Pragmatists with principles, Shelagh Duckham Cox

Undeveloping Nation: New Zealand’s Twenty Year Fall Towards the Third World
David McLoughlin,
Penguin, $24.95

The Decent Society: Essays In Response to National’s Economic and Social Policies
Jonathan Boston and Paul Dalziel (eds)
Oxford University Press, $29.95

Controlling Interests: Business, the State and Society in New Zealand
John Decks and Nick Perry (eds)
Auckland University Press, $29.95

Justice, Ethics and New Zealand Society
Graham Oddie and Roy Perrett (eds)
Oxford University Press, $39.95

We have dropped from the zenith like a falling star. David McLoughlin says we are in a state ‘so bad nothing could describe us’ and just about to plummet into the third world. The evidence in three of these books certainly supports an image of a country in long-term and serious decline. We belong to the OECD, so we’re thought of internationally as part of the developed world, but our grip on that privileged position is loosening. During the 1950s New Zealand had the third-highest income per capita of any country. By the early 1980s we were down to 18th place in the OECD table, and in 1990 gross domestic product per person in New Zealand ranked 19th out of the 24 OECD countries.

This isn’t news, of course. We hear about it all the time. But it’s all too easy for those of us who haven’t been tipped into penury or confronted with a recent need for the welfare state to exclaim at such figures and then carry on as before. Copping out is made easy for us. Each change in the economic situation, from the downgrading of our international credit rating by Standard and Poors to re-assessments of the sum of the national deficit in real terms, is met with a bewildering range of responses. The same event can be good news or bad in the hands of different experts. And commentary is often embedded in obscurantist prose, predictable political posturings and vague exhortations to work harder and do better. Or there’s an implicit invitation to slip away from the bitter bread of fiscal reality to the circuses of the rugby, Sale of the Century or the International Festival of the Arts.

These books about our present situation avoid the circuses and stay firmly with the bread. In dealing with harsh realities, though, you could hardly expect them to avoid old traps unfailingly, and they don’t. David McLoughlin in particular often lapses into the tiresomely familiar. He paints a chilling picture of New Zealand’s fall. Yet he keeps losing the power to convince by switching into the kind of high-pitched opinionated fuzziness that can take the place of serious investigation in this country. Mostly, though, it’s an occasion for relief and delight to read clear and sometimes ground-breaking assessments of a very confused situation. The three collections of essays – written from a variety of political, economic, sociological and philosophical standpoints – have in common a valuable purpose. Serious attempts by thoughtful people to put our troubles into context, they allow for the use of specific yardsticks of measured judgement.

Jonathan Boston and Paul Dalziel start with the present National Government’s pre-election promise to build a decent society for New Zealanders. They discuss the events of the past two years in the light of that promise. John Deeks and Nick Perry take a wider brief. For them, day-to-day life in New Zealand is shaped by the interrelationship of business, the state and society; their task is to map these basic connections. These two books, taken together, provide a framework for looking at what’s befalling us. There isn’t enough cash in the national coffers, and what little there is makes trouble. Do we pay off international debt, tighten the purse-strings and change our budgetary habits, use what we have to provide for those in need, interfere paternalistically with spending, or simply let market forces rip?

It’s as if our national psyche were a vast abacus. We can keep the balls on metal rods at one end of the frame and try to make them worth more. Paying off overseas debt is a specific way of doing this; fostering an entrepreneurial national soul is a more general one. Alternatively, we can redistribute what we’ve got and send the balls down to the other end; then our aim is to maintain an effective welfare state that provides for both particular casualties and general well-being. In the current period of upheaval the balls whizz back and forth. The Business Roundtable pushes them one way, stories of overstretched food banks send them the other. A problem for the contributors to these two books is that the abacus is not resting on flat ground – it’s not the equivalent of the level playing-field. A picture emerges of a country being tilted inexorably away from the welfare to the money end of the frame.

Everything boils down to money. Of course everything does boil down to money when you haven’t got enough of it. But Midas is one king among others, and an economic base is not the only one on which to build a society. We seem to have got into a state where all we can see is the abacus, and all we can do is move its beads around. At a time of profound change we can be deluded into thinking that the only ethics available to us are those of profit and loss.

Graham Oddie and Roy Perrett show us this is not so. They are philosophers, and they approach questions of what is right and just through a series of oral confrontations that go beyond the prevailing monetary framework. The contributors to this book take the first steps towards a distinctive New Zealand philosophy. One of them, Keith Campbell, writing about Edmund Burke and the Treaty of Waitangi, calls the approach he wants principled pragmatism, and the phrase fits the goals of the others. The essays confront practical and morally demanding problems – weighing existing property rights against the long-term duty to preserve our particular corner of the planet, for instance.

This book is exciting and important. It tells us that the dominance of industrial ways and a capitalist ethic in New Zealand is precisely that – the dominance of one way of seeing over others. It shows how we might start to think and imagine ourselves beyond the disheartening limits of our present abacus mentality.

It seems to me that we have certain advantages in setting to work on this extraordinarily difficult task. We haven’t yet destroyed most of our natural environment. We have a powerful mix of peoples allowing us to call on a strong code of indigenous values irreducible to the capitalist imperative. Australasia is more nearly a part of Asia than of Europe, and we can choose to turn around and face that way. We have a small enough population to feel linked to one another, so we have at our disposal a relatively flexible and intimate means of changing the way we see things.

Perhaps we’ll continue what we’re doing now. Perhaps we won’t. If we decide we want to transform not only what we possess but what we are, we shall need the powers of all the principled pragmatists we can summon up. After reading the substantial New Zealand philosophy in the most visionary of these four books, I begin to think we just might find enough of them.


Shelagh Duckham Cox is a sociologist and writer who lives in Wellington.



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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review, Sociology
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