Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Evil of Equity

The New Zealand Government has caught the equity bug. Everywhere you look they are trying to achieve it. I asked a senior public servant recently what he understood equity to mean and he said it meant 'fairness', but when I pressed him further, he defined it as 'equality of outcome'.

He used as an example the Government's intention to produce equity in health outcomes. In New Zealand, Maori have worse health outcomes than non-Maori, something that must be fixed according to government and social commentators. It is a legacy of 'colonialism' they say, although how the poor health outcomes of New Zealanders who have a fraction of Maori ancestry in 2019 can be blamed on a system of government that ended in 1852, is beyond reason.

One of the reasons Maori have worse health outcomes than non-Maori is that they have much higher rates of smoking than the population as a whole, which is directly linked to morbidity rates. Successive governments have tried to reduce smoking with advertising bans, packaging warnings and one of the highest rates of tobacco excise in the world (with a pack of 20 cigarettes costing around NZ$30 currently). Smoking rates, particularly amongst Maori, have been stubbornly resistant to these measures in recent years with around 15% of adult New Zealanders and about a third of Maori still smoking.

Other reasons for poor health outcomes include diet, lack of exercise and unwillingness to seek medical advice, despite various government policies designed to encourage healthy eating, promote regular exercise and to provide free healthcare for those who most need it. 

My senior public servant admitted that equality of health outcomes clearly required something more persuasive than the 'nudge' policies that governments hav employed to date.
"We should ban tobacco products completely," he said. "And fatty foods and sugary drinks."
"And what about exercise?" I said.
"Well, we should encourage it," he replied.
"And if people refuse?"
"All workplaces should have compulsory exercises in the morning," he said.
"And if they fail to comply?" I pressed. "Should we shoot the bosses or the staff?"
"Now, you're just being silly," he said. And there, the conversation ended.

I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's great book, The Gulag Archipelago, recently. It tells the story of how the government of the Soviet Union came to imprison and kill a huge number of its people. The most profound message in the book is that the Soviet government's actions were a direct consequence of its misguided moral mission to produce equality of outcome. Solzhenitsyn makes the case that ultimately there couldn't have been any other result than mass imprisonment and murder from the single-minded pursuit of equity.

The only way for a government to achieve equality of outcome is to control every aspect of its citizens' lives - in other words, to impose totalitarianism. Those who refuse to be lifted out of their poor habits, need to be constantly monitored and prodded to improve. Those who already have better outcomes than others, have to be forcibly handicapped - as were the kulaks (the peasant farmers in the Soviet Union who had managed to accumulate a small amount of personal property who were starved or executed for their privilege*).

Equity cannot be achieved without force. And it cannot be achieved without dragging everyone down to the level of the lowest in society. The only exception is for the rulers, like the senior public servant I spoke to and his political masters, who earn more than 99% of their subjects. It is salient that as our rulers become detached from the rest of us, the more the word equity is upon their lips.

*Bear that in mind whenever you hear someone use the expression "check your privilege" today.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Game of Thrones provides a political archetype for the ages

I don't watch much television. In fact, I watch no broadcast TV at all, finding it so execrable these days that I would rather tear out my fingernails with pliers than sit through any of the dross that passes for content on the main networks. I am, however, a serial monogamist when it comes to online streaming, watching just one series from beginning to end at any time.

Most recently, I have enjoyed Season 8 of Game of Thrones. Well, 'enjoyed' might be too strong a word because, like most reviewers, I think the writers of Season 8 literally lost the plot. I blame George R R Martin, the author of the books on which the series is based, because he fell behind the storyline of the dramatised version with his books, leaving it to some second-rate Hollywood scriptwriters to imagine how the story might end.

Even if you're not a Game of Thrones aficianado, by now you'll know how the story played out. The Mother of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen, Queen of the Andals, etc, turned out to be not quite the benevolent monarch that she originally appeared.

Daenerys started out as the unwilling bride of the chief of the Dothraki, a sort of Mongol horde in the eastern continent of Essos, and after the death of her husband and being cast out of the tribe, she builds a loyal following and sets about freeing the slaves in various realms, deposing brutal and corrupt leaders and settling ancient disputes. She presents herself as a kinder, gentler leader, who is only interested in the welfare of her people, not unlike some of the progressive leaders around the world today.

Of course, history tells us the road to political hell is paved with the good intentions of progressive leaders, and so turned out to be the case with Daenerys Targaryen. Her final goal was to conquer and set to rights her ancestral homeland of Westeros, the land where the titular game of thrones is played out. No sooner had Daenerys conquered Kings Landing, the capital of Westeros, and its evil Queen Cersei, than she decides in a fit of pique to exterminate every man, woman and child in that city - in other words to commit genocide.

I am not sure whether it was intentional, but the writers of Game of Thrones created in the character of Daenerys the perfect archetype of the benevolent leader-turned-tyrant. Rising to power with overwhelming public support, particularly from the downtrodden, such leaders soon begin to equate the people's interests with their own. They believe only they know what is best for everyone else and they see any threat to themselves as a threat to the people. They regard any resistance to their increasing authoritarianism as an evil that must be expurgated from their domain, and soon pass draconian laws, which inevitably lead to shootings in the streets and ultimately to the mass killing that was the resort of Daenerys Targaryen.

The lesson is never trust a kinder, gentler leader.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Real Zombie Apocalypse

The so-called Extinction Rebellion protestors, the Swedish child who is the figurehead of the school strike for climate movement, Greta Thunberg, the extreme left-wing of the Democratic Party led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Green Party activists here in New Zealand, have been shouting loudly for a zero carbon emissions target within ten years. They claim that if we don't do this, mankind faces extinction. This is the exact opposite of the truth.

Dr. Patrick Moore, a biologist and environmentalist who was one of the founders of Greenpeace (notwithstanding that the organisation now disowns him), recently spelled out to American podcaster, Tom Woods the real implications of a ten year zero carbon emissions target:
It would cause an immediate collapse of the agricultural system worldwide...and that would result immediately, beginning the in centre of the large metropolises, with starvation and death, and cannibalism no doubt as it spread outwards, to end up with only a few subsistence farmers surviving in the wilds.
It would immediately result in mass death.
If we quit fossil fuels tomorrow there wouldn't be a tree left on the planet in a very short time.
He then poses the question, is this the future we want for human civilisation?

Moore's prediction is realistic. It is not climate change that poses the greatest threat ever to human beings but the policies proposed by these lunatics. Here in New Zealand, the government is already committed to a zero-carbon economy by 2050 and, as I have written before, the government's own economists have said that this will reduce our GDP by up to a quarter, so it is not difficult to envisage what adopting the same policies in less than a third of that time would do to our economy.

I am sure that some of those calling for for a ten-year zero carbon emissions target are simply naïve. Clearly, the autistic Thunberg falls into that category and perhaps even Ocasio-Cortez too (she really doesn't seem very bright), but there are others like our Green Party politicians who I know are not stupid. I believe they understand exactly what they are calling for. Their aim is the destruction of Western civilisation and its replacement with a Marxist agrarian autarky along the lines of that practiced in Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. That experiment resulted in the deaths of up to half the population of Cambodia in just four years.

It is ironic that the theme of a zombie apocalypse has become so popular in movies and television series at the same time as these calls for the destruction of the world's energy systems, because the scenes in World War Z or The Walking Dead are a fairly accurate prediction of what will happen if the Green New Deal policies are enacted. Except it won't be zombies roaming the Earth, it will be the starving, cannibalistic survivors of humanity.

Monday, April 8, 2019

It is not racist to reject tribalism and neo-feudalism

Some left-wing politicians and commentators were quick to exploit the recent mass murder of Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, blaming it on the extreme right and 'white nationalists'. The New Zealand Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson went further, equating the attack with with oppression of Maori in colonial New Zealand and saying, "New Zealand was founded on the theft of land, language, identity and the mana of [Maori]. Here in...this very land we’re standing on, is land that [Maori] were violently removed from to uphold the same agenda that held the people in the mosque yesterday."

Auckland University historian Anne Salmond joined the fray saying, "White supremacy is part of us, a dark power in the's violent and hateful, spewing out curses, incarcerating young Maori in large numbers, denying them a decent education, homes and jobs, telling them they have no future, and are better off dead." She went on to say, "Since the arrival of Captain James Cook 250 years ago, Maori have struggled to gain a nationwide acceptance of their cultural values, language and spiritual beliefs. Colonisation is one of Cook’s legacies and racism against Maori is a part of it. New Zealand has inherited a British supremacy perspective and it pervades every area of our society."

It is, of course, a battle tactic of the far left to equate any differing views than theirs with racism, but we should examine such claims for their merits. Does New Zealand have a racist, "British supremacy perspective" that continues to discriminate against Maori? And what does Salmond mean by the struggle for "nationwide acceptance of [Maori] cultural values?"

Colonisation ended in a formal sense in 1853 when Britain granted New Zealand self-government, but the first New Zealand government was democratic only in a limited sense, with a property ownership qualification for male voters. Most Maori, who did not have recognised legal title to their lands, did not qualify to vote, but this was addressed in 1867 with the establishment of Maori seats in parliament, elected by universal male Maori suffrage. Non-Maori men were not granted universal suffrage until 1879 and women in 1893. The Maori seats still exist and people of Maori descent can choose to vote in Maori electorates or be on the general electoral roll. In the last election, 24% of the seats in the New Zealand Parliament went to candidates of Maori descent, compared with approx. 15% of the population identifying as Maori, so at least in terms of democratic representation Maori do not suffer discrimination.

The argument goes a little deeper, however, and it appears to be Western liberal democracy itself that is regarded as discriminatory against Maori. This is surely what Salmond means when she says, "Maori have struggled to gain a nationwide acceptance of their cultural values, language and spiritual beliefs." She seems to support a reversion to traditional Maori tribal rule and this is precisely what those calling for greater Maori political and economic privileges mean when they talk about the Treaty of Waitangi guaranteeing a "partnership" with the Crown. It means New Zealand should have two parallel systems, a tribal system for Maori and something else (perhaps some limited form of democracy) for non-Maori. It is clear that the partnership concept means that, at a minimum, each system will have equal power, but more likely that Maori will have supremacy. 

Traditional Maori society has been compared to compared to Communism, which is probably why many left-wing activists romanticise it, but a more accurate comparison is medieval feudalism with its strict gradations of social status including aristocrats, the warrior class and serfs. Slavery was widespread in Maori society and warfare and 'utu' (revenge) were the common forms of settling disputes. The dominant units of political organisation were the iwi (tribe) and hapu (sub tribe), and there were no equivalent concepts of individual rights, personal property and the rule of law. It was certainly a very different political and social structure to what exists in modern Western democracies.

Contrary to what Salmond and others would have us believe, Western civilisation is not a racial thing. It was rooted in the classical civilisations of Greece and Rome and flourished in Western Europe during the Enlightenment, but it has since spread across the entire globe with countries as geographically and ethnically diverse as Singapore, Botswana and the Cook Islands embracing the Western ideals of individual rights, a free market economy and the rule of law.

Maori in the 19th Century took to the British way of life with enthusiasm, learning to read and write the English language, becoming educated in the Western tradition, gaining trades and embarking on professional careers, and in many cases becoming wealthy in their own right. But many Maori men also became labourers, which entailed a significant reduction in status from that of a warrior, and there was a significant element of racism amongst the European population, many of whom believed, like school inspector Henry Taylor in 1862, that Maori were "better calculated by nature to get their living by manual than by mental labour." However, that does not mean that the system is rigged against Maori today and I am far from convinced that even most Maori would want to abandon the liberal democracy we have in New Zealand.

It is not anti-Maori to resist the imposition of traditional Maori political and social systems on modern New Zealand society any more than it is anti-Chinese to oppose Maoist Communism. On the contrary, it is totalitarian to take the position that you cannot oppose such an imposition without being racist. We need to be clear about what we reject and why we reject it - we do not resist tribalism and a neo-feudalism because it is peculiarly Maori (which, of course, it is not), we reject it because it is incompatible with our values of individual rights and liberty.

It takes courage to stand up for what you believe in when you are being called a racist and implicated in such a horrific crime as the Christchurch mass murders, but we need to recognise the motivations of those who are exploiting the awful event for their political ends. They do not want a pluralistic society where differences are tolerated, they want a homogeneous world where everyone is in lockstep with their views. They call those who disagree with them racists because they want us to shut up. We must reject their premises as well as their arguments because if we don't, we'll lose everything.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Mess that is Brexit

In June 2016, a majority of British voters cast their ballots in favour of leaving the European Union. Since then we have seen a litany of prevarication, obstruction and evasiveness as the British political establishment has tried to backpedal on its commitment to implement the will of the voters. Finally we reached Brexit Day, the 29th March 2019, when Prime Minister Theresa May promised Britain would leave the EU, and nothing has happened. It is the most extraordinary demonstration of political cynicism and cowardice since Neville Chamberlain's 'Peace in our Time'.

The vote to leave the EU should have triggered a plan to deliver it - a series of inexorable steps that showed clear intent and that provided certainty for Britons and their erstwhile European overlords. Within weeks of the vote May's government should have published a draft set of principles that laid out what the decision means in practice (e.g. Britain would no longer be in the customs union and its courts wouldn't be bound by decisions of the European Court of Justice). After a short period of public consultation, these principles would be finalised and agreed by Cabinet.

Then legislation should have been introduced to Parliament, which gave effect to the referendum result including invoking Article 50 (the formal advice of withdrawal). The legislation would have allowed for the negotiation of a leaving agreement with the EU but should have made clear that in the absence of such an agreement, Brexit would come into legal effect on a specified date irregardless. This would have ensured Britain was negotiating from a position of strength and that the current debacle of last minute parliamentary votes was avoided. Undoubtedly there would be have been many legislative and regulatory details that needed to be addressed before Brexit happened but these could have been dealt with by amendments to the main legislation or by regulation.

Why didn't it happen like this? The obvious answer is a combination of political ineptitude on the part of Theresa May and her cabinet and a deliberate campaign to undermine the outcome of the referendum. But the reasons are more complex than the poor behaviour of British politicians.

The Brexit fiasco is a reflection of a deeper malaise in British society. The cowardice and duplicity we have seen with Brexit are endemic to that once great country. This is the country whose authorities turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of thousands of young girls and yet prosecutes people for making jokes on Twitter. The country has more surveillance cameras than any other country on Earth and has recently implemented a scheme to make internet users verify their identity before they can view even the most innocuous pornography online. Britain is becoming a place where its rulers regard their subjects primarily as a threat and attempt to control their every move with increasingly draconian measures.

Some commentators have predicted that the British people will rise up like the French with their gilets jeune protests, while others have said that they are too meek and conformist to do anything. I am hopeful that the long-subdued British bulldog, which showed its teeth momentarily in the Brexit vote, will end up biting its rulers where it hurts.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Thoughts on the Christchurch attacks

A little more than a week ago, I remarked to my youngest child that we are fortunate to live in New Zealand. Our country appeared immune to most of the craziness that infects other Western nations - the identity politics, the religious fundamentalism and the increasingly authoritarian excesses of governments. New Zealand seemed the least insane country in the world. But on the Friday of that week the illusion was shattered when a madman attacked two mosques in Christchurch, announcing that politically-motivated mass murder had arrived on our hitherto peaceful shores.

There was a brief period after the tragedy when everyone seemed to be equally shocked and the only comments were of sympathy with the victims and relief that the killer had been caught. Unfortunately it lasted no more than a few hours and all too soon those who saw the opportunity to exploit the terrible events to their political advantage began slinking out of their boltholes. We were all either victims or perpetrators depending on our group identity, they said, ignoring the emerging evidence that the heinous crime had been committed by an individual acting alone. Many were quick to blame the 'extreme right' despite the fact that the perpetrator's manifesto reportedly includes admiration for the Chinese Communist regime and casts him as a radical environmentalist. A particularly odious Australian senator blamed Muslim immigration for the killings (which really takes some gall), while politicians including former prime minister Helen Clark blamed lax guns laws and freedom of speech. A New Zealand Green Party MP equated the attack to 'the theft of land, language and identity of indigenous people', while another Green MP said it was caused by opposition to the United Nations' Migration Compact.

Last Friday afternoon at 1:32pm, exactly a week after the gunman began his act of mass murder, two minutes of silence were observed across New Zealand in memory of the victims. If that had been all there was, it would have been a fine gesture. However, prime minister Jacinda Ardern insisted that the Muslim call to prayer be broadcast on state TV and radio, and the state services commissioner, Peter Hughes, sent out an email to all government agencies ordering them to provide staff with facilities to watch or listen to the call to prayer. I happened to be at a government agency at the time and what I observed made me both bemused and extremely uncomfortable. The bemusement came from the sight of young New Zealand women wearing hijabs over their cut-off shorts and tank tops (which indicates they had sort of missed the point about the hijab), while the discomfort came from seeing our public servants file into meeting rooms to listen to observe a religious practice because they had been ordered to so by their masters. I felt I had to leave the building and I wasn't the only one to do so - a number of us gathered in a park across the road, where we sat in silence in the warm autumn sunshine, thinking about the propensity for evil that lies deep within the human heart.

I can understand why Jacinda Ardern might have thought the call to prayer was a good idea - a means to bring about reconciliation, no doubt - but to me it was a step too far and showed poor judgement in what otherwise has been a measured and conciliatory response by the prime minister. I am grateful that we live in a relatively free, open and secular society where people are at liberty to practice their religion or to not observe any religion at all, a freedom that is not enjoyed by many people across the world. But we do not preserve such freedom by abandoning our universalist principles.

The prize for the stupidest response to the events in Christchurch would have to go to the Whitcoulls bookstore chain, which in a demonstration of their utter ignorance decided to ban Jordan Peterson's book Twelve Rules for Life. Peterson, a clinical and academic psychologist, has made a career of studying the effects of political extremism on individuals and his book seeks to help disaffected young people jettison their resentment and build constructive and rewarding lives - in other words, he is the solution, not the problem, to that which motivated the Christchurch killer.

I hope that New Zealand will transcend this tragedy and become a stronger society as a result, but I think we have been damaged in way that is not immediately obvious, much as America was damaged by 9/11. It seems entirely possible that we will descend into the tribalism that increasingly characterises political engagement in much of the rest of the Western world - intolerance that breeds even more intolerance and ultimately that leads to tit-for-tat violence. It will be a tragedy of another kind were that to happen in the least insane country in the world. That, of course, was the killer's intent.