Saturday, November 2, 2013

When idealism becomes control freakery

(First published in The Dominion Post, November 1.)

THE LEFT never gives up on its crusade to mould the perfect society. Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway’s Bill to lower the legal drink-driving limit is the latest phase in this idealistic mission.

Many on the Left are sincerely motivated by a vision of a world in which everyone is equal, no one experiences pain or disadvantage and everyone is nice to each other.

Of course, all this is highly commendable. The problem is that the Left persists in believing, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that this ideal society can be imposed by statute. The result is control-freak government that inevitably whittles away at individual choice and responsibility.

No one can be sure how many lives will be saved by lowering the blood alcohol limit from 80 to 50 mg. The government says it’s trying to find out – hence its reluctance to legislate.

One estimate by the Ministry of Transport suggests between 15 and 33 deaths a year could be avoided, but it’s just that: an estimate, not backed by hard data.

In any case, if we’re talking about saving lives, why stop there? Even more fatalities could be avoided at a stroke by cutting the speed limit from 100 kmh to 80, or ordering that all cars be fitted with governors to limit their speed. Not even the Left is na├»ve enough to suggest that.

The point is that most laws are a tradeoff. They involve striking a reasonable balance between personal freedom and the common good.

There comes a point at which laws intrude too far on people’s right to make their own responsible choices. That’s what Mr Lees-Galloway’s bill – currently languishing on the parliamentary order paper – would do.

And just as some people would continue to drive at 160 kmh even if the speed limit were reduced to 80, so the hard-core drinking drivers who cause mayhem on our roads will go on getting intoxicated regardless of what the law says.

That’s another weakness in the Left’s vision of the perfect society: it fails to take into account human cussedness.

How much easier things would be if only people knew what was good for them. But then idealistic politicians would run out of things to do.

* * *

DON’T EXPECT balanced discussion of such issues on Radio New Zealand, despite its charter obligation to present both sides of the story.

Sunday morning host Chris Laidlaw – himself a former Labour MP – recently devoted nearly an hour to Mr Lees-Galloway’s Bill but couldn’t find time, amid all the anti-liquor rhetoric, to squeeze in one person to put the case for the status quo.

Laidlaw’s programme often comes across as the secular equivalent of a Sunday morning sermon from the pulpit. On this occasion it seemed his primary purpose – and that of his guests – was to incite moral panic over New Zealanders’ supposedly booze-sodden “culture”.

In fact it’s a myth. No mention was made of the fact that our per capita alcohol consumption is moderate by international standards. In the most recent World Health Organisation statistics, we’re ranked 51st in the world – well behind Britain (17), Germany (23), Switzerland (33) and Australia (44).

You won’t hear this mentioned by the anti-liquor propagandists, just as they avoid the inconvenient fact that we share the same drink-driving limit as Britain, Canada and the United States. They talk only about the countries that have lowered the limit to 50, thus seeking to create the impression that New Zealand alone is defying logic and common sense.

When I sent Laidlaw an email objecting to his one-sided treatment of the issue, he replied that you can’t please everyone. What a copout – and what a dismissive attitude from someone paid by the taxpayer to present a balanced picture.

* * *

IT WILL BE interesting to see whether the officially approved Maori names for the North and South Islands catch on.

I intend to give them a go. For one thing, Te Ika a Maui (the fish of Maui) and Te Wai Pounamu (the water of greenstone) have a rather more poetic ring than "North" and "South". They also tell a story.

Our colonial forebears could hardly have been less imaginative in the names they bestowed on places. North and South? Northland and Southland? Good grief. What a dull, stolid lot they must have been.

Some people grizzle that the Maori names are too much of a mouthful, but hang on a minute. Te Wai Pounamu consists of five syllables – the same number as California and South Carolina. Americans seem to manage those without too much trouble.

Te Ika a Maui is six syllables, but so what? No one balked at pronouncing Czechoslovakia when it existed as a country, and Papua-New Guinea presents no problems either. I say give them a chance.








Brendan McNeill said...


It's encouraging to see you getting grumpy about the erosion of our liberties by the self righteous Left, and the overwhelming political bias expressed through our State funded radio.

It may be boring and dull but I'll probably stick with North and South Islands for now. It does have the advantage of wide spread general recognition, and saves the need for further explanation - "No, I'm Traveling to the North Island, not some exotic atoll near the equator!"

Jigsaw said...

The left are always convinced that paradise is only a short step away-or a law or two. Its just the way theu are and little that is said makes any difference. They simply can't see that eventually(usually quite soon) it involves a meansure on complulsion-but that's ok, the end justifies the means after all.
The change in names for the main islands is about power-how long before some compulsion there?