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Feb 6, 2009

The need to be seen to do something.

H/T Thoughts on Freedom.

Mark Latham is one of the most extraordinary and most controversial figures to walk the political stage here. He was a star of the Labor Party, a Liverpool councillor at twenty-six, Mayor at thirty, federal MP at thirty-three and opposition leader at forty-three. Prior to this he was a political advisor.

Latham was a divisive figure in many ways often due to his intemperance in language and on occasions his behaviour. After losing to John Howard he resigned from parliament after copping a fair amount of criticism, both for the tactics used during the election in which Labor started with a handy lead then lost, and for being out of communication afterwards. It appears that in the lead up to the election and afterwards he was suffering from pancreatitis.

His publishing of diaries covering ten years in politics including his opinions of many of the players some of them his colleagues, caused him to become estranged from the party. Now after some years away from the rough and tumble he seems to hold different views, as evidenced in his op-ed in the Australian Financial Review, which is a great insight into the folly of interventionism: -

One of the most absorbing set-piece sporting events is the penalty shoot-out in soccer. Studies have shown that the player taking the penalty is most likely to kick the ball straight ahead, towards the middle of the posts. Yet the goalkeeper, who is supposed to stop the ball, usually dives to the left or right, thereby conceding a goal.

So why this act of folly? Why doesn't the goalkeeper stand his ground and block the ball as it is kicked towards him in the centre of the posts?

The most likely reason is crowd expectations. If the goalkeeper simply stands still and the ball is kicked away from him into the net, he will look foolish. For the sake of his reputation, it is better to do something, to dive to one side, even if this is the most likely way of conceding a goal.

Politics is much the same. Under the weight of public expectations and the demands of the 24-hour media cycle, politicians cannot afford to stand still. They must do things, or more precisely, they must be seen to be doing things. This explains the silliness of the nanny state, as governments devise new and superficial ways of trying to control social behaviour.

Every time an issue pops up in the media - fat people, skinny models, souped-up teenagers or unconventional artworks - governments feel obliged to respond with new laws and advertising campaigns. Ultimately, however, these gimmicks are futile. Human nature is not easily moulded by dusty piles of public ordinances.

The real action is elsewhere. In the globalised economy, outcomes are determined by the power of financial markets and international corporations. Educational outcomes tend to be a function of the family circumstances of students. So, too, health and wellbeing are determined by lifestyle decisions and personal responsibility. The role of the state is essentially residual: providing support for people who drop out of the education and economic systems and funding health care for the aged and chronically ill.

Everything else is simply for show: the evolution of public office into just another form of entertainment, filling large slabs of air-time on commercial TV and radio. This blanket coverage of politics has been in inverse proportion to the effectiveness of its policies. In earlier times, the British scholar and Labour MP David Marquand described it as the "feverish inconsequence of parliamentary life".

The goalkeeping metaphor is a perfect fit for our Prime Minister. Some Australian men like to watch the footy or play with the kids in their recreation time. If he could arrange it, Kevin Rudd would spend every waking moment in crisis meetings. This is his idea of a blissful life, even if he has to generate the crises himself. …..

In response to the global financial meltdown, his government has shown its true economic colours. It has been diving from side to side with interventionist policies: introducing bank guarantees, Howard-style financial hand-outs and yet another tranche of car industry welfare. In each case, it was motivated more by the "seen-syndrome", the appearance of doing something, than the quality of its policy measures.

There was no run on any part of the Australian financial sector until the government announced its deposit guarantee and decided to exclude mortgage trusts and investment funds. In fact, the banks were flush with new deposits seeking a safe haven from the stockmarket downturn. As ever, government intervention created more problems than it solved. …..

Has this guy been reading Hayek?

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