Wednesday, 18 January 2006

On infighting and 'fellow travellers'

Phil Sage asks a question I thought I'd already answered many times before: Why can't we all just get along. (Here's one of my more recent answers, disagreeing with The Whigette on her proposition that ideas don't matter.) The first and most obvious question is, "What's with the 'we,' white man?"

Phil's questioning ensues from his observing with "bemusement & frustration ... the almost complete self destruction of ACT over the last 12-18 months." Phil thinks all those "travelling in the same direction" -- whom he decribes variously as "Libertarian Travellers" and "travellers in the direction of Freedom with Responsibility" -- should stop their infighting, and work together in the same covert way as the Marxists, Trotskyites and fellow travellers have been in order to get their own noxious ideas into parliament.

As one of those named by Phil as an "infighter" happy to "stand on the sidlines sniping" I thought I should answer the question again, and correct a few misconceptions. (And as Phil called me both "brilliant" and "insightful" I'll do so very, very gently.) My own position has always been that any move in the direction of freedom that has no associated new compulsion is a good thing. A Very Good Thing. Anyone travelling in that direction is just fine with me, just as long as they get on with it. However, rather than standing on the sidelines sniping, I've always considered myself to be one of the chaps who erects the goal posts, marks out the field, and keeps persuading the players to move the ball as rapidly as possible towards the correct end of the field - the one with 'More Freedom!' painted on the hoardings.

To mix metaphors, if Phil and others are really serious about fighting the good fight with like-minded others in order to get your ideas into parliament -- if that really and truly is your aim -- then the most important thing in your combat unit is not footsoldiers, of which there is an abundance, but Intellectual Ammunition and plenty of it; a Quartermaster to keep it in order; and a good understanding of the bullets your soldiers are actually firing. In short, you need to know what ideas you're aiming to get into parliament, and why they matter.

Confusion on this is endemic. For instance, that idea of moving in the right direction; that position of More Freedom with No New Compulsion -- who could possibly object to that? But what exactly does "the right direction" mean? What does "compulsion" look like, and why is it wrong? And what exactly does 'freedom' mean anyway, and why does it matter? (Here, at least, is what I mean by 'freedom.') If we can't even agree on the words we use, then why assume we're even heading in the sme direction? And if everyone simply chooses their own path, then whatever expedition we decide to mount in whatever company we decide on is not going to get very far before some travellers are distracted by the delights of easy compulsion and bright lights of the baubles of office.

No, if you want to get your ideas into parliament by working with fellow travellers, you at least have to some basic agreement on the direction in which you're travelling, and on what your fellow travellers mean by their most basic notions. If we can't even agree on the meaning of words such as 'freedom,' we're not going to travel very far together.

And why assume that your fellow travellers appear only on your putative side of the aisle? If more freedom with no new compulsion is your rallying cry, then Labour's Civil Union Bill and legalisation of prostitution are both Good Things, as is the Greens' now unfortunately muted call for legalising decriminalising marjuana. And on Phil's side of the aisle we can point to National's introduction of the RMA, NCEA, BIA and the whole hand-wringing, cheque-writing, holy-rolling Waitangi Gravy Train as Bad Things -- Very, Very Bad Things (not to mention some of the Very Bad Things wearing National's colours in the House). And speaking of good things from odd places, how about that 1984-1990 Labour Government, eh? (Such a shame about all the new compulsion, such as the increased tax take and Douglas's fortunately canned proposal to put the whole country on welfare via his Government-funded Minimum Family Income (GMFI) scheme.)

If getting your ideas into parliament is your standard, then be prepared to celebrate whenever and wherever they appear. And be equally prepared too to point out the backsliding and the compulsion. If a politician thinks they can get away with the easy road of more compulsion, then be assured they always will.

But there's another problem. One other significant problem with getting the ideas of freedom into parliament is that the very people Phil describes as my fellow travellers freely confess that ideas per se bore them rigid -- as this thread confirms only too sadly. "I just don't fucking get libertarian philosophy. And I don't care that I don't get it," says one particular wet hen who Phil presumably thinks should be a bedfellow. These are allies, Phil? In getting ideas into parliament? Are you sure?

Phil wonders why I "stand so firmly on points of principle," and why I don't just join in with the compromisers. Coming back full circle, one answer to that is contained in his own introduction: look at how well compromise has worked for ACT. Ironically, it is "the almost complete self destruction of ACT" that kicked off Phil's musings, but he fails to see the connection between ACT's self-destruction and its penchant for compromise, and as a contrast National's recent rise and its belated rediscovery of principle -- however partial and mealy-mouthed that rediscovery has been. Given Phil's stated disppointment at the self-destruction of the party of compromise, it would be odd if he were now to advocate ACT's past pursuit of compromise and me-too-ism as the solution for his Fellow Travellers.

In the end, it is not compromise and vacillation that moves the world, it's ideas and principles -- the trick then is to have your principles being the ones at work. (See for example Vaclav Havel's espousal of this point.) As Victor Hugo once observed, you can stop an army of soldiers but you can never stop an army of ideas; the only way to fight ideas is with better ones. It's about ideas, stupid!

As Ayn Rand points out so often, defending your ideas badly is worse than not defending them at all. Allowing in silence the ideas you value "twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools" is hardly calculated to see your ideas victorious, and nor is seeing it happen likely to enamour you to the various twisters. If you do know right from wrong and freedom from coercion, then why would you continue to advocate for even a little coercion -- for just a few people beign roughed up -- instead of shouting from the rooftops for freedom ? Is there any doubt that if all 'fellow travellers' really did that they'd make a voice loud enough to be heard, and powerfully enough to 'make a difference'?

If politics is truly the art of the possible, then the more shouting about freedom you do outside parliament, then the easier it is for the political ballast inside the House to move in that direction -- in fact, you're making it politically expedient to do so.

So on the subject of laying down and being walked all over I'm with Margaret Thatcher, who famously told a Tory conference eager to force a U-turn on her then-bold policy of privatisation and deregulation, "U turn if you want to, the Lady is not for turning." If that's being a Lady, then I'm all for many more of them.

And if you're still not sure what a libertarian is for, then hearken to this: What's a libertarian for?

Linked Articles:
ACT, The Whig, Loudon, Falloon, Bhatnagar, Not PC & infighting among Libertarian fellow travellers - Phil Sage
In Answer to The Whigette on 'Definition of a Libertarian' - PC
From intervention to freedom, in several easy steps - Not PC
Cue Card Libertarianism - Force
Cue Card Libertarianism - Freedom
What's a libertarian for? - PC


  1. "Ironically, it is "the almost complete self destruction of ACT" that kicked off Phil's musings, but he fails to see the connection between ACT's self-destruction and its penchant for compromise, and as a contrast National's recent rise and its belated rediscovery of principle - however partial and mealy-mouthed that rediscovery has been."

    You've got to be kidding. Which principle did National rediscover?
    Having stood on at least a dozen platforms with the National candidate I must have missed it.

  2. Peter - I did not have the picture of you sniping, forgive that allusion.
    Thatchers inability to turn or compromise lead to the destruction of the Conservatives as a political force. wonderful sound bite and her determination was needed in the early years. what was a strength became a weakness.

    It is my sincere opinion that your intellectual rigour and way with words would serve far more within the national party as a coach than as the purist on the sidelines at a kids game loudly pointing out the lack of skills and the rules being broken. People within a political organisation will always be taken more seriously than those on the outside.

    The Waitangi settlements can convincingly be argued as settling historical property rights grievances. Equally RMA can be argued as protecting downstream property rights, see my blog comments for detail. Focus on whether you can be more effective within or without rather than Nationals perceived flaws.

    I would use your Ayn Rand example to support my point. From within the Libertarianz your views are defended ethically well but practically useless as they are written off by the rest of the political spectrum as "noise from the far right". If you were a National member arguing the intellectual superiority of freedom and its consistency with National's founding principles you would be defending the ideas of freedom far more effectively.

    The same applies to your penultimate paragraph, the few voices in the wilderness are far less effective than a man with a gramophone standing by the decision makers' ear.

    You may assemble the best army with the best generals in the world but it is no use if it is in the wrong place when the battle is being fought.

    If you get the impression I think you should join the national party and fight the good fight from within you would be right.

  3. lindsay - Did you have more in common with the National person or the other candidates? Focus on the government, not your allies, whatever flaws National may have.

  4. Sagenz, On the social issues I had more in common with Trevor Mallard. And those retrospective matters of civil unions and prostitution law reform kept coming up.

    I like and respect the National candidate but she is a conservative and I can't see how you can honestly call yourself the party of freedom, personal responsibility and choice yet persist in extending that to only some of the people.

    Some Nat MPs are more liberal, granted. But the party has the same philosophical tensions as existed in ACT. So the idea that somehow we did badly at the election because we compromised and had no principles, while National found some, is one I won't accept.

    Half of the country wanted Labour and Clark out - badly. They did what they thought would achieve that.

  5. My point was that there was insufficient compromise among members. clearly the infighting spilled into public and the party that was reknowned for presenting a competent united front only a few years ago seemed as ridiculous as any of andertons parties with its washing dirty linen in public.
    People did not seem to be able to compromise for the good of the party but held onto the certainty that their own agenda was right.

  6. Phil, you said: "My point was that there was insufficient compromise among members."

    What you mean, I think, Phil, is that there was insufficient agreement among members. There needn't have been however, all that was needed was for ACT policies and speeches to repair to their principles -- those written by Libertarianz founder Ian Fraser before he left ACT in disgust at their inability to live up to them: "That individuals are the rightful owners of their own lives and therefore have inherent freedoms and responsibilities That the proper purpose of government is to protect such freedoms and not to assume such responsibilities."

    With those principles as guides (as I argue here that all such principles should be, then neither compromise nor disagreement would have been needed, and the five ACT policies I mentioned here the other day as urgently in need of revision would have been at the forefront of ACT's battle-flag, just as they should have been. (Who knows, I might have even been a member myself! That seems much more likely, methinks, than ever joining a party that has Nick Smith and Richard Worthless as its Environment SpokesCretins.)

  7. Continuing my earlier comment:

    Phil, since we played winning footie together I'll do you the credit of answering you in detail. Your comments are in italics.

    You said: "Thatcher's inability to turn or compromise led to the destruction of the Conservatives as a political force."
    On the contrary, Thatcher's refusal to U-turn in 1989 led to sixteen years of Tory rule, and a decisive reversal in Britain's declining fortunes -- so decisive that Blair refused to abandon Thatcher's legacy. The "the destruction of the Conservatives as a political force" can be firmly sheeted home both to Blair's having grabbed Thatcher's torch, and to the compromising Conservative wets since.

    As I argued here, "In the wake of Michael Howard's resignation comes much navel-gazing from British Conservatives too, wondering where it all went wrong for them. I can tell them quite simply: they can trace it to the day they so cowardly abandoned the Thatcher Revolution that had once made them both popular and principled."

    "It is my sincere opinion that your intellectual rigour and way with words would serve far more within the national party as a coach..."
    Send me a firm booking and a cheque and I'll be along like a shot. But I suspect you'd all be frightened at what you heard, as past National caucuses invited libertarians along to speak to them. :-)

    "The Waitangi settlements can convincingly be argued as settling historical property rights grievances...."
    They can be much more convincingly argued as fuelling too much bad law, a fully paid-up gravy train, and an orgy of political posturing ( I give you, for example, the egregious puffball Lord Douglas Douglas Graham) . No, mainstream courts under colour-blind objective law can fix whatever real injustices exist.

    "Equally RMA can be argued as protecting downstream property rights..."
    You really have to be kidding. As I've argued here nearly every day since this blog began, the damn thing has been more destructive of property rights than any other single piece of legislation since the war! Dissemble and deny it how you will, but under laws National brought in we've seen in recent days people given 'community service' for grievous assault and child rape, when cutting down a tree on your own land has been punished with a sentence of six months in jail. Don't you dare talk about the RMA 'protecting downstream fucking property rights.' You be a National apologist if you must, Phil, but don't then deny the outrages your own party has been responsible for. Sheesh.

    "Focus on whether you can be more effective within or without rather than National's perceived flaws."
    National's many flaws are far from just 'perceived' -- they are very real, and extend way beyond just the two awful, awful pieces of harmful flim-flam above. Can you really, seriously see me ever sharing a platform with Nick Smith or Douglas Montrose Graham, or apologising for National's real flaws, as you've sycophantically tried to just above? Give me a break. And if I did try, do you really think me doing so would have more or less effect than me being free to truly speak my mind, and to be read by any who choose to do so?

    "If you were a National member arguing the intellectual superiority of freedom and its consistency with National's founding principles you would be defending the ideas of freedom far more effectively."
    And quite apart the disconnection between its founding principles ("maximum freedom with the avoidance of unnecessary controls") and most of its stated positions and past actions when in power, youy can just see me being allowed and encouraged to do that on a National Party platform, can't you.

    Frankly, Phil, I think I'm far more effective being outside pissing in than I could ever be on the inside pissing out (and the chances of me being allowed to be inside pissing in are just too remote to even consider, and the circumstances that would make it possible just too unattractive to want to contemplate). No, in my estimation the decision-makers' ears are more open to me as an outsider than they could ever possibly be as someone working through party channels as you advocate I should, or as someone muzzled by the party hierarchy. But that's not to stop you yourself "arguing the intellectual superiority of freedom and its consistency with National's founding principles" from within, if you like, and do feel free to fire within all the bullets you get from me fro without. :-)

    In conclusion, then, there's no doubt the Nats do need good people inside them -- as every party does -- but not those who are prepared to dissemble over National's very many and very real flaws. And not me.

  8. Lindsay, you said: "You've got to be kidding. Which principle did National rediscover?
    Having stood on at least a dozen platforms with the National candidate I must have missed it."

    Hahahaha. Good point. :-) I had the same problem as you did. ;^)

    However... there was a Brash-led rediscovery of principle, that in the end was almost crushed by National's spin doctors, a rediscovery almost competely lost on most of National's candidates. Lindsay Perigo's pre-election TFR editorial explains why "National under Don Brash has been a huge, but entirely predictable, disappointment. The runaway success of his Orewa 1 speech should have taught Dr Brash that this was the way to go. The same ringing advocacy of one law for all should have been brought to bear on all policy areas: the economy, defence, health, education … Instead, what has he done? He has capitulated to marshmallow middle-grounders in all of them."

    Read on here.

  9. I have to agree with PC here Lindsay.The vibe I got from Nationals campaign was that they (mainly Brash) had found some Libertarian principles,dusted some off and put them up for all to see. But they couldn't support them well enough at the crunch because they were so out of practice at doing so and Helens hard shell was just enough to blunt was was not the shapest attack to begin with.But it soooo proved that a concerted, principled attack on Labour can rock them to the core, it just needs the principled legs to carry it to victory. Hell, at one point during the TV debates Clark said she "stood for the maximum amount of individual freedom"...or words to that effect. Getting her rattled enough to come out with that tells me the principled Freedom message is the most powerful weapon in the NZ freedom fighters just needs to be used with practiced thought and precision.

  10. peter - I did write a response but it seems to have disappeared on me. I read your free radical article and am convinced now that scrapping the RMA would be preferable to a rewrite. it is the core principles that are the problem.

    I would completely agree that having a team presenting policies based on the founding principles, "one law for all" in all aspects would resound. the early days of "Values not Politics" were ACT heydays.

    My original point was simply that having agreeing on something and then focusing on the opposition is key. ACT seemed to spend all its time fighting about relatively minor issues that were blown up into fundamental points of difference.

    we can agree to disagree about where your skills would be more effective. But the picture of you, using Nationals founding principles to discuss their policy proposals and bring some of them onto a better path is a powerful one.


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