Friday, December 01, 2006


Ok, so one shuffled off this mortal coil, while the other's death was only political. But there was some irony that last week saw the demise of both Milton Friedman and Don Brash.

There was some genuine regret in the passing of Friedman. As this excellent (short) piece in Salon notes, it's always good to have a worthy devil's advocate to sharpen your arguments. And for a social democrat who thinks that there are a number of areas where public (read government) involvement or regulation may be appropriate, running a Friedmanesque critique will knock out any blindspots in your ideas.

I also admired his thoroughgoing libertarianism, particularly his criticism of the war on drugs. But taken as a whole, I believe his philosophy was blinkered, overly simplistic and ultimately harmful.

Such was his pathological mistrust of anything that looked like "big government", that almost any other evil was assumed to be a priori lesser.

For Friedman and his followers "government" is always identified with the state - a monolithic, self-interested institution - rather than the expression of public will about how society should be ordered.

Having ruled out the possibility of a collective striving for fairness and decency, the result is a semi-coherent set of excuses for unadulterated greed.

Friedman wasnt a cultist nutter like Ayn Rand; he didn't think that greed was of itself an inspirational, purifying force. But the cheap wisdom that "government isn't the solution to the problem; government is the problem" leads in a pretty straight line to the excesses of Enron and its cheerleaders.

There may well have had good personal reasons for his deep mistrust of anything that looked like "government". But it's verging on the intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge that power is exploited, accumulated and exploited some more, at all levels, by all kinds of individuals and institutions. The assertion that private entities will be better held accountable by consumers and competitors than public ones are by democratic process just seems like blind faith.

It's hardly controversial that pure economic "freedom" inevitably means more freedom for some than for others. Even if there is a level playing field for all to compete on (and if such a society existed, it wouldn't look much like any historical ones), a completely "free market" will reward cunning and ruthlessness just as much, if not more, than creativity, hard work, integrity and perserverance.

If we care about having a fair society, we need to be serious about lessening the consequences for life's losers.

If Friedman never doubted the rightness and coherence of his ideas, one wonders whether he ever questioned how the Thatchers and Reagans of the world could so happily uplift just the economic bits, without the slightest interest in his more widely libertarian views, and preside over some pretty "big government" in the miltary and criminal justice spheres.

From an objective point of view, this is actually unsurprising. As, I've argued before, thoroughgoing libertarianism of the kind espoused by Friedman only ever exists in the abstract: university lecture halls, blogs, and Reason magazine. Real political parties often tend to become more authoritarian and socially conservative as they move to the economic right.

Why? I suspect there' s some kind of natural law: unbridled freemarketism inevitably leads to such discomforting inequalities between the winners and losers that it's necessary to scapegoat and punish the losers. Hence the gravitation to heavy-handed social conservatism.

A good example is New Zealand's ACT party, which started out aspiring to be a "classical liberal" party, but whose signature within a couple of years was Muriel Newman bashing single mothers.

Which brings us to Brash, whom, I have to admit, I will not miss on the NZ political scene.

Contra Helen Clark's bitter-tongued accusation, I didn't believe that Brash was truly "corrosive" or "cancerous". He was apparently friends with the father of a friend of mine at university: such a nice man, I can't believe he could have had a corrosive mate.

What I think is that he was a deeply ingenuous politician who had had one important insight early in his life, and after many years as an economics wonk, sheltered from the wider world's nitty-grittiness, went blithely along with some of the nastier elements of the National Party's strategy team.

Brash was the son of Christchurch presbyterian socialists; in a classic act of youthful rejectionism he seems to have siezed on the epiphany that individuals aren't trapped by the class struggle after all - if they work and study hard they can overcome their humble beginnings and get ahead.

In reality, despite the caricature of "leftist" thought, no serious person much beyond Sociology 101 really denies this. Just as few really argue with the truism that historical and cultural factors (class; ethnicity) can hinder certain population groups and mean that, on average, their members are less likely to do well.

The debate between "centre-left" and "centre-right" policy-makers is almost entirely about how much emphasis to place on each of these truths - in most cases about 90 percent an empirical question.

Post epiphany, Brash seems to have spent a long time working in economics departments and banks, and not developing much more nuance to his world view. Come his time in the political sun, he was so sure that the country needed to be saved in one tax-flattening, privatising, deregulating swoop, that he was amenable to silver-tongued whispers in his ear about stirring up the rednecks.

So, we had Brash's Greatest Hits: "Orewa I" (bash the Maoris) and "Orewa II" (bash single mums). Perhaps he was quite uncomfortable with this opportunism. Certainly, people in his own party found it distasteful: as we now know, Bill English wrote to Brash that "you have succumbed to McCullyism - and there is nothing more despicable than that". Brash's own strategist Peter Keenan wrote to another adviser that he "hated the race based privilege line", and thought it "ludicrous when Maori are largely at the bottom of the heap".

But the frightening thing was that, in his own bumbling, recently-trained way, Brash actually seemed to believe in the substance behind the dog-whistling rhetoric.

The nadir was reached when Brash declared, apparently in all sincerity, that if Maori have much higher mortality rates from lung cancer than non-Maori, it must be because each one has taken the personal decision to smoke. In the face of this insouciance, it seemed to be almost missing the point to provide a sophisticated response about population health determinants (or to note that in fact higher incidence rates account for less than half the excess cancer mortality rates or Maori).

By this logic, factors like historical confiscation of land, suppression of language and culture, systematic mariginalisation from the rest of society until at least the 1960s, are irrelevant: a whole population group just makes the perfectly rational choice to die eight years earlier. In his steadfast determination to adhere to 18th-century classical liberalism and declare the world as flat as his textbook, Brash simultaneously channelled Margaret Thatcher and Henry Ford: history is bunk and there is no society.

Here's the analogy at an individual level: imprison a man for twenty years for a crime that he didn't commit. When he gets out, mutter an apology, give him a hundred dollars, and send him on his way, saying: "it's one law for all; you should do fine".

And the real irony is that Brash's naiive extremism actually did rather well to alienate a Maori party that was a potential coalition partner for National: sick of being patronised, and rather amenable to the "we should sort out our own problems" line, just not quite prepared swallow the claim that all their people's problems are a result of their own "choice".

Brash's epitaph looks set to become the disguised compliment that he was a "poor liar". Unfortunate, idealistic man, he was tripped up by those cunning sophisticates in the other parties and the, ahem, liberal media. But let's admit the real problem: outside the wonkish confines of managing inflation, he was a poor thinker.

And I doubt even Milton Friedman would have approved of that.

No comments: