Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Free speech means putting up with exhibitionists

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, March 15.)

ONE OF the prices we pay for free speech is that we have to put up with people who use it to draw attention to themselves.

I include in this category the two Wanganui students who painted a sign saying Arbeit Macht Frei, or “Work Makes You Free” – the cruelly cynical slogan displayed above the gateway to Auschwitz – over the front door of their rented central city house.

The Wanganui Chronicle reported that the students professed to have white supremacist beliefs. That’s another penalty we must accept for living in a free society: people are entitled to proclaim beliefs that they know others find repugnant. We put up with this because the alternative is a society in which we’re told what to say and think.

The irony is that the Nazi state, which the Wanganui students appear to have some admiration for, was brutal in its suppression of views it didn’t approve of. If we were to operate by the same rules, the offensive sign would have been torn down quick-smart and the two students carted off in an unmarked vehicle and possibly never heard from again.

A necessary but sometimes irritating aspect of democracy is that it allows people the luxury of adopting positions that would not be permitted in the societies they profess to admire, because they would be seen as a threat to those in power.

I also include in this category the academics who use their sinecured positions in New Zealand universities to propagate Marxism. They are free to do so because a democratic state allows them that right.

What’s more, they can do it in the comfortable assurance that their beliefs will never be put to the test. It’s easy to pose as a champion of the proletariat when you live in a fashionable inner-suburban villa, drive a smart little European car, eat at the best cafes and have a nose for a good pinot noir. Probably not so easy if you lived in a crumbling East Berlin-style apartment block, drove a wheezing Trabant (if you’re one of the lucky few) and had to queue for bread.

Even more to the point, it’s easy to call yourself a Marxist in a free country because you know there will be no state security enforcers hammering your door down in the pre-dawn hours. In that respect, our Marxist academics have much more in common with neo-fascists like the Wanganui students than they might suppose.

* * *

A RADIO New Zealand listener emailed Morning Report last week complaining that all prime minister John Key had talked about since the Christchurch earthquake was the economy. Nothing about social welfare.

In fact the government and the social welfare system moved very swiftly to ensure that support was in place for those affected by the quake. But that’s largely beside the point, because there’s a much bigger issue here.

The Morning Report listener’s complaint reflected a widespread misapprehension that government is all about redistributing wealth – hardly surprising, given that this was Labour’s main preoccupation when it was in power.

But a much more important function of government is to create an economic environment in which wealth can be created in the first place. You can’t have a Rolls-Royce social welfare system without a prosperous economy generating revenue and taxes to pay for it.

This is the key fact that so often escapes the Left. They want to redistribute wealth without giving too much thought to the inconvenient business of creating it first. Even worse, they seek to penalise the wealth creators.

This is precisely the reason the Clark years were a tragic missed opportunity. The government was so focused on punishing “rich pricks” – in Michael Cullen’s famous words – that it sucked money out of the productive sector and frittered it on middle-class welfare, interest-free student loans, no-questions-asked dole schemes for anyone who fancied themselves as “artists” (one pop band boasted that it kept them in dope) and other follies.

The crucial issue in election year is whether New Zealand can be freed from the ideological grip of ageing baby-boomer socialists who think the measure of a country’s success is the number of people dependent on the state. Are Mr Key and the National Party up to the challenge? I can’t say I’m brimming with confidence.

* * *

IN MY LAST column I said no one had ever put a tick beside former Green MP Sue Bradford’s name on a ballot paper.

I was wrong; she stood four times in electorate seats. But though she never attracted more than 10 percent support, a flawed electoral system allowed her to push through law changes that were either not wanted by the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders (to wit, the anti-smacking bill) or were damaging to the very people she professed to be concerned about (as in the abolition of the youth wage). It’s not hard to see why the extreme Left loves MMP.


The probligo said...

The very big pity is that Bradford and her ilk are the predominant justification for doing away with MMP.

There are a string of these - Bradford, Winnie the Pooh, and I suspect that you can tack The RhinoHide on the wall as well at the next election.

There is nothing wrong with MMP other than the way that politicians are still able to abuse the system in pursuit of their own interests and glory.

But I am now old enough to realise that it ever was so in politics.

Anonymous said...
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Moshe said...

The Sentinel must be one of those lofty professors who love extolling the virtues of socialism from a safe distance. It's good to lecture from the comfort of New Zealand, rather than doing it in Cuba or North Korea.

By the way, did you mean arrant instead of errant in your opening statement?