Foreign Correspondent: Libertarian Progress


Auckland, New Zealand. Visitors know so little about New Zealand, the story goes, that they often ask where to find the bridge connecting it to Australia. But most of the three million inhabitants of this country welcome their isolation from the world, enjoying the favors of their land and climate.

New Zealand merits a look from any person concerned for the future of freedom. Although it has justly won a reputation for the growth of its welfare state, the days of this growth are over. New Zealand now has attractions for those who seek a retreat of uncommon advantages, and for those who seek to achieve libertarian political reforms.

The people of New Zealand are scattered across a land roughly equal in size to Japan. Their economy depends on agriculture; in particular, on the sheep that graze the country's rolling hills. Less colorful than their vivid countryside, the people nonetheless show a hospitality and simplicity that seems to be waning in the United States. They hold firmly to bourgeois values in a society that has few rich and almost no poor.

In November, the voters swept a Labour government from power in a landslide. The new prime minister, Robert Muldoon, is a technocrat of the National Party with a flair for populist and conservative rhetoric. He has warned people to expect some hard years as they pay for the extravagant borrowing and spending of his predecessors. The private sector faces much brighter prospects under Muldoon; he said in August that he would like to cut government spending from its present 44 percent of the GNP to less than 35 percent.

Libertarian influence, moreover, is increasing. One of Muldoon's best-known backers is an articulate young libertarian who made a fortune in real estate and now hosts a popular radio talk show. Another admirer of Ayn Rand ran the successful reelection campaign of Muldoon's deputy, Brian Talboys. A rising young Labour Party star was upset by another National Party candidate who reads Rand, has surrounded himself with Objectivists, and subscribes to The Ayn Rand Letter.

Political activity extends beyond the National Party. In October, dozens of hardcore libertarians fielded four candidates of a new organization called the Alpha Party. The candidates outpolled those of a number of other minor parties, despite a lack of campaign money. Unlike the Libertarian Party, Alpha believes that it can win office in this generation because of a new approach to politics. This approach downplays the philosophy of libertarianism in favor of selling the public on step-by-step reforms to reach libertarian ends. Alpha has been encouraged by the extensive coverage given it by radio and television.

Other libertarians have gained publicity through different means. A housewife started a group called "Citizens Against Bureaucracy" in September to present a squid to the bureaucracy voted most unpopular: "Both squids and bureaucrats squirt black ink," she pointed out. A young Wellington lawyer wrote a bestselling booklet explaining the causes of inflation and recommending ways that New Zealanders could protect their wealth. Another Wellington resident, who writes an irregular monograph promoting laissez-faire, was recently asked by the leading Sunday newspaper to do a three-part series on Objectivism.

Observing all of these events with sympathy and detachment are a number of libertarians who have resigned themselves to pessimism about trends in the world. Several wealthy Americans, in particular, have moved to New Zealand because of its insulation from potential cataclysms abroad. The country has a superabundance of food, vast quantities of hydropower and natural gas, no capital gains tax, and little risk of internal dictatorship. "Every country in the world may become a jail, but New Zealand will be a more comfortable jail than the others," says one of the pessimists from the vantage of his island farm near Auckland.

Long odds face libertarians everywhere in their attempt to achieve a free society. New Zealand is no exception. Few advocates of the free market can be found in the economics or philosophy departments of the universities. Only a small minority of New Zealanders entertain doubts about the fundamental wisdom of the welfare state. Yet these shortcomings must be balanced against advantages of a longer range; the country's tiny population of three million prides itself on individualism and self-reliance, has no large number of poor people to support, and is incomparably easier to influence than its counterparts in larger and more decadent societies. Libertarians have just begun to organize an educational foundation that will launch Nader-style investigations into government programs. (The Ara Foundation, P.O. Box 16061, Sandringham, Auckland 3 New Zealand welcomes correspondence with overseas individuals and groups.) As disenchantment with the National Party mounts during the next three years, a fully organized libertarian party will be ready to offer New Zealanders an alternative. So New Zealand libertarians are in good spirits, and as optimistic as anyone can be about thriving in the hard times ahead.

Contributing editor Mark Frazier is now living in Auckland, reporting and copy editing for the New Zealand Herald.