David Hackett Fischer’s “Fairness and Freedom”

I first posted this two years ago, but recently came across a link to a study on New Zealand’s relationship to globalization. I include this new information, which only confirms Fischer’s keen analysis within the text under the “Immigration” section below.

And now, the original post . . .

A few years ago Fischer blew me away with his classic Albion’s Seed, which for me is far and away the best book on colonial America out there.  In that work he demonstrated a remarkable ability to go from broad sweeping general statements to minute subtle detail.  Fairness and Freedom does not quite match that standard, but once again Fischer succeeds remarkably in a subject rarely, if ever, explored before.

The book looks at the two open societies of the United States and New Zealand.  While this may seem like an odd pairing, both countries

  • Share basic democratic values
  • Were colonial societies, with the vast majority of their settlers coming from England in their early formative phase
  • Have existed in relative geographical isolation from the main events in Europe during crucial periods of their history
  • Had early settlers needing to deal with native populations.

Our shared history means that someone from either country could feel more or less at home in either place.  But the book arose from some keen observations Fischer made while visiting New Zealand during a political campaign.  He noticed how frequently the major candidates used the words “fairness,” or “justice,” and contrasted that with the American lingo of “freedom,” and “liberty.”  He followed that rabbit hole and discovered how these different emphases have subtly shaped each society in a variety of ways.

Here we see the similarity in his approach in Albion’s Seed, where he takes a idea and runs with it over a large swath of time and space.  How has this subtle yet important differences in values shaped each society?

Origins and Geography

  • In NZ, the Maori tribes were themselves not native to the land, and had cultural memory of their own immigration to what know as “New Zealand.”  Furthermore, warring tribes had nearly destroyed each other before the English arrived.  Thus, the Maori had 1) already learned about cooperative living, and 2) had an immigrant identity themselves
  • In America, American Indians had no memory of any migration to the continent, which, if it happened, happened perhaps 10 thousand years ago.  Their mythology had strong elements of their own existence arising “from the earth itself.”  Thus, they had a much stronger tie to the land than the Maori of NZ.  Furthermore, the abundance of resources and space meant that tribes did not need to work out their problems to survive.

Different Kinds of Settlement at Different Times, for Different Reasons

  • The bulk of formative settlement happened in America as result not of economic oppression but lack of liberty to “worship as one pleases.”
  • The bulk of settlement in NZ came from a population that felt the injustice of early Victorian industrial society.  Their main concern was the righting of wrongs, not increased liberty.  In this sense they inherited the old British notion of “fair play.”
We see this reflected in the different visions each society produced — or how they idealized themselves.  Walt Whitman wrote,
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and
imaginary lines.
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute. . .
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and west are mine, and the north and the
south are mine.
I am larger, better, than I thought
Song of the Open Road
Whereas New Zealand’s W.H. Oliver wrote in “Counter-Revolution”
Did it go wrong just about a hundred years ago?  A ramshackle self-appointed cast-off elite of first comers, promoters, bent lawyers and sham doctors, set it up for the themselves, a gentry of sorts, saw it collapse and crept away with slim gains . . . Something had to be done.
Fischer does not neglect the fact that America’s geography lends itself much more readily than New Zealand’s to Whitman’s expansive idea of space and freedom.
Different governments formed out of these different visions.  America embraced Federalism, which allowed for and fostered regional differences and different spheres of influence for different groups.  NZ embraced a more national model of “all for one, one for all.”

Civil Rights

Both countries had minorities fight to gain their rightful place in their respective societies.  In looking at the Civil Rights movement, Fischer observes that one key to its success was King’s emphasis on freedom.  King, Fischer notes, “understood a deep truth about America.  Equality divides Americans; freedom unites them.”  Once again, the Maori of NZ focused on  equality, which has much more resonance there.  The same holds true of the feminist movement.  In America, women fought for rights by putting themselves in competition with men.  It had/has a more militant, combative approach, consistent with the concept of Federalism.  In NZ, key feminist leaders saw their role differently.  Anna Logan Stout said that,

The real power of the women’s vote in New Zealand is not in opposition, but in its harmony and cooperation with the men’s vote.


Throughout the book I had the impression that Fischer harbors a preference for the NZ approach, but immigration may have been an exception, where their respective emphases on Liberty and Equality bear very different fruit.  American stances on immigration have varied, but we have generally been much more open to many more people than NZ, where they looked for specific kinds of people they were sure would “fit in” to their society.

Some historians have remarked  that settler societies, though they often originate from those seeking to escape the motherland, sometimes seek to “outdo” their homelands.  With immigration, NZ has unconsciously created a country that functions in some ways like one of those exclusive Victorian clubs the original settlers would have hated back in England.

In foreign affairs also, America has stressed freedom of action, while NZ has emphasized cooperation.

(And now the addendum)

Recent studies on New Zealand’s attitude toward immigration reflected in its attitude towards globalization.  The study says that,

A report in 2012 by The New Zealand Initiative drew attention to New Zealand’s seventh position among 57 countries for having the most restrictive FDI regulatory regime. This was largely due to New Zealand’s economy-wide screening regime and the broad definition of ‘sensitive’ land. Treasury has confirmed that there is credible anecdotal evidence that New Zealand’s regime is having a chilling effect on inwards FDI investment, but the materiality of this effect is an open question. It is doubtful that the damaging Crafar farms case would have triggered regulatory barriers in other Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions or comparable Asian countries.

New Zealand’s Overseas Investment Act further detracts from the country’s ‘open for business’ image by starkly asserting that it is a privilege for foreigners to be allowed to own or control sensitive New Zealand assets. This is in stark contrast to the explicitly welcoming approach widely taken elsewhere.

Statistics show that New Zealand has largely missed out on the expansion of global FDI since the mid-1990s. Both inwards and outwards stocks of FDI peaked as a percentage of GDP more than a decade ago in New Zealand, while world stocks continued their upwards climb. Between 2000 and 2011, New Zealand’s rank on UNCTAD’s FDI attraction index slumped from 73rd in the world to 146th. Hong Kong and Singapore have been in the top five throughout this period.

The full study is here.


This section may have been my favorite.  Fischer traces the differences in liberty and equality into how each military fights and organizes itself.

The U.S.

  • Emphasizes freedom of action for junior officers.  Those in higher ranks try and keep their distance from these officers so as not to interfere unless truly necessary.
  • The best and brightest soldiers are shunted to smaller elite units or branches of the service
  • Their main strength in war has been adaptability and quick response

In New Zealand

  • Serving in the infantry isn’t for the grunts, it’s considered a badge of honor
  • Officers of nearly all ranks are expected to “lead from the front” and join the men in the fighting.  Distinctions of rank do not hold the same importance as in other armies.  In W.W. II, for example, a British general complained about NZ troops who did not salute him.  “I’m sorry sir,” replied a NZ officer, “but if you wave to them I’m sure they’ll wave back.”
  • The key virtue of NZ forces over time has been their strong unit cohesion and stubbornness
What makes this work similar to Albion’s Seed is his emphasis on the persistence of cultural values over time.  We are not free to reinvent ourselves, but we should do what we can to understand ourselves.  The values embedded in our societies impact us ways we may not be aware of, and that’s justification enough for  Fischer’s enjoyable and insightful work.