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Moving on from incest

Apr 16, 2014 Politics

No one will die wondering what Act leader Jamie Whyte thinks of state intervention.

It’s a famous tutorial question in any decent Philosophy 101 course:

Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are travelling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. Did they do anything wrong?

No professional philosopher has managed to construct a logical argument supporting yes.

Budding 18-year-old lawyers and arts students study similar problems involving sex with frozen chickens and eating the family dog, the details of which, dear reader, I shall spare you.

So, when the Wellington-liberal Ruminator blog asked former Cambridge University philosophy lecturer and new Act leader Jamie Whyte if the state should make it illegal for Julie and Mark to marry, he should have said, “That’s an academic problem with no real-world application.” Instead he said no — before saying the issue is academic.

Just as we live in a country where the Prime Minister has had to go on national television to discuss the ownership of wind, John Key was forced to answer questions about whether his government planned to legalise incest. (The answer, by the way, was no.) Poor Whyte had to front up to his first party conference as leader to say sorry for buggering up. We tell pollsters we want politicians to be honest, but not that honest.


It goes without saying that Whyte’s Act won’t have any problem supporting gay adoption, drug decriminalisation or any cause upholding personal autonomy. His challenge is to show how that leads logically to Act’s better-known positions on property rights, law and order, tax cuts and staunch opposition to corporate welfare. After all, a party polling below one per cent can’t afford to lose whatever remains of its libertarian, law-and-order or tax-cut wings. And while Act has raised quite a bit of money since Whyte became leader, it will never compete with National, Labour or the Greens. Whyte has to find cost-effective ways to get his message out.

Whyte’s background as a philosopher and business consultant means he has no problem stringing policy threads together. He supports tough law-and-order policies because he sees the state’s role as “minimising the amount people get pushed around”. The courts, he reckons, need to be properly funded to radically reduce the time taken to get to trial, for the benefit of plaintiff and defendant. He wants the state to guarantee the compensation criminals are ordered to pay to victims. In practice, it’s currently the victim who has to enforce payment.

Equally, Whyte despises corporate welfare: whether the ad-hoc, National Party form, with deals done behind closed doors with the likes of SkyCity, or the institutionalised, Labour Party kind that claims, ludi­crously, to be helping “industries” without benefiting individual businesses.

The party plans to calculate the cost of all forms of crony capitalism, then demand it be scrapped and the money returned to taxpayers as tax cuts.


It’s all good populist stuff, derived from the same philosophy that means Whyte opposes the state criminalising adult you-know-what — but is anyone listening?

Realistically, it doesn’t matter if 95 per cent of people aren’t. Act — to which National will surely gift Epsom — needs only 3 per cent, or around 50,000 votes, to get four MPs. Whyte’s strategy is therefore primarily about face-to-face networking. He has also worked out that left-wing journalists’ prejudice against people from the political right is so rigid that it can be broken by demonstrating the slightest degree of humanity. Expect him to pop up in the likes of the Sunday Star-Times. His big national opportunity will be the small parties’ leader debates. Up against Hone Harawira, Metiria Turei, Russel Norman, Winston Peters, Peter Dunne, Te Ururoa Flavell and whomever Kim Dotcom puts up, Whyte has a platform to communicate the perils of a Cunliffe/Green/Harawira/Dotcom government if Act misses out.

Plus, despite setbacks from time to time, the philosophy of free-market liberalism and ever-greater social tolerance has served humankind pretty well since John Locke first wrote about it during the Enlightenment. It couldn’t hurt for there to be a handful of MPs who still believe in it.


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