Thursday, June 21, 2012

Karl du Fresne: We're just too darned nice

The trouble with New Zealanders, I’ve decided, is that we’re just too darned nice. We’re decent and anxious to do the right thing. Our sense of fairness, respect for human rights and lack of corruption are recognised worldwide, which explains why New Zealand is often invited to play a bigger role in international affairs than our size justifies.  
But at home, these admirable qualities are a crippling liability. Why? Because whenever anyone proposes a course of action that threatens to disadvantage someone or strip them of some privilege, we wring our hands in anguish and say it can’t possibly be allowed. Someone, or something, might suffer.
This applies regardless of whether we’re talking about welfare reform, public sector cutbacks, changes to teacher-pupil ratios, new roads, oil exploration, hydro-electricity schemes, mining on wilderness land or even reducing the opening hours of public libraries.

The moment someone protests that some initiative might be unfair to someone, or pose a theoretical threat to the environment in a remote valley that no one has ever heard of, we tut-tut and earnestly nod in sympathy with whoever claims to represent the aggrieved party.
We’re suckers for a hard-luck story and ever ready to side with the perceived underdog. This is wonderful for moralistic crusaders and sectional interest groups, which have become adept at exploiting the public desire to do the right thing, and even more skilled at disguising their self-interest as a matter of morality or public wellbeing.

But it’s a sure formula for political and economic stagnation, which is what we have experienced in recent years. And it’s hugely exacerbated by MMP, a system we were persuaded to embrace because it seemed to be fair (always a winning argument in New Zealand, even when it’s fallacious), but which holds the major parties hostage to the demands of political rats and mice, thus snookering all chance of decisive reform.
Effective government means making hard decisions that are bound to upset and even disadvantage some people, but this is altogether too brutal for fair-minded New Zealanders to countenance. So nothing happens, except that we continue to lose 40,000 people a year to Australia.

Karl blogs at This article was first published in The Dominion Post, June 19.


Kiwiwit said...
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Perhaps I'm a bit more cynical than you but I don't think the problem is that we're too damned nice. Rather, it's because we're a nation of meddling busybodies who think we know what's best for everyone else. Combine that with a nasty little dose of envy, and the end result is that we would rather stagnate as a society than allow our best and brightest to flourish. Sure, we have a few Peter Jacksons, but even he found himself fighting the envious knockers to have The Hobbit staged here.

Anonymous said...
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I think there is something in what Karl says. This is the same issue as "negative externalities" that Greenies use to oppose everything. But there was a time when it was much better understood that the positive externalities from most economic activities, outweighs the negative ones, and for most economic activities, no "correction" is needed for externalities. If humanity had only ever focused on negative externalities and ignored positive ones, no progress at all would have been possible. Don't build that mud hut....! Don't cut that tree down.....! Don't plant those turnips.....! Don't light a fire of any kind, ever......! Don't domesticate that 4-legged species for transport purposes......! You are imposing a negative externality.....! It would be a rare case of economic activity by which someone has earned an honest income, that "externalities" are a justification for taking off them part of what they have earned. Free exchange to mutual benefit, is proof in itself of positive externalities. "Consumer surplus" gets bigger and bigger as economies develop, and the balance of positive over negative externalities gets bigger and bigger. We are really only starting to bother about negative externalities now, because most of the aspects of subsistence living and an undeveloped state of humanity are no longer with us. So instead of a kind of universal suffering, we now notice if someone, somewhere, actually does suffer a concentration of "negative externality" at their particular location, and we do not just expect some correction to be made for that, we expect the project to be halted. In the process, we destroy the far greater positive externality that was dispersed across greater numbers of people. Progress itself gets halted without stupid decadent westerners connecting "cause and effect". Tim Ball's article adjacent to Karl's one, sure SAYS it.

Anonymous said...
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It's not about being too nice or MMP's fault. All MMP does is give us the government that the greatest number of people wanted. I don't understand why 6% love Winston and over 10% the Greens but either they are allowed a say or they are not.
The problem is with decisions that are political and a lack of intestinal fortitude by the pollies. Just say it is OK for ACC to incentivise the reduction in long term claimants. As long as ACC is not unfair but actually rehabilitates them that is what it is for. Next time a NIMBY says no to a dam, windfarm etc disconnect them from the grid!

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