Tim Sturm
Tim Sturm

Libertarianism, Kiwi-Style

The Libertarian Alliance (LA) is a UK think tank and is the country's core libertarian organisation. The LA is primarily a publication forum, and has published over 600 articles in its pamphlet series, many or all of which should shortly be available at its website: www.libertarian-alliance.co.uk. Several of its members also make occasional guest appearances on television and radio programmes. Tim Sturm was recently invited to speak at one of the LA's discussion group meetings on the libertarian movement in New Zealand, and this is the presentation he gave, give or take a few minor adjustments. When TFR went to press, the LA was in the process of publishing both this article and Lindsay Perigo's speech, Antipodean Altruism, given to the Institute for Objectivist Studies in 1997.

New Zealand's economy is often viewed by libertarians elsewhere as having been the free market envy of the world, at least until recently, thanks to the reform process of the 1980s and 90s. This is an unfortunate view, firstly, because it is wrong, and secondly, because it distracts attention from recent events going on in New Zealand that libertarians should know about. The New Zealand example is fairly unique in a variety of ways that, while not necessarily making libertarian success much more likely, at least make it an interesting case study. The ultimate goal of New Zealand libertarianism is to establish New Freeland, a full libertarian society built on the consent axiom with individual rights protected in a constitution. The strategy for getting there has been an attack on all fronts, from the intellectual and philosophical fundamentals through to direct political agitation. Its biggest success so far has been firstly in establishing itself as what seems to be a permanent fixture, and secondly in raising the general level of awareness and understanding of libertarian thought.

1. Rogernomics is not libertarianism!

Let me start by exploding a myth about New Zealand's economy: it is not, nor has it ever been, anything remotely approaching a free market. Rogernomics, the name given for the economic policies of Roger Douglas, Minister of Finance in the 1984-1990 Labour Government, is not libertarianism. Douglas was at best a lukewarm free-marketeer and most certainly not a defender of individual liberty. The best analysis I have seen on the economic reforms is the article Antipodean Altruism by Lindsay Perigo, which is also due to be published in the Libertarian Alliance pamphlet series.

The reform process failed because it lacked any underlying philosophy of individual rights. The reformers upheld the same altruistic premises as their socialist counterparts and simply saw free markets as a better means for delivering their altruistic ends. This was famously underscored by a well-known businessman, Sir Robert Jones, who once said to Roger Douglas and a prominent group of reformers something like, "You would all advocate slavery if you thought it would have a good economic outcome." The response summed up the reform movement: Jones was sent a book from one of the reformers explaining how slavery did not in fact lead to good economic outcomes.

As politicians, the reformers remained in thrall to so-called 'political realities,' meaning they would renege on any point of principle and simply force through by stealth those reforms they could get away with. Lacking both a coherent individualist philosophy and the backbone to defend any principles they did happen to hold, the reformers found themselves supporting an even bigger state sector and greater intrusions on people's lives than before the supposed free market reforms began. The reforms themselves can be characterised as a reduction in the big, obvious, direct mechanisms of the state, but a massive increase in less obvious bureaucratic regulation.

And through it all the populace remained as socialist as it ever was. New Zealand is populated by 3 million people and 60 million sheep, but many just say 63 million sheeple. When the socialist majority found itself unable to vote out the reform process, since both major parties promoted essentially the same policies, it simply reorganised to have the electoral system changed to the German 'mixed member proportional' style of proportional representation, under which any party gaining more than 5% of the vote obtains a proportional number of seats in Parliament. Inevitably, in the 1999 elections a resurgent left-wing Labour Party was instated in coalition with an even more left-wing party called the Alliance. The reform process is now in rapid retreat, and the sheeple celebrate while the economy collapses (figures out today show quarterly GDP growth as negative for the first time in several years).

Thus when I refer to the New Zealand 'libertarian movement' I do not refer to the earlier reformers or to their newer political guise - a party formed by Roger Douglas in the mid-1990s called ACT, which has managed to gain about 7% of the vote. ACT stands for the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers; however we in the libertarian movement refer to it as the Association of Compulsion Touters. ACT makes the same errors as the earlier reformers – lukewarm support for free-markets, and a philosophy of altruism and sacrifice of the individual instead of one based on individual rights. That the libertarian movement shares some of ACT's economic policies is almost incidental, in much the same way as the fact that we agree with the Greens on drug decriminalisation, which of course ACT opposes.

2. It's a moral issue, dummy

Fortunately for those of us with a passion for life and liberty that goes beyond mere lower taxation there is an alternative to ACT's terminally dull full-employment economics. The story of my own discovery of libertarianism is demonstrative of the movement's strategy and style.

I started out from university very much as an economic pragmatist, having by that time been inculcated into the Chicago school of free-market economics. I certainly had never come across any libertarian alternatives. In all those years of economic reform I don't believe I ever came across a single moral argument for individual rights. In fact, so far as I know, libertarian thought barely existed in the country prior to the mid-1990s, or if it did it certainly wasn't making itself known.

Then one day I came across a bizarre poster for a new political party, Libertarianz. At first I thought it was a joke. These were some of its policies:

But what really caught my eye was this:

"All taxation is theft." Those four words hit me like a thunderbolt. This was the moral argument that had been absent from my entire range of experience so far. I thought about it for a few days and argued some of my concerns over with a libertarian colleague. Economics be damned! Within one month I was a fully paid up member of the Libertarianz.

3. One man's war against the guardians

When I signed up for the Libertarianz I sent a letter explaining why I had done so to Lindsay Perigo, at that time leader of the party, which Perigo read out on his talkback show, the Politically Incorrect Show, on nation-wide radio. In Perigo, New Zealand's libertarian movement is gifted with a most natural and charismatic front-man. In fact, the whole country owes him a huge debt of gratitude - the very existence of something that might be termed a libertarian movement is due entirely to the efforts of Perigo and a small group of his friends.

Perigo was already famous in New Zealand, having been the country's premier television interviewer for many years up until 1991. For illustrative purposes you could approximate him as the New Zealand equivalent of Jeremy Paxman, only far better. In 1991 he quit television altogether, famously declaring it "brain-dead," and went into radio. It seems almost impossible to reconcile Perigo, as irrepressible as he is now, with his former inscrutable television persona. His passion in defence of freedom and blistering attacks on its adversaries are legendary. I quote from one of his daily editorials for the Politically Incorrect Show, this one addressed to the populace at large on the day before the last election:

"So, sheeple, you're about to elect an even bossier shepherd, with even more ferocious dogs. Well, sheeple, you are pathetic, dumb, gormless non-entities, mindlessly baaaaaa-ing & braying & begging for the shepherd's commands & the dogs' snarling & biting, surrendering any last vestige of individuality you might still have been capable of ... Nanny State will govern absolutely every aspect of your stunted, blighted lives, because you, you pitiful, simpering blobs of blandness, want her to. Never will the need for a radio programme like the Politically Incorrect Show be greater; never, for that very reason, will it be under greater threat, especially from power-tripping politicians intent on stamping out any criticism & dissent."

(Continued in hard copy version.)


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