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Sunday, February 29, 2004
IN PRAISE OF DON – POLITICAL CORRECTNESS AND THE MARKETPLACE OF IDEAS: I've previously been accused of giving Don Brash too hard a time over his Orewa speech. In fact, while there are certainly things that I and Dr Brash disagree on, I can't help but applaud his willingness to question things that most in politics have simply assumed are unquestionable. Such an attitude can only be valuable for New Zealand society. I hope it spreads.

There's been a lot of talk recently of "political correctness gone mad". Much of this seems to me to be little more than name-calling: I don’t think it contributes anything substantive to a debate to say that people who claim Maori are entitled to particular treatment as a consequence of past injustice are “talking a load of politically correct rubbish.” It tells me that you don't agree with the original statement, but gives me no actual reason to think it's wrong.

About the best definition of “politically correct” I can come up with is something like “going too far to avoid offending a particular individual or group”. The problem with such a loose phrase as a substantive criticism should be obvious. Because it offers no internal definition of what is “too far” it can mean just about anything. In fact there is a world of difference between the political correctness that says "try to use gender neutral language" or "try to be sensitive to other cultures" and the political correctness that says "thou shalt not question my opinions, because I find it offensive". Both are designed to avoid offence - which, in and of itself, is a good thing. But, while the former is a relatively small burden to bear (it's not all that hard to say "they" or "them" or "person" instead of "he" or "him" or "man") the latter can have enormous societal costs, and it's this form of "political correctness" that Brash has thankfully begun to demolish.

It is inevitably damaging when a society cannot fully and openly discuss issues of importance to its members. The common reason given for this is that “truth” is more likely to emerge in a competitive marketplace of ideas, where opinions are debated, discussed, and subjected to scrutiny. If one party in the marketplace has a monopoly on opinion, potentially valuable ideas will be stifled (and, in economic jargon, "truth" is likely to be undersupplied).

However, markets have benefits other than simply producing better goods, and the marketplace of ideas does more than just feed our need for truth. The interactions that markets allow are valuable in and of themselves, and (especially for those of us who struggle with objective conceptions of “truth”) stifling a competitive market in ideas consequently has another unwelcome side-effect: it prevents precisely the sort of consensus-building that allows all of us to live together amicably. By “consensus” I do not mean the supposed political “consensus” that Don Brash is alleged to have shattered. Such a consensus never existed in the minds of middle New Zealand, but was imposed from without, and enforced by the threat of being branded racist. Indeed, the idea that we could ever reach substantive consensus on anything, let alone race relations, is likely to be little more than a pipe dream. But what is important is the process - of stumbling towards some sort of acceptable compromise in a way that lets people feel as though their opinions are listened to and respected.

There's no better way to piss people off, and to cement them in their views, than to marginalise and malign them. And the there's no better proof of this than the current state of the race relations debate in this country. For far too long, many ordinary New Zealanders have felt unable to voice their concerns about perceived Maori privilege and racial favouritism, for fear of being labelled racist. Unsurprisingly, the fact that these opinions couldn't be aired didn't stop them being thought. Instead it simply bred resentment, and convinced the holders of those opinions more and more that they were right. (Indeed, by scaring them into submission, those who perpetuated this situation deprived themselves of their only real opportunity to convince their opponents that they might be wrong.)

Now that the dam has finally broken, it is not surprising that rational debate has largely been swept by the wayside. I may think that much of the mostly (though, as this article points out, not exclusively) Pakeha backlash is misguided. Yet, as much as it pains me to say it, the minions of “political correctness”, who brook no disagreement with their own divinely revealed truth, have in many ways only themselves to blame.
A WOMAN’S PLACE?: Don Brash has likely raised more liberal hackles by suggesting that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs would be abolished under a National government. However, like other of Brash’s principled stands against “special treatment”, it’s a little difficult to tell exactly what he means.

Many liberals will see Brash’s statements as an indication that he is either unsympathetic to women’s issues, or believes that no such issues exist any more. If this is indeed what Dr Brash believes, then I think he is misguided. It should concern us that women tend to earn less than men, even when we control for education and other factors. It should concern us that such a large number of women are raped, beaten or otherwise abused by their partners. And it should concern us that so many women are afflicted by breast cancer and a variety of other specific health concerns.

However, there is little to suggest that this is what Dr Brash believes. The existence of issues that are specific to women does not necessarily justify the existence of a Ministry that is specific to those issues, any more than the existence of male underachievement in schools, or prostate cancer justifies the existence of a Ministry of Men’s Affairs. Indeed, there is an argument that a separate ministry for either of these purposes does more harm than good to the cause it is supposed to benefit. In much the same way as the Maori seats tended to marginalise Maori interests before the advent of MMP, a Ministry of Women’s affairs may tend to marginalise women’s interests, and mean they are dealt with less adequately than they might otherwise be. It is not immediately apparent why issues of pay equity should not be dealt with by the Department of Labour (assuming they can be dealt with by government intervention at all, which is a question I leave aside for the moment), crime against women by the Ministry of Justice, and women’s health issues by the Ministry of Health. After all, you would expect these ministries to have more expertise in the relevant areas (and as the SST article notes, the MoWA is not renowned as a paragon amongst the public service).

I don't know yet whether I find these areguments convincing or not. But liberals need to ask themselves whether a Ministry of Women’s affairs really is in the bests interests of women, rather than simply labelling Brash a sexist.

On the other hand, this attack on the Ministry of Women's affairs is about as devoid of substance as any allegations of Brashian sexism would be. Alexis Stuart may have a legitimate gripe with the Ministry, but from this piece I still have absolutely no idea what it is.
Thursday, February 26, 2004
DUMB QUOTE OF THE DAY: From My Right:

The dumping of the Privy Council was the biggest Constitutional change forced through by a minority Government New Zealand has seen.

Hmmm. Remind me again how many minority governments we've had?

It constantly amazes me how people talk about this issue as the most undemocratic thing imaginable, despite the fact that (a) Labour put it in their manifesto; (b) it used to be National policy until Labour adopted it; and (c) they still needed a Parliamentary majority to pass it. (Would anyone ever dream of saying something was undemocratic because it was "rammed through by a majority of the MPs sitting in Parliament"? Doesn't have quite the same ring does it?)

I've blogged before about why I don't think a referendum was necessary on this issue - and if anything developments since have only confirmed my original judgement.

Note to self: get more sleep; deprivation of such appears to be associated with reduced tolerance of others; could be harmful to health.
ON A SLIGHTLY LIGHTER NOTE: Check out this paper reviewing the econometric literature on the effect of abortion laws. :)

(Link via Volokh.)
RAISING THE STAKES SOME MORE - I FEEL A FISKING COMING ON: As reluctant as I am to stoop to this level, there are so many flaws in NRT's most recent post on this that I have been forced to resort to fisking.

First though, let me set out what I think are the two key assumptions for Eskridge's case (see here) to succeed - because I don't think NRT addresses them at all.

(1) There are situations where the courts' interfering will lead to a majority backlash that will result in laws being passed that will hurt minorities even more than would have been the case had the court not interfered (most likely by delaying progress that would otherwise have occurred; and

(2) these situations are readily identifiable by the courts.

I think (1) is clearly true, as evidenced by the current constitutional amendment proposed in the US. The real issue is (2). But I'll come back to that later. For now, let the fisking begin.

NZPols is right - I misrepresented her yesterday by attributing to her views that belonged to the author of the article she was talking about, and I apologise. That said, now that she's actively defending them, I can slag her off anyway, and I stand by my criticisms.

Well, no. If he'd bothered to read my post, he would have found the words "I'm not saying I find the argument entirely convincing. But lets at least get the terms of the debate straight." My point was not to defend Eskridge's thesis, but rather to point out that NRT was largely attacking a strawman. And, although we're getting closer, he still is.

The key problem with the argument that "courts pushing these issues before society is ready will result in a majority backlash which will hurt minorities even more" is that [it] is never time for change. There is always a backlash when people stand up and demand their rights. That doesn't mean we should deny their claims because "it's not time yet" or "the majority will never go along with it".

The thesis is not that majority opinion should always rule. It is not that the courts should never interfere when there will be a majority backlash. It is that courts should not interfere when the backlash will be severe enough that the minority will be worse off as a result. There will be instances in which this is not the case, and in such cases the courts may intervene. Claiming that Eskridge's approach would mean that we would never have change is to misrepresent the argument completely. Moreover, it would still misrepresent the argument, even if the thesis were that the courts should completely stay out. Why? Because (surprise) majoritarian democracies don't always oppress minorities. The example of civil unions in NZ is a case in point: the Court of Appeal held that denying marriage benefits to gay couples was not discriminatory - it is parliament that is moving, of it's own volition, to remedy this injustice.

Doing that simply legitimises and perpetuates continuing oppression.

Credit where it's due - this almost has the semblance of a sliver of an argument. There does appear to be a moral hazard here for majorities - just make enough noise and you win, because the courts won't interfere. The problem is that this argument forgets that the alternative isn't any better: courts wade in; majorities get even more antsy; minorities lose; continuing oppression legitimated and perpetuated, only this time more resilient.

Sometimes the state has to force people to respect the rights of others. It's that simple. If the state cannot or will not do that, there's no point in having one, and we might as well all get guns and start killing one another.

Sometimes the state will not be able to force people to respect the rights of others. Debate about these sorts of issues don't end as soon as you walk out the courtroom door with a verdict. The problem with a democracy is that legislatures can always override courts. (This is true even in the US, it just takes a bit more effort because you need to amend the constitution. Theoretically you could get around this problem by combining judicial review with an unamendable constitution, but the problem with this is that, in practice, you need someone to write the constitution - and that someone is going to be the very same majoritarian democracy that ex hypothesi you don't trust to protect minorities.)

Note how it doesn't follow from this that there's no point in having a state. The state will still fulfil lots of functions, including fostering an environment in which these issues can be discussed freely and openly in the context of a democratic debate.

(As for why this is about utilitarianism, just look at the language - NZPols is explicitly counting hedons

Again, no. I'm tossing up between effective rights enforcement and ineffective rights enforcement, which unless you adopt a purely expressivist conception of judging, is a no-brainer that relies not one jot on "hedons". (An expressivist conception would value the fact that a judge said "thou shalt not discriminate" even if it led to greater discrimination. To me this makes no sense, even on it's own terms: in this instance saying "thou shalt not discriminate" seems functionaly equivalent to "go nuts", which kind of undermines the whole point.)

And of course, it takes no account of what people actually want - I think that the scenes in San Francisco show that plenty of people prefer uncertain freedom with the possibility of a future backlash to continuing oppression any day of the week. It may not be best for them in the end, but that choice is ultimately theirs to make - a principle that utilitarianism simply gives no recognition to).

This argument seems intitially plausible. But on closer consideration, I think it rests on two problematic assumptions.

The first is that the only people affected by the choice (say the choice to take case to the Supreme Court) are the people who make that choice. But this assumption is likely to be false. The vast majority of gay people may decide that it's not worth taking a court case. It only takes a couple (with enough financial backing) to get there and trigger a backlash. The poor decision of the few will result in the oppression of the many.

The second is that individuals are likely to make sensible assessments about these matters. However, (as NRT has conveniently illustrated for me) people typically appear to reason incredibly myopically in these matters: they think that winning a court case is the end of the story when it seldom is. Systematic rationality failure seems to me to be a perfectly valid reason to accord people's decisions in these case less than absolute, unqualified respect. Of course, if courts are likely to be even worse than minorities at making sensible assessments, then we should simply respect individuals' choices; but on balance I tend to think courts will do a better job of protecting minority interests, for the simple reason that their decisions are less likely to be clouded by emotion (which means that I am effectively affirming assumption (2)).
DO YOU LIKE VIOLENCE? If so, go see Passion of the Christ. If not, stay away. I cannot for the life of me understand how this movie is not rated R18. Kill Bill, which, until now, was the most violent movie I had ever seen, has nothing on this.

(Nor it is one of those "Once were Warriors" type movies that you don't enjoy but can still think was worthwhile seeing. You already know the story. All the movie does is add lots of blood.)
OH COME ON: Misrepresentation of my opinions galore over at No Right Turn.

Complete butchering of what I said #1:

NZPols is suggesting that the courts should be driven by public opinion, rather than the law, in making their decisions

What I actually said:

[William] Eskridge [note how this is not my name] offers a model in which the courts, rather than being guided by (notoriously amorphous) principles of equality, should act (in his words) to "lower the stakes of identity politics" ... I have yet to decide what I think about this idea.

CBOWIS #2:

NZPols points out that judges following public opinion would probably have ruled differently on the foreshore and seabed issue - which would have been a Good Thing because it would have avoided a divisive debate.

What I actually said:

Whether that would have been a good thing is, I think, still an open question ... although lowering the stakes [of identity politics] may sometimes be valuable, other times they may need to be raised in order for us to progress as a society.

Add to this a complete failure to understand the nature of the argument he is attacking, and you've got one of the most irresponsible blog posts ever. (OK, I'm exaggerating - I've had a bad day. Bear with me.)

Complete Failure of Comprehension #1:

NZPols is suggesting that the courts should be driven by public opinion, rather than the law, in making their decisions

Well, no. Although admittedly, I encouraged this by using the Foreshore and Seabed case as an example, this was intended more as an interesting thought experiment, rather than an actual instance of where Eskridge's theory would apply. The real sphere of application is in the area of equality rights - about which the "law" NRT appeals to, is, at least in any remotely objective, readliy discoverable sense, non-existent. Judges are making the law, not using their magical powers to find it when no-one else can. This means that we need to have a debate about how they should make it. Eskridge's is just one suggestion, but "the law" that NRT seems to think is out there in the ether somewhere is not an option - it doesn't exist.

CFOC #2:

One wonders where this would have left the cause of (for example) Civil Rights in America... would they still have segregated schools because the public "just wasn't ready for it"?

Actually the very point of these sorts of arguments (as NRT might have discovered if he'd actually read the article I linked to) is that Brown (the case that is held up as being responsible for desegregating schools in America) wouldn't have worked, except that societal opinion had already largely moved. The argument is not that courts cannot pre-empt public opinion, it is just that they can't do it by too much.

CFOC #3:

[This] is also a perfect example of one of the knockdown arguments against utilitarianism: that it legitimises the systematic oppression of unpopular minorities if everyone is "better off"

Bollocks. It's nothing to do with utilitarianism. The question is not about whether to oppress minorities or not. It's about determining the best mechanism to ensure they are not oppressed. The argument is that courts pushing these issues before society is ready will result in a majority backlash which will hurt minorities even more. Once more, because this is important: the choice is not (as NRT mistakenly assumes) between oppressing minorities and not; it is between oppressing them and oppressing them more. Yes, these are crap alternatives, but they're all you've got. I'm not saying I find the argument entirely convincing. But lets at least get the terms of the debate straight. And if you don't think it's at least plausible, the Consitutional amendment proposing to remove states' ability to recognise same sex marriages in the wake of the Massachusetts decision should at least make you think twice, especially when democracy would probably get there in the end anyway. (For my opinion on other "knockdown arguments against utilitarianism" see here.)
Wednesday, February 25, 2004
RAISING THE STAKES OF IDENTITY POLITICS: I've argued previously that it was unwise for the Massachusetts Supreme Court to get involved in the issue of same sex marriages, and indeed, that it's probably unwise for courts to get involved in these sorts of issues at all. This paper by William Eskridge (link via Larry Solum) seems to support my view that the Massachusetts decision could do more harm to the gay cause than good. However, it stops short of recommending that judges simply stay out of such decisions entirely. Instead, Eskridge offers a model in which the courts, rather than being guided by (notoriously amorphous) principles of equality, should act (in his words) to "lower the stakes of identity politics". Or, to put it another way, that the courts should seek to avoid pissing too many people off, in a way that could lead to damaging polarisation of political debate (a la Roe v Wade).

What this appears to mean in practice is that the court should, insofar as possible seek to enforce norms of tolerance - but to do so only to the extent that most of society is likely to be ready for it. (Tolerance in this instance would typically involve stopping states from unfairly using their coercive powers against minorities through anti-sodomy laws and the like, but also refusing to allow those same powers to be used to prevent racists, homophobes or others from expressing their views.)

I have yet to decide what I think about this idea (though my initial reaction is favourable, this may change upon greater reflection). But I think it’s interesting to speculate that about what this might have meant for the current race-relations debate in New Zealand. Eskridge's conception of the role of judges would probably have dictated the opposite result to that reached by the Court of Appeal in the foreshore and seabed case, with the result that the entire race-relations debate would not have occurred (at least not yet). Whether that would have been a good thing is, I think, still an open question, the answer to which will depend greatly on the quality of debate from here. One senses that Labour’s recent moves Brashwards may reduce the potential for a real culture war, and indeed, may result in a more sensible approach to ethnic relations regardless of who wins the next election. If so, then this suggests at least one potential weakness in Eskridge's argument: although lowering the stakes may sometime be valuable, other times they may need to be raised in order for us to progress as a society.

NB: It's possible that Eskridge is positing this theory of judging as a descriptive account of what the US Supreme Court is doing, rather than as a normative account of what it should do. From his paper, I oculdn't quite tell. But it's the normative claim that seems to be the more interesting one to me.
Tuesday, February 24, 2004
A DREAM FOR THE DAYLIGHT HOURS: Here's a thought experiment. Nothing more.

I once heard Richard Prebble, a free marketeer, speak in Dunedin, just outside the university union. After he'd finished telling us how inefficient, hypocritical, and redundant state agencies are, I asked him if there were any functions he thought a state should provide.

You know already what he didn't say. What should the state provide? Not health and education, obviously. Not 'silly' departments like Race Relations and Women's Whateverit'scalled. Not roads, not (much) tax, not (many) bureaucrats.

Anyone who's familiar with extreme free market ideology will also know what Prebble did say, more or less. The military, he suggested, could be provided collectively. The police, he added somewhat reluctantly. I imagine some extreme free-marketeers would disagree with both of these. There's no necessary reason to collectivise security, if you accept neoliberal values. Privatised police are hardly unprecedented -- drive through the suburbs of Johannesburg, Lima, and Guatemala City and see a privatised security force. Go to (actually, stay well away from) Central Africa, especially the mining bits, and see privatised armies.

I think Prebble missed a few crucial services, even on his own terms. I think if he hadn't had to answer me straight away he would have added some state institutions that are crucial to regulate the market: a Monopolies Commission, for example, and a legal system to support the rule of law (especially property rights).

There aren't any such pure free market states at the moment. The ones that come closest, I suggest, are failed states like Somalia. Any governance in these countries begins and ends with warlords or local strongmen. But we hardly want to take these as the model free market state -- they're shit, and their shitness happened before their states collapsed, so we can't draw any lessons from them. And they certainly don't have a Monopolies Commission. Or rule of law.

So here's my thought experiment. Imagine, if you will, that Prebble's vision is fulfilled in New Zealand. We get rid of everything but the police, the army, and essential institutions to allow the market to function.

But -- and this is the point -- we only do it in half of New Zealand. Namely, the South Island.

So the North Island continues to be governed in the same merry way as it is now. The South Island, however, is left to its own devices. Entirely. No Resource Management Act, no social welfare, no Waitangi Tribunal. Privatised electricity, streetlights, ACC, you name it. Everything is sold off (where does the money go? a good question) and user charges are attached to everything that moves. The skeleton crew of bureaucrats who are left to attach the last few price tickets on the forests are thinking about whether or not to invest in the burgeoning kiwi farming industry.

BUT, crucially, we keep absolutely free movement between the North and South islands. So citizens would be absolutely free to move to wherever suited them best.

So this week I'm thinking about what NZ would look like if we had a clear and stark choice of regimes to live under. Who would migrate? What would they do there? In 20 years time, which island would be the best to live in? Which would win in a jelly wrestling match?

Where would you live, and why?
Monday, February 23, 2004
PROBABLY THE SMARTEST MAN TO COME OUT OF SOUTHLAND, EVER: Columbia Law Professor Jeremy Waldron, on historic injustices, pretty much sums up my views on the Treaty and related matters, and (although most of the article is devoted to Israeli settlements) defends them far better than I could.

Over the years I have become quite skeptical of the grievance industry, skeptical of the Waitangi Tribunal process and the settlements it has reached, skeptical of claims based on indigeneity, skeptical of culture and language rights, generally. My own views tend in a more cosmopolitan direction, emphasizing the fluidity and porousness of cultural boundaries, the importance of mixture and fracture in cultural and national identities, the significance of movement and migration in the human story (we are all the descendants of settlers), the absurdity of claims based on prehistorical first occupancy, and the importance of focusing the concerns of justice on the here and now and the needs and deserts of whoever happens to be in a given territory irrespective of how they or their ancestors got there.

Link via Larry Solum.
Sunday, February 22, 2004
A BIT OF RAIN IN THE SHIRE: I just spent the week in Paris. Yeah, that one. It was lovely, thanks, but that's not why I'm writing.

After my Valentine's Day rendezvous was over, and my copain was scuttling back to New York, I sat morosely in the hotel and watched CNN.

Meanwhile, those of you currently resident in the middle bit of New Zealand were being hit with gales, flooding, and storms of locusts.

I don't mention this to rub it in, really, I don't.

But since I occasionally complain that NZ media focuses too much on American stuff, I thought the choice of news stories made by CNN Europe was interesting.

CNN had three stories that morning on high rotation. The first: the American primaries. Fair enough. The second: the civil war in Haiti. Also fair enough. And the third: Gales, flooding and storms of locusts in the middle bit of New Zealand. For two hours, the same house falling into the same river (but oddly, no locusts).

Friday, February 20, 2004
CENTRAL PLANNING FAILS: After years of ads, pleading, and financial incentives to get people to become teachers, it turns out we now have far too many.

Well, too many primary teachers. The real shortages were (and are) for secondary teachers in maths, science and Maori. But all the 'beautiful people coming into my life' on those charming tv spots were kiddies, all right, and now it seems we were just too enthusiastic in recruiting them.

Can't we get it right? How hard can it be? You know how many kids are passing through the school system, you know how long a degree takes, and you do the maths. Easy.

In fact, this can be evidence of a failure of state planning or of market provision, depending on how you see it. The government was doing the ads, it's true, but at the same time there were just far too many spaces at teacher training factories. The government has no control over that at all.

So... do we need more state involvement here, or less?
MIXED METAPHORS: Ugh. NZ First should get a new communications guy. Quick-smart.

From a press release yesterday:

We Are Middle Earth - Not Scorched Earth!

Rt Hon Winston Peters has warned that Don Brash is creating a smoke screen of race relations while his real agenda is to breathe new life into the corpse of Rogernomics.
..

...“His speeches as Reserve Bank Governor rattle around on the bank’s website like financial skeletons in a Rogernomics cupboard and they should serve as a warning to all New Zealanders.

In other news, congratulations to a very close friend of NZPols, who just got accepted to the graduate programme in economics at the University of Oxford and who would never write anything so dire.
Thursday, February 19, 2004
THE MIND BOGGLES: Why would anyone googling "sex advice left wing" come up with NZPOLS? More to the point, why would anyone google "sex advice left wing"?
OH, AND: Did you know that the wonderful, fabulous, orgasmically good Arts and Letters Daily, the procrastinator's best friend, is edited by a Kiwi? He writes about New Zealand stuff too -- like this old, but sobering, article about our fatuous moralism.

Also, a nice Economist obituary for Janet Frame.
IN CASE YOU MISSED THIS: From the Southland Times.

Last week, Mr Benson-Pope accused Mr Hide of yelling out "dopey niggers" during a debate in the House.

Mr Hide on Tuesday received an apology from Ms Clark and Mr Benson-Pope after he explained that he had yelled out "don't be negative".

Monday, February 16, 2004
A PASSING THOUGHT: Martin from the Save our Schools blog writes:

I know that one of parties in this neck and neck race has attacked my community. And that if it is returned to power it will continue to attack other communities. All to save a few dollars.

So no matter how strongly I may believe in Labours other policies I will not be voting for them. And I now know of a lot of erstwhile Labour supporters in this community who will also not be voting for them.


The assumption in most circles is that National's poll results are a direct reponse to Don Brash's stance on Maori issues, and no doubt a significant proportion is. But Martin's post made me wonder how much of the swing is just people like him, disillusioned with Labour over school reviews, or smoking in bars (I've heard similar sentiments to Martin's from some smokers), or whatever, finally beginning to see National as a credible opposition again.
CONCILIATING?: No Right Turn reckons it was Joris' job to wade into the post-Orewa fallout and let people know the truth about how evil and misleading those nasty Nats have been, arguing that:

Pointing out that some statements were misleading and warning politicians to avoid using "broad slogans that did not reflect facts" to incite racial disharmony is accurate, reasonable, and well within his job description. The fact that National was singled out is more a reflection of the quality of their statements rather than an indication of bias.

I'd be more sympathetic if his warning to avoid "broad slogans that may not reflect facts" was aimed equally at Labour and Green politicians whose accusations of racism have been equally counterproductive. Of course, if he'd just said that, No Right Turn would probably accuse him of right wing bias, and say that he shouldn't have got involved. Sounds like a double standard to me.
WHEN IDEOLOGY ISN'T IDEOLOGY: Nandor Tanczos on his decision to support shutting down the Auckland Central Remand Prison, despite admitting that it was the one "shining light" in prison management:

It's not a question of ideology. It's about my pledge to represent the policy of the party I represent.

Hmmmm. Sounds like the same thing to me. As United Future's Marc Alexander points out:

The privately managed prison is the only internationally accredited prison in New Zealand; has the backing of Iwi Whanai, which argues that it does more to prevent Maori and Pacific Island inmates re-offending than any publicly run prison; and offers inmates 2 hours a day more in rehabilitation programs than those in the state prison across the road (Mount Eden). As if that wasn't enough the private prison also saves taxpayers $29,000 per inmate per year!

So tell me again why this is a bad thing?
BUT NOR IS SILENCE: I'd hoped that at least one positive spin-off from National's unprecedented poll support would have been to remove Labour's incentive to cry "racist" and actually force them to engage in the debate.

We seem to be still waiting on that score. But to be fair, it’s about time the right came to the party too. I have to say I admire Don for trucking around the country and taking some pretty heavy flak in the process, but, apart from a brief (and - credit where it's due - reasoned) attack on affirmative action from Kiwi Pundit, I have yet to hear a decent argument from the right why it’s ok for Brash to ignore need when it suits him, or why it might be a bad idea to target services to particular needs.

UPDATE - AND NOR IS THIS: Rather than bother with an argument, Running Blog Capitalist claims "it's all just too confusing for me". Craig, you'd better hurry up with that thoughful piece "argue[d] carefully from first principles and sound data", cos nobody else is coming up with much.
ABUSE IS NOT AN ARGUMENT: This observation from the invariably excellent Eugene Volokh seemed rather apposite in light of the standard of debate going on in this country at the moment.

NB: I was sure I posted this a couple of days ago. But it seems to have disappeared. Odd.
Sunday, February 15, 2004
PHILOSPHY 101 WITH PAULINE HANSON: Mild wailing and gnashing of teeth has ensued from the Sunday Star Times frontpager comparing Brash to Pauline Hanson. Fair enough, although I doubt it's likely to change anyone's opinions: those who already hate Brash will continue to hate him, and those who don't will most probably dismiss the comparison and mumble under their breaths about liberal media bias.

I suspect my reaction may have been unique: "perhaps we've all been a bit harsh on Pauline Hanson". After all, assuming the quotes on the front page are accurate (and even taking into account the usual warnings about context and all that) they do paint a fairly uncontrovertible picture that Hanson and Brash are singing to similar tunes on this particular issue. So if you support Brash's policies, you also support Pauline Hanson's. Rather than rejecting the comparison with Brash as just another example of shoddy reporting, perhaps the better lessons to take from this are two relatively simple rules of logic:

(1) Ad hominem is not an argument: even Pauline Hanson might be right.

(2) Avoid the inductivist fallacy: just because everything someone's ever said has been wrong, doesn't mean the next thing to come out of their mouth will be.
LET THERE BE LIGHT: And on the 19th day, the TVOne-Colmar-Brunton Poll said, "National 45%, Labour 38%". And there was much rejoicing amongst the right wing bloggers. And those not of the right were strangely silent - though one suspects much wailing and gnashing of teeth to come.

And the one called NZPols shared neither in the rejoicing, nor the gnashing of teeth, but instead perched rather uncomforatbly upon a fence-post.
Saturday, February 14, 2004
TURNING VOLTAIRE ON HIS HEAD: The race relations commissioner, Joris de Bres, has apparently joined the Brash-bashing, calling the Nats' Maori policies and its "separatism" advertisements, misleading.

Voltaire once said: "I may not like what he says but I shall defend his right to say it to the death." I may agree with parts of what de Bres said, but that doesn't change the fact that he shouldn't have said it, and Don Brash is rightly appalled that a public official has waded into the messy debate on this issue. There is sometimes a fine line in these matters - it would be virtually impossible for Mr. de Bres to do his job without occasionally entering into politically charged areas. But actively attacking the policies of one party is pretty clearly on the wrong side of the line, and de Bres' comments are only likely to confirm in their opinion those who think (not entirely without justification) that the public service is in thrall to Maori "special interests". Poor form.
Thursday, February 12, 2004
TWICE IN ONE DAY: Finally, Labour's talking the talk of property rights in relation to the seabed and foreshore.

I'd still like to hear from ACT why they think nationalisation's OK here but not in other instances. But overall I'm probably leaning Nationalwards on this one (though I do wish they'd cut the "special rights" rhetoric - as I've pointed out before and Labour are perfectly correct in asserting, it's just another property right). As I'm not slavishly wedded to private property rights, if the public interest were strong enough I'd be willing to override them to the extent necessary to protect that interest. (Whether that should give rise to a right to compensation, I don't have a strong opinion on: being a fairly extreme consequentialist, I tend to think the main reason for adhering to contracts is to preserve the institution of contract making, and the main reason for compensating for private property breaches by a government is to provide adequate disincentives to doing it too often. I think the situation here is unique enough that it's unlikely to have great precedent value in this respect. Upshot = fencesitting.)

What is the public interest? Access, environmental management and reasonable opportunity for commercial development pretty much sum it up as far as I can see. (And as long as those are looked after, I don't see why anyone else should care about the recognition of Maori customary rights.) The government's proposals are fine on the first. They're also probably OK on the second, although there is an argument, previously run by National in relation to Molesworth Station, that private owners would be better managers, because they they have better incentives (and DOC's useless). I'm willing to let this go, however, mostly on the basis that it might be too stifling of commercial opportunites, which the proposals are already a bit weak on. Overall, less than perfect, but not a bad compromise on an incredibly tough issue.
POLITICIANS SHOULD HEED LESSONS FROM THE PRIVATE SECTOR: It's nice to see Labour actually beginning to engage sensibly with Brash's arguments. Admittedly, Steve Maharey has set himself up a bit of a strawman in attacking Brash's "one size fits all" approach - for example, Brash's Orewa speech specifically noted that Kura Kaupapa should be retained. However, he does have a right to ask what exactly National intends to do with service delivery. The "one law for all" principle easily lends itself to a range of interpretations on whether delivery tailored to specific demographics (whether they be Maori, Pacific Island, Chinese, European or anything else) is acceptable. If Brash doesn't intend to change that, then he should say so clearly. If he does, then the public deserve to know that as well. Brash shouldn't be allowed to trade on the ambiguity.

Personally, I hope he chooses the former. It makes sense to target service delivery to particular groups, or, even better, to particular individuals' needs. Obviously there are sometimes limits based on cost, and when delivery is contracted out, there need to be adequate accountability mechanisms put in place - something that we don't always see for example with Maori service providers. But in general, government should follow the advice of marketing gurus in the private sector in tailoring services and products to the needs of the consumer.
Wednesday, February 11, 2004
NZ POLITICS LINKS GALORE: I had no idea who these guys were until they linked to me, but they've got more NZ (and international) politics links than you could poke a stick at. (My personal favourite is the Awarua Browns Lime Ltd - King's Bend Quarry Sanitary Landfill: Southland - clearly a massive political movement, whose company I am honoured to be in.)
VOLUNTARY GERRYMANDERING: Maori are apparently being urged to switch to the General Roll to eject National MPs. This highlights a puzzle that I'd long wondered about regarding the Maori seats.

In the US, one of the favourite tricks of the party in power in most states is to redraw electoral boundaries in such a way as to ensure that they have a safe, but slight, majority in as many states as possible. At the same time, they try to lump as many opposition supporters as possible into a small number of electorates. In these latter regions, it is not unusual to find 90% or more of the voters being supporters of the losing party. In the US this is called "redistricting". In most of the rest of the world it's called gerrymandering, and is though to be a corruption of democracy.

Note the similarity between the gerrymandered electorates and the Maori seats. In both, the overwhelming majority of people may as well not bother to vote, because, no matter what they do, support for one party is so strong that it won't affect the outcome. But note the difference. Those living in gerrymandered districts are generally thought to be rather hard done by - even, if you believe the rhetoric of some, deprived of the right to have their vote counted on equal terms with everyone else. Those who choose to go on the Maori Roll, by contrast, are widely thought to be receiving an unjustified benefit.

Now, admittedly, there is a difference between the two cases, in that in one, the "gerrymandering" is freely chosen. But the effect is similar. As the article linked to above makes clear, Maori are effectively giving up a degree of political power in choosing to go on the Maori Roll - at least given the current pattern of enrolment. If the sort of tactical roll-hopping being advocated here continues, and Maori begin to use their volutary gerrymandering ability to their advantage, then this might change, and there might then be a strong argument in favour of abolishing the Maori seats. However, it does makes you wonder why right wing parties have typically opposed their retention, given that it probably accorded them an electoral advantage.

It might appear that all this is reduced to little more than symbolic importance under a proportional representation system, because electorate outcomes are unlikely (except in the case of a hangover) to affect the distribution of seats in parliament. But even under proportional representation, there are still reasons to care about electorates. For a start, electorate MPs do more than just vote in parliament. Moreover, there's always a chance, especially with a minority government, that a hangover could make all the difference. Finally, proportionality relies on very strict party discipline if electorates are to be rendered completely irrelevant in parliament - we've seen in recent months that, especially where the Maori seats are concerned, party discipline may not be entirely reliable.
MUSINGS ON THE MISUSE OF "NEED": In her speech yesterday, Helen Clark attempted to draw an analogy between providing funding for Auckland's infrastructure and ethnic targeting of health and education spending. Both, she claimed, were on the basis of need. It initially seemed like a decent analogy. However, on thinking about it a little more closely, I'm not so sure. While I think that ethnic targetting probably is a case of funding need (see my post below) I'm not sure "greater need" is a valid reason for funding Auckland's transport infrastructure.

Sure, Auckland has more traffic problems than other areas of New Zealand. But presumably these are generally offset by the other benefits of living there (such as higher wages, a more "vibrant" nightlife, wider range of goods and services etc.). Otherwise people would move somewhere else. There may be valid reasons for investing in Auckland's infrastructure, but they're likely to have more to do with benefits to the rest of the country from promoting Auckland's growth, capturing agglomeration economies etc. than feeling sorry for Aucklanders.

And yes, I realise that this is probably the most boring bone I could possibly have picked to pick with the Prime Minister's speech. But, given how inspiring the speech wasn't, it's probably appropriate.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004
WHY EQUALITY IS MEANINGLESS: In the course of defending ethnically targeted funding, No Right Turn claims:

Such spending is of course unequal. So is a progressive tax system and targetting welfare benefits to the poor. We accept such inequalities on the basis that they primarily advantage the least-well-off in our society. So why the hue and cry over funding for disadvantaged Maori?

This is kind of a semantic quibble (which NRT partially corrects later in the post), but I think it's important. The point is not that the wider benefits of such spending justify its "unequalness" - it's that (assuming it's done right) such spending is, in fact, equal. In fact it's potentially more equal than the alternative. There's no reason to surrender the rhetorical high ground to defend ethnic targeting.

This is because, despite its apparent simplicity, "equality" is a very messy idea, that can in fact lead you to just about any policy prescription imaginable. It all comes down to the question "equality of what?"* To take a simple example, equality could be conscripted in defence of a wide variety of tax regimes depending on what you want to equalise: equality in the absolute amount of tax paid = poll tax; equality in proportion of income paid as tax = flat tax rate; equality in after tax income = 100% tax on all income above $X. In fact, in a formal sense, any tax system you choose will be "equal" provided the same law applies to everyone.

The trick is to decide what you care about - and this will differ between different political philosophies. Natural rights libertarians will say equality in the protection of private property rights and the right to be free from physical violence; Rawlsian-type liberals will say equality in the ability to form and pursue one's conception of the good; hedonist egalitarians will say equality in happiness; some will talk of "equality of opportunity" or "equality before the law"; some will throw all of these into a bag and say equality of "stuff" in general.

Personally I'm partial to aiming for equal well-being, but trading it off in a Cobb-Douglasish fashion against greater overall well-being. But that's kind of beside the point - which less to defend a particular conception of equality than to point out that (as usual) things are a little more complicated than politicians might suggest.

* In case anyone's interested, this is also the title of a piece by Amartya Sen, (hattip NRT for the link) which outlines similar ideas. If anyone happens to be near a University Law library, you could also track down Peter Westen's seminal "The Empty idea of Equality" for a more thorough exposition.
Monday, February 09, 2004
PIGEON-HOLED: Groan. Why do people insist on putting words in my mouth? My Right, in response to my post on affirmative action below, states that:

Following NZPols "need reasoning", there is a distinct lack of the "principles of the paddock of Himatangi", or for that matter, the "principles of the nesians of Auckland central" in current statute.

This might be a justifiable criticism, if my post had claimed to say anything at all about the insertion of Treaty clauses into statute. However, upon rereading it, I discovered, to my great relief, that I had not mentioned anything of the sort. (In fact, if My Right were to go delving through my archives he/she might find that I'm not actually all that sympathetic to the idea that the Treaty should define the future of the relationship with Maori and Pakeha in this country.)

Unfortunately, this sort of pigeon-holing seems to happen all too often. Stop it. Now. All of you.

PS. Unless it was some bizarre form of irony that I just didn't get, My Right also seems to be under the delusion that Don would accept race as a proxy for need. If that were true then I would have absolutely no issue with him. But unfortunately, both his sloganeering, and the substance of his policy prescriptions suggest otherwise. He's saying "need, not race", not "need, and race if it's a reasonable proxy".

PPS. My Right: Please get comments.
MORE ON AFFIRMATIVE ACTION: Kiwi Pundit adds a few more reasons against affirmative action to the one I mentioned in my previous post on the topic. They're broadly reasonable (and indeed, are part of why I haven't completely made up my mind about this issue yet). However, I do think he overstates their force somewhat.

Kearney argues that:

(1) You don't help people by setting lower standards for them. Requiring non-Maori to average B+ to progress to second year law courses while allowing Maori to progress with a C average, will not close any gaps. It is just a deeply condescending way of undermining the incentives for Maori to lift their performance.

KP has a point here, although I think he's overplaying the incentive effects somewhat. More problematic is that he hasn't engaged at all with the point I was making in my previous post - that grades aren't necessarily the best indicator of ability. Having familiarity with Maori tikanga etc. may be a very important qualification for someone to be an effective doctor on the East Coast, for example. In this case, ethnicity is part of a proxy for merit.

Admittedly, the relevance of this example may not be as applicable to lawyers as medical students (though still I think it holds some force). However, this article from the Economist suggests an alternative way of altering our conception of what constitutes merit, which may support something akin to affirmative action:

[t]he well-crammed but incurious product of a successful school (a good state one just as much as a private one) may well be a less good bet than a determined candidate who has battled through a rowdy school with weak teaching. This is especially true in subjects such as advanced maths, classics or physics, which are well taught at private schools; many state schools teach them poorly if at all. Students from fee-paying schools gain slightly worse degrees than their A-level scores would predict—showing that private education does help pupils' chances of going to college. Universities are right to take account of that. This is not to advocate the affirmative action that American universities have been practising in favour of black people (upheld by the Supreme Court earlier this year and roundly condemned by this newspaper). Here, the aim is not social engineering but to uncover buried talent.

(Part of the research that this claim is based on can be found here. It's not conlcusive, but it's certainly suggestive.) If a similar analysis held for New Zealand, then this would lend support to some form of affirmative action scheme - though probably not one based on ethnicity.*

KP also claims that:

(2) Affirmative action tarnishes the achievements of those Maori who were always going to succeed on their own merits. In a few years time, if you need to take your kid to the doctor and and all you know about the two choices is that one has a Maori last name, there will be a close to 50% chance that the Maori doctor would never have made it through medical school if merit was the only factor. Which doctor are you going to choose?

To make this kick, KP has to rely on some rather unrealistic informational assumptions: just about everyone I know chooses their doctor on the basis of recommendations from friends etc.; those who would make such a decision on the basis of a last name would probably do so regardless of the existence of affirmative action programmes. And absent the financial loss KP implies in the example, the cost of affirmative action amounts to little more than a bit of grumpiness on the part of "those Maori who were always going to succeed of their own accord" and who happen to have Maori surnames, which many don't). For what it's worth, this particular Maori-trained-legal-professional-who-didn't-need-a-quota suspects that most others in the same situation don't particularly care anyway. Even if they did, many would see it as a price they were willing to pay for wider benefits to others.

Finally, we have:

(3) The biggest factor in educational achievement is the home environment. At best, affirmative action will enable a small percentage of Maori to be slightly better parents for the next generation of kids. That is not going to be anywhere near enough. A much more effective plan would be for the government to fund programmes such as books in homes or computers in homes.

KP probably understates the benefits of having educated Maori around: these are likely to extend beyond immediate family members (and he also neglects the benefits to Maori of having more Maori doctors able to better cater to Maori health needs etc.) Nonetheless, I think this is fair, as far as it goes.

In summary, I think my own preference would be for a system that:

(1) Allows for the fact that people from particular backgrounds (whether ethnic or not) may be better able to serve particular demographics, and factors this into considerations of "merit";

(2) If it can be established that particular demographics tend to perform better at university than their high school grades would predict, allows that to be factored in as well; and

(3) Tries to as a first best solution to address educational performance directly, rather than through affirmative action programmes. (I'm still undecided on the wisdom, in the meantime, of allowing affirmative action that doesn't fall into either of the first two categories. My gut feeling is that the potential benefits are large, and the cost isn't particularly great by comparison, but I could be convinced otherwise.)

Finally, I'm not entirely sure of the trasferability of any these arguments to the provision of scholarships as opposed to quotas. I'll have to do some more thinking on that one.

*In fact, it would probably more strongly support a "negative action scheme" whereby students from select schools were required to gain higher grades to get in than the majority of the population. The incentive effects of that would certainly be interesting.
Sunday, February 08, 2004
SURPRISED: that Brian Easton's claim that ACT completely bungled the statistics in their report on the Maori Tax-Benefit Gap hasn't got more of a run in the mainstream media - especially given its apparent relevance to the degree to which Maori are being favoured under the current government.

According to Easton, the methodology used by ACT also leads to the conlcusion that non-Maori receive approx. $11 billion more in benefits than they pay in tax. Apparently this isn't so much because we're a nation of bludgers as because the figures used omit about a third of the tax base - resulting in a $14 billion underestimation of government tax revenue. Hmmmm.
WHEN IS RACISM NOT RACISM? II: The other "race-based preference" that has come under fire by Dr. Brash is the practice of institutions establishing scholarships or quotas for students from particular ethnic backgrounds. The latter, in particular, are alleged to be especially invidious, because they mean that smart white kids miss out to dumb brown ones.

The issue of affirmative action in general is a particularly vexed one - and one which I haven't completely made up my mind about yet. Nonetheless, I think it is important to bear a couple of things in mind when considering this issue.

(1) Being smart isn't everything. For example, studies suggest that, above a certain (not incredibly high) threshold, grades are a poor predictor of how good a doctor someone is going to be. Just as, if not more important are things like being able to communicate with and relate to patients etc. (I would suspect similar things hold for other professions, even non-medical ones - swots often aren't particulary good at functioning in the real world.) Presumably, if we're worried about Maori, or Pacific Island, or even rural health (Otago Medical School is about to introduce extra spaces for students from rural backgrounds), it might make sense to try to train doctors who are (a) likely to want to work with the particular demographic in question, and (b) likely to be good at it. This is not to suggest that only Maori, or Pacific Islanders, or farmers can serve those particular demographics, but setting aside some places for these groups is one way to increase your odds.

(2) What is almost the same point, phrased differently to appeal to economists, is that there is a plausible case that there is a greater positive externatility from educating members of disadvantaged groups (both in terms of being role models for others' educational success, and because they may have more positive impact within their community when they complete their studies) than those from more well-off backgrounds. And this need not necessarily have anything to do with ideas about such groups being less individualistic and more willing to devote themselves to the common good - it may simply be a consequence of those groups starting from a lower base and thus having more to gain. I confess I am not sure of the extent of this externality, or even if it exists, but I think it is plausible enough to ground a case for some degree of affirmative action.

Of course, some people will still argue that it's unfair that someone with higher grades misses out in favour of someone with lower grades who happens to be Maori or Polynesian or a farmer, regardless of the wider benefit to society. My only response is that it would behove such people to remember who pays the majority of their fees.
WHEN IS RACISM NOT RACISM?: The Sunday Star Times (here and here) conveniently beat me to my next point about race-based funding: sometimes need-based funding and race-based funding are in fact he same thing, because ethnicity serves as a proxy for need. This seems to be particularly the case in two areas where Dr. Brash has been particularly critical of current government policy: health and education.

Primary Health Organisations receive "capitation based funding" - meaning that the bulk of their income is tied to the number of people they serve. However, this is supplemented by additional targeted funding, most of which is allocated on socio-economic grounds, but part of which is determined by the ethnic makeup of the population a PHO deals with. Surely this is a perfect example of the racism Dr. Brash is railing against? It might be okay to give additional funding to areas serving lower socio-economic groups, but this is just political correctness gone mad, isn't it? This sort of funding system will lead to rich Maori (yes, they exist) getting better treatment than poor Pakeha, which is clearly unfair.

Well, not quite. Poorer people do tend to have worse health outcomes in general (and receive extra funding as a result). But socio-economic differences aren't the only differences that affect need. In fact, your typical poor European will be tend to be significantly heathier (i.e. less needy) than a Maori (or Pacific Islander) on the same income, meaning that - at least at an aggregate level - funding on the basis of race, and funding on the basis of need are actually the same thing.

A similar analysis holds with education. Schools receive addtional operational grants based on the decile they fall into - and decile rankings, though again determined mostly by socio-econmic status, are decided partly on the basis of ethnicity. Again, while socio-economic status accounts for much of the difference in school achievement, it doesn't account for it all. Poor Maori (and I assume Pacific Islanders) do typically do worse (i.e. are more needy) than Europeans on the same income - hence the additional funding.*

Of course, none of this would be necessary if we could actually go out and determine every individuals' level of need and assign funding accordingly. But we can't, so we have to use proxies - like income, household crowding, beneficiary status, and in some instances ethnicity. As with any proxy, the results will be imperfect. With ethnicity inlcuded in PHO funding formulae, some Maori with decent health prospects will receive more than their "fair" share, and some Europeans with poorer health prospects will recieve less than theirs. In fact, this would happen whether or not ethnicity was included, simply because proxies don't take individual circumstances into account. The point is that by taking account of ethnicity, overall fewer people (of whatever race) will receive more or less than their fair share. Surely that is a laudable aim?

*In fact, the Sunday Star Times suggests that removing the ethnic weighting would result in only 20 (or 0.7%) of schools receving different funding in any case.
Friday, February 06, 2004
DIVISIVENESS ETC.: Some thoughts on Brash’s Orewa speech (along with the ensuing mudslinging, both verbal and physical).

(1) At the risk of stating the obvious, the actual mudslinging was not only disgraceful, insulting and probably illegal – it was also just plain stupid. I completely fail to understand how anyone could think it would help their cause. And shame on Parekura for condoning it.

The left’s verbal response hasn’t been that inspiring either. While predictable, claiming that Brash's speech is nothing more than divisive, redneck-vote-grabbing Maori-bashing is wrong. Of course Brash's speech will have resonated with divisive, redneck Maori-bashers, and, of course, Brash knew this when he made it. But the fact that some people were bound to interpret his words in this way would have been a poor reason for him to hold his tongue - especially when there is as much at stake as there is here. We sorely need real debate about how to address the social and economic disparities between Maori and Pakeha. Unfortunately, I doubt we’re likely to get it. Although an early poll suggested that National may have stolen some votes from Labour (pegging the parties level at just above 30% each), a more reliable NBR poll suggests that the Nats are instead cannibalizing votes from other centre right parties, particularly NZ First. With Labour still polling above 40%, they have little to gain politically (and much to lose) by engaging with Brash. Far easier just to snipe.

(2) That said, the left aren’t the only culprits here. Brash could have made much the same point in his Orewa speech without taking quite as much delight in highlighting Maori “self-interest and greed”, and pointing out that Maori life wasn’t quite the idyllic “world of ‘wise ecologists, mystical sages, gifted artists, heroic navigators and pacifists who wouldn’t hurt a fly’” we are sometimes presented with. He’s right, of course. But, as any decent negotiator will tell you, if you actually want someone to engage with your arguments, the last thing you want to do is offend them.

It also helps to be accurate. This quote, for example, is patently misleading:

Much of the non-Maori tolerance for the Treaty settlement process – where people who weren’t around in the 19th century pay compensation to the part descendants of those who were – is based on a perception of relative Maori
poverty. But in fact Maori income distribution is not very different from Pakeha income distribution, as sociologist Simon Chapple pointed out a couple of years ago in a much publicised piece of research.


Now, while it's correct to say that the Maori income distribution is approximately the same shape as the Pakeha income distribution, it's quite a stretch to say it's not very different. Even taking Chapple's research at face value (which, as a couple of my former economics lecturers have pointed out, perhaps isn't all that wise), it's clear that Maori lie, on average, well to the left of non-Maori - in other words that they're significantly poorer. Dr. Brash's apparent willingness to play fast and loose with the facts on this one can't help but may you a little suspicious of his otherwise admirable focus on "need, not race". And allegations that he’s making up examples of race-based funding where none exist, if true, don’t help either. None of this was necessary to make his point, and as a result of it's inclusion in the speech, the point risks getting lost.

(3) I think the fundamental principle of Brash’s speech – that policy should generally be based on need, not race – is sound (at least from a broadly egalitarian perspective - I'm not entirely sure why libertarians would support it). But it’s important to note that it doesn’t immediately follow from the assertion that we should care about need, that ethnicity is irrelevant. In a sense, Labour’s “race-based” policies are focusing on need, it’s just that they focus on the relative needs of groups – Maori, Pacific Islanders, Pakeha etc. – as well as the needs of individuals. If you view ethnic groups as entities worthy of moral concern, then this isn’t divisive, or racist, or any of the other things the left have been accused of – it’s sensible.

Moreover, though I don’t believe that groups are worthy of independent moral concern as such (I do think groups and group identities and relationships are important, it’s just that, to me, their importance lies in their value to individuals), I think that the moral status of groups is something that there’s room for reasonable philosophical disagreement about. As my old political philosophy professor used to say, which entities you assign moral relevance to is in large part arbitrary: I have no a priori argument against Nietzsche, when he claims that the only people worthy of moral consideration are creative geniuses or “supermen”; similarly, I have no a priori argument against the Jains, when they don face masks to avoid swallowing small insects; the flipside of this is that they have no argument against me when I say that the sphere of my moral concern extends to all human beings, but that I don’t particularly care about animals. We just disagree. The same argument can be extended to the debate about the moral relevance of groups.

In any event there may be legitimate individualist reasons for sometimes taking group membership into account in the formation of public policy. Sometimes, a person’s membership of a group might affect the types of policies that will be effective in achieving a particular outcome – for example, as Brash recognized, some Maori may perform better in Kura Kaupapa than traditional European schools. Equal treatment should not be confused with identical treatment.

Moreover, as distasteful as it may be, there is a pragmatic argument to be considered here as well. As long as socio-economic inequalities continue to exist between ethnic groups, there will remain a degree of ethnic tension in this country. Whether justified or not, it tends creates the impression among the disadvantaged that they are somehow being cheated. All New Zealanders have a rational self-interest in eroding these inequalities, in much the same way as we all have a rational self-interest in ensuring a decent minimum provision for the poor, because it stops them stealing from everyone else. Whether that’s best achieved by “raced-based funding” in health or education is open to debate. (Although far from conclusive of anything, figures announced this week suggest it’s not necessarily the failure many would claim it is.) But that’s the debate we should be having – not some spurious one about which side is more racist.
Monday, February 02, 2004
JUST MY LUCK: At one of the best times for blog fodder imaginable, it's just my luck for the wretched computer to finally throw in the towel. Oh, well. Now I'm back with a brand spanking new piece of hardware that cost far too much money to die in the foreseeable future - oh, yeah, and an RSS feed to boot.

Stay tuned...
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