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Hide and seek: the truth about Rodney and Roger

Letter from Elsewhere - By Anne Else

Hide and seek: finally, the truth about Rodney and Roger

There's a wonderful column by Rosemary McLeod in the Dom-Post this morning (12 November). She skewers the grotesqueries of Rodney Hide's apparently bizarre behaviour beautifully. But even Rosemary has missed something important about this whole affair.

Rodney and his former leader, Roger Douglas, have spent decades telling us what human beings are really like. The whole point of their message has been that we are entirely self-interested creatures, and as soon as we catch a whiff of apparently "free" goodies, from sausage rolls to hip operations, we'll all be in like Flynn to grab as big a share as we can.

That's why ACT and its supporters have argued so vehemently that it’s wrong for the state to do anything much more than ensure security (by running an army, a police force and a justice system, though private companies should run the prisons) and funding bits of physical infrastructure like roads (though private companies should build them, at a profit).

That, and ensuring that all contracts are legally enforceable, even if they involve, say, a poverty-stricken sole mother agreeing to work in a sweatshop, have sex with her boss or her landlord, or bear a child for him and his wife. It’s her body, and she can do what she likes with it. Selling her child might be going a bit far, but selling herself is fine. Far, far better for her to do these things, and keep her independence, than get a taxpayer hand-out in the form of a benefit.

The state should collect only the minimum of tax required to do the few things that it must. People can buy everything else they need – education, healthcare - for themselves, perhaps with the help of a few vouchers. If kind folk set up charities to help the poor, that’s great. If not, too bad. (As for foodbanks, they exist only because they give food away. People take it because it’s free.)

Taxpayer funded goodies are just going to be nicked, you see. I vividly remember an editorial in the New Zealand Herald at the height of the New Right years that would have gladdened Roger’s and Rodney’s hearts. It explained why people should have to pay for hospital care, such as hip operations. When they are “under-priced” – that is, free – there will always be “excess demand”. In other words, people who don’t really need them will queue up for them, because the taxpayer is paying.

What has all this got to do with Rodney’s (and Roger’s) little taxpayer-funded excursions? I would hope that by now you’re beginning to see how marvellously consistent they are.

Far from being hypocrites, they have obviously decided that, in order to get across their core message, they will selflessly set out to prove by their own actions that their theories are true.

Look at us, they’re saying. We were right all along. Overseas trips are no different from hip operations, learning to read, unemployment benefits or old age pensions (a really good example, this one, because of course there’s nothing to stop everyone saving for their old age while they’re working).

As Ruth Richardson (who often out-ACTed ACT) once put it, “In the end people will try to maximise their return. They are not stupid, and if they can maximise their welfare by buying into a benefit [or an overseas trip] they will do that.”

Whenever the state offers something “free” – that is, paid for by taxpayers – self-interested human beings will leap out of the woodwork to grab it, whether they need it or not, and, even more to the point, whether they could pay for it themselves or not. (I imagine that both Roger and Rodney could, if they chose, have paid for their overseas trips out of their own pockets – indeed, Rodney has just proved he was able to do this, because now he’s paying the money back.)

They couldn’t have known, these dedicated men, that there would be a public outcry. I’m sure they expected us all to grasp what a marvellous lesson they were giving us in the absolute rightness of their own arguments.

But I guess they just didn’t spell it out clearly enough. So people got the wrong idea, seeing them as greedy, self-indulgent hypocrites who said one thing and did another.

They’ve handled it all very badly. What they should have done was stand up and spell out exactly why they have behaved this way. Then the rest of us, persistently mired as we are (as Ruth Richardson lamented back in 1987), in “thinking of the state as being a friend”, would at last understand the error of our ways, and deliberately vote for a government in which ACT is able to have a real influence.


Anne Else is a Wellington writer and social commentator. Her occasional column will typically appear on a Monday. You can subscribe to receive Letter From Elsewhere by email when it appears via the Free My Scoop News-By-Email Service. Anne blogs at

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