Positive Non-Interventionism

Positive Non-Interventionism / 2019-02-26 / Nick Sallnow-Smith

The connotation of my title this month has changed in my 25 years in Hong Kong. Originally a proud description of how Hong Kong became successful, it has become in the mouths of many, a critical term for an outmoded policy that is no longer relevant. On the twentieth anniversary of the Handover, Professor Larry Lau wrote in an SCMP op-ed that positive non-interventionism was an excuse for lazy government. How far has Hong Kong come! Or perhaps, how far it has regressed.

Not only is this useful phrase, summarising the proper role of government in a free market, regarded as out of date, it is fundamentally misunderstood. In an essay I read this week, the writer acknowledged that “not intervening” sometimes had merits but he went on to discuss that “intervention” was often positive. In other words, he had failed to grasp the essence of the concept; that NOT intervening was itself positive. The word positive was firmly associated in his mind with government intervention.

How did we get here, in a city supposedly the global beacon of economic freedom? Part of the answer is, of course, a misunderstanding of the economics. “We are all Keynesians now” is the current theme of economic policy debates in every developed country. Governments around the world see their role as to “steer” the economy and “create” wealth. Not to try to do so is seen as a dereliction of duty by many, like Professor Lau.

But the issue is deeper than economics, and this makes it much more difficult to combat. It is not enough to show the economics is invalid. The pressure for Government intervention of all kinds is, for many proponents, a moral one. The best summary I have read of this way of thinking was a comment quoted in a newspaper this month. I cannot recall the policy issue but that does not matter because the attitude of mind revealed is common to so much policy debate today. The comment was; “unacceptable behaviour cannot be tolerated”. By complete coincidence, as I was opening my laptop to write this piece, I was sent an article from the UK about a controversy in the National Health Service there. A spokesperson was quoted as saying “it is essential that solutions are put in place immediately to eradicate unacceptable behaviour”.

Perhaps you may be thinking, what is wrong with that sentiment? “Bad things” must be stopped. Sure, but who judges what is bad? Who decides what is to be tolerated?

We can assume that any violence against the individual or their property will already be illegal in any civilised society. So the “behaviour” referenced here is not illegal (yet!). It is simply disapproved of by certain members of society, who then attempt to contract the powers of the government to enforce their personal morality on all citizens.

For me, this has a distinctly medieval flavour. In those days a religious reference was usually needed to demonise certain “behaviours”. Today, the references are mostly secular but the process is similar; use the state to impose a particular view of how people should “behave”, under threat of coercion by the state. We are experiencing a regression to a time of less civility, less tolerance, less freedom.

I find this a very dispiriting trend. The change of attitude towards positive non-interventionism reflects this. Once citizens accept, as a given, that the role of government is actively to direct our lives (economically and otherwise) rather than to defend our right to direct our own lives, then the “policy debate” becomes an argument over whose view should be imposed, not whether any view should be imposed.

If you doubt whether this is now the prevailing view, consider two recent “policy decisions”; the golf course, and the proposed vaping ban. In the first case the debate concerns whether the golf course decision is right kind of intervention, not whether the “land problem” might be solved by removing as much Government intervention as possible. In the second case, the debate focuses on whether vaping is bad for you, whether it is worse the smoking, and so on. Some are urging a complete ban on smoking. Why stop at vaping, they ask? Few are talking about personal freedom; about why decisions like this have anything to do with the state.

In my opinion, this default way of thinking about the role of government is the complete reverse of positive non-interventionism. We now have a government focussed on what might be called “negative interventionism”; negative because it is aimed at preventing a personal choice, not enabling it – as did positive non-interventionism. How quickly the debate became about how much of the golf course should be confiscated; not whether it is any business of government to change the purpose of a lease more than 100 years old. (I am not arguing here that the lease does not provide the opportunity for the Government to do this legally but whether morally it should be doing so.)

Some of the issues I have raised here have been the subject of earlier articles I have written over the last couple of years. I hope, however, it is useful to bring them together to highlight a much broader drift of public policy, and attitudes toward it held by the general public.

As I noted, this not only about economics, money and taxes (although these are important)  but the bigger context of how people live their lives. Can citizens make choices about how they want to live without the modern day “inquisition” (a team of vaping inspectors?), telling them that “unacceptable behavior cannot be tolerated”?

If we are to make any headway in reversing the anti-freedom tide we are experiencing, it is crucial that citizens think about personal freedom and its four word summary, “live and let live”, before zealously claiming a “right” to decide how all others should “behave”, and beg their Legco member to fight for less freedom, rather than more.

Nick Sallnow-Smith



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