Something on the Politics of Social Engineering

Over the years here at KP I have episodically written about the impact of ideology on social order and the debates that revolve on what constitutes the “proper” way in which to organise society. In that light I have mentioned the subject of social engineering, that is, social reform projects initiated by both Right and Left-leaning governments that use public policy to influence social behaviour in pursuit of specific collective outcomes. Here I shall return to the subject, with particular reference to how it has an impact on the upcoming NZ general election.

Some readers may recall my writing about the social engineering aspects of the neoliberal projects of the 1980s-2000s in NZ and elsewhere. To recap, the practical success of neoliberalism as an ideological construct went something like this: neoliberalism started out as a Chicago School approach to macroeconomics that was premised on the belief that finance capital was the leading edge of capitalism and could therefore guide societies towards the most efficient material outcomes. Known as “monetarism” as advocated by Milton Friedman and his acolytes, it was given practical application in the authoritarian laboratory known as Pinochet’s Chile and, in less draconian fashion, NZ under the likes of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. (as some will recall, Douglas and Richardson even copied some of Pinochet’s labour laws as part of their NZ reforms).

The operating premise behind the turn to monetarism was that the Keynesian welfare state had exhausted its natural limits and outlived its usefulness, leading to parasitic rent-seeking behaviours on the part of interest groups tied to bloated public bureaucracies represented by corrupt unions that also were more interested in feeding at the public trough rather than pursing the common good. In order to break the grip of this perverse alliance of leeches, a dramatic structural reform project needed to be undertaken in which the State sector was reduced in size, public good provision was privatised, union power was constrained and people were forced to look to the private sector for their immediate and long term needs (and perhaps the wants of a fortunate few).

Note that this was purely a structural project, that is, a macroeconomic effort to reshape national economies in ways that would promote efficiency and reduce waste. Rather than State managers in places like Central Banks, Ministries of Finance or Economy, investment led by international finance capital would determine those areas in the national economy into which resources were directed using neo-Ricardian principles of comparative and competitive advantage. Codified in the so-called “Washington Consensus” adopted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, it had severe dislocating effects on the populations in which it was applied, something that required authoritarian imposition in places like the Southern Cone of Latin America but also serious reductions in collective rights in democracies like NZ, the UK and the US.

It turns out that in order to create the “laboratory” in which neoliberal prescriptions could work as theorised by the Chicago Boys, the human subjects needed to be denied their rights via repression (state terror in the case of the Southern Cone experiments) or drastic reductions in their collective rights in the marketplace (in places like NZ). Legally speaking, both in terms of what workers/employees could address as well as with regard to their modes of representation, the overall impact of neoliberalism was a diminution of wage earner’s ability to defend their interests in the labour market (albeit without the repression in NZ that was deemed necessary in less complacent societies like Chile).

The broader idea was to use structural reform projects to break the welfare statist mould and replace it with a stripped down and leaner State focused on core areas such as defense and security while the private sector assumed de facto control of macroeconomic policy via the appointment of its representatives to State economic oversight, management and regulatory agencies. Having done so, behavioural changes in society would inevitably follow because the state-centric mindsets of the welfare state era would give way to more market-influenced approaches by both individuals and groups. What those changes in concrete terms might be mattered less so long as they conformed to market-driven logics.

In this view monetarist structural reforms would lead to market-dominated social logics. Everyone would become a self-interested maximiser of opportunities within the rational limits of their individual choices given the market conditions in which they operate, with the overall aggregate of choices leading to market clearance at a societal level. Reproduced over time and across generations, market-oriented public perceptions of the “proper” society would become self-fulfilling. Those who accepted the premise would succeed in life and those who refused to accept or could not cope with the individualistic focus and atomising impact of a more market-driven social order would be left behind in its wake. Eventually the societal market would clear based on the sum total of the interactions between people acting as homo economicus in the first instance, to which then could be added the ascriptive (non-material) aspects of human endeavour.

This market-oriented project has certainly succeeded in NZ, even if not by original design. The architects of the early structural reforms were focused on institutions and public policy involved in economic matters, not specifically on social behaviour. But as the influence of those reforms seeped deeper into society, accompanying cultural reforms began to be proposed. To the structural reforms of the first phase of the neoliberal project were attached superstructural addenda that helped cement its ideological grip on public perceptions and behaviour. Remember that ideology is a social construction, that is, an idea about how things should and should not be. Ideologies exist in concrete material conditions with their own historical circumstances and legacies as well as their immediate contexts. In that light, ideology specifies the relationship between the imaginary and the real and the preferred path between them (which among other things raises the notion of the perfectibility of humankind). Neoliberals have an ideological bias in favour of the individual rights and freedoms; Leftists have a bias in favour of collective responsibilities and the public good.

Neoliberals are morally agnostic when it comes to social behaviour in market societies, limiting their preferences to broader freedoms of choice for individuals in such circumstances. Leftists have a normative preference for collectively beneficial social dynamics in which individual rights and responsibilities are equitably balanced with the common good.

In that light, at the superstructural level neoliberalism is an ideology that purports to demonstrate the proper way in which human societies should be organised and how people should interact within them using unfettered property and individual rights as cornerstones of the social contract. There can be no doubt that when compared to the early 1980s pre-neoliberal period, NZ society today is largely governed by market-driven principles and market-oriented institutions. And as a result, NZ social behaviour has changed.

Rather than discussing neoliberalism and market-oriented social engineering any further, let me simply point out that it started out as a conscious structural reform project that morphed into a a way of looking at the world. That in turn led to changes in society as the impact of the structural reforms took hold and deepened over the years. Market-oriented social engineering was a product and consequence of the structural reforms rather than something that was specifically envisioned from the onset. In a sense, the social engineering aspect of neoliberalism, insofar as producing behavioural changes in society, came as a bottom-up, spontaneous response to structural reform rather than as a top-down, deliberately thought-out project that extended beyond issues of political economy.

Think of it this way. Once the nature of the game is altered (say, from cricket to basketball), so too the rules of the game change, followed by changes in who plays and the way they play the new game. It may even determine who is more likely to win. But even then, the way in which the new game is played by those favored and disfavored by the new rules may be unanticipated by those who changed it in the first place. That is the essence of the social engineering consequences of the shift from welfare statism to neoliberalism in places like NZ. They were not preordained or foretold. They just happened as a “natural” consequence or response to the market-oriented structural changes undertaken. Neoliberals are comfortable with that alone, figuring that things like the balance between comfort and security will be sorted out by the interplay of social market forces.

That is where Left social engineering projects differ, and often fail. Unlike the neoliberal approach, which focused on structural (macroeconomic) reform that eventually bubbled up through the layers of the social division of labour in civil society to become new social norms and modes of behaviour, Left social engineering projects are consciously top-down in nature. Unlike market-driven social engineering projects, which focus on the downsizing reform of State institutions and regulations in order to free up policy decision-making space and freedom of manoeuver for private interests, here the primary focus is on changing collective and individual behaviour using the regulatory State as the agent of reform.

Left-leaning social engineering is what economists call “nudging” projects, but on steroids. In this context “nudging” are efforts to make discrete policy adjustments that encourage changes in social behavior, for example, by painting hopscotch, tic-tac-toe or even rainbow arcs on staircases in transportation hubs in order to encourage healthy stair climbing rather than indolent escalator riding. However, the thrust of Left social engineering projects is large rather than small, macro rather than micro, overt rather than discrete. It is “nudging” on a grand scale, or if one were to view such projects negatively, “shoving” the body politic in a particular behavioural direction.

Leftist social engineering involves “think big” projects like the recent “Zero Road Toll” land transportation campaigns or the move to replace automobile lanes with cycle and bus lanes in urban centres (where Left-governed councils use funding from the Labour-led government to make changes to local roading systems that discourage the use of cars and encourage substitute modes like bicycles, buses and trains). They focus on inducing big behavioural changes such as the lowering of smoking rates via high taxation of cigarettes or the switch to electric cars via increased taxation on diesel and petrol cars levied in tandem with rebates on new electric car purchases. The focus is on changing behaviours, not underlying structures, in a reverse of the neoliberal approach.

What these top-down Left social engineering projects do not do is alter the macroeconomic system as given, nor fully account for the microeconomic and unanticipated non-economic behavioural responses to their initiatives. The premise is that if policy-makers use State powers to constrain or frame certain types of human activity or behaviour via taxation, regulation, re-organisation and persuasion, then they will elicit specific types of responses. Rather than morally agnostic when it comes to outcomes, they are normatively-driven (aka biased) towards producing preferred collective outcomes. For example, if you narrow city streets by installing bike and busways and prohibit surface parking without increasing off-street parking spaces, the assumption is that people will abandon their cars and seek alternative modes of transportation whether they live in urban centres or commute to them. Vehicle congestion will be lowered, airborne particulate and street wastewater pollution will fall and people will get healthier by walking more and cycling.

The problem is that this does not account for the universe of car usage, to include the need to transport children and household supplies, the limited availability of disabled transportation access or presence of health issues that make cycling or access public transport difficult, the need for private vehicles for work, lack of transportation alternatives in satellite communities connected to urban employment centres, etc.

In other words, no major structural reforms are adopted, and no hedge is made against unanticipated responses to the implementation of grandiose projects. Market-led capitalism remains untouched as the core of the national economy, with modifications in tax policy nibbling around the margin of the macroeconomic model and broader behavioural changes in society encouraged–some would say imposed–by State fiat. This is the reverse of the neoliberal project, which focused on immediate structural changes and consequences and did not indulge in offering preferences when it came to longer-term social behaviours.

The results for the Left (such as it is in NZ) are often disappointing: With insufficient police resources to enforce road safety policies that are designed to reduce the road death and injury toll, the toll remains static in spite of millions spent on advertising campaigns. In places like West Auckland, ambitious traffic reduction schemes are implemented in places originally designed to attract rather than discourage car usage (e.g. around the Henderson mall and adjacent shopping areas), thereby resulting in gridlock, anger, protests, large-scale violations of the new traffic guidelines and eventual abandonment of the project altogether in the face of community resistance to the change and at a cost of millions of wasted taxpayer dollars.

The same can be said about recent approaches to water provision. The Three Waters project is designed to rationalise water rights, quality and supply by centralising managerial authority in a reduced number of districts while providing better voice for indigenous partners. However, rather than be welcome as an improvement in public good provision, what it received by way of response was both a racist backlash against improved Maori representation as stakeholders and pushback from those who see the removal of decentralised decision-making (however incompetent or inefficient it may be) as an erosion of democratic rights to self-governance when it comes to local water management.

The top-down approach to social engineering is based on one of two logics: that people will respond as required given what they have been legislatively told is in their best collective interest; or people will willingly comply with what they perceive as beneficial for the common good. The catch is that with atomising, individualistic neoliberal perspectives and logics deeply embedded throughout society in NZ, the former will be resisted or ignored and the latter will be met with non-compliance. Given the ideological influence of “legacy” market-oriented social perspectives in contemporary NZ, their impact on general acceptance of 6th Labour government social engineering projects has been deleterious to say the least.

This was seen in the reaction by NZ anti-vaccination, anti-masking and anti-mandate campaigns to the government’s pandemic mitigation efforts, where world-leading prevention, containment and mitigation strategies developed by public health professionals and epidemiologists faced concerted resistance from the business community, conspiracy theorists, rightwing political opportunists, media figures and assorted tinfoil hat “cookers” that culminated in the Parliamentary protests and riot of 2022, and which continue to percolate and be mainstreamed today. In that case a declared national emergency demanded a rapid social engineering response in the face of an immediate existential threat, and yet even then it was repeatedly challenged as an authoritarian over-reach and infringement on basic freedoms. If ever there was concrete proof that the neoliberal ideological championing of the primacy of individual choice was firmly embedded in NZ society, it was in this type of response to what was otherwise a clear case of the State acting on behalf of and defending the collective interest (specifically, public health and welfare) against a common threat.

The point of this rumination is to help understand why the current government may lose the October election. Although it objectively has had more successes than failures during very trying times, it is the combination of market-dominated macroeconomic logics, deeply rooted neoliberal social perspectives and resentment against “top-down” approaches to social engineering that has swayed public opinion against it. That, more than unearthed scandals, media “gotcha” moments or the policies of the parties themselves, seems to be the root cause behind the apparent electorate desire to replace the current government with a Right coalition in which the racist, extremist tail will wag the vacuous “moderate” dog.

That is of concern not only because it threatens to undo some of the good work of the 6th Labour government, but mostly because not all Right social engineering projects are of the bottom-up variety to begin with and all of them require a turn to some form of authoritarianism in their initial stages (as the turn to neoliberalism in NZ in the 80s demonstrates). With ACT being the ideological/dog-whistling tail on the National dog, the turn rightwards will be top-down and harsh.

Public education: of the community, by the community, for the community

They say that the first question people from Christchurch ask each other when they meet is “what school did you go to?” I’m not from Christchurch, and I hated school — high school especially.* I’m not a teacher, though for three (long) years I did teach — mostly in public schools, albeit in another country. I liked teaching no better than I liked being a student, but both experiences demonstrated to me how integral public schooling is to a society, and to the individual communities that make it up.

The principal of Christchurch Boys’ High School, Trevor McIntyre articulated the importance of schools to communities in Christchurch on Nine to Noon (starts about 36 minutes in):

You talk about a community, a community has a heart. You’ve got rural communities which are clearly defined, but in a city like Christchurch you’ve got suburbs. And traditionally those suburbs have contained a heart, and typically the heart was a general store, a post office, a hall, a church and a school. And if you look around the city, the general stores are gone, to supermarkets. The post offices are gone. The halls have gone because they’re too expensive to maintain and now we’ve got bigger and better facilities. The churches, if they were still there, have been damaged in the earthquake and are probably not going to be retained. The last vestige of a community centre is a school.

On the face of it, this is why the government’s slash-and-burn approach to Christchurch’s schools is destructive: because it further damages communities that have already suffered considerable harm from two years of earthquakes and a global financial crisis. The fact that the government’s education restructure in Christchurch is proceeding in tandem with the government’s roll-out of its charter schools policy makes it worse.

Public education is of the community, by the community, for the community. Public schools are run by boards of trustees — members of a community, elected by their peers. Zoning ensures the right of those living in a community to attend their community’s schools. Teachers usually commit to a school and a community, often across generations. For all their differences in socio-economic background, culture, ethnicity and so on, New Zealand children share the right to a high-quality education in the same classrooms as each other; not only learning the same curriculum, but learning it together — with each other and from each other. There are exceptions like the Grammar Zone phenomenon, but by and large this generalisation is true. Beyond education, this socialisation is crucial to building the tight-knit, diverse communities that we all think New Zealand is made up of — and I’d argue that this effect of universal public education is more important to the nation’s wellbeing than a curriculum increasingly tuned to producing effective workers for the neoliberal economy.

Charter schools, by design, will tend not to produce this community socialisation effect. They will likely not be run, staffed by, and attended by the members of the communities in which they exist, and will certainly not be ubiquitous within those communities. Due to their special character and possible discretion in granting admissions, pupils at these schools will tend to be demographically and culturally — and maybe ideologically — streamed, and will be similarly taught. As such, charter schools will tend to fragment communities rather than unite them, producing silos of different levels of education, different norms of behaviour and belief, within a society that is already stratified, and is becoming more so.

This is unfortunate, but their niche status and diversity is not the worst thing about them — vive la difference, to an extent at least. The worst thing is the fact that they are to be funded by New Zealand communities but not accountable to those communities; they will not be a positive-sum addition to the diversity of New Zealand’s society and its education system, but a zero-sum substitution. Funding for charter schools will contend with funding for public schools, and the growth of charter schools in a community will constrain the growth of public schools operating there. Even this in itself would not be a terrible problem if it were a level playing field, but charter schools will not be subject to the same requirements as public schools are. They will not be required to teach the same curriculum, to accept all applicants from their communities, to employ qualified and registered teachers, and will be exempt from other measures of accountability.

This is a breach of the social contract under which schools operate. If you take a community’s money to run your school in place of a public school, you inherit the obligations that such a public school would bear — obligations to teach the children of those communities well, to teach them together, and to teach them to the community’s standards. Charter schools fail at all three. They may teach well, but they may not, as they are not required to teach to the curriculum or employ properly-qualified teachers. If they exercise control over who they accept, they cannot legitimately be said to be teaching their community. And as they are not required to be run by members of their community, again, if they end up teaching to their community’s standards it is by good fortune rather than good design. That they will be able to take money out of community schools without being bound to deliver education to the community’s standards is an obvious breach of these obligations, and the sort of violation that is crystal-clear to the proponents of charter schools in other areas: they are perfectly happy to impose all manner of onerous and punitive constraints upon struggling solo mothers on the grounds that we are “funding their lifestyle”, but are disappointingly unwilling to accept the same when it applies to their own enterprises.

There are two other destructive aspects to this policy: first, it is a legislative end-run around one of the strongest remaining functional union movements we have, the teacher’s unions who, contrary to the propaganda, have played a crucial role in maintaining the high quality and low cost of our education system. The government has figured that it can’t bust them, so it’ll just bypass them.

Second, this is large-scale social engineering, an experiment being conducted on the damaged communities and struggling people of Christchurch who, resilient although they might be, need to retain and rebuild what remains of their communities, rather than have them redefined and renovated from afar and by private interests with private motivations. It’s an experiment that places at risk a generation of students and teachers, and the communities they form. It is an experiment being conducted on people who, the government seems to think, are vulnerable and still too busy trying to put their lives back together to organise a meaningful resistance. I guess we’ll see about that.

Quite apart from the hypocrisy of this government, which was swept to power by backlash against the Clark government’s “social engineering” policies, this sort of experimentation is unethical. The government owes Christchurch better than to treat it as a petrie dish. They’ve suffered enough; let the clipboard-bearing wonks poke and measure them no longer. The government’s responsibility is to support Christchurch and to assist it in rebuilding its communities, and to this end the government has a responsibility to fund and support public schools that are of, by and for those communities, around which people can rally. Special character schools are well and good for what they are, and if people want to teach in their own ways and to their own standards, let them do so — but let them pay for their privilege themselves. No funding without accountability.


* I hated it, and for the most part it hated me, but I should say I met most of my dearest friends there — including my wife. Again: community.

Let it burn

At the head of a large army [Po-ts’ai] was besieging Ch’ang-she, which was held by Huang-fu Sung. The garrison was very small, and a general feeling of nervousness pervaded the ranks; so Huang-fu Sung called his officers together and said: “In war, there are various indirect methods of attack, and numbers do not count for everything. Now the rebels have pitched their camp in the midst of thick grass which will easily burn when the wind blows. If we set fire to it at night, they will be thrown into panic, and we can make a sortie and attack them on all sides at once, thus emulating the achievement of T’ien Tan.” That same evening, a strong breeze sprang up; so Huang-fu Sung instructed his soldiers to bind reeds together into torches and mount guard on the city walls, after which he sent out a band of daring men, who stealthily made their way through the lines and started the fire with loud shouts and yells. Simultaneously, a glare of light shot up from the city walls, and Huang-fu Sung, sounding his drums, led a rapid charge, which threw the rebels into confusion and put them to headlong flight.
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War, XII.9(4)

I can’t agree less with Grant Robertson’s, response to David Garrett’s latest bit of madness. He says he “doesn’t want to give further oxygen” to Garrett’s “extreme and appalling” views, but that’s exactly what they need: oxygen. At present both Rodney Hide and John Key probably want to forget the fact that Garrett is the ACT party’s Law and Order spokesperson, and that consequently there are no such things as his “personal views” on these topics which are separable from those of the party — he is the ACT party’s mouthpiece on such matters, and the government’s ally. We, the people who elected him and permitted Hide to assign him that role, are entitled to take these views seriously, examine them in the context of other things he has said and done, and the opposition’s job is to prevent anyone from forgetting what this man stands for, and how far his definition of “reasonable” is from that of the wider public. From now until he’s ejected from parliament, Garrett should not be able to show his face to the public without a graphic reminder of the fact that he think homosexuality is morally equivalent to paedophilia; that he favours policy (now implemented) which means more prisoners will suffer rape as a consequence of their punishment; and that he thinks poor brown parents should be sterilised. He must be required to either defend his views robustly, or forced to issue yet another humiliating public apology; and both ACT and the government must be required to defend their association with him, or forced to dissociate, demote or publicly censure him.

The instinct for the opposition to deny a topic like this the spotlight only makes political sense when the opposition is vulnerable on the issue; when they fear it could result in a populist backlash against them. Even then, the principles at stake mean a very strong backlash would be required to justify restraint on simple pragmatic grounds. There is no prospect of such a backlash in this case: as Grant says, the statement is “extreme and appalling”. Does Grant think his own sense of what is extreme and appalling differs so much from that of the electorate that they will not agree with him? The worst possible course of action for ACT and the government is to allow this topic to remain at the top of the political agenda for as long as possible. Failing to even try to keep it there shows a lack of political nerve on the part of the opposition; a continuation of the failed strategy employed prior to the election, which Key won in no small part because the very people who should be fighting against him bolstered his public image as a mild, simple, non-threatening chap. Genuine threats must be neither mocked or minimised; the “extreme and appalling” should not be laughed off or left unchallenged. This is the sort of weak-kneed liberal wimpishness and lack of rectitude which leads many voters to mistrust parties on the left, and cleave to parties and leaders whose convictions are firm and forthrightly held. The good and the just does not speak for itself, much as we might wish it would. It requires champions to stand for it, and evil truimphs when those champions fail to stand and fight.

To do so is not the “dirty” personalisation of politics: the character and views of a man who sits on the Law and Order select committee, and in the future could conceivably hold a warrant for Justice, Corrections or Police are perfectly legitimate matters for political debate, which speak both to his ability to represent the interests of New Zealanders and to the quality of the processes and people which allowed him to attain such a position.

The Garrett Solution, as I’ve argued elsewhere, contradicts almost everything the small-government right claims to stand for. After a decade of howling about “Nanny State in the bedroom” and “social engineering” we now see that their erstwhile objections to both these things were not principled, as they claimed, but were in fact just objections on the merits. Social engineering is wrong, they say, unless it’s at the genetic level. It’s also not new: this sort of thing was enthusiastically embraced during the last government by the more unhinged members of the extreme right, and now it has gone mainstream.

The topic of eugenics is the strongest symbolic matter introduced to the political sphere by any participant this term; it is a topic on which the right can only lose, and introduced by someone who is already vulnerable. The grass is high around the government’s camp, the fire is set by one of their own: now, if they are to gain an advantage, the opposition must fan the flames and beat the drums.