Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The fundamental grammar of politics

Whenever I engage in political or economic discussion, I find that the conversation will not be very fruitful if you don't share the same underlying assumptions with the other participants.

When trying to advocate the merits of liberty, sometimes the discussion revolves around a particular issue (e.g smoking) by trying to highlight the particular problems of government control and regulation. Its very easy to show that there are particular real-world problems with the current set of government regulations in place, but all this does is instill some doubt in my opponents about the current type or form of regulation and control. They often end up proposing new policies and methods of social engineering which they believe will work because they are intended to work.

As the authors of Freakonomics, and other free-market economists will tell you, there are always unintended consequences, not to mention the immeasurable cost of a reduction in personal liberty and freedom. So when it comes to highlighting the specific problems of regulation, some of which are very visible and some of which are more subtle and hidden, this method is often easy, but perhaps not as effective as taking a general approach.

If you build a case for liberty as a guiding principle, as the highest principle, then people will often discuss an issue without the implicit assumption that we need to decide what government policy works best in tackling that issue. When somebody suggests that we force bicycle riders to wear helmets, instead of wasting time discussing the pros and cons such a policy would likely have, the debate should be over once somebody recognizes that it results in a loss of liberty.

Similarly, if we discuss the fact that in Australia, a person has to vote at elections or else be fined, then it should be discussed in a similar framework. Supporters will declare that it is our democratic duty, of the highest order, or a democratic right to vote. But I will ask - where is my democratic right not to vote ? People on the left declare that a policy is good if it supports social justice, such as spending billions of tax-dollars on poverty-stricken Aboriginal communities, or the long-term unemployed, or parents who stay at home, or university students ... the list of victim groups ready to put their hand up for free tax money is endless.

I'd say that a part of this stems from general school education, which results in misplaced priorities. I'd say that the average Australian thinks that democracy is the greatest concept in Western thought. And they view government as the group of guys who get to run the country in whatever way the public see as popular and effective. Now I'm also a big supporter of democracy, but only because it reduces the powers of government to remain in power indefinitely. Periodic democratic elections in themselves don't do anything to stop government from expanding and abusing its powers, implementing policies that violate rights and liberty and disregarding common law.

What about the word freedom ? What value does it have, and when did people fight for it ?

Well my impression is .. that most people think of centuries past, where American slaves, or the Scottish, or any other group rebelled against a cruel government or tyrant in a period of widespread war and oppression.

They therefore look at todays world, where we are mostly free to do many of the things that we like, and we have astronomically high standards of living compared to the past, so nobody can relate to the idea of struggling, promoting and arguing on behalf of the word "freedom". They think freedom is only something you fight for against a government which has slavery, conscription or occupation of foreign lands.

When you decide that you don't like government setting ridiculously low speed limits and high speeding fines, or using 1/3 of police resources to prosecute people who take drugs, or force people to vote at elections or else be fined, or whatever policy bothers you ... you tend to form lobby groups and influence the media to pressure government to "change" the policy through democratic channels. You try and make a new policy stance (that suits you and other people in your interest group) popular, well advertised and influential.

Why don't people march through the streets with banners asking for "freedom" ? Everybody has a right to freedom, you shouldn't have to lobby government ministers and journalists to be free.
It all boils down to -- How do you rank the following words ? Here is my ranking

  1. Liberty
  2. Freedom
  3. Rights
  4. Property
  5. Democracy
  6. Tolerance
  7. The National Interest
  8. Equality
  9. Social Justice
People who have no regard for freedom and liberty (most of them are found in left wing circles) would put social justice and equality as their favorite words. The problem with these words is they have no useful meaning !! They can be used to implement whatever hare-brained policy you want and end up curbing freedom for millions of citizens, simply because the government in power implement it.