Putting the ‘P’ Word into Politics

Speech to Tauranga Regional Libertarianz Conference


You cannot put a rope around the neck of an idea; you cannot put an idea up against a barrack-square wall and riddle it with bullets; you cannot confine it in the strongest prison cells that your slaves could ever build …

                                                                                                            Sean O’Casey


I’ve been invited here today to talk to you about philosophical shit. But first: politics.

And a quiz: Who said each of the following two things, the first from the 1996 election campaign, the second from 2002.

Quote 1: At every election, what gets people annoyed is the mess government makes of health and education. Why don’t they realise that the problem is what’s common to them both: government! We don’t have supermarkets or shoe stores as election issues, but we would if the bloody government was running them. We don’t want government running supermarkets or shoe stores, so why the hell do people want them running our schools and hospitals?

Quote 2: [I  want] to be in a position to make a difference because as a mother [ am] concerned about the issues surrounding the future for New Zealand children. A Member of Parliament is in a position to try and make this a country where our future generations are safe, well-educated and prosperous ... I want to deliver support and resources to the teachers and schools that educate students to their greatest potential …Health is another major issue ... it’s a matter of choice and our public hospitals can be just as efficient as our private.

So, who said each of those two things? The second is flabby, ungrammatical and could have been said by almost anybody - perhaps even Jenny Shipley’s speechwriters. The first seems starkly different, and could have been said by relatively few people.[1]

What’s missing? Why the obvious inconsistency? The answer, Dear Reader, is principle!

What happens when you abandon your principles? Just take a look at those quotes! And apart from what it does to you personally, you fail to achieve your aims - if indeed you have any. If your aim is to get the state out of health or the hell out of schools, you just ain’t going to achieve that by saying one thing one day and another thing another day. You ain’t going to achieve your aims unless you have principles that support those aims. And that is what I’m going to talk about this afternoon: Principles, and how to have them; and, in particular, political principles.

I won’t be rehashing what I’ve already said on this subject in answer to a crawling appeaser from the ACT party (but I repeat myself); that discussion - titled ‘A Spoonful of Principle Makes the Revolution Fire’- can be found in Free Radical number 44.

The Rock of Ages

To begin this particular discussion, the obvious first question is: What is a principle? What does one look like? I have here three short definitions from three dictionaries. Principle: “a fundamental, primary or general truth on which other truths depend”; “a comprehensive truth or proposition on which all others depend”; “a moral law.” If you want to sum up, a principle can been seen as a guide to action based on fundamentals, with those fundamentals derived from past experience. Or, “an organised way of going right with confidence.”

It’s been said that “expedients are for the hour, but principles are for the ages” - a lesson simple enough even for a politician you would think - and I guess the lesson I that if you truly want your ideas and policies to last, you must recognise that your ideas and policies need to be principled. Any political reform you make will fail or be repealed in short order if the principle on which that reform is based is applied inconsistently, is not well understood, or is not widely accepted. We can see this fairly clearly from the failures of the eighties reforms here in New Zealand. Those reforms led, not to more freedom, but instead to higher taxes overall and to more regulation than ever before; further, many of the reforms that didn’t actually strangle us in more red tape have already been overturned.

We’re on our way back to being the Polish shipyard we once were, because policies not guided by principle have no chance of lasting success; pragmatism is its own destroyer. I have no need to labour this because Deborah Coddington makes this very point already in Free Radical number 11, in an article called ‘Look What Nanny Did While Our Backs Were Turned.’ It’s just a shame Deborah’s forgotten what she wrote about the “unprincipled wimps” who enacted the reforms – the wimps who let Nanny have her wicked way because they just didn’t know any better. It was in fact being unprincipled that caused them to become wimps.

A fabulous play (and a wonderful film) called A Man for All Seasons offers a superb dramatisation of integrity in action - of applied principle. It dramatises the conflict between Henry VIII, and his Chancellor and friend Thomas More. Henry wants to dump his wife and marry another one, and he elects to become Supreme Head of the Church in order to do so. Henry seeks to make use of More’s reputation for matchless honesty by seeking his assent to the deed, reasoning that if ‘the English Socrates’ appears to assent, then who could possibly dissent? Thomas refuses however, pointing out that church rules forbid such a thing; Henry entreats his friend to allow the rules to be bent just for him. Thomas stands on his principles and says no! He says that if their principles mean anything they must be applied in all cases - he refuses to abandon them merely for the King to get his leg-over. Henry does get the ride - as we all know - and it costs Thomas his head.

Before he was executed, Thomas chides his son-in-law for his “sea-going principles” which he warns “put about too nimbly.” “We speak,” says More, “of being anchored to our principles. But if the weather turns nasty you up with an anchor and let it down where there’s less wind, and the fishing’s better.” If our principles are to mean anything they cannot be abandoned at the first sign of better fishing elsewhere. Of what use are such principles? Good principles are practical, asserts the soon-to- be-Saint - they tell us how to act.

History indeed speaks better of the actions of the principled Thomas than it does of the pragmatist Henry; it speaks better of the principled Socrates than of his pragmatic executioners; it speaks better of the principled Jesus than of the pragmatic Judas. Principle certainly does “live through the ages”; thirty pieces of silver do not.

A Machete through the Thickets

Most people in parliament of course wouldn’t know a principle if one stood up and smacked them around the head. The last time principles were recorded as being mentioned in the British parliament was in 1843! Lord Sandwich told one John Wilkes that he would die either on the gallows or of the pox. “That,” shot back Wilkes, “depends on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”

You don’t hear principles mentioned much in parliament because life is apparently too complex to apply principles. For instance, the simple and all-too obvious principle that taxation is theft. “Too ‘simplistic,’ too sweeping, too ‘black-and- white,’” say the apostles of expediency. Or the principle of Free Trade: “it’s just too ‘black- and-white’ to simply apply the idea of ‘free trade’ across the board,” they say ... ‘life is too complex’ ... let’s ‘narrow down’ what we mean. So they do narrow down what they mean, and instead of discussing free trade they discuss narrow instances of trade - narrow instances such as the so-called ‘dumping’ of tomatoes on the New Zealand market … from Australia … in 2001/02 … at prices below 50 cents per kilo … from particular importers. “Forget broad principles,” conclude the pragmatists, “the narrow question we must answer is this : Should these tomatoes on this particular occasion of this particular ‘dumping’ be banned? And are they being ‘dumped’ at all?”

But the problem is this: if you forget your principles, then how on earth can you answer that question? Or any such question! The answer of course is to call for an Inquiry. No wonder life is so complex for the pragmatists: they have lost the rudder that principles give them. No wonder that ‘free trade’ deals such as those that formed the North American Free Trade Association are so complex - NAFTA’s ‘free trade’ treaty encompasses some one thousand pages of detailed and complex bureaucratese. Only a bureaucrat or a politician could call this trade free!

Life is complex, and it’s because of that complexity that we need to apply our principles to steer us away from trouble; they offer us a machete which we can pick up and hack down the thickets of complexity that obscure our way forward.

Acting Man

So what does a principle look like, so we know before one does smack us in the face? Let’s look at it from a few different directions.

A principle is like a road-map. It offers you a way to drive with confidence from one town to another when the route may be a difficult one. Driving without a map may seem like a good ‘pragmatic’ way forward, but it’s also a great way to get lost with confidence.

A principle is a condensation of past experiences, generalised to form a general rule. Common law for instance has generated hundreds of basic legal principles from the cases that have appeared before the courts. Many of them have obscure Latin titles, but they offer clear guidelines for human action when conflicts do erupt between people. The principle of stare decisis, which ties all the legal principles together, ensures that legal principles derived from one case be applied in all others that are similar. Doing so actually reduces the complexity of the law and allows people to understand what is and is not likely to happen in cases that come before the common law courts - and hence, what the law allows them to do.

We can see then that a good principle is a guide to action! On the basis of all those past experiences that are condensed into our principles, we know that the knowledge gained from those experiences can be re-applied in our new context if the situation is a similar one. Good principles are necessary for human beings to act with confidence, and to know that our actions will further our ends, not damage them. Acting without principle by contrast is acting blind. No one would drive with a person who wilfully blinded themselves - one wonders why you would vote for such a person?

Hang your principles and you hang yourself

So how do principles apply to our politics, and why are we libertarians interested in politics at all?! The answer lies in the question. We are interested in politics in order to get politicians out of our lives, and that is the principle that drives us.

So, if we want to make that happen, won’t we need to be consistent in what we call for? We ain’t going to get them out of our lives if one day we call for fewer pollies and less meddling, and the next we call for more and more. Are we?

We have to know what our goals are! And we must always clearly and consistently, move toward those goals, and so demonstrate them to others!!

We must at all times be absolutely clear on what we stand for, and how we aim to achieve it. Let’s have another wee test here this afternoon: Who can tell me any five of our party’s principles while standing on one leg?? How many other foot soldiers in other parties could pass such a test, I wonder?

It’s about ‘making a difference,’ stupid!

We must know what we stand for, and what we are aiming for. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Why would you even get involved in politics otherwise? Right? Well, how many recall the silly bitch standing for Winston Peters at the previous election? The one who was nobbled by the IRD? She received a gentle heckling from one Daniel Chariton at a Palmerston North meeting in which she revealed why she was in politics: she was in politics, she said, to “make a difference.” “In what way?,” asked Daniel. Um . . . she wanted to “make changes.” “What sort of changes?” Daniel queried. Um ... she wanted “to move New Zealand forward.” “In what direction? To what end? What would she call ‘forward’?” At this point she invited Daniel to get up at the podium and take over. And he did. And he did a better job.

But Suzanne Bruce - for that was the name of the silly cow - is no different to many other politicians who want to ‘make a difference,’ just more open. Most of them have no idea why they want to be in politics - they just want to be in politics. In fact, they really, really want to be in politics - and that in fact is their only guiding principle. They’ll say anything and join any party in order to achieve that aim. But someone has to actually give them an agenda. Someone has to give them some ideas to follow. Someone has to give them something to say.

In the end, the people who win the battle of ideas are those who do have a clear idea about where they are going, about what their aim is, and how they are going to get there. It may not be those people who et into parliament, but in the long run it is their ideas that are put in place because in politics - as everywhere else - it is ideas that truly matter. It behoves us all to know the ideas by which we are being ruled.

“Principles? I’ll Take Two”

Our principles are the ideas that guide us; so how do you choose your principles? You don’t just select a grab-bag off the shelf, do you? As with any impulse purchase you’d have no way of knowing whether or not you’ve bought a lemon. Your principles must be carefully chosen and they have to be consistent - and they have to I.

Now principles, if well-chosen, are practical. They work for a lifetime. Libertarian principles for instance are practical, and they are designed specifically for human beings to put into action. And they work like all hell. “Get the hell out of my way” is what libertarian principles say - “and if I make a mistake it’s my mistake, and I will live with it!” Libertarian principles leave people free to make their own decisions in their own way, and those principles leave them responsible for the actions they take in following their decisions; they say that we should associate with others voluntarily, to mutual benefit; that initiating force against someone else is wrong ... These principles work because the human mind is the ultimate resource - the human mind applied to action is in fact the most powerful thing in all the known universe — As long as human beings are left free to use their minds and to act on their conclusions!

The liberty of the human individual is not just moral - although it is; it is not just glorious - although it is; it is not just a matter of life and death - it is much more important than that: like all good principles it is practical! And it is practical precisely because it is moral - and that is what makes liberty the life-and-death issue that it is.

Every Adolf needs his Neville

Now, there’s one word that never fails to comes up when talking about principles: ‘Compromise’: Otherwise known as ‘selling out your principles.’ Compromise: “An adjustment of conflicting claims by mutual concession.” Now, if you I your principles are consistent, if you know your principles work, and if you know your principles are fantastic guides to action - if you do know all that - then why would you want to compromise, right? Why would you?

Compromise! That word always comes up when talking about principles, because these days a man of principle - let alone a whole party of principle - is so rare that most people fail to understand how principles work. They think that acting on principle will only get your head cut off, so ‘compromise, compromise, compromise.’ That’s the name of the game these days.

It’s true that compromise is always possible, but not compromise on principles. Unless you too wish to be another “unprincipled wimp” then you should know that compromise is only advisable in certain specific actions. In optional issues for instance, such as choosing vanilla or hokey pokey; or blue jeans or black. Or in certain specific actions such as lowering the price I ask for my car in order to sell it, and in which both the buyer and I respect the basic principle of trade  - but observe that there can be no compromise if that basic principle is abandoned by buyer and seller. There can be no compromise if the buyer refuses to pay anything and demands my car for nothing. There can be no compromise between a burglar and a home-owner; or between a rapist and his victim. They have nothing of value to offer you; you do. They have nothing to lose by a compromise; you do. They are seeking a value that they would not be able to obtain without you; you have nothing to gain from dealing with them. At all.

There can be no compromise on matters of knowledge, truth or fact. We know for a fact that Helen Clark is ugly, that Jim Anderton is an idiot, that Jeanette Fitzsimplesimons is simple, and that ACT types are unprincipled wimps who wear their suits to bed and who enjoy tax–paid trips around the lambada bars of South America. We know these things, and on that knowledge we cannot compromise. And we all know that even after we’ve had fifteen beers that if Laila Harre opened her mouth even once then she’s going to lose any chance of sleeping with any of us! We know these things, and there can be no compromising on what we know to be true!

But what happens when you do compromise in your actions when you know you shouldn’t. What happens if you do sleep with Laila? Metaphorically speaking. The answer is clear: if you sleep with Laila you’ll get screwed! As Ayn Rand observed, the truth is that in any collaboration between good and bad, the bad always gains. In short, Good has nothing to gain from Bad - Bad can only achieve its goals by mooching off the Good. Laila can only pay her bills by screwing you over and mooching off your wallet - and she can only do that because you let her. Politicians can only pay for their election-year bribes by taking it from the pockets of the people who are being bribed - and they can only do that because you let them!

In any compromise between shit and chivalry, the shit will always win. Reminds me of the story of the man who through hard work and application produced two wine barrels for the year. Both contained gorgeous, fragrant, fruity red wine, but one barrel also contained … just a single helping … of dog shit. The result for the vintner was disaster, that single helping wiping out the work of six months. Shit wins. But only if you let it.

Check your Goalposts

Shit wins, but only if you let it. As Ayn Rand also - and characteristically more politely - observed, “when opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side.” If we observe the situation round us today we should be able to immediately see whose principles are out in the open, and whose are being concealed: The irrationalists are on the march, and they get no opposition on principle from the other side.

The simple truth is this: the other side is not compromising, so why the hell should we?!!

The irrationalists are saying that trees have rights, and you don’t; that sand-dunes have rights, and you don’t; that the IRD have first claim to your bank account, and you don’t; that tribal savages have special apartheid rights and you don’t; that the state is sovereign, and you’re not. They aren’t compromising, so why the hell should you?! You have nothing to gain from them. Nothing! But they have everything to gain from you: your life, your money, your property, and your servitude. So what happens if you do compromise with them? Who wins? Where does the ‘happy medium’ end up this time ... and the next and the next? Pretty soon you find yourself camped under your own goalposts and unable to get the ball away! Isn’t that where we are today? It’s time for a change in tactics. It’s time to expose the irrationalists - it is time for a battle of principle. Are you ready for it?

The moral is the practical. We need principles in order to be practical - in order to ensure we are going in the right direction and that we aren’t actually helping our opponents towards our own set of sticks. It’s no good putting your head in the maul and pushing with your eyes closed because if you can’t see where you are going, the danger is you’re helping your opponents push the ball towards your line. Your principles act like your halfback [or quarterback], telling you in which direction you have to push - principles in fact provide the surest way we know of to ensure that your actions move you towards your goals, rather than the other way.

It’s the same thing in politics as the rest of human life. Saying one thing today and another tomorrow causes hopeless confusion, is counterproductive, and leaves everyone with the clear conclusion that you only have one principle: You will say and do anything for power. Even Winston Peters can’t keep that game up for ever. And endless compromise has seen sundry spineless wimps helping their opponents to succeed: more than one commentator has observed that conservatives have enacted more legislation in the last century to help the march of socialism than have the socialists. The conservatives were blind; the socialists were not; the result was always predictable.

We’ll get our fair share of abuse

But what about when you simply must compromise, say some people. People like Mick Jagger. You can’t always get what you want, says the bloke with big lips and an ever-expanding number of offspring. Well, as the song went on to affirm, if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need. We are often told that when Libertarianz are in parliament they will simply have to compromise. Everybody does, why should we be so different. Right? … wrong! Sticking to our principles is actually our best protection against falling in a heap like all the other minor parties have done.

How are we so different? Well, first of all we actually have principles, unlike the other bastards. And second, our principles are practical. Cometh the hour, cometh the principle! In fact, upholding the principle of freedom allows a simple way to test any parliamentary so-called ‘compromise.’ Put simply, the test is this: More White, and No Black! We will support any and every measure that offers more freedom (however small the increase) as long as it does not decrease any existing freedom (however small the decrease).

Any support for any measure would follow - or not - based on that simple test, and the result over time would see us move the ball away from our goal posts and down the field with every push, and would see others working to understand what we mean by freedom.

How does this principle work in practice? Let’s look at how some policy proposals measure up:

·        Take for instance the proposal for a low flat tax - if the proposal is examined we find that many people will indeed get more freedom in what they can do with their money, but some few will actually end up paying more to the grey ones. The result: more white, but also more black. Unless the proposal was amended, we’d vote against.

·        How about abolishing GST then? How does that look? Pretty good, actually. Less theft overall, with no new theft at all. Less paperwork for retailers, with no new paperwork. As long as a commensurate drop in government spending accompanies the abolition (and no new taxes or new borrowing takes place to replace the amount lost to government) the result is more white, and more white. Libertarianz would support such a measure.

·        What about vouchers in education, in which government funding ‘follows the child’ wherever he studies, whether in private school or public? When scrutinised we see that the government paymaster ends up deciding which schools are eligible to receive vouchers and which aren’t, and by what criteria eligibility is judged; we see also a whole new bureaucracy established to regulate and administer the voucher programme. The result is both an increase in bureaucrats and an increase in government power over schools that at present escape some of the restrictions imposed on state schools. More white, yes, but also more black. We’d vote against.

·        Offering tax-credits to people paying for education might offer a better way to free education from the state than would vouchers: anyone paying anyone else to be educated anywhere could deduct that amount from his income statement, with the upper limit (per student) being what government currently spends to provide a student with a comparable education. This proposal would get private schools out from under the dead hand of the bureaucrats without filtering more tax dollars through the bureaucracy itself as the vouchers system would do. And it might allow schools to begin paying good teachers what they are worth. (Striking teachers might well reflect that it is not the poverty of parents but the enrichment of bureaucrats that is responsible for their parlous state; they might consider what their wage packet might look like if a competitive market could properly recognise the financial value of their services.) So, tax credits for education, then? Libertarianz would support such a measure.

·        How about the proposal for state welfare that it be “a hand-up, not a hand-out.” Well, you could give an awful lot of people a huge hand-up if the government just stopped stealing their money to pay for state welfare in the first place. And if you’re stealing even more money to pay for even more programmes to give people that ‘hand up,’ and if you’re employing even more dead-beats on the state payroll to run tl programmes, then the increased theft is clearly a greater increase in the black with no new white at all!

·        By contrast, giving people a time limit beyond which no more state welfare is available offers vastly more white, without even the possibility of more black. For example, it would be possible to announce that no new DPB beneficiaries will be added to the welfare rolls after the expiration of six months after the announcement. Further, people who are currently on the DPB could be told that all DPB payments will cease when their youngest child reaches the age of three. In this way DPB would have been abolished inside three and a half years without any new black at all.

·        One last example now. What about a proposal to kill the entire front-bench of cabinet in their beds? Now this is a much more subtle proposal, since at first sight it seems to offer a vast increase in freedom without any new ‘black.’ However, greater study shows us that the front-bench would be replaced from the ever-growing number of power-lusters eager to get their feet under the Treasury benches; further, expected reprisals for the killings might well diminish many of the freedoms we presently enjoy. Unfortunately then, this could not be a proposal that libertarians could support.

It seems clear that if the ‘more freedom, with no new controls’ rule were to be announced as the criteria for libertarian parliamentary support, then what freedom looks like would become the focus for much public and parliamentary interest, and the application of the principle would see a ‘ratchet’ effect happening in the reverse of how the parliamentary ratchet currently operates: we would see the level of government spending and regulation tend to decrease over time rather than increase as it has for the last hundred-and-fifty years. And such a principle would lessen any pressure for coalition - any party doing anything we could support would be guaranteed of our support for that measure; any party proposing anything we could not support would neither get nor deserve our backing. Our actions would be clear, and the reasoning simple.

It’s a Revolution we’re after, dammit!

I’m going to conclude by reminding you all that our goal as libertarians is to get politicians out of our faces, out of our lives, out of our pockets and off our backs. By any means necessary!

To do that we must always and consistently argue for that goal. How the hell do we expect others to understand what we’re on about if we aren’t even consistent in what we say? If we say one minute that “all adult interaction should be voluntary,” and the next that a little bit of compulsion might be alright we don’t really help our cause, now do we? What that tells everyone is that we don’t really believe what we’re saying ourselves, and we’ll give up our policies if the fishing grounds appear more promising elsewhere. And people soon begin to wonder what your real agenda is, and whether it’s just power that you’re really after!

But there is a far, far more important reason to be consistent: We constantly say that it doesn’t matter if we never get to parliament, as long as our ideas do. And they are. They are because the principle on which all our ideas are based is clear, consistent and bloody well obvious. And our ideas work.

Remember, in the final analysis it’s a battle of ideas we are involved in. The revolution that we seek is inside men’s minds. Hyperbole? Exaggeration? I give you John Adams, writing to Thomas Jefferson long after they had both retired from the fray, and long after the successful American Revolution they had so ably led:

What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.

The real revolution was the one that preceded the war in the fifteen years before it. It was a revolution of ideas, and any such revolution is unstoppable. As Thomas Paine said of such a battle:

An army of principle will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot; it will succeed where diplomatic management would fail; it is neither the Rhine, the Channel, nor the ocean that can arrest its progress; it will march on the horizon of the world ... and it will conquer!

We too will conquer. We will have our own revolution. The libertarian army of principles will be going to parliament, whether there are libertarians there to accompany them or not. And with your help those principles will do their work in getting politicians out of our faces, off our backs, and out of our lives.

It will be a struggle, but with your help it is a struggle we can win. Nothing else in this life is as important, because without freedom, nothing worthwhile in life is possible.

Thank you.

[Originally published in The Free Radical, September/October 2002]


[1] Ironically, both quotes were uttered by the same person: Deborah Coddington, former Libertarianz deputy and now an ACT MP. The first was said when a libertarian, the second when an unprincipled wimp.