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Friday, 7 November 2008

A Voting Guide

How to choose who to vote for tomorrow, from Glenn (once again - what can we say? he is brilliant and we ran out of time *ahem*)

Extract from: So who AM I voting for? (the election blog, part 3)

Basic Human rights/freedoms
There are some bottom line human rights and liberties that should always be protected. They’re sometimes called “first generation” human rights. Whatever you call them, here are the big basic things that no government anywhere should neglect, and which no state has any right to diminish. These are the non-negotiables, the rejection of which means that you’re simply morally deficient and unfit to be in power.

Right to life
Christians believe that human life is sacred. Humanity is made in the image of God, and as such taking life is a serious matter. Prima facie, we have a duty to not kill. That is to say, if there are no other factors to consider, then killing human beings is always wrong. Some times, of course, there are other factors to consider. Sometimes people are attacked (or their families, friends etc), and in the course of defending themselves they kill the attacker. This is rare, since self defense usually does not require killing anyone, but sometimes it happens. Sometimes this happens not merely on a personal level, but a national one, where your country is attacked by another. Here too, most of us recognise that although we may not want to kill anyone, that may be an unavoidable outcome of defending our country.

Even in the controversial case of abortion, many conservative Christians accept that – although it is a terrible thing to have to do – there are cases where the very existence of the unborn child poses a clear and imminent threat to the life of the woman carrying the child, and removing the child at an early stage of gestation involves ending the life of that child. It’s the doctrine of double effect – you save life and prevent both mother and child from dying, but a consequence of this is that one of them dies. A more controversial example still for some Christians is the issue of capital punishment. Here, while we have a prima facie duty not to kill people, a person is deemed to have done something so terrible that they give up their right to life itself, and they are put to death.

None of these scenarios, of course, involves rejecting the right to life, since the right to life imposes only a prima facie duty. But it is still a duty, and the fact that there are a few rare cases where we can take life should not allow us to trivialise this right or duty. For that reason, abortion should be regarded as prima facie wrong (even if there could conceivably be isolated cases where it is permissible), and not merely wrong but such an abridgment of human rights that it ought not be permitted.

Similarly, because of the value of human life, most forms of euthanasia are likewise not permissible. I say “most forms” because there are some forms of euthanasia that are arguably not killing, or which are sufficiently indirect that they are not morally on par with killing (such as withdrawal of extraordinary means, or death as a double effect resulting from pain relief). Firstly then, I think that any party that has a permissive policy on abortion or euthanasia has a big black mark against it when it comes to being a party worth voting for. I know of only two parties in the election race who pass this hurdle, namely the two Christian parties: The Kiwi party and the Family Party.

[Support for Abortion is illiberal; any liberal who supports it is inconsistent. Don't agree? Then read our series and post a reasoned rebuttal.]

Free speech
The right to freedom of speech means that if I want to say it, and if I am able to say it, then I must be free to say it and the state should not prevent me from doing so. As with the right to life, this is a prima facie right, and there are limits on what I can and cannot say. Sellers are not allowed to mislead people about products and services they sell, for example. I am not allowed to defame somebody: Say things that are not true or reasonable to believe and which damage another person (for example, I cannot spread rumours that a local retailer is a paedophile in order to get people to come to my store instead). But the right to free speech means that it is wrong for the state to censor or inhibit the propagation of any point of view in society.

If I want to print and distribute fliers telling people who I think they should vote for, or if I want to rent billboard space to do the same thing – no strings attached, it is something I have a right to do. Of course, nobody has a duty to promote or protect my views, so another person can refuse to use her private property to promote my views (e.g. if I leave comments on her blog she may delete them, because it’s her blog), but that’s an issue of that person’s private property rights, and it doesn’t mean I no longer have a right to free speech. What’s more, free speech doesn’t come with extra conditions.

For example, the state can’t say “sure, you can voice your political opinion and attack our policies, but if you do then you must wear this big bullseye so that people can identify you in public,” or “OK, so tell people that you’re opposed to our regime, but you’ll have to attach this big yellow star to the front door of your house so that our goons know where to look for you.” That’s not free speech because it’s not free. All it would do is discourage people from expressing themselves via intimidation or fear of reprisal.

Generally speaking, free speech exists in New Zealand, and few parties pose any sort of threat to it. As far as I know, none of the parties listed in this blog entry would threaten free speech. I haven’t listed the Labour Party or the minor parties on the far left, as they tend to fail just about every single criterion I present here. Free speech is no exception for Labour, who are responsible for the “electoral finance act” that I discussed recently. The act in effect does the same thing as would a law that says you can have free speech as long as you paint a bulls-eye on the door of your family home. Check out my earlier blog entry to see why.

Property rights
People have certain rights over their own property. What they earn belongs to them, and it cannot be taken from them without due process and given to others. The government cannot commandeer land that you own for its own projects, and if it requires land you own, you must be compensated at market value. This has implications for taxation as well. Prima facie, the government cannot tax you at all. Only after good grounds have been given for obliging you to pay tax can the government take money from you, and it must be transparently accountable to you for what it does with that money, and continually justify the level of tax taken. Remember, “thou shalt not steal.”

In addition to what we might think of as basic human rights and freedoms, there are a few other important principles of government that have in common the pursuit of justice and/or the reduction of corruption by state interference.

Separation of powers / due process
By “separation of powers” I mean that Parliament, while it has the authority to make laws, has absolutely no authority to enforce those laws, and no role whatsoever in the judicial process. It will respect the decision of the courts, it will not commandeer the police to do its bidding, and it will not influence the likelihood of a person facing (or not facing) charges, among other things. The Labour government and its ministers have blatantly violated each of these principles as I have noted elsewhere.

Small government / non intervention
This is really the broad principle underlying many of the rights and principles I’ve outlined here. In a pluralistic society, we all have our own agendas. Some will get married, others will not, some are happy with one type of school or educational method, some prefer others, some people might like one insurance company, some prefer others, some people take fewer risks, and so end up having fewer accidents and less accident related expense, some people make foolish choices and end up disadvantaging themselves and so forth. You get the idea. Small government means that the government does not intrude into private life, and it lets people make their own choices and bear responsibility for the consequences of those choices. People will save money or waste money depending on the options they choose, they will have more or fewer accidents, they will spend more or less on education, and so forth. Likewise, the government might not like the values that parents instill in their children, but it is not the job of government to raise children, that is the role of parents. Likewise again, the government might not like the fact that a court reaches a certain decision, but it is not the job of the government to settle cases, that is the role of the courts.

In the political tradition that I am partial to, namely the Christian classical liberal tradition, the role of the state is limited by the law of nature. It should only do what the basic precepts of the law of nature (that is, minimal standards of justice and upright living) require of it, and beyond this, it usurps the role of the private sector.

Safety net for the poor
Why am I listing this last? Doesn’t the Bible say more about caring for the poor than it does about free trade or property rights? Yes it does. It also says more about worshipping God in song than it does about free speech, but that doesn’t mean we should only vote for a party that promises to create taxpayer funded hymn singing squads. The fact that something is encouraged in the Bible does not automatically mean that we are justified in saying that the Bible advocates it as a duty of the government. Just about every time the Bible says anything at all about caring for the poor, it is clearly speaking about the duty that we as people have, rather than describing government spending programmes. I’m also listing it last to deliberately contrast myself from some Christians who (as far as I can tell) seriously believe that social justice just is wealth redistribution to the poor. Those who think this are somewhat selective in their reading of the Bible. For some reason none of them ever seem to quote 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12:
For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
That being said, there does need to be a safety net for those who fall into genuine hardship. People who are genuinely unable to earn a living (or who are demonstrably doing all that they can to obtain work) and who have no other means of support should be assisted for as long as is necessary. Although by no means a desirable state of affairs, it’s like the Proverb says, “people do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry.”

Far from being some sort of socialism, this has always been a part of a conservative or classical liberal outlook. John Locke gives his rationale for limited welfare in his treatise on government, book 1, paragraph 42:
But we know God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please: God, the Lord and Father of all, has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it: and therefore no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions; since it would always be a sin, in any man of estate, to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty. As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise.
Likewise in biblical law, allowance was made for those in genuine need to receive something from the surplus of those with plenty. See Leviticus 19:9-10 - “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.”

This has particular relevance here because it is not simply moral instruction but law, and therefore enforceable by the authorities.

What should be pretty obvious in all this is that having basic safety nets for those in genuine need has little (if anything) to do with enormous wealth redistribution programmes to equalise all middle class families and give them advantages over people with no children. One other reason for listing this criteria last is that it really serves no value as a means of distinguishing between political parties in this election. There is no party that stands any chance of being in Parliament that does not meet this criterion in some way. Most parties go well beyond a safety net, and end up pursuing admirable ends by immoral means.

So how do these parties measure up?

I won’t say much about National, other than to say that they have painted themselves into a political corner. In order to attract Labour voters, they have become as much like Labour as its own supporters will let it, which is quite a lot unfortunately. Think enormous government, duplicating Labour’s massive welfare programmes, shaving tiny amounts off tax for most people, and calling it a change. There’s no principled stance on matters of human life that I can see, and little to redeem the party apart from the fact that they could be worse (e.g. they could be Labour). It does, however, have two redeeming features (I said there’s little to redeem them, not nothing). One, they aren’t Labour, and two, Stephen Franks (one of the finest politicians in this country, and a former ACT MP).

United Future
Ditto for United Future, but add to the mix a leader (Peter Dunne) who will literally support any other party no matter how bad, as long as it gets him leverage as a minister and coalition power broker. This is the man who was happy to prop up the minority Labour Government in exchange for a ministerial portfolio.

The Kiwi Party
The Kiwi party presents a strong Christian image, opposing abortion and the legal manufacturing of same sex marriage, but they are a bit of a political Frankenstein – sometimes appearing to favour a socialist state (when it comes to, for example, spending taxpayer funds on pre-marriage counselling), sometimes appearing to favour a more limited state (opposing the so-called “anti-smacking bill” as a government intrusion into the home).

There’s a statist approach to employment (and effectively job cuts), advocating raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which is a big nod to leftist voters, and then they’re back in the lower tax camp by advocating income splitting for couples. On the whole they certainly seem to advocate more of a limited government/personal responsibility stance than the current government (additional policies like tax rebates for private health insurance bear this out). So while I like them when it comes to a few specific issues, on the whole I just don’t see them as having a particular political vision or unifying set of principles, and they fail quite badly in some cases when it comes to the scope and power of the government. An improvement? Sure. Will I vote for them? No.

On the whole, the ACT party score very well in regard to the principles that I look for in government, as outlined here. It’s such a shame that they do so abysmally poor when it comes to issues of human life. As a party perceived as being fairly extreme (only because most New Zealand parties contain so many socialistic elements that any party that lacks them appears very different and therefore extreme), it attracts extreme supporters, and like Labour it has managed to capture the affections of some young voters very hostile to Christianity. There’s great potential in what the party quite self-consciously stands for; individual rights and responsibilities, personal liberty, strong policies on justice and other things, but the fly in the ointment – terrible policies that lack regard for the sanctity of life and a support base that contains some crazies – is pretty distracting.

The Family Party
Lastly there’s the youngest of the parties that have my interest, the Family Party. OK, least important things first: I hate their party name. It gives the unfortunate and misleading impression that they want to benefit families and forget everyone else. There are people who wouldn’t vote for a party with a name like that. Their policy statements reveal that their concern is much broader than this, so they should have a different name. But that aside, I like what I see.

They’re the second explicitly Christian party. They have what I think are some great policies on taxation. They advocate removing sales tax on necessities like food and gasoline. Freedom of choice in education is a priority, a welfare policy designed to get people away from welfare, a clearly pro-life stance on abortion, and policies across the board that as far as I can tell line up very well with the values that I outlined at the start of this post. So what’s the drawback? Why am I not coming out in full force telling everyone that this is who I will vote for? The answer lies in a fairly embarrassing pragmatism. In order for a party to get into parliament at all in New Zealand’s electoral system, they must either have one candidate who wins an electorate seat, or they must win at least 5% of the party vote, and I’m not sure that the Family party will do this. If I knew that the party I vote for would definitely get into parliament, I would vote for them in a second. As it is, I still might do so, but my mind hasn’t been made up.

Ask me who I’m not going to vote for, however, and I’m as clear as day (they aren’t listed here).


  1. My only nit-pick would be that Glenn did not include the Libertarianz in his assessment of parties and I am not sure I buy his safety-net argument though I can see a case for it could be argued.

  2. Glenn isn't a pure classical liberalist, he's a minarchist.

    Glenn says "Prima facie, the government cannot tax you at all. Only after good grounds have been given for obliging you to pay tax can the government take money from you, and it must be transparently accountable to you for what it does with that money, and continually justify the level of tax taken. Remember, “thou shalt not steal.”

    Here he contradicts himself. First he says that the government can't tax you, then he says that they can under certain circumstances. If you are obliged to pay taxes it's theft, ergo all governments that tax are immoral and illegitimate. If you provide sufficient resistance to the paying of taxes the state will use lethal force against you, therefore the state is no better than an armed bank robber.

    With all due respect to Glenn, the minarchist view is riddled with internal contradictions, as is shown by this post.

  3. kiwipolemicist, I said thad *prima facie* the government cannot tax you at all. This is not an absolute "never." To add "prima facie" as I did means that absent any other considerations, they have no right to tax you. So it's not a contradiction to then go on and say that they can tax people, provided they provide some considerations that give reasons for their taxation. And in fact, this is indeed part of a classical liberal outlook.

    Don't make the mistake of confusing classical liberalism with libertarianism. Similar, but not the same.

  4. Glenn: my apologies, I missed the 'prima facie'. However, I still believe that your minarchist view is self-contradictory, eg espousing property rights whilst also allowing the government to abrogate those property rights.

    Lew Rockwell, Walter Block & Murray Rothbard would not agree that taxation is part of classical liberalism.

  5. kiwipolemicist, it's possible that some Classical Liberals think that no taxation is every justified. I think such people would be communicating much more clearly if they simply called themselves libertarians. For my part, I think a small amount of tax is acceptable. I think property rights too are prima facie rights, and no person should be deprived of property without due process. You can see this clearly in John Locke for example, and it's a strange view of history that would insist that Locke, sometimes called the "father of classical liberalism," was himself not a classical liberal. It's not a contradiction, it's merely a disagreement about whether or not any taxation can ever meet the hurdle of due process. I think it can.

    Recently I've argued that income tax is slavery on the part of the state, in the sense that it involves the state attributing a zero value to your labour, so hopefully it's clear that when I say some tax is permissible, I'm not talking about a lot. But from a historical point of view, it's definitely true that Classical liberalism is compatible with some taxation. I think this has always been the case, and it's only those that have jumped ship into libertarianism who have gone further.

    As for this label "minarchist," goodness, that term is about as clear as mud I'm afraid. It is variously used to refer to classical liberals and libertarians alike, since it only means one who believes in small government, which of course I do.

  6. Glenn, you're the first person who has described me as a libertarian rather than a classical liberalist.

    You say that tax is slavery, and you say that tax is justified under some circumstances as long as it's not too much. That's like saying that petty theft is fine but the Brinks Mat robbery isn't. Who defines how much is permissible? The state invariably does because the state has a monopoly of force, and history will show that small governments become large governments.

    What is your biblical apologia for taxation/theft by the state/slavery?

  7. Kiwipolemicist, I never described you as a libertarian. I do not know if you are or not.

    I also never said that tax is slavery, I said that income tax is slavery in the sense that it involves the state assigning a zero value to your labour.

    I also never said that tax is OK as long as it's not too much. I said that it's prima facie wrong, unless it meets the burden of due process.

    Why is it that you can't re-state anything I say without changing it?

  8. "What is your biblical apologia for taxation/theft by the state/slavery?"

    I think the whole "give to Caesar what is Caesar's; give to God what it God's" thing is pretty clear actually lol.

    But really, I find the argument that taxation is inherently theft to be pretty flawed. Sure, when the government is using your money to buy willingly unemployed bums Sky TV, alcohol and pack-a-day cigarette habits, that is theft. But even under a failed Labour government, you are still getting something for your money, whether you want it or not.

    So, on the contrary, what is really theft is to receive these public services without paying taxes. Many a liberal/libertarian will waft on and on about how taxes are an injustice, but bitching because you get locked up for not paying for them, unless you are a hermit living completely isolated from society in the Urewera Ranges, is blatant hypocrisy.

    Which I guess comes back to the whole point of this - really, what is the alternative to minarchism or "max-archism", as one could call the outgoing administration? Anarchism? Great, so instead of a state, which though inherently non-libertarian in its existence nonetheless holds all accountable to a set of basic principles, let's have a giant winner-takes-all neo-liberal free-for-all - and watch as forces many times more sinister and totalitarian than the government, with little regard for anybody, jump to fill the void the State once held. A great idea!

    Look, minarchism isn't perfect, and neither is big government. But power politics are a very real phenomenon; to think that totalitarianism is going to suddenly disappear just 'cause you get of taxation or the government is simple, utter delusion. And though classical liberals and libertarians use all sorts of fancy logic and appeals to fundamental "human rights" to justify their actions, using the law to promote liberalism is on a fundamental level as oppressive and totalitarian as using the law to promote fascist socialism; you are still exerting power on others against their will.

    And this is really the heart of the matter. Whether it in the form of an armed force and government, a lobby group, or an individual, power is power. Liberalism better than socialism is not that is does not exert power over others, because it blatantly and irrefutably does. It is better because it believes people should have rights to better their own lives and to live as they like, provided they do not unnecessarily infringe on the rights of others. If to ensure this can happen, tax is required, then so be it.

  9. The Bible is a book, it is not a collection of stand alone one liners, as such a line in one part must be read in context with the other parts that relate. So, while it does indeed say the government has the right to set taxes and it does say if you owe tax then you should pay it but it also says, in 1 Samuel 8:10-22, that any government that taxes its people more than 10% and undertakes functions outside its legitimate mandate is corrupt.

    Whilst Romans 13:1-7 clearly states that each person should be in subjection to the state, it does not follow that the state has a licence to do as it pleases and we should just blindly go along with it.

    When the state is acting grossly ultra vire, the Bible says that it does not have to be obeyed, in fact you can make a case that Christians have a duty to engage in civil disobedience; see Proverbs 24:11-12.
    "Rescue those being led away to death. Hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, But we knew nothing about this, does not He who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not He who guards your life know it?"

    Then consider these verses:

    In Exodus 1 and 2, when the Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all male Hebrew babies, they lied to Pharaoh and did not carry out his command.

    In Daniel 3, for example, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the golden image and were cast into the furnace.

    In Daniel 6 the commissioners and satraps had King Darius make a decree that no one could make a petition to any god or man for thirty days. Daniel nevertheless continued to pray to God three times a day and was cast into the lion's den.

    The most dramatic example of civil disobedience in the New Testament can be found in Acts 4 and 5. When Peter and John were commanded not to preach the gospel, their response was, "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

    So in summation, "give to Caesar what is Caesar's; give to God what it God's" is not as simple as it appears. Taxation can definatly = theft and taxpayers can and should oppose a state that crosses that line.

  10. Hey Madeleine :),

    Tax can be theft, you are right, and certainly, any verse from the Bible must be taken in context! But that tax is always theft, as argued by anarchists, objectivists, and apparently some self-identifying classical liberals - news to me, but anyway - really has no Biblical justification. If I'm not a "pure" libertarian for saying that, it's fine with me!

    As for the Bible verses, you are right, of course. Christians should not just follow the law of man blindly, and should always put God first. I don't know if it is really appropriate to mandate for a maximum 10% tax rate based on a verse in Samuel, to be honest, but that's a theological question I suppose :).

    Anyway, enjoying you two's blog; keep it up!

  11. Madeleine, 1Sam 8:10-22 doesn't say that 10% is an acceptable tax. Israel was rejecting God and God was warning them of the consequences of their actions. If 10% was a severe consequence what would God say about our present taxation rates?

    Romans 13:1-7 says that we must pay taxes and obey the government. However, this was written when Israel was occupied by the evil Nero, and no one would say that that was a legitimate government. Therefore the legitimacy of any government cannot be deduced from this text.

    I would say that our government was illegitimate on moral and legal grounds (some constitutional lawyers agree with the latter), but we are still told to obey them (within moral limits) and pay taxes.

  12. Glenn: if you say that income tax is slavery then all taxes must be slavery because labour is required to pay all taxes, and therefore all taxes assign a zero value to labour.

  13. Hi Kiwipolemicist

    1. Re Rom 13, first, it seems to me that when we ask wether a government is illegitimate we are asking if it has legitimate authority, i.e does have a right to be obeyed. Hence I am not sure I can make coherent sense out of your claim that the government is illegitimate and we have a duty to obey it and pay taxes. If we have a duty to do these things, then it is legitimate.

    Second, it seems to me that your conclusion about the passage is clearly contrary to what the text teaches. It teaches doesn’t just teach that we are to obey it gives reasons. It states that the authority is instituted by God, that because of this the government is acting as an agent of God, therefore resisting the state is resisting God. It says we are to obey out of conscience ( not just prudence) and that taxes are owed.

    Third re your comments about Nero I’d say a couple of things here (a) one response is that Romans 13 is written in the early part of Nero’s reign ( this is a useful contrast to Rev 13 where the state is portrayed as a beast given authority by the dragon which is probably written in the latter part of his reign) (b) I think one can distinguish between (i) the authority itself being legitimate and (ii)particular acts of the authority being legitimate. I am quite willing to state that Nero was the legitimate authority and yet also state that many acts he did were illegitimate. Contrary to what some appear to think, the text does not suggest that everything a government does is ordained by God, it states that the powers the exist ( de facto governments) are ordained by God to perform a particular function and act as Gods agents while they perform this function. Nothing in the text suggests that a government that acts beyond these functions or contrary to them is acting as an agent of God.

    Re Sam, I think Madeliene’s point was in fact that our current tax rate is excessive precisely because the kind seeking 10% was viewed as oppressive. There is however an important theological point here, and that’s that 10% of a persons income was set apart for God and hence the state in asking for 10% was in essence putting itself in place of God. For the record though, there was a system in Isreal where every three years 10% of persons income was stored aside to assist the poor (those unable to provide for themselves) so there does appear to be something like a 10% tax though it was three yearly.


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