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Keith Rankin: A Knowledge Province?

The National Government wanted a "knowledge economy". The present Labour- led government wants a "knowledge society", but may not know the difference. Australia is posturing to become a "knowledge nation". We all want to catch the knowledge wave. Especially this week in Auckland. And we are told that if we don't catch the wave, we are doomed on a slippery slope to 'third world' status.

These slogans and events worry me for four reasons. First this "third world" talk is a kind of blackmail. To be a third world nation is very 20th century. It actually meant, in the 1950s, to be "non-aligned" during the cold war. Each third world nation is in fact a province of some potential commonwealth. The challenge is to build those commonwealths, and not to run races which condemn the majority of nations to third world ('loser') status.

Second these knowledge talkfests are essentially nation building (or nation hand-wringing) exercises in a century in which the nation is becoming redundant. Indeed "knowledge nation" is the more honest term of the three, in that it acknowledges the nationalism that still pervades most of our public policy discourse. The underlying thinking is that each nation is on a boat race to nowhere, and that the central purpose of human life is to be on one of the leading boats. (This boat race metaphor represents the world view of Sir James Steuart, the unremembered but influential 'mercantilist' rival of the 'liberal' Adam Smith during the Scottish Enlightenment of the late 18th century.)

Third the emphasis we place on national rivalry inevitable leads to our emphasising the use of knowledge as a source of private or national advantage, and not on the need to get all knowledge into the global public domain. A knowledge society should be about making knowledge available and accessible to all, and not about profiting from knowledge that we have but others don't have.

Fourth, despite the use of terms such as "society", these policy exercises are predicated on the view that what constitutes success is some measure of economic performance. Tertiary Education minister Steve Maharey is attracted to the idea that tertiary courses should be subjected to formal "quality" evaluation (ref Scoop report on Morning Report). A degree course of high quality is likely to be defined as one that produces graduates who will use the knowledge and skills gained as a means to improve the economy. Education is becoming one of the means by which we serve Mammon, whereas it used to be an end in itself. Is the value of our individual lives simply our contribution to our nation's gross domestic product?

Who could be either opposed to "knowledge" or in favour of an "ignorance economy"? The language itself is designed to steamroll into place whatever policies are deemed to be necessary to create a knowledge nation.

So rather than contrast the knowledge nation with the ignorance nation, I think we should start a dialogue on the merits of the "knowledge province" as an alternative to the "knowledge nation".

If we can just accept that New Zealand is a province, and that its economy is a provincial economy then I think we can make progress. A province of the whole world? Or of something like an American Pacific commonwealth? If we consider the latter, New Zealand is like Southland, Australia is like Otago and the United States is like Auckland.

We should think of what Southland needs to make it a good place to be a part of. And we then just apply the logic to New Zealand as a whole.

We don't talk about third world provinces. And we don't try to prevent young people from migrating from Invercargill to get work. We know that you may take a Southlander out of Southland, but you can never take Southland out of a Southlander.

We accept that if we improve the education system of Southland, then the youth of Southland will stay a few years longer, but they will still leave. Yet Southland continues to prosper. Other groups of people move to Southland - eg dairy farmers, tourism entrepreneurs, Tim Shadbolt. Most importantly, Southland is part of the Commonwealth of Aotearoa. It depends on the public side of our commonwealth - eg education, healthcare, welfare spending - but it is no way parasitic on the rest of Aotearoa. Education is good for Southland, whether or not the young people stay.

Southland works. With a greater variety of industries, it might work even better. But, essentially, it works because it is a part of a larger whole that enables Southland to work. Nobody worries about Southland's balance of payments. Nobody worries about Southland's credit rating, or exchange rate, or budget deficit.

Soon the penny will drop that New Zealand is also a part of a larger whole. New Zealand has to learn to be like Southland, and to be proud of its success as a distinct provincial society. The even bigger challenge is to get the other provinces that our economy interlocks with to also see themselves as provinces.

Adam Smith's great purpose in writing The Wealth of Nations in 1776 was to argue for the creation of North Atlantic anglo-celtic commonwealth. The Americans who wanted to create a rival nation to England were more in tune with James Steuart (whose Principles of Political Economy was published before the Declaration of Independence) than Adam Smith. And the citizens of the United States still look back to the 18th century, the founding fathers, the electoral college and all that for their inspiration as a nation. This hang-up with nationhood is one unfortunate consequence of the intellectual hegemony of the United States over the world in the second half of the 20th century.

We are all a part of something bigger. All of the world's 'nations' are really provinces of something bigger. Yes, even the USA. Let's talk "common wealth" rather than "knowledge economy". And let the whole planet become a knowledge society.

© 2001 Keith Rankin
keithr@pl.net
http://pl.net/~keithr/

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