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LIFE AND SOCIETY

From Chapter 17 of the memoir Compass Points


I don’t know if mooching around in different jobs and varied countries over a few decades gives any credibility to my comments on how life on our planet functions, but it is tempting to mention a few things. And I have already written about art, economics and other subjects with scant credentials, so that’s a precedent. 

It seems to me that most political, economic and social debate revolves around some long-established dualities, left-wing versus right-wing, progressive or liberal versus conservative, socialist versus capitalist, collective versus individualistic. Too frequently these distinctions are described in pejorative terms. Libertarian individualists are selfish, don’t care for others; collective-focused people are often socialists, bludgers. But both need be expressed positively, the individualists respecting self-reliance and standing on your own feet; the community-focused seeking a society that cares for its fellows and understands the benefits of co-operation.

For many ideological people the pairs are either/or but thankfully there a plenty of people who can takes bits of both, some progressive on general and social issues but quite conservative on economic or security issues, or some other mix. I gave examples of this when discussing ‘moderate Republicans’ in recounting our stay in Washington DC. I see no point in becoming too strongly aligned with either.

But on the whole it does seem unavoidable that societies are endlessly trying to work out how much of their organisation is to be communal and co-operative and how much individualistic and competitive. In sharper political terms this translates into contests over the role of government, whether we need big government or small, and whether governments are the solution or the problem. Many other distinctions are variants of this.

My starting point as a young adult was a collective or co-operative approach. That may have reflected my upbringing in an advanced welfare state; team sport at school; my father’s commitment to public good which may have over-ridden his equal predisposition to individual accountability; and then my university years which were definitely left-wing and supportive of humanitarian causes and wealth redistribution.

And I remember equally well my first dent in that collectivist view, on seeing in the early ’70s a study in the Netherlands which showed that every time the unemployment benefit was increased so did the number of people on it. The issues around good welfare policies have not become any simpler since then and effective policies for it — what works and what doesn’t for reducing poverty and inequality — are still not clear-cut. There are all sorts of issues about free riders and an over-burdened state which the Dutch study implied, and which came to the fore in New Zealand during its neo-classical reform period in the 1980s.

Concurrently, you don’t have to be a fan of Ayn Rand to see the merits of a system that values self-reliance and independence of thought. Adam Smith earlier had useful things to say about the virtues of self-interest. The search is for co-operative policies that do not undermine that. It is an unending striving for balance. Countries vary greatly as to where they fit on a continuum between the two extremes. When a democracy jumps from its norm to be closer to one or other of the extremes, as New Zealand did under ‘Rogernomics’, over time it will tend to revert back to its long-run trend-line — again as New Zealand has done. Its centre is more to the left, communal end of the scale, than the United States.

The issue is not restricted to running our societies. Studies of evolution and genetics suggest the same search, between all the big books that describe natural selection, survival of the fittest, the selfish gene and so on, balanced by all the equally profound books that show we are the products of co-operation, are interdependent organisms, dominated by herd and tribal shared instincts … and so on. In the 1970s I was struck by the science promoted by Lynn Margulis that life evolved only by co-operating, or more accurately by symbiosis (and more accurately still by endosymbiosis, by which one bacteria was absorbed within another) — single cells joining after two billion or so years to make multi-celled organisms and then developing more complex forms requiring profoundly integrated systems. But biologists today seem to warn against reading too much into this, arguing that the event was unbelievably difficult and rare, and once it happened Darwinism took over for all that has followed since.

Some see competition and co-operation as arms of the other: Will and Ariel Durant, concluding their mammoth eleven-volume The Story of Civilization, thought that in both biology and history, ‘life is competition … co-operation is real but mostly because it is a tool and form of competition.’ Not by a long shot does everyone agree. The endless debate about nature versus nurture, our genetics versus our upbringing, has similar elements and has swung from side to side over my lifetime. It seems now to have settled into a similar, ‘they’re both integrated’, maybe 50:50, outcome.

In our societies the issue of trust must be quite central to that balance between collectivism and individualism. Both approaches require it. Francis Fukuyama’s book Trust showed rather profoundly that successful societies require high levels of trust in the form of sociability, which is trust outside of family and kin. This type of trust is important to creating large-scale organisations, while low trust societies, he argues, can produce delinquent communities like the Mafia or the tongs. But it is not an easy subject. There is the evidence that society-wide trust is strongest in homogenous societies, where shared values and experiences are prevalent. This takes us right back to my opening chapter, about the high levels of homogeneity and trust in Palmerston North in the 1950s.

But many cultures validly struggling to keep their traditions have kinship-based trust at their core. It was an issue I engaged with in my years at the Pacific Cooperation Foundation, since it applies to the South Pacific Island states. They have tough calls to make in respect of retaining their cultures relative to modernisation and economic growth.

Another component of that central ground is adaptability, again needed for both approaches. In biology an adaptable organism will survive the rigors of natural selection in a changing environment better than one that is not. This characteristic appears in all sorts of sciences relating to human activity.

Some recent developments in world affairs are putting real pressure on trust and adaptability. One is immigration, another is economic globalisation and another the pace of technological change.

Immigration is an issue, especially when the immigrants reflect different cultures, values and languages from the core population. Does this weaken trust? Fukuyama argues for assimilation to enable the spread of trust out of ethnic enclaves and to avoid ghettos. He recognises the benefits of diversity ‘but it is better taken in small sips than large gulps.’ Rather like him, I suspect that most societies have an absorptive or adaptability quotient which is capable of being overtaken if the speed of change is just too fast. I have no complaints about societies that wish to manage their immigration flows to levels they feel they can comfortably absorb.

It is also hard to ignore that around the world there are a number of largely homogenous societies (in Scandinavia, South Korea and so on) which seem highly successful.

I rather like the notion of cosmopolitan as a variant to multicultural. This implies a diversity of people all mixed up and sharing a common environment without each necessarily being committed to retaining a prior culture.

Globalisation, especially through trade liberalisation, may also be best when managed in a considered way. Obviously open societies and economies are better and more adaptable than closed, and the benefits of freer trade to hundreds of millions of humans over recent decades is easily documented. But openness to new ideas, foreign investment and diverse peoples and not just free trade are major contributors to an open economy. Something niggled when I saw a speech in the late 1990s which noted that in the previous year in the United States, free trade had created 11 million new jobs — and destroyed 10 million. It is easy at a macro-economic level to argue the benefits of this situation — the net gain of one million jobs — but at a social level, what about the 10 million losers? Ever since I have seen a growing downside, which does not wipe out the upside but which was inappropriately ignored. The growth in protectionism over the past decade or so must reflect this, as it does a society under stress. Recently, appropriately, advocates of free trade are beginning to recognise the need to address the downsides that accompany it.

Still another piece of the tension between communalism and individualism is inequality. It seems another tough nut to crack. Long-run histories suggest that attempts to restrict it through normal policy actions, such as tax rates, do not have much effect: some argue only something truly dramatic like a major revolution or Black Death-type of pandemic can really have an impact. But the effort needs to be made. I have no doubt that inequality lies as a major cause of the social and political polarisation in the United States today.

It is remarkable that in the United States there was a period of nearly 30 years after the end of World War Two when inequality seems to have eased, a much-studied phenomenon led, according to some commentators, by the generous help given to war veterans. This included federal assistance with housing and advanced education. Then sometime around 1973 this trend reversed, with the ‘working class’ or ‘middle class’ ceasing to make any gains from increased national wealth and productivity. Wages stagnated, at best adjusted for inflation. The wealth gains, large in scale, were captured by the top 5% or 0.01% depending on how you measured it. This trend, to a widening wealth gap, has persisted ever since.

We started to talk about it, even back then. I became a supporter of death duties or inheritance taxes, but found not all liberal friends agreed.

In the 2000s the concern about inequality became a minor industry. The Spirit Level helped spark a wider realisation and then came Picketty’s blockbuster Inequality and an outpouring since, but agreement on what to do about it remains elusive.

A real interest I reckoned was on how the social stress within unequal societies would express itself. Perhaps there would be a renewed strengthening of trade unions and massive strikes for pay rises? I did not predict what did happen, as surfaced in the United States in 2016: an anti-establishment rebellion in the presidential election campaign led from opposite directions by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. It will express itself in some way or another in other countries. Many see the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom as a reflection of this. Although there is little sign of it, arguably New Zealand is vulnerable given it traditional commitment to egalitarianism.

This reflection started with polar opposites and dualities in societies and economies. There are many more that range over almost every conceivable activity and perspective and the long lists of them tend to give the appearance of two extremes, courage or cowardice, rigidity or flexibility, order or randomness, introvert or extrovert, left brain or right brain. But these are the end-points and as with communalism or individualism most situations are somewhere on a continuum between the two. And this is not a fixed point, although at any one time one point may be optimal. But being adaptable means being able to slide along the continuum a bit either way.

Claude Levi-Strauss believed that all human thought was built from binary opposites — hot and cold, night and day, raw and cooked, strong and weak, good and bad. Yin and Yang nailed this better, rather further back.

Often we are individually posed with dualities to choose between. Once I was told everyone chose their holidays and hobbies depending on whether they were indoors or outdoors people, fans of culture or fans of nature. The speaker said he was of the outdoors, and would holiday on the beach or the mountains rather than in a city. I found that puzzling: why not both? Well, many years afterwards I find myself in good company. John le Carré, describing his interviews to become a spy, records that the process ‘included lunch in a cavernous Pall Mall club with an intimidating admiral who asked me whether I was an indoor or an outdoor man. I am still wondering how to reply.’

Someone else said everyone is blue-green or red-orange. I still don’t know which of those I am. It is sign-off time. All this talk of dualities and balance sounds pretty bland, but in reality life has been engrossing and enjoyable. My thanks to family and all the others who have helped make it so.