Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What is at stake in acts of government

Somewhere in the recent public debates about the role of government something that has dropped out of view is that the main task of a government is to govern - maintain the necessary infrastructure and institutions to keep a society going, organise and co-ordinate the resources of its constituents, and so on. A government is often being viewed and evaluated as you would an especially large and expansive company. But this misses entirely the task of government, because it neglects the part where governments have jurisdictions - domains in which they are expected (and required) to act with authority, otherwise they couldn't play their role as co-ordinating agency. Let me elaborate.

To take the extreme version of this failure to appreciate what is at stake in acts of government, take the libertarian model of government as a collection of enterprises, modelled on or constituted by private companies. This model is a product of view that private enterprises in competitive markets are, in certain rather common circumstances, extremely effective distributors of resources. There are two problems here. The first is that many of the traditional tasks of government are in circumstances where markets are very bad at distributing resources - healthcare is the stand-out example (here's one summary, and another), the same counts for extremely large projects the benefits of which are dispersed very widely, like transport and communication networks, or emergency response agencies, or monitoring programmes (a summary).

But let's concentrate on the second problem: that something a government has that no company has is a jurisdiction where it can compel a range of otherwise independent agents to co-ordinate. Take the laughably stupid suggestion of Ron Paul's to privatise the FAA or the TSA. These agencies don't perform consumer services, they are regulatory agencies. Some people might say that the TSA used to be in effect a series of private security companies and contractors before Homeland Security came along and emnployed them as federal agents, but that's wrong. The creation of Homeland Security didn't just change who writes the paychecks - it created a central co-ordinating authority. Homeland Security and its analogues have powers that no security firm has. I don't mean powers like 'now TSA has the power to force you to either receive a pat-down search or go through the body scanner'. I mean power as in capacity - there are things governing agencies can achieve that no alternative could. TSA decides that nobody can go through a US airport with certain liquids in carry-on luggage, and boom, it's done (given the resolution is enforceable, and not just a dead letter). Now every airport in the domain follows that resolution, and nobody goes through with certain liquids in carry-on. If the TSA was replaced with a series of security companies, a policy like that could extend only as far as the individual companies did. For the market to work effectively, there would have to be a variety of these companies (if there was a monopoly, it would be just like a government, but worse in every regard). Which means that there could be no resolution enforced across an entire domain.

You might not care about what goes in people's carry-on luggage, but the same point carries over to any government action. When slavery got banned by the UK, they were able to stamp out the intercontinental slave trade almost immediately because of the blanket prohibition on it across sovereign British territory (including large parts of the Atlantic). If slavery wasn't banned across the whole domain, individuals could have gained an economic advantage by continuing to use it while people around them don't, and as they took over more of the market slavery would then be reintroduced. This is how it is in general for regulation - there is no way for there to be any kind of competition among regulations, because a regulation isn't a regulation unless it is an uncontested authority over its domain. Similarly, a government can't co-ordinate without authority, and we need that co-ordination for goods like healthcare, transport networks, the maintenance of certain societal standards, etc.

(First aside: The above is one of the reasons the US's widespread use of security contractors in warzones is so pernicious - in practice it has meant that these security firms have all of the authority of the governmental agencies that back them, but none of the controls placed on the government.)
(Second aside: There is another effect of this observation, regarding another lamentable shortcoming in a lot of public debate. Often when questionable market practices are pointed out - working conditions in China, financiers reneging on promises not to fund certain types of industry, etc. - the response comes that attempts to regulate this domain would be self-defeating, since there are agents outside the domain who will continue on regardless (here's an example). This is no comment at all about the desirability of the regulations. It's a comment on how far the jurisdiction of the regulators go. If we took this seriously as a reason not to have regulations, then we couldn't have any regulations whatsoever, and every domain would become a race to the bottom.)

The above is a comment on what is involved in something being a government. It shouldn't be read as a comment on the desirability of any particular system of government, or even of which domains a co-ordinating authority like described above is needed - the above is a schema that applies to all systems of government. It applies even to anarchists in the tradition of Proudhon and Kropotkin, who want extremely direct and reconstructed forms of governmental authority. It doesn't apply to libertarian model canvassed earlier, because as discussed that isn't a theory of government proper. It does apply to serious thinkers like Hayek and Nozick during his libertarian phase (they just think authorities like described above should have extremely limited domains), but Ron Paul bears as much resemblance to them as he does to the Emperor of Japan.

Complaint to Press Council re: Holmes on Waitangi Day

The New Zealand Herald gave me another response to my complaint regarding Paul Holmes's inflammatory Waitangi Day piece, after I had told them that I was dissatisfied with their first response. While this second response was far longer, it simply re-iterated the position of the Herald and its Weekend editor, David Hastings, that clearly Holmes was aiming at one small band of Māori protesters, rather than making inflammatory remarks about Māori as a whole. For the second time they made no reply at all to the substance of my complaint: that is, they made no attempt to explain the paragraph where Holmes seems to take aim at Māori as a whole with racist invective ("No, if Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them have it... and work out new ways of bamboozling the Pakeha to come up with a few more millions") and no mention at all of the discriminatory standards I indicated in my complaint. Given that they have twice had the opportunity to respond to my complaint, and have twice not done so, I made recourse of a complaint to the Press Council.
For those keeping score at home, here's the summary of my complaint that I needed to give in my complaint:

The New Zealand Herald, in its Weekend edition of 11/2, published an opinion piece by Paul Holmes titled 'Waitangi Day A Complete Waste'. To summarise my complaint (see my correspondence with the paper for the fuller version), I want to highlight three points on which this piece is objectionable, all three to do with discrimination against Māori. The first concerns racist invective, the second two discriminatory standards applied to Māori.

The first point is that Holmes straightforwardly makes inflammatory remarks aimed at Māori in the following paragraph: "No, if Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them have it. Let them go and raid a bit more kai moana than they need for the big, and feed themselves silly, speak of the injustices heaped upon them by the greedy Pakeha and work out new ways of bamboozling the Pakeha to come up with a few more millions." Notice that the group indicated is simply 'Māori', not some group of individuals. There is no way to read this passage other than in the obvious way, as an attempt to alienate Māori from Pākehā.

 Secondly, in his response to the protesters at Te Tii Marae, Holmes makes a number of claims which are conditional on them being Māori, and discriminates against them accordingly; in particular, that the protesters can't be taken seriously until larger social ills affecting Māori are addressed. The manner in which Holmes does this is inflammatory in the extreme (to quote: “...never mind the hopeless failure of Maori to educate their children and stop them bashing their babies“), but even if it weren't, it would place a different standard on Māori protesters than on Pākehā. Holmes tries to pin a set of troubles on the protestors merely because they are Māori, using their ethnicity as a way to dismiss their claims.

Thirdly, Holmes uses a different standard to judge the standing of Māori in New Zealand than he does Pākehā, by making the status Waitangi Day contingent on the actions of a small section of Māori, whereas presumably Anzac Day is not contingent on the misdeeds of small segments of Anzac soldiers acting as such.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

NZ Herald's Response to complaint re: Paul Holmes

I received a response to my complaint from the editor of the Weekend Herald, David Hastings. The response was very much in line of those other complainants have received. I won't post it here, but Hastings ran the line that Holmes was clearly targeting the small band of protesters at Te Tii Marae, not Māori as a whole. He pinpointed the examples of Holmes talking about "Maori fringe self-denial day" and "that's what it looked like the other day" as examples. 

Those who read my complaint will notice these aren't the parts of Holmes's piece I picked out. I responded to Hastings with the following:

Dear Mr Hastings

Thank you taking the time to respond to my complaint.

I, however, have to admit that I am disappointed by your reaction. It is certainly possible for someone to start on one issue and slide to another one during the course of a piece – in fact, this is the shape large amounts of prejudiced invective takes. Furthermore, even if the parts of the article you cite did refer to the protesters rather than to Māori as a whole, those are not the parts I drew your attention to. I concentrated on the clearest example of invective aimed against Māori as a whole, the section starting with “No, if Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them have it.” You have said nothing about this section. Nor have you said anything about the different standards Holmes uses for judging Māori and Pākehā. Thus, you have made no response to the substance of my complaint.

I took the trouble to look through previous Press Council rulings on discrimination, and have found examples where they have upheld complaints where a piece started off indicating one section of a population, but then went on to make defamatory statements of the population at large. One I have at hand is 1092 GRANT HANNIS AGAINST NORTH & SOUTH – it is not a perfect analogue (the piece in question is not an opinion piece, and issues of accuracy are also involved), but it shows that the Press Council is willing to uphold complaints against pieces which starts off with qualifications about who is being targeted, but then go on to make wide-ranging discriminatory statements.

With that in mind, I must press on my complaint. Do you and your paper have some further response to make? I await your reply with interest.

Yours sincerely,
Marinus Ferreira

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Complaint re: Paul Holmes on Waitangi Day

This Saturday the weekend edition of the New Zealand Herald published an opinion column by Paul Holmes (someone with a chequered history) which was, to put it plainly, racially motivated hate speech. This was the letter of complaint I wrote to the editor. If you wish to do the same, his name is Tim Murphy and his address is

Dear Mr Murphy

I wish to lodge a complaint with your paper on your decision to publish Paul Holmes's opinion column 'Waitangi Day a complete waste' in the Weekend Herald 11/2. I appreciate that this is an opinion piece, and thus held to different standards than most reporting, and that under freedom of speech you are entitled to publish even pieces that could reasonably be called ignorant and stupid. Nonetheless, Holmes's piece has crossed into hate speech, in that he is inspiring tensions between Māori and Pākehā by extrapolating, from one small protest against a particular act of government, a racially driven conspiracy by the former against the latter. This goes past any protection afforded to the press - no amount of balancing views or public agreement with this sentiment can excuse this incitement against racial tensions. I ask for an apology by Holmes and your paper, and to have the piece retracted or suitably modified.

The part I want to draw your special attention to is this declaration:

"No, if Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them have it. Let them go and raid a bit more kai moana than they need for the big, and feed themselves silly, speak of the injustices heaped upon them by the greedy Pakeha and work out new ways of bamboozling the Pakeha to come up with a few more millions."

On the face of it, this is straightforwardly race-baiting. Holmes has called for New Zealand as a whole to abandon celebrating what is now the national day in order to distance ourselves from an offensive party, that party being Māori. The only possible defence for this would be if Holmes meant the Māori protesters he highlighted earlier, but that reading simply isn't available. Firstly, there is no qualification in this declaration - those he rails against are indicated simply as Māori. Secondly, placing this quote in context does not help at all. In order to motivate his dismissal of the protestor's claims, he runs through a litany of societal ills that Māori face. I won't go into the accuracy of his claims, and noting only in passing that the inflammatory fashion Holmes does this in is already grounds for a valid complaint: calling Māori a race of child-abusers who don't educate their children is beyond the pale, but that is exactly what Holmes does. I'll pass those serious worries by and indicate another one - that Holmes's case on the protesters is conditional on them being Māori, otherwise these complaints simply wouldn't make sense. This means he discriminates against the protesters on the grounds of their ethnicity - Holmes finds the protests objectionable in part because the protesters are Māori, and has used your paper for his racially charged invective. This is unacceptable, and it demands you immediate action.

There is a more subtle bigotry at work here as well. Holmes proposes that Anzac Day take the place of Waitangi Day. But presumably Holmes is unworried by the fact that a great many ANZAC soldiers have, acting as ANZAC soldiers, performed heinous misdeeds - the massacre at Sarafand being a clear example - and that it would be easy to find examples of child abusers, terrible parenting, and similar ills among the ranks of the soldiers he lionises. To hold the heritage of the Anzacs hostage to the misdeeds of the few would be abusive muckraking. But that is exactly what Holmes wants us to do with Māori and Waitangi Day - because of what he believes is a lunatic fringe, we should stop celebrating this moment where Māori and Pākehā were united into one nation. Because Holmes has claimed that Māori membership in the spirit or identity of New Zealand is contingent (i.e. contingent on addressing certain social ills as a group), whereas that of his Pākehā great-uncles isn't similarly hostage to the misdeeds of their fellow Anzacs, he is discriminating against Māori because they are Māori. Again, this is the type of racism for which there is no place in our society, and which you have every duty to stamp out immediately and decisively.

I will not burden you with a discussion on most of the content of the piece, though none of it reflects well on Holmes. Monday I submitted a letter to the editor through the usual channels, but I have supplemented it with this complaint in order to ensure that the matter came to your attention. I am not passing a comment on the material you have published. I am accusing your paper of gross misjudgement in giving a platform for incitement to racial tension and discrimination, and demand that you give this and similar complaints attention appropriate to the seriousness of the matter at hand.

Yours sincerely,
Marinus Ferreira