This article first appeared in Critic Issue 15, 2017.
When it comes to politics you can never judge a book by its cover and 20-year-old Sam Purchas is a great example why. Standing at a lanky 6 foot 3 and dressed in a bright flowery suit that looks like a Coachella attendee’s LSD fuelled vision of ‘smart casual’, Sam looks more like a psychedelic hippie than a Randian right-winger. When he’s not singing bass in a Barbershop Quartet, or playing Doctor Who in this year’s Capping Show, Sam serves as the president of Young ACT at Otago.
ACT, or the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers, is an independent right-wing political party which Sam describes as espousing the values of “Individual freedom, whether that is in consumer choice or speech, so long as you are not hurting others, personal accountability and individual responsibility”. Or, in POLS jargon, ‘socially liberal’ (you do you and I’ll do me) and ‘fiscally conservative’ (the freer the market the freer the people). This is classical liberalism or libertarianism – big on personal freedoms, private property, and minimal government intervention. Think Ayn Rand, minus the receiving medicare and social security near the end of her life after hollering about parasites part. While in the past ACT has been a party that denied the impact of climate change, under the leadership of David Seymour the party has shifted focus toward education reform through charter schools, and hot topic issues such as euthanasia.
Describing himself as a former “Bleeding heart liberal and socialist,” Sam cites his mother, a leading advocate for the legalisation of medical marijuana, and Lindsay – a close family friend and mentor - as two big influences on his political views. “Growing up I didn’t really talk much politics with either of my parents, although I knew they were quite strong Green and Maori voters, but I wound up spending a lot of time with a friend of theirs [Lindsay].”
Sitting in the café, Sam pauses while ordering to make a self-depreciating joke about his unfamiliarity with coffee, “I’m a right-winger mate, we know the value of money,” referring to the meme about millennials not owning homes because of overspending on avocadoes and coffee (as opposed to reasonable things like skyrocketing property prices and higher costs of living). “I would spend all day drinking wine and debating politics [with Lindsay] and he would have excellent arguments to my positions which made me reconsider my beliefs.” One of the core tenets of ACT (and libertarianism) is that of liberty over state intervention – that no one should be able to impose their way of thinking over the way you live and that all individuals should have the right to self-determinate. “I read Ayn Rand at his [Lindsay’s] request.”
Ayn Rand – a US migrant from the former Soviet Union - created the philosophy of Objectivism in response to the failures of collectivisation and big government she’d experienced. Objectivism emphasises rational self-interest and individualism, optimistically viewing people as masters of their own destiny who can pull themselves up by their bootstraps to become titans of industry. Rand divides people into either titans of industry or moochers, looters, and parasites who, envious of the successes of the former and unable to achieve success on their own, opt to pull the former down through taxation and collectivisation. As described in the appendix to Atlas Shrugged, "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."
At its best, Objectivism is a motivating life philosophy that promotes accepting personal accountability and doing the best that you can by being rational and meritocratic. At its worst, Objectivism is an intellectual justification for selfishness and neoliberal bootstrapism that divides people into titans or parasites and fails to account for the different socio-economic conditions people are born into.
For Sam, his political philosophy stemmed from the belief that, “it is condescending that anyone, especially the state, demands you live a particular way and that they know better than you. To me it harkens back to those arguments you have with your parents where even if you are objectively right and your argument is superior, they still have the power over you so their view is automatically right.”
Sam’s argument raised one of the criticisms of libertarianism: that it presupposes all adults are rational and self-interested human beings who will therefore be encouraged to act ethically. But people are not rational all the time, as newly-flatting second years learn to their horror. This same argument, that people are rational and self-interested, also does not apply to children, who cannot be given full liberty and self-determination, as they have not emotionally and intellectually matured enough to understand the ramifications of their behaviour. Therefore, children under libertarianism possess no autonomy, as they are the private property of their parents, which can be used to justify child labour and abuse to respect the parent’s autonomy from the state.
“I think the critics are right in that regard – full libertarianism isn’t great and neither myself or ACT are for that kind of extremism. That being said, the current way the government handles things is atrocious – one of my core beliefs is that in almost any case the government solution is worse than anything else when they try to control people.”
Sam referred to his mother’s work as an advocate for medical marijuana. “Look at the drug laws and problems in New Zealand at the moment compared to a country that uses sense and reason – like Portugal.” Since 2001 Portugal has decriminalised the possession of small amounts of all illicit drugs for personal use and has shown sharp declines in heroin addiction and deaths from overdosing – dropping from 369 to 152 deaths per year between 1999 and 2003. “Instead of the government making the blanket statement that all drugs are bad, therefore anything to do with drugs is an illegal and criminal offence, Portugal is treating it as what it should be, a health issue – and look at the results, a 50 percent reduction [in heroin addiction].” Sam’s view reflected the attitude of libertarians – that what I do in the privacy of my own home is no one’s concern so long as I am not harming anyone else, and that, when it came to drugs and addiction, people should be helped rather than thrown in prison.
“The government is wasting all this taxpayer money, that you and I pay, on prosecuting people for petty drug offences when we should be helping them. Neither National or Labour are willing to make a stand on this because they are too busy toeing the party line to get elected.” This is where Sam found his belief in ACT, “Because ACT is a small party you often play kingmaker in deciding which issues are talked about”. The recent controversy over David Seymour’s Euthanasia Bill being selected from the ballot was a flagship moment that vindicated Sam’s views. “This wouldn’t have been brought up by either National or Labour, because no one wants to talk about controversial topics, everyone wants to play it safe.” Despite this, Sam is no zealot, even when it came to his own party, as he added soon after, “Sometimes I wish ACT would be more willing to make more waves and make a bigger stand.” For Sam his big passion was the charter school programme implemented by ACT in 2012.
Charter schools are government funded schools which operate independently from public schools and are given the autonomy to use their own teaching paradigms and ideologies. These schools run at a for profit basis, as they are owned by private entities instead of the government, which in theory ensures higher quality due to free market competition. “Think about how wastefully the government spends your money. Why is every MP given a car at the taxpayers’ expense? Why do they fly around in business class instead of economy? They don’t pay for it so why should they care.” Sam referred to Milton Friedman’s quote that, “No one spends somebody else’s money as wisely as he spends his own”. Friedman’s work on free market capitalism serves as a foundational cornerstone for libertarian thought and is mirrored in ACT’s push for tax cuts, “You earned it, and you are the best person to decide how to spend or invest it.”
It was clear that Sam subscribed to Friedman’s school of economics, “These charter schools know that they are directly accountable for the money they spend because they need to pay their staff and turn a profit. If you have bad teachers, they get sacked instead of being protected by unions. The best teacher doesn’t make the same amount as the worst teacher, so there is incentive to perform. The school is able to provide for teachers and limit class sizes so they have a good work environment.” A key aspect of ACT’s educational philosophy is that there is no ‘one size fits all’ a la NCEA (whose critics refer to it as Not Certified to Educate Anyone), and that parents should have more consumer choice in what schools they send their children to, dictated by the free market instead of by the government.
“At the moment we have the grammar school system which is a way for the rich to get richer. While they are publicly funded the neighbourhoods they are zoned in become priced out for those from poorer backgrounds because they get bought out by middle class people.” This system of competitive zoning in Sam’s mind further fuelled inequity by having those who could afford private schools being able to take advantage of taxpayer funded schools. “The Labour solution to this problem would be to tax the rich and try to make everyone the same.” The National solution seems to be for a businessman who has never set foot in a public school to loudly boast about how he “did it on his own” and that “at least they have free schooling”. “The ACT solution is to step back and analyse the situation and look at what’s happening with some of these schools.”
The Vanguard Military School, located in Albany, serves as a flagship for those in favour of charter schools. Utilising a military ethos – with emphasis on parades, personal honour and responsibility, leadership and working in groups – the Vanguard Military School prioritises students from Maori and Pasifika backgrounds who struggle under a more conventional education system. “These kids are given free uniforms, textbooks, lunches, committed and dedicated teachers who have great working conditions, and on top of all that the school is even able to turn a small profit.” Sam views charter schools as a more effective way to address the education gap between Māori and Pasifika students and their Pakeha counterparts. “The results speak for themselves – students who ordinarily struggle are thriving and these schools have such an enormous impact on their lives.” Statistics released by Vanguard and independent studies have shown these improvements across the board – from attendance, which in 2015 was between 24-37 percent higher for Maori students than the national average, to academic results with 100 percent success rate for NCEA level 2 and 3, a 19-28 percent increase than the national average.
Throughout our discussion Sam showed knowledge of research and studies that supported his claims and knew his own limitations. Coming from a science background, he joked that, “For someone motivated by money I don’t know an awful lot about economics,” choosing instead to focus on the evidence. For Sam his key political tenet was that everyone independently develops their own views, “I don’t think anyone should have the right to impose their views on someone else. I think it’s good to discuss these things instead of insisting you know better,” and that education was the best way to achieve this.
“ACT isn’t just a party of rich white fuddy duddies who complain about people being parasites,” Sam concluded, “I don’t think ACT can drastically change the system we are in because of how small it is, but it can at least liberalise smaller issues and hot election topics [like euthanasia] so we can discuss them instead of ignoring them.”