Scoop Review of Books

The Myth of Fairness

Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis, edited by Max Rashbrooke (Bridget Williams Books, $39.99)
Review by Alison McCulloch

inequalitybookcoverThe idea that New Zealand is an egalitarian society has always been vulnerable to reality – and going by the current debate over the widening wealth gap, never more so than today. But while inequality might have worsened in recent years, the past was hardly an egalitarian nirvana.

In the late 1940s, the political scientist Leslie Lipson wrote what has been described as “the preeminent scholarly analysis of New Zealand’s political development”. Titled The Politics of Equality: New Zealand’s Adventures in Democracy, Lipson’s book (which was re-issued in 2011 by Victoria University Press) depicts a New Zealand where egalitarianism is a value prized above all others. “It is an ingrained equalitarian temper which dominates and regulates everything that happens in the community,” Lipson wrote. “Poverty is well nigh eradicated from the Dominion and in its worst forms does not exist at all. There is no underdog, nor is anybody exploited.”

Just which Dominion was Lipson looking at? Surely it wasn’t the one in which, when he wrote those words, Māori infant mortality, along with rates of death, imprisonment and diseases associated with poverty outstripped those of Pākehā to an alarming degree. Or perhaps Lipson’s oversight was because, as the New Zealand Official Year-Book 1947-49 put it, “Maoris have been excluded from the statistical tables”. Why? Because, the Year-Book explained, they tended to live in hard-to-reach rural areas that were “not so well served with modern facilities as regards transport, medical and nursing services, &c”.

But the 1940s were a lifetime ago. Shouldn’t we look a little closer to home, to the decades just before the current race toward income inequality really gathered speed, like the 1960s and 70s? By then, Māori were at least being included in the statistical tables, but the picture they painted was miserably familiar: notably higher infant mortality, infant illness, premature birth, shorter lifespans, higher imprisonment – the list goes on. According to the 1961 Yearbook, “The Maori infant who survives the first month of life is especially susceptible to gastro-intestinal disorders such as diarrhoea, colitis, and gastro-enteritis, and to respiratory conditions such as influenza, pneumonia, and bronchitis.” The even more sobering 1960 Hunn Report added to the dire health data, detailing Māori overcrowding in housing, underrepresentation in education and employment, and higher rates of imprisonment.

It’s pretty much the same story in 1971, with the Year-Book making clear that if only Māori weren’t included in the stats, the nation’s record would look so much better. “Over a long period of years New Zealand has been renowned for the low rate of infant mortality in its non-Maori population,” it reports, only later adding that, “one out of every four infant deaths is a Maori infant death and the Maori rate of loss is nearly twice that of the non-Maori”.

Claims of equality that are built on excluding inconvenient groups are not just confined to real-world economies and societies either – some of the key thinkers behind Western liberal notions of egalitarianism did exactly the same thing. Spinoza, one of the most radical Enlightenment proponents of equality, was not so radical that he could see his way to accepting equality between women and men. “One may assert with perfect propriety,” he wrote in his Political Treatise, “that women have not by nature equal right with men.” His embarrassingly circular reasoning was that he couldn’t find, “among nations so many and different” any countries where women ruled, therefore “it cannot happen, that both sexes should rule alike, much less that men should be ruled by women”.

Using reasoning depressingly similar to Spinoza’s except in the service of racism, the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume said he was “apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites”. In theory, Hume opposed slavery, as did John Locke, who railed against slavery’s “vile and miserable” nature, and famously asserted that “all men by nature are equal”. At the same time, Locke invested heavily in the slave trade and played an important part in its administration.

Beneath every commitment to equality and every claim to being egalitarian, it seems someone is always left out. The very ubiquity of inequality, especially across the years often portrayed as New Zealand’s halcyon days, leads one to wonder just why the issue is gripping us with such ferocity now. Is it because groups previously shielded from poverty and inequality – middle class Pākehā spring to mind – find themselves at risk?

In his edited collection Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis, journalist and author Max Rashbrooke answers the “why now” question by suggesting we have reached a “tipping point”. “Any free society will always have some differences,” he writes, “but New Zealand’s income gaps have now widened to such an extent that they have created something of a crisis.” It’s a point being made loudly across the English-speaking West in myriad books, articles and speeches, particularly in the United States where inequality has reached Gilded Age levels.

All of which make Rasbhrooke’s collection both welcome and valuable in providing much-needed local data and analysis. It comprises 15 chapters by a range of authors together with 14 shorter and less formal “viewpoints”, all covering topics like crime and imprisonment; Māori and Pasifika; education; housing; and welfare.

The drumbeat of bad stats across the book is bleak, and leaves little doubt that the problem of income inequality is a serious one. To pick just one example from the many – this one contained a chapter by Rashbrooke titled “Inequality and New Zealand”: the wealthiest 10 percent of New Zealanders now own more than half the country’s total wealth, while the bottom 50 percent own just 5 percent.

The diagnoses of causes are probably familiar to most readers: neoliberal economic policies that weakened unions and worker protections, privatised the state, and offshored local manufacturing through free-trade agreements (aided and abetted by globalisation); tax and deregulatory policies that shifted power and advantage to corporations and the wealthy; and the on-going deeply entrenched race-based disparities.

It seems the post-World War II successes of social democracies (quite plaintively portrayed in Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of ‘45) lulled the left into thinking progress toward greater equality was now inevitable – that as the pie grew, the institutions and systems in place would ensure its distribution would remain more or less fair. Instead, we seem to have abandoned not only the practice of fairer distribution (limited though that was), but also the ideal.

What can be done about all this and whether individuals are motivated to press for change is now the challenge, and some of Rashbrooke’s authors are more hopeful than others. In one of the collection’s more powerful chapters, Robert Wade, a professor of political economy at the London School of Economics, offers some insight into why the very middle classes that are now being squeezed continue to embrace the established order. “Since fear of loss is a more powerful motivator than prospect of gain,” Wade argues, “talk of ‘reducing inequality’ prompts middle-class anxiety that the government may try to pull up those below them in the income hierarchy; this worries the middle classes more than those above them rising even further away.”

At a deeper level, Wade says those of us in the West have largely accepted the conservative vision that minimal government and maximal “free enterprise” is what creates a moral society. “This mind-set inclines people to think that, when ninety-five bones are hidden in a room into which are let a hundred dogs, the five who emerge without a bone must be deficient in skills and motivation.” (And, one might add, they ignore the fact that 10 percent of the dogs were born in the room and so come away with 50 percent of the bones.)

Wade’s mention of the “moral society” points to something of a split in approaches to the problem of inequality, and one that is represented in this collection: whether we try to win people over with the utilitarian argument that greater equality makes everyone better off, including the rich, or with the simple moral case that equality is a social good and should be sought for its own sake?

The BERL economist Ganesh Nana is the strongest proponent here for utilitarian arguments (though he also makes clear financial considerations should be subservient to society’s values). Inequality, he says, “has negative effects for the wealthy as well as the less fortunate”, is inefficient and reflects a market failure. I’ve never found the “inequality also harms the rich” argument particularly persuasive, and it surely leaves proponents of equality vulnerable to evidence that might show otherwise. Looking at our own unfair history, perhaps our decades of race-based inequality have harmed the better off among us along with Māori, but if so, that fact doesn’t seem to have been much of a motivator for change.

The writers in this collection rightly take the simple moral argument as a given, and where they include the utilitarian case, it’s a kind of bonus. As the political scientist Jonathan Boston points out, almost everyone is an egalitarian of some stripe, the question is what kind of equality they favour, and how much of it. It’s no use having legal and political equality, for example, if you don’t have the means or capabilities to act on them. Only governments, Boston says in what is the book’s most philosophically focused chapter, “have the resources to ensure that all citizens are able to enjoy their rights and liberties in a substantive sense”. His prescription includes putting more emphasis on redistributive policies, but he doesn’t go into specifics. Other contributors do, suggesting more progressive taxation, more low-cost high-quality housing, more accessible education and a living wage for workers.

All the recipes for greater equality are actually pretty moderate – there’s no outright assault on capitalism in these pages. Evan Te Ahu Poata-Smith, the head of Indigenous Studies at the University of Wollongong, in a particularly trenchant chapter that concisely chronicles some of our historical inequities, does acknowledge that turning back the tide “would require a transformation of society itself”, but takes that thought no further. (Interestingly, he also points to a new and growing inequality – one within Māori communities.) Robert Wade, too, thinks only radical change will do. Meanwhile, in the interests of accuracy, Wade urges us to “refer not to ‘democratic free market capitalism’ but to ‘plutocratic impunity capitalism’”.

My own very modest proposal is that we stop pretending we, as New Zealanders, have some special relationship with fairness. Having lived for more than a dozen years in the country that frequently proclaims itself the greatest nation on earth (yes, that would be the United States), maybe I’m a little oversensitive to delusions of grandeur. But believing oneself to have some laudable national characteristic is an obstacle not an advantage.
The myth of Kiwi egalitarianism pops up occasionally in this book, too, which is surprising considering it is packed full of evidence to the contrary. After noting that opinion surveys show a majority of New Zealanders think people are poor because of laziness and a lack of willpower, for example, Paul Barber, a policy adviser at the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services, still holds fast to the notion that an underlying “sense of fairness reflects one aspect of our national character”.

This kind of myth-making has already blinded us to at least some of the truth about our past. I say we dispatch it once and for all so it doesn’t blind us to what’s going on in our present. Digesting the wealth of evidence and argumentation presented in Rashbrooke’s collection would be an excellent place to start.

Alison McCulloch is the author of ‘Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand.’