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More thoughts on the new zealand project

03/07/2017

So, a couple of weeks back, the ODT published my review of Max Harris’s book The New Zealand Project. Analysing the politics of New Zealand and assessing where there might be room for improvement is an ambitious undertaking. Ultimately, however, I felt that Harris failed to explain how his prescribed solutions, many of which are centred around the means of increased taxation and government spending, would actually deliver improved social outcomes within New Zealand. You can read that review in full here.

There was another issue I had with the book which I’d like to pick up here. Harris advocates a politics of “values”. For him this means “care”, “creativity” and “community”. He adds love.¬† I like the idea of all of these values but not sharing Harris’s leftist progressive political ideology, I see community, care and creativity as external to politics and government. Community, without government, does play a pretty important role in many peoples’ lives. Many of us voluntarily associate with others whose broader interests we share. That could be in a sports club, the parent teachers association of a local school, perhaps a church, or a rotary club. Or it could be within the family or two or more friends who decide to do something together.

I think values are better cultivated through the personal sphere. In a very good book which I read last year, Russ Roberts distills Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (I am yet to read that original text*) and applies it to the modern age. Smith, Roberts tells us, introduces the idea of “the impartial spectator” as a constraint on immoral behaviour. For the religious inclined, this is easy to suppose but even for atheists it can still be a good guide. Step outside from what you are doing and ask what your “impartial spectator” would make of it. It isn’t easy and we often fail in many small ways but it still seems worth pursuing. Smith, as Roberts explains, also had a rather sophisticated idea of how tolerance was an outgrowth of social interaction. It is through social exchange that, for the most part, different cultures, religions, ethnicities, and sexual orientations meet and learn to co-exist. We are guided through the necessity of forming relationships and making exchanges, yes as if by an invisible hand**, to tolerate others and encourage social harmony. The golden rule of treating others as you want to be treated fits. And if you want to see a more tolerant world then be more tolerant to those around you. That does not solely mean tolerating those who are different from you on one of the above levels but also those whose views differ from yours.

The left is inclined to over emphasise activism as a catalyst for social change. Certainly activism plays a role in social change but much of that change occurs as a result of evolving social norms. Women have moved into many realms of the work force in western countries in great numbers and social relationships have developed. Certainly the few age contemporary fathers I know would think nothing of bearing an equal share of the child rearing responsibilities.

Social values emerge and are tested through everyday exchange.

I might have more to say but this seems an apt moment to stop.

*Several years ago I borrowed The Theory of Moral Sentiments from the Wellington Public Library. I plowed valiantly through about 200 of the 500 odd pages but swimming alone in the challenging literary waters of 18th century philosophy I gave up. I will attempt it again one day.

**Thanks to the Adam Smith Institute for this primer on The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Smith’s morality

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