Economic Rationalism in Action

Article excerpt

In February 1998 the New Zealand Government distributed the draft code of social and family responsibility as a public discussion document. The code addressed eleven social issues and called for public responses to the document. In assuming the document constitutes political communication we have used discourse analysis to examine its rhetoric in terms of practical ideologies. Focussing on subject positioning, discourses and warranting devices we identify the constraints of economic rationalist discourse in constructing notions of social and family responsibility. We conclude that the code relies on individualised constructions of social problems and their solutions.

Early in 1998 the National/New Zealand First coalition government printed 1.4 million copies of a booklet Toward a Code of Social and Family; Responsibility: Public Discussion Document, February 1998. A copy was delivered to every home in the country. The booklet purported to stimulate public discussion on eleven issues including welfare, health, education and employment. Readers were invited to discuss these matters and forward written responses to the Department of Social Welfare. The response rate of 6.7% yielded an impressive (by the standards of most social scientists) 94,303 responses, limited analysis of which is provided in a 125 summary document available on the web ( publications.htm).

Not all reaction to the code took place through the official channels. The day public submissions closed was marked by protests involving a wide range of community groups (Alley, 1998). The protesters accused the government of a fiscally driven attack aimed at beneficiaries and other already marginalised groups. Weeks prior to the closure of public submissions social scientists had attacked the code, and a group of psychotherapists criticised the code for the effects it was likely to have on those who were already victims and/or marginalised in some way. The debate and controversy surrounding the code included two main critiques, one concerned with the content of the code, and the other with the `consultation process' in which it claimed to engage. In relation to the code's content, community groups and individuals expressed alarm at the extent to which the document focussed on those receiving welfare support. It was suggested that "the code will create two tiers of law or regulation in New Zealand - one for workers and one for those receiving state support" (Shaw cited in Mathews, 1998, p. 7). Concern about the code's lack of attention to bicultural and multicultural issues was also expressed. Thickpenny (1998), spokesperson for the New Zealand Psychological Society, commented that the document ignored Treaty implications and multicultures within New Zealand. In addition, "the Code is blatantly directed at individuals and families when the issues raised are essentially government driven" (p. 25). It appears clear that a number of commentators (for example, Boston, Dalziel & St John, 1999) saw the notion of `social' responsibility presented in the code as minimising government responsibility and reducing the `social' to individual and parental responsibility. Indeed, Boston (1998) suggests the code is misnamed as seven of the eleven expectations are parental responsibilities.

Reservations about the process of consultation were also expressed, with Thickpenny (1998) suggesting that the techniques for collecting and analysing responses were flawed in both research design and methodology. Visiting deputy-director of the London-based Institute of Public Policy Research, Anna Coote (cited in Mathews, 1998) criticised the process, suggesting that "the Government has earned 0 out of 10 for the way it has carried out consultation for the code" (p. 7).

We share the concerns of these commentators in relation to the content of the code and the process of `consultation'. But as social psychologists, we are more concerned with the effects of the code in making the practical ideologies supporting economic rationalist conceptions of `the social', `the individual', `the family' and `responsibility' more widely accessible and legitimate within the New Zealand sociopolitical context. …