I have read Chris Trotter’s columns for many years, since well before I stopped being a leftist. He is consistently interesting, even if his opinions veer haphazardly from the eminently sensible to the silly and destructive. Even those that reach neither extreme are generally entertaining and thoughtful.
I was disappointed then to read his deeply-confused piece, Just Leave Us Alone, posted recently on Bowalley Road and published in the Dominion Post. Trotter’s endorsement of the aphorism “that government is best which governs least”, and his injunction to John Key to intervene less and embrace laissez-faire might lead one to conclude that he had switched sides and was batting for Act.
But when Trotter urges less intervention, he isn’t seeking a reduction in the government’s role in the economy, or of its ability to interfere in the lives of its citizens. On the contrary, in a previously unknown definition of the term, Trotter’s version of laissez-faire is a government that doesn’t do anything to roll back the excesses of the previous socialist government. Attempting to redress some of the distortions in the labour market caused by the welfare state, far from being a being a non-interventionist policy is, according to Trotter, a new form of intervention, and a sadistic one at that. Quite how Trotter thinks that a government can legitimately claim to be laissez-faire while presiding over a bureaucracy that consumes nearly half of all wealth produced by its population is a mystery to me.
I think Chris is too decent a person to be trying to manipulate political discourse through the intentional misuse of terms, but I also think he’s too smart for this to be a genuine misunderstanding. I admit to being puzzled by this.
More disappointing than his curious misappropriation of classical economic thought, however, is his labelling of anyone who genuinely wants less intervention and laissez-faire government as ‘social sadists’. Drawing on the language of the fatuous ‘Occupy’ movement, Trotter asserts ‘one percenters’ are in the grip of a peculiar and dangerous social pathology, and that:
Where a normal person would happily sit back and enjoy their superfluity of wealth and power, these folk cannot rest easy until they are satisfied that their “More” is the product of someone else’s “Less”. Their comfort is made from our misery; their pride from our humiliation; their strength from our weakness.
The reason that normal people do not have a superfluity of wealth and power is precisely because most people are not willing to devote the energy that it takes to make it big. Very few become rich without massive sacrifice in terms of family life and leisure. Anyone possessed of a mindset that would see them sit back and enjoy their wealth once it was acquired is very unlikely to become wealthy in the first place.
The common misconception that those who become wealthy do so at the expense of others is dangerous and counterproductive. Without question, there are some specific instances where that is the case, but in a capitalist system it is the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, such cases tend to be the product of crony capitalism, or bureaucratic corruption, or of actual criminal behaviour. Michael Fay’s recent attempt to screw Crafar Farms’ creditors out of tens of millions of dollars by manipulating xenophobia and the regulatory system springs unbidden to mind.
To be fair, viewed through the span of human history, productivity as a pre-requisite for wealth is a new-fangled innovation. For most of history, the More for some was almost always the product of someone else’s Less. If Trotter were (a very old) Russian and had spent his years first under the Tsar, then the Soviets and finally under Russia’s new crony-capitalist cleptarchy, one could understand his error. But he didn’t. And the very wealthy in New Zealand, with few exceptions, are those who have produced the most value for society. Trotter is a beneficiary of their productivity, and his attack on the ‘one percenters’ is hopelessly antiquated.
While politicians and political commentators are willing to pretend that businesses and entrepreneurs generate riches for themselves without also benefiting other members of society, New Zealand’s economy will never reach its potential. While it remains acceptable to attack those who create wealth as being selfish and greedy, while they can be labelled ’social sadists’ because they’re sick of seeing their property confiscated and wasted by an inefficient bureaucracy, we will remain firmly stuck in the bottom half of the OECD.