Interview with Mike Kumagai for Chewing The Fat

Sylvester Kuo is the president of Young ACT, a party currently represented in parliament by their leader, David Seymour. Sylvester joined the party in 2014 before quickly loving up the ranks to vice-president of Young ACT later that year. He became president in early 2015.

According to his bio, his goal is to see Young ACT flourish with growing the rapport and membership. When not studying, Sylvester volunteers his time at the Youthline Advisory Group and the Cancer Society Store. Welcome!

Pleasure to be on the Show, Mike.

Firstly, before we talk about your involvement within the ACT party, would it be ok just to clarify your political stance in whichever way you describe yourself as, and how you came to think that way.

Certainly, politically or philosophically I am an objectivst, which is a philosophy of living on earth developed by Russian American Author- Ayn Rand. A brief summary of what it is, is that the world is constructed as an objective reality which means the reality exists a priori to the consciousness; we are able to come to understand it through reason that is the ability to using empiricist data to make value judgement. Our ethics are the rational self-interest or rational egoism that the highest morality is to strive to make our own lives enjoyable without causing harm to others. The rational conclusion is capitalism which brings about the greatest happiness for everyone; and finally the aesthetic in which objectivists use to judge things is romantic realism, it represents the best of mankind as reflected by the artist’s values. That’s the rough idea.

As to how I became an objectivist, a guy whom I dated told me his favourite book was The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I read it and I was like “Oh my God, this is so good” so I began to read more of her books and my life was never the same again for the better.

When did you come to think about politics? Were your parents involved in politics, did you engage while you were at high school?

I’ve always been interested in politics, I was kind of an environmental activist when I was younger, which often made my parents angry. Then I went a bit gothic for a while too. It was sorted a way for me to find myself during my adolescence. Politics was always a hot topic from where I came from (Taiwan, a small island near china) and it was sort of a natural instinct to care about politics due to the tension between China and Taiwan. But majority of the times I clashed with my parents so there really isn’t much influence from them. I did get involved with politics during high school, though vastly different from what I am doing today. I didn’t really have much political understanding back then, it was mostly just going with what I think was right, but it was often wrong because of how naïve I was.

Could you name a defining part of your life that you can attribute to shaping your political world view?

It is definitely my love for New Zealand, it is such a beautiful country with many lovely people. It shows the goodness of the human potential and the ability for individual to succeed with our freedom.

Which leads to, what motivated you to become involved with the ACT party?

Throughout my adolescence, I was searching for some place where I could belong. It was quite a journey, I felt like I had no one to engage in political discussions with. And I’ve been involved in many shouting matches online actually in which people resolved to deal personal attacks when they encounter political discourses. For instance, I was once asked “why don’t you support Obama because you are gay” “And I retorted “Why don’t you support Romney if you are white”. It made me realise how lack of understanding people are. The longing for a good debate led me to find ACT, which is a party that does not rely on identity politics or political correctness, everyone is able to be themselves without any fear. That’s when I knew: If I was to form a political party, this is the party for me.

One of the biggest reasons I wanted to talk to you today is to gain a deeper understanding of what values ACT represents. I think that for most people, they’ve probably heard of ACT, somewhere along the line, but don’t actually know what it stands for. So what does the ACT part stand for?

Well, Individuals are the rightful owners of their own lives (that includes their property, their mind, and their ideas) and more importantly, it means the responsibilities associated with their ownership are inherent. So what the government should be doing is to protect our right and leave the responsibilities to us. ACT promotes individual choice and achievement, we want to enhance our living standards for all Kiwis through economic growth and international competition, at the same time helping those genuinely in need. We are innovative, we want to find new and more efficient ways to protect the environment and people. Ultimately, we want to bring the power back from the government to the individuals. Our vision is to see a safer, healthier and more prosperous New Zealand for all New Zealander to be proud of.

In your role as the president of Young ACT, how do you feel people, particularly young people react to the party? What’s the general reception like?

I am quite lucky that most of what I saw are generally positive feedbacks. People often have misconceptions about us and it was always nice to see that after talking to members of Young ACT or David Seymour they began to realise we are not the “Rich Old White Men” stereotypes that people often associate us with, rather we are diverse, open minded and approachable. For this year, we have replicated a board game from Student for Liberty (it’s another freedom loving group like us) where we ask people to place a sticker on whether different things should be legal to sell or not, it ranges from hugs, blood to marijuana and guns. It really got people thinking about these issue they normally do not have to make a judgement on. It’s also really good to see what made the young people make these choices. Overall, I think we are well received.

As I mentioned briefly in the intro, you said as president that you were keen on increasing Young ACT’s membership- how are some of the ways you’re looking to do this? Have you found it hard in a climate with decreasing political involvement, particularly among young people?

The thing is, membership always has the highest increase during electoral period. But we have a steady increase in membership currently. I don’t think it is difficult to find more recruitment when you have the right things to offer to people. So of course one way to engage with young people is to connect with young people, it doesn’t have to be exclusively students, we want to get self-employed people, farmers, motorists, etc. Everyone is welcome. Another way is to stay relevant by making media appearances such as being on your show (chuckles), making people aware that there’s a group of young people looking for other like-minded young people is possibly the best way. There’s definitely a political complacency at work. A person approached me last year at University and told me he didn’t want to vote because he thinks NZ is becoming very bipartisan and the line between the two parties is blurring. But I managed to convince him to consider voting ACT because we are different and we are for him. As long as we have something different to offer to people, I am not concerned, I am optimistic.

What is the support like for Young ACT within the wider party structure? As David Seymour himself is quite young, does he have a particular stake in Young ACT?

When there’s something we agree on, we support the Party, vice versa. Young ACT is an independent organisation, we have the autonomy to make decisions. But in general, we are considered as the more radical side of the ACT party, you could say we are the cheerleaders. I think being youthful is an advantage, David is really charismatic, well-spoken and supportive, and we all look up to him. It’s great to have someone whom you can all relate to, so in a way, David really keeps us motivated. He’s like a mentor to me, whenever I have doubts, I could always seek him for advices.

According to Wikipedia, the party is a right-libertarian group, which has been defined as advocating self-ownership and unequal appropriation of resources. It seems to me that libertarianism can be seen as quite a contentious term and can mean a lot of things for a lot of different people- what does libertarianism mean to you?

Libertarianism can be divided into a broad spectrum of different attitudes. If you Google libertarianism you can find dozens of different variations. You can have the classical liberals who are the champions of freedom and limited government, you can have the Christian libertarians who seek to combine the Christian ideas with a limited government, you can also have socialist libertarianism which replaces the government with a workers’ council.  For me, I think it’s silly to put so many labels on ourselves. One thing we can all agree on at least is that individuals should be free, however one may define what being free really means.

Much of ACT’s policy obviously centres on the market getting involved with things like social welfare, housing, services, etc., how does Young ACT feel about the current proposals tabled by the government regarding these issues?

The government has done a terrible job providing these services. Look at housing, the prices have skyrocketed in Auckland and to a certain extent in other cities like Wellington. National wants to give first time buyers a subsidy but when nearly everyone gets a subsidy the advantage leaves no effect. Similarly tried to introduce capital gains tax for people owning more than one property, not that it was unfair but also ineffective as people can still find loopholes in the system to avoid tax. Green and Labour quibbled over who came up with the idea of planned housing, but regardless of the origin, where would you place the new housing in an already compacted area? The only way is for more houses to be build or renovated. But even with that we still have councils asking for permit from a qualified plumber in order to change one’s pipe in a house or even just rearrange the bathroom would require special licensing. The tyranny of the council is also complemented with the resource management act that limited the supply of housing to compensate the demand of the increasing population. And now the government wants to make us homeless by introducing housing warrant of fitness, how very remarkable!

Housing and home ownership is obviously a big issue for young people today, what’s ACT’s or Young ACT’s policy regarding housing?

We have one word: Deregulation. What we want is for the resource management act and local government act to be reformed, the rights of property owners to develop their land reinstated as they see fit. With time, the effect of reformation would allow the housing price in New Zealand to stabilize, so that more people would have access to affordable housing.

What’s ACT’s stance on the TPPA?

We don’t have an official stance but the general consensus is that while it may be good to have reduced tariff and open up trade opportunity. It needs to be more transparent and the government should not the one negotiating the deal for the rest of New Zealand without the consultation of those who would be affected by this trade agreement. The sovereignty shouldn’t reside only within the state.

ACT’s previous position on climate change was that it basically doesn’t exist- I’m just wondering what the party’s most recent stance on it is, considering parties like National have softened their stance?

I don’t think I can speak on behalf of ACT again, but the general consensus is that there is insufficient empirical evidence to suggest human activities have caused climate change. That does not mean we are not dedicated to protect the environment in other ways however.

Does your personal stance differ? If so, how?

In my research, I have found inconclusive evidence on the existence of climate change. Regardless of whether it exist or not, the question is: what can we do about it. I really do not think that the government is the best solution, rather, new technology and innovation will help us combat it if it does exist. The Market is the best solution. Say if climate change is causing damages to lives and property, it would mean insurance companies would need to spend more on reparation, thus it would be the best interest for the companies to reduce the damages so that the premium is decreased and cost of operation is reduced.

For you, what are some essential policies that you’d be interested in implementing- what are some key issues that you’re interested in?

I want to see no regulations being implemented on the service of Uber. It is the technology that we need to provide better transportation to everyone. Sure it may need some improvement but it is not the responsibility of the policy makers to decide for the users. I also would love to see more charter schools being established or converted to in the future, it’s helping the children in need to achieve things they wouldn’t have done so in comprehensive schools where the needs of each student is not satisfied. One size does not fit all. And above all, I can’t stand political correctness taking away our freedom such as the recent Harmful Digital Communication Bill which has good intention was simply is ineffective in helping people deal with bullying.

I read your blog, and you stated that you’re a ‘die-hard minarchist’, can you tell us what this means and how you’ve adopted this stance?

Thanks for reading it. Minarchism is a political ideology which stated the only services a State should provide are military to defend the citizens against foreign invaders; law enforcement to help citizens in need when they are incapable of dealing with the violation of their rights (that doesn’t mean they do not have the right to own means of protection), finally law and court to help protect the contracts and solve disputes associated with violation of private properties. This is the system which as I have mentioned before, Ayn Rand has advocated and outlined in her works.

Theoretically, how would you implement minarchism?

Fundamentally, a constitution is required to outline the essential rights of an individual that is the ownership of their private property and the limited roles of the State. The reason for that is the constitution is incredibly difficult to be altered thus it prevent the State from expending itself. Both Military service and Law Enforcement recruitment would be voluntary and the role of the state would to use the allocated resources from fee collection to provide these services in whatever means possible, typically it can be done through the free market but variations may occur depending on circumstances as long as it follows the constitution. Instead of collecting tax, citizens may negotiate a fee with a contract from the service provider thus this way it would be fair, it would be similar to what an insurance company does. Citizens are free to not pay the fee to receive the services but may protect themselves. Judges would be elected based on reputation and competition to ensure objectivity and the cases in court are resolved through interpretation of the constitution rather than the common law as each case is different and bad precedent can prevent justice from being served. That’s the basic idea of Minarchism theoretically.

Many people would say that there are intrinsic inequalities, imbalances and disparities with the kinds of libertarianism that you’re talking about, what are your thoughts about this?

As Aristotle said: The worst inequality is to make unequal things equal. The nature isn’t equal. Not everyone was able to discover the use of wheel but certain individual had to make the first move. The only way to reduce inequality is through Capitalism. With Capitalism, machines have been invented by the more abled to help the less abled who would have never invented these life changing inventions, but nonetheless are benefitted by it themselves. For example, telecommunication was a great help for the rural fishers in Kerala, India in 1997, fishermen’s profit rose with better communication for their pricing while decreasing the cost of finding out information from their competitors. Another example would be the invention of washing machine, which reduced the time spent on the chores so people can engage in other productive activities or leisure. If people are truly fighting against poverty and inequality, they would have been champions of Capitalism long ago.

How do minarchists reconcile the need of supporting people without wealth when larger institutions such as the State have been traditionally needed to redistribute wealth in their favour?

How would a state decide who to help and who not to help when it robs you from your ability to make your own decision to help others? People often forget about the power of private charity. What makes us human is the fact that we are able to emphasize with others, we do not enjoy seeing others suffer and that’s one of the reasons we help others. For example Harris Rosen, a self-made millionaire began paying for day care for parents in Tangelo Park, Florida, a crime infested neighbourhood for about 3000 people which cost about 10 millions USD. He created scholarship programs for these children and now the high school graduation rate is almost 100%, property value quadrupled and crime rate was cut in half. This is better than any statistics from any governmental programs. I myself also volunteer at the Cancer Society Shop to help raise fund for the lodge where people undergoing chemotherapy stays, we value the power of voluntary charity.

You also mentioned that you’re open to the idea of anarcho capitalism- at which point does anarcho-capitalism become anarchy?

People have the misconception about anarchy. What the media portrayal of anarchy is anarcho communism. That is people should do whatever they want without a government and what’s your is mine and what’s mine is still mine, there’s no private property and force (i.e. physical violence) can be used as long as the end justifies the mean. DC comics even created a comic book character called Anarky (Spelt with a K) to parody this group. What anarcho capitalism is, is the recognition that the government is intrinsically unproductive i.e. it never produces, only takes. And only the free trade/free market is the solution to achieve the greatest freedom, the essential difference between AnCap and AnCom is the non-aggression principle in which individuals cannot use force against another person because our bodies are also our private property. It is not a state of chaos because AnCaps are still governed by decentralized courts and contracts.

Ideologically, minarchism sits quite far away out of mainstream political thought (particularly here in NZ), do you ever feel as though this is too idealistic, and if so, how do you reconcile this with sitting on the political fringe?

We recognize the fact that freedom is not achieve in a day, it certainly took me a while before I changed my view. In the current political climate, I would say to preserve any little freedom we have is a great achievement in itself. To answer your final question I would like to leave this quote:

“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists.. it is real.. it is possible.. it’s yours.”

Thank you.


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