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28 July 2017 00:28 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

It’s about who you don’t vote for

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

I spent several columns in the last few weeks pondering who most deserves my vote, and why. Several parties have attractions, but none were an obvious fit for an advocate of individual liberty and free markets. I realised that it really is a Morton’s Fork – no matter who you vote for, they’re all power-hungry thieves. But there is a rational way out.

Opposition parties have all campaigned, almost exclusively, on the record of corruption and maladministration of the ruling party. Everybody smells blood. Like sharks, they’re all circling the same political fire pool.

From the arms deal to AIDS, from tender corruption to service delivery, from road tolls to education, from the Marikana massacre to Nkandla, the African National Congress (ANC) has become a corrupt kleptocracy.

The big news story of the 2014 elections is undoubtedly the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by the exiled ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema. His party is ironically misnamed, since it fights for coercive redistribution, which is the exact opposite of economic freedom.

I’ve explained why I think Malema’s policies are dangerous, and would remain so even if he turned out to be a well-intended and benevolent leader. Yet I have also made the case why electing him to parliament would not be a bad idea: revolutionaries pose more of a threat if they can argue that their views are not being heard. It was a passing fancy on my part, but the upside was that he is so consistently wrong, that he raises many political misconceptions to public debate.

Last year, the Libertarian Party of South Africa was formed, and proposed to contest the elections. In principle, I support them, of course, even if it is ironic that a party dedicated to minimising government should vie for a mandate to govern.

The party leadership was distressingly stereotypical, however, consisting entirely of white males wealthy enough to attend a launch in a lovely Karoo tourist town. Ensuring demographic representation does contradict the voluntary nature of participation in a libertarian movement, but the party would have been far more appealing had it been launched on the back of real achievements in creating prosperity for the poor, such as the project to issue full free-hold title deeds to people who live on state-owned land in the Ngwathe district municipality in the Free State.

As it turned out, the Libertarian Party was unable to raise the necesssary deposit of to register with the Independent Electoral Commission, which ironically belied its stereotype as the defender of the interests of the wealthy.

I was back to square one, when the Democratic Alliance (DA) candidate for premier in Gauteng, Mmusi Maimane, adopted the slogan “title deeds for all”. Redistributing government-owned land and giving free and clear ownership to recipients of land redistribution has long been a pet cause of mine. I’m of the Hernando de Soto school of thought, which argues that state-owned land, or land subject to weak property rights, constitutes “dead capital”. It reduces people to serfs, and makes them unable to sell up and move to where jobs can be found, or offer their property as collateral to start a business. I wrote a piece on how Maimane swindled a vote out of me, despite my instinctive distrust of his party.

It wasn’t long, however, before the DA reinforced my belief that it is shot through with nanny-staters and petty fascists, who are just as dangerous to liberty and prosperity as the corrupt kleptocrats in the ANC.

Before the 2011 local elections, I wrote that voting is a right, not a duty. Therefore, it is your right not to vote. Every vote withheld from the ruling party, my reasoning went, was half a vote for the opposition. I could understand why many ANC voters might be dissatisfied with their own leaders, but be unwilling to embrace the opposition, and my argument, that not voting is okay, remains valid.

But it didn’t solve my problem: voting in South Africa appears to be a Morton’s Fork: a dilemma in which all choices lead to equally undesirable outcomes. (It is named after the 15th century Cardinal John Morton, who argued that those who live frugally must have savings, and those who live lavishly are clearly rich, so both can afford to pay tax to English king Henry VII.)

Then it occurred to me that there is another solution to this problem.

I have often noticed the curious fact that many countries that appear to be socialist welfare-state bureaucracies actually score quite well on measures of economic freedom. The Fraser Institute Economic Freedom of the World Report assesses the size of government, legal system and property rights, money system, freedom of international trade, and regulation.

Many of the top countries are small: Hong Kong, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Mauritius, and Bahrain. Those that are not are interesting, however. They seem to be left-liberal welfare states more than true free markets: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, United Kingdom, the United States, Netherlands, Sweden and Germany.

There are several possible explanations, and they probably all contribute to the phenomenon.

Places like Singapore and Bahrain can be explained by the fact that economic freedom does not require political freedom. Perhaps the most famous example is Chile, which rose to challenge first-world economies under the repressive regime of Auguste Pinochet, who had to repudiate the failing socialism of his predecessor, Salvador Allende in 1973. In fact, the Fraser Institute argues that political freedom tends to follow from economic freedom, rather than the other way around.

Most of the larger developed countries got that way by means of economic freedom, and can now afford welfare states. The Swedish model is a great example of this dynamic.

However, the question remains: why are countries with notable free market traits, like Estonia with its low flat tax, so thinly represented at the top of the Fraser Institute’s report, while large welfare states dominate, despite their socialised bureaucracies? And why is it that African countries so heavily populate the bottom of the chart, alongside communist and socialist dictatorships?

I have a theory that the reason is simple: a government that fears losing power is less likely to impose policies that restrict economic freedom than one that does not.

In the United States, for example, there is a fairly even balance between the two major parties. Abuses by the ruling party – be it inflation, botched military adventures, corruption, socialised healthcare over-reach or moral scandals – tends to be sufficient to swing the vote by the required few percentage points to change the balance of power.

In many European countries, the electoral system results in ever-changing coalitions between minority parties, none of which ever win over 50% of the vote. That means every government action becomes a compromise that has to survive difficult negotiations between conflicting interests. This is why, despite relatively high taxation and liberal welfare states, economic freedom measures look good: governments are so tied up in coalition politics that they lack the power to place obstacles in the way of free enterprise.

I recently recalled Henry David Thoreau’s maxim: “That government is best which governs least.”

A mature political environment ensures that governments are hobbled, by fear of losing their power. This not only curbs corruption, but also well-intended interventions that reduce the liberty of citizens and harm the economy. No system is foolproof, of course, but a ruling party with only a tenuous majority, or a ruling coalition that needs to keep many interests satisfied and cannot afford to alienate any voters, is safest. Politicians whose mandate can easily be revoked are far less likely to blithely forge ahead without care or concern for the people who gave them that mandate. In any mature democracy, any of the ANC’s many major mistakes would have toppled the government. It should fear the same in South Africa.

This means that the Mail & Guardian’s surprising electoral endorsement is correct. In 1994, it heartily endorsed the ANC. Until recently, it remained of the view that the ANC was “fit to govern”. This year, for the first time ever, it withdrew its ANC endorsement. It advised readers to vote for anyone else, in a tactical bid to dilute ANC power.

My mistake was to try to find a party that is worthy of my vote, which will hew closely to my political principles, and have a reasonable chance of actually governing. But that is nothing more than utopian idealism. Politics is about compromise, and no matter who has power, it can always be misused or corrupted. One lot of power-hungry thieves is little better than another. Every party that remains in power for too long becomes complacent, and begins to abuse its ability to bestow patronage on its elite supporters.

The key to a government that governs least is that it should never feel secure enough to become complacent or corrupt.

It doesn’t matter who you vote for, or even whether you vote, as long as you don’t vote for the ruling party. The ANC’s majority needs to be reduced to near 50%. Whoever governs, in whichever province, should be clear that the mandate to govern can be revoked by the people. That the party will bleed votes to its left, for a change, with the split in Cosatu and the rise of the EFF, is a good thing, in this context. So is the continued growth of the DA, and even the participation of small parties, such as the indefatigable advocates of liberty, the Keep It Straight and Simple (KISS) Party.

Before liberation, we used to shout: “Amandla Awethu!” Power to the people! The way to reclaim power for the people is to withhold power from the party that monopolises it.

Any vote against the ruling party is a vote that will help South Africa reach the ultimate goal: a government lacks the power to do more harm to the economy than is needed to serve basic political needs, and in which incumbent politicians have a reason to fear for their jobs if they fail to serve the people.

If you do vote tomorrow, try this. Put your thumb over the ANC box, close your eyes, and make your cross anywhere else. That way, you can be sure you’ve made a good choice. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    IvoVegterBW
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

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