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Why no libertarian party rules (or thrives) anywhere

  • October 5th, 2017

This article is a fragmentary popularisation of conclusions in scores of papers and studies. Excerpts:

“Throughout history, there have been significant costs associated with appearing not to be altruistic. According to [a] paper in the Annual Review of Psychology, “Across cultures, people punish others who have violated moral norms, even when the violation leads to people being better off rather than worse off…In populations in which certain behaviours are punished, people are better off if they resist engaging in these behaviours, even if doing so is in their short-term interests.”

 The personal costs of altruistic behaviour are outweighed by the benefits: Reciprocation from our tribe. Additionally, we may be wired to protect our genially similar tribesmen, not just ourselves. This is in contrast to the view that we’re all just selfish creatures out for own best interests. Since acting selfishly is not always in our genes’ best interest, we may not be hardwired to do so.

However, the research conversely indicates that acting selflessly is not always in our best interest as the primary carriers of those genes. While it may have been beneficial for our ancestors to favor the interests of others over the personal and, as a result, we may have evolved to do the same, society is very different today than it was for our ancestors.

“Society was not invented by reasoning men. It evolved as part of our nature”, Ridley says. While our genes may want us to behave in a given way, we need not be slaves to our genes when the personal cost could potentially prove to be disastrous.

A Newsroom article this week has quoted me and Richard Prebble on the future for ACT and why it did so poorly. I got into my thinking on this with the journalist, but evidently he did not have the space for that part of our conversation (or my musing was too dense).

I believe ACT will not flourish until it is perceived as being comprised and lead by people who understand and share most people’s need and respect for altruism, nationalism and other expressions of the social and collectivist part of our nature. I, and most of the fellow citizens I trust, want to be lead by people who show genuine commitment to institutions that reinforce mutual obligation and support.

Too few people to matter electorally will ever trust a party, and people, who do not understand and reflect our collective impulses.

Most of the people who’ve lead in ACT knew that, intuitively. They were extraordinarily unselfish. They lived the values of effective collective obligations.  Sir Roger Douglas’s health, welfare and education policies were directed to creating very strong institutions, best compared to those in Singapore. He wanted reform to ensure long term political support for the social safety net. He was an original supporter of what is now called UBI, with a reverse income tax scheme. He wanted to reinforce the values of social duty and responsibility, but working with how people actually respond, rather than the current NZ model which rewards free-riders on the generosity of hard working neighbours.

But people were deaf to him. ACT branded him to them, but he reinforced that branding by being sometimes tone deaf to fears. Public musing, for example, on auctioning passports, sent a message that closed ears to the logic of that position, let alone his other mechanisms to strengthen the values of collaboration and mutual support.

Sensitivity to our collectivist side does not need repudiation of market capitalism, for example. But it does need obvious commitment to  enforcing honesty and upholding the rules that reassure people they will not be left to the mercies of robber barons. Sensitivity to the collectivist side does not demand renouncing individual economic and social and criminal responsibility, or anything else of the classical liberal canon. But I believe they will only be accepted (tolerated) within a framework of obviously shared adhesion to collective loyalties. If people retain a sneaking suspicion that their elites could prefer the company, and the values, and the money, of “the other”, they will shrewdly deny them support, no matter how well reasoned, and attractive is their marketing.

The journalist was testing the line that ACT’s brand is toxic, and that it needs to become clearly classically liberal. I accepted both as possibilities, but said I thought ‘classical liberal’ was now scarcely understood by the voting population. It would be confused with libertarian, yet condemned when it failed to embrace liberal/progressive causes (eg feeble on crime, keen on minority ‘rights’ that are in fact privileges dependent on coercing others) that are anything but classically liberal.

Nevertheless I see that the predominant view of commentators on WhaleOil and Kiwiblog about the very low party vote for ACT appears to be that it needs to become more “liberal”. The remind me of the Green activists who are convinced that the missing million and the Labour apostates will come to them when their party is more adamantly Corbynist.

Both sets of zealots ignore and deplore what drives normal humans. Sadly for ACT, however, the Corbynist vision can be made to appear closer to how people want to think of themselves and their leaders.

I did not want to give the journo hostile lines, so refrained from directly disagreeing with him in any concise way. But those who dream of wide enthusiasm for ‘ liberalism’ are to me more ideologically blind than the Corbynistas. The libertarian vision of the perfectible human may be even further from human nature than theirs.

I suspect that David Seymour is more in touch with his electorate’s nature than our current holders of the Green brand.

And it may not be ACT’s internal struggles that capture our attention over this next Parliamentary term.

From contact with young voters, I think TOP  could provide a reassuring home for the environmental Green supporters. TOP could expropriate the real Green brand and leave the NZ Corbynistas with Marama Davidson in a rump “Green” party. Without any anti-waka jumping law now, they could even support Parliamentary defection, for example by James Shaw and Julie Anne Genter.

I suspect that the TOP party will remain too beholden to Gareth Morgan to adhere to the discipline that would need. He would have to leave many of his social justice hobby horses unridden, to highlight his reliability as a true environmental Green.  Assuming that he could not avoid being drawn into social justice warfare, TOP and the rump Greens would end up fighting over the same dirigiste/inequality/Treaty worship voters – the types that just will not tolerate the compromises demanded by MMP (and democracy). That would continue to obscure and confound the fantastic Green/environmental brand. They’ll damage each other too much to gain the NZ First type power to determine who governs.




  • James Noble
  • October 7th, 2017
  • 1:26 pm

Simpler than that: ACT needs to be able to attack National hard from the Right. Shouldn’t be difficult. National’s policies at this election have drifted to the left of Helen Clark’s Labour. Not even communism by stealth just plain communism. If ACT can’t destroy the likes of English’s billions for benefits, Joyce’s billions for roads, Brownlee’s billions for Christchurch, they don’t deserve to go anywhere.

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