I wonder what it's like to be Amish? Those people in America who drive horse-drawn carts, wear nineteenth-century dress, generally keep to themselves, believe in God, and have conservative views about gender relations and sex.

Do they feel like they're backward misguided anomalies of the modern world? Or are they as happy as any of us can be?

Now, you're thinking, what relevance do the Amish have to generally liberal New Zealand?

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Well, a comment by former National MP Maurice Williamson on TV3's The Project got me pondering the progression of liberal attitudes, which many of us would assume consigns the Amish to the dustbin of history.

Former cabinet ministers Judith Collins and Maurice Williamson in Parliament. Williamson says he was a liberal on all social issues.
Former cabinet ministers Judith Collins and Maurice Williamson in Parliament. Williamson says he was a liberal on all social issues.

Williamson, who's become an unlikely gay icon because of a speech he gave in Parliament in favour of gay marriage in 2013, said he was a liberal on all social issues. He managed to connect gay marriage with weekend shopping, which he also supported back in the day.

His liberalism, it seems, is about people having the freedom to do (mostly) whatever they want, with as little legal or moral restriction as possible.

When it comes to sex and marriage equality, I'd certainly describe my own views as liberal. And I have liberal views on that other issue New Zealanders will be voting on soon, decriminalising marijuana.

This puts me in agreement with a panel of Kaitaia-based Māori health professionals who recently appeared on another TV3 current affairs programme, The Nation. They wanted marijuana use to be a health issue, not a criminal one.

Dr Lance O'Sullivan at NorthTec earlier this year. On current affairs show The Nation Dr O'Sullivan said he wanted pokie machines banned.
Dr Lance O'Sullivan at NorthTec earlier this year. On current affairs show The Nation Dr O'Sullivan said he wanted pokie machines banned.

That's a few ticks for liberalism. But on the same programme Dr Lance O'Sullivan, barefoot, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, said he wanted pokie machines banned. This pulled me up sharply.

If you're a committed liberal on social issues, like Williamson claims, you would support the right of people to do what they wanted with their money, including gambling it away.

For some families, according to O'Sullivan, this amounts to $100 a week. Money that many Northland families probably can't afford to lose.

Here's a conflict then, between allowing an activity which is fun for some, but which also, at an extreme, has a detrimental effect on the health of individuals and potentially deprives in-need children.

Following O'Sullivan's logic, I wondered why Kaitaia, Kaikohe, or any Northland community, shouldn't have the right to ban pokie machines, if that's what a majority wanted.

This brings me back to the Amish and their attempt to protect a way of life through social restrictions. Before we sanctimoniously dismiss their ideas as redneck hogwash, I think we need to question whether liberalism every time and in every instance is the best answer.

Each freedom we wish to grant (or not), from gay marriage to weekend shopping, from smoking marijuana to pokies in pubs, has to be evaluated for its costs and benefits, using different moral principles and acknowledging that there are sometimes difficult trade-offs.

Perhaps none of us are simply liberal or conservative. Recognising this might help the debates we're having about a range of social issues.