Bruce Jesson
Bruce Jesson

A Nineties Dropout

Editor's note — the following was written in October 1997 for Metro magazine. It has just now been published by Metro in the wake of Bruce Jesson's death. My thanks to Metro editor Bill Ralston for making it available to TFR.

An interview by me of Lindsay Perigo could possibly have been a cantankerous affair. It would be hard to imagine two people more dissimilar politically. Perigo believes in individualism and capitalism, and is an advocate of Ayn Rand's theory of Objectivism; whereas I am known for my socialism. Perigo's style — on radio and in print — is mocking and abrasive. "Kia ora," he says with an excruciating accent ["Kaya Oraaa"] on his Radio Pacific programme. I can be abrasive too, when irritated. And saying "Kia ora" with an excruciating accent is precisely the sort of thing that irritates me.

Yet not only did I interview Perigo over lunch at Sails, where we sat at a window table with a view of the marina and the harbour bridge. But I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion, not to mention the scallops and whitebait. And the reason — and I hope I don't shock anyone too much by this — is that I feel a certain affinity with Lindsay Perigo. Not with his politics of course, but the fact that he cares about politics and political philosophy. Politics was never simply Perigo's stock-in-trade, as it is for the normal media personality, but was always his passion.

Perigo is also unusual — indeed unique — among media people in that he walked away from a glittering career declaring television to be brain-dead. Perigo strikes me as the nineties equivalent of a sixties drop-out. I, of course, was the classical sixties drop-out. Perigo dresses for the interview in denims and a T-shirt with the slogan, "Message from God - Don't Trust Governments." I am intimidated by flash restaurants and wear a suit.

I begin by asking Perigo about his career trajectory. "Unusual, I would think," says Perigo, and surprises me by saying that his youthful ambition was to be a singer or conductor. But he found the university course uncongenial and rediscovered "my interest in political philosophy. All of which culminated in my dropping out of university, going into broadcasting and into radio and Morning Report, TVNZ current affairs programmes, the brain dead episode and thereafter living on my wits basically."

After leaving TVNZ, Perigo's next job at the BBC World Service with Alan Gibbs "was an interesting few months." The station was wracked by a conflict of agendas between Gibbs, his wife, his daughter and Perigo. "And naturally it all ended in tears. And when it did I thought, well, there's nothing for it. I can't operate under anyone else's auspices it would seem. I will have to operate under my own. So I started The Free Radical. That was in May 1994." Since then, he has also been with Radio Liberty, has had a programme on Radio Pacific and has been the inspiration behind the Libertarianz Party.

I suggest to Perigo that he is a nineties drop-out. "I sometimes ask myself what would life be like if I had just stayed at TVNZ, and there is no doubt that materially life would be a lot richer. But I do not regret for a second the fact that I forsook that career. I was dying within at TVNZ. The dumbing down that was going on. Plus the fact that for twenty years I had made a career of listening to other people spouting mainly nonsense. I had also become aware of what scumbags they were. And there was this polemicist in me desperate to come out, to say my own point of view for once, not to have to listen to their nonsense and their lies . . . but to say that this is the way I see it and I actually think I've got a far better case than you guys have. And so, whatever material sacrifice may have been involved, dropping out of TVNZ, spiritually — if I can use that term in a non-supernatural sense — it's been worth it and I certainly would not have had it any other way."

I ask Perigo if his own political beliefs were a factor in his decision to leave TVNZ. "Oh, yes, and I think the two are tied in actually. The dumbing down was simultaneous with the blossoming of an incipient political correctness. When I first joined broadcasting it was the NZBC and it was all public . . . but there was the conscentious observance of the need to be neutral. And that was going out the window along with anything intelligent at TVNZ. The pro-environmentalist movement, the anti-nuclear stuff, the pro-Maori so-called renaissance. All of that was colouring TVNZ's coverage of news and current affairs in a quite pronounced and biased way which was inconsistent with the ethic we were supposed to be observing. Now simultaneous with that, you've got the dumbing down. So obviously from my point of view as — I hope — an intelligent libertarian, the situation is quite intolerable."

I can't resist asking Perigo his opinion of the general run of current affairs journalists who lack his deep fascination with politics. "Well, I think the key word there is 'deep'. They have a fascination with the latest poll results or who's fallen out with whom, who's cosying up to whom, and MMP is a godsend to people of this mentality but . . . its certainly not representative of an interest in political philosophy. The mere term would send them scurrying for the latest poll results."

Their interest is in "the minutiae of the political scene as opposed to the underlying political ideas motivating the parties. Of course that's a two-way thing, because the parties have gone along with that too, with the possible exception of the Alliance. And even ACT is not philosophically driven. They no longer are beholden to a set of principles which they will formulate their policies according to."

Perigo tells of a conversation with Bolger one night, after an Eyewitness News Christmas Party, at a time when Bolger Leader of the Opposition. "Your problem is, it's just lack of philosophical cohesion," Perigo says he told Bolger, "and all your policies should be based on certain core principles."

"Bullshit," said Bolger.

I then ask Perigo about his philosophy which I summarise as capitalism, individualism and freedom with an underpinning of reason. "Reason first and foremost and the rest flows from that," replies Perigo. "Reasoning is individual, there being no collective brain, Jung notwithstanding, or Plato notwithstanding.

"Reason is a faculty of the individual which operates volitionally. It has to be turned on by the choice of the individual. In a social context therefore it's appropriate that people be left free to exercise that faculty. It flows from that that all adult interaction should be voluntary. And the social expression of that, the political expression of that, is capitalism. But not the mixed economy capitalism that we are used to where various lobby groups lie in bed with the government. I am talking about a constitutional separation of the state from economics, just as you have a constitutional separation of the state from religion, and for the same reasons. Yes, reason, individualism, capitalism and, if you want to know, romanticism and art."

This seems to me to be a moral view of the world rather than a pragmatic one. "Absolutely. It's not what the GDP optimum is. This is where we part company with ACT and the Roundtable and the Treasury who are proceeding on a utilitarian basis of what is the best possible utilisation of 'scarce' resources, and that's straight out of Hayek of course. And they say for the most part the free market is {the best possible utilisation of 'scarce' resources} — and I agree with them [except for the scarce bit] — and that's the reason they support capitalism. And if you can persuade them that what they call a public good is better provided by the government they will say, 'Ok, well let the government do it.' "

This is not the first time in the interview that Perigo harshly criticises groups that I would describe as belonging to the New Right, groups such as the Roundtable, Treasury and ACT. There is some personal and political history here, which Perigo alludes to when he goes on, "And they have no moral objection to government-initiated force. And you can see that from the fact that ACT is at the forefront of those proposing compulsory superannuation. It was one of the reasons Deborah Coddington and myself fell out with the founders of ACT right at the start. Because we were in on that but we said we will not agree with these compulsion policies . . . It's a kind of Mussolini-statism where you say the free market is the best provider and we will make people patronise it. We will force people to take out superannuation policies with a group of approved providers who of course will be in bed with the state. It is corporate statism."

It didn't occur to me to mention it at the time, but if Perigo hadn't fallen out with the founders of ACT he would probably now be in parliament. Perigo's criticisms however are not personal ones. The issues he raises are always matters of political philosophy. Sometimes he is scathing about ACT's and the Roundtable's lack of any political philosophy. Basically, however, he sees the conflict as being between the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand and the subjectivism of Alan Gibbs' (and Margaret Thatcher's) mentor, Friedrich Hayek.

I should let Perigo state his own beliefs. "The political imperative is that each person shall be protected from the initiation of force by any other person or group of persons. It's the job of government to uphold that principle. After that, what people do among themselves is entirely their own affair in the matter of free trade voluntarily entered into. And that's the economic realm. But Roundtable etc have no concept of that whatsoever."

By initiation of force, is Perigo thinking of actions against property? "Well, not just that, against your property, your person, your possessions, any aspect of your being against which physical compulsion is initiated." This covers not just physical crimes but also fraud which is "the coercion or deception of one party into an agreement that he actually hasn't consciously agreed to."

It seems to me that the crucial point, for Perigo, is that individualism is more important than capitalism. "Oh God, yes. Individualism is the moral basis of capitalism. And capitalism must have a moral basis or it cannot survive. The problem for capitalism is that anyone who has attempted - apart from Ayn Rand — to give it a moral basis has repaired to mysticism and altruism. They have conceded to Karl Marx that he has the scientific rational ground and that their defence of their favoured system is faith-derived, mystically-derived, supernaturally-derived and incidentally embodies the morality of self-sacrifice." He cites Marx's, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need," as a perfect expression of altruism.

"Altruism is not kindness or benevolence. It's the idea that self-sacrifice is your first duty and highest principle which therefore by implication may be imposed upon you — because you may not want to do it voluntarily — by government coercion. Hayek endorses that, the Roundtable endorses that. We are the only ones who say, "No, this is wrong . . . . ' We are not fighting against socialism or the sort of corporate fascism we've had here because it's bad for the economy, although it is bad for the economy . . . . It's bad for human beings because it takes away their humanity."

For Perigo, "Capitalism is based on a person's right to live for his own sake. He neither sacrifices himself to others, nor others to himself. It's a benevolent philosophy. It doesn't involve sacrifice . . . . And sure, it achieves wonderful results with the GDP but that's secondary. Bob Jones made a brilliant comment, that the Roundtable would support slavery if they could be convinced it would deliver better outcomes . . . .

"Alan Gibbs once said to me, 'The problem with you Lindsay, you reduce everything to freedom,' and that's when I first realised how corrupt he was philosophically. Why would that be a criticism, that you reduce everything to an issue of freedom?"

When I interview politicians, I always ask them what is their concept of a good life, and they always flounder. Perigo in contrast has a quite definite concept of a good life. He takes it back to Aristotle and his ideal of "someone who has perfected all his positive attributes and refined them to the highest point of fulfilment, interacting with other people who have done the same thing. You know the concept of eudaimonia? That's what I've called myself as publisher of The Free Radical — Eudaimonia Enterprises. People say, what the hell does that mean? It's the Greek concept of the good life."

I mention what might seem an unpleasant but logical consequence of Perigo's individualism. People have to be free to fail. "Absolutely. You have to be free to fail and free to succeed. Looking again at my own career path, by conventional standards I would probably be judged at the moment a failure. I don't see it that way at all. But I would very much resent having my freedom to do what I have done taken away from me."

Sometimes, in The Herald's column from its issue of100 years ago, there are stories about vagrants dying of exposure in the Domain. Surely Perigo wouldn't want that? "Of course not. I think that if we had a truly liberated economy, not this thing we've got now which is neither fish nor fowl, the explosion of activity and prosperity that would ensue would mean that the number of people in that category would be very, very small and easily catered for by voluntary charity."

Remember, says Perigo, that the Libertarianz interim proposal is for a flat tax rate of 10% which would cover the basic functions of government. People would be free to opt out of the state health, education and welfare systems. "And when that happens, when the ethos of self-reliance is much more pronounced than it is now where it doesn't exist at all, the number of indigents likely to die of exposure in the Domain is very small and easily taken care of. But my bottom line is this, and I'll bring it back to myself: If I choose a lifestyle that results in my doing that, I would still rather do that than have some arsehole from the government come and force me to do something. That's how strongly I feel about it."

One of the frustrating things about this interview is that it turns into two interviews, only one of which I have space to write up. The unwritten interview, which occurs mainly at this point, is about political philosophy, about Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Hegel and Marx. Perigo's concern in this unwritten interview is to say that reason can comprehend reality, and that ethics can be grounded in reality. "If that's not possible, it's deuces wild ethically." I totally agree. It follows that Perigo is contemptuous of twentieth century philosophy, of existentialism, of post-modernism and so on.

After this philosophical digression, I raise with Perigo something that puzzles me about The Free Radical. The last thirteen years of free market reform should have been a wonderful time from Perigo's point of view, yet The Free Ra dical gives the impression of belonging to a persecuted minority. Perigo sounds more as though he were in my position (as a socialist) than his. "In your position, you should be happy," says Perigo, "I think — again I quote Bob (Jones) — New Zealand is now more regulated than at any time in its history. And it is. It's true that in certain areas there was a measure of deregulation, corporatisation leading to privatisation in limited areas only. But while that was happening, while our backs were turned, innumerable regulations were brought in in other areas, and I cite things like the Resource Management Act, OSH and the Human Rights Act, which is the most hideously Orwellian misnomer I could ever imagine, to the point where you just about need a resource consent to blow your nose . . . . The Roundtable and the Treasury will say it is much better than it was because we're paying much less tax. We're not. Roger brought down the rate of income tax but he brought in GST which we call the Government Slavery Tax. When people say to me, 'Your philosophy has nothing to offer the poor' I say, 'First up, everything is twelve and a half per cent cheaper.'" For Perigo, of course, tax of any sort is coercion.

I ask about Simon Upton who had more than a hand in the passing of the Resource Management Act, but has the reputation of being a classical liberal. Perigo is contemptuous. Upton "is not an individual. He's got no sense of self. He's just completely determined by the forces he's exposed to . . . . For someone who wrote The Withering of the State to be defending the RMA which has given the state, in the form of local government, unprecedented power which is being used in the most horrendous of ways . . . . For someone like that to say he's an advocate of liberty . . . . See I have far more contempt for people like him than I do for, well, you or Jim Anderton, because with people like you and Jim Anderton I can have a principled argument."

What about the RMA itself? "Its evil lies in what Hitler said, 'Why bother nationalising land and factories? We nationalise human beings.' And that's in effect what the RMA has done. It's taken away private property rights except on paper, because you still own your property, but it's now the council who are telling you what you can do thereon."

Geoffrey Palmer of course was the person responsible for formulating the RMA. Is he the ultimate technocrat? "He is but I don't think that Geoffrey's evil. I think he's just misguided and sort of touchy-feely fuzzy and doesn't actually appreciate the import of what he's done." Unlike Upton who "has got a better grasp of what this amounts to and yet endorses it. Now, that is evil. An innocent advocate of evil is innocent, but a conscious advocate of evil is evil through and through."

This talk of evil reminds me of the vituperative tone of Perigo's radio programmes and The Free Radical, and the way he abuses opponents, especially the 'politically correct', and plays games with their names. (Jim Neanderton, for instance.) Perigo sees a false dichotonomy here. "That between reason and passion. If you are reasonably convinced that something is evil, doesn't it follow that you should hate it passionately? I believe it does. And I do hate these things passionately. I hate political correctness passionately . . . . The abuse is not gratuitous.

"In the case of the people whose names are modified, shall we say, it isn't gratuitous. These are people I regard as embodying the very evils that I'm fighting. This is a weapon in my armoury."

Personally I don't think it a very effective weapon, but I let it pass and look for some comment to wrap the interview up. In the course of some further philosphical discussion, Perigo provides the perfect summary: "We've moved from a situation where decision-making was dominated by politicians, bureaucrats and the unions to a situation where decisions are dominated by politicians, bureaucrats, Treasury, ACT and the Roundtable. When I say ACT I don't mean that they're there as a political force but the individuals who are part of that. Alan Gibbs is always having lunch with cabinet ministers. I hate to use the word 'conspiracy' but it's conscious, it's a realignment of power. But I don't see it as morally superior to what preceded it."

I had nothing to add.

Bruce Jesson died on April 30.

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