A Cautionary Tale Of First Principles: Embraced in the desperation of crisis. Abandoned in the hubris of victory. Trending inexorably towards national tragedy.
THE MOST STARTLING ASPECT of the latest two publicly accessible polls is the stubborn refusal of National’s numbers to move. The most common reaction to the Opposition’s continuing failure to break through the 30 percent threshold is to lay the blame at the feet of Judith Collins. Certainly the conduct of the Opposition Leader does not contribute a great deal to National’s prospects of recovery. National’s sequestration in the mid-twenties is, however, about a lot more than its leader’s personality. National’s problem (and Labour’s, too, as we shall see) is its seeming inability to work from first principles.
There will be many who dismiss such a diagnosis as quaint. Politics, they will insist, is not a philosophy class, it’s a blood sport, in which principles serve a purely decorative function. The problem, of course, in seeing politics as a real-life version of The Squid Game, is that the absence of principle only makes the conduct of the “game” increasingly problematic. So much so that fewer and fewer people want to play it. Since democracy itself only works when political power and “The People” are joined at the hip, rendering politics unplayable amounts to the same thing as making democracy impossible.
Another way of demonstrating the importance of first principles in politics is to illustrate the difference in effectiveness between a government that works from these principles, and a government that sets them aside. Fortunately, the government led by Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party provides us with a powerful illustration of both these phenomena.
It is important to establish from the outset that Ardern’s and Labour’s principled response had very little to do with the “democratic socialist” ideology which the party’s own constitution still requires it to embody. The first principles this government worked from, following the initial outbreak of the Coronavirus in early-2020 were, however, more than equal to the challenge confronting both itself and the New Zealand people. The shorthand expression for these principles was, simply: “the science”.
Medical science, most particularly epidemiology, closely followed by mathematical science’s statistical modelling techniques, provided Ardern and her government with rational, evidence-based advice on the most effective response to the Covid-19 Pandemic. Whether it came from the World Health Organisation, their own Ministry of Health, or the specialist teams assembled by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the flow of this scientific advice was powerful enough to generate political decisions that were at once persuasive, consistent and effective. The clarity and power of the Government’s Covid response possessed the additional advantage of easily exposing the weaknesses of the political/economic counter-attacks mounted by the Government’s opponents. Obviously, the greatest advantage of all was that “the science” worked.
Moreover, because the science worked, so, too, did the politics. Ardern and her party were rewarded with the most spectacular electoral endorsement in three-quarters-of-a-century. Ironically, it was this almost unbelievable electoral success that seems to have caused them to cease relying on “the science” for their political – and moral – guidance.
Following the 2020 General Election, the Prime Minister and her colleagues made the cardinal political mistake of forgetting who their friends were. In abstract terms, these friends were the principles of medical science and mathematics. In flesh-and-blood terms, they were the likes of Sir David Skegg, Professor Sean Hendy, Dr Michael Baker, and the irrepressible Souixsie Wiles. When the Prime Minister made the fatal decision to abandon the successful, science-based “elimination strategy”, practically all of the advisers who had guided her to victory over Covid-19 were left in the dark. Ardern and her government had committed the mortal political sin of believing their own spin: first principles – “the science” – had been abandoned for self-serving and opportunistic “politics”.
The consequences are chillingly evident from the Ministry of Health graphs of the Delta Variant of Covid-19’s evolution since 17 August 2021. From the bell-shaped hump of the virus’s rapid advance, and then its steady retreat, under the science-guided Level 4 Lockdown, the eye moves to the terrifying exponential curve of the virus’s explosion following the politically-inspired step-down to Level 3.
As the virus spreads like a bloodstain across the North Island, the Government’s decisions become less and less intelligible – or defensible. Having abandoned “the science” that had guided it to epidemiological and political victory, the Ardern Government flounders from one expedient, politically-driven decision to the next. A cautionary tale of first principles: embraced in the desperation of crisis; abandoned in the hubris of victory; trending inexorably towards national tragedy.
How, then, is it possible that New Zealand’s pre-eminent conservative party – National – is languishing at around 25 percent in the opinion polls? The most obvious answer: because none but the hardest of National’s hard-core supporters can detect very much at all in the way of principle in the Party’s confusing and often self-contradictory responses to the Covid-19 Pandemic.
A genuinely conservative party, operating from first principles, would have crafted its responses to Covid-19 according to the two core principles of the conservative world view: order and hierarchy. Accordingly, the National Party’s instinctive response should have been to ensure the least possible disruption to the orderly functioning of New Zealand society – and economy – by reposing its faith and trust in the nation’s leading scientists, mathematicians and economists. It would have eschewed any attempt to take opportunistic advantage of the Covid-19 crisis, using all its influence with the business and farming sectors to secure the broadest possible acceptance of the measures required to defeat the pandemic.
The electoral effect of such a strategy would have been very different from what actually transpired in 2020. By aligning itself with the Government’s decision to be guided by “the science” and “the experts” – even to the point of offering to join with Labour in a “grand coalition” for the duration of the pandemic – National would have positioned itself as the Government’s wise and responsible “older brother”. The reassuring image of National “standing guard” over this young, inexperienced and, hitherto, remarkably ineffective Labour-led Government would, almost certainly, have produced a much more competitive electoral contest.
By defaulting to the core conservative principles of order and hierarchy, National would also have curtailed the rampaging success of the Act Party. No genuine conservative is ever willing to separate the important right to “Freedom” from the equally important obligation of “Responsibility”. To abandon individual and social responsibility in the name of Freedom, is to immaturely transform Liberty into License.
Genuine conservatives place little store in the ability of human-beings, unconstrained by the forces of tradition, familial obligation and morality, to produce anything other than chaos and violence. The forceful enunciation of these core conservative beliefs would have done much to weaken the appeal of David Seymour’s licentious libertarianism, and exposed to the judgement of all moderate voters the Act Party’s all-too-evident contempt for the health and welfare of the whole community.
It is the worrying absence of this sort of steadying conservative guidance that has allowed those unwilling or unable to support the Labour Government’s increasingly arbitrary anti-Covid-19 policies, to go searching for answers and allies in all the most dangerous places. In the Age of the Internet, in the oppressive atmosphere of social media, the absence of a calming conservative voice, informed by clear, time-honoured first principles, poses a significant threat, not merely to the coherence and efficacy of government policy, but to the safety and security of society itself.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 15 November 2021.