Brian Easton poses the question: is New Zealand still fair?
New Zealand public rhetoric is riddled with references to “fairness”, but how important is the notion in actual policy? Every day someone sensitive to the issues of equity and inequality meets examples of their being breached by those who, at best, pay lip service to them or, more frequently, ignore them altogether. Are we really committed to fairness, whatever that means, or is it a fossilised term whose meaning is long forgotten – as when we say “goodbye” which once meant “God be with you”?
Eminent American historian David Hackett Fischer was so struck by the importance of fairness in our public rhetoric when he visited in 1994 that he wrote a (just published) book, Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies, contrasting New Zealand with the United States, where the stress is on “freedom”. Here are two open settler societies which ought to have much in common but seem to diverge on a crucial matter of public priorities.
Although the difference between them is explored in chapters that parallel the histories of the two countries, the answer is provided in the introduction. Fischer uses the word count in Google’s million-book corpus to show that “liberty” was frequently used in the period up to about 1825, while “fairness” became important after that. It would appear that America, founded in the earlier period, latched on to freedom, while New Zealand, founded later, was more influenced by fairness. Apparently each notion has persisted in the political culture for generations.
The story is more complicated. “Liberty” was initially about freedom of religious belief. Although it has morphed into a much wider agenda, the notion of religious liberty is still there, not only as a human right but popping up in strange ways; almost half the citizens of the US describe themselves as Christians rather than Americans.
Of course, liberty issues were not resolved by the 19th century, but arguably there had been good progress in Britain, whence much New Zealand culture came. (Te Tiriti o Waitangi guaranteed to Maori the rights of British subjects. Although not as extensive as they are today, they were thought sufficiently important to be incorporated in the Treaty.)
A number of reviewers, misunderstanding Fischer’s book, have suggested it indicates New Zealand was an exception. While the book is apparently a balanced account of the two countries’ histories, it is really a plea to Americans from a Boston liberal to give greater weight to fairness in public life. It is the US which is the exception. A recent Pew Research Centre survey found Britain, France, Germany and Spain all gave fairness greater weight than the Americans – just like us.
This might be interpreted as suggesting that America’s public values are a hangover from the 18th century, whereas Western Europe continued to evolve past liberty to incorporate fairness in the public’s thinking. If so, the American Right’s insistence on liberty as the direction of the future is rather a redirection to the past. Of course liberty is important – authoritarian regimes need to be replaced by systems which respect individuals, giving them the human rights we take for granted. But while necessary, it is not sufficient. We live in communities which we want to regulate by fairness.
Market mechanisms operate on the basis of individuality and can undermine community, as the development of New Zealand since the 1980s well illustrates. Much of Fischer’s account of New Zealand reflects the country before the Rogernomics revolution rather than today. He seems to have been misled by the nostalgia of the New Zealanders he met, and the public rhetoric, which is still couched in the language of fairness, even if equity is no longer as central to public practice and much higher levels of inequality seem acceptable.
Why did this happen? The American Right points to the inevitability of liberty as the destination of humanity. Certainly there is a strong element of this approach in today’s New Zealand Right, which I do not recall from the 1970s. The alternative (Burkean) tradition in the New Zealand political Right represented – although not first expressed – by Harry Atkinson continues through to Jim Bolger. But there has never been anyone who articulated a distinctive New Zealand version; perhaps the closest is the almost-forgotten William Downie Stewart (1878-1949) with his State Socialism in New Zealand, co-authored with James Le Rossignol in 1910.
The case for market freedom, aside from historical determinism, is that the increasing complexity of social life – much of which has been destructive of traditional communities – meant that the paternalistic state could no longer directly regulate as much of life as it did. It seems likely that any policy responding to challenges posed in the 1980s had to break some of the tight linkages (say, in remuneration rates), thereby disrupting traditional notions of fairness. However, that does not explain why public policy concerns about equity have been increasingly abandoned (while the rhetoric is retained).
There are at least two reasons. The first is that experts on distributional policies are few – although everyone holds ill-informed opinions. Since 1984 those experts have been excluded from the policy process, which has allowed the most anti-egalitarian policies to be introduced without anyone seriously challenging them. Some Labour politicians thought they were being fair while they steadily retreated from their egalitarian traditions. Sometimes the most ludicrous arguments were advanced to justify patently unfair policies, no more so than during National’s attempt to privatise the public health system in the early 1990s.
The second reason public policy has abandoned the idea of equity is that insiders have been increasingly influenced by American thinking, even when it is not particularly relevant to New Zealand. That thinking is, of course, an idealised account of America – to be fair to Fischer he goes over the stain of slavery in its foundation – but then it is hard for a New Zealand historian not to idealise our history too – or to go to the other extreme.
There are areas where we remain committed to “fairness” – more or less: in gender relations, race relations and towards the tangata whenua. But notions of economic fairness are drifting off the public agenda, while remaining in a fading public rhetoric. When was fairness last a driver of change in distributional policy (except in the grumble that it was not fair the rich paid so much tax)? Hardly anyone mentions that we have not raised the real level of social security benefits since they were cut in 1991, over 20 years ago. Is it fair that beneficiaries don’t share in the nation’s prosperity?
Our public policy is becoming more like that of the US. This is not just because the US has a major role in the world – militarily, economically and culturally. We share a common language, with few of us competent to articulate distinctive social philosophies. It is not coincidental that, of the four major European countries, Britain gives a higher priority to freedom and a lower one to fairness than do the other three.
Soon, the generations who remember a New Zealand with a strong commitment to egalitarianism will have passed on. Will all that is left be echoes in the rhetoric of fairness, as we become overwhelmed by notions of liberty without community?
How to evolve an alternative? It cannot be a matter of just going back to the past. If future generations want to re-establish equity as a worthwhile social goal, they will have to do so in a fresh way, for our traditional communities have evolved; today’s New Zealand society is much more market-driven. How does one combine individual freedom with community concern and a commitment to some sort of nationhood, especially in an increasingly globalised world? Are we up to the challenge? Or, as the last quarter of a century suggests, will we fail to engage, and slowly succumb to a neoliberal vision of a world which, following Thomas Hobbes, might be described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”?
Fischer’s book does not answer such questions, for it presents a view of the past, not the future. Despite being littered with historical errors, it does us a service by provoking thought about these issues in a fresh way. But it is we New Zealanders, not Americans, who must do the thinking.