Launch of “But Is it Fair?”

<>But is it Fair? Faith Communities and Social Justice edited by Neil Darragh and published by Accent Publications (Launched at Connolly Hall, 6.00 4 April, 2014).


Keywords: Political Economy & History;  Social Policy;


I am not sure an economist should be launching this book. While economists are often treated as today’s secular theologians to be consulted by the public, there is a very important difference between economists and conventional theologians. Economists get absolutely no training in ethics. Indeed the profession prides itself on being value free. What actually happens is that the economists’ advice is usually based on their personal values which they may not even be aware of and which do not always align with the values of the general public.


What economists ought to be doing is listening carefully to people to try to assess their values and goals; and to respond by setting out the options available – including the downsides. They should be listening counsellors rather than pontificating theologians.


It is in this spirit I am to launch this book of essays by 36 people, setting out their beliefs about how fair New Zealand society is. The writers are from the faith communities. Their diversity is admirable; there is a wide variety of Christians and contributions from a Jew and Moslem. They come from a variety of backgrounds ranging from ministers of religion to those who are directly supporting the underprivileged or who are teaching. Yet their vocations are essentially religious; I could not help noticing a number were retired priests, who were still pursuing the vocation of their working life. (There are not many economists who do.)


Their basic conclusion is to answer But is it Fair? with a ‘probably not’ or ‘certainly not’ when referring to society as a whole. To find their precise reasons, you will have to read the individual essays yourself. Some set standards of social justice from their faith, others talk about their experiences, although in every essay each perspective informs the other.


I suggest, however, you don’t read them all at one sitting. It might be best to read one a day and ponder on it, like some people do with sacred texts. And don’t give up – there are some strong contributions towards the end of the book. You would not want to miss them.


As an economist I am acutely aware that many of the prescriptions for improving fairness have little to do with conventional economics. Others do. For instance the market economy is based on competition. Perhaps that undermines some of the values advocated in the book, like cooperation, trust and decency. There is a sort of Gresham’s law (that’s an economist’s principle) in which quality values are driven out by competition.


Why do we encourage market competition? The economic justification is that it maximises material output. Less aggression probably means a lower material standard of living but it also probably means less stress in life. I notice some of the talented contributors to the book have given up higher paid jobs to pursue their vocation (although I doubt there has been much reduction in stress). Ultimately we need a society in which everyone does that, aiming for a lower standard of living. .


In fact most New Zealanders have a sufficient material standard of living but does it increase their welfare – their happiness? Their aim is to have a higher income than others in order to be higher in the social pecking order. The economy is driven not so much by the deadly sin of greed; but by the equally deadly sin of envy.


Yet, as many of the authors argue, there is a group in society who have insufficient. Not everyone should restrain their demands for higher material consumption. Perhaps some of us should give up a bit more to enable others to have a more realistic standard of living.


An economist can help articulate the policies which would better meet such goals, but note that I have slipped in the assumption that to make some people better off in material terms others have to be worse off. (That may not be true in spiritual terms.)


Material tradeoffs are at the heart of economics. They are actually consequences of the laws of thermodynamics; you don’t get anything in this material world for nothing. It’s too easy to propose policies making some people better off while ignoring that others will be worse off. Almost certainly everybody in this room will have to take a material hit if we want to address honestly the needs of the poorest.



But I am drifting away from the logic of the book , nicely summarised by the eleven principles enunciated by the New Zealand Catholic Bishops conference. However they are universal enough for Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or whatever, although each may wish to articulate them slightly differently.


The eleven principles are:

Human Dignity;

Human Equality;

Respect of Life;



The Common Good;


Preferential Protection for the Poor and Vulnerable;


Universal Destination of Goods;



I suggest you write out the list, change the terminology if you like, put one copy on your fridge and use the other as a bookmark. You will find they illuminate almost every page.


Oh, make a third copy to give to your friendly economist or politician. Tell her or him that is how society should be organised and ask them to think about how to do it better.


So let me conclude by congratulating Neil Darragh, his co-authors and those who produced the book and urge you to purchase a copy. Don’t just leave it on a shelf. Read it, discuss it with friends, share it, try to follow the lessons it advocates, keep reading it until it falls to pieces. Then buy another copy.