Sunday, August 14, 2005

Liberalism and values

Another of the findings of the Sunday Star-Times' morality survey was that people were generally unhappy with the "moral direction" of the government:

Just over half of those who responded to our survey thought the government's performance on moral leadership was terrible, very poor, or poor. Only 18% thought it was good, very good or excellent. And over half thought the government was too liberal on moral issues and had lost touch with family values.

According to Bill English, this is due to unhappiness with the government "forcing" liberal views on people:

"People don't think the government should be used to push a moral point of view on them. The media make the mistake of thinking a conservative view is an intolerant view. I'm regarded as conservative and I don't care what people do, but don't make me like it."

But this grossly misunderstands liberalism. It's not about "push[ing] a moral point of view", but about not pushing a moral point of view. There are some decisions - on what you believe, on how you live, on who you spend your life with - which the state simply has no business interfering with, no matter what we think of the morality. These things are ultimately personal, and respect for autonomy requires non-interference unless concrete harm to others can be demonstrated.

Likewise, contrary to English, people are not required to "like it" - but the government is required to be neutral as to people's lifestyles and not use the the force of law to punish those who fail to conform to the mythical mainstream or to encourage some preferred option. And this is exactly what the Prostitution Reform, Civil Union and Relationships acts (and indeed, homosexual law reform) were all about: removing interference by the state and ensuring neutrality. Which is why I am one of the 18% who believes that the present government has exhibited moral leadership: because they have stood up for the right of all New Zealanders to live as they wish, rather than using the state to inflict their personal prejudices on others.


I couldn't agree more. It always puzzles me when people think that "family values" means ripping apart gay families. Hmph.

In fact, when you look at the Greens' policies on paid parental leave, support for breastfeeding, etc., it seems clear to me that they are the real champions of family values. (But they show it through policies, not rhetoric, and so don't get the recognition they deserve. A pity.)

Unless, that is, the conservatives mean to use "family values" as a euphemism for rank bigotry. Then shame on them for tarnishing the family in such a way. (Like how they redefined 'virtue'/'morality' as 'prudishness'. These are concepts we really need, it's despicable to define them away in such a fashion!)

Posted by Richard Y Chappell : 8/14/2005 11:50:00 PM

Same here. What really grates is that the annoying phrase "social engineering" has really stuck with a lot of people (which goes to show the media isn't totally biased to the left :D).

No one has ever offered me a satisfactory explanation why National is supposedly for 'small government' and 'personal responsibility', but only in the economic sense. It seems strange that those values don't cross over to other areas of peoples lives.

I guess that's what ACT and the Liberatarians are there fore, but it suprises me that they're so marginal now.

But who reads the Sunday Star Times anyway :D

Posted by Anonymous : 8/15/2005 12:14:00 AM

Well said, I/S. I'm tempted to ask why these chumps would look to government for "moral leadership" (whatever that might mean) in the first place.

But, if one accepts that government is in some way a moral being, then what greater "morality" could it exhibit than to empower individuals to make their own decisions in matters affecting them, and to stand on the sidelines as a neutral guarantor of indvidual rights?

Things do get complicated when different rights are invoked: property rights vs. the right not to be poisoned by another's tobacco smoke. But no one has the right to say "do not extend rights to a minorty I don't like".

Bill English's words betray him in this respect.

Posted by dc_red : 8/15/2005 10:47:00 AM

I did the survey. As I recall I said that I was definitely considering morals/values in my voting decision, - and it's the moral issues that are making me vote left more than anything else.

So that question is pointless on 3 counts:

1) Of course the sort of people who answer this survey will take morals seriously enough to have them effect their vote.
2) Everyone has a different idea about what "morals" actually count, and even when we agree that a moral question is actually important, we may have completely opposing answers!
3) The self-selection resulted in a hopeless skew, probably mainly as a result of where the poll got mentioned (as evidenced by a 17% representation from united future voters!!)

I was interested to see what people said about discrimination and drugs, but now that I know the results are hopelessly skewed by the representation, and will be even more skewed by selective reporting of results by the SST, it all seems like a complete waste of time.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/15/2005 12:41:00 PM


You raise an interesting point, to which there is a clear answer: rights cannot conflict. If you're seeing a conflict of rights, then one (or both) of the 'rights' in question are bogus.

To take your example: passive smoking in bars. The thing is, the patrons and staff are in the bar voluntarily; they're on someone else's property, where the owner's rules apply.

They don't have any right to demand a smokefree environment, but they do have the right to leave (or unionise, in the case of staff, and strike - at which point the owner has the right to fire them, unless their contracts state otherwise).

Another good example is the way many groups (especially, but not exclusively, religious groups) attempt to censor expressions that offend them.

It's freedom of speech vs. "the right to not be offended". One of these things is not like the other ..... (gee, that takes me back).

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 8/16/2005 08:37:00 AM

Thanks Duncan, the "right not to be offended" was certainly at stake in the Civil Unions debate ... and it's a load of bollix as you suggest.

No one was forcing religious individuals to form a union with anyone, and nor were religious institutions being forced to offer or recognize such unions ... thus there was no religious freedom at stake.

I find the first part of your argument a little more perplexing ... at least vis-a-vis workers. Do employers really have the right to expose their workers to significant yet avoidable health risks? Or to exercise their property rights in a way that allows this to happen?

Posted by dc_red : 8/16/2005 10:43:00 AM

Sure, provided:

- the workers are made aware of the risks *before* taking the job

- the employers at no stage obfuscate or lie about the risks (which would be fraud)

E.g. consider 'on the job' hazards like infection for a medical worker in Auckland, being shot for a bodyguard in Iraq, being injured for a professional sportsman.

All of those jobs have inherent risks, and the employee chooses to take them because of the pay. In some industries, the employees unionise to strengthen their case for either better compensation for the risks, or reduced risks.

There was an excellent article on the Ludwig von Mises institute about workplace safety [google google google] ... here we go:

The Free Market and Job Safety


One must first of all realize that job safety is rarely, if ever, a matter of black and white. Probably almost everything could be done more safely than it is done. And, hopefully, as time goes on and further economic progress takes place, everything actually will be done more safely than is now the case, just as today practically everything is done more safely than was the case in the past, when a lower state of economic development prevailed. But, in the very nature of human mortality, it will never be the case that danger can be entirely avoided and safety absolutely secured.


To whatever extent additional safety comes at a higher cost, it restricts the ability to make provision for other needs and wants, including safety, in other areas of life. And this remains true even when the higher costs of safety are initially imposed on business firms rather than directly on consumers. This is because higher costs do not lastingly come out of profits but must be covered by higher prices of products or, alternatively, lower wage rates of workers.

The great run-up in business costs over the last 30 years or so, on account of so-called safety and environmental legislation, has played an enormous role in worsening economic conditions for large numbers of wage earners and ordinary people in general. Those seeking an explanation of such things as the growing need for two breadwinners in a family need look no further.



In other words, if you impose a safety standard on a company, it can pay its workers less or charge its customers more - which leaves both groups less discretionary income to spend on, say, safer cars or health insurance.

It boils down to individual responsibility and choice, with a strong justice system to punish & seek retribution from those who endanger third parties or lie about the risks.

And of course, the richer everyone is, the more money can be spent on safety. E.g. consider the price of cars with ABS brakes now versus say 10 years ago.

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 8/16/2005 10:56:00 AM