Fairness and Freedom by David Hackett Fischer

APRIL 14, 2019

Another wonderful book by Fischer that builds on the extraordinary Albion’s Seed.

Basic point is that whilst US and NZ are similar in both being “open” societies, created by voluntary settlement of English-speaking and largely British emigrants, they are profoundly different. This difference is related to their culture and, Fischer, contends to a major difference in their core politico-social value: liberty/freedom for the US versus fairness for NZ. This cultural difference shows up in a myriad of ways in their political, social and economic organization and outcomes. This difference is exemplified in the epigraph for the introduction:

“A Fair Go for the Ordinary Bloke”
—Campaign slogan of New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon

“Liberty, Freedom, Bush”
—Campaign button of American President George W. Bush

Fischer traces this difference to key aspects of the origins of the US and New Zealand (no surprise for readers of Albion’s Seed). Specifically, the US was founded by emigrants from England seeking to escape political/religious persecution by the state and who wanted basic civil freedoms and relgious liberty. NZ was founded by emigrants (~ 200y later) seeking to escape economic oppression and demanding fairness – a decent opportunity for all.

Overall, this is a more superficial and less magisterial work than Albion’s Seed (hardly a criticism given how brilliant that is). But is still fascinating and valuable. It is of particular interest to me, given my continuing quest for example’s of wise societies: it looks like I should add New Zealand to the list.


Nations and Cultures Exist

… During the 1980s, a generation of relativists and postmodernists (now passing from the post-postmodern scene) persuaded themselves that nations were merely “imagined communities.” Events after 1989 have demonstrated that they were very much mistaken. Nations have a material existence that is independent of our thought about them. New Zealanders and Americans live under national laws, speak national languages, and share national cultures that make a daily difference in our lives. Americans in New Zealand—and New Zealanders who travel in the United States—meet the reality of national culture at every turn.16

New Zealanders are pretty great …

We observed it in the way that New Zealanders receive visitors from abroad. Like many travelers before us, we were struck by their unstinting hospitality, warm generosity, unfailing decency, and high good humor. Wherever we traveled in New Zealand, we met the kindness of strangers. Whenever we stayed, strangers became friends. Other visitors have had similar experiences.

These intellectual tourists could be difficult people, who severely tried the patience of their hosts, but even some of the most difficult warmed to New Zealanders. A case in point was George Bernard Shaw, who curbed his cutting tongue (for half a sentence) and said of New Zealanders, “They are a pleasant people and better spoken than the people of England—but then we are such a miserable sort of advertisement.” On his departure from New Zealand, Shaw amazed a reporter by confiding, “If I showed my true feelings I would cry; it’s the best country I have been in.”22

When one compares these many accounts, one notices that the same language of description tends to occur. Karl Popper described New Zealanders as “decent, friendly and well-disposed.”27 His choice of words in the mid-twentieth century was very similar to Samuel Butler’s in the mid-nineteenth century, and to the words that came to our minds in the early twenty-first century. But in this remarkably consistent testimony, a curious puzzle appears. Through many generations, travelers’ accounts have tended to be similar in descriptions of New Zealand culture, but different in their explanations.


… The election looked familiar to an American eye, but its sounds were strange to an American ear. At first we could not think how or why. Then suddenly it dawned on us that Selwyn’s many candidates had little to say on the subject of liberty and freedom. In the United States, the rhetoric of a free society is heard everywhere. Liberty and freedom were the founding principles of the American republic. Through many generations, public discourse in the United States has been a continuing debate over contested meanings of those great ideas.2

Selwyn’s candidates had more to say about another value, which is not so prominent in American politics. Most of them talked urgently about the idea of fairness. It was discussed by politicians of every major party and analyzed by journalists and scholars who were looking on. “Fairness may not be everything,” Jonathan Boston wrote during the Selwyn campaign, “but it is an extremely important value—and one which has been in short supply for too long.”3

The Selwyn election became a sustained debate on the subject of fairness, and in a very large-minded way. Candidates did not merely demand fair treatment in particular ways for themselves and their supporters. They discussed fairness as the organizing principle of an open society, which happens rarely in the United States.

Origins of word Fair(ness)

Interesting etymology of fairness. Does not exist outside nordic and english …

Where did this language of fairness come from? What is the origin of the word itself? To search for the semantic roots of fair and fairness is to make a surprising discovery. Among widely spoken languages in the modern world, cognates for fairness and fair appear to have been unique to English, Danish, Norwegian, and Frisian until the mid-twentieth century.40 They remained so until after World War II, when other languages began to import these words as anglicisms.41

To study these early English uses of fairness and fair is to find a consistent core of meaning. Like most vernacular words, they were intended not for study but for practical use. In ethical applications, they described a way of resolving an issue that is contested in its very nature: a bargain or sale, a race or rivalry, a combat or conflict. Fundamentally, fairness meant a way of settling contests and conflicts without bias or favor to any side, and also without deception or dishonesty. In that sense fairness was fundamentally about not taking undue advantage of other people. As early as the fifteenth century it variously described a process, or a result, or both together, but always in forms that fair-minded people would be willing to accept as legitimate.

Fairness functioned as a mediating idea. It was a way of linking individuals to groups, while recognizing their individuality at a surprisingly early date. Always, fairness was an abstract idea of right conduct that could be applied in different ways, depending on the situation. For example, in some specific circumstances, fairness was used to mean that people should be treated in the same way. But in other circumstances, fairness meant that people should be treated in different ways, or special ways that are warranted by particular facts and conditions, such as special merit, special need, special warrant, or special desire. 50

Fairness was a constraint on power and strength, but it did not seek to level those qualities in a Procrustean way.51 Its object was to regulate ethical relationships between people who possess power and strength in different degrees—a fundamental fact of our condition. A call for fairness was often an appeal of the weak to the conscience of the strong. It was the eternal cry of an English-speaking child to parental authority: “It’s not fair!” As any parent knows, this is not always a cry for equality.

Fairness is not a big deal in the US (any more)

But the attitudes of these fair-minded men were not typical of American politics as a whole. A congressional coalition of southern Democrats and northern Republicans defeated most of Harry Truman’s Fair Deal legislation. After Truman left office in 1953, not much was heard about fairness in American politics for an extended period. A new school of hard-right conservative Republicans had little interest in the subject. A new generation of Democrats cultivated a spirit of “tough-minded liberalism” that was very different from the thinking of Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, both Roosevelts, and Harry Truman on the subject of fairness.

A case in point was an event that happened in the presidency of a consciously tough-minded liberal, John F. Kennedy. During his administration, veterans of two wars were called up for a third time to serve in Vietnam. Some protested that they had done more than most, and that it was “unfair” of the president to ask them to serve yet again when many others had not served at all. Kennedy replied, “There is always inequity in life. Some men are killed in a war, and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country. … It’s very hard in military or personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair.”76

But the veterans were not asking for “complete equality,” or even for equality at all. They were appealing to an idea of fairness that Kennedy’s response confused with equality. He dismissed it out of hand, and issued an executive order that made life a little more unfair. President Kennedy did not invent the idea that “life is unfair,” but he gave it wings, as presidents can do. From the 1960s to the 1990s, Americans made a cliché of John Kennedy’s cynical thought that “life is unfair.” By and large, they did not expect the government to do much about it.

Some Americans went farther. They rejected the very idea of fairness, and some justified the existence of unfairness as a positive good. Conservative journalist William Safire elevated unfairness into a theological doctrine, and linked it to liberty and freedom. He wrote, “The icon-busting Book of Job teaches that God does not micromanage the universe, and that free-willed human beings are responsible for actions and injustices. That’s why life is unfair.” For Safire, unfairness was inseparable from liberty, freedom, and human responsibility.77

Other Americans celebrated unfairness in general as a positive good. A conservative business journalist, Hiawatha Bray, published an essay in the Boston Globe called “Unfair Is Fine.” Bray wrote, “Life is unfair, thank God. If nobody was richer, tougher, or smarter than me, I’d be sitting in a cave somewhere. All of us benefit from unfair advantages held by others.” In this way of thinking unfairness became a moral imperative.79

Origins of Open Societies

Settler Societies

New Zealand’s Great Migrations, 1839–66: Wellington and the Wakefield Colonies

New Zealand’s great colonial migrations came mainly in a period of three decades. As in America, they planted settlements in different parts of the country, which grew into regional cultures. Here again the great waves began by voluntary effort. In the critical period, British rulers did not control the colonization of New Zealand, and sometimes actively opposed it. A primary instrument was a private corporation called the New Zealand Company. Founded in 1838, it resembled the Virginia Company and the Massachusetts Bay Company in many ways. One goal was to replace the “raffish free-for all of old New Zealand” with a “new Old England.” Another was to found new societies as models for reform in the old.38

The driver was Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796–1862), “a florid John Bull figure … with the air of a prosperous farmer” and “a pack of well-bred dogs at his heels.” Opinion on him will always be divided. Many knew him as a humanitarian, utopian, and idealist who sympathized deeply with victims of injustice. Others complained of his dishonesty, treachery, and cruelty, and profiteering. Thackeray called him “a rogue if ever there was one.” All of these judgments are correct. None alone can explain this extraordinary man.39

Gibbon Wakefield inherited three reform traditions. He was born into a family of Quaker reformers and raised near London, where his father was an Enlightenment reformer, and family friends were Utilitarian reformers James Mill and Francis Place.40 During a wayward youth, Gibbon Wakefield rebelled against them all. He was expelled from the best schools in Britain, then eloped with a sixteen-year-old heiress and settled down for a few years. When his wife died after childbirth, he took up the reckless life of a Regency rake with much drinking, dueling, gambling, dissipation, and worse. In 1826 he abducted another heiress who was barely fifteen. For that crime he was lucky to escape a hanging, and landed in prison.41

Three years in Newgate turned this Regency rake into a moral reformer. Wakefield discovered at first hand what he called the “gross injustice” of English institutions.42 In confinement he began to write impassioned essays about the cruelty of corrupt judges who sentenced a child of eight to hang for stealing a cake, and executed a pauper for stealing a sheep to feed his starving family. Wakefield documented the systemic unfairness of courts where “the lower the rank of the accused and the more desperate the need … the more likely a hanging.”43

Wakefield was not a revolutionist. His remedy was colonization, and he began to study English colonies throughout the world. The history of Australia gave him a horror of penal settlements and a strong belief that colonization must be an open process. He studied the United States and judged it to be morally deficient in the condition of its least advantaged people. Wakefield condemned the intolerance of New England’s Puritan founders and the injustice of southern planters who demanded liberty to practice slavery. He also wrote with genuine sympathy for the suffering of slaves.46

As a remedy, Wakefield planned a new set of colonies for New Zealand, founded on a strong sense of social order and natural justice, where people would gain the rewards that their moral condition deserved. Nothing would be given to them, but much could be earned by industry, sobriety, and the Victorian virtues. Wakefield’s object was to create a hierarchical society that was more just and fair than that of England. His idea of fairness was about matching rank to merit, and wealth to virtue. Here was a principle of equity without equality.47

Wakefield believed that a material key to this idealized system was land policy. America’s history persuaded him that free land encouraged slavery in the South and a disorderly, materialist, money-grubbing society in the North. His solution was a theory of “sufficient price,” which artificially inflated the price of land in New Zealand. The object was to stabilize a social order, support a moral elite, encourage a propertied middle class, and assist migration of the deserving poor. To Americans it is an alien idea, but English reformers liked it.48

In 1837, Wakefield convened the first meeting of the New Zealand Colonization Association, which became the New Zealand Company. With energy and evangelical fervor, Wakefield himself drew in his brothers Arthur, William, and Daniel, and his son Edward Jerningham Wakefield. In Philip Temple’s phrase, New Zealand became the family business, and the Wakefields pursued it on a grand scale.49

Gibbon Wakefield proposed to found separate colonies in New Zealand: one for a mixed group of moderate Anglicans; others for Methodists, High Anglicans, Scottish Presbyterians, Irish Catholics, and Jewish Zionists. The Catholic and Jewish colonies never materialized, but other settlements succeeded. They differed very much from one another and also from Wakefield’s plans, but most shared some of the purposes that were close to his heart.50

In 1838, the New Zealand Company dispatched the ship Tory to explore the country and purchase sites for settlement from Maori. The most promising location was a large deepwater harbor on the north side of Cook Strait between New Zealand’s North and South islands. Wakefield’s associates thought it a perfect place for a commercial and administrative center. They named it Wellington, to honor an eminent supporter and to cement “the association of the Mother Country with the future of the town.”51

Frontier and Bush

Institutional rules (underpinned by cultural norms and driven by environmental constraints) shapes inequality and social structure

After two generations (1840–1890), New Zealanders were running short of good land. By 1890, the supply was highly concentrated in a few hands: 422 families and companies (1 percent of owners) held 64 percent of freehold estate. A new coalition of Liberal and Labour leaders responded with the Lands for Settlement Act (1892), for the acquisition of all large estates and their redistribution in small holdings. From 1890 to 1940, 669 large estates were bought from willing sellers, and 2 million acres were distributed in smaller units. New Zealanders strongly supported this program, rich and poor alike.

Dramatic evidence of the results appeared in Margaret Galt’s study of wealth concentration in probated estates. The proportion of wealth held by the top 1 percent of estates fell from 65 percent in 1893 to 30 percent in 1912, then fluctuated under more conservative governments in a range of 42 to 24 percent from 1912 to 1935.

By contrast US

[Ed: the US only used institutional rules in initial grant and thereafter allowed “free market” to work resulting in growing inequality and reduction in freeholdership.]

In the United States, federal, state, and local governments did not attempt redistribution, not even in the Progressive Era. As a consequence, inequality increased, and tenancy grew rapidly in the United States, more than doubling (109 percent) in the half century from 1880 to 1930. In New Zealand tenancy also rose, but only by 24 percent. Most American families continued to own their land, but the proportion fell from 74 to 51 percent. As late as 1930, a bare majority of Americans still owned the real estate on which they lived, but the proportion of freeholds was diminishing, and so was the proportion of farmers who were freeholders. Liberty and freedom were maintained, and government activity was kept low, at a heavy cost in equity and fairness.

Nation Building as Open Processes

Federalists and Centralists

Collective Action Problems

Ed: NZ became centralized whilst America federalized]


The political problem came to a head when Vogel proposed to use revenue from the sale of Crown lands for the construction of railroads throughout New Zealand. Provincialists wanted the revenue for their own governments and refused to agree. Worse, when three provinces on the South Island built railroads, they adopted three different gauges: a “broad gauge” in Canterbury, “standard gauge” in Southland, and a middling “new standard gauge” in Otago. Yet another struggle followed, over Vogel’s proposal for creating national forest reserves, which were also resisted by some provincial leaders.

These conflicts turned Vogel into a centralist. Working with his former opponent Edward Stafford, he proposed the entire abolition of all provincial governments on the North Island. Many of the poor provinces supported that idea, and the rich provinces could not unite against it. The measure passed. Another bill extended the new system to the whole of New Zealand. Vogel was out of the country when the proposed bill came to a vote, but Atkinson, with strong support by Stafford, managed to get it through. Provincialists from Otago and Canterbury fought it tooth and nail. Sir George Grey was passionate in his opposition. But a strong majority of representatives, especially from poor provinces, supported the centralists. In 1876, the new reform carried on the second reading, 52 to 17.48

The result was a landmark law called the Abolition of Provinces Act. The provinces were renamed “provincial districts,” which functioned as arms of the central government and lost virtually all of their various roles. This reform eliminated a middle level of autonomous governments. It left New Zealand with a national government and local bodies such as municipal corporations (under a new act in 1867), borough councils, county councils, road boards, river boards, and the like. Through the years, Parliament divided the country into arbitrary “counties,” and then sliced it into various sets of administrative districts for particular purposes.

Crime and punishment

Through all these changes, traditional methods of “preventive policing” persisted, with some important changes. In 1919, when Constable Vivian Dudding was killed by a Wellington Wharfie with an automatic weapon, Parliament responded with the Arms Act of 1920. The act imposed stringent restrictions on the sale, ownership, and use of firearms and explosives and banned automatic weapons.59 In the United States the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees a right to “keep and bear arms.” Attempts to regulate firearms are strongly opposed by the National Rifle Association, often working very closely with weapons manufacturers.

During the late twentieth century, New Zealand and the United States suffered from stresses that afflicted most nations throughout the world, but dealt with them in different ways. New Zealand preserved its tradition of preventive policing, and continued to do so with remarkable economy of force. The American response was to increase numbers of police, multiply law enforcement agencies, and give more attention to heavily armed “SWAT teams” and “rapid reaction forces” modeled on military units.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, New Zealand maintained a single national police force, with 7,000 sworn officers: roughly 1 police officer for every 600 New Zealanders. By comparison, the American governments maintained 18,000 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, which employed 1.2 million officers, or 1 police officer for every 250 Americans—not counting private police, who doubled the absolute number and halved the ratio to 1 public or private order keeper for every 125 Americans.60

Patterns of crime and punishment were also very different in the two countries. In general, violent crimes occurred much more frequently in the United States. In 1995 (a peak period), 21,610 homicides were reported in the United States, a rate of about 8 per 100,000. New Zealand in 1996 reported 119 homicides, or 3 per 100,000. An even greater difference appeared in reported rates of aggravated assault—418 per 100,000 in United States, 62 in New Zealand.61

The most striking differences between the two nations appeared in variations in the regional distribution of violent crime. In New Zealand homicide rates varied comparatively little by region. American regional differences in violence have always been very large. New England states in 1995 had a homicide rate of 3.4 per 100,000, very similar to New Zealand in that year.62 By contrast, the homicide rate in the state of Louisiana was 17 per 100,000, five times greater than New England. Texas, Oklahoma, and the lower Mississippi Valley all had very high rates of violent crime.63

These regional differences were highly persistent. They had appeared in vernacular traditions of order and violence that had appeared in their founding. People in Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma were more apt to own firearms than their counterparts in New England. Cultural ideas of justice in the southwestern states ran to a traditional idea of justice as lex talionis, the rule of retaliation. Andrew Jackson’s mother told her son never to go to law over slander and assault, but “always settle them cases yourself.” Courts enforced this rule of lex talionis in that region even to the late twentieth century. A study in 1993 found that American rates of justifiable homicide were highest in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia. They were very low in New England.64

Similar disparities appeared in the use of capital punishment. New Zealand abolished the death penalty in 1941, restored it in 1950, suspended it in 1958, and removed it from its criminal code in 1989. Throughout the United States, the death penalty currently exists in thirty-seven of fifty states. The number of people executed under civil authority in the United States from 1930 to 2006 was 5,076. Rates of execution varied by state and region in the same way as did homicides. They were very high in Texas and zero in New England, with regional patterns throughout the country that were similar to those for the commission of violent crimes.65

Large differences between the two nations, and also between American regions, appear in the frequency of imprisonment. In 1996, the prison population in the United States was 1,085,100 (a rate of 411 per 100,000). In New Zealand it was 5,150 (137 per 100,000).66 This disparity was also growing larger. From 1996 to 2006, rates of violent crime declined in the United States, but rates of imprisonment greatly increased. An international survey in 2008 found that the number of American prisoners had risen from about 1 million in the early 1990s to 2.3 million in 2006, a rate of 760 per 100,000, the highest rate of imprisonment among 216 nations in the world. Rates of incarceration also varied greatly by region: five times higher per capita in Louisiana and the deep Southwest than in Maine and New England.67

Immigrants, Voluntary and Assisted

… These laws succeeded in reducing the flow of immigration to the United States for more than forty years, from 1921 to 1965. But even through that era of restriction, voluntary immigrants continued to find their own way into the country. As always, they were drawn by dreams of liberty, freedom, and opportunity in an open society.

The Door Reopens, 1965–2012

Then came the 1960s, one of the few moments in American history when liberals and progressives gained control of every branch in the federal government. The Hart-Cellar Act (1965) revised national quotas, increased total numbers of immigrants, and admitted them from the Western Hemisphere on a first-come basis. The result was an enormous flow of legal immigrants in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the largest wave of migration in American history.

It was also unlike any earlier wave in its composition. These immigrants came mainly from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. In terms of social class, this movement tended to be bimodal: many highly skilled and wealthy immigrants, vast numbers of very poor people, and comparatively few from the middling strata—a fundamental change from earlier patterns. Another change occurred in gender. Early American immigrants were mostly male; in the late twentieth century a majority were female.32

Illegal migration also increased rapidly. A nativist backlash led to the Immigration Reform and Control Act (1986), which penalized employers who knowingly hired unlawful immigrants, and also offered amnesty to illegal aliens in the country. The net result was a huge increase in immigrants and new citizens. During the early twenty-first century the United States admitted more immigrants to lawful residence than any other developed society in the world, and illegal migration continued at even higher levels. Tens of millions of unlawful aliens were in the country in 2010. Many efforts at regulation by Congress from 1990 to 2010 failed.33

Immigration to NZ: Highly Selective

Very selective… Costly to get there (5x cost to us) and for assisted immigrants (prob 13 of early total) lots of criteria.

This is description for assisted immigration 1947 to 1975.

All were asked to submit birth certificates, character references, statements from employers, records of military service, and medical reports. A personal interview was also mandatory. Applicants were judged for “character” and “bearing,” and many were rejected. Admitting officers in New Zealand’s Immigration Branch complained that “the wrong type” too often applied. Wrong types included “semiprofessional men,” “junior executives,” and “small traders”—an attitude opposite to that in the United States. One observer remarked that it was harder to get into New Zealand than to join a gentleman’s club in London.54

Cultural impact of that filtration

Immigration as a process of social filtration had other important consequences for both New Zealand and the United States. In some ways its effects were diametrically opposed. In New Zealand, Megan Hutching did a survey of assisted immigrants and found that “in the end, people often chose New Zealand because it seemed non-threatening.” One woman explained that she selected New Zealand because it was “small and comfortable.”55

All of this was very different from American immigration. In the United States, a voluntary and largely self-driven process selected immigrants who were restless, autonomous, ambitious, aggressive, entrepreneurial, and highly individuated. They tended to be more tolerant of risk, in the hope of greater profit. America’s open and voluntary system of immigration selected a population that lived for liberty and freedom.

In New Zealand, fairness was a frequent theme. Programs of assisted migration were founded with the explicit purpose of giving people a fair chance that was denied to them in Britain. The Salvation Army organized schemes for young people of good character from the densely crowded slums of England and Scotland. Its object was to give them a fair go in New Zealand. Another association, called Flock House, assisted the children of British seamen who had been killed or crippled in the First World War.56 A third program was founded by William Ranstead, a self-made businessman and Fabian socialist who published a newspaper called Clarion, in which he celebrated New Zealand as a “socialist Canaan.” In 1900, Ranstead led four shiploads of “Clarionites” and “Canaanites” in search of social justice and fairness. He urged those who were able to pay their own way; others were assisted. Altogether, Ranstead is thought to have helped a thousand people migrate to New Zealand. Among them were many founders and supporters of New Zealand’s Labour Party.57

Waitangi tribunal etc

[Ed: Interesting point for me about analogy between individual and collective self control. Individualistic model assumes we make optimal decisions and we know what we want but we don’t…. Divided self and the divided collective… (drug addiction might be a good extreme example)]

Many New Zealand iwi have not been as successful. Some lacked the opportunities that came to the Ngai Tahu on the South Island. Others distributed assets that came their way to individual members, with consequences similar to those that often followed from similar actions among American Indians. [bad consequences]

Lib-Labs and progressives

Ed: interesting to me for the fact that these big movements do happen and I think we are in the beginning of one now…

LATE IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, a movement for social reform spread through many Western nations. It began in the 1870s, reached its climax in the years between 1890 and 1916, and ended in the carnage of the First World War. Historians in the United States call it the Progressive movement. Some think of it as uniquely American. Others study it as an international event, which certainly it was. The global patterns are only beginning to be understood.1

Some of these reform impulses were everywhere the same. They rose from a new consciousness of society as a system and a new depth of moral concern about modern problems. Leaders also shared a new faith in social progress through collective action, and new ways of planning toward that end.

Failure of progressivism in the US

John Dewey’s movement for Progressive education and Wisconsin’s model of a university in the service of the people also succeeded in one way and failed in another. Both were widely adopted throughout the nation, but in the twenties the reforms began to go wrong. Dewey himself was appalled by the use that school administrators and “curriculum specialists” made of his work to destroy rigorous learning in classrooms. In the 1920s, he turned against his own disciples, with good reason. Progressive education was another noble experiment that went wrong. In almost every aspect of the American Progressive movement, sweeping reforms were successfully enacted, yet the reformers failed to realize their larger goals. The outcome was very different from that in New Zealand. The question is why.

The three men [Roosevelt, La Follette, Wilson] spent as much time battling each other as they did fighting the trusts.

Their mutual dislike was further reinforced by the structure of American politics, which amplified their differences. The federal system, with its complex checks and balances, was meant to institutionalize conflict, which it did all too well. New Zealand’s parliamentary system rewarded cooperative effort and required the construction of coalitions.

Another factor was the regional and cultural complexity of American society. Among different regions and states there was a wide disparity in attitudes and acts. By and large the South lagged far behind. The northeastern and midwestern states produced their own reform agendas. National reform leaders brought their own regional identities and values to American politics.

Still another problem was the existence of plural elites. The American Progressive movement was not only divided between leaders such as Roosevelt and Wilson and La Follette but fragmented into many different parts. Separate groups led efforts on particular issues. Progressive education had leaders distinct from the leaders of conservation, Prohibition, and women’s suffrage. Social and cultural reformers were generally separate from political. Some corporate leaders favored economic reforms for their particular purposes but opposed social measures. Labor leaders went their own way.

[ed: this is weak section imo and far too cursory. This is a big and important question. The obvious factor not mentioned here is size - which combined with political fragmentation and cultural factors in the US. The size of the US makes it hard to act powerfully and dynamically, and also makes worse the principal agent and collective action problems - key reasons why the US has such a corrupt polity. This is made even worse for progressives by federal structure and obsessive individualistic libertarianism.]

In NZ even conservatives were progressives

In New Zealand, through many generations, conservative leaders have often been remarkably forward-looking in their social policies. This pattern was set before the Progressive Era.

In general, New Zealand had remarkably little in the way of the hard-right, hard-core conservatism that was stronger in Britain, the United States, and Canada. Even conservatives as staunch as the Pharayzn brothers in Wairarapa and the sheep owners of Canterbury supported women’s suffrage and other Progressive measures. A major factor was the epic failure of minimal welfare programs in the long depression of the 1880s. Even conservatives were persuaded by that experience that something should be done.4

… this was unlike what happened in the United States. Since the collapse of the Federalist Party in 1816 and the Whig Party in 1854, and the transformation of the Republicans from the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to the party of Strom Thurmond and Richard Nixon, conservative leaders in America had stridently opposed Progressive reforms and were deeply hostile to reform leaders. There were important exceptions. Some leaders of large corporations and oligopolies favored some regulatory measures, often as a way of beating down their competition. But conservative leaders in the United States made a concerted effort to disrupt Progressive programs, destroy the reputation of Progressive leaders, and turn the substance of reforms against their spirit.45

Reform in America during the twentieth century faced entrenched, rigid, and deeply ideological partisan opposition from the right that had no equal in New Zealand. An example was the intense and bitter hostility of Republican “stand-patters” to Theodore Roosevelt. Even more partisan in the next generation was the conservatism of Henry Cabot Lodge at the end of his career. In his early years Cabot Lodge had supported Civil Service Reform, the Sherman Antitrust Act, and the Food and Drug Act. But as he grew older he became a narrow and vindictive partisan who did all in his considerable power to block the reforms of Woodrow Wilson.46

Another major obstacle to reform in America was conservative American judges. From 1888 to 1930, three conservative chief justices—Melville Fuller and Edward Douglass White and William Howard Taft—led the Supreme Court in striking down or crippling many reforms, always in the name of liberty: United States v. E. C. Knight Co. (1895) which gravely weakened the Sherman Antitrust Act; the Income Tax Cases (1895) which declared progressive income taxes unconstitutional; In re Debs (1895), which allowed injunctions against union organizing; Smyth v. Ames (1898), which struck down the regulation of railroad rates; Lochner v. New York (1905), which declared that maximum-hours laws violated freedom of contract; Hammer v. Dagenhart (1919) and Bailey v. Drexel Furniture Co. (1922), which found restraints on child labor to be unconstitutional.

These attitudes were widely shared among America’s possessing classes. Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “The great bulk of my wealthy and educated friends regard me as a dangerous crank.” La Follette was feared as a dangerous radical. Wilson was despised as a pious academic fool. Conservative foes of Roosevelt, Wilson, and La Follette felt that their own material interests were deeply threatened by reform.

Political Traditions

A major contrast between these two nations rose from the political traditions within which they operated. New Zealand Progressives began with a strong tradition of intervention by the state to promote social justice. Leaders of every major party and many political persuasions accepted the legitimacy of strong intervention by the central government.

William Pember Reeves wrote of New Zealand in 1898, “There was nothing novel there in the notion of extending the functions of the state in the hope of benefiting the community or the less fortunate classes of it. Already, in 1890, the state was the largest landowner and receiver of rents, and the largest employer of labour. It owned nearly all the railways, and all the telegraphs, and was establishing a state system of telephones. It entirely controlled and supported the hospitals and lunatic asylums, which it managed humanely and well. It also, by means of local boards and institutions, controlled the whole charitable aid of the country. … It was the largest trustee, managed the largest life insurance business, and educated more than nine-tenths of the children. Nearly all the sales and leases of land went through its transfer offices.”

Reeves continued, “It will thus be seen that the large number of interesting experiments sanctioned by the New Zealand Parliament after 1890, though they involved new departures, involved no startling changes of principle. The constitution was democratic; it was simply made more democratic. The functions of the state were wide; they were made yet wider. The uncommon feature of the eight years, 1890–98, was not so much the nature as the number and degree of the changes effected and the trials made by the Liberal-Labour fusion.”47

All of Reeves’s remarks accurately described New Zealand in 1890, but few of them applied to the national government of the United States, or even to its state and local governments. There were some exceptions. The federal government was the largest landowner in the United States, but mostly of arid western lands that were thought to be of little productive value. It received very little in the way of rents and employed few workers. American state and local governments did educate most schoolchildren, though less than the 90 percent in New Zealand. In general, the United States had no tradition of “extending the functions of the state” on anything approaching the scale of operations in New Zealand, where Progressive leaders inherited a strong tradition of public intervention in economic and social problems.

In 1890, the “functions of the state” were shrinking in America, as the courts and legislatures turned increasingly toward laissez-faire. The level of activity by government was very low, and falling lower. The federal government did not own the railroads or the telegraph or the national telephone networks, which were in private hands. It played a very small role in charitable relief, and states and local governments did less than the churches and other voluntary organizations. It played no role whatever in insurance, which was a vast private enterprise of competing companies. It did not conduct land transactions except for the initial purchase of western lands.

ED: question of course is why…

Open Socities in World Affairs (International Relations)

Great summary of the fundamental attribution error of US politics

.. A steady voice at the center was Carl Berendsen, secretary of internal affairs, head of the Prime Minister’s Department, secretary of the war cabinet, and minister in Washington from 1943 to 1952. Berendsen got on well with Americans, but he wrote to his friend Alister McIntosh, “There is much in the American policy and attitude to which I take exception. … I do not share their belief that political democracy is synonymous with free enterprise capitalism.” He thought that an obsession with liberty and freedom set the United States apart from “other people, like ourselves who, foolish democrats though we may be, are attempting some middle way.”78

Great Crash and Long Slump (The Great Depression)

The character of new Zealand in one man Gordan Coates…

Coates was a party man, yet never strongly partisan. He belonged to the conservative Reform Party, but he was not doctrinaire in his conservatism. With his good friend William Downie Stewart and other New Zealand conservatives, he “inherited the tradition of activism” in government. Coates himself was pragmatic, flexible, and experimental in his policy choices.15

[Ed: This whole section epitomises how much better the NZ system esp in tines of crisis and change…]

When unemployment began to rise during the 1920s, Coates met with men who were out of work and arranged for an expansion of public works. As prime minister in 1926–27 he authorized additional jobs on railroads, highways, and other public projects. Always he tried to avoid useless make-work, partly because he believed that real work needed to be done and partly because he thought that men needed to take pride in what they did.16 Coates’s favorite program was a “small farms plan” to help New Zealand families return to the land. He made a major effort to promote agricultural employment, with some success. Farm wages dropped by half from 1929 to 1933, but the number of paid farm workers in New Zealand actually increased from 83,000 in 1928–29 to 92,700 in 1933–34. In the countryside, he kept men working.17

Other politicians shared Coates’s purposes. As the Long Slump grew into the Great Depression from 1929 to 1935, the coalition government was run by three leaders: Coates himself, his friend Downie Stewart of the conservative Reform Party, and their rival George Forbes of the liberal United Party. All of these men sympathized with the suffering around them and recognized a collective responsibility for relieving it. At the same time, they strongly opposed the dole and rejected deficit spending as unworkable for New Zealand and regarded it as unwise for any nation. Those imperatives limited choices but did not stop them from acting.

In the private sector, many of New Zealand’s business leaders shared that centrist way of thinking. By comparison with American corporations, they were slow to put people out of work. Individual employers in New Zealand made special efforts to protect the jobs of family heads, sometimes at considerable cost. Also very different from America were the attitudes of organized labor. In 1931, New Zealand’s Arbitration Court cut wages by 10 percent; union leaders accepted that decision as fair and necessary to keep people working. This collective web of individual decisions in New Zealand rationed work and reduced wages to keep as many people employed as possible. Much of it centered on ideas of fairness and social justice that were stronger in New Zealand than in the United States. It also had another effect. The New Zealand system of rationed work slowed the pace of decline and speeded recovery for the economy as a whole. The American system of layoffs was functional in the short term for the economics of individual corporations but dysfunctional for the economy as a whole. In short, the horizon of economic decision-making tended to be broader in New Zealand than in the United States.18


The Dysfunction of the US

.. at the same time, many in the United States share a sense of growing frustration with their electoral system. Nevertheless, American politics were also transformed in the 1980s and 1990s, but by a process of restructuring without reform. The United States developed a system of representation in which Congress increasingly responded not to the will of the majority but to the growing pressure of wealthy contributors and highly organized interest groups. The leading cause was the growing cost of winning election to high office. Meaningful reform of an increasingly corrupt electoral process had some success but was defeated by conservative opposition in Congress and the Supreme Court.

The problem was compounded by a failure of political journalism in the United States. Both print and television media turned increasingly to tabloid journalism and edge journalism, diminishing the flow of information and deepening the national mood of alienation from politics. In 1996, a survey of attitudes toward American institutions found that confidence was very high in religious organizations, colleges, universities, charities, and health organizations. It was also positive toward the military, cultural organizations, and small business. At the very bottom were the mass media, large business corporations, political parties, and government. Of all American institutions confidence was lowest in the Congress. Only 3 percent of Americans expressed high confidence in Congress; 4 percent in political parties; 5 percent in business corporations; and 6 percent in the media.80

Example of accident compensation litigation

American tort litigation brings large settlements to a few people (and larger settlements to their lawyers), but most victims of accidents in the United States get nothing.86

New Zealanders are appalled by the American system of tort law. Americans in turn are astonished by New Zealand’s system of public accident compensation. They believe that if people are paid for having accidents, they will have more of them. New Zealanders reply that their system is rarely abused. Whatever the truth may be, it is clear that the American and New Zealand systems were grounded in different ethical principles. The American system rests on an idea of individual freedom. The New Zealand system is based on an idea of fairness.

Open Societies and Free Economies are not the same thing

Then a new trend appeared, circa 1975. It was marked by rapid and continuing growth of open societies throughout the world. That tendency has been studied in annual surveys by Freedom House, a centrist-liberal organization. Every year it has used a consistent set of empirical indicators to measure the strength of democratic processes, political rights, civil liberties, and respect for free expression. These tests have been applied to most sovereign nations in the world (194 countries in 2011). The results show that the number of open societies increased every year from 1975 to the early twenty-first century, and closed systems tended on balance to become more open.6

That long trend began to lose momentum circa 2002. The number of open societies in the world suddenly ceased rising, and fluctuated for a few years. In 2005, their numbers began to fall, and kept falling every year from 2006 to 2011. Part of the cause was the economic collapse of 2007–8, but the annual surveys showed that this period of decline in open societies began before the crash. Other factors, political and social, were clearly involved. In the early twenty-first century, the strongest open systems, the United States and the European Union, were faltering in many ways, while closed societies such as China appeared to be doing better.7

All of these patterns appeared in the evidence gathered each year by Freedom House. Another annual survey of a different design was sponsored by the libertarian-conservative Heritage Foundation, with the support of Dow Jones & Co. and the Wall Street Journal. From 1995 to 2011, it assessed 179 national economies on ten tests of economic freedom: minimal regulation of business, no tariffs, low taxes, low public spending, few restrictions on investment, low inflation, no price controls, openness to competition, unlimited property rights, little political corruption, and “labor freedom,” which it defined in a unique way as no restrictions on layoffs or firings of workers. This survey found that “economic freedom” according to that conservative definition increased from 1996 to 2008, declined briefly from 2008 to 2010, and then turned sharply upward again in 2011.8

These two annual surveys by Freedom House and the Heritage Foundation studied different things. Taken together they suggest a complex double tendency. Liberal-democratic open societies declined during the early twenty-first century. At the same time, libertarian-conservative free economies increased. A new sort of society developed around the world. It was increasingly a closed system in its hostility to democracy, tolerance, cultural pluralism, human rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law. But it also supported a free economy in terms of property rights, free markets, and autonomy for business corporations, as long as they did not challenge the established regime. One example of such a system existed in Bahrain, circa 2010, which ranked near the bottom of Freedom House measures of democracy, free expression, and human rights but close to the top on the Heritage Foundation’s scale of economic freedom. Another example is China, which is not an open society in regard to political democracy and human rights. But it continues to move toward economic freedom, as defined by the conservative Heritage Foundation. That tendency was happening in other systems—a new combination of a closed society and a free economy. The pattern in China in particular appears to some observers as a more successful model for emulation than the United States or the European Community. To anyone who cares about open societies, these trends are troubling.

NZ vs the US: NZ has performed better, with less inequality and better on most socio-economics measures

Some of the most instructive examples appear when we compare counter-tendencies within different open systems. The United States and New Zealand make two dramatic studies in contrast. In 2010, for example, public debt as a proportion of gross domestic product was 65 percent in the United States and 11 percent in New Zealand. Annual public deficits in national accounts by the same measure were 11 percent in the United States and 3 percent in New Zealand. In 2010, American unemployment rates were near 9 percent and slow to improve; in New Zealand they were below 6 percent and improving more rapidly. In terms of inequality, the United States achieved the highest level of income concentration of any developed nation. New Zealand had among the lowest, though inequalities were rising there as well. In surveys of political corruption, New Zealand achieved one of the best records of 188 nations and in 2008–9 rose to first place for honesty in government; the United States was well down the list, and falling. Similar contrasts appear in trends and measures of political partisanship, legislative stalemate, judicial dysfunction, infrastructure decay, home foreclosures, family stress, drug consumption, and social violence.10

US is very unfair

And something else has been changing in the material condition of the United States. After four centuries, Americans are also running against the limits. The old feeling of boundlessness is not so strong. Studies find that many Americans who work for large corporations have either lost their jobs in the recent past or fear that they might lose them in the near future. This is increasingly the case with highly paid workers in top jobs, such as senior executives in corporations and partners in law firms. There is also a very widespread feeling that jobs can be lost without regard to merit or achievements. More Americans are awakening to the discovery that their economic system may be free, but it is deeply unfair in substantive and procedural ways.


Taste for fairness (and distributive justice) vary substantially Cross culturally suggesting significant cultural factors in its value

Other cross-cultural studies by region in Canada and the United States have found that most people value some degree of fairness as distributive justice. But frequencies and intensities of concern for fairness, equity, and justice have varied broadly from one region to another. One study found that the highest intensity of concern for distributive justice appeared in the province of Manitoba, which in the 1980s elected socialist leaders. The lowest intensity of concern for distributive justice was in the state of Florida, which gave strong support to conservative leaders.40

Other studies of individual human subjects have found that the quality and intensity of “inequity aversion” in general, and “fairness” in particular, are highly variable from one group to another and are culturally constructed in some degree. These research projects, unlike others on chimpanzees, monkeys, and dogs, strongly suggest that ideas of fairness in human societies are actively studied, modeled, abstracted, taught, learned, and deliberately chosen, at least in some degree.

Executive Compensation

In American corporations, the ratio of total compensation for CEOs to that of an “average employee” rose from a range of 25–40:1 in the 1970s to 344:1 in the decade after 2001. By another measure, of CEO pay as a multiple of the minimum wage, the American ratio in the United States rose from about 50:1 in 1965 to 866:1 in 2007, while ratios remained about 20–40:1 in Europe and 10–15:1 in Japan.53


Joseph Henrich, et al., “Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment,” Science 327, no. 5972 (March 19, 2010): 1480–84.

Empirical studies show that New Zealanders are the most widely traveled people on the planet.

[TODO Ed: another feature to add to my wise society metrics?]