This is a re-post of an article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It is here with permission.
This year, 2021, is the fiftieth anniversary of John Rawls’ The Theory of Justice, described as the most important book on political philosophy written in the twentieth century. As you might expect it is a big book (587 pages with a follow-up one of 464 pages) and its arguments are complex. This column focuses on just one insight.
It raises the ‘minimax’ principle which says that policy should focus on maximising the situation of those at the bottom, that a society should be judged by how well it treats the most marginalised. (There are many dimensions of marginalisation; for instance how easy is access for the disabled.)
Rawls belongs to a long line of thinkers including Immanuel Kant with his prescription ‘to behave as if what you do would apply to everyone’. Kant himself goes back to Jesus with the injunction to ‘do unto others what you would have them do to you’.
Rawls has had surprisingly little impact on New Zealand. He nearly did. Almost simultaneously, the Royal Commission on Social Security (the McCarthy Commission) published in early 1972. It could not have had access to Rawls’ book, but its principle that the aim of social security was, as far as possible, to enable everybody to participate in and belong to their community comes from the same ideological stable. After all,. Michael Joseph Savage described his social security legislation as ‘applied Christianity’.
The minimax idea was once deeply imbedded in the New Zealand psyche as a part of the social contract. A way of characterising it is that the role of the state is to provide a reasonable minimal living for all, and enable everyone to achieve above this if they wished. (This hardly applies to today’s poor children, who with inadequate nutrition, health care and schooling are not going to be able to achieve their full potential in adulthood.)
You might have expected the 1988 Royal Commission on Social Policy (the Richardson Commission) to have picked up the Rawlsian ball and explicitly integrate it into its account of the social security system. No such luck. Insofar as it had any conclusions, they were an intellectual shambles. The purpose of the RCSP was to provide an alternative to Rogernomics, but it demonstrated that the opponents could not get their act together and gave a carte blanche to the neoliberals to ‘redesign the welfare state’, as Richardson (a different one) and Shipley put it.
‘Redesigning’ was a slogan rather than a coherent policy. Much of it seems to have been about privatising and commercialising social security towards an idealised version of the American system – as idealised by the American right. It does not work there either, which is one of the sources of our clumsy shambolic system. Very typically, when we make a policy mess we try to solve it by adding more to the mess, rather than going back to the beginning and analysing why it happened. The result is a Heath Robinson system.
One thing was clear. The ‘redesign’ dramatically cut social security benefits (by over 20 percent in some cases) to pay for tax cuts for the rich. In effect they switched the 1972 RCSS’s approach of minimax to maximax – the aim was to maximise the incomes of those at the top. Not only were the benefits cut but since then they have been usually increased in line with inflation, not with overall prosperity. A way of thinking about this is that the redesign of the welfare state replaced the 1972 RCSS’s approach of a relative poverty with an absolute poverty one.
The 1999-2008 Clark-Cullen Labour Government did little to redirect or recover the social security system. It seems to have been dominated by the same muddled thinking of the 1988 RCSP. A nice illustration is that one of its leading thinkers described Working for Families as the best thing that the government did. Critics who want a more extended and coherent welfare state think it is a muddle which put back the development of welfare. Perhaps they are both right.
The 2008-2017 Key-English Government, under fiscal pressure after giving generous income tax cuts to the rich, continued National’s earlier approach and pressed down on beneficiaries. Maximax rules, OK.
Perhaps it is too early to judge the Ardern-Robertson Government’s approach. But it seems to remain in thrall to the muddle of the 1988 RCSP. There is little evidence of the influence of Rawls or the 1972 RCSS in its policy making.
Rawls’ thinking is surprisingly absent from New Zealand’s. For example, Jonathan Boston’s Transforming the Welfare State: Towards a New Social Contract has no reference to The Theory of Justice. He is not alone.
Why do we not include Rawls is our public discussion? It is not as if he gets mentioned and the writer then explains why they reject Rawls’ approach. Perhaps they object to its Christian foundations, perhaps they are maximax neoliberals, or something in between. I dont know.
It is almost as if all 1051 pages of Rawls is too much to get one’s head around. Have you noticed that in New Zealand we tend to ignore anything we disagree with, rather than address why there is a disagreement? The standard way to deal with quality intellectuals is to dismiss them as unsound and misrepresent their arguments. The consequence is that so much of our thinking is mechanical, shallow, unoriginal and colonial.
Perhaps a speech could be written for the current Prime Minister, Minister of Finance or Minister of Social Development pointing their government’s shift towards a minimax approach. But it would be delivered without conviction and received without comprehension by the commentariat sated with maximax, while the minister’s officials and advisers would be confused and puzzled.
So we are stuck between the muddle of the 1988 RCSP and the 1990 redesign of the welfare state. It might be worthwhile reading the 1972 McCarthy Commission (or the 1966 Woodhouse Commission on Accident Compensation) to see how one can think (and write) clearly. On the evidence, suggesting that our policymakers and commentariat read The Theory of Justice may be too big an ask.
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 pundit.co.nz. It is here with permission.