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5.0 out of 5 stars A Tale of Two Countries, February 28, 2012
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This review is from: Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies: New Zealand and the United States (Kindle Edition)
Fairness and Freedom combines four of my favorite subjects: language, political theory, history, and the durability and importance of cultural mores. Fischer looks at the United States and New Zealand through the prism of what Fischer sees as foundational values of the respective societies--the vernacular ideas of liberty in the US and fairness in New Zealand. Fischer draws on his earlier works, Albion's Seed (e.g., he repeatedly references Rawl's mixed north-south Maryland heritage while discussing Rawlsian political theory) and especially Liberty and Freedom, but Fairness and Freedom is something unique, the first book to be published on the history of fairness.

Fischer is careful with his language, as should be expected from a historian who already wrote a book entitled Liberty and Freedom. Liberty, freedom, fairness, equity, and justice all have distinct meanings. "Liberty is about the rights and responsibilities of independence and autonomy. Freedom is about the rights and responsibilities of belonging to a community of other free people." On the other hand, "[f]airness...exists in the eye of the beholders--unlike justice, which refers to an external standard of law, or equity, which implies an external and even empirical test of being even, straight, or equal by some objective measure." (For simplicity's sake, I'll stick to liberty and fairness throughout my review.)

This dichotomy is in part a sort of linguistic-cultural founder effect--liberty was more common in British usage and played a greater role in the debates of the day during colonization of America, likewise for fairness during colonization of New Zealand. Readers of Fischer's previous work, Albion's Seed, will be well aware of American colonists' views on liberty. These founding ideas were affected by and in turn amplified by contact with the respective indigenous populations. The massive American frontier also played a role in the divergence. America and New Zealand went on to have dramatically different experiences with immigration, the women's movement, racism, and the Progressive movement. Fischer addresses each in depth. These sections are in general excellent short summaries of important chapters in American and Kiwi history.

The freedom and fairness paradigm is particularly evident in foreign policy. America has from its founding pursued a largely unilateral course while New Zealand has always been a strong proponent of multilateralism. One could argue that these approaches were inevitable for the world's largest economy and a very small and vulnerable one, but America was acting unilaterally in foreign policy long before it became the world's largest economy and New Zealand was much more aggressive in pushing multilateralism than it needed to be. I found New Zealand's actions during and in the run up to WWII to be particularly strong examples of its commitment to multilateralism. While Europeans appeased and Americans willfully ignored, Kiwis pushed for an aggressive response to Italian and Japanese belligerence. When war broke out, they made the shocking decision to leave most of their troops in the Middle East, judging Germany to be the greater threat and relying on Australia and the United States to wage war in the South Pacific. Obvious differences in approach between the two allies persisted during the Cold War. New Zealand's "leaders spoke eloquently of international justice and the rule of law. The purposes of the United States were case more in terms of a struggle for liberty and freedom against a Communist aggressor."

Fischer rounds the bases with the Great Depression, the military, and reform and restructuring. The New Deal surely represented a turning point in the role of the federal government in America, but Fischer shows us that its expansion during the Great Depression did not remotely compare to that of New Zealand, which became one of the most socialistic countries in the world during that period. America and New Zealand have different military traditions and experienced different patterns of reform and restructuring (although government reform in both cases curiously came from the left).

The format is not quite the drag on Freedom and Fairness it was on Albion's Seed but ,devoted to a methodical approach, Fischer sometimes both veers from his thesis and resorts to regurgitating textbook history. The section on the Progressive movement in the US is particularly disappointing from this perspective. He does little to demonstrate just how antithetical to American ideas of liberty it was, how it co-opted (or did not co-opt) the language of liberty and freedom, and how opposition to the Progressive movement was rooted in concepts and used the language of liberty and freedom. The Progressive movement's abhorrent record on race and gender gets a single throwaway line.

Fairness and Freedom ends with a summary of the virtues and vices of liberty and freedom (in America) and fairness (in New Zealand). For example, Fischer criticizes the opposition to all new taxes in the name of liberty in America and the Tallest Poppy Syndrome in New Zealand. But Fischer sees liberty and fairness less as opposites than as "two ideas that are useful as ways of reinforcing each other." He thinks Americans would do well to add another splash of fairness to their healthy dose of liberty and likewise with New Zealand and liberty and fairness.

The notes, etc. take up over 40% of the Kindle version. They include: an appendix (discussing scholarly work on fairness in other fields), notes, list of maps, list of illustrations, acknowledgments, index (indexed to the print version). Fairness and Freedom is heavily illustrated--the list of illustrations is 20 pages long in Kindle version. Unfortunately, the maps are usually quite hard to read.
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