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Fairness and Freedom Hardcover – Jan 18 2012
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"Fischer has written an engaging work of interest to both general readers and historians. His excellent introduction to the relative weighting of thse key values in New Zealand and the United States should encourage scholars to emabrk on broader studies of why shared commitments to fairness and freedom have resulted in different balances in the histories of open societies." --Journal of American History
"A pioneering, illuminating, and at times startling book...Ambitious and observant...Fairness and Freedom is a work of frequently profound historical and social analysis" --The Atlantic, also selected as one of the 15 best books reviewed in The Atlantic or published in 2012
"[FAIRNESS AND FREEDOM] provides valuable insight into the American identity . . . In an era of increasing inequality, his is a timely argument, and one well worth hearing." --Washington Post Book World
"So far it is the best non-fiction book of the year, by a clear mark." --Tyler Cowen, MarginalRevolution.com
About the Author
David Hackett Fischer is University Professor at Brandeis University. His books include The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America's Founding Ideas, and Washington's Crossing, which was a New York Times Bestseller and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
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It seems at first an unlikely pairing: a tiny South Pacific nation and the massively powerful United States, and one that few, if any, historians have previously attempted. But in the context of comparative political philosophy, it succeeds remarkably well. Readers on both sides of the Pacific who care about the moral dimension of political constructs will find much to learn. Fischer's book will help explain to New Zealanders why their Kiwi notions about fairness have made it difficult for them to comprehend Americans' emphasis on freedom and liberty at the expense of social justice. Americans will learn why political movements that emphasize fairness, such as the recent Occupy protests, seem such a revolutionary idea in this country. FAIRNESS AND FREEDOM is a fascinating book, both in its comparison of the two societies and in the broad swathes of social history it elucidates.
Fischer is careful with his language, as should be expected from a historian who already wrote a book entitled Liberty and Freedom. Liberty, freedom, fairness, equity, and justice all have distinct meanings. "Liberty is about the rights and responsibilities of independence and autonomy. Freedom is about the rights and responsibilities of belonging to a community of other free people." On the other hand, "[f]airness...exists in the eye of the beholders--unlike justice, which refers to an external standard of law, or equity, which implies an external and even empirical test of being even, straight, or equal by some objective measure." (For simplicity's sake, I'll stick to liberty and fairness throughout my review.)
This dichotomy is in part a sort of linguistic-cultural founder effect--liberty was more common in British usage and played a greater role in the debates of the day during colonization of America, likewise for fairness during colonization of New Zealand. Readers of Fischer's previous work, Albion's Seed, will be well aware of American colonists' views on liberty. These founding ideas were affected by and in turn amplified by contact with the respective indigenous populations. The massive American frontier also played a role in the divergence. America and New Zealand went on to have dramatically different experiences with immigration, the women's movement, racism, and the Progressive movement. Fischer addresses each in depth. These sections are in general excellent short summaries of important chapters in American and Kiwi history.
The freedom and fairness paradigm is particularly evident in foreign policy. America has from its founding pursued a largely unilateral course while New Zealand has always been a strong proponent of multilateralism. One could argue that these approaches were inevitable for the world's largest economy and a very small and vulnerable one, but America was acting unilaterally in foreign policy long before it became the world's largest economy and New Zealand was much more aggressive in pushing multilateralism than it needed to be. I found New Zealand's actions during and in the run up to WWII to be particularly strong examples of its commitment to multilateralism. While Europeans appeased and Americans willfully ignored, Kiwis pushed for an aggressive response to Italian and Japanese belligerence. When war broke out, they made the shocking decision to leave most of their troops in the Middle East, judging Germany to be the greater threat and relying on Australia and the United States to wage war in the South Pacific. Obvious differences in approach between the two allies persisted during the Cold War. New Zealand's "leaders spoke eloquently of international justice and the rule of law. The purposes of the United States were case more in terms of a struggle for liberty and freedom against a Communist aggressor."
Fischer rounds the bases with the Great Depression, the military, and reform and restructuring. The New Deal surely represented a turning point in the role of the federal government in America, but Fischer shows us that its expansion during the Great Depression did not remotely compare to that of New Zealand, which became one of the most socialistic countries in the world during that period. America and New Zealand have different military traditions and experienced different patterns of reform and restructuring (although government reform in both cases curiously came from the left).
The format is not quite the drag on Freedom and Fairness it was on Albion's Seed but ,devoted to a methodical approach, Fischer sometimes both veers from his thesis and resorts to regurgitating textbook history. The section on the Progressive movement in the US is particularly disappointing from this perspective. He does little to demonstrate just how antithetical to American ideas of liberty it was, how it co-opted (or did not co-opt) the language of liberty and freedom, and how opposition to the Progressive movement was rooted in concepts and used the language of liberty and freedom. The Progressive movement's abhorrent record on race and gender gets a single throwaway line.
Fairness and Freedom ends with a summary of the virtues and vices of liberty and freedom (in America) and fairness (in New Zealand). For example, Fischer criticizes the opposition to all new taxes in the name of liberty in America and the Tallest Poppy Syndrome in New Zealand. But Fischer sees liberty and fairness less as opposites than as "two ideas that are useful as ways of reinforcing each other." He thinks Americans would do well to add another splash of fairness to their healthy dose of liberty and likewise with New Zealand and liberty and fairness.
The notes, etc. take up over 40% of the Kindle version. They include: an appendix (discussing scholarly work on fairness in other fields), notes, list of maps, list of illustrations, acknowledgments, index (indexed to the print version). Fairness and Freedom is heavily illustrated--the list of illustrations is 20 pages long in Kindle version. Unfortunately, the maps are usually quite hard to read.
1. Hackett Fisher is clearly quite sympathetic to the social democratic tradition that has played such a significant part in New Zealand, and to the idea of "fairness" which he regards as a defining emphasis of New Zealand life, policy, and political debate. But he gives almost no attention to the relative economic decline of NZ. Prior to World War One, NZ and the US were among the handful of countries with the highest incomes in the world. NZ now languishes with Greece, Italy and Spain - a relative decline paralleled in few other countries (think Argentina or Uruguay). Perhaps there is a connection between a focus on fairness, and outcomes that mean that so many NZers need to leave NZ to secure First World incomes and living standards.
2. It is also striking how little attention Hackett Fisher gives to religion, and the influence of religion in public life. In the US that place is prominent, while in NZ barely visible - but it was not always so, if one looks back to the Protestant Political Association and the sedition trial of Bishop Liston. Similarly, I was surprised to get through the book and find no mention of abortion - an issue which shapes political debate in the US but, sadly, excites little ongoing political interest in NZ.
3. A similar point could be made about alcohol. THe US experience with Prohibition is mentioned, but not how close NZ came on several occasions to voting in Prohibition, or that it was only around 25 years ago that a referendum on the legal status of alcohol ceased to be a feature of every national election.
Some of the fact-checking also leaves a little to be desired (as just one example, the Bank of New Zealand (a commercial bank) and the Reserve Bank of New Zealand (the central bank) are repeatedly confused.
All this said, anyone would benefit from reading the book, and perhaps NZers are more likely to do so (harder for Americans to get a sense of why NZ might make an interesting comparator). Sadly, in the month or more since the book came out I have seen no mention of it in the NZ media, and it is not on sale in NZ bookshops. Thank goodness for Amazon!
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