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Tuesday, 4 November 2008

State of the Nation: Some Voting Considerations

With each of us feeling pulled, guilt tripped, bribed, confused over not only who to vote for and how to decide Glenn does it again; read his analysis of the state of our country and where exactly we have gone wrong in our thinking.

Extract from New Zealand: Land of greed, envy and political stupidity (the election blog, part 2):

The New Zealand political environment is one of very strong statism and government intervention, wealth redistribution and disincentives for many people to work hard and try to get ahead. “Share the wealth” might sound like a nice idea, only in this case it’s not a case of someone saying “why don’t you share your wealth,” but rather a case of the state saying “I am going to share your wealth – with everybody else.”

There’s more to it than just this. The involvement of the state with our finances is part of the intervention into private lives, but it’s not the only form of such intervention. Marriage in New Zealand is now essentially a legal construct, and as such those who make the laws inevitable end up telling people what does and does not count as marriage. We’ve recently been told (by lawmakers) that we must – regardless of our own views on the matter) treat same sex couples as having a relationship that is the same as a married relationship, if they have a civil union. Now, you might personally think that’s fine. The point here is that it wouldn’t be an issue if the state didn’t own marriage. If marriage was a private affair, perhaps accompanied by a private contract, there would be no “same sex marriage” controversy. Let churches marry who they are prepared to marry, and let anyone have a public gathering to celebrate what they will. But as soon as the state gets involved and starts bestowing its blessing, they have started forcing other people to endorse forms of relationships.

Take another example: The notorious (at least in new Zealand) “anti-smacking” law. Assault is a crime in New Zealand, however there have always been exceptions – scenarios where you are permitted to use force against other people (within reason). You can use reasonable force in self defense, the captain of a ship can use reasonable force to subdue and contain a passenger who poses a risk to other passengers, and up until recently, a parent could use reasonable force in the course of disciplining a child. The has always said that the force must be reasonable, so you couldn’t injure your child, for example. But you could use force – for example – to place your child in confinement (which would normally be illegal – I can’t confine another person under normal circumstances), or to smack your child (again, with the proviso that the force is reasonable and not harmful), or any other kind of force along those lines. However, section 59 of the Crimes Act, which allowed for this exception in the case of disciplining children, has now been repealed. The state can use force against you if you need correction, but you cannot use force against a child if that child needs correction. As has frequently been noted, this as the unambiguous consequence that any person who uses any amount of force on a child for any reason is a criminal. If you place your child in “time out” when he doesn’t want to be there – you’ve commit a crime, and a crime for which there is literally no legal defense. If you did this and the police laid charges, you’d be guilty, no matter what the circumstances, because the law has been changed so that absolutely no amount or type of force can be considered reasonable. When challenged with this fact, the member of parliament who proposed this law change, Sue Bradford, explained that yes, it’s true that nearly all parents would technically become criminals, but we should trust the police to use discretion. It’s sometimes hard to convict people who physically abuse children, she explained, so this way everyone is prosecutable, meaning that the genuine abusers can be successfully prosecuted without hindrance like pesky defences of “reasonable force.” Think I’m exaggerating? Not even close. I was physically present (and almost physically sick) at Bradford’s public meeting here in Dunedin when she happily explained this.

Another example is the Electoral Finance Act, which I discussed recently here. This is, in effect, an attack on the free speech of political spokespeople who do not wish their personal address to be provided to the new Zealand public.

Another example is Labour’s re-write of the Immigration Act. The new version gives immigration personnel (not even police officers) powers to invade private property, seize belongings and detain people, without the need of a warrant. Oh, and the detainees do not have to be given the specifics of why they are being detained, either.

Then of course there was the notorious Seabed and foreshore Act. The government, one side of a dispute over ownership and governance of parts of New Zealand coastline, decided by legislation that the dispute could never be taken to court, and it declared by fiat that the state owned all of the disputed pieces of land. Case closed. No compensation required (oh, and no due process either).

And then there’s the general all-powerful thuggish behaviour of Labour’s members of parliament over their last few terms of government, including the Prime minister herself, to whom ordinary laws and principles of conduct simply don’t apply – whether it’s the leaked fabrications she used to end the career of the Police Commissioner, the artwork she falsely signed for an auction, the speeding that she apparently required of her driver to get to a rugby game on time – and then let him take the fall for it, as well as the more general reputation she has earned for being a controlling bully who allows no dissent (or free thought). Then there are the cabinet ministers (note: not just members of parliament but cabinet ministers) who, the police agreed, had prima facie cases to answer for assault, but against whom the police, for some reason, chose not to press charges. And then there was the cabinet minister who abused police power by literally calling them up to go and advise a citizen of a request to pay damages (i.e. a civil matter, and even before a civil suit had been filed). The Prime Minister did literally nothing about any of this. There was also the case where an application to build a marina in Whangamata was approved by the environment court, after much effort and expense by the applicants. But then cabinet minister Chris Carter overturned the decision. Again, no due process, no separation between the legislature and the courts, just heavy handed intervention to overthrow the normal process because a government minister didn’t like the outcome of the court.

There’s little doubt that Clark has had a clear vision for the type of society she wishes to engineer. The society towards which the policies of Clark’s Labour government are geared is a society that eschews traditional morality, sees solo parenting as normal and provides financial support to make it no more difficult than two parent parenting, a society where “sexual norms” is a judgemental term and same-sex unions are absolutely no different from traditional marriage between a man and woman, where authority and to some extent, responsibility, are transferred out of the family home into into the hands of the state (it is the state’s role to discipline, educate, or use force to punish, etc), a society where it is fundamentally the role of the state to see that your family is provided for, a society where healthcare and educational choices are made by the state and funded by the taxpayer whether they use those options or not, a society where the type of free expression that finds acceptance is that which upholds all these norms, and expression that call into question the moral acceptability of these things is frowned on, a society where the idea of promiscuity as something abnormal or unhealthy is itself seen as something abnormal, unhealthy and oppressive, a society where the defence of all these values is described as tolerance, and the defence of different values is presented as intolerance. Of great importance, amidst all this, is that the wise, benevolent state faces no opposition to its decisions, and if there is ever public opposition to its intentions (as was the case with the Civil Unions Bill and the Anti Smacking Bill), these complications are simply ignored.

Why, exactly, would a Christian vote for a government like this? I’ve asked a few, and I think that, unfortunately, the reason some Christians might vote for a party like this is that “if they become the next government, they will give me X.” What about their impact on laws relating to marriage, or prostitution, or their immoral solutions to land disputes, or their threat to free speech, or their thuggish and unaccountable influence over civil servants, or their disregard for human rights, whether in its treatment of immigrants or in other cases (such as their rejection of the freedom of association for students)? Don’t any of these give my fellow Christians pause before voting them back into power? “They’ve going to give me X.” Whether that X is a cash payout via some sort of state welfare, or a bonus for people working in the state sector, or something else, how in the world could anyone be so short sighted as to snap at a cash carrot and to ignore the wider picture of what is happening?

One answer has to do with the basic human condition: I’m greedy and envious. If the government gives me money, then regardless of whether I deserve it, my first inclination is to take it and enjoy it. Other people make much more money than I do, so why shouldn’t I be able to get my snout to the trough as well, right? And if the way to get this present is to vote for a particular party, then that party will get my vote.

There are less cynical ways of looking at welfare payouts, of course. Perhaps the Christian voter might think that the state is being kind to the poor by having these programmes (which should, hopefully, make them wonder why they payouts are made to families that earn salaries over $60,000). Maybe they believe that “social justice” just means distributing wealth so that nobody ends up at the bottom of the heap. I’ll say more about this in my next post, but my experience tells me that the main reason some Christians have for voting for Labour is that Labour will give them something, and they don’t want to lose it.

Here’s a question I put to any who think this way: Aside from the fact that you like getting free money, what would be wrong with you not getting that free money? Now I know – when you write conversations yourself you get to determine the outcome, but look at it this way:

Jerry: Hey Perry, who are you voting for?

Perry: I’m voting for Labour.

Jerry: Really? Wow. I wouldn’t have seen that coming. You’re a Christian, right?

Perry: Yes – what does that have to do with anything?

Jerry: Everything, I would have thought. I mean Labour is totally pro-abortion rights, they created same-sex marriage in this country, they made parents into criminals, they forced people to publish their address when they make political comment, they ride roughshod over human rights, they take incredible amounts of tax, they-

Perry: Woah, woah, slow down!

Jerry: Well, you do realise that Labour did all those things, right?

Perry: Well, maybe. I’m not sure. But still… won’t that other party take away the money Labour is giving us? And I work in the state sector, I mean, my future there is more secure with Labour, right?

Jerry: You’ve got to be kidding me.

Perry: What?

Jerry: Do you really think that your personal finances and security in a government job is more important than matters of right and wrong?

Perry: No, no of course not. It’s not just about me. What about all those other families out there? They get family assistance from the government too!

Jerry: And you point is?

Perry: Well isn’t it obvious? Getting money from the government makes it easier for them to get by, so of course I want to vote for a party that will keep giving them that money.

Jerry: Well firstly, pretty much every party is going to give them that money. It would be political suicide not to now that they’re already getting it. But there’s a much more important question here.

Perry: And what’s that?

Jerry: Should the government take my money and give it to you?

Perry: Oh come on, let’s not make it personal….

Jerry: OK fine – should the government take my cousin Bob’s money and give it to you?

Perry: Well it helps the families who get it, right?

Jerry: Oh, so if it helps families then the government can do it?

Perry: Well, I guess. The government is here to help us.

Jerry: Let’s see where that takes us. How would you feel if you worked hard to save up and buy a car, and then some agents from the government burst into your garage tonight and stole it, and gave it to my cousin Bob.

Perry: Come on, that’s ridiculous. Nobody is saying that the government should be allowed to do that.

Jerry: Well Perry, the thing is, Bob can’t afford a car, and having a car would really help his family. He could take them on holiday, and his wife could take them to soccer practice. Do you have any idea how handy a car is in today’s world for a family, Perry?

Perry: But the fact that they would find it helpful doesn’t give someone the right to just take it from me and give it to them! I worked to buy that car. I earned it!

Jerry: So what? Remember, it helps families. I thought you said a second ago that the government can do something if it helps families. In fact while we’re at it, some families struggle to pay for good healthy food. I hope you don’t mind if your local MP comes and raids your fridge for some food for them.

Perry: This is getting silly. OK, the government can’t do just anything because it helps families.

Jerry: Why not?

Perry: Because that stuff is mine! That wouldn’t be just!

Jerry: Just?

Perry: Right. Taking my car or my food would be unjust!

Jerry: That’s interesting Perry. Last time I heard, you were all in favour of this thing you call “social justice.” Am I right?

Perry: You bet! As a Christian, issues of social justice are so crucial to me.

Jerry: I see. So what are some of the fundamental issues of social justice?

Perry: Well probably the biggest one is our attitude to the poor. We should share the vast wealth of society with them, redistribute those resources to see that nobody misses out.

Jerry: OK, so why can’ the government redistribute your car and your food?

Perry: Like I said, that’s unj- [the penny drops]

Jerry: Unjust?

Perry:… yeah. Unjust.

Jerry: I think we need to take a big step back here. I’m all in favour of me sharing my wealth or you sharing your wealth. But what do we normally call someone who takes it upon himself to share other people’s wealth?

Perry: Yeah, yeah, a thief, I know. But look, you can’t say that just because it would be wrong for an individual person, it would also be wrong for the government. Governments can do all sorts of things that an individual can’t do. They can make laws, they can change taxes, heck they can even declare war!

Jerry: OK, now we’re really getting to the heart of it. What can the government do, and what can’t it do? What’s it’s job in the first place? There’s no way we can even begin to ask if it’s all right for the government to take my money and give it to you if we don’t even know what the role of the state is in the first place. Is it the government’s job to redistribute wealth at all? Exactly what rights do I have to the money I earn and the property I possess? How much authority does the government rightly have?

Perry: There you go, getting all academic. Why doesn’t anyone just think of the children….

Perry is a moron. Not in every way, of course, but when it comes to voting and politics, he’s pretty dim. That’s not measured by who he wants to vote for, don’t get me wrong. There are politically smart people who will vote for Labour. They are politically smart because they realise what they are doing: They are giving their support to a particular vision of the role of the government in society. When they debate politics, they realise that they are not debating individual policies, they are really involved in a clash of ideologies: Different political philosophies altogether. Two people might both support the same policy, but on the basis of very different political outlooks. Take the civil unions act that created a kind of same-sex marriage here in New Zealand. One person might support it because they firmly believe that it is the role of state to create by law all the formal types of relationships that adults enter into because they support a big government statist ideology, and if all relationships are covered by law, they can be regulated. Another person might support it in the (mistaken, I think) belief that this law generates more liberty and gets the government out of the lives of consenting adults.

What grates me horribly, however, is the fact that so many Christians (like so many people in general) don’t even ask the big questions. Questions of principle like “should the government be taking and redistributing people’s earned money in this way – is that its job?” are replaced with much more selfish questions like “how much will I get,” or “how will this benefit my profession,” or even more benevolent sounding questions like “what will they give to families,” and people who dissent are not challenged intellectually on whether or not their political philosophy make sense, rather they are targeted with guilt trips like “but you’d be taking [taxpayers'] money away from ________ [insert some group here].” Never mind asking if the government should be giving them other peoples’ money at all, or if the government should be doing anything to benefit those in your profession. What about those not in your profession, or those from whom the money would be taken to give to you?

Let me put some flesh on the bones: I know a person (nobody who would be reading this blog) who is a Catholic believer, who would vote for a pro-abortion rights pro same-sex-marriage party on the grounds that his taxpayer funded job would be less likely to get funding if another party came to power. I have known Christians – high profile ones at that – who have stood up in public and said “when you cast your vote, just ask one thing: What are they going to do for _______,” and he then named the Christian institution that employed him. In short, Christians get tangled up in some pretty ugly political messes, supporting parties – some of them self consciously Christian parties – that are struggling to impress people by how much they are going to give people or do for them, and they are not once engaging in high-level discussion about why anyone should care that those parties are going to do those things. “He says he’ll get the government to promote heterosexual marriage in law! I’ll vote for him!” Or “they want to give cash payouts to married couples who stay together! He gets my vote!” Not “he consistently advances policies on the basis of a good understanding of private property rights,” or “He really understands the role of the state and the limits of its authority.”


  1. Yeah, I enjoyed it too. Though I don't quite buy into the tax = theft mantra.

    I have pretty much decided to go Act for party. I reviewed the candidates in my area. The problem is that candidate profiles give the party line but one needs to know how they think. There are National candidates I would vote for and ones I definitely wouldn't. I contemplated the Family party rep but there were some things I didn't agree with. I can see why people suggest removing GST from some things such as foodstuffs, or specific foodstuffs. But they miss the point. We want tax law to be simpler, not more complicated and hence more needlessly time consuming and more prone to mistakes. They would be better to advocate no tax on the first $10000 which would have the same effect in terms of cash on hand but be less complicated. So I think I am going with the Act candidate also (though he won't get in).

    I am not completely opposed to voting strategically, but am more inclined just to vote for those I think I should, and not vote pragmatically just to get someone out.

  2. Bethyada, the "tax = theft" mantra? Well that certainly wasn't in my post. Certain types of taxation are as good as theft of course, but I don't think all tax is theft, and didn't say that.

  3. In my comment I meant kiwi party not family party (though the latter want GST off petrol).

    Glenn, no you didn't. I guess I was conflating your Terry/Perry conversation about unjust money redistribution with many other discussions I have read along this line. While I understand the appeal to tax = theft, I am not certain if it can be theologically ascribed to government. Government can tax unjustly, but I am not certain that any unjust level of tax can be called theft (even though it may be more unjust than some types of theft).

    Perhaps I could have you 'round for dinner and we could discuss these things further :)


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