Governments are often wrong and there is ample evidence

Parliament Buildings, Wellington, the seat of political power and voice

Ani O’Brien
Wellington, October 17, 2022

Our Prime Minister has become a polarising figure on the international stage.

Jacinda Ardern is either fawned over and adored or vilified and framed as the smiling face of authoritarianism. Considering that if New Zealand was a US State, it would only be the 25th most populated. It is extraordinary that Ardern has such star power.

Her recent speech to an almost empty United Nations Assembly in New York has typically inspired Ardern lovers and haters to take to the internet to express their heartfelt convictions.

The Weapons of War

Her assertions that misinformation and disinformation are ‘weapons of war,’ has unsurprisingly gone down like a cup of cold sick with freedom-loving Americans, while Western proponents of safetyism have applauded her.

Ani O’Brien

As always, the truth of the matter lies somewhere between the two camps.

Ms Ardern is not an evil genius, hellbent on the destruction of Western democracy.

However, that does not mean what she is doing is right or justified.

The road to hell, after all, is paved with (in this case, censorious) good intentions.

What Ms Ardern and her advisors on these matters are guilty of are incredible arrogance and historical ignorance. They presume that the government is best placed to decide what is true and what is right and that the populace needs to be shepherded towards righteousness because they are easily corrupted. The inverse is true.

Governments are often wrong.

Mistakes and Consequences

It is not necessary to be a Professor of History to understand that government mistakes have had terrible consequences historically.

The existence of our Waitangi Tribunal and the continuing settlements between the Crown and iwi is evidence of that. Ms Ardern delivered a state apology to Pacific Island communities for the Dawn Raids – a terrible policy that existed under both Labour and National governments.

It is governments who need to be monitored by the people lest they become self-interested and infatuated with their own importance. What is true and right should not be decided at a Cabinet Meeting or by public servants.

The Enlightenment taught us that reason is argued for and debated, springing from the process of collective discernment. It is through the percolation of ideas and knowledge in society that truth is established. We appeal to authorities and experts at times, but ultimately the collective wisdom of the sum of our experiences is what gives legitimacy to beliefs and thoughts.

Whether Ms Ardern intends it or not, her rhetoric on free speech and misinformation and disinformation is advocacy for the might of the State.

She is calling for the government to expand its powers to empower thought and speech control.

While I doubt that she intends to imbue herself with the power of a dictator, these ideas are authoritarian. The Ardern Government would do well to remember that the power of persuasion through compelling argument and community engagement is much more likely to ensure long-term support for an idea than wielding the hammer of the state and the justice system.

Bad ideas are common

Just like governments, people have bad ideas all the time. There are people around today who still think the world is flat!

Thinking something and even espousing something incorrect is not evil and should not be treated as a threat so dangerous that it must be forcefully stamped out. Free speech is fundamental to the monitoring of bad ideas that come from our governments. Without it, women wouldn’t have the vote, homosexuality would still be illegal, and any number of racist laws would never have been overturned.

Governments change, but the powers we allow them to grab are passed to the next.

One person’s misinformation is another person’s deeply held belief and, no offence, but I do not trust Jacinda Ardern or Christopher Luxon to determine which is correct.

Ani O’Brien is a Member of the Free Speech Union Council based in Wellington. 

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