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

Here are some highlights from this 2012 book by David Hackett Fischer:

* 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.”

* In 1977, an Australian journalist wrote, “While we don’t exactly hate New Zealanders, we’re not exactly fond of each other. While they regard us as vulgar yobboes, almost Yank-like, we think of them as second-hand, recycled Poms.”

* After 1974, annual immigration from Great Britain fell from more than 90 percent of all arrivals to less than 10 percent, and other ethnic groups rapidly increased.

* Another explanation of New Zealand’s culture has stressed physical factors of distance, remoteness, isolation, and insularity. Its nearest neighbor is 1,200 miles away—a geographic condition that is unique among nations. Many visitors from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century described New Zealanders as an “insular people, isolated from the world,” as one observed. A leading example was political scientist Leslie Lipson, who wrote in 1948, “The mental world of New Zealand has been, on the whole, as self-contained as its insular geography.”

Since 1960, New Zealand’s place in the world has been transformed by a continuing revolution in global communications.

* Since 1984, New Zealanders have dismantled large parts of their welfare state with the same energy that they brought to its construction. While preserving a safety net, they led the world in privatizing public institutions and in a great wave of restructuring.

* At first sight, much of New Zealand’s history seems familiar to an American. Both nations were founded by English-speaking people in distant lands. Both began with a heritage of the English language, law, and customs. Both entered into complex relations with native populations, Indian and Maori. Both developed what Frederick Jackson Turner called frontier societies, received large numbers of immigrants, and became more diverse in ethnicity and religion. Both industrialized and urbanized, and had reform movements in the Progressive Era and the era of the Great Depression, and in the restructuring of the late twentieth century. Both were allies in the great wars of the twentieth century and underwent comparable processes of restructuring in the 1980s.
The people of these two nations are also similar in some of their most cherished beliefs. Erik Olssen, our colleague and friend at Otago, had some of his schooling in the United States and knows America well. He told us with a laugh of his discovery that both countries cherish exactly the same sense of national uniqueness. The classic example was one of New Zealand’s great characters, Richard “King Dick” Seddon. On a voyage home in 1906, he sent a radiogram: “Just returning to God’s Own Country.” The next day King Dick died at sea, but his message traveled on. New Zealanders began to call their country “God’s Own,” or “godzone” as it would be written by another generation who stridently mock this idea even as they secretly believe it. Americans think the same way. The slums of New York were “God’s Crucible.” Even the desolate plains of West Texas are called “God’s Country”—by West Texans.
Both people also share the attitude that H. G. Wells called optimistic fatalism. In the United States, this is the teleological idea that history in general—and American history in particular—is an inexorable march of progress that no mortal power can arrest, though many have tried. On another level, optimistic fatalism also appears in the “American Dream” of individual improvement. Even in eras of economic disaster, American strivers continue to be optimistic fatalists. It is a source of our striving. 38 New Zealanders share this optimistic attitude, and express it in another way. “Never mind!” they often say. “She’ll be right!”
Most important for this inquiry, New Zealand and the United States are both what Henri Bergson and Karl Popper called open societies. They share democratic polities, mixed-enterprise economies, pluralist cultures, individuated societies, a respect for human rights, and a firm commitment to the rule of law. In all these ways, the United States and New Zealand are very much alike.

* 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.
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.”
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.

* Fair dinkum or square dinkum or straight dinkum means an honest, fair-minded account, as in Frank Sargeson’s short stories in the Listener : “Everybody always said the butcher was exaggerating. … The butcher would say no, it was the fair dinkum truth.” Fair dinkum is very common in Australia and New Zealand, but rare in Britain and unknown in America.

* Another example is the New Zealand idiom Yankee start , which is defined as an unfair start in a race, or any unfair advantage. Yankee grab is a disreputable gambling game played with cards or dice, where players seize whatever unfair advantages they can obtain. A Yankee tournament is a pell-mell sporting event where contestants compete not in teams but individually, each against all, and anything goes. A Yankee shout is a party where the host refuses to pick up the tab and guests are forced to pay their own way. These expressions betray a belief on the part of some New Zealanders that Americans suffer from a chronic condition of ethical impairment. It is a prejudice that is reciprocated by some Americans toward New Zealanders in regard to liberty and freedom.

* In regard to fairness as the organizing principle of an open society, two countries are similar to New Zealand: Canada and Australia. Australian writer David Malouf observes, “The one word that sums up what Australians demand of society, and of one another, is fairness, a good plain word that grounds its meanings in the contingencies of daily living. It is our version of liberty, equality, fraternity and includes everything that is intended by those grand abstractions and something more: the idea of natural justice, for instance. It’s about as far as most Australians would want to go in the enunciation of the principle.”

* In America, liberty and freedom were the founding principles of the great republic. Most Americans today agree on the central importance of those ideas, even as they understand them in different ways—sometimes in opposite ways. New Zealanders went another way. They gave central attention to values of fairness and “natural justice,” which explicitly appears in their Bill of Rights. Ideas of freedom and liberty were never absent from New Zealand’s culture. Ideals of fairness and justice have long been present in the United States. But priorities have been very different in these two countries for many generations.

* Every major group in America’s great colonial migrations shared a particular concern for liberty and freedom, and those founding purposes are still a national obsession. New Zealand’s British colonists had a special concern for justice, equity, and fairness—three ideas, not one.

* The people of New Zealand had a very different imperial experience, mainly because the second British Empire (that part of it with British colonists) was founded on new principles and managed in a different spirit.

* It was one of the very few colonies in any empire that had no system of race slavery, no penal settlements, no plantation serfdom, no encomienda, no indentured servitude in the eighteenth-century sense, and no contract bondage, which was spreading widely through the world in the nineteenth century. This new tendency was not a function of New Zealand’s climate, terrain, or any material condition. It was a deliberate act of moral choice by British statesmen. Systems of forced labor never developed in New Zealand, because by the time it was colonized, slavery was strongly opposed by British governments in general, and by Sir James Stephen in particular. New ideas of nationalism also made a difference in the administration of the second British Empire. In its youth, nationalism was more liberal than conservative. It was often linked to ideas of democracy and self-determination. A policy of the second empire was to encourage unification or confederation of British colonists into incipient English-speaking nations. This happened in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand during the nineteenth century, but not in India or Africa until the mid-twentieth. Before 1776, imperial leaders in London had opposed attempts at colonial confederation in America, even resisting the Albany Congress, which was an attempt to support the empire. After 1783, British leaders acted very differently. Economic attitudes in the second British Empire were also different from those in the first. In the nineteenth century many British statesmen turned away from the dogmas of mercantilism on which the first empire was founded. They were converted to the economic gospel of free trade and embraced the principles of classical economics.
Perhaps the most important change was a new idea of social justice that was developing in Victorian Britain, despite the harsh and cruel reality of British society in that era, and in some ways as a reaction against it. These ideals took many forms. One version was utilitarianism, an idea of social justice as the greatest good for the greatest number. Another was an ideal of fairness and decency and social justice, which was all the stronger for its contrast with the unfairness of social conditions at the same time. An ideal of fairness was deployed in the novels of Charles Dickens, mainly by the method of harrowing descriptions of unfairness in England.
Those ideas of fairness and social justice were put to work in New Zealand by men such as Sir James Stephen, even as he never went there. They were both substantive and procedural ideas. In the administration of New Zealand they appeared most clearly in the character and acts of the men who were sent to govern the colony and to shape its institutions. The result, for better and for worse, was an imperial system in New Zealand that became a school of natural justice and fairness during the second British Empire.

* “When you see a man who is exactly like an Englishman, but who abuses the English, you may know he is from New Zealand or Australia.”

* In Britain’s first empire, the great ethical questions centered on power, liberty, and freedom. In the second British Empire, they were about power, justice, and fairness. Many generations later, the people of the United States are still actively engaged in the pursuit of liberty and freedom. The people of New Zealand are still absorbed in problems of fairness, equity, and natural justice. In large measure, two very different British Empires helped to make them that way.

* In New Zealand, Maori have thought of themselves as an immigrant people, and they did not regard the arrival of others as illegitimate.

* By the time that Captain Cook explored New Zealand in 1769–70, a thought-revolution had occurred in the Western world. The values of the Enlightenment inspired a universal idea of humanity. Before New Zealand’s great colonial migrations began in 1840, the Evangelical Movement also overswept the Protestant nations.

* The first encounters between Europeans and Indians happened in America before the spread of humanist ideas from the Italian Quattrocento, and long before the Enlightenment and the Evangelical Movement. First encounters between Maori and British explorers came after these great ethical events.

* Where Americans made many Indian treaties and forgot them, New Zealanders made one treaty and remembered it: the Treaty of Waitangi, February 6, 1840. Since 1974, that day has become New Zealand’s national holiday.

* More than half of the land in New Zealand has a slope greater than 30 degrees. But the surface area of the United States also includes vast areas of mountain, desert, tundra, swamp, and inland seas. In 2001, after many centuries of settlement in the United States, only 5.5 percent of its surface area had been developed.

* New Zealand’s independence happened in another way. Historian David McIntyre writes, “When and how their country gained their independence is not a question New Zealanders ask themselves. If they did, few would have an answer. Unlike Americans with the Declaration of Independence, or Indians with the ‘transfer of power,’ New Zealand was a British colony which became an independent nation very gradually. … The landmarks are not dramatic and the process is suffused with paradox and ambiguity.”

* Many individual New Zealanders told us that a sense of national independence did not fully emerge until the late twentieth century. Some believe that the major break came on January 1, 1973, which James Belich calls “a black-letter day in New Zealand history.” It was the date when Britain entered the European Economic Community and unilaterally ended long-standing economic relations with her colonies. 25 As late as 1950, Britain had bought nearly 70 percent of New Zealand’s exports. After Britain joined the European Community in 1973, that number fell to 7 percent. New Zealand farmers found themselves competing at a disadvantage for markets in the “mother country” as Britain and other European economies aggressively subsidized their own farmers.

* Colonists came early and their numbers were few. Immigrants came later and their numbers were many. Colonists founded new societies and established cultural hegemonies in new worlds. Immigrants joined societies in being and adapted themselves to established cultures. In English-speaking settlements, colonists largely controlled the flow of immigration, but not just as they pleased. At the same time, immigrants changed the colonial societies, but not always as they wished. All of these things happened in New Zealand and the United States, but not in the same way.

* America’s political parties have always divided on immigration policy. In general, Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans tried to keep people out, or stop them from voting. Democrats wanted to let them in, and marched them to the polls.

* 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.”

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.

* In one of the great ironies of modern history, the first sustained argument for innate racial differences appeared in 1776, when Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine proclaimed that all men are created equal. That same year Johann Friedrich Blumenbach published On the Natural Variety of Humanity, which argued that all were unequal. He divided humanity into five races, which he was the first to call Caucasian/white, Mongolian/yellow, Malayan/brown, African/black, and American/red. His thesis was that skin color and skull size correlated with variations in mental intelligence and moral judgment.

* In New Zealand, capital and labor shared the same culture and ethnicity. They thought of themselves as one people. In America, labor violence was compounded by racial hatred, ethnic jealousy, and religious strife, and deepened in the South and West by ingrained folk traditions of regional violence. Kentucky’s “Bloody Harlan” County was violent in ways that had existed in the American backcountry for two centuries, and the British borderlands for a thousand years before. All this makes a dramatic contrast between the two nations.
Another great question is to understand why workers in New Zealand, Australia, Britain, and western Europe formed strong socialist movements and “mass-based parties of the Left,” while workers in the United States did not. To this classic problem, many solutions have been suggested: (1) the divisive effect of ethnicity, region, and race on class consciousness and labor movements in America; (2) the impact of individualism on American workers; (3) higher rates of mobility and internal migration in the United States; (4) American abundance and higher standards of living—the idea that socialism foundered on “shoals of roast beef and apple pie”; (5) America’s middle-class majority; (6) the strength of opposition; and (7) the violence of repression in the United States.
Another approach to this problem is put forward by Erik Olssen and Jeremy Brecher, in a close comparison of American workers in the brass factories of Connecticut and New Zealand workers in the railway shops of Otago. Mainly it is a tale of two factories, the Hillside Railway Workshops in Dunedin and the Scovill Manufacturing Company in Waterbury. In the American case, Olssen and Brecher found evidence of fierce competition in a large market, which put a premium on productivity gains. Corporations moved rapidly toward labor-saving devices and a reduction of labor costs. Layoffs were widely and increasingly used. “In the United States,” the historians write, “they transformed the old factory system and destroyed shop culture; in New Zealand, by contrast, shop culture survived and enabled skilled men to preserve key elements of the old factory system.”
Olssen and Brecher observe that in New Zealand “under the old system the skilled men planned the work to be done and decided who would do it; they hunted up their own tools, borrowed them if necessary, or even made them; they drove their planes and lathes at the speed they deemed appropriate; and left their tools where they last used them when they finished a job.”

* New Zealand led the world in four areas of social legislation: gender rights, land reform, social insurance, and compulsory arbitration. Here it built upon its values of fairness and equity. In at least three areas the United States led the world: schools, public libraries, and national parks. Where the Progressive movement in America worked to expand liberty and freedom, it won; where it found itself in conflict with these ideas, it lost.

* The trouble came to a head in 1985, when the U.S. Navy proposed a routine “goodwill” visit to New Zealand by the aging destroyer USS Buchanan . In 1979, Buchanan had been welcomed there. Everyone knew that she was not equipped with nuclear weapons, but the U.S. Navy (like others) refused to make public statements about the armament of individual ships or aircraft. The radical wing of the Labour Party, led by Helen Clark and Margaret Wilson, seized that issue as a way of shattering the ANZUS alliance and driving their party and the nation to the left. After a large demonstration in Auckland, Prime Minister Lange yielded. The Labour government refused to admit USS Buchanan to New Zealand ports on the entirely fraudulent ground that she was “nuclear-capable” and might possibly be carrying nuclear weapons. 92
The United States was caught by surprise. President Ronald Reagan and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger believed that the Cold War was approaching its climax, and that American efforts to destroy the Evil Empire of Communism were undercut by peace movements in Western nations. Their responses were as passionate as the attacks upon them. Only in New Zealand did the peace movement gain control of a national government. When its ruling Labour Party continued to exclude American warships from New Zealand ports, the United States announced that New Zealand’s actions had breached the terms of the ANZUS treaty. It terminated military relations, stopped exchanges of intelligence, ordered New Zealand officers to leave the United States, and reduced diplomatic relations to low-level contacts. The Reagan administration virtually broke relations with New Zealand. 93
Australia, Japan, and other Pacific nations supported the American position, but New Zealand’s Labour Government was unrepentant. It enacted its antinuclear policy into law and banned all nuclear-armed or nuclear-powered ships. New Zealand’s antinuclear policy symbolized a diplomatic revolution. In the 1980s, New Zealand had developed a new unilateral approach to international affairs.
Lange’s Labour government did not only break fundamentally with the United States under Reagan. It also moved farther apart from Britain under Margaret Thatcher. New Zealand troops were withdrawn from Cyprus and Singapore after a presence of thirty years. For many decades, big New Zealand warships had been built in British yards, as sister ships of vessels in the Royal Navy. In 1988–89, New Zealand decided to purchase two new ANZAC-class frigates of Australian construction and signed an option for two more—a heavy loss to Britain’s shrinking shipbuilding industry.
Part of this policy arose from a deeply felt objection in New Zealand to the habitual bullying of small nations by big powers. People who believe deeply in fairness and justice do not take kindly to bullies of any persuasion. Even moderate and conservative leaders were outraged by the actions of the Reagan administration, and not thrilled by Margaret Thatcher. Sir John Marshall, who had long been supportive of the American alliance, observed that the United States adopted “a high-handed and uncompromising attitude, which has antagonized many New Zealanders who were in other respects pro-American.”
On the other side, Mr. Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher believed that New Zealand leaders had betrayed the cause of liberty and freedom, disrupted a system of alliances that was vital to world peace, and attempted to destroy the American policy of containing of Communist aggression through nuclear deterrence. They complained that New Zealand’s freedom was protected through military alliances and that Labour leaders were happy to enjoy the benefits of peace but unwilling to pay the cost. Prime Minister David Lange was perceived as weak, duplicitous, and vacillating.
The nuclear issue was itself urgently important to both sides. It was deepened by another conflict between two sets of ethical principles. America’s militant and uncompromising defense of liberty and freedom in the world clashed fundamentally with New Zealand’s ideals of equity and justice in international affairs and its antipathy to bullies even of a friendly persuasion. By the late 1980s, New Zealand’s formal alliance with the United States had gone the way of its special relationship with Britain. In 1986, New Zealanders were asked what nations posed a “military threat” to their country. To the amazement of many Americans, one in six mentioned the United States.

* American foreign policy was driven by two great purposes: to promote its national interest, and to serve the cause of liberty and freedom in the world. New Zealand has steered its policy by another constellation of guiding stars. Its conduct of external relations is guided by powerful values and purposes: national interest and regional hegemony, independence and collective security, a strong antipathy to bullies of all persuasions, and a continuing attachment to ideas of justice, equity, and fairness in the world.

* In combat, New Zealanders tended to be highly aggressive, but in ways that limited casualties. One method was a distinctive use of mobility, which played a major role in their tactics, with sudden advances by sea or land, swift retreat in the face of superior force, and then another advance. Another was a tactical doctrine long used by British forces from Clive and Wellington to Montgomery and Slim: advancing into a strong defensive position, then drawing the enemy upon them. This was done repeatedly in North Africa. A third method was to make use of surprise attacks at night with the bayonet, a weapon rarely employed in combat by American armies in World War II. “We almost always attacked at night,” Major-General Sir Harold Kippenberger wrote. Americans almost always attacked in daylight, when their material resources could be deployed for maximum advantage. 46 New Zealanders were also proficient in infiltration and improvisation, as at Cavendish Road in the Cassino campaign, where they managed to create a tank track through mountainous terrain that was thought to be impassable. A British officer who served beside them observed that New Zealand troops were exceptionally “self-reliant and able to act independently … natural improvisers, and improvisation is fifty per cent of infantry fighting.” 47
The New Zealanders, like the British Army, were not so successful at integration of arms. Colonel Hans von Luck observed that “as almost always with the British they carried out their tank attacks without accompanying infantry.” Communications in the field were a chronic deficiency, with grave consequences in many campaigns from Crete to Arnhem. But the infantry was superb.

* When Americans and New Zealanders met, they were surprised by differences in their systems of command. American leaders were no less brave and loyal, but in World War II they operated differently. Once, Kippenberger was quartered with an American regimental commander and was amazed by the distance of senior officers from the men under their command. “It was plain that none of them had been forward or were at all in touch with their men,” he wrote. The American commander of the 143rd Infantry told Kippenberger that “his divisional commander never came forward as far as regimental headquarters, that he never went farther himself than to his battalion headquarters.” Kippenberger concluded, “All this revealed a very different system of command.”

* What European officers called good order and discipline, New Zealanders derided as “swank” and American GIs called “Mickey Mouse” and “chickenshit.” The two nations were similar that way, New Zealanders more so. Even officers expressed a casual and good-humored contempt for the rituals of military order, and woe to a commander who stood on ceremony. Officers received little deference to their rank; they had to earn the esteem of their men. Many did so and were remembered with high respect. Too many were killed or wounded before their men got to know them and were replaced by others. Some of the best officers rose from the ranks with battlefield commissions, a practice that became increasingly common.

Freyberg strictly enforced rules of fairness among officers and men, in a way that happened in no other army. In Italy he made a point of ordering that in hotels and rest areas all New Zealanders should have equal access to the same facilities without regard to rank. Once again, an idea of fairness was linked to a spirit of belonging and a sense of cohesion. This was one of the greatest strengths of New Zealand’s infantry, and a source of its legendary status.

* In 1939, [Captain Charles Hazlitt] Upham went to war, not because his friends did so but “out of conviction that the Nazis had to be stopped.” 77 He enlisted as a private, and rose through the ranks to become captain and company commander. Always he thought of his men as his mates and lived close to them. Jock Phillips writes that he “called his men by their Christian names, he swore at them, he even got drunk with them,” and “was noted for his extreme almost obsessive modesty and his insistence on transferring credit from himself to his men.” 78
Upham always led from the front. At Crete he stayed with his men even after he was wounded twice and came down with jaundice, dysentery, and pneumonia. He was known not only for his valor but for his kindness, even to animals who were also the victims of war. At one desperate moment in the long retreat in Crete, he went back over the rugged hills to set free some mules that had been tethered without water or forage.
In Africa, at the bloody infantry fight on Ruweisat Ridge, Upham’s company suffered heavy losses from a German 88 assault gun. He led his company against the German gun, destroyed it, and killed or wounded its entire crew. In combat he fought with a blood-lust that sometimes appalled his men, but after the fight they were astonished to find him moving among the German wounded. One remembered that “Charles was bending over the wounded men, one after another, and was giving them a long draught from his own water-bottle. The Germans drank gratefully.”
Upham was never a parade-ground soldier. He could not remember the proper commands at drill, or get his uniform quite right, and he became a legend for showing up to receive the Victoria Cross wearing a mismatched pair of yellow socks. He is remembered for many things: two Victoria Crosses and his mismatched yellow socks, his bloodlust in battle and chivalry to his enemy, his courage as a child, and his “modesty of a natural gentleman.” He represented a New Zealand ideal of manhood: hard but gentle man, and fair.

* The most prominent American warriors were portrayed as heroic loners, often far beyond the fact.

* In 1942, the Afrika Korps captured a famous character in the war, New Zealand’s Brigadier G. H. Clifton. He was taken to the German commander, General Erwin Rommel, who found the New Zealander to be “a brave man and very likeable,” but the German officer could not understand why Clifton had come halfway around the world to fight a German army in the middle of an African desert. “Why are you New Zealanders fighting?” Rommel asked. “This is a European war, not yours. Are you here for the sport?”
Clifton was amazed by the question. Later he wrote, “Realizing that he really meant this … I held up my hands with the fingers closed and said, The British Commonwealth fights together. If you attack England, you attack Australia and New Zealand too.” Rommel was as baffled by that answer as Clifton had been by the question. He made no comment, except to wish his prisoner the best of luck. Immediately after the interview, Brigadier Clifton politely excused himself and escaped from a lavatory window (much to Rommel’s amusement), made his way back to his unit, and went on to other adventures in the war. 84
The same questions that Rommel put to his New Zealand captive were also asked of Americans who were fighting far from home. Their answers tended to be similar in spirit but very different in substance from those of Brigadier Clifton. Somebody asked Sergeant York why he kept fighting in France. He said, “Liberty and freedom are so very precious that you do not fight to win them once and stop.” Americans and New Zealanders both explained their acts by appeals to principle, but even on a battlefield those principles were not the same.

* We discovered one of them when a friend suffered an injury in an athletic event. To our amazement, she was compensated by the government. New Zealand’s Accident Compensation Act is a system of no-fault compensation and rehabilitation for all New Zealanders. It was proposed in 1967, enacted in 1972 by the ruling National Party, and expanded in 1973 by a Labour government to cover all accidents, no matter how or why they happened. The program is run by a public agency called the Accident Compensation Corporation and funded by taxes on employers and employees according to the danger in their work, from a low of 0.2 percent for teachers to a high of 8 percent for professional rugby players. The cost of injury in automobile accidents is covered by a share of revenue from gas taxes and registration fees. In the period from 1994 to 1999, the program paid out approximately NZ$1.4 billion on 1.4 million claims. About one-third were work-related. Roughly 6 percent were motor vehicle accidents. More than 10 percent were sporting injuries. 82
As part of this program, the right to sue for damages was limited.

* In the United States accidents are also compensated, but in a different way—mainly by private insurance, and sometimes by protracted tort litigation. The American system yields large payments to a few accident claimants. In 1987, for example, a railroad tank car filled with a dangerous chemical caught fire in New Orleans, and a cloud of vapor passed over a nearby neighborhood. Residents were evacuated in time, and nobody was killed or seriously injured, but a small army of lawyers appeared, and the neighbors brought suit against five transportation companies, not for physical injuries (there were none) but for punitive damages. Ten years later, after much extravagant legal maneuvering, a jury awarded eight thousand plaintiffs the sum of $3.5 billion for “mental anguish.” Lawyers stood to gain one-third of that amount.

* 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.

* 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.

* The ethical idea of fairness, with all its many virtues, has sometimes been corrupted into a set of attendant vices. One such vice has been so widely perceived in New Zealand that it has its own name in common speech. New Zealanders call it “the Tall Poppy Syndrome.” It might be defined as envy or resentment of a person who is conspicuously successful, exceptionally gifted, or unusually creative.
More than that, it sometimes became a more general attitude of outright hostility to any sort of excellence, distinction, or high achievement—especially achievement that requires mental effort, sustained industry, or applied intelligence. All this is linked to a mistaken idea of fairness as a broad and even-handed distribution of mediocrity. The possession of extraordinary gifts is perceived as unfair by others who lack them. Those who not only possess them but insist on exercising them have sometimes been punished for it. 22
New Zealand lexicographers believe that tall poppy is an Australian expression, which appears in the Australian National Dictionary with examples as early as 1902. It is also widely used in New Zealand, where it has given rise to a proper noun, an adjective, and even a verb. Successful people are called “poppies,” and when abused for their success they are said to be “poppied” by envious others. In 1991, a Wellington newspaper reported that successful businessmen “are being ‘tall-poppied’ by other New Zealanders.” 23
We were told by many people in New Zealand that the Tall Poppy Syndrome is not as strong as it used to be, and that it never applied to all forms of achievement. One New Zealander observes that “there’s no such thing as a tall poppy playing rugby.” 24 Nearly all New Zealanders take pride in the music of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and in the mountaineering of Sir Edmund Hillary, who were rarely tall-poppied. 25
But other bright and creative New Zealanders have been treated with cruelty by compatriots who appear to feel that there is something fundamentally unfair about better brains or creative gifts, and still more so about a determination to use them. This attitude is linked to a bizarre and destructive corruption of fairness, in which talented young people are perceived as tall poppies and are severely persecuted. Perhaps the most deleterious work of the Tall Poppy Syndrome is done in schoolyards and classrooms among the young. In any society, nothing is more destructive than the persecution of children because they exercise gifts that others lack. 26 It discourages not only excellence itself but the striving for excellence.

* Another vice sometimes appears in a society where fairness and justice are thought to guarantee everyone a steady job and fixed wage without regard to merit or achievement. One result is that there is no reward for industry or penalty for sloth. Another is that some lazy people ride on other people’s backs. In the mid-twentieth century this pattern was observed repeatedly in New Zealand by visitors from other countries.
Evidence appears in survey research and interviews of emigrants from the United Kingdom who settled in New Zealand in the period from 1946 to 1975. They were amazed by attitudes toward work that they found in their new country. Megan Hutching did the interviews. She writes, “Many recall being told to slow down because they were working too hard.” One immigrant said to her, “English people were used to working harder,” and in New Zealand “my day’s work was done by lunchtime.” Another commented on the “slower pace of life.” A third remembered that New Zealanders worked very slowly at their regular jobs, then hurried home and toiled at a terrific rate in their “leisure” hours. 27
Others from abroad made similar observations. American servicemen in World War II were astonished by work habits of New Zealand “wharfies,” stevedores who worked in Wellington harbor. In the summer of 1942, United States Marines were frantically preparing for their assault on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands and were combat-loading their supplies and gear in transports and cargo ships. Lieutenant Colonel Merrill B. Twining, the division operations officer, remembered that even in this moment of high urgency the Wellington wharfies worked very slowly, and often not at all. Twining wrote in his memoir that the wharfies were “a likeable, manly group,” but “there was a constant series of strikes, or work stoppages, as they called them. None were serious or of long duration, but in total they had the effect of slowing unloading operations to a snail’s pace. ‘Raining’ and ‘they hadn’t got their mackintoshes’ were favorite reasons for ceasing operations. The ships furnished refreshments to the night shift. They enjoyed the way we made our coffee. Then came the night I was notified, ‘They’re off the job again. They want tea instead of coffee.’ We had none. More time lost. The highest daily record was fourteen strikes in twenty-four hours.”

* many studies show that Americans work very hard at their jobs, harder than most people, too hard for their health and happiness. They work longer hours, take shorter vacations, and often do it by choice—most of all when they are working for themselves. A British visitor who stayed with us was appalled by what he called the American obsession with work. “Why is everyone so driven?” he asked.

* Attitudes were different in New Zealand during the mid-twentieth century, where visitors observed that striving was “not on.” People who tended to strive hard to get ahead were not admired. It ran against the grain.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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