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Keith Rankin: John Carruthers

The experience of Christine Rankin in having her job disestablished via an underhand political manoeuvre reminds me of another senior public servant - John Carruthers - who suffered a similar experience in 1878.

John Carruthers is a man that every New Zealander should have heard of and be proud of. Actually, he only lived in New Zealand for eight years. But they were the years that defined the two very different but complementary parts of his life.

So who was John Carruthers?

He was Chief Engineer to the New Zealand Government from 1871 to 1878. Born in Inverness, he represents two great lines of Scottish achievement - engineering and stirring. He was hired by the Colonial Treasurer (Julius Vogel) in 1871 to mastermind our first and greatest "Think Big" programme.

Carruthers' major engineering achievement in New Zealand was to build the Rimutaka railway, linking Wellington with the Wairarapa. In particular, the 'Rimutaka incline' and its use of Fell engines was at that time a unique engineering achievement in the world. The line operated profitably and safely for nearly 80 years, before being replaced by the Rimutaka tunnel.

In 1878, with Vogel's government railway construction programme reaching completion, the job of Chief Engineer was disestablished, replaced by Chief Engineer (North) and Chief Engineer (South). The excuse given for undermining Carruthers' position is that he was hired to build railways, not to manage them. But there was more to it than that.

In 1877, Carruthers diligently defended the nation's public railway assets. After all, Vogel planned to fund his rail-building by holding adjacent land and leasing it at the high rents that land close to the railways could command. Such land was a strategic public asset; a critically important public property right.

Carruthers' diligent defence of his department's lands led to conflict with the business establishment of Dunedin. Dunedin was then New Zealand's business capital, and New Zealand's style of government could be called a "business oligarchy". Dunedin had political clout, and Vogel was no longer part of the government.

A private railway company was trying to create a deep-water port at Tairoa Head (in competition with Port Chalmers), and the railway that they would build would become extremely lucrative if the plan succeeded. The problem was that the Peninsular and St Kilda Railway Company needed to acquire public land (near Dunedin's present station) which had been reserved for future public rail and port development. Carruthers defence of the integrity of his department's Dunedin assets got in their way.

The other perceived problem with Carruthers was his hobby. He became an avid critic of classical economics, the dominant economic paradigm of his day. In particular, he wrote two quite sophisticated papers which he read to the Wellington Philosophical Society in 1877. It was enough to give him a reputation as an altogether-too-clever stirrer. Carruthers was very critical of the then unquestioned authority of economic orthodoxy - John Stuart Mill. In New Zealand, Mill's Principles of Political Economy was tantamount to the 5th gospel; not to be meddled with.

Carruthers revealed a unique and radical mind. Reading, thinking and writing in Wellington, he was able to develop his ideas on political economy without the many distractions that might otherwise have influenced him.

Carruthers wrote in Wellington without any knowledge of Marx. The only apparent socialist influence on Carruthers unique brand of "Victorian market socialism" (as one British professor of economic thought described his writings in 1992) was John Ruskin.

This is not the place to go further into Carruthers' critique of capitalism ("commercial economy") and his advocacy of what he called "communalism" but which could be called "market communism". There was no place for this gifted intellectual in a New Zealand that has never felt comfortable with thinking that is simultaneously creative, compassionate and iconoclastic.

John Carruther's two early papers are available to New Zealand readers, in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute of 1877 and 1878. And they make fascinating reading.

On his return to Britain, Carruthers expanded his New Zealand writings, eventually publishing Communal and Commercial Economy in 1883.

His book attracted the attention of socialist activists in London. Carruthers then became part of London's radical Hammersmith circle, associated with the utopian socialist writer William Morris. Indeed, it appears that Carruthers' ongoing engineering projects and London-based consultancy business bankrolled much of the socialist movement in London, at least in the late 1880s.

It was also in London in the 1880s that he had to confront Marxism, a much more statist form of socialism. Indeed the Hammersmith circle included Marx's youngest daughter and son-in-law. (A staunch defender of public property rights, Carruthers was somewhat cynical about the ability of a large 'state' to work to further the public interests of the working classes.)

By the 1890s, Carruthers' alternative much more market oriented form of socialism was obviously becoming incompatible with statist socialism. Indeed the politics (as opposed to the intellectual foundations) of socialism never appealed to him.

Carruthers continued to write until his death in 1914. His final book, published by his son, made special mention of his position in New Zealand.

John Carruthers remains very important to us today. Not only did he achieve something intellectually while in New Zealand, and not only did he suffer the fate of being intellectually different; his writings open up new possibilities for us today because they were written at a time when economics still addressed the big questions of income distribution and class, and because his critique was ahead of its time.

If we are to solve our economic problems today, we have to think outside of the very tight economic square that binds us. Reading Carruthers, and others from eras outside of our own, helps ask to ask the questions we need to ask if ever we are to get some effective solutions.

It is too much to hope that there will soon emerge a market for New Zealand intellectual history. But at least John Carruthers can sustain our interest for other reasons. After all, he built our railways. And his experience of losing his well-paid job is not unlike that of Christine Rankin's today.

© 2001 Keith Rankin

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