those who are already in the country outweigh the individual rights of the immigrant and others such as family members, friends and employers who might have an interest in that person coming in.

I have written before about how modern nation states are, for the most part, entirely artificial and arbitrary entities. If you doubt it, consider that in the early 19th Century it was almost as likely that New Zealand would end up as a French colony or a state of Australia as the nation we became. The United States was cobbled together from territories that were settled, conquered, purchased and conceded over many centuries and through successive waves of immigration and it is still evolving as a political entity today (e.g. with the current initiative for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state). So when Trump talks about 'America First' or Winston Peters about New Zealand First, which America or New Zealand do they mean?

Political commentators and historians talk about sovereignty as if it is inherent to a political entity rather than to the individuals who inhabit that entity. If sovereignty is a right in the sense that John Locke or Thomas Paine defined the concept, then it cannot belong to a territory or a group, it must be inherent to individuals. The Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights and the US Declaration of Independence were all based on the principle that state sovereignty derives from individual sovereignty and that individuals only cede a degree of their inherent sovereignty in return for collective protection - not the other way around.

Which brings us to New Zealand and the Maori. The Treaty of Waitangi was a deal in which Maori chiefs agreed to trade their tribal sovereignty for the protection of the British Crown. The Treaty bestowed on Maori 'all the Rights and Privileges of British Subjects', i.e. Maori individually became subjects of the Crown. This meant that they were no longer subjects of whichever violent and capricious chief happened to gain the upper hand in the endless wars that were fought between tribes up until 1840, and that they were emancipated from the slavery, indiscriminate tribal killings, infanticide and cannibalism that had prevailed in their highly collectivist society until that time.

Some tribal leaders and many political sympathisers today interpret the Treaty of Waitangi as giving residual sovereignty rights to present day tribal elites. I completely reject this view, not because of anything the Treaty of Waitangi may or may not say (although I think the words support my interpretation) but because I don't accept that tribes have any inherent rights whatsoever. Whether you think Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty or not is irrelevant - the Treaty extended the rights recognised under British law to Maori individually and those rights cannot be given up or abrogated today - at least not morally. It is the individuals who live in New Zealand today that have the sole right to determine who governs this nation state because it is their sovereignty that is being ceded - not that given up by a group of Maori chiefs 176 years ago.

Which brings me back to immigration. The main problem that collectivists have with unlimited immigration is their belief that a nation state is some sort of exclusive club, membership of which is determined by racial, ethnic or cultural criteria, and they don't want to share the nation's benefits with those who don't meet their selective membership criteria. This presupposes that a nation is a zero sum game, which is of course a typical left-wing view of economics. But if I am right and a nation is only a collection of individuals that delegate some of their rights for protection to the state, there are no collective benefits to be shared. It is up to individuals, families and businesses to decide whether they will be generous in accommodating newcomers and the state's role should be confined to ensuring those who enter the country do not endanger anyone else.

Monday, December 5, 2016

John Key hasn't made NZ a better place

So John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand for nearly three parliamentary terms, is to resign. Some of the more alarmist media have expressed shock, but others predicted it some time ago. My initial reaction was to tweet the above comment but on reflection I am not so sure that he has left the country no worse than he found it. Certainly it is not as good as it might have been after 8 years of government led by a National Party that is meant to stand for "equal citizenship and equal opportunity, individual freedom and choice, personal responsibility, competitive enterprise and reward for achievement, and limited government". John Key's government that has given us the notorious FATCA tax law, the draconian GCSB Amendment Act, a retreat from the principals of equality before the law and universal democratic suffrage, a heavy-handed and authoritarian response to the Christchurch earthquake that has hamstrung that city's recovery and the country's economic growth, and a myriad of other erosions of individual freedoms and expansions of government interference in our lives.

Some commentators have predicted that Judith Collins might follow Key as leader. Frankly, I think her selection would be electoral suicide for the National Party as Collins remains deeply unpopular after her resignation following various scandals during National's second term in office, despite Key reappointing her to Cabinet. The alternative seems to be Paula Bennett, but I doubt whether the latter has the necessary political presence and support amongst her colleagues to get the top job. The current deputy prime minister, Bill English, will be the caretaker until the National caucus votes on a new leader but he is hardly an inspiring choice to take the party into next year's election.

This country remains relatively free, prosperous and safe - perhaps one of the best places in the world to live based on these criteria, but under John Key the trend has not been positive and I hold out no hope that a new prime minister will reverse it.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Mexico has lessons for New Zealand

I recently spent a month travelling around Mexico. It is not a country we hear a great deal about here in New Zealand but recently it has been in the news because of Donald Trump's campaign promise to build a border wall and make the Mexicans pay for it (although, interestingly, the US presidential election seemed to be of far less importance in the Mexican media than the outcome of the baseball World Series, which was being contested north of the border about the same time).

Mexico is a beautiful country with a hugely rich history and far more diverse geography and demography than most people would imagine. The Mexican people are warm and friendly, once you overcome their initial reserve, and they appear to enjoy life far more than the overly serious and officious Americans north of the border. However, Mexico is a basket case politically, economically and socially, which is why so many Mexicans want to join their numerous cousins in the USA.

Mexicans, like Maori, still tend to blame their people's ills on colonialism but they perhaps have a greater justification in doing so than those descended from the first New Zealanders. The Spanish conquistadors had few of the qualms of the British colonisers in New Zealand, seizing all the land, enslaving the entire indigenous population and setting up a feudal society that various revolutions since have never entirely overcome. The consequences of this is that Mexico today is a country that is still to some extent at war with itself. 

The conflict in the country is seen in several areas. Firstly, there is the well-known drug violence, which is mainly confined to the northern regions that border the United States. The drug violence is all the worse because of the extensive corruption in the local police forces that not only turn a blind eye to much of the violence but actually participate in some of the worst of it (such as the massacre of 43 students in Guerrero in 2014). Then there is the political violence, like the recent kidnapping and torture of a priest in Veracruz, which seems to be a constant if low-level threat particularly in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. And finally there is the less overtly violent, but nevertheless intimidatory, protest actions that regularly disrupt life in all the major cities in Mexico - such as barricading all the exits from a city and demanding money from drivers to let them past (which I personally experienced on several occasions).

Tribalism plays a significant part in Mexico's political and social conflict. Ethnic groups such as the Nahuatl, Yucatec and Zapotec all have their particular grievances, usually about land and the preservation of language and culture. Like Maori, they choose to focus on their differences rather than on commonalities of shared national heritage, individual rights and the benefits of living in a modern, pluralistic society. Many of their historical complaints may be justified but collective grievances and identity group politics are only likely to hold people back and ultimately economic and social advancement always comes down to individual aspirations and responsibility.

Mexico seemed to be on a track to economic prosperity and real democracy in the latter decades of the 20th Century after hundreds of years of autocracy and one-party rule, but progress has stalled in the last twenty years and the lack of investment in infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals is obvious to anyone visiting the country. Undoubtedly the country's long dalliance with socialism is a significant cause of this decay, with even the state-owned oil monopoly, Pemex, unable to maintain investment in new exploration and extraction methods.

There are some lessons in Mexico for New Zealand, which has been encouraging the grievances of Maori for the last forty years in a seemingly endless series of Treaty of Waitangi claims and settlements. The strength of modern Western democracies is in their unity and common humanity, not in tribal differences. Universal rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of one's own interests and equality before law are the keys to freedom and prosperity. Tribalism and the inevitable grievances that arise from identity politics are obstacles not the solution.