Lawrence Simmons and Brian Easton in dialogue
The following is based on a dialogue between Lawrence Simmons and Brian Easton, which took place in early 2003. It is the basis of a chapter in speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand, edited by Laurence Simmonds and published by Auckland University Press in 2007.
Keywords: History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy; Political Economy & History.
Laurence Simmons: One of the first questions I have is why is there such a feeling of unease about being an intellectual in New Zealand? Is this anti-intellectualism inherent in our culture? Why do many public intellectuals have such a mistrust of admitting their roles in public? Why do they fear the contempt or the mistrust of the people in the street?
Brian Easton: There are two issues: one is the anti-intellectualism of the community and the other is the labelling. Even the word intellectual is very ambiguous. Then you’ve complicated it further by introducing the notion of public intellectual. My situation was that until a very good friend said, ‘Oh yes, you’re an intellectual’, I didn’t even think about it, it wasn’t an issue – I just did my thing. When you said that I was a public intellectual, I thought ‘that’s interesting, I wonder what a public intellectual does?’ Behind this is the problem that we don’t actually have a tradition of talking about intellectuals, in the way the French do; and we don’t have, like the British or the Americans, fora which attract intellectuals. If you’re writing for the New York Review of Books I guess you know you’re a public intellectual; if you’re reading the New York Review of Books you are a private intellectual. On top of that, there is an anti-intellectualism in New Zealand.
LS: Does that come from our pioneering background, the fact that the country has been made through a struggle with the land – in some respects, a sort of physical struggle?
BE: This is a quotation I came across by André Siegfried in his Democracy in New Zealand: ‘Their outlook, not too carefully reasoned, and no doubt rather scornful of scientific thought makes them incapable of self-distrust. Like almost all men of action they have a contempt for theories, yet they’re often captured by the first theory that turns up if it is demonstrated to them with an appearance of logic sufficient to impose upon them. In most cases they do not seem to see difficulties and they propose simple solutions for the most complex problems with astonishing audacity.’ That’s Siegfried writing in 1914. When I was writing about Karl Popper’s Open Society, I found on the imprint page a quote from Samuel Butler’s Erewhon: ‘It will be seen that the Erewhonians are meek and long-suffering people, easily led by the nose and quick to offer up common sense when a philosopher rises among them’. So, as far back as the 1860s, there is that element of anti-intellectualism in New Zealand. In many ways it represents the best of New Zealand, which is ‘give it a go’. But there is a lack of careful, rigorous thinking. We often just grab a fashion: Rogernomics was a fashion, the earlier economic policies were fashions. We don’t think about them systematically and we tend to follow the herd.
LS: Is that partly because we don’t have a body of public intellectuals who are debating these ideas for us; because there isn’t a public forum? Did we partly accept Rogernomics because there wasn’t enough discussion about Rogernomics?
BE: It was partly because the way New Zealand was organised then, and indeed now, is that the top few control debate very substantially. It soon became very clear that the penalties of debating were extremely painful, scarring.
LS: You questioned Rogernomics consistently. Was the situation made difficult for you personally in some respects?
BE: Extremely difficult.
LS: To get back to a general question again. One definition that I found of a public intellectual is from Stanley Fish who is an American academic in an English department. He says it is ‘someone who takes as his or her subject matters of public concern and has the public’s attention’. What kinds of people in New Zealand fit that definition? What kinds of New Zealanders become public intellectuals in that sense, do you think?
BE: In some ways the answer is not very many, and it happens through idiosyncratic accidents. On Rogernomics, I was in a particular position where I really had no choice. If you were writing, if you were making regular public comment on economics, you took on Rogernomics because it was not a well-thought-through policy. Lots of my colleagues would say today that they were against it too but they didn’t have the platform and they didn’t choose to look for a platform. So my guess is that ‘public intellectuals’ properly defined are a very idiosyncratic group. That reflects the nature of New Zealand, and that we’re small society; so even if we weren’t anti-intellectual we would still have an enormous amount of trouble having a proper debate. We are still a society which is very nervous of having proper debates, we are very nervous of intellectual excellence. It’s not what we say but it’s what we do. I was at the ‘Knowledge Wave’ conference in February 2003. If there was one thing that was clear it was that almost none of the New Zealand speakers were top-flight intellectuals, and none of them were engaging with some very good overseas intellectuals. There was very little opportunity for public debate.
LS: Can a public intellectual be independent? Bruce Jesson, someone whom I know you admire, wrote: ‘an intellectual serves society best by maintaining a position of critical independence’. So is it possible for an intellectual to be committed to an established ideology – can there be a Catholic or a Marxist intellectual? Was Bruce Jesson an independent intellectual in that sense?
BE: An intellectual always has an intellectual framework, a conceptual framework, and it may be Marxist, or Catholic, or feminist, or whatever. So, in that sense, of course you have an ideology. I belong to the tradition of intellectuals who are very conscious that you’re continually making assumptions. Because there are so few intellectuals in New Zealand, I’m in continuous critical dialogue with myself. What Bruce was talking about there was quite interesting. For a while he was the head of the Auckland Regional Trust, and he got into difficulties with the conflict between the public intellectual and the public servant. Going back to the Fish definition, one could think of, for instance, the Prime Minister as a public intellectual, but the public intellectual, in the Jesson sense, has to be independent of the forces that are dominating society, to be able to stand back critically and say that’s wrong or that’s right in a way that the Prime Minister cannot. I think that’s what Bruce was saying, he was talking about the need to be independent of the various pressures in society, to not be committed to any particular group.
LS: What about the nature of the public space that intellectuals occupy. How do you gain access to that space? How does one become a public intellectual in that sense and where does that public space for new ideas and debate come from?
BE: The problem is where fora exist. I happen to be very privileged in that I have fortnightly column in the Listener. But there are not a lot of fora, and in some respects the fora have been reduced. That’s partly tied up with the way things have been changing in the last twenty or thirty years. It’s also tied up with very deliberate strategies to reduce fora. It’s not generally known, but I have this documented, that in the early 1990s there were representatives of major pressure groups who were going around newspaper and magazine editors saying you shouldn’t use certain people, shouldn’t give space to certain people; some of the editors appear to have caved in. One woman wrote to me and said that she believed that one newspaper actually had a list of people that were banned, and she was on it and she said I was on it. Over the last twenty years there has been a dumbing down. The sort of place where I see it most is that public debate has shifted from hard copy to television and radio. There’s clearly less and less public debate going on in the print media. I don’t think that’s just because they responded to the pressures mentioned earlier. They’ve actually become less committed to open debate. Blog discussion groups and the like on the web have become increasingly important. During the 2005 election, some were much more lively and more interesting than the formal media, which tended to provide facts laced with stodgy, self-important non-comment.
LS: What about the internet and new technologies? You have a website, which you maintain, a very large website. Do you think that the internet and new technologies are going to provide new opportunities for intellectuals, new spaces for intellectuals in that sense, in the dissemination of ideas?
BE: My website is relatively new. What struck me, what strikes me, is the people who come to me and talk to me. I sometimes get people who have particular obsessions with which they want me to agree. On the other hand, I am currently talking to two people overseas – one a New Zealander and one who may be a New Zealander – who came across the website and wanted me to discuss certain elements in it. It’s extremely valuable to me, in a professional way, for improving my understanding of some important issues. So in one sense what’s happened is that the sort of conversation that once occurred, say in the eighteenth-century coffee house, has now gone onto the web. The other thing is that the website also gives you this enormous range of information. In my case the website is recording my intellectual history. So there is a scholarly process going on. But who can debate? It’s very rare, at least in my area, to have a genuinely open debate: almost invariably the debate is very carefully controlled so certain views cannot be discussed.
LS: Yes. You’re not formally attached to any institution, and when you spoke to me you characterised yourself as an independent scholar. Is it possible, in New Zealand, to build a life, a career, as a sort of freelance intellectual – which you seem to have done – outside an institution such as the university? I suppose the question would be: what are the advantages of being outside the university in that way, and what are some of the difficulties involved in building that sort of career, or what are the advantages?
BE: The difficulties are enormous. With tenure in universities you have security, you have income, you have support, you have status – all very important things which the independent scholar doesn’t have. Ours is a society in which we don’t believe in class and we don’t believe in aristocracy – unless you’re a professor.
LS: Did you make a conscious decision to be outside?
BE: No. The universities decided that I didn’t have a contribution to make within them. You’d have to go and ask them why they thought that. One of the advantages – I’m talking here about economics, because it seems different in some other subjects such as literature – but the great advantage in economics is that while university economists are generally extremely isolated from the economy, I’m continually interacting with it. For example, at the Knowledge Wave conference there was not a single university economist. On that day we went to a number of lectures – some were very good – we talked to people in the government and the business community. You get contract work, all around this room are boxes of contract work. So I’m continually interacting. Most academics are very isolated. Having said that, in the 1970s when I held an academic position, I don’t think I was as isolated as the academic of today, so there may either be a shift or it may be a question of character. You know the summary of the academic who’ll say more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing.
LS: You’ve been critical of the standard of debate, economic debate; you’ve suggested in fact that it’s been inferior to what it was two decades ago, three decades ago. Why do you think that has happened? Other educated liberal intellectuals complain about the dumbing down of the media. Is this linked to the dumbing down of debate about economic issues?
BE: I don’t fully know. One must recall that when Rogernomics took place there was a very sharp change in the whole mood of the profession. Under Muldoon, everyone hated Muldoon, so it was a time of open debate. When Rogernomics (or economic rationalism) took over, it certainly became clear there were extremely heavy penalties for getting out of line. The penalties could be losing your research grant – it happened to Bryan Philpott, it happened to David Shepard, both professors incidentally. It could be not being invited to a certain government department’s Christmas party. So there was a whole range of repression like that. In the early 1990s there was a very conscious proposal to cut certain groups of people out of public discussion. Go back to the 1970s and list those who were involved in the debate – the list is longer. I don’t know why so many academics withdrew, you’ve really got to talk to them. Economics tends to be within the business faculty, which is much more rationalist than economics. The deans were very discouraging and the appointment process actively discriminated against people who it was feared were not rationalists. Though, that may be a peculiarity of the economics profession.
LS: Do you think that the public’s understanding of economics, respect for the economist, has dumbed down or has changed as well? Was someone like Bill Sutch understood more, appreciated more, than someone today?
BE: Sutch was unique and my Nationbuilders book is written around him. The way I’ve described the dumbing-down process is this: in the 1960s there was a standard joke, which was that someone wanted to be an economist, but he didn’t have the personality so instead he became an accountant. Nowadays the joke is that he wanted to be an accountant, and he didn’t have the personality and became an economist. Journalists tell me that they found that academics weren’t very helpful. If you had a problem and you went to an academic economist they, on the whole, couldn’t actually help the journalist, so journalists stopped going to academics, who in some sense are independent. If you look at the public debate today it’s primarily driven by business economists who work for financial institutions. Why the academic economists just gave up I don’t know, but that dumbed the debate down. This applies to economics where the debates have been the most vigorous. I don’t know if it is representative.
LS: In the 1940s Antonio Gramsci distinguished between what he called traditional intellectuals, and he included priests and teachers but I suppose we can add in writers and philosophers as well, and organic intellectuals, bureaucrats, civil servants, lawyers he cited, and I suppose we would put advertising executives or PR people in there today. Is that distinction still accurate or valuable, and can we distinguish between a traditional intellectual and organic intellectuals, and maybe create a hierarchy?
BE: I don’t know that we’d want to. Gramsci is talking about the intellectual as a mind-worker, and he’s looking at all the people who are creative or intellectual and that’s a very wide class. We’re talking about an enormous chunk of the community, perhaps 30 or 40 per cent. He’s saying they can be separated into two groups. Is it a useful separation? I’m not entirely sure. For instance, he has teachers as traditional and lawyers as organic. I know lawyers who are closer to public intellectuals than many teachers, who are very deep thinking about their own profession, who read widely, who send me material that has interested them and they think might be of interest to me. What he might be saying is that there are different functions within the intellectual community. There’s one group, the priests and the teachers, who are in some sense talking about the individual, whereas others are talking about the system. That may be a useful distinction.
LS: I suppose the other possible use of the distinction might be to ask, do we believe now that the second type, the organic intellectuals, have taken over? Is it the class of experts, the technocrats who are taking over?
BE: Well, they have a very dominant role. Let me give you a very simple case – it was worse in the mid 1980s. In art, there was a fashion for essentially corporate art, because it paid well. There were various rules about corporate art: it had to be big, because it had to be seen, it had to be flashy and so on; it could not touch certain sorts of topics because it would be too uncomfortable. What you have here is Gramsci’s organic intellectuals controlling art. After the share market crash of 1987, there were these massive paintings and nowhere to put them. So the more intimate art, which may not be responding so much to economic issues but to personal issues, became more relevant.
LS: Recently there’s been quite an interesting book by Richard Posner, who’s an American appeal court judge. In the book he notes a passing of critical intellectuals from positions of prominence in the cultural lives of the community to more marginalised places in the universities. His argument is that intellectuals have disappeared and they’ve ended up marginalised in universities, and they’ve become divorced from the conditions of social reality which once they dealt with.
BE: I have a lot of respect for Posner and I probably have about half a dozen of his books. But when I saw the reviews of that book I decided that that wasn’t going to be one. In many ways it’s deeply flawed. Some of Posner’s positions are very interesting but difficult. As I recall from reviews of the book, he’s talking about American intellectual life, and I didn’t think it was very relevant to New Zealand. A hundred intellectuals in America is about two on a per capita basis in New Zealand, so we’re not talking about very many. The second thing is that many intellectuals in America make very good money simply because of the bigger markets. If you write a regular column in an American magazine or a British magazine, you get paid well out of proportion to what you get paid here. If I find another economic writer, even though I don’t agree with them, I will read her or his column to improve my own skills, because I can see the column dealing with problems in an interesting way. Now, there aren’t really any New Zealanders whose column I read regularly thinking, ‘Gee, it’s going to make me a better writer’. On the other hand, for instance, I regularly read the Economist. It has a lot of strengths, and an awful lot of weaknesses, but the main reason I read it is for the skill in the writing: sometimes you think ‘Gee, that’s a nice way to do it’. They’re dialoguing. If you’re in America or Britain, you’ve got a number of people you can read and then think, ‘I want to be in dialogue with them, I want to improve on them’. In New Zealand on Saturdays and Sundays you pick up the papers and you say ‘these columns are all predictable’. They are so predictable, they’re usually all on the same topic, and they don’t usually have a lot of original ideas to express So that’s another consequence of smallness, you don’t have a lot of chances to really compete. You upgrade your skills simply by being pressed by someone else doing better than you.
LS: Despite that discussion of the smallness of New Zealand and the restricted possibilities in New Zealand – you’ve remained here, you’ve remained committed to New Zealand culture and society. Have you ever thought of leaving and going overseas?
BE: Well I did an OE, and in the 1980s I was offered what amounted to a chair in Australia and I chose not to go. I’m committed to New Zealand. In a later generation, we’re beginning to get a number of people committed to New Zealand who live offshore, because of the net, because of the simplicity of travel and so on, but I’m a New Zealander.
LS: Still in the same vein I think, one of the key words that surfaces in your writing is ‘nation-building’. One of your books is entitled The Nationbuilders. You’ve criticised New Zealand’s abandonment of nation-building in the 1980s, and I think you’ve spoken about its infatuation with foreign models, particularly American models. But one of my questions might be, in the wake of the collapse of communism and the proliferation of discourses around the global in which nationalism has become something of a dirty word, what’s the importance of cultivating a sense of nationhood, of building a nation, still in New Zealand today?
BE: People belong to communities; that’s one of the most important features about being human. Economics fails when it denies the existence of communities. Now, one belongs to various communities, but, particularly if you’re a New Zealander, one belongs to a New Zealand community. That is a way of thinking about yourself culturally. I find some of the New Zealand chauvinism very uncomfortable, some of the criticism of the Alinghi crew during the America’s Cup racing seemed to me to be just totally unacceptable. On the other hand, there’s a sense in which that’s our community and we can, with a bit of skill, use that community to do well for ourselves. What riddled New Zealand in the 1980s, and what riddles New Zealand universities, is the colonial cringe: that we’re not good enough, that we are second and third and fourth rate. So we take models. Now, I continually use foreign models, but not just those based on the United States. So it’s not the models themselves with which I am concerned but the uncritical use of them, and especially locking on to a particular country; it’s especially unfortunate that probably you can’t get a worse country economically to use as a model for New Zealand than the United States. It’s about a hundred times bigger, for a start.
LS: There was a time in the past that we used to compare ourselves with Sweden, for example; when we had a thriving welfare state, we compared ourselves with other small welfare states.
BE: Well, yes. Some part of it was chauvinism, and part of it was to see if we could learn from them. One can think, for instance, in the 1960s, a number of people – of whom Roger Douglas was the most important – looked at the welfare states of Europe and tried to import them into New Zealand through the New Zealand super fund of 1974. Yes, it makes sense to look critically and say ‘what have the Swedes got right, and what have they got wrong, what can we learn from them?’ But that’s not the way we do it today. Instead we have this cringe to be obsequious to every passing foreigner, no matter how bad.
LS: I think in the past you’ve criticised New Zealand universities for appointing foreign candidates to jobs where good New Zealand ones existed, and because of the problems of having to learn about the culture.
BE: What we do is import a person who has probably been trained in an American economy to come and teach New Zealand. There are appalling examples of this. If you wanted to say one thing about New Zealand, it’s that we are a small, open, trading nation. It’s been a part of us. If you want to be a political economist you talk about us being a colony and a neo-colony. Characteristically, most New Zealand textbooks which you use in Stage I are American and they don’t talk about the reality that we’re actually facing. Moreover, because of the colonial cringe we’ve appointed a whole lot of people who are not of high quality – I’m talking about economics. One of the things we need to ask is why anybody would come to New Zealand if they’re as good as they’re cracked up to be? One answer is it’s a New Zealander who wants to come back: I understand that one. But if you get an application from a person from overseas it’s probably because they can’t get a job in America, and it might be because they’re not as good as they pretend to be. If you look at their actual performance they’re not, they don’t know very much about New Zealand and they don’t bother even to learn.
LS: You’ve written on the impact of economic policies on Maori, and you’ve been involved in several Waitangi Tribunal claims. Do you think that as a progressive intellectual you can speak for the oppressed, or does the intervention of intellectuals inevitably reproduce the kind of silencing or marginalisation of the oppressed?
BE: You always have to be very careful about speaking for somebody. For a social scientist, one of the great advantages of Maori is that we can see them in the data, and use them to contrast with others. But let me talk about another group, which I got really quite tangled up with, who were oppressed in the 1970s: women. I was interested in the role of women in the economy, and I’ve always been, I think compared to many of my colleagues, sensitive to those issues. But some women said to me, ‘no we don’t want you to be involved, we don’t want you to speak on our behalf, so butt out’. So – put it this way – I still do the work, while I don’t always report it. When I’m doing anything I check to make sure that I’m not coming from a male perception, that I’m sensitive to the fact that a woman’s economic experience is often very different. If women ask me to speak I’ll do that for them, or background them. In each case in the Waitangi Tribunal claims, some body (some iwi) commissioned me.
LS: Do you have a position on biculturalism?
BE: Yes. It depends where you’re coming from and what you’re doing, but we can’t be a bicultural nation because, in one very obvious sense, there are Asians who are not one single culture, there are the Pacific Islanders, who are also fragmented. Pakeha are highly fragmented. Biculturalism not only ignores the other ethnic minorities, it also lumps us all as being English, and we’re not. We’re Scots, and we’re Irish, and we are Jewish, and other non-Europeans beside. So ultimately we’re not going to be a bicultural nation.
LS: Is biculturalism then a useful strategy on the way to what we might become?
BE: It’s a stage of development, very much tied up with fragmenting from the view of the Pakeha or, really, the British dominance.
LS: Let’s turn to the topic of education. We’ve touched on it before, but you’ve focused on education in many of your Listener columns. Again, you’ve documented how, to some extent, the educational system in the 1980s was captured by the economists, was put under pressure to commercialise, and you’ve criticised very strongly this human capital model of education as opposed to education as an investment, which we might regard as an older model of education, or a social entitlement. What suggestions do you have for combating this now prevalent belief that education should be viewed as a commodity, that it’s something that can be commercialised? Is this still a battle to be fought?
BE: There’s an enormous degree of pressure to commodify in our society. We really have to resist it. I don’t know anything about combating, I just try and explain these things. One issue that we need to be clearer about is why are we after economic growth, why are we interested in material output? Economists just presume that more material output is better, and we don’t usually ask such questions. The American constitution talks about the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So the Americans have been, for over fifty years, regularly surveying people to find out whether they are happy. One of the oddities of this is that there has not been an increase in happiness in the last fifty years despite consumption per person going up. That’s a really worrying result because economics assumes the more output you have, the happier you are. Instead of looking over time we could ask, are richer people happier than poorer people? The answer is ‘yes, a little’. For instance, happiness relates a lot more to whether you are married, than whether or not you are rich. In one column I said that being married was equivalent to having an extra increase in your income of roughly US $100,000. So your wife is a million-dollar baby, if you think about it that way. At issue is to get people to asking what really matters.
LS: Well, I would argue that this view of education is actually restricting choice, that people coming from working-class backgrounds are just not now going to university, for purely economic reasons: they can’t pay the fees or get the loan.
BE: Yes, I accept that but I’m saying something else. I’m asking how much we should be driving our education system to be primarily or only for economic purposes. We’re also doing it in the arts, in a whole range of areas we have this drive to make them economic. So, all the time I’m resisting this notion that we should turn students, the education system, into grimy workers. What are the arts faculties doing towards the economy is the wrong question. We could close down all the arts faculties and increase the New Zealand GDP. And yet these faculties are providing something valuable which is not being captured by the economy.
LS: Well there have been suggestions to do that!
BE: So what happens, what’s your response? Typically, I’m not speaking personally, but typically the response is ‘ah yes, but think of all the jobs that literature creates’, but that’s not the answer. The answer is to think of all the people who are reading novels, watching videos, listening to music and enjoying themselves and are being happy. Whether or not it actually improves GDP or not, who cares? If I want to do anything for education it’s to give those of you who are in education for objectives other than purely commercial ones a bit of courage, a bit of backbone, a bit of argument to say, you know, ‘we actually are doing important things, even if it doesn’t add to GDP’.
LS: Well, one of the criticisms one might make of universities is the fact that we have just sat back and let it happen to us in a way. New Zealand universities it seems to me are very conservative.
BE: I couldn’t believe what happened to universities in the early 1990s. One could see the train coming down the track, and they stood on the track saying ‘hi!’ You only have to go back to the Hawke report on Post-Compulsory Education and Training to see what was happening. It said we will make no difference between education and vocational training. I would have thought genuine academics would have rioted, but generally they just stood there and watched the inevitable outcome. I couldn’t believe it. Perhaps that’s why I’m not in a university.
LS: Well, perhaps that’s a reason why we should have you inside the universities, as a critic. I want to ask you a question now, going back to 1996. You organised the Winter Lectures at Auckland University on the intellectual in New Zealand, and you took your title for that series from Bill Pearson’s widely read essay ‘Fretful Sleepers’. In that essay – he was writing in the 1950s and on the point of coming back to New Zealand – he reflected on New Zealand society as a mixture of colonial cringe, which we’ve talked about, conformity, and inherent puritanism, but decided in the end that New Zealand was better than England, that he would come back. I wonder if much has changed for the intellectual in New Zealand society; if we found ourselves in that same position today would we come back like Pearson did? Has it changed for the better?
BE: I’m not an expert on intellectual activity at that time. We’re probably doing better today, especially in particular areas – literature, and the arts generally, for instance. But we could do a lot better. If we don’t we are going to end up as a state of Australia which becomes a state of the US. That’s what the cultural cringe means. It’s much harder within the social sciences than in the arts. Why has it been easier for the arts? If you wanted to be unkind, you could say it is because the arts are so ‘irrelevant’ to the central issues of society, they can actually have the freedom to do these things. The corporate sector has put money into art, and into literature, and performance and so on – I’m not complaining about that – where the amount it puts into intellectual activity is negligible.
LS: Let me ask you another question about someone else whom you’ve written about in very warm terms, and who was a friend: Bruce Jesson. You delivered the second Memorial Lecture for Bruce Jesson in 2001, and in that lecture you explored Bruce’s notion of New Zealand as what he called a ‘hollow society’. He argued that the social institutions didn’t develop in an organic fashion from the community, from the people, but they had been imposed form the top down by government decree. In fact, I think I even found a phrase ‘elected dictatorship’ referring to the government in those terms. Do you think that a healthy scepticism of the government, and the role of the government in our lives, is essential as a public intellectual in New Zealand because of this very structure?
BE: Can I just deal very quickly with the elected dictatorship? The actual phrase comes from the British Lord Chancellor, Quentin Hogg, in the 1960s, when he was talking about the British parliamentary system. MMP is much less a dictatorship, and one of the things I said in that lecture is that I think MMP is partly filling the hollow society which made the dictatorship possible. Should an intellectual be sceptical of the government? They should be sceptical of everything. There’s a really interesting tension in New Zealand. On the one hand, we have seen the government as a way of doing things: on the other we all do our best to avoid the government. Once, when we had the trailer getting sand I said to my father, ‘Dad, is it illegal to take sand from sand dunes?’, and he said ‘no, it’s illegal if you get caught’. There is a whole tradition of, almost, anarchic libertarianism. In my salad days I was very influenced by social libertarianism, and I have a very natural scepticism of the government. But it is offset by the belief that there is a need for collective action. Sometimes the government has to do it, so there’s no sense that I am a pure anarchist, and I’m certainly not a right-wing libertarian either. But scepticism of everything, basically every statement, you’re testing it, whether it comes from the government, or the corporate sector, or the Maori, or feminists, or whatever. That’s what the public intellectual’s job is, and when you’ve tested it and found it’s true, then you can support it. But very often the main job is to get people to understand better.
LS: Can I ask you a question about the welfare state, which is another topic you’ve written widely on? To a certain extent, in the 1980s and 90s we’ve participated in the collapse of the traditional welfare state, and I don’t think that New Zealand’s the only place that that’s happened. Many commentators have wanted to understand the demise of the welfare state as a consequence of the transition from what they call an industrial to a post-industrial society, the breakdown of the family unit, a shifting labour market and so on. Do you agree with this analysis, or do you think the welfare state still has some future as a notion, or even as a reality?
BE: I expect that there will be collective institutions, administrated in various ways by the government. I don’t necessarily think they will be exactly the same as the ones I grew up with. Sitting underneath them are the various types of social objectives which I hope will be with us for a long time to come. So my guess is that the welfare state will continue. There are some practical reasons why. There are two central welfare state institutions in New Zealand. One is the public health system, which came under enormous privatisation pressure in the early 1990s, and yet people weren’t willing to forego it, for there’s no obvious better system. The other is the retirement scheme. It will hold together because while we may be able to think of a better scheme, we can’t actually get from here to there without causing political havoc. Just suppose, this isn’t my view, but suppose that voluntary savings without a government backup gave you the best retirement system. For you and me it’s too late: we can’t get from there. So we’ve got those two elements of the welfare state locked in. On the other hand, there are bits of the welfare state which will continue to go through very substantial change, partly through the changing circumstances, and partly through the new technologies. To give an example, it is said that the Minister of Labour knew the name of every unemployed person in New Zealand in the 1950s, both of them. Now it turns out that’s probably a historical fiction, but it is true that at one stage we had two people on the unemployment benefit. When you move from a situation of two to 150,000, you’ve changed dramatically the way that you’re managing a core part of the welfare state. So circumstances changed. In a funny sense today the Left are the conservatives. They are nostalgic rather than saying ‘look, we’ve got these changes going on, how are we going to cope with them?’ To take another example, how do you cope with a system that has women as well as men? The welfare state was designed on the basis that women were financially supported by men. One of the extraordinary things about the capitalist system is its ability to adapt and to meet needs, and it’s quite clear that the market doesn’t meet all the major needs. The welfare state had a certain philosophical underpinning, which I’ve written about, which I think is deeply valuable. How we meet those philosophical objectives in the long run may be rather different. So I don’t see us actually going back to the doctrine of a ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’.
LS: Most of us can think of teachers, writers or books that have been influential in our lives, they gave a direction to our thinking. What teachers, writers or books would you name if you were asked that question?
BE: It depends how long you give me to answer that. The most important person in my life happened to be my mother, who wasn’t a teacher from that point of view; and then there’s just an enormous plethora of people who have impinged on me in various ways, some personally and some through their books.
LS: Can I ask you why your mother?
BE: She was just a person who was very intensely committed to intellectual activity, not that she’d ever use the word. I was the brightest kid in the family so she put an enormous amount of effort into me – she put effort into the other kids in other ways. Had she the opportunities that I had, she would have ended up Vice-Chancellor of the biggest university in the country! There was no primary or secondary school teacher that was particularly influential. The one person who was important though, and this is not obvious, is a mathematician, Walter Sawyer. His daughter was in the same class as I was, and he fostered my mathematics. Although I think of myself as a very literary person, I know a lot about science, and I know a lot about mathematics – I love mathematics. If you wanted me to choose the book that really mattered, around about the age of twelve or thirteen I found in the public library an extraordinary set of four volumes called The World of Mathematics by J. R. Newman. Newman got a whole set of papers that had been written about mathematics during the years, and put them together. There are papers written by Archimedes, for instance, there’s Bertrand Russell, and there’s someone I’d never heard of before when I first read him, John Maynard Keynes. What it did was put the mathematics in a social context, so basically I have these very powerful mathematical skills but always in the social context. So that’s the mathematical side. Another person who was really important was Karl Popper. I never met him, but I still read him, partly because I came from the University of Canterbury where Popper taught. It’s from him I learned the importance of being critical. The New Zealander who has influenced me most was probably Bill Sutch. I am in constant dialogue with him. I don’t always agree with what he said, but if you want to think about New Zealand in any sort of serious way as a social scientist you have to read Sutch. He was just so intellectually dominating; he offers ways of thinking about the whole of New Zealand society. So there are all sorts of people like that, and lots of books. I read enormously so all the time I’m being affected by different views. Perhaps that’s the real measure of me as a scholar: I still haven’t stopped learning.
LS: As a final question, could you tell me something about the project you’re engaged in at the moment, are you writing a book at the moment?
BE: My life is a series of threads that twine together. I have received a Marsden Grant to study globalisation. I have some insights – deeply technical economic insights – which provide powerful ways to think about globalisation. The book is almost complete, although I keep getting new insights so the work never will be. Before I received the Marsden Grant I was writing a book called ‘Transforming New Zealand’, about the economic growth debate. If I can get funding, I hope to pick it up again after the globalisation book is finished. It will be fascinating to see how it changes as a result of the Marsden work. It’s a book about some of the things we’ve talked about such as why we pursue economic growth. Then it will discuss how we can pursue economic growth. In particular, in terms of the first question, it will suggest that economic growth is a subsidiary objective, not a primary objective, and that there are other things that are important. We should be quite willing to sacrifice economic growth for other things – it might be the environment, or it might be welfare and so on. The second part of the book will point out much of the conventional wisdom is nonsense, fashion. Take the Knowledge Wave. Those people who are genuinely committed to knowledge would do well to be sceptical about its commodification. We know virtually nothing about knowledge’s impact on economic growth, even though everyone assumes it does. But it is fashion. One week it’s knowledge, and the next week it’s education, and the next week it’s creativity, and the next week it’s infrastructure, and there are all these people rushing around saying ‘this is the solution to the problem’. You’ll find quite a bit of my writing is just saying ‘we don’t know, but let’s think about the issue systematically’.