Fairness and Freedom by David Hackett Fischer - review

by Guy Somerset / 11 May, 2012
The US and us - two "open societies" yet based on markedly different values. This rewarding work of popular historical scholarship explains why.
In 1934, shortly before he quit these shores for England, George Bernard Shaw startled a Wellington reporter who had asked about his impressions of his time here in the South Seas. “If I showed my true feelings I would cry,” the famously prickly playwright admitted. “It’s the best country I have been in.”

Sixty years on, American historian David Hackett Fischer, a professor at Brandeis University, experienced a similar feeling upon encountering New Zealand for the first time in 1994. But instead of simply being teary-eyed by the encounter, he has gone on to produce a rewarding work of popular historical scholarship about it.

It may be that readers are tiring of the kind of historical studies about our country that publishers have clambered over each other in recent years to produce. Possibly this is even more the case in respect of works produced by foreign authors hailing from faculty lounges, a lark that probably began in 1948 with Australian historian FLW Wood’s This New Zealand.

What partly distinguishes Fairness and Freedom, a 493-page study that revs into life after citing the earlier exchange involving Shaw, is that it is as much in the relatively new field of political theory as actual history.

Fischer meditates long on the question of foundational values. The American settlers, he posits, were primarily concerned with escaping harassment, hence the stateside enthusiasm for counting liberty before all other political values; the early antipodeans, on the other hand, were more interested in ducking the class systems of the old world, and so plumped for egalitarianism - or “fairness” - as a guiding virtue, not least in political arrangements.

How this plays out with the native Maori is never made entirely clear. Nevertheless, Fischer convincingly spins the theme out for all it’s worth, drawing on an array of scholarship and anecdotes to make his case. Taking the ideological wars of the early 1980s, for one, he shows how both the prime minister Rob Muldoon and economic challenger Roger Douglas felt culturally obliged to dress their pitches in near-identical language.

Muldoon’s conservatively interventionist policies were justified by an appeal to fairness, which had “broad appeal in New Zealand and became the motto of Muldoon’s enthusiastic supporters, who called themselves ‘Rob’s Mob.’” Actually, it was Muldoon who coined that moniker, but even so, as Fischer points out, such a pitch is foreign to American political speech. On the other side of the coin, Douglas was diametrically opposed to Muldoonism. Yet he also argued - in, for example, his book Unfinished Business - that radical economic liberalisation would deliver a “fair outcome”; indeed, a key chapter in the work was titled “Security and Fairness”. Both men thereby appealed to notions of fairness, “much as American leaders of the left, right and centre all claim to be the true friends of liberty and freedom”.

Introducing all this is a sweetly observed account of the author’s first road trip through New Zealand that wouldn’t be out of place as a feature in the New Yorker. Or at least it wouldn’t be were it not for his slightly irritating habit of always majestically referring to himself here and elsewhere in the royal “we”.

Surprisingly, despite the subtitle’s allusion to Karl Popper, Fischer doesn’t dwell on the famous Austrian émigré as much as one might expect. Popper popularised the term “open society” in a very famous book he wrote while in New Zealand, so why not explain the significance of his idea a bit more here? Then again, perhaps, Popper was concerned mostly with freedom’s enemies in Europe, whereas Fischer is far more interested in its friends both in his own American homeland and this strikingly different yet oddly similar place we call New Zealand. But he’s at liberty to do that. It’s only fair.


David Cohen is a writer and media commentator. His books include, most recently, Little Criminals: The Story of a New Zealand Boys’ Home.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


The often-windswept Neil Oliver is headed indoors for a live NZ show
85873 2018-01-16 00:00:00Z Culture

The often-windswept Neil Oliver is headed indoors …

by Russell Baillie

Neil Oliver's live shows are based on a prolific career of making the past come alive on television and in print.

Read more
Hilary Barry takes Mike Hosking’s spot on Seven Sharp
85857 2018-01-15 13:40:27Z Television

Hilary Barry takes Mike Hosking’s spot on Seven Sh…

by Katie Parker

Hilary Barry takes over Seven Sharp and ex-Green candidate Hayley Holt replaces her on Breakfast. But not all are happy at the seat shuffling.

Read more
Win a double pass to Molly’s Game
85852 2018-01-15 11:06:05Z Win

Win a double pass to Molly’s Game

by The Listener

The thrilling true story of Molly Bloom, the mastermind behind a poker empire whose players included the rich, famous & most powerful men in America.

Read more
Auckland Harbour Bridge lights will 'change the skyline'
85843 2018-01-15 10:41:09Z Urbanism

Auckland Harbour Bridge lights will 'change the sk…

by Sally Murphy

Work is being done around the clock to install 90,000 solar powered LED lights on the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

Read more
Inside Fukushima’s nuclear ghost towns
85838 2018-01-15 10:01:10Z World

Inside Fukushima’s nuclear ghost towns

by Justin Bennett

Seven years after Japan's devastating tsunami, evacuees from towns around Fukushima's Daiichi nuclear plant have yet to return.

Read more
'Baby brain' is real - but we're still not sure what causes it
85822 2018-01-15 08:52:02Z Health

'Baby brain' is real - but we're still not sure wh…

by Sasha Davies

A new study has found "baby brain" is real, but mums-to-be shouldn't worry - it doesn't make a dramatic impact on daily life.

Read more
Paddington 2 – movie review
85704 2018-01-15 00:00:00Z Movies

Paddington 2 – movie review

by James Robins

Returning to its heartening roots, the sequel to Paddington doesn’t disappoint.

Read more
The long Jewish struggle to find a place of belonging
85756 2018-01-15 00:00:00Z Books

The long Jewish struggle to find a place of belong…

by Ann Beaglehole

Comprehensive and personal, Simon Schama's history of the Jewish people is a rewarding read.

Read more