Tim Sturm
Tim Sturm

Passion, Principles and Party Poopers - Musings on the Knowledge Wave Conference

One of the great challenges in life is dealing with people who have no qualms about robbing you. No rational discussion is possible with people who are prepared to initiate force against you to achieve their aims.

The truth of this was brought home to me when I attended the three days of the second Knowledge Wave Conference. The problem was not so much the aims of the conference – to discuss New Zealand's future goals – it was the lack of principle about which means were acceptable and which means were out of bounds in the pursuit of those goals.

The conference was held in Auckland's plush Sheraton Hotel. Some 350 leaders from business, academia, politics and other fields gathered from all over the country. Top-drawer speakers from New Zealand and overseas were arranged, including people such as Bill Emmott, editor of The Economist, Paul Romer, a leading US economist known for his theories on economic growth, and Mike Moore, a former New Zealand Prime Minister and the former Head of the World Trade Organisation.

I attended as one of 100 so-called "emerging leaders", aged 17-35, who were selected from around the country to attend the conference (at taxpayers' courtesy). For me the real thrill was not in being labelled an "emerging leader" (something my friends took with great hilarity) but the opportunity to meet hugely successful businesspeople and others for whom I have great respect.

However, I knew that a discussion of New Zealand's future was going to be problematic as soon I saw the conference format. The discussion was to be structured around three key themes: Growth, Knowledge, and Community. Sitting across these was an overarching theme of Leadership, which I guess was the point in inviting a large group of "emerging leaders".

The problem is that the ideals of Growth, Knowledge and Community are not means to an end; they are ends in themselves, and collective ends at that. They are outcomes of the actions of individuals; outcomes that occur naturally as a result of people's free choices. It might therefore be reasonably asked why anyone should attempt to focus on collective goals at all. But as long as such goals are not forced on anyone, there is no harm in people trying to achieve them. Indeed in a free world, growth, knowledge and community are goals that people should naturally encourage others to achieve. But the overriding principle must be persuasion, not force.

Unfortunately a discussion of means was not on the agenda, and the Leadership concept was all there was to work with. But this raised other questions. Lead whom? Where? And by what means?

The leadership behind the conference provided some clues to these questions. Unlike the first Knowledge Wave Conference in 2001, this conference was essentially a private initiative organised by some of the country's leading businesspeople. The overall leadership therefore came from business.

So what exactly was business saying? Well, it wasn't always entirely clear. There was a lot of talk about passion, optimism, and the need for vision. But what exactly did that mean?

Helen Clark certainly seemed to have no doubt about what it meant when she made her brief appearance at the start of the conference: "We do not accept the unspoken agenda behind so much of the rhetoric about the need for vision, leadership, and change. Decoding that rhetoric generally reveals discredited and discarded agendas of the 1980s and 1990s which produced growing inequality, social fragmentation and despair in many quarters."

It is not surprising that Helen Clark talks about "discredited agendas" of the past – freedom has always been discredited in her eyes, no matter what she claims about its alleged downsides. But if there were hidden agendas as she claimed then they were very well hidden indeed. While the business contingent was mainly concerned with 'Growth', many seemed to hold the view that a certain amount of 'Community' (read: giving away taxpayers' money) was also valid. This should have suited Helen Clark just fine, but she knows where the power lies; just in case anyone was getting any ideas she was giving a little reminder about who holds the gun. As I said, no rational discussion is possible with people who are prepared to initiate force against others to achieve their aims.

However Helen Clark may have been at least partially correct - the leadership guff about passion, vision and optimism did seem to convey a message, albeit rather mildly and inconsistently, that people should look for private solutions rather than always relying on Government. After all, the conference itself was essentially a private initiative rather than a government initiative. Unfortunately if this was what the conference was saying, many weren't buying into it.

During the discussion around 'Knowledge' a number of sciencey-types talked about New Zealand's great opportunity in biotechnology. That is all well and fine, but surely this sort of knowledge is already out there, especially among those who stand to make a buck out of it? One thing I did appreciate however was the emphasis on the need to shift public opinion away from the superstitions of the green movement. Unfortunately this was completely spoiled by others who spoke at length about "sustainable development", by which of course they meant central planning on a global scale.

But things went downhill rapidly when the Community people took over. The words 'community' and 'social' have been hijacked by the left so that they are immediately associated with a hatred of self-responsibility and a love of "compassion" imposed by government force. Peter Saunders of the Centre for Independent Studies spoke for an end to the government monopoly over charity and a return to voluntarism. But his was almost a lone voice amongst the extremely strident and vocal Community contingent, a good number of whom unfortunately were represented among the group of "emerging leaders". However, the headlines went to John Tamihere, the Labour MP who got into trouble for some surprisingly reasonable comments about privatising the delivery (note, just the delivery, not the funding) of social welfare.

At the end of the conference it was clear, as expected, that there was little agreement on which goals were most important, let alone the means to achieve them. There was a general consensus that education was A Very Important Thing, but even then there was little agreement on what to do about it.

For me personally, I enjoyed the opportunity to attend the conference. But overall I felt that Helen's gun, not to mention her miserable personality, had hung over the conference like a dead weight, making all the talk about passion and optimism, which in other circumstances I would have lapped up, seem rather futile. My passion, as always, is to make sure that the gun is only used to protect rights, rather than to take them away.

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