Observations on Jamie Whyte and the ACT Party

actLike many in NZ, I didn’t (and probably still don’t) really know much about Jamie Whyte, the newly elected ACT Party leader.

On hearing Whyte was a Philosophy Lecturer at Cambridge, I did a quick search of the internet to find out what I could about Whyte’s ideological stance. In doing so, I found a 5 min clip of Whyte discussing the State of Left Wing Politics, where he proclaims that the left have won shown by the deeply ingrained social expectation of state supplied services. Whyte also criticises the left as impossible to satisfy leading him to conclude that totalitarianism is the only way to achieve a socialists utopia.

Despite disagreeing with pretty much everything Whyte argued, I was pleasantly surprised at his impeccable delivery. So much so, that I actually found myself wanting to listen and learn more about Whyte. Sure I experienced pangs of frustration at his arguments, but unlike some right-wing libertarians, not once did I find him intolerable (obviously this could change).

My main criticism is that Whyte (like most right-wing commentators) conflated the left with statism and this is an approach that disregards an entire branch of anti-state leftists, i.e. Left Libertarians and Anarchists.

Despite it being wrong, it is a clever strategy because it allows ACT to downplay or ignore that the one party ACT would need to collaborate with, i.e. the National Party, is outrageously statist.

It is also odd to me that commentators and journalists alike have labeled Whyte a far right neoliberal, despite Whyte considering his views most closely aligned to John Stuart Mill – a classical liberal.

Of course, classical liberalism is a free market doctrine based on self-regulation, which is distinct from the neo-liberal free market based on deregulation. The neo-liberal free market, is not actually free at all, it requires state intervention to regulate in favour of corporate interests. A deregulated market is simply one that enables monopolisation. A self-regulated market on the other hand, encourages competition and so works against monopolisation. Neo-liberalism is effectively feudalism in drag – the very thing that repulsed classical liberals like John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith.

Because neo-liberalism is a highly statist doctrine, I think Whyte made an error in arguing the left has won.  I think the error derives from his presumption that statism is leftism, when in fact neo-liberalism is state capitalism and as such, he wrongly describes the political-economic system we have as socialism, attributing the failings under state capitalism, or neo-liberalism to socialism.

Nonetheless, I think Whyte’s classical liberal views could be just what we need to broaden economic discussion in NZ. It might enable parties to challenge the neoliberal vanguard and to consider heterodox approaches.

While I cannot comment on ACT policy at this stage due to the formal announcement not occurring until 1 March 2014, I will comment on some of Whyte’s  responses to questions he answered on The NBR website yesterday (before it was pay walled).

Firstly, in response to whether ACT would campaign on legalising cannabis, Whyte appeared to concede that in some instances, individual autonomy was in fact subordinate to the will of the majority, by arguing that it was an issue the public should lead on. I found his response interesting given right libertarians are often the most vociferous voices on anti-majoritarianism. Although, this could be linked to Whyte’s stance on utilitarianism.

Secondly, Whyte also indicated his support for abolishing the Māori electorate seats because he considered them an offence to principles of equal treatment (implying Māori are treated favourably), stating that the law should be blind to race. While I think the Māori electoral seats are a farce, it’s for very different reasons than Whyte. I see them as extensions of our colonising past designed to assimilate Māori into the dominant Westminster system so that decision-making occurs on terms predetermined by the political elite. In claiming that the law should be blind to race, Whyte perpetuates the myth that the legal system favours Māori. He neglects to mention that the ‘law’, the system he favours, systematically subjugated Māori rights.

But Whyte will appeal to some Māori, since he thinks Treaty claims are property rights issues and any person wrongly deprived of their property should receive restitution. I may discuss this particular issue in a later post, once I see a more robust statement from Whyte.

A further obervation, ACT appears to be home to Libertarian Pro-Lifers, with one member suggesting that being pro-life is wholly consistent with libertarianism because libertarianism is against murder, violence and force. An interesting line of argument I thought, since pro-life is most often doublespeak for anti-abortion. I would have thought that mandating the state to restrict or even criminalise the choice of a woman over her body was not very libertarian at all. I found it amusing that even the most vocal right-wing libertarian that I’ve interacted with was in shock and  disbelief at the thought of pro-lifers being (a) libertarians and (b) members of the ACT Party. However, ACT might be able to draw on this pro-life aspect to extract would be Conservative Party votes.

Its possible also that Whyte’s academic proficiency may throw a few left-wing politicians who’ve become stale in their ideology. I think ideology is important because it tells us what motivates the politician to be in Parliament and allows us to assess their policies against their values. I expect the NZ Greens to be very proficient in explicating their ideology, mostly because they are consistently challenged on this issue. My worry relates to the career politicians in Labour who have habituated expressing platitudes.

On a different note,  Boscawen effectively giving the party an ultimatum based on monetary incentive is as crony as it gets. I had seen a tweet (a day or so before leadership was announced) from an ACT member stating: We need to decide if we are a Libertarian or Authoritarian Party. I wasn’t sure of the context at the time; however, it now occurs to me it was probably in relation to Boscawen’s ultimatum.

In conclusion, I may not agree with most (possibly all) ACT policy and at times some of the rhetoric from the party hacks is extremely frustrating for my left-wing sensitivities. Whyte as leader was probably ACT’s best choice and if he brings unorthodox or radical reform ideas into the public domain, well, in my opinion, that’s good for everyone, we get to start talking beyond the incremental solutions currently on offer.