Guest Post on what is more important

January 3rd, 2014 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

A guest post by Camryn Brown:

Given that multiple political parties have policies with which I agree, how do I decide which one to vote for?

Or “How do I prioritize by political opinions?”

Generally, I prefer very small government in both the social and economic spheres. Put another way, I believe in government that plays only a limited and judicious role in both your personal and financial lives. Faced with a hypothetical (yet all too common) choice between a socially liberal and economically big government party and a socially conservative and economically small government party, which would I choose?

I would choose the economically small government party every time. There are three reasons.

  1. Politicians have more impact on the economy than they do on society. So it’s more important that they get the economics right.
  2. When the economy is going well, society tends to the liberal. So my social objectives are more easily advanced when my economic ones are.
  3. Economic big governments naturally become social interventionists, one way or another. So, they should be avoided.

Let’s discuss each reason in turn after a pause for definitions. For the purposes of this essay, I define social policy as policy concerning interaction between members of society e.g. policies on gender, sexual orientation, marriage and family structure, discrimination, and so on. Social welfare policy falls into economic policy because it’s about the economic well being of people not interactions between people. Social and economic policy certainly interact, but it is necessary to draw a line somewhere for the sake of argument.

First, the limited social impact of politicians.

  • Humans are consciously social creatures. We spend our lives pondering morality and fairness and applying our social mores in our interactions with others. We are highly confident in what we think is right and wrong and we love talking about it. Thus, as new ideas are raised and debated, society tends to change its views quickly. In New Zealand, homosexual conduct was illegal until 1987 and yet we now have marriage equality. These changes are consolidated and codified by the laws that politicians pass, but they are not created by those laws. Indeed, the laws are a reaction to a society that has already changed. That change happened through social interaction, not political action.
  • In contrast, humans are not consciously economic creatures. We don’t tend to think or talk about economics as much as we do social issues (e.g. most reality TV is about social interaction, very little is about economic interaction). We respond strongly to incentives, but often in a subconscious manner. Many of those incentives spring from “the people” (aka. the market, which is just a name for the economic interaction of people) but many are politically created for various ends (some good, some bad). Thus, the economic laws that politicians set do have an immediate, ongoing effect on us all and we tend to habituate to them and barely ever consciously revisit them.
  • Thus, it makes sense to vote for the party that agrees with me in the area that has the most potential to positively or negatively impact well being. That’s the economy. I acknowledge that this view must be frustrating for some, especially those personally impacted – as homosexuals wishing to marry recently were – but this brings me to my next point.

Second, a good economy leads to a liberal society.

  • Prosperous societies tend to the liberal.
  • When people are economically comfortable as a result of their own skill and effort, they feel good about that. It builds self esteem. Therefore, people have less motivation to seek self esteem elsewhere, which too often involves considering others to be inferior on the basis of their gender, race, sexuality and so on. Discrimination is a cheap and artificial boost to self esteem, but one that people tend to turn to when they can’t get themselves ahead on their own merits.
  • On the opposite side of this same coin, typically we’re only as liberal as we can afford to be. At a macro level, an example of this would be in the industrialization of the UK. The greater use of capital provided an alternative route to prosperity that quickly led to an acknowledgement of the immorality of slavery. The northern US followed suit as it industrialized whereas the south, remaining agricultural, tried to hang on. 

Third, economically big governments tend to have to intervene socially.

  • Economic help tends to come with strings attached, or at least it should if it is not to eventually fail. For example, it’s not possible to provide welfare without social strings attached unless you’re willing for the cost to spiral out of control as people make increasing poor personal choices or even actively victimise themselves. Any brief reading of Theodore Dalrymple illustrates this better than I could. 
  • Therefore, when government is seen as the solution, it tends to be applied to *every* problem.
  • Thus, economic interventionists tend to disbelieve my first point and act as if they can control social behaviour instead of simply react to it.

In short, it makes most sense to vote for politicians with which you agree in the economic sphere irrespective of whether you agree with them socially. The social policies they promote won’t impact society much and will probably fall into line with society in one or two elections anyway. The economic policies they promote will have impact and this can speed up the social change anyhow.

Do you agree, disagree or partially agree?

No tag for this post.

28 Responses to “Guest Post on what is more important”

  1. F E Smith (3,273 comments) says:

    and yet we now have marriage equality

    No we don’t!  People in poly-amorous relationships are not allowed to gain legal recognition of those relationships, and are thus discriminated against.  

    So what Camryn is saying is that he would prefer to vote Labour, but only if they were better at managing the economy? Or ACT, if they still exist?  Because the Nats for sure are not a small-government party.

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  2. Manolo (12,618 comments) says:

    In short, it makes most sense to vote for politicians with which you agree in the economic sphere irrespective of whether you agree with them socially.

    I agree.

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  3. thor42 (764 comments) says:

    Agree 100%. A very good post.

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  4. doggone7 (487 comments) says:

    “How do I prioritize by political opinions?”

    Setting priorities might seem to be problematic but sometimes events deliver a whammo that cannot be ignored. Hearing our leader calling Mark Richardson “mate” on the RadioSports morning show was big for me but playing golf with President Obama will not be topped unless John Key changes the nappies of a royal baby on the lawns of Government House. (Disposables because they’re modern, the younger voters will identify with them, the Green vote isn’t so critical.)

    Those are the simple answers to the headline question.

    “The limited social impact of politicians. a good economy leading to a liberal society and big governments tending to have to intervene socially” are minor fringe issues when it gets to how the game is really being played.

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  5. Deane Jessep (53 comments) says:

    Agree completely, it is that exact philosophy that moved me from the center to the right.

    My experiences and observations have also led me to conclude that it is easier to teach someone economically competent how to have a social conscience than the reverse.

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  6. Nigel Kearney (747 comments) says:

    I don’t agree with the third point.

    Certainly if you go to the extreme of the Soviet Union then you have to prevent people and/or money from leaving or it will all collapse very quickly. But in the NZ context I don’t see big government leading to illiberal social policies. The example seems to suggest that putting restrictions on welfare is a socially illiberal act that will be necessitated by illiberal economic policies. I don’t see it that way at all. It is not a restriction on freedom to have to meet a high standard of need before getting access to other people’s money.

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  7. kowtow (6,690 comments) says:

    Utter tosh.

    Humans are economic creatures…..how do we survive? Through economic activity ……until recently that is.

    Now our economic activity ,given universal suffrage,can be limited to voting for the big govt parties that promise to rob the economically active and to give to the economically zombie class.

    It’s legislative theft.

    Social policy won’t impact society? Look at the EU. Immigration,human rights,multiculturalism,will all destroy Europe and its European culture and way of life.

    Social policy also effects economic……mass and illegal immigration keeps wages low etc .

    Guest poster is another Cultural marxist.No shortage of them around these days.

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  8. scrubone (2,971 comments) says:

    On the opposite side of this same coin, typically we’re only as liberal as we can afford to be. At a macro level, an example of this would be in the industrialization of the UK. The greater use of capital provided an alternative route to prosperity that quickly led to an acknowledgement of the immorality of slavery.

    The shutting down of the slave trade was against the economic interests of the British, and was lead by moral campaigners.

    I don’t think this argument stacks up at all.

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  9. J Bloggs (100 comments) says:

    Scrubone – yes, the slave trade was lead by moral campaigners, but it was the development of efficient steam engines and the industrial revolution, that meant that Slave labour was no longer as vital to the British economic system, that allowed the moral campaign to gain traction. Compare that to the southern States, which was so dependent on slavery that its removal would have caused a complete economic collapse.

    Besides, the moral campaign was also assisted by the realisation that Slavery, with its attendant maintainence costs (feeding, housing and maintaining security) is very inefficient, compared to paying crap wages and using machine power

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  10. J Bloggs (100 comments) says:

    As an aside, it would be interesting to see this guest post also posted over at The Standard, and see what the commentators there have to say.

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  11. ZenTiger (419 comments) says:

    A very good post, with quite a bit to think about. My initial reaction is that a person more focused on the economic process downplays the successes and failures in the social sphere, and those focused on social change and welfare will also demand major changes to economic policy – usually boiling down to more tax and higher minimum wages rather than any discussion on how to grow the pie.

    “1. Politicians have more impact on the economy than they do on society. So it’s more important that they get the economics right.”

    –Was it more or less impact when they voted in gay marriage, legalized prostitution and ignored the results of the smacking referendum? Politicians impact both spheres, generally without mandate from the public, but most people believe that representative democracy is preferable to direct democracy. It makes them more influenced by well organised lobby and pressure groups – which don’t need to consider a majority opinion is important.

    2. When the economy is going well, society tends to the liberal. So my social objectives are more easily advanced when my economic ones are.

    –When the economy is not going so well, governments tend to borrow. The debt levels get adjusted upwards, and justified to being the new normal. Are they more or less liberal as a result of borrowing? What’s liberal in this sense? Preserving civil rights? Increasing foreign investment? Providing welfare? Western Society tends to the progressive – change for change sake. Lack of money doesn’t tend to slow governments down until the point of total collapse – and then, like in the USA and EU, more money is printed and bailouts keep the fantasy alive a bit longer.

    “3. Economic big governments naturally become social interventionists, one way or another. So, they should be avoided.”

    –Is it social intervention to change the marriage act? Certainly was. Social intervention is coming next to enable polygamy and promote gay adoption, which will continue to change the definition of the family. This is social intervention, by big government (plenty of examples here and the USA to show government pushes this ahead anyway. You are saying this should be avoided, but you are also saying this is actually liberal policy that flowers under small government doing well economically. Seems to be the same thing, which is why some people see this as just another cultural marxist view. I interpret it as progressive politics. It is a reflection of a general move towards big government, leftist thinking and perhaps a worthwhile clarification might be to define what is big government versus small government.

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  12. Chuck Bird (4,402 comments) says:

    Camryn Brown, waffles on but missing a few common sense issues unless he plans on voting for a major party. One is wasting their vote firstly if the party they vote for does not get in. Another thing to consider is what priority the party will put to the policy you like and how much influence that party will have of getting that policy implemented.

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  13. Chuck Bird (4,402 comments) says:

    ” Politicians impact both spheres, generally without mandate from the public, but most people believe that representative democracy is preferable to direct democracy.”

    @ZT, Do you have a reference for that view?

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  14. greenjacket (346 comments) says:

    “At a macro level, an example of this would be in the industrialization of the UK. The greater use of capital provided an alternative route to prosperity that quickly led to an acknowledgement of the immorality of slavery. ”

    Not quite. Slavery was outlawed in the 1830s (IIRC), but within Britain slavery as an institution was not needed because there was already plenty of domestic labour available (due to the rising population), the greater advantages of flexible wage labour, and new forms of agriculture with enclosure of land, new ways of tilling land, and stronger property rights did not need slavery. Actual industrialisation was a little later.

    Still, the basic point is that economic liberalisation (in this case, the greater advantages of flexible labour supply and stronger property rights) was a factor in social liberalisation (in this case, elimination of slavery).

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  15. ZenTiger (419 comments) says:

    @Chuck. No, I should write a paper on it :)

    Although if you go through some of the KB posts on referendums, you will likely get a sense of what I am suggesting is the case.

    I saw an article the other day in the paper (perhaps by Geoff Palmer?) arguing against referendums and suggesting they are bad things that need to be stopped, because our representative system is far superior, and the Swiss Model, some specific US examples etc show how bad (his opinion) referendums can be. He did acknowledge that the NZ system could be better, but by giving more power to representatives than by using the occasional binding referendum. Yes, one vote every three years (they’ll push for 4 years eventually) is all the democracy we need. There have been a few spirited defenses but maybe we need a referendum on it to prove my point.

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  16. MH (558 comments) says:

    You mean the Epsom free salzers still don’t know who to vote for, haven’t they been told yet? One for us and one against them,if only the rest of the country would put their blinkers on (either the horse sense ones or the 4×4 rover indicators).

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  17. Ed Snack (1,535 comments) says:

    I’m with FES, “marriage equality” are just nasty little weasel words, part of a very successful PR campaign run on behalf of homosexual “marriage”. Not only is polyamory still banned, but so are other arrangements that could be called “marriage” if we want to have actual “equality”.

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  18. AG (1,727 comments) says:

    Politicians have more impact on the economy than they do on society.

    This seems to me an unmeasurable claim, so how on earth would you prove it one way or the other?

    When the economy is going well, society tends to the liberal.

    But that’s not what is then claimed later in the post. Rather, it morphs into the claim that “Prosperous societies tend to the liberal.” of course, that may be true on average, but it isn’t necessarily true in all cases … for example, Switzerland is more prosperous than New Zealand is, but it isn’t as liberal a society. Equally, Singapore is reckoned to be the wealthiest country in the world – but you need a police permit to hold an outdoor public procession or assembly.

    Also, in order to decide how to vote at the next election, surely the relevant test would be “is there any correlation between liberal social change and the economy ‘going well’ in New Zealand“. And if you look at the sweep of NZ history, this seems a hard claim to make … I don’t think you could describe the NZ economy in 1986 as “going well” (even if you think the disruption was necessary after the years of Muldoonist intervention), yet we got homosexual law reform. Equally, gay marriage was legalised in the economically challenging year of 2013, not in the comparatively benign period between 2000-2007.

    Economic big governments naturally become social interventionists, one way or another.

    Again, a difficult claim to substantiate in the real world. The Fourth Labour Government – as close to an “economic small government” as we’ve had – engaged in lots of “social intervention” … the compulsory fencing of swimming pools, for instance, took place in 1987. Not to mention the whole birth of the Treaty settlement process. And so on. Just as the National Party of Ruth Richardson enacted the Resource Management Act.

    So all-in-all, this post seems to me a form of magical thinking … the author is trying to justify voting for a party that promises less-socially liberal policies on the basis that doing so will really result in a more liberal world. The problem is, I don’t think the experience of the real world actually bears out the complex theoretical underpinnings of the claim. So the author would be better off being honest about his preferences – he thinks economic freedom matters more than other sorts. Which is fine, but also means you can’t be sure of having your cake and eating it, too.

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  19. Kimble (4,092 comments) says:

    Utter tosh.

    Humans are economic creatures…..how do we survive? Through economic activity ……until recently that is.

    Humans are economic creatures inasmuch as economics is the study of human activity, but economics doesnt make sense naturally.

    A good economic rule of thumb is “ignore your first instinct, it will invariably be wrong.”

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  20. Fentex (656 comments) says:

    In short, it makes most sense to vote for politicians with which you agree in the economic sphere irrespective of whether you agree with them socially.

    I get the reasoning, but am not tempted by it much because it begs the question of exactly what the social differences are. A person working strictly from the presented logic might be tempted to vote for fascists (should they be fooled into thinking fascism builds strong economies).

    It is a valid point to keep in mind social differences can be minor when economic ones are major, but really we all know we’re balancing a lot of considerations when we vote, so it’s hardly news is it?

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  21. Kimble (4,092 comments) says:

    He is right that social policy is not impeded by governments for too long, unless those governments are oppressive. And isnt that how we define oppressive governments?

    The third point is a little weak, but I dont disagree that large governments are a threat to social freedom.

    1. Obtrusive economic governments have “we can fix it with tinkering attitude, and there is little restriction to them extending that to the social sphere.

    2. Economic activity between people is very similar to social interaction: its all human interaction.

    3. Large governments already have mechanisms in place to apply significant controls on interactions.

    4. Big governments mean poor people (eventually). A populace rarely, if ever, governs itself to prosperity. It perpetuates a cycle.

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  22. Scott (1,614 comments) says:

    Utter tosh in my view as well. Socially liberal policies lead to big liberal government. Always! There is not enough money in the world to continue to pay for the consequences of the breakdown of the family. Socially liberal policies lead to family breakdown which needs more government intervention which needs a bigger government. Eventually the government runs out of money and the nation defaults and heads into bankruptcy. Greece is a country that comes to mind as an example. But New Zealand will follow the same way once Labour gets reelected.
    The solution is conservative policies that encourage a strong family unit and consequently less need for social welfare and government spending. It seems completely obvious to me.

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  23. Chuck Bird (4,402 comments) says:

    @ZenTiger, You and many of the liberals on KB are happy with a minority dictating to the majority. That does not mean that but most people believe that representative democracy is preferable to direct democracy as you claim.

    I cannot see how a powerful militant minority can force their will on 87% of the voters and that can be called democratic.

    The vast majority of Leighton Smith’s caller support direct democracy on moral issues that are decided by MPs who all a supposed to have a conscience. That is as valid as quoting the liberals on KB that are in a majority.

    I might add that Winston Peters is in favour of direct democracy and that is why my vote will likely go to him. I will decide closer the election.

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  24. Camryn (549 comments) says:

    I’m glad to see the post has generated some interesting discussion. Too much to respond to everyone, but a few major points would be…

    * I personally hold to fairly conservative social values. I just don’t believe in forcing them on others… and I don’t believe in paying for the negative consequences of any choices that others make. Note that, critically, I consider “social welfare” to be economic policy rather than social policy. I have to draw the line between social and economic somewhere and I draw it at the point that laws directly stipulate social behaviour. I do understand that social and economic policy are way, way more interrelated than I allow for in the post. It was a thought exercise.

    * I originally wrote this when I lived in the US. As some comments say, we don’t have such a clear binary choice in NZ.

    * I’d rather eat my own foot than vote Labour.

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  25. ZenTiger (419 comments) says:

    @chuck – the impression you have that I don’t support direct democracy is completely wrong.

    I cannot see how a powerful militant minority can force their will on 87% of the voters and that can be called democratic.

    Neither can I.

    Currently, we having non-binding referenda with a high threshold (10% of the voting population) to get one through. We then have the fact that the politicians can ignore them. The next step is to ensure we can have binding referenda. I suspect it will be very, very difficult to get this across the line. You seem to think that its something the public might support. I hope you are right, but my impression is that its not going to happen.

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  26. Chuck Bird (4,402 comments) says:

    @ZenTiger, sorry I must have misread your comment. If Winston holds the balance of power. He will speak to JK first. I doubt if he wanted binding referenda on what has in the past been decided by a conscience vote I doubt if Key would say, “No way” and let him talk to the other side. If Colin Craig want changes to the anti smacking law I would be surprised if Key would not give it serious consideration. Whether he agreed would depend on what else Craig wanted.

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  27. Harriet (4,010 comments) says:

    “How do I prioritize by political opinions?”

    By governing myself firstly! :cool:

    “When a people shall have become incapable of governing themselves, and fit for a master, it is of little consequence from what quarter he comes.” – George Washington

    “Most bad government has grown out of too much government.” – Thomas Jefferson

    “A government big enough to give you everything you want, is big enough to take away everything you have.” – Thomas Jefferson

    “The Constitution is not an instrument for the government to restrain the people; it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government – lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.” – Patrick Henry

    “If we will not be governed by God, we must be governed by tyrants.” – William Penn

    “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” – Thomas Paine

    “Resistance to tyranny becomes the Christian and social duty of each individual. … Continue steadfast and, with a proper sense of your dependence on God, nobly defend those rights which heaven gave, and no man ought to take from us.” – John Hancock

    “Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” – George Washington

    And the power of the unlimited State to do anything it wants is the greatest source of evil in contemporary society. Millions were killed last century by big government – of which Communism was a specialist in.

    Vote for the Conservatives – and throw out entire government departments and curb the ‘responsabilities’ of the remainder – all by public referrendum. :cool:

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  28. lazza (296 comments) says:

    Err No noT really.

    The following three statements are not “absolutes” … in the sense that that (say) the 10 Commandments (most of em) are!

    Here are three “rejoinders” [BOLD CAPS] to each.

    Politicians have more impact on the economy than they do on society. So it’s more important that they get the economics right.

    AU CONTRAIRE. MANY (MYSELF INCLUDED) BELIEVE THE EXACT OPPOSITE.

    NEVER IN HUMAN HISTORY HAVE POLITITIONS BEEN SO IMPOTENT WHEN IT COMES TO THEIR “IMPACTING THE ECONOMY”.

    WITNESS THE WORLD OVER THE RAGING DEBATE WHETHER KEYNSIAN ECONOMIC PLAYS STILL HAVE MERIT … AND IF NOT … THEN WHAT?

    THE ROLE/RISE OF SUPRA NATIONAL ECONOMIC FORCES, THE INTERNET, SOCIAL MEDIA, FREEDOM OF THE PRESS (MIDDLE EAST SPRING!) … ALL NOW DENY WARMONGERS/DICTATORS THEIR WISHES AND SEVERELY LIMIT THE CAPACITY OF GOVERNMENTS EVERYWHERE TO ORDER THEIR OWN”? MASSES ABOUT. THEY THEREFORE HAVE CONSTRINTS ONTHE EXTENT ANDNATURE OFTHEIR SOCIALPOLICIES JUST AS THEY EXPERIENCE WITH ECONOMIC POLICY SETTING.

    When the economy is going well, society tends to the liberal. So my social objectives are more easily advanced when my economic ones are.

    HUH?

    SEE ABOVE.

    LIBERALISM HAS IPSO FACTO NOTHING TO DO WITH “GOOD” ECONOMICS. THE NORDIC ECONOMIES ARE AMONGST THE MOSTLIBERAL/PROGRESSIVE IN THE WORLD.

    THE USA (UNDER BOTH PARTY HEGEMONIES) … ARE THE EXACT OPPOSITE.

    THE TRAINWRECK COMING … DUE TO USA BORROWIG WILL SOON SETTLE THIS PARTICULAR ARGUMENT.

    Economic big governments naturally become social interventionists, one way or another. So, they should be avoided.

    OH DEAR! … SAYING SO DOES NOT ‘MAKE’ IT SO.

    WHAT ON EARTH DOES SOCIAL INTERVENTION HAVE TO DO WITH RAW ECONOMIC MANAGEMENT ANY HOW? YOU HAVE LOST ME (SORRY).

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