fairness and freedom

New Zealand and the USA both have their cultural oddities.

With organised sport for school children in NZ there is an award each weekend that is called the ‘player of the day’. Seldom is it the best performance of the day which determines the recipient of the award; rather it is more about whose turn it is on the roster so that fairness prevails above all else. Last week on CNN I watched a debate about gun control. Piers Morgan was arguing with two women. The women were defending their right to own assault weapons that can fire 100 bullets a minute. The world looks on and sees the absurdity of it. And yet the Constitution enshrines the ‘right to bear arms’ – and for them that means any ‘arms’ so that freedom prevails above all else.

Neither of these specific oddities are used in David Hackett Fischer’s Fairness and Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2012)but they could have been.  They fit right into his thesis. Fischer writes the narrative of both countries, thematically and chronologically, as told through the adherence to their core values – fairness in NZ and freedom in the USA. It is readable scholarship at its best. And as a Kiwi-American (and Indian) in background, I found him articulating that for which I have grasped for years. It was such a satisfying read.

Without losing his objectivity, it is clear that Fischer has an affection for New Zealand. You see it in little ways. For example, his painting of the drama at the signing of the treaty at Waitangi – ‘one of the great scenes in modern history’ (119). Another moving description is the narrative of Dame Whina Cooper’s Maori Land March in 1975. As a Kiwi, its kinda nice to have a foreigner take the time to write a book comparing the country that is big and central to the world with one that is small and peripheral to the world. Afterall, ‘not to be heeded has always been the fate of small nations’ (Raewyn Dalziel, 262). There is the odd mistake. I am pretty sure the cover picture is Lake Matheson, not Lake Murchison (xiii).  I am not into playing patriot games – because I believe the call to be a Christ-follower is a call to see past national boundaries - but I confess to there being a proud-to-be-a-kiwi which surfaced as I read.

Fischer sets out to compare and contrast these two ‘open societies’. By this he means that ‘they share democratic policies, mixed-enterprise economies, pluralist cultures, individuated societies, a respect for human rights, and a firm commitment of the rule of law’ (xxiv). NZ and the US are similarly ‘open’ – but then different in the way they cultivate this openness. In the USA the organising principle for this openness is liberty and freedom, while in NZ it is justice, equality and freedom. With topic after topic, Fischer chases this 'similar, but different' theme and elucidates it.

An early fascination is the way Fischer links this thesis to the timing of the settlement of the two colonies by the British – two centuries earlier in the US than in NZ. ‘In large measure, two very different British empires helped to make them that way’ (94) – ie the choice between freedom and fairness. 'We are cultural cousins, because we both began as British colonies. But we are second cousins twice removed, because our imperial origins were not the same’ (69). For the Americans, ‘six generations of American colonists were repeatedly challenged by imperial leaders to fight for their rights’ (76) – and the‘obsession with liberty and freedom’ starts here. On the other hand, ‘New Zealand was born free without having to become so. It never had to fight for self-government, or win its rights by armed struggle’ (93). A completely different spirit existed in the second empire. The early imperialists in the making of NZ were ‘highly principled and deeply Christian, with an elaborately developed sense of justice and equity’ (93). OK, in time they were not always consistent - ‘the irony of British imperial rule was that it inculcated its ethical ideals by failing to live up to them’ (94).
Nevertheless in the run-up to the signing of the Treaty, the Colonial Office was run by Sir James Stephen, who was shaped by the same convictions as his uncle (William Wilberforce). Initially he did not want to add NZ to the empire – as ‘he believed it rightfully belonged to its Maori inhabitants’ (78-79) – but such was the extent of the influence of ratbags among the settlers that his hand was forced.

Everything flows from this early history. Fischer finds his way, chapter by chapter, through the different issues related to nation-building: governance, immigration, women’s rights, racist wrongs etc. Following this attention is given to their mutual participation in world affairs as open societies: foreign affairs, the economic depression(s), military traditions etc  Along the way all kinds of interesting ideas and people emerge. Here is a sampling...

1. While 'freedom' may sound Republican-National and 'fairness' sounds Democrat-Labour, Fischer makes a case for these values transcending the political spectrum in these respective countries. So even someone like Martin Luther-King, with all the reason in the world to speak of equality, appealed to freedom instead.  In 'I Have a Dream', he showed that he ‘understood a deep truth about America ... equality divides Americans; freedom unites them’ (279).

2. While New Zealand’s record on race relations is far from perfect, ’where Americans made many Indian treaties and forgot them, New Zealanders made one treaty and remembered it’ (116). He quotes Professor Robin Weeks, whose scholarship is in the comparative history of English-speaking settler societies and who offers this one sentence summary: ‘the harshest race-relations developed in Australia, the least harsh in New Zealand’ (293-294) – with the US more like Australia and Canada more like NZ.

3. In the chapter on 'Frontier and the Bush', Fischer notes how the relative quantity of land available impacted the histories of the two countries. The 'boundlessness' (148) of the land in the USA contributed to fairness being largely irrelevant. ‘Americans don’t dream of equality. They dream of wealth. They don’t want to get even; they want to get ahead’ (150) – but in NZ, with its material restraints (like the availability of land - ‘more than half of the land in New Zealand has a slope of greater than 30 degrees’ (144)), it was not possible to operate that way.

4. And we meet some impressive people along the way - no more so than Geoffrey Palmer, of relatively recent times: ‘an improbable politician – quiet, intelligent, and thoughtful, with the manner of a scholar ... (and) one of the most creative and successful reform leaders in the history of New Zealand’ (463).

The concluding chapter catalogues the virtues and vices of fairness and freedom, as expressed in NZ and the USA. With the USA, the virtue of liberty is acknowledged. But the vices include ‘the liberty to take away the liberty of others’ (481) which is the habit of some who claim ‘their own endowment of liberty as autonomous, (giving) them the right and power to diminish or destroy the liberties of others’ (481). Then also the ‘vice of demanding liberty’s benefits and rejecting its burdens’ (483) – with attitudes to taxation in the US as Fischer's prime example. My own sense is that the American view of freedom is easily sullied and lacks that early nobility. It easily morphs into the freedom to keep living a highly consumptive life, while the obsession with personal rights brings its own form of enslavement. Within the Christian community, too much focus is placed on exerting influence through having political power (rather than by the church truly being the church) and this is partly because the US Constitution – in practice, if not theory – takes on a similar authority as the Bible. The pursuit of happiness, the ‘right to bear arms’, and patriotism are not biblically-sanctioned and so should be held more lightly than they are.

And New Zealand is not without its idiosyncracies either. The virtues of fairness are easily affirmed - but what of the vices? For Fischer, one vice is the so-called 'tall poppy syndrome’ which is ‘the envy or resentment of a person who is conspicuously successful, exceptionally gifted, or unusually creative’ (486). It is as real as it is wrong. It subverts the ministry of encouragement. It manifests itself as ‘a hostility to any sense of excellence’ (486). I encountered it for the first time when the Board and Staff at Carey Baptist College had a retreat designed to shape our core values. The reaction against 'excellence' from the born-'n-bred Kiwis among us was both surprising and illuminating to me. A further vice is the 'done by lunch' mentality, itself a corruption of the ethic of fairness and the sense that 'there is no need to strive'. Again, for the Christian, this is a problematic vice.

And yet ‘on the subject of fairness, no nation in the world has more to teach than New Zealand; and no country has more to learn than the United States’ (493). That is a big call...
‘New Zealand are consciously a free people, yet few of them have anything like the American obsession with living free. Americans often speak of fairness. Many try to be fair, and most wish to be treated fairly, but they have nothing to compare with New Zealanders highly developed vernacular ideas of fairness as the organising principle of their open society’ (479-480)
Fischer's conclusion is hardly surprising as he wonders aloud about the possibility of a third way: ‘fairness tempered by liberty and freedom’ and ‘liberty and freedom tempered by fairness’ (490) – because it is a ‘free and fair’ world which is needed at each level of community and nation around the globe.

nice chatting



Anonymous said…
Fascinating - I think i will have to be on the lookout for a copy.
I had a smile at your reference to player of the day, as I am involved with Junior Football(soccer) and it is exactly as you describe - POTD goes to the next person on the list. Unfortunately what this does lead to it a lack of motivation from your best players - as witnessed in our team. Talking to other coaches about what they do I discovered that many of them had felt the backlash of parents when they moved to a "best player" system.
I would suggest that we are not preparing our kids for the reality of a dog eat dog world where the man of the match award does not go to Martin Guptill for trying but rather to the Kane Williamson's and David Warner's, even if Sri Lanka won the game.
We have a new staff member joining us soon from Wales and he inquired about the 'cultural oddities' of NZ, of course tall poppy came up, i wonder what else our scholarly friend may suggest.
Tim & Lizzy said…
Hi Paul;

Thanks for your review. THis title has been on my wish list for ages and your review has doubled my resolve to get into it sooner rather than later!

Jordan Jones said…
Hi Paul,

Thanks for taking the time to write up this review. I found it interesting as it seems to conflict with the content of my sociology degree at the moment. The current paper I am undertaking is the sociology of New Zealand. In this paper the central motif is that NZ is one of the most unequal countries in the OECD. Does Fischer explore the adoption in NZ of neoliberalism at all?
Paul Windsor said…
Thanks, Shannon

I do think that the 'player of the day' culture, the 'tall poppy' thing and the 'done by lunch' thing conspire together to create people who can lack mental strength. It seems to be a major problem with our men's cricket team, as this is one of the issues they must confront, if they are to succeed. Having said that. I've always been impressed by the numbers of our sportswomen with mental strength - people like Sarah Ulmer, Susan Devoy, the Evers-Swindells etc.

One issue with 'tall-poppy' that has always concerned me is that it undermines the ministry of encouragement...

Paul Windsor said…
Hi Jordan - Fischer does not speak about neoliberalism as such.

He does have an absorbing chapter on the 'Lib-Labs and Progressives' where he talks about a NZ government that ruled for twenty years ('a generation' - roughly 1890-1910) and which was a coalition from right and left which addressed a whole raft of social issues and changed NZ. Incredible what they achieved together.

I'd be very surprised if NZ was one of the most 'unequal' countries in the OECD. What does that mean, I wonder? Plus, as a Christian, I am not into measuring ourselves against OECD nations alone - but ALL nations. One thing I have read is that NZ is the least corrupt nation in the world. And let me tell you, given what I see and hear in my travels, that is something for which to be greatly grateful.

And remember not to believe everything you learn at university :)

Anonymous said…
The right to bear arms is a very strange one in the face of what it has become. Recently a leader of the gun lobby explained after yet another school shooting that it just shows that every school need a gun toting marshall (my paraphrase). It is time that American take a step back and have a good look at the sort of society they are creating. I guess they would say the same about us Kiwis on another matter. Thanksf or the review

Ali said…
I've come to this post from your "Bullets and Booze" post.

My memory of "Player of the Day" awards was that there were two awards - one for the best player of the day, and one that rotated. I can't remember the respective names. One of them was "Player of the Day".

Now that I'm living in Australia, I'm wondering at the comment that Australia is more like the US. I'm not actually convinced that is the case. There are definite and strong similarities with NZ. Perhaps half-way between NZ and the US??
Ali said…

After a re-read, in terms of race relations, yes, Australia and the US go together. There is a desperate need for a Geoffrey Palmer in Australia.
Craig said…
I've just finished reading Fairness and Freedom after having it on my list for a while. It has been fascinating to read this, I learnt so much about my NZ heritage and how to understand the US where I now live. My wife is Brazilian/American, and I always felt that her Brazilian culture seemed more comfortable than her American side, even though on the surface we appear to have so much more in common with the US (language, TV, movies, British heritage etc.) After reading David Hackett Fischer's book, it makes much more sense.

A few observations:
* President Obama recently appealed to "justice and fairness." (Stephen Moore, Wall Street Journal, 7 Feb 2012 says "President Obama has frequently justified his policies — and judged their outcomes — in terms of equity, justice and fairness."

* As an alien in a strange land, I find it hard to think of this as a free nation. I have learnt not to express my opinions too freely. We are careful with what we write in email (and on blogs) or say on the phone.

* Whatever your opinion of Ayn Rand, her observations 50 years ago of the way the country was heading make interesting reading. She believed that the nation was losing its freedom to an increasingly controlling government.

"Did you really think we want those laws observed?" said Dr. Ferris. "We want them to be broken. You'd better get it straight that it's not a bunch of boy scouts you're up against... We're after power and we mean it. . . There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt. Now that's the system, Mr. Reardon, that's the game, and once you understand it, you'll be much easier to deal with." ("Atlas Shrugged", Ayn Rand, 1957)

* The meaning of the phrase "the pursuit of happiness" (Declaration of Indepedence) is uncertain, but it has always seemed to me to be at odds with the values and purposes of the founding fathers. I'm inclined to agree with the argument that by happiness, Thomas Jefferson meant the civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice - see more here. That adds an interesting angle to the intentions of the founding fathers, although history shows that the citizens have pursued the more self-centred definition of happiness: personal pleasure and material possessions.

Both nations could learn so much from each other.

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