ACT coulda been a contender


I knew a few Rogernomes who bolted to ACT back in the nineties. They were the sort of brash young bullshit  artists who treat politics, especially factional politics, like a series of no-holds-barred cage fights. Between them, they could barely come up with a political idea that wasn't some tatty facsimile of an already tired one. Anyone who gets involved in politics at a young age is lying if they tell you they don't get a rush from the combat, the backroom scuttlebutt, the shifting tallies of who’s up, who's down, who's next.

What set the fleeing ACT crowd apart, however,  was that a lust for biffo was the sum total of their rationale for getting involved at all. Most of us brought to the endeavour some driving political passions, however half-baked. But these blokes were ideological grifters. If they'd stumbled on The Fountainhead at school, they might never have bothered flirting with Labour at all.

That said, the emergence of ACT in the MMP era didn't seem altogether like a bad thing. However impractical, libertarian ideas are nothing if not interesting. In fact, like cultural constructivism and Marxism, I find it necessary to wrestle with libertarian perspectives all the time. Also like cultural constructivism and Marxism, libertarian ideology is way more influential in the world of ideas than that of electoral politics. We shouldn't ignore their worldview — and we might even learn something from it.

In the NZ context,  I thought it would redound to our democratic advantage if we had a handful of ACT MPs holding Labour and National alike to account when both parties, as they are wont to do, overextend their executive reach. NZ’s system of government has always struck me as short on checks and balances, and its political culture is at best staid; at worst, catatonic. In an ideal world (which, after all, is where libertarians live), ACT could have been a bulwark against the excesses of nanny-statism (which I oppose from the left, mind you), and a powerful voice for individual liberty in a parliament populated by various breeds of weknowbesters. With a small but principled ACT caucus in place over the past few election cycles, draconian drug laws and incarceration practices should be a thing of the past. They were bystanders on gay marriage.

But of course, this is not a principled ACT party. And its only achievement of late has been providing a living for slightly odd white men.

But it's worse of course.

Yesterday, ACT went the full Newt Gingrich, playing the babies-making-babies card. Poor people, they say, should stop having kids — as if Labour's modest boost to family payments will fill maternity suites with the undeserving.

Well, fuck off.

For one thing, ACT, if you're listening, your party wouldn't exist were it not for antipathy towards the perceived nanny state, and yet you adopt what is literally the most nannying of all policy ideas — attempting to control the fertility of poor people.

In a room with 100 voters, you get one of them. What on god’s great green earth gives you the idea you have the right to tell the rest of us how frequently to procreate?

This is beneficiary bashing, of course, but it reeks of bargain basement eugenics, easily the political Right’s most distasteful fetish. But, for economic rationalists like ACT pretend to be, the idea that effectively sterilizing the poor will create new prosperity is bonkers. The link between poverty and fertility rates is one of the most well-canvassed areas of research in development economics, and the data is not difficult to understand. Creating the conditions to allow household to lift themselves out of poverty is singularly the best way to reduce the number of kids in poor households. And it's a hell of a lot cheaper in the long run to reduce fertility rates through expanding the economic net than coercive or punitive efforts.

If you want to punish poor people for making choices with which you disagree, nothing I can say will stop you. But don't pretend it's in the service of NZ’s economic future. It isn't. It's just more other-blaming from politicians who are too lazy and unoriginal to create meaningful policies, and supporters too dim-witted to know better. Making poor people poorer for having more than the approved number of kids or for any other reason, it's not just mean-spirited; it's fucking stupid.

So in the end, ACT is exactly the party those bovver boys of yore were looking for (I can't recall a female defector): morally bankrupt, cravenly opportunistic, and utterly shameless.