Is New Zealand Still Fair?

Review in New Zealand Books: Summer 2012, p.23.

While references to ‘fairness’ are riddled through New Zealand’s public rhetoric, how important is the notion in actual public policy? Every day someone sensitive to the issues of equity and inequality meets examples where their concerns are 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 is explored in the chapters which 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’ only became important after. It would appear that America, founded in the earlier period, latched onto 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 nineteenth 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 they were 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 indicated New Zealand was an exception. While it 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 it greater weight than the Americans – just like us.

This might be interpreted to suggest that America’s public values are a hangover from the eighteenth 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 those liberties are important – authoritarian regimes need to be replaced by systems which respect individuals, giving them the human rights we take for granted. But while necessary they are 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 more than today’s. 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 in 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 in the 1970s. The alternative (Burkean) tradition in the New Zealand political right represented – although not first expressed – by Harry Atkinson continues through to at least 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 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 had. (In any case communities evolve more slowly than the external shocks which disturb them.) It seems likely that any policy responding to the 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 become increasingly abandoned (while the rhetoric was retained).

There are at least two reasons. The first is that there were few experts on distributional policies – although everyone has ill-informed opinions. Since 1984 those experts have been excluded from the policy process, which has meant the most anti-egalitarian policies could 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, perhaps no more so than during National’s attempt to privatise the public health system in the early 1990s.

The second reason was that the insiders were increasingly influenced by American thinking, even when it was not particularly relevant to New Zealand. (Ours is not a large economy which issues the international currency.) 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 there in a fading public rhetoric. When was fairness a last 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 twenty years ago. Is it fair that beneficiaries dont share in the nation’s prosperity?

There is a real sense that much of our public policy is becoming more like that of the US. It 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 in those which articulate different social philosophies. It is not perhaps coincidental that of the four large European countries, Britain gives a higher priority to freedom and lower to fairness than the other three.

Soon the generations who remember a New Zealand when there was a strong commitment to egalitarianism will have passed on. Will all that will be left be its 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 reestablish 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 Thomas Hobbes described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”?

Fischer’s book does not answer such questions for it is a view of the past not the future. Despite being littered with historical errors, it has done us a service by provoking us to think about these issues in a fresh way. But it is we New Zealanders, not Americans, who must do our thinking.