Skip to main content

*Freedom and Fairness*

I read this one on the advice of Tyler Cowen, and quite liked it. As Cowen says, it's an excellent introduction to New Zealand history, and worth reading for that alone. Kiwi history is actually really interesting, and the parallels were quite surprising at times. Here are the main things that jumped out at me:

1) Ideas matter. The way in which colonists of each country treated their native populations is instructive. In America, the Indians were treated with unconscionable viciousness and cruelty, up to and including genocide. In New Zealand, while relations between colonists and the Maori were strained, and at times deeply unfair and bloody, they were far, far more decent than here. Fischer explains this, convincingly, as the progress of Enlightenment ideals. New Zealand was founded about 200 years after America, and it made a huge difference.

2) The book could have used some more quantitative economic explanation. The US has a much higher GDP per capita, but also vastly higher poverty. What kind of implications does this have? How much of that extra GDP is going to finance and the super-rich? Has the Kiwi focus on fairness dented their standard of living? Fischer doesn't explain enough.

3) The US is a barbaric place. As a liberal, it was hard not to think boy, this New Zealand sure sounds nice! The US makes out like a dumpster by comparison. Time and again Fischer would make some comparison, ostensibly talking about the pluses and minuses of each country, and time and again the Kiwis won hands down. The Trail of Tears, slavery, Jim Crow, an enormous prison system, and galloping inequality...

Anyway, I thought for most of the book that the frame just didn't work. Sure, Kiwis are obsessed with fairness, and it seems like a reasonable, self-consistent belief, but the American obsession with freedom and liberty is a lot less coherent, bordering on sloganeering. The people that talk the most about freedom, like the Tea Party brigades, have a notion of it that couldn't withstand a fifth-grade discussion. Throughout history it has often explicitly meant things like "freedom to steal the freedom of others." It reminded me of an old Yglesias post:
Freedom-talk is an important influence in American rhetoric, but it—and especially its self-consciously antiquarian cousin liberty-talk—has nothing to do with any analytically respectable conception of freedom. It has to do with safeguarding the perceived self-interest, lifestyle, and social status of the right sort of people. This is a country where the free market position is that for-profit colleges should have a right to unrestricted government subsidies.
But Fischer pulled it out at the end, with a brilliant concluding chapter. It does again make New Zealand look better by comparison, but it's a great discussion of freedom, fairness, the pitfalls of each, and their interlocking and mutually supporting natures. Great book, and worth a read.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

On Refusing to Vote for Bloomberg

Billionaire Mike Bloomberg is attempting to buy the Democratic nomination. With something like $400 million in personal spending so far, that much is clear — and it appears to be working at least somewhat well, as he is nearing second place in national polls. I would guess that he will quickly into diminishing returns, but on the other hand spending on this level is totally unprecedented. At this burn rate he could easily spend more than the entire 2016 presidential election cost both parties before the primary is over.

I published a piece today outlining why I would not vote for Bloomberg against Trump (I would vote for Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, or Biden), even though I live in a swing state. This got a lot of "vote blue no matter who" people riled up. They scolded me and demanded that I pre-commit to voting for Bloomberg should he win the nomination. The argument as I understand it is to try to make it as likely as possible that whatever Democrat wins the nomi…

Varanus albigularis albigularis

That is the Latin name for the white-throated monitor lizard, a large reptile native to southern Africa that can grow up to two meters long (see pictures of one at the Oakland Zoo here). In Setswana, it's called a "gopane." I saw one of these in my village yesterday on the way back from my run. Some kids from school found it in the riverbed and tortured it to death, stabbing out its eyes, cutting off its tail, and gutting it which finally killed it. It seemed to be a female as there were a bunch of round white things I can only imagine were eggs amongst the guts. I only arrived after it was already dead, but they described what had happened with much hilarity and re-enactment.

When I asked why they killed it, they said it was because it would eat their chickens and eggs, which is probably true, and because it sucks blood from people, which is completely ridiculous. It might bite a person, but not unless threatened. It seems roughly the same as killing wolves that e…

The Basic Instinct of Socialism

This year I finally decided to stop beating around the bush and start calling myself a democratic socialist. I think the reason for the long hesitation is the very long record of horrifying atrocities carried out by self-described socialist countries. Of course, there is no social system that doesn't have a long, bloody rap sheet, capitalism very much included. But I've never described myself as a capitalist either, and the whole point of socialism is that it's supposed to be better than that.

So of course I cannot be a tankie — Stalin and Mao were evil, terrible butchers, some of the worst people who ever lived. There are two basic lessons to be learned from the failures of Soviet and Chinese Communism, I think. One is that Marxism-Leninism is not a just or workable system. One cannot simply skip over capitalist development, and any socialist project must be democratic and preserve basic liberal freedoms.

The second, perhaps more profound lesson, is that there is no socia…