In the Revolution's Twilight

When I first spoke on a similar topic to an IOS gathering in 1995, I said that New Zealand was a nation reformed by Hayekians, run by pragmatists & populated by socialists. The editor of Liberty magazine, Bill Bradford, quoted that line in his March 1997 Liberty article, Revolution in a Small Country, a glowing account of the nature, scope & future of New Zealand's economic reforms. My Hayekian-pragmatist-socialist thesis, he implied, was too gloomy; he, after being in the country for 40 days and speaking to hundreds of people, "got a definitive answer to the most fundamental question: do New Zealanders think the revolution was a good thing? Virtually everyone I talked to about the revolution supports it."

Well, I've lived in the country for forty-something years, & I'm here to tell you that the picture is not, unfortunately, anywhere near as rosy as that painted either by Bill in Liberty magazine or by William Eggers in Reason magazine in its May issue.

In a fit of ridiculous hyperbole, Mr Bradford implicitly likened New Zealand's revolution to the Industrial Revolution itself; he called it the "one occasion in the twentieth century when the Leviathan State has been successfully challenged," and described its architect, Sir Roger Douglas, as "the most effective libertarian politician of this century" who "slew the statist dragon." Well, I hate to be a party-pooper, but Bill Bradford was wrong on all counts. The Industrial Revolution analogy is self-evidently fatuous; the Leviathan State in New Zealand is as invasive and pervasive as ever — indeed, more so; and Sir Roger Douglas, effective politician though he undoubtedly was, was and is most assuredly no libertarian.

What the New Zealand experience affords, is — an intriguing object lesson in how far one can go, in a democracy, in making economic changes without a proper philosophy, without a popular mandate, and therefore, without accompanying attitudinal changes.

Further than we Objectivists might think, perhaps, but much less far than the distance we would like to travel.

To a man, the reformers endorse collectivism (some of them unwittingly) & its moral base, altruism (all of them wittingly); as altruists, they are philosophically impotent against the politicians & lobby groups who stand in the way of further reform, who want to reverse the reforms to date — & who loudly sound the trumpets of self-sacrifice in orchestrating their cause. Against them, the reformers in New Zealand are in the position of the Republicans in the United States, as depicted by Bob Bidinotto in his analysis of the last presidential election results:

"They are torn between two mutually exclusive premises: between the right of individuals to live for their own sakes, which Democrats call selfishness, and the alleged duty of individuals to sacrifice their lives, liberties & property for collective ends, which Democrats call compassion."

The NZ reformers' preference is to deal with this dilemma by avoiding it; if pressed, they come down on the side of so-called compassion, and repair to Adam Smith's "invisible hand" analogy to prove that free markets are actually more compassionate than collectivist arrangements. Bob's characterisation of the collapse of the Republican revolution & the Dole debacle is exactly applicable to the so-called revolution in New Zealand: "compelling evidence that free-market political reforms can't take root in cultural soils poisoned by an ethics that idealises the sacrifice of the individual to the group." If the reformers are to regain the political initiative, Bob's imperative for the Republicans also applies: "They must begin to champion a positive, pro-capitalist, limited-government agenda — not only on economic grounds, but for once on the moral grounds of an individual's right to exist for his own sake. "

Is that what they are doing? I quote from I've Been Thinking, a booklet by Richard Prebble, leader of the reformers' political party, ACT — routinely referred to by me as the Association of Compulsion-Touters, for reasons which will become clear later. ACT, says Mr Prebble, "is not an extreme right-wing individualist party. No one in it is advocating Ayn Rand's selfishness." And he's right. No one in it is. This disclaimer is ACT's answer to the likes of the most left-wing party in New Zealand's parliament, the Alliance, whose leader, Jim Anderton, has deplored "the imposition of alien values based on a commercial model, producing selfish, competitive individualism instead of mutual support & co-operation."

If you enjoyed this, why not subscribe?