Guest post by Mark Tammett
As the recent Christchurch earthquakes amply demonstrated, an emergency often brings out the best in people . In these situations individuals tend to put aside their differences and spontaneously co-operate to address the common threat to life and property – whether that be pulling co-workers out of the rubble, delivering food to strangers, or helping to shovel out liquefied muck from their neighbours' driveways. Folk exhibit a focus and determination that’s often not seen in their daily lives.
These situations provide an object lesson in what can be achieved by individuals identifying a common goal and putting aside their differences. The co-operation may be only limited, or even temporary, but tangible gains can thus be made.
In a way, all large and successful companies have to achieve a similar outcome. In a small business you might be lucky enough that every person you work alongside has compatible ethics and personality type. In a big corporation this is never going to happen; statistically it’s not going to happen – and certain people just aren’t going to get on. So it comes down to how senior management can channel those differences towards a common goal – in a way that allows both the goals of the company and those of disparate individuals to be achieved. Two individuals may not like each other, and outside of work want nothing at all to do with each other, but they will co-operate and function with each other effectively if they have a common goal within the business.
In a political context, we face a similar threat to our life and property that’s almost as serious as the earthquake. That threat is runaway government expenditure, and the seeming inability of the large political parties to address the train wreck that is surely coming. Our current welfare state is unsustainable, and is an historical anomaly that cannot continue for much longer. Either it goes, or our relative prosperity has to go.
A large number of individuals in New Zealand are aware of this threat, and to varying degrees want to do something about it. In voting behaviour or political affiliation they are spread across a range of parties – Libertarianz, ACT, Conservatives, and perhaps even a reasonable proportion of (very quiet) Nationals. I would estimate that individuals in this category comprise perhaps 10-15% of the voting public.
However they also disagree on a lot as well. Which means at election time, votes get dispersed and made ineffectual. They are either spread amongst the smaller parties so their vote is less than the 5% thresh-hold - or in the case of the Nationals, buried under the pragmatism of the party machine, which places priority on getting elected ahead of anything else.
The political party that aligns most with my beliefs is Libertarianz. However with their radical agenda I struggle to see getting elected in my lifetime. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am. They present consistent policy on a wide range of issues, but for most voters it’s too big a chunk to digest. Even if people agree with the gist of it, they struggle to see how we can practically go from what we have now to what Libz proposes. So they cast their vote elsewhere.
By the same token, I don’t believe toning down the message is the right solution either. The average voter may know nothing at all about explicit political philosophy, and have no inkling at all of the unsustainability of our welfare state – but they can sense insincerity a mile off. If you don’t say what you mean and mean what you say, people will know. You cannot ‘trick’ people into freedom. If you try, voters will sense you’re hiding something, and run a mile – and that I think largely explains the current unpopularity of ACT.
So what do we do then? We want to encourage co-operation in a political context, so we can make some real and tangible gains in rolling back the state. But we can’t afford to to ‘tone-down’ or moderate our true beliefs either.
Well here’s one scenario that I can see which is realistic, and starts to roll back the stage from the 2014 election onwards:
- We form a new political alliance. Not a new party, but a new alliance. For instance, and purely for the sake of this discussion let’s call it GERA – the Government Expenditure Reduction Alliance.
- This new alliance is focused on achieving a limited and tangible objective: confronting the biggest ‘emergency’ of our current era by drastically reducing government expenditure. We invite a variety of parties to put aside the things we don’t agree on, and be part of this alliance for the 2014 election. It might include Libertarianz, ACT, and even the Conservatives.
- Outside of the election campaign, each party, or even individuals within each party continues to focus on whatever issues are important to them. These may be consistent, or they may be inconsistent (depending on your viewpoint). In the case of certain Libz members it may be marijuana legalisation and abolition of the RMA; for ACT the removal of business red tape; for Conservatives the dangers of the ‘demon drink.’ Whatever – to each their own. Unlike the big parties we don’t try to pretend we agree on everything.
- However when it comes to the election campaign, we put aside those differences, and campaign on the earthquake-sized economic disaster and the one objective we all do agree on – runaway government expenditure.
- GERA’s specific policy for the 2014 election campaign would need to clear and consistent, and also very concrete and specific. Something the average person can clearly understand. For instance it might be a reduction in government expenditure by 10%, or 20 or 25%, via the elimination of specified government departments, all of which are listed and costed out in detail – combined with a reduction in all tax brackets by 2% (or ten) percent across the board. It’s a modest goal, but something that’s politically realistic in the short term – and attacks the government departments or services that most people can do without.
- GERA makes it known that if they achieve MP’s, they will not compromise on any level on this policy. Not one iota. If any of the major parties needs their support to form a government, they will have to implement GERA’s policies in total. The GERA platform is modest in terms of our ultimate goal, but it’s a pill that the bigger parties will be able to swallow it if they have to.
- I can easily imagine GERA getting 5-10% of the party vote, perhaps 10-15% - and I can easily imagine them holding the balance of power.
- One of the major parties agrees to form a government with GERA, on the basis that GERA will not compromise on their limited bottom line. GERA’s policy is implemented, and we start the process of rolling back the state.
- Next election GERA comes up, and we redraft another specific policy platform that continues with further changes in the right direction. We continue to roll back the state incrementally because we can command enough vote to hold the balance of the power.
There is at least one challenge I can see with this, however, something that requires a bit more thought. How would we deal with voting on other matters put before parliament - issues that all members wouldn’t agree on? For instance if a law proposing some form of alcohol prohibition was proposed by the major governing party - Conservatives might be in favour, but Libz would be against. Or the converse would apply if a law providing for liberalization of marijuana were before parliament. If we’re to keep the alliance together, how do we handle this?
One option I can see is that we have the following simple rule: all GERA MP’s will abstain from voting on any issue that is not part of the core GERA platform for that election. This ensures that all members of GERA, and all voters who gave their vote to GERA cannot end up assisting a law they don’t agree with. The result will be same as if the GERA MP’S weren’t there – which is what would happen anyway if GERA was never formed.
Some might protest that this approach is only tinkering. That it doesn’t achieve the radical overhaul needed. Well of course it doesn’t, but it’s at tangible first step. How do you eat an elephant? One mouthful at a time. More importantly, it sets the scene for further and more significant change in latter years. If the average voter doesn’t miss the government departments we abolish in 2014, and can see the tangible benefit of the tax cut in their pay cheque every week, they’ll be motivated to vote for more of the same next election. Along the way, they might start to learn about individual freedom, and why it’s consistent to apply that principle across the board.
It’s often said that political change can only happen once the required philosophical change has happened within people’s heads. I largely agree with this sentiment, but I would add an important qualification: this is not a linear process. Most people do not change their philosophy as a result of reading or listening to speeches, and then go out and implement that in practice. They learn from both hearing the philosophic theory and seeing the results of that theory in concrete practice. A good philosophy encourages good politics, but good politics also encourages good philosophy. People need to see with the tangible benefits of freedom in their own lives.
The scenario I’ve outlined would set up a virtuous circle - whereby people would see the concrete results of greater individual freedom, even if it was only in a limited context. This would encourage philosophic change that was sympathetic to more freedom, which encourages more political change, and so it would go on.
Mark Tammett is a Christchurch engineer and long-time liberty advocate.