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Economist Brian Easton says banning mobile phones in schools points to wider issues

Economy / opinion
Economist Brian Easton says banning mobile phones in schools points to wider issues

This is a re-post of an article originally published on It is here with permission.

I don’t have enough information to evaluate National’s election proposal to ban mobile phones in schools, but something has to be said about how they plan to implement it. Compulsion from the top is characteristic of much New Zealand policy reflecting our centralist approach to government.

Many school principals are critical of the diktat. Presumably, they know a lot more about the issue than I do (or, for that matter, Chris Luxon does). Luxon claimed that ‘the ban was one of the ways National would lift "abysmal" achievement levels’, although there does not appear to be any evidence of a causal relationship between phone use and learning – correlation is not causation. (Evidenced-based policy will not be at the forefront during the election campaign.) As I understand it, the usual concern is misuse, especially for bullying, not academic achievement.

Some schools have already instituted bans without a Wellington-based direction. Apparently many principals think there is a problem with mobile phones in schools but that it should be addressed at individual school level, allowing for differences of opinions, circumstances and management styles.

I assume schools would recognise – even welcome – a recommendation from the centre, especially if it was accompanied by guidance about options prepared by an expert panel of school leaders. But it would be up to each school to implement a ban or not, including the practical details of how it would work. I should not be surprised if different schools chose different details in their approach, for circumstances differ from school to school.

This is an example of the application of nudging where the government has a view but rather than order it, it sets up a framework which encourages others towards the government view but leaves the final choice to them.

Perhaps a result of decentralisation would be messy decision-making in which each school – principal, teachers, council, parents and students – has to wrestle with what to do. (Have those schools which have a cell phone have a lot of trouble deciding?) But that is true whenever we have choice. There would be enormous ‘efficiency’ gains (and probably health ones too) if instead of giving superannuitants cash the government delivered its choice of groceries to everyone’s door. The elderly would not even have to decide on breakfast – nanny state would do that for them. Think of all the time and transport savings from not having to shop for food.

The nanny state trope is not mere rhetoric. One of the challenges parents face is how initially they make all the choices for their children and then have to slowly withdraw as the child evolves into an adult and increasingly makes their own decisions; sometimes parents are irritated or anxious by the decisions adolescents make – but you live with it.

What interests me about National’s policy is that it is top down. One usually thinks of National being the more decentralising party and that those to its political left are more prone to running the country by government direction. Recall John Key’s slogan in opposition that Labour was running a ‘nanny state’.

(National’s educational spokesperson is Erica Stafford – electorate East Coast Bays. Her adult background has no practical experience in the education system except that she has a couple of children.)

It would seem the culture of centralisation is so deeply embedded in the country that even National succumbs when it is expedient. Perhaps they are influenced by focus groups – apparently about three-quarters of those surveyed support a ban. I am astonished that so many New Zealanders thought they were informed enough to have a view – count me out. I wonder if the groups discussed how the ban would be implemented.

I agreed with the Rogernomes that, at the time, economic decision-making was too centralised and more decisions should be taken at lower levels.  I favour ‘subsidiarity’, a principle which is not prominent in New Zealand political thinking. (A leading Labour Party thinker, who honourably resisted neoliberalism, said he had never heard of it.) Subsidiarity is that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate or local level that is consistent with their resolution.

The notion goes back to at least Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century and is prominent in Christian Democrat political philosophy, the European Union where it is a general principle in its law, and in the United States. The principle is not increasing efficiency – sometimes its application may – but reducing the power of those at the top of the hierarchy.

The economy the Rogernomes took over had suffered detailed intervention under Robert Muldoon, the dominant tradition of economic management since the Second World War, compounded by his personality and the wretched fight against inflation. The Rogernomes, rightly in my opinion, wanted to leave more decisions to lower levels where personal choices are co-ordinated by markets.

They did the decentralisation badly for at least three reasons. First, they did not pay enough attention to the need to regulate the market. The list of their failures is long; it includes building leaky buildings and allowing Telecom to be a monopoly.

Second, the market requires a fair income distribution to work properly. The Rogernomes increased inequality by cutting the incomes of those at the bottom. Most people think the resulting distribution is not fair.

Third – this is what this column is about – they saw the only valid agents in the economy as being the central government and private voluntary arrangements – which include businesses and households. Social institutions between them which required some regulatory support were downgraded – hence the Employment Contracts Act, which undercut unionism.

It is true that in places the Fourth Labour Government made some changes supportive of those institutions. It consolidated local government which could have given locals greater autonomy, but they did not address the funding issue and they continually bullied localities – for instance, directing them how they were to run their trading enterprises; we continue to do so today.

Labour also consolidated the health sector into what was then Regional Health Boards and later District Health Boards (interrupted by National’s neoliberal-driven attempt to commercialise the public sector in the early 1990s). Again there has been more bullying – the worst example was the treatment of the successful Canterbury DHB (described here and here). The system is not now subject to central government bullying of locals, because of its centralisation into Health New Zealand (Te Whatu Ora), with local input stripped out. (However, at least one local authority is seeking ways to monitor their local health system; good on them, may others join their effort.)

In David Lange’s post-Picot restructuring of the schooling system was decentralising with the intention of increasing the power of teachers and parents and reducing the power of Wellington bureaucrats and Rogernomes. Although presented as cost-saving, it was not. The Secretary of Education in charge of the transformation, while explaining to me how it was designed to hold off the Rogernomes, said that to make it work properly it needed another $60m p.a. (say $120m in today’s prices). But we still see the kind of bullying that National is practising.

Not that this Labour Government is exempt, despite the record of its 1984 predecessor. In a number of areas its approach has been centralist. (I have also mentioned in previous columns the media merger – now abandoned – the polytech merger and the three waters merger.)

The temptation of politicians to bully is inevitable; Muldoon was just the most prominent in my lifetime, but even the Rogernomes were dreadful bullies, especially if you did not agree with them. It is said that voters are more affected by moods than by specific policies. I shan’t be surprised if an important defining mood in 2023 is about the balance between centralisation and decentralisation.

*Brian Easton, an independent scholar, is an economist, social statistician, public policy analyst and historian. He was the Listener economic columnist from 1978 to 2014. This is a re-post of an article originally published on It is here with permission.

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A few years back, before the smartphone era, a very large and inefficient company was taken over by new owners (who incidentally have consistently been major donors to National). The new owners called a meeting of the couple dozen managers, and began by getting them all to place their company cellphones into a basket. They were then told they would never see them again and if they wanted to ring someone they can use the phones on their desks.


Hmm, interesting!  Do many companies still have desk phones?  I'd have thought technology would connect any extensions assigned through to a mobile phone these days.  Should be able to be done without releasing the cellphone number (both for incoming and outgoing), I'd have thought.


You would have to assume since the advent of smart phones you can't really be involved in business without one. My anecdote above though shows the old school mindset that phones are a distraction. I should have pointed out that company was turned around from an unprofitable cot case to a successful export business that NZ needs.


Good read  thanks Brian, particularly on the deficiencies in implementing the rogernomics regime.

When National released it's cellphone ban policy, I assumed that no schools were pursuing such a policy. I was pleasantly surprised with how many schools had proactively established such policy.

Absolutely, urgent change needs to happen to greatly improve reading, writing and mathematics competency of primary and secondary students. 

The cellphone policy is a questionable, off-point distraction.


I have no problem with diktat in what must happen in education.  Eg curriculum and in this minor example, phones.


The Canterbury DHB was a disaster and the management had to go. Don't believe a word of what Easton says there.

He even quotes Ian Powell who tries to sell that it's all about 'relationships' which is union code for 'don't disturb our cosy little setup, and bugger the needs of the public and the taxpayer'.


Totally disagree.

NZ has only a meagre 5m people, the population of Sydney or Melbourne.  There is no place for decentralisation.

You only have to look at how NIMBY acting our regional government (farm nimbies) and local government (develop nimbies) are to understand we don’t have the depth of talent in NZ that’s needed and they aren’t being given adequate strategic direction.

What we lack is good strategic central government policy (central govt is also very nimby) and, as you say people like Luxon worrying about cellphones rather than dealing with the strategic issues to make NZ a better and better place to be.