Articulating an alternative, Julienne Molineaux

Government for the Public Good: The Surprising Science of Large-scale Collective Action 
Max Rashbrooke
Bridget Williams Books, $50.00,
ISBN 9781988545080

This is an optimistic book that aims to re-set the narrative on collective action and, in particular, how we discuss the role of government in our economic and social life. Author Max Rashbrooke’s previous books were on inequality (an edited collection) and on wealth in New Zealand (a BWB short text). Government for the Public Good: The Surprising Science of Large-Scale Collective Action continues Rashbrooke’s concern with how New Zealand can be a more egalitarian, fairer country. As with his previous books, Rashbrooke mixes his critique of the status quo with suggestions for policy improvements, but the main goal here is to present solutions. His confidence that there is an alternative infuses the book; his critique of what is essentially neoliberalism (a term he rarely uses) is countered in every case study chapter with examples of alternative, successful approaches to problem-solving, many sourced from overseas.

The book begins with five chapters on governments and markets – what they are, how they work, why they fail and, crucially, attitudes towards them both – before proceeding to a series of policy case studies, and concluding with a chapter on a more “liquid”, deliberative democracy as a way forward. Extensively referenced, the book ends with an annotated bibliography and endnotes.

The long start, focusing on governments and markets, is a necessary one. The 1970s saw an attitudinal shift from the post-war acceptance of governments as benevolent problem solvers, to being hapless, inefficient and untrustworthy, as Anglosphere countries (Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States) struggled with simultaneous inflation and rising unemployment, stagnant growth, oil price shocks and industrial unrest. Government action to solve problems that markets couldn’t, or that markets created, became “interference” in markets, which were the new natural order. Previously fringe ideas became mainstream: monetary policy was divorced from fiscal policy; crushing inflation at all costs became the over-riding macroeconomic goal; and equality was abandoned in favour of efficiency. In line with Ronald Reagan’s famous comment that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem”, government retrenched from many aspects of public life. 

This new paradigm hit New Zealand in a blitzkrieg of policy reform from 1984 until the late 1990s, marked not just by policy changes, but by a fundamental shift in the ways problems and solutions were viewed. Since the 2000s, Rogernomics has been slowly wound back by successive governments, who have tinkered around its edges or mitigated its harshest impacts. But the central ideas have been hard to dislodge – ideas about individualism, meritocracy, competition, choice and consumerism. Rashbrooke points out that, while trust in unfettered markets has fallen, especially since the Global Financial Crisis, there is still scepticism about government action. Market logic and individualism dominate our thinking about how to react to policy issues. Research by Peter Skilling on the New Zealand public’s attitudes towards inequality has revealed widespread concern about the issue, but also an inability to articulate an alternative policy setting, especially in the face of arguments around markets and the strains (such as higher wages) they can bear. Many New Zealanders see markets as natural and immutable: while they want a more equal society, they appear to have no answer in the face of questions such as “but how will you pay for it?”, or statements such as “the markets won’t like that”. This is one of the gaps Rashbrooke’s book has the potential to fill; how and why to articulate an alternative.

Rashbrooke writes there is a “loss of confidence in the idea that government is effective” and “governments will not be allowed to do what they need to do unless the public understands the evidence of their effectiveness, grasps how much better they could be, and retains a justifiable confidence in their ability to deliver”. And so he sets out to restore that faith in governments, making the case for a shift away from markets in a range of settings such as private prison provision, charter schools, and environmental policies. Yet the book is cautious, nuanced, stressing at every turn that markets can be a good tool in the right context or with the right regulation; that government is not always the answer or could work better; and that, while the Anglophone countries, which are the focus for much of the book, have overseen a rise in inequality, they have also done pretty well on many fronts, too. The book is less a trenchant argument than a gentle evidence-based persuasion.

The case study chapters cover law and order, the environment, urban planning, transport and housing, infrastructure, health and education, social security, and economic management. They make reference to New Zealand, but much of the focus is on overseas examples, such as a comparison of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (good) with the United States’s private health insurance market (bad). The inclusion of overseas examples enables variations of government actions and more deliberate democratic actions to be profiled. The downside is less of an understanding of exactly what has happened in New Zealand on the policy front. For example, the health case study does not examine which aspects of our mixed health care system work well and which ones do not, including what existing remedies are working on the “fringes” that might be more mainstreamed. Māori solutions are not much in evidence, either, with just a brief mention of programmes such as Whānau Ora. Overseas cases don’t always transfer well across boundaries, cultures, histories. Rashbrooke is aware of this and he is careful to couch his examples not as prescriptions, but more as potentials from which we might learn or be inspired, springboards from which we might imagine our own indigenous solutions. 

Well underway before the 2017 election, this book is particularly timely given that the new government has talked the talk of fundamental paradigm reform, rather than a modification of the existing model. Winston Peters, in revealing his coalition partner, stated that capitalism has failed many people in New Zealand, and must regain its acceptable face. Certainly, the government has signalled some big targets for rethinking, mostly through the process of reviews. A review of education has recommended throwing out Tomorrow’s Schools, which embedded the ideas of competition and choice (and therefore inequality) in schooling. It led to a school system characterised by increasing segregation along socioeconomic and ethnic lines as schools compete for the “right” students, and parents judge the value of a school on the socioeconomic characteristic of its students (its decile ranking) rather than the school’s success in adding educational value or reflecting wider community representation. Schools in well-off neighbourhoods have prospered, while lower decile schools have been hollowed out. But ambitious parents will see nothing wrong with the status quo. Choice enables them to choose up, which they hope will give their progeny a better chance of making it in a competitive, globalised world in which employment is unstable, and income and home ownership are increasingly uncertain, even for the middle classes to attain. 

Rashbrooke lays out a clear case for collective action, for government action, for looking at social cohesion and inclusiveness ahead of individualism and personal gain. For a government to make radical changes in any meaningful way, to undermine the basic tenets of neoliberal thought, the vision for the future needs to be one that can be easily articulated, asserted and believed in. It needs to be convincing. But, as he refers to throughout and devotes the final chapter to, to work it needs the active engagement of citizens. Will those who benefit from the segregation of Tomorrow’s Schools support its dismantling? Rashbrooke outlines a host of supporting actions that will be needed if citizen engagement is to be more than a Brexit-style referendum or a representation of middle-class self-interest. These actions include: enhancing civics education in schools and lowering the voting age to 16; restricting campaign finance and other lobbying; a reduction in inequality; stacking deliberations with the typically under-represented; and more discipline in and of the media, especially online. This is a big suite of ideals, but without addressing power imbalances, particularly the ones that have flourished under neoliberalism, the rest of the project has little chance of widespread adoption, or of being embedded. The question of how to entrench them, so they are not unwound following an upcoming election, is not in the scope of this book: I wonder about the prospects of the examples Rashbrooke gives of citizen engagement in Brazil since the swearing in of the Bolsonaro government on January 1 this year.

Rashbrooke places a lot of trust in the people of New Zealand, even though he admits at regular intervals throughout the book that people don’t always have access to information or the capacity to process it. And this, too, is where citizen engagement comes in. More deliberative and consultative democratic processes are not just about asking people for their opinions, but about helping citizens become more informed about issues, to listen and share outside their own bubbles and, ultimately, to become more invested in outcomes. It’s an investment in people, not just policies.

The book’s subtitle says this is about the “surprising science” that government can act for the public good; the contents would not have been surprising to a New Zealander 50 years ago. That they might be today is a sign of how far the status quo has shifted with market considerations and individualism now ingrained in our institutions, policies and public discourse. This book speaks of an ambitious project, but an important one. It is about strengthening and enriching New Zealand’s democracy at a time when many countries’ democratic institutions are under threat.

Julienne Molineaux is a researcher with The Policy Observatory, Auckland University of Technology.

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