Collectiveness at it most potent has been called asabiyya by macrohistorian and cliodynamicist Peter Turchin. At its least potent, collectiveness is a recipe for social division, top-heaviness, escalating inequality, and societal breakdown.
The present 'debates' in Aotearoa New Zealand – ostensibly about Te Tiriti, the Treaty of Waitangi – represent a case in point. Increased bipartisanship festers, with the two sides largely talking past each other.
Pre-contact indigenous culture in Aotearoa New Zealand can be characterised as on the collectivist side of the collective-individual spectrum, at least with respect to tribal Iwi; whereas anglo-celtic culture was and is much more individualist. The protagonists on the Māori side of our present governance-wars are rhetorically harking back to the more collectivist worldview of their ancestral predecessors. And they are indulging in forms of co-sovereignty rhetoric that border on separate governance, without much explanation of what that means for individual Aotearoans.
One aspect of the more collectivist conceptual apparatus is the language, Te Reo. There is no explicit plural form. The word Māori covers Māori as a collective (or as a set of tribal collectives) and Māori as a set of individuals. While non-Māori used to refer to Māori as 'Maoris', this is simply not done in polite circles anymore. (I remember in 1984, how the leader of the "New Zelland Party" used to refer to "the Marries".) Yet I do it here, as a way to emphasise my differentiation of collective Māori from individual 'Maoris'.
In addition to pre-contact cultural differences in relation to the collective-individual spectrum, the established political Left and the established political Right (at least as we understand those terms in Aotearoa New Zealand; the United States has muddied those waters) define themselves through that spectrum. So Māori on the Left of politics have two predispositions towards collectivism. (Here we must note that the present 'sovereignty debate' is at least as much a debate within Māori as between Māori and non-Māori; the principal antagonists as well as the principal protagonists are conspicuously Māori. Twenty-first century Māori culture is by no means as collectivist as the rhetoric of the protagonists conveys; the divisions are Left versus Right, with a cultural overlay.)
Vertical Equity and 'Targeting'; trickle-down or micro-management
Vertical equity is not a liberal concept (refer to my To be (a) liberal). Whereas horizontal equity means 'treating equals equally' – a concept central to (individualist) liberalism – vertical equity means 'treating unequals unequally'. Discrimination. The liberals of the political Right, who emphasise the targeting of social services and public income distribution, square this illiberal circle by emphasising policies which solely target 'need'; not race nor religion, not sex nor gender.
The political 'progressives' of the Left emphasise a collective form of targeting, but cannot (or refuse to) individualise this. Thus they may advocate more resources for Māori (and often tag-on Pasifika) and more resources for women; but they avoid any korero about individual discrimination.
At Budget-time, we have routinely heard the claim that there is not enough provision in the Budget – the government's annual fiscal statement – for Māori. Perhaps less so from 2018 to 2022. But what does that mean? Resources for Māori? Or for 'Maoris'?
The collectivist approach mandates that discrimination happens at the top-level of political society; at the governance level. Thus bureaucracies are created or extended – including governmental 'entities', and indeed 'non-governmental' entities (which nevertheless depend on government mandates) – which are openly discriminatory in their intent.
Discrimination in favour of an allegedly disadvantaged identity is justified through a process of leverage. Statistics are gathered from individuals and coded according to attributes – especially ethnicity, sex or gender, and health status; age and religion are less fashionable at present. The never unexpected results are then presented to justify forms of collective discrimination in the political process. Predictably, the incomes of 'Maoris' are lower on average than the incomes of 'non-Maoris', and female incomes are lower on average than male incomes.
The aim of this political process is not to remove these statistical differences. Rather it is to justify and extend identity bureaucracies – indeed to create advocacy 'industries' around such statistical differences – in such a way that there is a large suite of highly-paid jobs available to highlight these inequalities of averages. Such political theatre typically generates much heat and very little actionable 'light'.
Essentially, what is supposed to happen is that much resource goes into these funded governance structures, and it is meant to trickle-down to the leverage group of disadvantaged people. The result in practice is that Left governments consume large slices of the national income, while achieving very little for the disadvantaged groups ostensibly being served. Trickle-down never worked. Instead the result is too much political superstructure and too little ballast. Government becomes top-heavy.
(These same principles apply to the under-provision – and particularly the lack of maintenance – of physical infrastructure as well. Hence all the water leaks from neglected pipes, and potholes across the roading network; pipes are ballast, and potholes are examples of missing ballast. Gold-plated schemes are created and discarded.)
Policies which benefit 'Maoris'
The disconnect between the Treaty Māori and the leaders of the present government, is that the present leaders have an individualist mindset which means the parties talk past each other. Chrisopher Luxon genuinely wants to improve life for 'Maoris'. Problems arise because his philosophical approach of targeting the needy – disproportionately 'Maoris' – has its own bureaucratic short-comings; and because his understandings of public finance are medieval (in the better sense of that word), and because he is a mercantilist at heart. Mr Luxon equates national progress with 'making money', with the accrual of financial wealth.
Nevertheless, and despite his philosophical blindspots, Luxon is correct to emphasise that expanding discriminatory superstructure is part of the problem, rather than a solution, to the statistical disadvantages used to justify that superstructure. Christoper Luxon and David Seymour clearly understand that effective direct support for the disadvantaged will disproportionately assist 'Maoris', because Maoris are disproportionately disadvantaged. Further, direct assistance also provides support for disadvantaged 'non-Maoris', who are no more nor less deserving. Indeed – and given the practical Ministry of Health definition of who is a 'Maori' – there are more disadvantaged 'non-Maoris' in Aotearoa New Zealand than disadvantaged 'Maoris' (because 'Maoris' represent perhaps twenty percent of that database of individual Aoteroans).
Collectivism and Individualism
As Stephen Joyce noted in his recent book, collectivism has an individual dimension and individualism necessarily has a collectivist dimension. Both sides of the present 'debate' need to expand their fields of vision, and address these blindspots.
'Trickle-down' policies have wasted much of this nation's income. The Left version of trickle-down is no better than the Right version (which includes 'tax-cuts for the rich') which the Left like to lampoon. And the Right indulge in much more collectivism – albeit private sector collectivism – than they would ever want to admit. (Proper macro-accounting, incorporating public equity, helps to reveal the over-distribution of resources to elite private interests.)
It is clear that Christopher Luxon and David Seymour would have preferred not to have Winston Peters and Shane Jones as lead rhetoricians for their government. The irony is that, with one small adjustment to National's tax policies, National would probably have got at least five percent more votes, and we would have a two-party rather than a three party coalition today. The adjustment was to have an income tax policy which only gave tax cuts to people earning less than $180,000 a year. National's rhetoric of tax cuts to "low and middle income earners" was hollow, because everyone knew that high income earners were also getting the maximum tax cut (not counting a contrived higher amount only envisaged for a few thousand families). All National had to do was to bring the top tax threshold down to about $160,000 (refer my Christopher Luxon is tone deaf, 14 Nov 2023); but it did not do this, on account of its own lack of imagination and unwillingness to seek or take advice from outsiders.
Māori are important to Aotearoa New Zealand, not because of their 'race' but because they were Aotearoa's first boat people. The Tiriti is not about ethnicity – though it is about indigeneity – and people who want to continue discussing its principles are not racist. Separatist agendas based on distinguishing individual Aotearoans on the basis of their race – their ethnicity, their ancestry – are racist. Collectivism averts the racist problem of individual discrimination, but creates another problem; the growth of an expanded high-earning elite class which leverages off rather than practically addresses socio-economic problems which are there for all to see.
Christopher Luxon operates by a mercantilist metaphor that sees Aotearoa New Zealand as a ship that must "go forward". While that metaphor represents both shallow politics and shallow economics, the prime minister does at least understand that superstructure sinks ships.
Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.