Building a Responsible Society

June 1998

The impetus for this series of lectures arose out of a proposal from a Board member entitled ‘Responsibility in Society’. The proposal stimulated considerable discussion and debate and eventually led to this Winter Study Series. The timing was interesting because the series followed closely on the government's ‘Code of Social and Family Responsibility’ initiative.

The theme of a ‘responsible society’ raises a whole host of questions. What constitutes a responsible society? What does social responsibility mean: for citizens, for institutions, for corporations, for government? Is there such a reality as a ‘common good’ and, if so, how do people gain access to it and responsibly share in its benefits? Is there agreement in society regarding a common good?

We believe that these are important questions for public discussion, especially at a time when our society is looking for new directions. There are thousands of people in Aotearoa New Zealand who are involved in this search and we hope that the insights shared by the contributors to this series will shed new light and open new possibilities for all of us.

The task is to build a responsible society in which everyone can participate. The perspectives developed by the contributors to this series is a good beginning.

Dr James Stuart
St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society

Edited by Noel Cheer

The Lectures

[Lecture 1] Rt. Hon Jenny Shipley
[Lecture 2] Rt. Hon. Helen Clark
[Lecture 3] Prof. Jonathan Boston
[Lecture 4] Prof. Lloyd Geering


 Lecture 1
The Rt. Hon. Jenny Shipley
Prime Minister
June 9, 1998

The Challenge

You have posed a series of challenging questions about what it takes to 'Build a Responsible Society.'

About six weeks ago I was invited to deliver an equally challenging speech in another forum. I began by saying that I'd had my hair cut and rather than seeking advice from my officials on what I should say I chose to give a candid view developed at the hairdressers. I've had my hair cut again … and so this is my personal view on the vexed question of how you build a responsible society, rather than Government policy.

The Responsible Society

From my point of view there are three things that we need to explore. Firstly, a responsible society knows who is present. It also knows what its human capacity is. It seriously analyses what resources are available. It understands fully what the need s of the majority are but it also understands the needs of the minority. It seeks to understand what values and aspirations the majority and the minority share in common but it is also realistic and pragmatic about the differences. A responsible society will allow both the majority and the minority to express their views fully, for while there may be differences there need not necessarily be conflict. We must, if we seek to be responsible, work out how to accommodate both groups, nurture diversity and recognise differences, rather than seek to bury or dismiss them. In this, we in New Zealand can give ourselves a pat on the back because we are making some progress, but I believe there is still some way to go.

Secondly, to be a responsible society we have to be prepared to defend strongly the freedom to choose how to think, act and interact. And it seems to me that each of us needs to be prepared to debate what personal benefit we are getting from that freedom but also what mutual benefit we get. While I often hear people argue they want freedom for their own private benefit, they can be totally unwilling to acknowledge that there are very significant mutual benefits of freedom.

We face the enormous challenge of ensuring our personal freedom does not impinge on the rights and freedom of others in our society.

That leads to the third point I would make. In my opinion, a responsible democratic society will cherish freedom but it will also be prepared to define the boundaries around that free space. These boundaries include orderliness and fairness. They also include justice and the law, and they are two different things in my experience as a woman, and also as a woman politician. I also see the concepts of inclusiveness, participation and rights as boundary issues. Because in my opinion, and my experience, freedom cannot be real either personally or collectively unless we understand where those boundaries are, in the view of the majority.

Because democracy cannot exist without consensus about respect for boundaries such as law and human rights and unless those boundaries are understood clearly and adhered to by the majority, freedom is seriously undermined.

The Tensions

And so as I look back on my personal life and my political experience, these emerge as the tensions that we need to understand in order to seriously be able to answer the question "what is a responsible society?". We've got to test those ideas. I certainly personally support the concept of public debate on these ideas, from which public understanding and public policy will emerge. They are two different things in my opinion. Because we can't hope to have a responsible society in New Zealand, that meet s our human needs, if we leave the delivery of it up to the government of the day.

In summary, it seems to me a responsible society has to be built firmly on the concept that we are a free democracy, where the majority experience freedom in a genuine and real way, while respecting both the rights and opportunities of others. I come back again to the need for people collectively to share the responsibility of debating and finding consensus on where the boundaries are.

We need to debate these issues because we've probably been through two or three decades in New Zealand where we've extensively explored the concept of rights and we've almost completely ignored the issue of responsibility. I personally don't believe you can genuinely enjoy rights, unless you fully understand how they intersect with both personal and community responsibility. Whether New Zealand will really know itself and set a pace for itself in the next century will depend on the degree to which the public are prepared to advance this debate.

The Code

It is in that context that I want to comment on the response when the Government raised the question of a code of family and social responsibility. I know a number of people publicly asked "why is she asking us this question." I found that statement in itself an interesting one. It isn't "she", it is the Coalition Government that has decided that this is an issue that New Zealand must address. It strikes me as interesting that people ask why the question is being asked because it seems to me they are saying the only agency responsible for social responsibility is the Government. I don't share that view, as it seems to me that social responsibility rests on a much broader base. One of the huge benefits is that the very fact that the question was ask ed has led to significant public debate. That debate is providing reference points for this and future governments as to what the public of New Zealand wants, needs or is prepared to tolerate. So I am firmly of the view that we must ask questions, and I would argue very strongly that a courageous society, that wants to have control of where it is and where it is going, should be willing to participate in answering. While we will not necessarily agree on answers, one of the benefits of the debate is that in the homes of New Zealanders people are thinking "I wonder where my kids are today?", "I wonder how my Mother is?", "I wonder if I know who that person is that's moved into the street recently?", and "have I made sufficient personal effort to reach out a hand or to say hello to them?"

Inclusion is not the exclusive responsibility of Government provision. Inclusion is a much broader concept, of which public provision is just one part of the whole. The discussion, prompted by questions about a code, is a significant benefit and as we get the results back we will understand to what extent the public were interested in participating in that process. In August we expect both the first analysis of the Code consultation to be available.

In relation to the Code, I want to comment on the UMR insight poll that did ask some of the questions that the Code posed in their normal statistical survey.

When asked whether the Code of Social Responsibility was a good idea or a bad idea, 34 per cent said it was a good idea and 43 per cent said it was a bad idea. When asked whether beneficiaries who repeatedly seek emergency income should be made to have free budget advice, 83 per cent said yes and 14 per cent said no. On the question of whether courts should have the power to make parents of children who break t he law set up a curfew or attend parenting courses, 81 per cent said yes and 15 per cent said no.

The proposal that up-to-date immunisation for children should be required for entry to early childhood education and services was supported by 71 per cent and opposed by 23 per cent. Lowering the age at which juveniles can be prosecuted for crimes fro m 13 years to 10 years was supported by 58 per cent and opposed by 38 per cent. And when asked whether benefit payments should be cut to parents who do not ensure their children go to school, 50 per cent said yes and 43 per cent said no.

The reason I give you these figures is because I think they confirm one of the arguments I have tried to put forward—that people don't want a heavy authoritarian hand laid over the whole of New Zealand society, but they do want boundaries defined. They want clear spaces in which their freedom can be exercised and maintained, but the answers to these five code questions indicate that they accept certain understandings about boundaries being necessary for a cohesive and orderly society. We could probably think amongst ourselves of another 100 questions about boundaries and I suspect that it wouldn't be difficult to get a majority of New Zealanders to express an opinion on those critical questions.

I wouldn't mind betting that one of the results of the Code's survey is that a lot of people do not want pervasive directives across the whole of society, but they do want more consultation and input into how the boundaries are defined.

I would caution that one of the things we will have to be very careful of is to not allow the tyranny of the majority to be let loose on this issue. I say that because there are opportunities for the majority of people, who are not affected, to freely express a view about how minorities should be treated and we will in public policy terms have to be wary about that.


In your pamphlet you posed the question "What role is it that each New Zealander, the institutions, the corporations and the government have in trying to build a responsible society in our nation?". I want to briefly touch on each of these.

To answer these questions effectively New Zealanders must accept in our personal roles and in our family and whanau roles that there are values, such as what is right and what is wrong, that are required of each of us as individuals. Government can define the extremes but cannot do it all. It seems to me that our understanding of some basic principles and values may not be as good as we may have thought historically. There needs to be a rediscovery and a re-ownership amongst every one of us as to what we really understand the difference between right and wrong to be, in every aspect of our lives. New Zealanders also need to have a strong sense of who they are, and I bring in here all of the issues of the interests of the minority groups, the issues of cultural diversity. We cannot be who we can potentially be unless we both acknowledge and cherish the virtues and the attributes that make us different. And until we get past being uncomfortable to the point of both owning and resolving historic issues, we limit our society's chances.


The next issue for individuals is what they believe in. Now obviously many of you know that I have a personal belief in spirituality and for me that is personally critically important. I'm not going to dictate, or direct, or even have a view on what people should believe and I know this incenses some people in the Church when I say this. However if you were to line up two ten year olds and one of them had a strong set of beliefs and the other was devoid of beliefs, whether they are religious, spiritual or cultural beliefs, I know which would have a better chance at life. It seems to me that if we keep ignoring this element of the human experience we just destroy our ability to function effectively.

I am continually frustrated by the fact that the minute I raise this question, there are some who will see that this is Shipley preaching religion again, when what I am saying is that the factor that makes human beings different is the spiritual and cultural dimension of who we are. Unless we recognise that, value it, and nurture it, we are as a society less than we can be. For me as Prime Minister, but also as an individual and as a mother of two children I want to see New Zealanders be the best the y can be. I don't think we can be responsible individually or collectively, unless we understand the need to believe in something. On the issue of institutions, this is a huge challenge. The church, schools, the Government, the justice system, are all institutional influences on our nation. It seems to me that each institution does help lead debate both from a historical perspective and in the way in which it interprets its role in a contemporary society. These institutions have got to have a view on things. The tension for them is whether their view is seen as valuable and relevant. Institutions cannot expect to be pillars of society for historical reasons alone. Institutions that want to be seriously relevant in terms of influencing a responsible society have to be able to attract public support, recognition and respect by the application of their influence in a relevant and contemporary way. As an active member of a Church, I understand that this is an ongoing challenge. I think that the judiciary and others may well, if they are honest, acknowledge that this is something that it's easy to speak about but much harder to bring to life.


Turning to the role of the corporations. Some, if they were here, would argue the only role for corporations is to serve their shareholders. I would argue that corporations must serve all their stakeholders of whom shareholders are one group, employees a reanother, and there may be others. The culture of a modern corporation is something that's worthy of public debate, as are the roles that corporations can take in terms of environmental, social and cultural contributions to society. There is a huge difference between a corporate that as a matter of course would not dream of discharging effluent because they see it as a public health risk and one who regards it as an issue of corporate performance. In contributing to something there are some who nurture the arts as a matter of principle. And so in asking how corporations can foster a responsible society I think there is a challenging discussion to be had on whether you want to stand up and say "I'm only serving my shareholder" as opposed to "I am seeking to take a wider view."


Moving on to government, obviously it is crucial in terms of contributing to a responsible society. For my part, at the risk of simplifying this, I think the issue for Government is the tension of trying to deliver equal opportunity for people to blossom and succeed. There are two tricky questions that have to be answered if we are to genuinely deliver equal opportunity. The first is how do you actually decide for every dollar that is earned how much you should take to contribute to the whole, as opposed to how much you leave with the individual.

It's not only an arbitrary argument about tax rates, it is actually a much broader and more complex question of whether you serve the majority better by collecting more and spending it as a whole, or leaving a greater proportion with individuals and allowing them to spend it to create work and opportunities. Politically that is one of the greatest unanswered debates and I'm not sure there is a set answer. It will be a matter of debate amongst political parties that you will hear much more about. But I don't think it's meritorious or virtuous to argue more or less tax unless you're prepared to argue the consequence of more or less tax, in terms of greater or lesser expenditure.

The second tricky question is related to that. Does equal opportunity mean universal provision, or do we accept that some, being given an equal opportunity, will do better than others and therefore don't require the same level of support from the collective whole? I hear people arguing that universality is required to build a responsible society but I find that morally unsustainable.

If I've been given equal opportunity and for whatever reason – birth, skills, experience or capacity to earn – I finish up with more than some, I don't see that it's morally justifiable to argue that those who have less should pay a greater proportion in order for me to be able to participate universally. I'm not saying it's an "either/or" because it isn't. The argument is not as simple as "let's be totally targeted", "let's be totally universal". The argument is: where does the balance lie? What should we all collectively receive and when and how should we take a different view? If you were to ask me in the last ten years what has been the most frustrating issue, politically it is the dishonesty around this last question. I hear people virtuously arguing universality and the only word I can use to describe it, is greed. And I have seen major institutions like the Church stay silent when these matters have been debated.

So asking me as an individual but also as Prime Minister to answer this question, I say it can only be answered if there is a high degree of honesty around these issues of allocation of resources and equal opportunity. I am realistic enough to know that the parable of the talents demonstrated that if you give everyone the same thing, the outcome will be different and we should not pretend it is otherwise. If that is true we must then debate how the allocation can honestly and genuinely be made in a modern society.

For the answer to how our society is built we must go back to the history of who we are, our traditions and our culture. Adding to that is the issue of performance. No one owes New Zealand or New Zealanders a break or success. We must find some consensus amongst ourselves as to how we earn success and value and share the fruits of that success. In politics that is what the debate is about and I look forward to being part of that political discussion.

There is also a role for academics, supporters, opponents, protesters and other observers, in crafting what we mean by a responsible society, because it cannot and should not be left to politicians or the Government of the day. Unless we all participate in this, inevitably we will disappoint each other.

As an observation over a decade in politics, if I were to be given a dollar for every time a person as come to me describing a problem, I would be rich. If I were to be given a dollar for every time a person had identified a problem and identified a solution that would work, I would be poor. The point is that there are many who identify what's wrong, and that's not a bad thing in itself, because the analysis of what disturbs us is critical. However at the desk at which I sit I don't have the choice of only talking about what is wrong. I have not only the responsibility but the privilege of trying to then decide what might help to fix it and I don't claim to get it right all the time. So I guess I'm trying to be fairly direct and say in my experience it is relatively rare to find people who will participate in finding a solution. I hope to be inundated with both academics and others who are willing to genuinely participate in public policy solutions, rather than simply analyse the problems.

The Media

I can't leave the media out. A responsible society relies on the media because a responsible society sees itself as it is, not as a few perceive it to be. One of the things that distresses me most as a leader is that people keep stating things as they are not, rather than as they are. I don't ask the media to do anything other than to tell the truth but in doing so I plead with them to put the issue in context. Let's deal with the Rewa case. I was with my Mother as we watched the reports of the Rewa case on the final night after his conviction. She asked me why they keep talking about the terrible things he did even after he had been convicted. She argued that they did it for reasons other than public information or knowledge and from her experience as an older New Zealand woman not only did it create fear, but she argued that it disproportionately described a risk that may not exist. I make that observation because we keep allowing the media to leave every woman in this Church with the impression that if we walk out the door by ourselves we might be raped by a Rewa. Now that's just not true. While he is an absolute menace to society, the vast majority of New Zealand men would never dream of treating women like that. I think it's critical if we are to be a healthy and responsible society that we demand that the extraordinary and the exceptional is stated in the context of the whole, honest picture of what New Zealand is today.

Social Policy

Social policy is as much about the instincts of mothers in New Zealand today as it is about what I will decide in the next twelve months at my desk. In terms of potential impact and outcome, I suspect the instincts and influences of New Zealand mothers today will have a greater impact on the society of tomorrow. I wonder how much we nurture those instincts and influences of today's mothers in terms of the experiences and values and support that extended family and society wraps around those individuals.

Building societies that work requires everyone, whether it's the Prime Minister or the institutions or the individuals, to think of three things:

What each of us in our personal or our official roles can contribute how we use our human resources to the best capacity, in all dimensions and how we identify and allocate the financial resources that are available.

These three things are the crucial determinants of the New Zealand of today and the New Zealand of tomorrow.

Inclusive Society

I want to end on a positive note. We are a more inclusive society than most. We've just had Canadians here observing the cultural progress of New Zealand's settlement of historic claims. The Canadian experts observed that in cultural relationship terms, New Zealand was further ahead than the Canadian people, in general and in the way in which they treat minority groups. In my opinion our human rights legislation is standing New Zealand in good stead as it deals with excesses and creates the freedom for all New Zealanders to explore and experience equal opportunity. We are doing well internationally by most measures.

We can always do more because we should always seek to improve and enhance the society that we are and that we can be.

The questions you ask are complex. It is important that every New Zealander see that they can contribute to building a responsible and inclusive society. I think we're well on the way but there's still much to be done. Please don't ask me or others in Government to do it alone.

We do not have the capacity nor should we carry the responsibility alone. The responsibility rests with us all.

[This is an edited transcript, subheadings were added by the Editor.]


 Lecture 2
The Rt. Hon. Helen Clark
Leader of the Opposition
June 16, 1998


My thanks go to the St Andrew's Trust for its initiative in organising this lecture series on Building a Responsible Society.

For the sake of clarity, let me begin by defining the meaning I will give to the terms "responsible" and "society". "Responsible" I interpret as being morally accountable for one's actions. With respect to "society", I contend that it is more than the sum of its parts; that is, it is more than an aggregation of individuals. A society, to me, is a social community whose members have obligations to one another.

The title of this series of lectures implies that we do not presently have a responsible society. If we had one, we could more properly be debating how to maintain it, or how to build an even more responsible one. But deep down I believe many New Zealanders acknowledge that we are not the responsible society we once were. Further, I believe there is a yearning in this country for rebuilding a responsible society for the new millennium.

What Has Gone Wrong?

So what has gone wrong with New Zealand? Certainly governments have lurched from one model of economic and social policy to another, and then another, leaving the citizenry more confused and alienated than before. We have been through waves of so-called reform, all promising much and delivering little. Those indicators of social exclusion of poverty, homelessness, poor health, unemployment, levels of imprisonment, educational under-achievement, and family dysfunction all tell their own story.

And surely even the most rampant supporter of New Right economics must pause for thought now on seeing the current account deficit back where it was twelve years ago and economic growth at a low ebb despite years of restructuring.

We are not a happy country. Our economy is failing and our society is failing along with it. But the good news is that it doesn't have to be that way. Nor do we have to choose between Muldoonism and the "rogernomics/ruthenasia" prescriptions. There are fresh approaches and new waves of thinking. Britain today under the Labour Government is buzzing with new ideas and excitement as it seeks a new balance between the needs of the global economy and the needs of its people for opportunity and security. Their enthusiasm is infectious. Here in New Zealand we in Labour are also embracing a "third way" appropriate to our conditions.

Rebuilding and Roles

So how do we begin this now huge and pressing task of rebuilding a responsible society? And what is the role of the state, of communities, and of individuals in building it?

Today's new right politicians in National and Act have their focus firmly on the role of the individual. If individuals act responsibly, they believe, then somehow New Zealand as a whole will function. There is little acknowledgement from them of the role the state must play in creating the climate and the conditions within which each of us can act responsibly. In their nirvana of the no tax, minimal public service society, each of us is somehow expected to claw our own way to self sufficiency. Some residual provision may be targeted to the poor, but those who see merit in building society wide provision in the common interest are simply dismissed as self interested and greedy. Personally I find these views morally repugnant and less than honest in their presentation. No advanced society, indeed no responsible society, has developed on the basis promoted by these ideologies.


For me and for Labour, there is and must be a mutual interdependence between the state, communities, and individuals. Each has a right to expect responsible behaviour by each other.

The state's expectations are clearly set out in law and in its enforcement of that law. But the state today does not meet its mutual responsibilities. Under the present regime it is intent on shedding responsibility to communities and individuals who are neither resourced nor equipped to accept it. Non-governmental social service organisations experience the frustration of that daily. And note now the moves in the Fire Service to downsize and place more responsibility on volunteers who have themselves lives to live and jobs to attend to.

The State

A responsible society for me will be one in which the state is active, not as a repressive and paternalistic force, but as a leader, a facilitator, a funder and a substantial provider in the social area, a partner, and a setter of fair rules of the game.

The state in that responsible society will also accept an active role in economic policy. It will invest in the education and upskilling of people and in the national infrastructure. It will back innovation, research and development. It will promote and market New Zealand and its products in partnership with business. It will work with regions and localities as they develop their own economic strategies. The state will do these things both because it cares about fair outcomes and because it knows that only the state has the power to intervene to achieve those outcomes. Markets do not deliver fairness. It is not their function nor are they capable of it.

The roles I have outlined for the state are for me at the heart of the third way which New Zealand must develop for itself. The state cannot and should not attempt to be an all knowing prescriber of the truth which crowds out individual and community initiative and entrepreneurialism. Its role in modern society and in a global economy is undoubtedly more complex, but let there be no denying that it has a role in leading us forward.

New Zealand faces very clear choices in the road it takes from its present predicament. The pure market model has failed, but National and Act are offering more of it. New Zealand has not yet privatised, deregulated, commercialised, and imposed user pays and tax cuts to the extent the ideologues are pressing for. Their eventual destination would be a state of anarchy, were it not for the residual requirement to levy taxes to fund prisons and policing for the large criminalised underclass their policies create. Their route offers a bleak future indeed.

Nor is a return to the past a viable option. What was damaging to New Zealand by the 1980s was that so little had changed since the 1950s. We retained an economy frozen in time. We relied on full employment to underpin living standards, and when it disappeared there was no effective response forthcoming. Our social policies had ossified. Alas, there is no golden age to return to.

Our challenge is to build anew and to state clearly objectives around which our nation can find common cause. So what might those objectives be and how might we reach them?


I believe there are three predominant values in our culture upon which rebuilding a responsible society should commence. One is a strong belief in opportunity. The second is a strong belief in justice and fair play. And the third is our quest for security—both for individuals and their families, and for the nation from the economic winds which buffet it as a small trading economy overly reliant on commodity exports.


Based on those values I propose the following as core objectives for the socially responsible government I will lead:

  • that education shall be regarded as a right, not a privilege
  • that access to health care will not be determined by the size of a family's cheque book
  • that no child shall go hungry and no family go homeless
  • that work, education, training or other meaningful activity will be available to all
  • that there will be dignity in old age
  • that when adversity strikes people will be supported
  • that people's rights to fair play in the workplace and the community will be protected
  • that the government will contribute to the nation's economic security through the leadership, partnership, and investment roles I outlined earlier.

Indeed, implicit in everything I have said today is my strong belief and Labour's strong belief in the responsibility of government. Of course that is not to say that individuals and families do not have responsibilities. Clearly they do. But the extent to which they can take on those responsibilities is very much set by the wider policy framework and by the economic and social climate on which government has so much influence.

The Code

Many saw in the Coalition Government's proposed code of social and family responsibility an attempt by the government to shift the blame for failure away from itself and on to families.

The draft code set out general expectations with which few would disagree. The problem is that socio-economic status has a lot to do with the extent to which parents can support their families, keep them healthy, and send the children to school ready to learn. Preaching about the desirability of these expectations has a hollow ring when government policies have stripped away many of the supports which used to make New Zealand a great place to bring up families.

I count myself fortunate to come from a family which has not known unemployment and in which I and my three sisters all have tertiary education. For sure, we and our parents have played a considerable part in that outcome. But so has wider government policy conducive to it, and so has good luck. Some families don't have much luck, and these days a substantial minority are trapped in second and third generation deprivation. There is no point in blaming them for that. Yet present government policy does so by implication through the judgemental nature of the proposed code and the new workfare and work testing policies. There is a strong point in building again the structures which gave opportunity and genuinely encouraged and supported individual and family responsibility.

Social Cohesion

But for me and for Labour, social responsibility does not begin and end with how we address economic and social disadvantage. We are concerned overall to promote and protect those structures, institutions, and policies which promote social cohesion. We believe there is provision which should be made on a society-wide basis. Most importantly that provision is to be made in the areas of health, education, and retirement income.

Last week in this church Mrs Shipley outlined a very different approach. She and her party now favour tightly targeted state spending. Needless to say with the ever lower tax levels they wish to achieve, residual spending on a few would be all that could be afforded in time.

The outcome would be an even more sharply differentiated and unequal society than we have already developed. That is to be abhorred, not encouraged.

I believe that New Zealand should continue with a pragmatic mix of universalism and targeting as we have hitherto. Social security benefits and state housing must be targeted to need. New Zealand Superannuation is now and should remain universal, although many will seek to make voluntary private provision above that base payment. Public hospital care and health services should be free, but primary medical care free to all is hard to fund on present structures.

Education should be free from early childhood and through primary and secondary schooling.

Costs for tertiary education must be kept low so that they are not a barrier to entry.

If National is now proposing to target state spending on low income groups, then user charging in the public health system and public schools and means-tested New Zealand Superannuation would become the order of the day. I challenge National to campaign openly on those policies and explain the inevitable consequences for ordinary working families. Those families would be largely targeted out of public funding and find the tax cuts they received did not cover the costs to them of user pays for basic services. Present public spending in these areas is redistributive to families and children, the sick, and the retired. That is the way it should stay.


Let me deal with just one more of Mrs Shipley's homilies about targeting. She says that low income people should not pay more tax to support better off people who could afford to pay their own way. No reasonable person would want low income people to pay more tax, but many reasonable people would say that better off people should not pay less tax while our health, education, community services and our infrastructure are in crisis.

Mrs Shipley is adamant that she can meet her family's needs for educational and other social expenditure. So she can on the substantial salary package which goes with her job and so no doubt could I. But we enjoy incomes which are confined to a tiny minority of New Zealanders.

More user pays and targeting would inevitably very adversely affect large swathes of middle income New Zealand households which have difficulty now in saving after paying their mortgages and meeting their families' needs. I believe that we should continue to distribute some of the costs of raising and educating children, who are, after all, our future, through the tax system and across the life cycle, so that families with children and teenagers do not get swamped by unreasonable financial pressure.


My address today has staked out for Labour a very different approach to social policy from that which drives National and Act. We see the building of a responsible society involving government, communities, and individuals. Let me include business in that too. Many in business willingly play a role beyond serving the narrow interests of their shareholders and are to be commended for so doing. Without that, we would all be the poorer.

In government in the past, Labour has worked in partnership with communities in many areas. In health, there were elected boards, community committees, and service development groups of stakeholders. In state housing there were citizens' allocation committees and forums for discussion between the Housing Corporation and community housing groups. Social Welfare worked with district committees and Tomorrow's Schools involved communities in the management of schools.

We will be seeking partnerships like these again and seeking new ways of involving citizens in the determination of priorities and ways of delivering policies for their own communities. In Britain now there is much excitement about the rise of civic and social entrepreneurs who develop imaginative ways to meet social needs. Their approach is described as risk-taking, innovative, and rule breaking, and it gets results. I can think of so many visionary community leaders and organisations in this country who would just love to be let off the leash and supported in promoting more effective ways of getting results from public funding. In this sense I look forward not just to promoting a third way of doing things, but to letting a hundred flowers bloom.

What must reinforce the building of a responsible society again is the restoration of growth, hope, and confidence in our economy. Our goal must be for an inclusive economy offering opportunity to all who seek a place in it.

Human Capital

It is easy to get depressed about the global economy at the moment. We are not doing particularly well in it. But my message is that we can if we are smart. Our greatest asset is our people—our human capital. Most of the growth in advanced economies is based not on the production of commodities on which New Zealand is so dependent, but on the application of knowledge, technology, and ideas. Advanced economies are dematerialising, as services gain sway over manufacturing. If New Zealand is to grow the wealth we need to sustain good social and public services, we too must move our economy up the skills and technology ladder.

But we won't achieve that by government standing aside and hoping for the best. As a nation we have to invest in infrastructure and in education and skills. It is here that economic and social policy intersect. The high cost of tertiary education and training is holding New Zealand back because it discourages participation. Labour will, through a mix of lower fees, better allowances, and a fairer loans scheme, make it more affordable. This is the responsible course to take for the future. If we don't take it, it is not only mediocrity which threatens us, but also national poverty and growing inequities between rich and poor.

I have been immensely cheered by the optimism of Professor Robert Reich, former American Secretary of Labour, who has been visiting New Zealand at the Labour Party's invitation over the past few days. He is adamant that his country can be fully employed if there are active market interventions to give people the skills the world economy needs. How much more positive an outlook that is than present government policy here to direct the unemployed to pointless makework to fill in their time!

In the new knowledge economy it is impossible for governments to pick winners. But by investing broadly in education, science and research we can create the winners of the future. We can back the networking and clustering which brings together in partnership educational and research institutions, companies, venture capital, and other public and private inputs. New economic sectors will develop through networks which channel knowledge, ideas and people, as well as goods and money. The new economy will be extraordinarily dynamic, and it will require dynamism from all of us, our government, and our policies to get the most benefit from it.

Health, Education, ACC

Let me be specific too about other areas of Labour policy. Our priorities are to build on the values of opportunity, security, fair play, inclusion, and participation. To those ends we will return to elected representation in health decision-making and abandon the business model of health care. It will be our objective to meet the needs of people for hospital treatment through the public health system. The surgical booking system is deeply flawed and cannot be administered successfully in anything like its current form. Elective surgery should not as a matter of principle always make way for more urgent treatment as it would under present government policy. Parallel lists for elective surgery should be tackled.

The divisive experiment in bulk funding schools will cease, and the funding released will be ploughed back into schools on a fair basis. It isn't fair to give more money to schools which play the bulk funding game than to those who refuse. The priorities for the reallocated funding will be operational grants, equity funding, and support for students who are falling behind in their learning.

We will restore income-related rents for state tenants so that state houses can again house those they were built for.

Private insurers will not be able to compete with the Accident Compensation Corporation. It will remain as a comprehensive social insurance scheme as envisaged by the Woodhouse Commission.

Industrial relations legislation will be changed in order to promote collective bargaining and require bargaining in good faith. Unions will receive legal recognition. upskill unemployed people and to support their placement in real jobs. In areas of high structural unemployment we will also back community based enterprises creating work which does not displace other workers or small businesses.

The Future

I am excited by the future New Zealand can have if it chooses. I am depressed only by those who think the future lies in the past or in the discredited hands-off, pure market model. I believe that through policies of inclusion, based around our values of opportunity, fair play, and security for all, we can again build a responsible society in which we are all proud to live. I urge New Zealand to opt for that future, where we move forward together as a society, meeting our obligations to each other, so that we become again our brothers' and our sisters' keepers. I know we will be the happier for it as a nation.

Subheadings were added by the Editor.


 Lecture 3
Professor Jonathan Boston
Professor of Public Policy, Victoria University, Wellington
June 23, 1998


I would like to thank the St Andrew's Trust for organizing this lecture series on building a responsible society. The topic is not merely one of enduring significance but is also of particular relevance at the moment, given the Coalition Government's proposal for a Code of Social and Family Responsibility. It is pertinent to note, too, that this lecture series falls in the centenary year of the introduction of the Old Age Pension in New Zealand and, moreover, that it marks the sixtieth anniversary of the far-reaching Social Security Act crafted by the first Labour government.

We cannot talk about building a responsible society – with all that this implies about the allocation of rights and duties, the nature of justice, and the need to hold individuals, voluntary groups, businesses, institutions and nations accountable for their actions – without betraying our fundamental values and moral outlook. After all, the central issues of responsibility – such as who should be responsible for what and to whom, and how particular responsibilities should be shared amongst the various social orders – can only be answered within the context of a comprehensive and robust philosophical framework. Accordingly, let me state at the outset that my perspective on the nature of a responsible society is shaped first and foremost by my background as a Christian – and a reasonably orthodox one at that – and second, by my commitment to the principles of social democracy. These include support for democratic methods of governance, an open society and economy, an extensive system of individual and collective rights, and the pursuit of social equality and distributive justice.

My intention in this lecture is two-fold. First, I want to explore, albeit briefly, the philosophical foundations of a responsible society and note some of the ways in which this country falls short of the mark. Second, I want to comment on three areas of public policy which are relevant to building a responsible society: the question of targeting versus universal provision; the Government's draft Code of Social and Family Responsibility; and the proposal for a Social Responsibility Act.

The Foundations of a Responsible Society

At least three presuppositions underpin the title of this lecture series: first, that building a responsible society is morally desirable and an important social goal; second, that the present state of affairs is in some sense unsatisfactory and hence, that further building remains to be done; and third, that there are steps which can be taken which will move us closer to our goal. All three presuppositions, in my view, have validity. Plainly, it would be morally unjustifiable to promote an irresponsible society; that is, a society in which individuals, families, iwi, communities and institutions ignored, or failed to fulfill, their obligations and duties. The contention, therefore, that we should build a responsible society is likely to win almost universal consent.

Similarly, I suspect that most would accept that there is evidence of irresponsible behaviour at all levels within the community and in all walks of life. New Zealand's grim statistics on drug abuse, sexual abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancies and violent crime point to a society which is disordered and suggest that many are failing to fulfill their obligations, such as their duty to care for themselves and others. Likewise, the high levels of marital discord, domestic violence and child neglect indicate that many families are dysfunctional and that a troubling number of parents are not fulfilling their responsibilities to love, nurture and care for their children.

Such problems, it can be argued, have been magnified by irresponsible actions on the part of recent governments, in particular the seemingly deliberate efforts to widen socio-economic inequalities and reduce public investment in physical infrastructure and human capital. The savage cuts in welfare benefits in the early 1990s, for instance, have undoubtedly exacerbated the financial plight of many low-income families, intensified poverty and social exclusion, and turned thousands of beneficiaries into virtual beggars (see Stephens, 1998). Policy makers have been equally irresponsible in their failure to monitor and evaluate in a proper fashion the effects of their far-reaching reforms. It was several years, for instance, before a systematic analysis of the impact of the benefit cuts was undertaken. Surely this is not the hallmark of a responsible government or a responsible society.

Question marks can, of course, be raised over the efficacy and wisdom of many other policies. There is now robust empirical evidence that the removal of school zoning in the early 1990s has not merely had a substantial and often detrimental impact on some school rolls, but has also intensified the degree of social and racial segregation. For some middle-class pakeha families de-zoning has doubtless brought benefits; but for the children of the poor and marginalized living in deprived areas there has been little to celebrate. Ultimately, of course, we may all be the losers. Systemic educational disadvantage, coupled with widening income inequality, growing racial disparities and sharper socio-spatial segregation, are unlikely ingredients for a healthy society, a vigorous democracy or a prosperous economy.

To be sure, recent New Zealand government's have made an honest attempt to resolve Treaty grievances. They can equally take some pride in the fiscal discipline exhibited during the 1990s. But this fiscal prudence has been costly in social terms, and these costs has been borne disproportionately by our least advantaged citizens. Again, I find this hard to reconcile with my understanding of a responsible society.

Turning from the domestic to the international arena, the picture is little better. Indeed, the current economic outlook, particularly in Asia, is deeply troubling. As an international citizen New Zealand has of course acted responsibly on many fronts, not least in its campaign against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and its support for the peace-keeping efforts of the United Nations. Yet it is sobering to compare our overseas aid budget with those of other advanced industrialized democracies. Whereas the Danish government devotes over 1 per cent of its country's GDP to overseas aid, and Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden spend around 0.8 per cent, New Zealand's expenditure is just over 0.2 per cent, about a fifth of the Danish level.

Is this the mark of a responsible society and a responsible nation? I suggest not. But it is at this point that serious problems begin. We may all agree that a responsible society is desirable, but our views about the attributes of such a society may be radically different. Likewise, we may all agree that individuals, families, businesses, voluntary organizations, institutions and governments have definable and significant obligations, yet there may be no consensus about their proper nature and scope. Many believe that a responsible society is one where most of the financial risks of human existence, such as sickness, disability, accidents and unemployment, are pooled by the community and thus borne collectively. Others, by contrast, contend that individuals should be self-reliant and should insure themselves against such risks. From this standpoint, collective solutions, such as social insurance or tax-funded welfare systems, are not merely inefficient and inequitable, but they also encourage irresponsible conduct.

Resolving conflicting ideological positions of this nature is complicated by the absence of any commonly accepted moral conception concerning either the purpose of human existence or the appropriate ordering of society. To put it bluntly, there is simply no agreement on what constitutes the good life or what gives meaning and value to life. Many liberal philosophers, such as Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls (1971), believe that this lack of consensus on fundamental values poses no serious difficulties for society. This is because the state need not, and indeed should not, endorse or reject any particular conception of the good life; nor should it impose the pursuit of any particular ends upon its citizens. Rather, it should remain neutral; that is to say, it should facilitate an open-ended plurality of values, so that individuals can pursue and achieve whatever they choose to value. Hence, if some people choose to be egotistical while others choose to be altruistic, this is of no concern to the state; nor should the state attempt to judge the relative merits of specific lifestyles, such as the choice to marry or remain single, or the choice of a same-sex relationship rather than a heterosexual relationship, or the choice to die of overwork or to die of boredom! All that the state is required to do is to ensure that all citizens are treated with equal concern and respect, and that each person is able to pursue his or her own goals and ambitions consistent with other people having the same liberty.

This is not the place for a lengthy treatise on moral or political philosophy. However, I believe that this particular form of liberalism with its strong emphasis on moral neutrality—is fundamentally flawed. The reason, very simply, is that principles of justice or rules of right conduct are an intrinsic part of the conception of the good life; the two are logically connected (see Jones, 1989). Hence, to claim that all citizens are equal in some respect or that citizens have certain rights and responsibilities, is to make a moral judgement, and this judgement necessarily reflects a particular world view or conception of what is good. For this reason, it is a mistake to believe that one can establish a just social order or build a responsible society independently of a moral theory about what is good for human beings or what makes for a good society. And if the nature of justice cannot be separated logically from a conception of goodness, then no government which is committed to building a just society can be neutral about the nature of the good life. On the contrary, it has no option but to take sides.

But this, of course begs, numerous questions. From what moral foundation should the state draw its inspiration and the ethical principles to guide its policy decisions? And how paternalistic and coercive should it be in pursuing, upholding and enforcing its chosen conception of the good life and corresponding notion of a responsible society? These are large questions, and time permits only the most general of answers.

My basic starting point is that the quest for a responsible society is to be found in the assumptions, doctrines and values of the Christian faith, and in particular the grand themes of creation, fall and redemption. Central to Christian theology, in other words, are the claims that the world owes its existence to the action of a loving Creator, that the world has in some sense been marred by human selfishness or sinfulness, and that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has entered human history and through his suffering, death and resurrection has brought the offer of redemption, healing and forgiveness. On the basis of these critical theological foundations, the Christian church has, over the centuries, developed a rich tradition of social teaching. While there are many different streams of thought, or social theologies, within this tradition—compare, for instance, the work of Barth, Niebuhr, Temple, Thielicke, Yoder and recent Catholic social teaching—there is, I believe, broad agreement on the following propositions:

  • first, we live in a moral universe in which the responsibilities of individuals, families, firms and institutions are both extensive and exacting. Above all, there is a responsibility to be loving and to act justly;
  • second, human beings are precious and should, accordingly, be treated with dignity and respect;
  • third, humanity has a social nature and finds fulfillment in community and fellowship with others. Independence and interdependence must therefore be carefully balanced; fourth, humanity has a propensity to act selfishly and irresponsibly and, as a consequence, various institutions are needed, on the one hand, to curb and punish evil and, on the other hand, to offer healing and hope; and
  • fifth, the state is a divinely sanctioned institution whose primary purpose is to establish and enforce public justice and pursue the common good. This includes protecting the interests of the least advantaged citizens and ensuring that everyone has a permanent stake in their society and economy.

Needless to say, one could write many volumes about each of these points. For our present purposes there is time to make just four fleeting observations. First, as noted, one cannot build a responsible society without a secure ethical foundation and a robust moral framework for determining the appropriate allocation of rights and responsibilities. In my view, Christianity provides both this foundation and framework. It does not, however, provide a comprehensive blueprint. There is thus plenty of scope for disagreement about how we should build within the context of the framework provided.

Second, and related to this, Christians have long disputed—and will doubtless continue to do so—the question of the proper limits to the state's role. The ethical principles underpinning the Biblical tradition are consistent, in my view, with a relatively substantial role for government, as for instance represented by modern welfare states. Indeed, such a role is arguably essential if the state is to establish a just social order and pursue the common good.

I recognize, however, that some Christians see things rather differently. Well, I think they are wrong; and if there was more time I would happily defend my position (see Boston, 1994a).

Third, while a state acting in accordance with Christian principles cannot be neutral with respect to the good life, and must in fact be committed to building a responsible, good and just society, this does not mean that the state should use extensive coercion or force in its pursuit of these goals. On the contrary, the state should be relatively liberal and democratic, not highly paternalistic, legalistic or theocratic. Put differently, coercion by the state should, as a general principle, be kept to a minimum, with legal remedies being used only when other methods (including voluntary initiatives, reciprocity, moral suasion, education, and incentives of various kinds) have failed or are likely to fail. In determining when coercion is justified, various considerations need to be taken into account including the minimization of harm, the protection of human dignity, and the protection of key social institutions, such as the family and the justice system (see Feinberg, 1973). For instance, the state is justified, in my view, in intervening in a family context to protect children from violent, abusive or seriously neglectful parents; likewise, it is justified in reminding parents of their basic responsibilities; it is not, however, justified in prescribing exactly what it means to love one's children and then enforcing such standards via the legal system.

Finally, Christians should be realists. Because of the human propensity for evil we should never expect to build a utopia; a society in which everyone constantly respects the rights of others and fulfills their many and varied obligations is unobtainable. This, however, does not provide grounds for despair or resignation. On the contrary, we remain bound by the divine imperative to love, to pursue justice and to seek the good of our neighbours, and to do so by all possible means—both private and public, individual and collective.

The Responsible Society and Public Policy

In the remaining time I would like to explore briefly three areas of public policy which are relevant to the subject of this lecture series. The first of these is the question of targeting or means-testing.

1. Universality and Targeting

One of the enduring philosophical debates in the broad social policy arena has been over whether public assistance should be given solely to those in greatest need or, instead, to all citizens irrespective of their financial means (see Boston and St John, 1998). Advocates of means testing in areas like social security, housing and health care claim that it is more fiscally prudent, efficient and equitable. Hence, the provision of universal assistance, whether it be in the form of pensions, family support or free education, is regarded as socially and economically irresponsible. To quote the former Prime Minister, Jim Bolger: "I am waiting for someone to provide moral justification, much less economic justification, to tax people on modest incomes so as to pay benefits to individuals or families who don't need them." (1997, p. 4).

The current Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, appears to share these reservations. By contrast, supporters of universal provision claim that targeting can often be inefficient and inequitable, as well as generating numerous administrative problems, stigmatizing the poor and undermining middle-class support for the welfare state. To quote Dr Geoff Bertram, one of my colleagues at Victoria University:

"Universal provision ... improves resource allocation, minimizes qualitative differentiation of service, is politically sustainable because of the wide spread of beneficiaries, and performs an important socially integrative function by underpinning rights of citizenship." (1988, p. 135).

This is not the place to analyze these competing views in detail. I would, however, like to make four brief observations.

First, like many policy questions, assessing the relative merits of targeting and universal provision is complex and, in my view, there are no simple answers. Having said this, the case against universal forms of social assistance—whether it be free, compulsory education, a universal pension, or a comprehensive public health care system—is much less compelling than many of the advocates of targeting believe. For instance, the claim that universal programmes are morally unjustified because they involve the poor subsidizing the rich or because the rich capture most of the benefits has little substance in most cases. As long as the tax system is not highly regressive, a universal programme will in fact redistribute resources to the poor, though admittedly to a lesser extent than an equivalent programme which is tightly targeted.

Let me illustrate: suppose the top quintile of households (i.e. the top 20 per cent) earn $1,500 per week, while the bottom quintile earn $300. Hence, before tax and transfers are taken into account, the top quintile earn five times that of the bottom quintile. Now suppose there is a flat tax rate of 33.3 per cent and that every household receives universal transfers worth $300 per week. Under such a regime, the net income of the wealthiest 20 per cent of households will be $1,300 per week while the net income of the poorest 20 per cent will be $500. On this basis, the income differential will have been reduced by almost half. Instead of the top quintile earning five times more than the bottom quintile, the ratio is 2.66. This simply highlights the fact that if there is a proportional or progressive tax system and the state gives the same amount of services to the rich and the poor alike, the poor will gain significantly in relative terms.

Second, the issue of fairness or distributive justice is only one of numerous factors which needs to be taken into account when determining whether a particular form of state assistance should be provided universally or on a targeted basis. Take, for instance, the case of education: there are many arguments for state funding in this area which have nothing to do with income distribution or redistribution. Amongst these are the objectives of enhancing the stock of human capital, improving labour productivity, fostering social cohesion, encouraging the pursuit of knowledge, preserving and enhancing a nation's culture or cultures, and of course, ensuring that everyone is educated to a certain standard and thus has the opportunity to develop and use their gifts and talents.

Third, there are some services, like health care and accident compensation, where principles of insurance and the pooling of risk are vitally important. While the issues in relation to the funding of health care are complex, a good case can be mounted that it is more efficient, effective and equitable for the state to act as the principal insurer on behalf of the whole population rather than having a funding system based on targeted assistance and competing private insurers, as for instance in the United States. Universal health cover can be funded through the tax system or a separate, compulsory health insurance levy (or a mixture of both).

In New Zealand, the choice has been to use the tax system. Having made the decision that the state should serve as the community's insurer, it can be reasonably argued that publicly-funded health services should be available on the same basis to all citizens, irrespective of their wealth or income; no means test, in other words, should apply. Indeed, to require some people, by virtue of their income, to pay higher medical fees than others is arguably unjust.

Since the basis of this claim may not be entirely obvious, imagine, for a moment, that instead of paying tax to cover health care costs, people were instead required by law to hold private health insurance. Imagine further that having paid their levies for many years, people on above average incomes were suddenly informed unilaterally by their insurers that henceforth they would have to pay directly for all their primary health care services, as well as some of their secondary services, and would no longer be eligible for any reimbursement. Moreover, they would still be expected to pay the same levy as before. No doubt, health insurers would immediately be sued for breach of contract, and rightly so. In my view, the imposition of income targeting for primary and secondary health care services in 1991 constituted a similar breach of contract, though in this case it was an implicit social contract rather than a legally binding one.

Fourth, and perhaps most important in relation to the subject of this lecture series, the targeting or means testing of social assistance on the basis of income or wealth, no matter how well motivated, creates a variety of perverse incentives, and has the potential to undermine both individual and social responsibility. For instance, one of the inevitable consequences of targeting is that many low-to-middle income earners face high effective marginal tax rates; such rates are calculated by adding the tax rate to the amount of social assistance which is abated or lost for every extra dollar earned. When many services are targeted, those on modest incomes often face effective marginal tax rates close to, or even more than, 100 per cent. In other words, they may be no better off, or even worse off, as their income rises.

Problems of this nature have received much attention from Frank Field, the current Minister for Welfare Reform in the British Labour government and a leading social policy analyst. According to Field, the application of means tests to welfare assistance erode 'the values of work, effort, savings and honesty' (1996, p.15). They 'cripple incentives' because as income from employment rises, the value of the benefit falls and people are left little, or no, better off; they 'penalize savings' because people who save are likely to make themselves ineligible for benefits'; and they 'tax honesty' because 'those who are honest about their earnings and savings make themselves ineligible' for state assistance (ibid). As a consequence, Field claims, means tests encourage widespread dishonesty, fraud, cheating and other forms of irresponsible behaviour: people deliberately fail to report their income, or the income of a spouse; or they deliberately stay on a benefit because there is no incentive to work; or they marry—as in the case of students – so as to become eligible for an allowance; or they separate – as in the case of elderly people – so as to become eligible for a larger pension; and so the litany goes on. As Field puts it:

Means tests ensure that claimants' energy is channeled into working the system rather than working themselves off welfare ... means tests are the most potent recruiting sergeant there is for the dependency culture.

If Field is correct, then the targeting of social assistance has some injurious impacts on economic incentives and human behaviour, and these impacts, in turn, have harmful moral, social, economic and political consequences. For instance, to the extent that means testing increases welfare dependency and encourages people to behave irresponsibly, it imposes higher fiscal costs on the state and ultimately undermines public support for income redistribution and welfare expenditure in general. In short, targeting may well have the long-term effect of destabilizing the welfare state with the result that those who are most in need end up even worse off. At the same time, a culture of dependency, dishonesty and despondency is created, and once created is difficult to remedy.

While aspects of Field's analysis are certainly open to question, the broad thrust of his argument is highly plausible. Moreover, given that New Zealand relies at least as heavily on targeted forms of social assistance as Britain – indeed, we have one of the most heavily targeted policy regimes in the OECD – his analysis almost certainly applies in this country. In fact, because of the very poorly integrated nature of our systems of targeting – with numerous overlapping abatement rates, inconsistent eligibility criteria, and high effective marginal tax rates for many of those on low-to-middle incomes – it may well be that Field's argument applies even more forcibly here than elsewhere. Be that as it may, perhaps the critical lesson to be drawn from such an analysis it that policy interventions affect the incentives and constraints within which human beings live and work, and can thus have very negative consequences for human behaviour and social relations.

What, then, is the solution? One option, of course, is to impose even tighter systems of targeting, to cut benefit levels in real terms, and to make it all the more difficult for those in need to secure social assistance. In effect, this has been the option pursued in New Zealand during the 1990s; the recently announced measures to introduce work tests for beneficiaries are merely a further logical step along this road. While the social policy initiatives of the past decade have not all been flawed, I am not persuaded that the path we have taken is the best available. For one thing, it is evident that the number of people in receipt of welfare benefits has not been significantly reduced. As a result, there has been no overall reduction in the cost of welfare programmes. For another, the various cuts in benefit rates and the tightening of eligibility criteria have intensified the financial hardship faced by many of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens. The large number of people who have little alternative but to beg for food, if not on the streets then from private charities, is testimony to the inadequacy of current benefit levels, particularly in the area of housing assistance. Further, workfare programmes of the kind we are about to introduce are open to numerous objections – not least their coerciveness and punitive nature – and are unlikely to have a major impact on overall levels of employment and welfare dependency.

If the current path is beset with problems, what alternatives are there? There are, unfortunately, no simple solutions. However, my preference would be for a combination of measures, including: first, a general reduction in our current heavy reliance on targeted forms of social assistance, particularly with respect to early childhood education, tertiary allowances, primary health care and child support; second, a better integration of those forms of targeting which remain so as to reduce the number of people facing high effective marginal tax rates; and third, the establishment of a commission to evaluate alternative forms of welfare funding, such as the idea of a 'basic' or 'citizen's' income and/or a greater use of social insurance. Various radical options in this regard have recently been advocated in the British context, and in my view these warrant careful attention (see Atkinson, 1998; Field, 1996; Report of the Commission on Social Justice, 1994).

2. The Proposed Code of Social and Family Responsibility

Let me now turn briefly to the proposed Code of Social and Family Responsibility. In certain respects, the Coalition Government's initiative in formulating a draft Code is to be welcomed.

There is undoubtedly a case for communities to re-evaluate from time to time the nature and scope of the social responsibilities which human beings have for one another. To the extent that the proposed code has encouraged serious public debate about such matters, this can only be for the good. Hopefully, too, the idea of a Code indicates that senior policy makers take seriously some of the social ills which afflict this nation – such as drug abuse, parental neglect, truancy, sexual abuse and family violence. Views will doubtless differ on whether a Code of the kind proposed will alleviate any of these afflictions. Nevertheless, such problems are real and need addressing, and it is proper for the whole community to be involved in finding solutions. Accordingly, despite the serious methodological flaws of the public consultation being undertaken by the Government (see Grimes, 1998), the exercise will, I hope, generate some useful ideas for building a better society.

Yet having said this, the Government's proposals are open to numerous objections (see Boston, 1998). For one thing, the draft Code is misnamed. As it stands, seven of the eleven proposed 'expectations' – as they are called – primarily concern parental responsibilities, while the remaining four focus upon the responsibilities which individuals have to look after themselves.

Thus, the draft Code is really a 'Code of Parental and Individual Responsibility', not a 'Code of Social and Family Responsibility'. To be legitimately labeled 'Social', the Code would need to embrace some of the key social responsibilities which people have in their various capacities as citizens, consumers, taxpayers and neighbours for instance, a responsibility to participate in the democratic process, a duty to pay the taxes they owe, and a duty to care for their 'neighbours' (in the broadest sense of this word).

For another thing, the draft Code applies only to individuals and their immediate families; it thus ignores the social responsibilities of voluntary organizations, businesses, institutions and the state. Yet morally it is difficult to defend the proposition that social responsibilities lie exclusively with individuals, or at least individuals acting exclusively in their private capacity.

But whatever the Code is called and whatever its precise form, scope and content, the critical policy issue is whether it is desirable. In other words, is it likely to encourage more responsible or virtuous human conduct and do so in the absence of negative side-effects? The answer here depends, at least in part, on whether the Code is binding or non-binding; that is, whether it is given the force of law or whether it is issued merely as a statement of government policy. For instance, a non-binding Code might be helpful in reminding people about their responsibilities. But it is unlikely to have a significant and enduring impact on human behaviour. Indeed, as with many government policy statements, it is likely to be ignored or quickly forgotten by most people.

Against this, such a policy statement might be employed by various tribunals and Courts – like the Social Security Appeal Authority – in their efforts to find principles to guide them in their deliberations. To the extent that this occurred, the Code might have a discernible impact on certain classes of people. For instance, beneficiaries who have not fulfilled some of the expectations outlined in the Code might find it more difficult to secure social assistance. In all likelihood, however, such negative impacts would probably be modest.

Of course, matters would be very different if the expectations in the Code were made legally binding or, alternatively, if parts of the Code were used as a basis for new legal sanctions—such as penalties for those who fail to 'manage their money to meet the basic needs of themselves and their family' or for those who fail to 'do all they can to keep themselves physically and mentally healthy'. Yet both these options are open to serious objections.

First, if the expectations set out in the Code were all given formal legal standing, they would acquire a potentially authoritarian and illiberal character. For example, the police would be obliged to enforce the Code, and would accordingly be required to monitor its application. Hence, pregnant women who do not 'protect their own and their baby's health' and those parents who fail to 'do all they can to help their children learn from the time they're born' could be prosecuted and penalized. Plainly, such an approach would be highly contentious and socially harmful. Not merely would it facilitate totally unwarranted interference in the private lives of individuals and families, it would also raise serious problems with regard to effective monitoring and enforcement.

Second, the Code could be used as a guise for imposing new requirements or sanctions upon certain categories of people, most notably those in receipt of state assistance. By way of illustration, it has been suggested that beneficiaries might lose part of their welfare assistance if they fail to budget their income adequately, or if they fail to have their children immunized (without good reason), or if their children play truant. Other possible policy initiatives include giving 'money managers' the responsibility of looking after the finances of beneficiaries who repeatedly apply for special needs grants, and depriving working-age beneficiaries of state support if they fail to accept either a job or a training opportunity. Whatever the merits or otherwise of such proposals, it would be unjust if a Code of the kind proposed, which is intended to apply to all citizens, contained sanctions which, in effect, applied only to certain categories of people. In the case of truancy, for example, it would be discriminatory to impose sanctions on beneficiaries but to take no similar action against non-beneficiaries. While the Minister of Social Welfare, Roger Sowry, has denied that the government has any intention of extending the current range of punitive measures available to his Department and other government agencies, the nature and wording of some sections of the Public Discussion Document give cause for concern.

Finally, it has been argued by some ministers that the proposal for a Code reflects a broader governmental move to put the emphasis in social policy on responsibilities rather than rights. Roger Sowry stated early in 1998, for example, that the Code is radical in that we are taking the focus away from rights and looking at responsibilities for the first time. This will be the framework for all future development and delivery of social policy (quoted in Bain, 1998, p.2).

While it is utterly proper for the state to promote responsible citizenship and give due attention to the issue of social responsibility, it must never be forgotten that the protection of fundamental values, such as human life, dignity and liberty, is dependent upon the existence of a clear, legally binding set of civil, political, social and economic rights. Any move to circumscribe, diminish or take 'the focus away' from such rights must be firmly resisted.

3. The Case for a Social Responsibility Act

The proposed Code of Social and Family Responsibility involves an attempt by the Government to specify how it expects people to behave, especially in their capacity as parents. Turning the tables, as it were, there is an equally good case for specifying more precisely how we, as citizens, expect the state to behave. Among the various proposals designed to achieve this end is the idea of a Social Responsibility Act. The initiative for such an Act arose following the passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act in 1994 (see Scott, 1995). In particular, it reflected a recognition that the reporting and accountability measures imposed on New Zealand governments in relation to the management of economic and fiscal policy – which by international standards are very exacting – were not matched by similar measures in the social policy arena (see Boston, 1994b; Boston, St John and Stephens, 1996; Edlin, 1996; Robertson, 1996; Scollay and St John, 1996).

If a Social Responsibility Act were to be crafted with the objective of imposing a stricter code of conduct upon the government, it could obviously take many different forms, both in terms of its basic structure and content. The proposal which I and several academic colleagues have advanced in recent years uses the Fiscal Responsibility Act as its template and contains four main elements.

First, there would be a Statement of Principles. This would set out a number of key social policy objectives and provide criteria for determining whether the government is acting in a manner consistent with the intent of the legislation.

Second, there would be an annual Social Strategy Statement. This would be delivered in conjunction with the budget and would require the government to enunciate its short-term and longer-term objectives for social policy (including specific policy targets), its overall social priorities, its strategy for dealing with longer-term social trends (e.g. changes in demography, family structure, socio-spatial characteristics, etc.), and whether its strategy is consistent with the social responsibility principles contained in the Act.

Third, there would be an annual Social Outcome Statement. This would be delivered at the time of the budget and would require the government to report on its performance in relation to the objectives set in previous Social Strategy Statements and to explain any significant inconsistencies between these objectives and the results actually achieved. The Act could also require the government in this Statement to report on the social consequences of any significant policy initiatives undertaken during the preceding two-to-three years.

Fourth, there would be a requirement for social impact assessments. Any governmental proposal with major social implications would require a social impact assessment prior to final policy decisions being made (see Davey, 1995). Such an assessment would need to be made public. Beyond this, a Social Responsibility Act could embrace a range of other provisions and initiatives:

  • a requirement for social responsibility accounting to be introduced in the public sector; a requirement for all social service providers to have consumer charters and published quality standards (e.g. along the lines of the British Citizens' Charter);
  • the establishment of a Parliamentary Commissioner for Social Responsibility, perhaps modeled on the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment;
  • and the introduction of a Charter of Social Rights along the lines of the European Social Charter (see Harris, 1984; Lewis and Seneviratne, 1992).

Plainly, if legislation of the kind outlined were to be enacted, governments would need to specify more precisely than has hitherto been the case the nature of their (non-monetary) policy goals and targets—both short term and long term—with respect to various aspects of the human condition (e.g. distribution of income, employment, health status, access to health services, life expectancy, housing standards, housing affordability, education participation rates, educational attainment, poverty levels, crime rates, etc.). They would also need to undertake comprehensive monitoring of relevant social outcomes and institute systematic programmes of policy evaluation and research. Such monitoring might include changes in living standards (across various groups and categories), income distribution, wealth distribution, the level of economic distress, the degree of homelessness, nutrition levels, school drop-out rates, the level of social capital, and so forth.

Admittedly, a Social Responsibility Act of the kind proposed would raise certain difficulties, not least the problem of defining an appropriate set of guiding principles. It would also entail additional costs, and is likely to slow the pace of policy making in some areas.

Moreover, such legislation would not be an instant panacea for New Zealand's social woes. It would certainly not eliminate poverty or unemployment. It would not automatically reduce inequalities or widen the circle of prosperity. Nor would it necessarily make governments more socially responsible.

Against this, politicians and their advisers would be obliged to give greater attention to the social costs and outcomes of their policy decisions, thereby partially balancing the current fixation with economic and fiscal aggregates. Further, such an Act would help make the social aims and achievements of governments more transparent and improve the quality of information available to policy makers. As a result, it would enhance the opportunities for public scrutiny of governmental interventions and provide the basis for greater political accountability. Such gains, I believe, are important and worth striving for.


To conclude, I have endeavoured in this lecture to offer some thoughts on the foundations of a responsible society and to outline a few of the policy changes which, I believe, would contribute towards the building of such a society. There are, of course, many other areas of public policy which deserve attention in the pursuit of a better tomorrow. Amongst these – to mention but a few – are a renewed commitment to full employment and the alleviation of poverty, a greater emphasis on conservation, environmental sustainability, and responsible management of the world's common resources, a fairer distribution of income and wealth (both nationally and internationally), a stronger commitment to gender equity, racial tolerance and the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, and greater public investment in our children, especially young children.

As a Christian, I am mindful that in this world – a world marred by human selfishness and irresponsibility – we cannot expect to attain perfection; the desired goal will always be beyond our grasp. I am mindful, too, that the pursuit of a better world, a world in which individuals, families, firms, organizations and states behave justly and responsibly, does not come cheaply or without much effort. There is a price to be paid; personal sacrifices are inevitable. One of these costs, and by no means a trivial one, is that the advantaged must be prepared to assist the disadvantaged. In this current era, so dominated by the quest for smaller government and lower taxes – especially for the rich – it is good to be reminded of the words etched on the facade of the headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service in Washington DC: 'Taxes', said Oliver Wendell Holmes, 'are the price we pay for a civilized society'. They are equally, of course, the price we pay for living in a responsible society.


Atkinson, T. (1998) 'Whither Welfare?', Oxford Today, 10, 2, pp. 10-12.
Bain, H. (1998) 'Code of social responsibility 'radical'', The Dominion, 14 January.
Bertram G. (1988) 'Middle Class capture: A Brief Survey'. In Report of the Royal Commission on Social Policy Volume III, Part Two, Future Directions Wellington, Government Printer.
Bolger, J. (1997) 'Sound Economics, Good Politics'. Speech to the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, 15 October.
Boston, J. (1994a) 'Love, Justice and the State', in J. Boston and A. Cameron (eds) Voices for Justice: Church, Law and the State in New Zealand Palmerston North, Dunmore Press.
Boston, J. (1994b) 'The Implications of MMP for Social Policy in New Zealand', Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, 3, December, pp.2-16.
Boston, J. (1998) 'The Code of Social and Family Responsibility', Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought and Practice, 6, May, pp.43-47.
Boston, J., St John, S. and Stephens, R. (1996) 'The Quest for Social Responsibility', Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, 7, December, pp.2-16.
Boston, J. and St John, S. (1998) 'Targeting versus Universality: Social Assistance for All or Just for the Poor?' In J. Boston, P. Dalziel and S. St John (eds) Redesigning the Welfare State in New Zealand: Problems, Policies and Prospects Auckland, Oxford University Press, forthcoming.
Davey, J. (ed.) (1995) Social Assessment and Central Government Wellington, Institute of Policy Studies.
Edlin, B. (1996) 'Public Service Frustrates MP in Quest for Social Responsibility', The Independent, 16 August, p.36.
Field, F. (1996) Stakeholder Welfare London, Institute for Economic Affairs.
Feinberg, J. (1973) Social Philosophy New Jersey, Prentice-Hall.
Grimes, A. (1998) 'Editorial', Institute of Policy Studies Newsletter, 54, May, pp.1-2.
Harris, D. (1984) The European Social Charter Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia.
Jones, P. (1989) 'The Ideal of the Neutral State'. In R. Goodin and A. Reeve (eds) Liberal Neutrality London, Routledge.
Lewis, N. and Seneviratne, M. (1992) 'A Social Charter for Britain', in A. Coote (ed.) The Welfare of Citizens: Developing New Social Rights London, Rivers Oram Press.
Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Report of the Commission on Social Justice (1994) Social Justice: Strategies for National Renewal London, Vintage.
Robertson, J. (1996) 'Social Responsibilities of Government Need to be Set Down in Law', New Zealand Herald, 2 September.
Scollay, R. and St John, S. (1996) Macroeconomics and the Contemporary New Zealand Economy Auckland, Longman.
Scott, G. (1995) 'New Zealand's Fiscal Responsibility Act', Agenda, 2,1, pp.3-16.
Stephens, R. (1998) 'Poverty, Family Finance and Social Security'. In J. Boston, P. Dalziel and S. St John (eds) Redesigning the Welfare State in New Zealand: Problems, Policies and Prospects Auckland, Oxford University Press, forthcoming.


 Lecture 4
Emeritus Professor Lloyd Geering
Lecturer in Residence at St Andrew's on the Terrace, Wellington
June 30, 1998


In this last lecture of the series on "Building a Responsible Society" I shall not repeat such important things said by the previous speakers, with which I agree. There is no need for me rehearse the particular aspects of current Government policy which adversely affect society, for that was well done by Jonathan Boston last week. That leaves me free in this concluding lecture to offer a simple and more general analysis of the topic in this way.

First I shall discuss at some length the nature of human society. This is an aspect which in my view has not yet been sufficiently covered. Then I shall sketch the nature of responsibility and why it is the key to what constitutes a society in good heart. Finally I shall outline what I think we can all do to promote the growth of the responsible society.

Society v. Individualism

What do we understand by the term society? One reason why people come to different conclusions about how to build a responsible society is that they set out from different understandings of what society is, as Jonathan Boston noted. What is even worse, they may even set out with no understanding of society at all. There is no clearer illustration of this than the now much quoted comment of Margaret Thatcher when she said, "There's no such thing as society".

That tells us a great deal about the political and economic ideology which has been called Thatcherism or the New Right. Thatcherism is based on the current popular philosophy of individualism. It acknowledges the existence only of human individuals, each with their own interests, rights and responsibilities; it does not attribute any importance or even existence to society.

Many of our current human and social problems can be traced back to the prevalence of this philosophy of individualism and its neglect of the importance of society. If politicians and analysts spent as much time and energy attempting to understand the nature of human society as they do to trying to understand the economy, our communal life today could be very much better. The failure to take society seriously has already been reflected in this series of lectures. Mrs Shipley did not even bother with a definition until she was asked for one by a questioner after her lecture had concluded. She then said she assumed that we all have some idea of what we mean by the term, and proceeded to give an off-the-cuff definition of society as "a group of people who have common interests and who have rights within it and responsibilities to it". She did somewhat better than Mrs Thatcher and many would not do as well as her on the spur of the moment. But that definition of society, I suggest, is not at all adequate. It could apply just as readily to an audience in the Michael Fowler Centre who have gathered to hear a symphony concert. They have a common interest. They have a right to seat because they have paid for it and they have the responsibility not to make noises which would interfere with the others rights to listen. But that does not make the audience into a society.

Helen Clark did somewhat better. She not only offered a definition at the outset but went much further that Jenny Shipley. She defined society as a community whose members have duties to one another. She went on to emphasise that society is a whole entity which is more than the sum of its parts.

To be fair to Jenny Shipley, she was simply reflecting what is a very common notion today, namely, that society is nothing more than an assembly of individuals, something which individuals form when they voluntarily join together for a common purpose. This notion of a society is actually quite modern. It came to the fore in the 17th and 18th centuries at the very time when modern individualism was coming to birth. It is reflected in the social-contract theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It assumes that individuals exist before society.

I wish to claim that it is actually the other way round; it is only because of society that each of us exists as an individual, each with our own identity, personal experience and capacity to think for ourselves.

Society makes Individuals

So what is society? Society is much more than just an assembly of individuals. Human society has been in existence for so long that, like the air we breathe, we take it for granted without pausing to reflect on what it is and how much we individuals depend upon it. The human species, by its very nature, is gregarious. That means that the evolutionary development of humankind, and our survival, depend upon our being a social group. Only because our species lived in a cohesive society did the human condition evolve to what it is today, when each of us can now experience reflective self-consciousness and develop an individual identity. This process took place over aeons of time and involved the evolution of language and culture. We individuals do not create society. Society has created us as individuals through thousands of generations of its continuous life. We forget that at our peril.

It is only over the last two to three hundred years that modern individualism has been developing to the point where we are now beginning to forget or ignore the essential nature of the cultural and social womb out of which we have come. We have even begun to speak of certain individuals as being self-made people. That is arrogant nonsense.

One of the reasons for failing to understand the importance of human society is the sheer complexity of modern society. In the distant past there was basically only one type of society – tribal society. The tribe was really an extended family held strongly together by blood ties. This originating tribal society can be described as a social organism. It is analogous to the physiological organism which constitutes the human body. That analogy has long been recognised in practice and is the reason why we speak of society as having a head and of the individuals within it as its members or limbs. Indeed, as the study of the Old Testament makes clear, the idea of society as a living organism was so strong for the people of ancient Israel that they used it as an analogy for understanding the human body. They thought of the heart, liver, intestines and all the other organs as together forming a society in which each had an identity of its own but also had to play its proper role for the good of the whole. We are in the reverse process of having to relearn the nature of society by studying it in the light of what we now know of human physiology.

Just as the physical human organism is a unity containing a variety of different organs held together by a bone structure, a nervous system and a blood stream, so the social human organism is a unity, held together by a complex set of relationships, a common language and a common body of ideas, knowledge, goals and aspirations or what we call its culture. The culture provides society with an identity and does for it what the mind and soul does for the individual being. To take the analogy further, just as the brain continues to function only while the heart does, so every member of human society is dependent, not only on every other member but also on the whole society and its culture. The failure to understand the nature of society at a time because of the growing prevalence of individualism prevails may herald the disintegration of society. Then individuals also suffer as a consequence. We are already witnessing some ominous signs of that disintegration.

The Importance of Society

There are two chief reasons why we have been failing to appreciate the importance of society and to understand what it is which sustains its life and vitality. The first, as I said, derives from the sheer complexity of modern society, when compared with the original tribal society. New Zealand society, being an insular nation, does have a clear geographical boundary line but it is far from being a simple homogeneous community within that boundary. It contains innumerable sub-societies. These are often more important to the people in them than society as a whole.

Further, as we are now discovering, New Zealand society is a small part of an even more extensive global society, on whose health and destiny ours also ultimately depends.

The second reason why we do not appreciate the importance of society is that, in modern times, we have been in the process of moving from what may be called the closed society to the open society. By the closed society I mean one which surrounds itself with a clear and definite boundary line, providing for the social organism what the skin does for the physical organism.

Closed and Open Society

There is a world of difference between being inside the closed society and being outside of it.

If one is in the closed society one's freedom is greatly restricted for one is deeply involved in the duties or morality of that society, which serve to promote it and preserve it. This morality is enforced by social pressure and by clear lines of authority from the top down. If one is outside of the closed society one is an outcast, an excommunicate or a foreigner. What is outside is foreign and potentially dangerous. The closed society has a very clear sense of its own identity and its members draw their own personal identity and security from it. What held the closed society together as a social organism was loyalty, trust and, above all, an absolute respect for authority .

Until the rise of the modern world all societies, whether tribal, ethnic, national or religious, were, to a greater or less degree, closed societies

The open society emerged in the modern world along with individualism. It is one where the boundary lines around the society are becoming blurred, making it relatively easy for some to leave and some to join. In an open society individuals enjoy much greater personal freedom and are not subject to nearly so much external authority. They are much freer to make their decisions and choose their own lifestyle within certain very broad limits. By the same token they must now exercise a great deal more responsibility, a topic I am about to turn to.

No human society is immortal or free from threat to its existence. Even tribal societies were sometimes wiped out by their enemies. The open society must not only continue to protect itself from external forces but, by its very nature, it is much more vulnerable than the closed society to forces which threaten it from within.

The forces from within the open society, which threaten to bring about its disintegration, arise out of the failure of its members to realise their ultimate dependence on society and hence to fulfil in a responsible way their obligations to society. In the open society much more responsibility is thrust upon the individual than in the closed society. Closed societies, by the authority they exert, cushion their members from having to exercise responsibility. The closed society keeps most of its people in a state of child-like dependence. Much of the decision-making is already done on their behalf.

What holds the closed society together as a social organism is authority, exercised both from above and through peer pressure. What holds the open society together as a social organism is the proper exercise of personal responsibility. Where that responsibility is lacking, the society either disintegrates or finds itself forced to return to the rigid authoritarianism of the closed society. Many of our current social problems derive from the fact that, in making the transition to the open society, we find we are not all adequately equipped with the responsibility needed to maintain it as a healthy social organism.


What is responsibility? This term is ultimately derived from the Latin word respondere which means, "to answer back". All the words derived from this root, including 'responsibility', imply mutual relationship of some kind. It implies, not blind and submissive obedience but dialogue, full and equal participation in the decision-making process. Human society, as I have said, is a social organism and, as a consequence, its members are involved in a complex set of relationships in which they respond to one another, in much the same way as the organs of the physical body exist and work in complementary relationship with one another. In these relationships the members of a society are expressing their responsibility to one another—person to person, person to self, persons to the whole society.

It is worth noting that when we use the word responsible we sometimes follow it with 'to' and sometimes with 'for'. There is an important difference. We are responsible for ourselves when, as adults, we take full responsibility for our decisions, our actions, our general manner and so on.

We can also be responsible to ourselves. This occurs when we strive to live with integrity by being honest with ourselves, when we try to develop for ourselves a good name or character.

In a similar way we are responsible to society when we acknowledge all that we personally owe to it and faithfully respond to it by fulfilling those duties which this social debt lay upon us. But we can also be responsible for society. This is when we acknowledge that we humans are social creatures who must support and care for one another. In particular we are being responsible for society when we care for the well-being of society, showing concern, for example to all who have been disadvantaged for one reason or another.

The Code

The government is to be commended for having raised the subject of responsibility for public discussion. Yet there was much criticism of the way the Code of Responsibility was phrased.

The reason for this, I suggest, is that it had much to say about our personal responsibility to society but it had very little or nothing to say about our responsibility for society. This is something we frequently, but not exclusively, do through the instrument of the government itself.

It is always important to remember that a democratic government is not some institution external to society. The government is our collective voice, elected to make decisions on our behalf, and exercising corporate responsibility on our behalf. Not all politicians, on being elected, seem to remember this.

A responsible society is one in which all individual members, along with its elected representatives, make responsible decisions and act responsibly both to one another and for one another. It is worth noting that when we take responsibility for ourselves we are at the same time being responsible to society; and when we are taking responsibility for society we are being responsible to ourselves as human beings showing some moral integrity. What I have briefly sketched as a responsible society is the ideal form of an open society. It is one where personal freedom and the use of human rights are equally balanced by the exercise of the responsibility.

Admittedly it is an ideal but it is an ideal which is worth striving for and one which is possible of realisation.

Building a Responsible Society

So much for what constitutes a responsible society. How do we go about building a responsible society? In view of what has been said about society I must question whether the word "build" is an entirely appropriate term. First it suggests that society is an impersonal thing such as a machine, something we can put together from component parts according to some initial plan .

Secondly, it tends to suggest that those who build it are themselves in some sense outside of the society they are planning to build.

During this century we have seen how Lenin, Hitler, Chairman Mao and Pol Pot all attempted to build societies on the plan of a particular ideology. They have all been tragic failures.

Society is not an inhuman structure that can be built by one person or a group. Human society is a living entity, a social organism. Society evolves, through the innumerable decisions and activities of its members and through the complex relationships which hold them together. What we as individual persons can do, is either to assist society to grow healthy or to hinder that growth.

Again we may turn to the analogy with the human body. For a similar approach is becoming common in medical practice today. The doctor does not heal us. Our body, as a living organism, has the amazing capacity to heal itself, as our growing knowledge of our immune systems is helping us to understand. What medical practice can do is to assist the healing process, sometimes by giving aid to the healing processes and sometimes by removing those factors which are preventing it.

So how do we assist the on-going evolution of the responsible society? If a doctor is going to be able to assist the natural healing processes of the body he must have a good knowledge of human physiology. Similarly if we are going to assist the social organism in its growth to health, we must have an adequate understanding of the nature of human society. We need to be able to diagnose what is wrong with society at present and have a clear understanding of what a healthy society will be like. At present this sort of knowledge is sadly lacking in New Zealand.

I agree with Jenny Shipley that the promotion of the responsible society is not the task of the government, at least not on its own. It is the task of every individual, every family, every sub-group, and every institution—but that includes the government. The reason why the vision of the responsible society is lacking in the Government is because it is lacking in the society which elects the Government.

The Role of the Economy

Rogernomics, like Thatcherism, had no understanding of society and the way to promote its healthy growth. It placed all the emphasis on reforming the economy. The reason why so much attention has been given to the state of the economy is because of the widespread belief among us that the happiness of individuals depends on their material standard of living. Since this depends on the state of its economy, it is assumed that a healthy economy produces happy individuals and they in turn will form a happy society. On the basis of this widespread belief, the state of the economy, along with economics which is the study of it, has captured the centre stage of public attention in recent decades.

The economy is undoubtedly important. And in this age of globalisation it is probably more important than it used to be. Our material welfare is much more dependent on people far away from us than it used to in the simple local economies of the past. The economy is important because we humans do live by bread. But we do not live by bread alone. In today's affluent societies we too easily forget that the happiness and health of human society depends on many other things besides bread and material things. For this reason we must seriously question the over-riding attention currently being given to economic issues. A well-known personage once said, "What does it profit a person to gain the whole world, only to lose his own soul". That still applies to individuals and it is also applicable to society, where it means, "What does it profit a society if it achieves zero inflation and maximises its economic growth, only to lose its soul and disintegrate". The well being of society depends on a great deal more than its GNP and its material standard of living.

While we put so much attention on the material standard of living we cannot altogether blame our government if it gives its supreme attention to the state of the economy. Ultimately we have ourselves to blame for Rogernomics and what it has done to society. In the interests of building a sound economy, we have been subjected in the last fifteen years to a drastic restructuring in many social sectors and it still continues. Roger Douglas acknowledged at the time, that restructuring was bringing severe hurt to society but promised that after the hurt was over all would be rosy. The economy may be in a healthier state than before; that is for economists to judge. But society itself is certainly in a generally worse state than before.

The drastic restructuring decreased or removed altogether many of ancillary services and infrastructure which had evolved over the decades to meet particular social problems. It caused much serious disruption to family life as people were unexpectedly made redundant and unemployed. Today there is a much greater sense of insecurity among us than before. We have much less trust in the Government and in political parties. We have less confidence in one another. These are all signs of a society moving towards disintegration.

The people at the top quintile, and that includes most of the decision makers, do not feel this for they have done well enough as individuals out of the restructuring and many have perhaps never been so well off in material terms. They are the ones who continue to applaud what has been done. Those in the bottom quintile are already much worse off than before. They suffer not only economic poverty. They are suffering more ill-health. They are being marginalised from the centre of society and often find themselves being lectured by the top quintile for not achieving more for themselves. New Zealand society has lost much of the unity it once had and is being torn in different directions. As a result of the restructuring, our social problems in health, education, crime, anti-social behaviour are now greater than they were before. Such things happen when social engineers start to apply drastic social surgery to the social organism in the interests of the economy and without an adequate understanding of the nature of the social organism. However much the recent and continuing restructuring may be regarded as economically sound, the future is likely to judge it to have been a social failure.

Rather than assisting the evolution of the responsible society, it has hindered it. The well-being of society cannot be measured in monetary terms; this is one of the reasons it tends to be overlooked. The well-being of society depends on strong and healthy personal relationships binding people together in society. It depends on the degree to which one finds in society such things as mutual goodwill, a sense of belonging to a living whole, sharing a common goal and value system.

This is what we have been steadily losing while we fastened attention on the economy. Because we have neglected those things which make for a healthy society, the chickens are now coming home to roost. How do we go about restoring the social values?

Social Values

In our cultural past, as recently indeed as the beginning of this century our forbears lived in what they called a Christian society. The churches played a major role in promoting that society. It did this through its moral and religious teaching. This not only inculcated such important social values as justice, sharing, co-operation, brotherly love and compassion, but it also created in the collective human mind a vision of even better things to come. They called it the Kingdom of God

It used to be said in Britain that the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer. It is also well established that the British Labour Party had its origins in the Methodist Church. Roman Catholic Popes have issued some impressive declarations on social justice. Michael Joseph Savage called the policies of the first Labour Government practical Christianity. In other words the political planning of the earlier part of this century was arising from a basic social vision and a commonly accepted set of values.

Whereas at that time well above fifty per cent of the population participated in church activities and many of the rest still had some tenuous connection, active participation is now down to less than ten percent and in many cases youth activity has all but disappeared. There is almost certainly some correlation between the rapid decline in the churches' influence and the alarming growth in anti-social behaviour.

Just because the churches now exist in a greatly diminished state of vitality does not excuse them from the task of helping to promote a responsible society. Indeed, this church of St. Andrew's, by founding the Trust for the Study of Religion and Society, and by promoting such lectures as these, is itself attempting to highlight what needs to be done. At their best the churches are still trying to give some degree of leadership. But they have far less influence and, because of their strong tendency to live in the past and promote outworn beliefs and moralities, they have become marginalised.

In this more secular age no social institution has arisen to take over their function of fostering social values. It has been left to other institutions and groups to do it as a by-product of their main function. I am thinking of the educational system, sporting bodies and one-interest groups such as Red Cross and Amnesty International. It is largely through them that things are not worse than they are.

Economic Ideology of the New Right

On the other hand, there are now secular lobby groups, which have arisen in order to influence public opinion and government policy. They are mostly supportive of the economic ideology of the New Right. The values they seek to spread are those of modern individualism, such as these.

  • All persons should be responsible for themselves and look after their own interests.
  • We are not our brother's keeper. This infringes personal privacy and
  • Help given to others for nothing in return only diminishes the initiative of such people and leads them into a permanent state of dependency.
  • There are no free lunches and the world owes no one a living.
  • Only those who pay should have the use.
  • The Government should not interfere with personal affairs.
  • People know better than the Government how to spend their own money. Taxes should be reduced to the bare minimum.
  • All production should be privatised.
  • Efficiency is the key to a healthy economy.
  • Efficiency leads to maximum profit and this leads to the maximum happiness for all individuals.
  • All inefficiency must be eliminated even if it means social dislocation, redundancy and unemployment.
  • Competition is one of chief techniques for promoting efficiency, so competition must be increased.

Economy v. Society

However good these values may be for the creation of a sound economy, most of them are in conflict with the social values necessary to promote a healthy society. The values of individualism are in fact anti-social; not surprisingly they are leading to an increase in anti-social activities from white-collar embezzlement to burglary and common theft.

The social values, on the other hand, call for:

  • Cooperation instead of competition,
  • They call us to look after others as much as ourselves.
  • They call us to make personal sacrifices for the common good.
  • They call us to share our material goods.
  • They tell us that we have a common destiny or no destiny at all.
  • They tell us to be willing to give without expectation of any return.
  • They insist on justice and fairness in all our dealings.
  • They call for honesty and openness, not secret dealings.
  • They tell us our differences need to be resolved by dialogue rather than by confrontation.

Of course it is much easier to name the social values we need than to put them into practice. It is much easier to analyse the situation than to change it. It is much easier to talk about the responsible society than to restore it. That is why there is no simple cure when society falls apart.

Just at this moment we are learning that our economy is in deep trouble and there is no easy solution. But our society is in even more trouble, if we are willing to open our eyes to read the signs. There is no quick fix for a society which is suffering disintegration.

But there is this difference. The economy – as an intricate means of exchange of goods and services – is a humanly made thing. We can reconstruct it, if only economists could agree what to do. But society is not our creation. Society is a living entity, which draws its life from our lives. If we, its members, learn how to co-operate for the common good, society will display its own remarkable powers of recovery. That has been revealed in the past in times of crisis, in natural disasters such as earthquakes, in economic crises like the Great Depression, or when we face a common external threat as in war. Basic to the human species there remains in us humans the remnant of that social sense that enabled us to be what we have become. That is where our real hope lies.

Perhaps our economic crisis may have to worsen a great deal more yet, before that social sense is re-awakened and we are prompted to acknowledge and practise those social values so essential for the well-being of the social organism of which we are a part. It is society which has created us and made our life possible. The more we realise that and respond to the needs of society in a responsible way, the more it will recover and flourish again as what may be properly called the responsible society.

Subheadings were added by the Editor.