Wednesday, December 7, 2016

On Immigration, Sovereignty and the Modern Nation State

Donald Trump made immigration a central issue of his election campaign, claiming that immigrants take Americans jobs and commit a disproportionate number of crimes. I disagree with Trump that immigrants steal jobs or that they make a country less safe. The evidence from countries that have had high levels of immigration historically, such as the United States, is that immigrants create more jobs and commit less crimes than the 'native' populations. I believe that the benefits immigrants bring almost always outweigh any negative factors such as social disharmony and that anyone who comes to a country with peaceful intentions and who is self-supporting should be welcomed.

Trump's view of immigration is a typically collectivist one. Collectivists believe the rights of the group, i.e. the nation state, the race, the socio-economic segment or however they define it, should prevail over the rights of the individual. In the case of immigration, they believe the collective rights of those who are already in the country outweigh the individual rights of the immigrant and others such as family members, friends and employers who might have an interest in that person coming in.

I have written before about how modern nation states are, for the most part, entirely artificial and arbitrary entities. If you doubt it, consider that in the early 19th Century it was almost as likely that New Zealand would end up as a French colony or a state of Australia as the nation we became. The United States was cobbled together from territories that were settled, conquered, purchased and conceded over many centuries and through successive waves of immigration and it is still evolving as a political entity today (e.g. with the current initiative for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state). So when Trump talks about 'America First' or Winston Peters about New Zealand First, which America or New Zealand do they mean?

Political commentators and historians talk about sovereignty as if it is inherent to a political entity rather than to the individuals who inhabit that entity. If sovereignty is a right in the sense that John Locke or Thomas Paine defined the concept, then it cannot belong to a territory or a group, it must be inherent to individuals. The Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights and the US Declaration of Independence were all based on the principle that state sovereignty derives from individual sovereignty and that individuals only cede a degree of their inherent sovereignty in return for collective protection - not the other way around.

Which brings us to New Zealand and the Maori. The Treaty of Waitangi was a deal in which Maori chiefs agreed to trade their tribal sovereignty for the protection of the British Crown. The Treaty bestowed on Maori 'all the Rights and Privileges of British Subjects', i.e. Maori individually became subjects of the Crown. This meant that they were no longer subjects of whichever violent and capricious chief happened to gain the upper hand in the endless wars that were fought between tribes up until 1840, and that they were emancipated from the slavery, indiscriminate tribal killings, infanticide and cannibalism that had prevailed in their highly collectivist society until that time.

Some tribal leaders and many political sympathisers today interpret the Treaty of Waitangi as giving residual sovereignty rights to present day tribal elites. I completely reject this view, not because of anything the Treaty of Waitangi may or may not say (although I think the words support my interpretation) but because I don't accept that tribes have any inherent rights whatsoever. Whether you think Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty or not is irrelevant - the Treaty extended the rights recognised under British law to Maori individually and those rights cannot be given up or abrogated today - at least not morally. It is the individuals who live in New Zealand today that have the sole right to determine who governs this nation state because it is their sovereignty that is being ceded - not that given up by a group of Maori chiefs 176 years ago.

Which brings me back to immigration. The main problem that collectivists have with unlimited immigration is their belief that a nation state is some sort of exclusive club, membership of which is determined by racial, ethnic or cultural criteria, and they don't want to share the nation's benefits with those who don't meet their selective membership criteria. This presupposes that a nation is a zero sum game, which is of course a typical left-wing view of economics. But if I am right and a nation is only a collection of individuals that delegate some of their rights for protection to the state, there are no collective benefits to be shared. It is up to individuals, families and businesses to decide whether they will be generous in accommodating newcomers and the state's role should be confined to ensuring those who enter the country do not endanger anyone else.

Monday, December 5, 2016

John Key hasn't made NZ a better place

So John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand for nearly three parliamentary terms, is to resign. Some of the more alarmist media have expressed shock, but others predicted it some time ago. My initial reaction was to tweet the above comment but on reflection I am not so sure that he has left the country no worse than he found it. Certainly it is not as good as it might have been after 8 years of government led by a National Party that is meant to stand for "equal citizenship and equal opportunity, individual freedom and choice, personal responsibility, competitive enterprise and reward for achievement, and limited government". John Key's government that has given us the notorious FATCA tax law, the draconian GCSB Amendment Act, a retreat from the principals of equality before the law and universal democratic suffrage, a heavy-handed and authoritarian response to the Christchurch earthquake that has hamstrung that city's recovery and the country's economic growth, and a myriad of other erosions of individual freedoms and expansions of government interference in our lives.

Some commentators have predicted that Judith Collins might follow Key as leader. Frankly, I think her selection would be electoral suicide for the National Party as Collins remains deeply unpopular after her resignation following various scandals during National's second term in office, despite Key reappointing her to Cabinet. The alternative seems to be Paula Bennett, but I doubt whether the latter has the necessary political presence and support amongst her colleagues to get the top job. The current deputy prime minister, Bill English, will be the caretaker until the National caucus votes on a new leader but he is hardly an inspiring choice to take the party into next year's election.

This country remains relatively free, prosperous and safe - perhaps one of the best places in the world to live based on these criteria, but under John Key the trend has not been positive and I hold out no hope that a new prime minister will reverse it.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Mexico has lessons for New Zealand

I recently spent a month travelling around Mexico. It is not a country we hear a great deal about here in New Zealand but recently it has been in the news because of Donald Trump's campaign promise to build a border wall and make the Mexicans pay for it (although, interestingly, the US presidential election seemed to be of far less importance in the Mexican media than the outcome of the baseball World Series, which was being contested north of the border about the same time).

Mexico is a beautiful country with a hugely rich history and far more diverse geography and demography than most people would imagine. The Mexican people are warm and friendly, once you overcome their initial reserve, and they appear to enjoy life far more than the overly serious and officious Americans north of the border. However, Mexico is a basket case politically, economically and socially, which is why so many Mexicans want to join their numerous cousins in the USA.

Mexicans, like Maori, still tend to blame their people's ills on colonialism but they perhaps have a greater justification in doing so than those descended from the first New Zealanders. The Spanish conquistadors had few of the qualms of the British colonisers in New Zealand, seizing all the land, enslaving the entire indigenous population and setting up a feudal society that various revolutions since have never entirely overcome. The consequences of this is that Mexico today is a country that is still to some extent at war with itself. 

The conflict in the country is seen in several areas. Firstly, there is the well-known drug violence, which is mainly confined to the northern regions that border the United States. The drug violence is all the worse because of the extensive corruption in the local police forces that not only turn a blind eye to much of the violence but actually participate in some of the worst of it (such as the massacre of 43 students in Guerrero in 2014). Then there is the political violence, like the recent kidnapping and torture of a priest in Veracruz, which seems to be a constant if low-level threat particularly in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. And finally there is the less overtly violent, but nevertheless intimidatory, protest actions that regularly disrupt life in all the major cities in Mexico - such as barricading all the exits from a city and demanding money from drivers to let them past (which I personally experienced on several occasions).

Tribalism plays a significant part in Mexico's political and social conflict. Ethnic groups such as the Nahuatl, Yucatec and Zapotec all have their particular grievances, usually about land and the preservation of language and culture. Like Maori, they choose to focus on their differences rather than on commonalities of shared national heritage, individual rights and the benefits of living in a modern, pluralistic society. Many of their historical complaints may be justified but collective grievances and identity group politics are only likely to hold people back and ultimately economic and social advancement always comes down to individual aspirations and responsibility.

Mexico seemed to be on a track to economic prosperity and real democracy in the latter decades of the 20th Century after hundreds of years of autocracy and one-party rule, but progress has stalled in the last twenty years and the lack of investment in infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals is obvious to anyone visiting the country. Undoubtedly the country's long dalliance with socialism is a significant cause of this decay, with even the state-owned oil monopoly, Pemex, unable to maintain investment in new exploration and extraction methods.

There are some lessons in Mexico for New Zealand, which has been encouraging the grievances of Maori for the last forty years in a seemingly endless series of Treaty of Waitangi claims and settlements. The strength of modern Western democracies is in their unity and common humanity, not in tribal differences. Universal rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of one's own interests and equality before law are the keys to freedom and prosperity. Tribalism and the inevitable grievances that arise from identity politics are obstacles not the solution.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Castro's Apologists Reveal Their Anti-democratic Tendencies

A while ago I was doing some work for a government agency and I was surprised to see one of the staff had a picture of Che Guevara as the screen background on his PC. I somewhat facetiously asked him whether he alternated the image with others of murderous secret police chiefs such as Heinrich Himmler, Lavrentiy Beria and Erich Mielke. He seemed unaware that Che Guevara was the head of Fidel Castro's secret police and ran the Cuban dictator's concentration camps and that he personally killed hundreds of Castro's political opponents.

I recalled this incident while reading some of the tributes to Castro over the weekend, particularly the fawning eulogies from left-wing politicians like Justin Trudeau and Jeremy Corbyn, and it got me thinking about why so many on the left seem to be wilfully blind to the crimes against humanity of Communist dictators like Castro, Stalin, Mao and Kim Il-Sung. I say wilfully because, unlike the public servant above, I cannot believe these Western politicians are unaware of the crimes of those they admire.

Why are democratically-elected Western leaders so keen to embrace and legitimise dictatorial thugs? I think the answer is obvious and revealing, like a political Freudian slip. Most Western leaders believe in big government as the solution to all the world's problems and there is no bigger form of government than brutal dictatorship. In praising Castro, they are revealing their secret pining for the free hand he had to do whatever he wanted. As Mark Steyn put it, 'if you believe in big problems that demand big government solutions, democracy just gets in the way.'

The distrust of democracy amongst Western leaders has been all too evident this year in their responses to the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election. Their churlish dismissal of the voters as ignorant, racist and xenophobic has revealed their distaste of the reality of democracy. They like the pretence of having a democratic mandate but only when voters stick to the script they have written.

The very worst thing about the reaction of these Western apologists to Castro's death is their arrogance in thinking they can speak for the Cuban people, such as Trudeau's observation that the dictator 'served his people for almost half a century.' It takes a particularly weasel-like hypocrisy to label Castro's extra-judicial killing of thousands of his countrymen and his imprisonment of tens of thousands of his political opponents as 'serving his people'.

The only aspect of Castro's death that is regrettable is that he died in his sleep and thereby denied his oppressed people the opportunity of seeing him hang for his crimes.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Trump will hasten mainstream media's demise

I don't think anyone would seriously disagree that the coverage of the US presidential election campaign was, to say the least, unbalanced. Many of the election night commentators looked dismayed at Trump's victory and some, like MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, broke down at the result. The campaign itself was reported in the most one-sided manner with even the editor of the Clinton-supporting New York Times showing remarkable self-awareness after the election by penning a letter to his readers that was as close to a mea culpa as any newspaper editor ever concedes.

Trump realised early on in his campaign that the mainstream media were his enemy and he capitalised on that enmity, using them to pour fuel on the fire of his more outrageous comments when he wanted to and talking above them directly to the electorate we they weren't serving his purposes. I believe the American public were equally dismissive of the media, understanding only too well their biases and making allowances for that when reading reports of Trump's excesses. The media was trapped in an echo-chamber of their own making, feeding off their biases and believing their own hype, unable to discern what was really going on in the electorate.

It is already apparent that a Trump presidency will have a different relationship with the media. Trump does not accept that the media should have privileged access to him, his family and his staff, as demonstrated by his refusal to allow the press to accompany him on his first visit to the White House and to a private dinner. The media has responded to their exclusion by writing an open letter to Trump stating that 'we expect the traditions of White House press coverage to be upheld whether in Washington or elsewhere.' The arrogant tone of the letter shows that these fools don't get it - their world has tilted on its axis and will never be the same again. The very idea of an establishment media, the so-called 'fourth estate', is dead and will never be resurrected. You would think they would have got the message with the appointment of Stephen Bannon, the head of the popular 'alt-right' website Breitbart News, as a senior counsellor to the president-elect. Breitbart founder Andrew Breitbart said when establishing his site that it was 'committed to the destruction of the old media guard'.

The mainstream media's disease is terminal. The New York Times, one of the world's biggest newspapers in terms of circulation, is barely profitable, and here in New Zealand our two largest dailies need to merge in order to survive. Television networks like our TVNZ are in financial freefall. They deserve their fate, having long since given up (if they ever had) any semblance of journalistic independence and integrity. Trump will just hasten their demise.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Leave us alone, Gauleiter Brownlee

So Gerry Brownlee is not happy that the new mayor of Wellington, Justin Lester, did not declare a 'red zone' in the Wellington CBD after this week's earthquakes. In case anyone has any misconceptions about what Brownlee's red zone would mean, this article describes what life is still like in Christchurch's red zone five years after the 2011 earthquake. Brownlee's dictatorial management of the aftemath of the Christchurch earthquake has more effectively destroyed that city than any damage done by the earthquake.

Wellington property owners have been acting quickly and responsibly to assess the damage to their buildings in the days since the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that hit the top of the South Island. In my own offices on Lambton Quay, the owner asked that we stay out of the building until he had had engineers assess the damage. This work was completed on Tuesday afternoon and (as there was happily no damage) we were then given the all-clear to reoccupy the building. This has been the process throughout the city with no direction or help from central government and where necessary buildings have been kept closed for further inspection and remedial work. Justin Lester may not have satisfied Brownlee's authoritarian bent but four days after the earthquake there have been no reports of any injuries from earthquake damage in central Wellington so the risk appears to have been well managed and the mayor seems to have made exactly the right call in not closing down the entire central city.

The best thing that a government can do to facilitate the recovery from a natural disaster, as was proved in Joplin, Missouri*, is to get the hell out of the way and let individuals and businesses get on with the job of recovery. A few of Wellington's buildings are seriously damaged but the vast majority have superficial or no damage at all. We don't need red zones, and we certainly don't need the Brownlee's jackbooted approach to dealing with residents and property owners in Christchurch, to get on with the recovery work. Please, just leave us alone, Gauleiter Brownlee.

* H/T to Not PC for the link to the WSJ article on Joplin (which is subscription only - if you can't get past the paywall read about what it says in this blog post).

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Why Trump Won

Winston Churchill said, "Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time", and I tend to agree - as imperfect as it is, democracy sure beats dictatorship. It has been revealing to observe the protests against Donald Trump's election as the next president of the United States. Like the protests after the Brexit vote, it is difficult to discern what the complainants actually want to achieve; however, it is obvious they do not really want electors to have a genuine choice and they think the voting system is only there to validate their own narrow views.

During the election campaign we saw the media and left-wing commentators try to delegitimise the Trump campaign. Trump himself didn't help of course, straying from the real issues into personal prejudices as with his comments about Mexicans, but the dismissal of anyone who supported the Trump campaign as racist, sexist or fascist demonstrated an intolerance that, in my view, was worse than anything Trump said. The trend is continuing post-election, with mainstream media outlets such as Reuters demonising the appointment of Breitbart editor Stephen Bannon as a "right-wing firebrand" who has turned his news site into a "loose online group of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-Semites." I read Breitbart occasionally and at worst it is a strident voice of conservative America and at best it is a forum that robustly challenges the prevailing left-wing consensus of the mainstream media.

Trump's win was due to the frustrations of Americans with the leadership of their country. Mostly that frustration is about economic matters, particularly the high levels of underemployment amongst non-college educated Americans and the huge increase in the cost of health insurance under Obama's so-called Affordable Care Act. However, a degree of the frustration was about the erosion of the pluralism that is an essential part of democracy and the fact that it has become unacceptable in much of the mainstream media and social media to espouse any views other than the prevailing left-wing orthodoxy. I believe many Americans voted for Trump simply because they wanted to reassert their right to hold a dissenting view.

I disagree with most of what Trump stands for and I don't think he is going to be a great president, but the thing about political leaders is that you often don't know what they really will be like until they are in the role. One of New Zealand's most effective prime ministers in recent years was Helen Clark, who, like Trump, was dismissed as unelectable before she got into power. Trump is the American president-elect whether his opponents like it or not and if they have any respect for the American republic and its democratic system, then they have to accept the result and give him a chance.