Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United States

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FAIRNESS AND FREEDOM: A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United States

Author: David Hackett Fischer

Published by: Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012, 656pp, US$34.95.


In The Politics of Equality Leslie Lipson, when discussing the perennial tension between the values of freedom and equality, made the telling point that the trick was to keep them in some sort of balance. Too much freedom could breed inequalities by the ruthless and strong. Too much equality could result in crushing uniformity as well as stifle freedom and innovation. Lipson also contrasted the pre-eminence of American liberty, symbolised by the Statue of Liberty guarding New York Harbor, against New Zealand's historic preference for equality: 'if any sculptured allegory were to be placed at the approaches of Auckland or Wellington harbor, it would assuredly be a statue of equality.' (1)

With this backdrop or, more aptly, bedrock in mind, David Hackett Fischer's comparative study of two open societies, America and New Zealand, is a valuable new contribution for any who may seek to understand the central organising principles that drive each liberal democracy. In the United States the dominant cultural theme of liberalism vacillates around competing conceptions of economic and democratic individualism. (2) This is self-evidently not so in New Zealand, where the lack of organising principles has seen a more diffuse tension between liberty and equality emerge, with equality the dominant value through most of our history.

Fischer believes earlier critiques of New Zealand culture erroneously attribute the influence of 'Mother Country', geographical isolation, and the resulting insecurity as shaping the nation's cultural preference for egalitarianism. He rejects these by arguing that differences between American and New Zealand values is centred more on timing; essentially the difference between the first and second British Empires and the pre- and post-enlightenment mental worlds that foreshadowed them. This explained for Fischer the different attitudes and treatment of respective settler populations to developing nascent political structures, their interactions and policies towards indigenous populations, their patterns of settlement, and approaches to domestic and foreign policy challenges through the centuries.

This claim is largely self-evident but Fischer does dismiss rather glibly long-standing explanations about the forging of a uniquely Kiwi culture. He rejects the impact of our physical isolation too easily for this reviewer's taste. Size matters and so do resources (both physical and human). Perhaps it depends upon which end of the telescope one looks through, but the insightful Frenchman Andre Siegfried understood our 'chronic smallness' in a vein identical to New Zealand's great historian J.C. Beaglehole, who described our islands as a 'geological exile,' adding, 'The springs of its more irritating failings, as of its more characteristic virtues, rise, like its lakes and torrents, in its own heart.' (3)

A curiously schizophrenic form of insularity is one result. On one hand, New Zealanders travel in a fashion incomprehensible to the average American. Located at the periphery of civilisation, New Zealanders seek it out in larger local, regional or global centres. In America, an epicentre of civilisation of its own making, people feel this need less. They are more content within their physical surrounds, and are thus more unaware of differences. On the other hand, and despite our greater worldliness, New Zealanders are suspicious of high rhetoric or grand visions, purposes or challenges. A bold Declaration of Independence or even a French-styled republic could find no fertile soil here--indeed Andre Siegfried could not find one republican in the colony during his stay--while America is at its most brilliant when looking outward; to the west initially, then to other nations, and ultimately to space once a continent's riches, both physical and human, had been mastered and put to the most expansive purposes imaginable. …