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Sir Edmund Thomas: “Reducing Inequality” – new ‘Values’

Written By: - Date published: 5:48 pm, November 6th, 2013 - 29 comments
Categories: activism, capitalism, democratic participation, economy, political alternatives, Social issues, unemployment, vision - Tags:

Sir Edmund Thomas’s recent Bruce Jesson lecture, “Reducing Inequality: A Strategy for a Cause’ is available online now: abridged version (h/t greywarbler).  He outlines the key elements of “neoliberalism” that have resulted in vast inequalities that are damaging to our society and it’s future.

I particularly like his focus on the need to shift from values led by economics, to those that put people and communities first.  It is from there that economic policies then flow.

(1) Values directed by the economic order

The first damaging feature of neo-liberalism I would identify is the fact that the economic order has been permitted to direct, if not dictate, the values and morality of the community.  But the morality of capitalism is a pagan morality; a morality bounded by the profit motive and the obsession with consumerism and the materialistic values it engenders.  The prime example of this perverted morality exists in the fact that a person’s worth is measured, not by the value of his or her contribution to the well-being of the community, but by their accumulation of personal wealth.

My immediate point, therefore, is simple; naked self-interest (for which it is easy to read greed) is a malign foundation for a healthy society.  The free market should not be permitted to dictate or direct the values of the community.  Rather, the community must determine its own values, and impose those values on the free market.

He mentions some “neoliberal” myths that need to be exposed:

“Trickle down” economics is a prime example.  Other myths I touch upon are:

  • The myth that a progressive tax of the wealthy depresses production and retards economic growth;
  • The myth that the poor have only themselves to blame;
  • The myth that a person’s wealth is due solely to his or her own hard work;
  • The notion that the free market is the most efficient means of allocating the distribution of resources;
  • The claim that privatisation is economically beneficial;
  • The notion that the country’s finances are the household or family’s finances writ large; and
  • The claim that high CEO and senior executive salaries and large bonuses, even if they appear obscenely high, are essential to the operation of the free market.

I have some misgivings on the way Thomas focuses on individualistic human rights, and the way he aims to recast capitalism rather than to replace it.

I take the view that the main vehicle for reducing this extreme inequality and bettering the lot of humankind will be in the area of human rights, more specifically, economic, social and cultural rights; the substantive human rights.  Human rights are basically ego-centric.  As a result, the enforcement of human rights by individuals – or groups of individuals – is compatible with individualism.  The enforcement of human rights is probably now the most productive means of protecting the individual or groups of individuals from the harsh extremes of liberal individualism and capitalism.

He outlines various areas that need to be worked on to produce a more equal, fair and well-functioning society.  One of the key ones he mentions, which I am in agreement with, is that it requires us to be working at a community level, and not to wait for the government to bring about necessary changes.

Economic, social and cultural rights, I suggest, are the key. These substantive rights embrace the right to work, in which I would include the right to a living wage, the right to health care, the right to freedom from poverty and an adequate standard of living, the right to security, the right to free and equal education, the right to a reasonable standard of housing, and the right to a habitable environment.  Such rights must be articulated and pursued with a vigour that is capable of shaking and shifting the political and economic order.  Discussion needs to be more focused and directed to generating sustained pressure from those deprived of their economic, social and cultural rights and those who aspire to achieve a fairer and more equal society.


In short, what I am suggesting is a focused campaign to promote substantive human rights.  Not being indirectly enforceable in the courts, such rights will not have the force of political and civil rights, but the objective must be to ensure that they possess sufficient force for people to claim that the minimum social, economic and cultural standards they reflect are theirs as of right.  Thus, such rights would have the same natural law underpinnings as political and civil rights.  They would be demanded by those denied those rights with the same vigour and dedication as the community demand their political and civil rights

In spite of my misgivings, I like his statements about the need for a massive struggle from those disadvantaged by the current “neoliberal” order:

Consequently, change will come, if it is to come at all, as a result of the social dissatisfaction and unrest that would follow the more aggressive assertion of economic, social and cultural rights.  With people viewing the various substantive rights, not as matters to be negotiated or compromised in an imperfect and indifferent political system, but as requirements that are theirs as of right, pressure for change would be unyielding.  Just as people will vigorously protest against the suppression or denial of their political and civil rights so they would come to vigorously protest the denial of their substantive rights.

However, it does seem like a harsh and difficult struggle ahead of us.


29 comments on “Sir Edmund Thomas: “Reducing Inequality” – new ‘Values’”

  1. Philgwellington Wellington 1

    It has to be a peaceful revolution. Anything less is unrealistic, too little and too late. Where ever I look I can’t see it. Where is the hope?

  2. Ad 2

    This is one seriously brave ex-Supreme Court Judge.

    Not even Lord Cooke of Throndon was this political, and he was the first to enforce the Treaty of Waitangi amongst other innovations.

    Thankyou Grey Warbler for the text you have managed to capture.

    No one should expect Sir Thomas to promote replacing capitalism or any other kind of system. This is a man from deep within the system; he is indeed the Queen’s representative of the entire thing.

    Are there other uncowed judges or ex-judges out there who can speak? We are so lucky to have this man speaking now.

  3. Tracey 3

    Our judiciary are operating as a bulwark to the executive. This would not be the case if we had the us system of appointment of judges. National will have a think tank to address this anomoly

    • Colonial Viper 3.1

      More importation of US systems is my guess. Political appointments to the judiciary seem to have worked so well over there.

  4. TightyRighty 4

    Tracey, who made the executive appointments to our a surpreme court? I think you should be careful about hurling accusations at national. It was labour that had us-style appointments. And apart from fatty Elias, they’ve worked reasonable well so national let them continue in their roles

    • lprent 4.1

      …so national let them continue in their roles

      Perhaps you should look at the role to which they were appointed, and in particular how long they are “appointed” for – which is essentially until they decide to stand down.

      There was nothing that National could do. Besides the government has less to do with the appointments than the judges in the other higher courts do. Try over-riding them and find out how far they get. Which is of course why judges have been “appointed” from the court of appeal.

      You should really apply yourself and learn some of the basics of the legal systems in NZ rather than relying on half misunderstood right wing myths.

      • Wayne 4.1.1

        The Law Commission has recently completed a Report on the Courts, which deals with the appointment of Judges in the Higher Courts. It has been accepted by Govt (and I am fairly sure also accepted by the Opposition Parties) which will lead to broader consultation on appointment of Judges.

      • TightyRighty 4.1.2

        just labour that technicality there lprent. tracey made up some bullshit about what she neurotically believes national would do given the opportunity. fact is, they’ve had the opportunity. and did nothing of the sort.

        I know quite a few basics of the legal system in new zealand. national couldn’t override the appointments to the surpreme courrt. never suggested they could. but they could have put stoolies in place when vacancies arose in the surpreme court. they didn’t though did they?

        so before questioning my understanding of how judges are appointed in this country, try comprehend what i’m actually saying.

  5. Macro 5

    There needs to be a wholesale nation wide debate upon this very topic…

    “what’s the economy for anyway?”

    Only after we have consensus on that can we possibly move forward.

    I would sincerely suggest that the economy is NOT about growth… In the past that may have been the case,and in developing countries that may well be the case. However what is it for an economy to be “developed”?

    Is there any need for a developed economy to continue to grow? And is it at all desirable or even possible? J S Mill did not think so, and neither did Adam Smith. Continuous growth defies the Second Law of Thermodynamics for a start, and is only being “achieved” now by a pernicious redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.

    Sir Edmund Thomas has it correct. He will have seen the effects of burgeoning inequality in the courts. The sick society is the society the fails to support its most vunerable, and the more inequality the greater the proportion of those who are vunerable

    • Colonial Viper 5.1

      We have to redefine “growth” as being that which focuses on improvements in quality, resilience, inclusiveness, and human wellbeing. Not on unsustainable exponential financialised volumetric and quantitative increases.

      Because in reality all we have been achieving for the last 20 years or so is uneconomic growth. Growth which damages, harms, and increases disparities and inequalities.

      • Macro 5.1.1

        Actually I believe we have to stop talking “growth” completely. The focus needs to shift to what the economy is all about anyway – and that is prosperity. What should now be the focus of all political leaders on the left – and even from the right – is how to achieve prosperity for all. Not just the chosen few. In the past there was a requirement to grow the economy because there was not enough goods for all. But when an economy is developed, there is supposedly enough. That is why there are so many who are incredulous when it is suggested that poverty exists in this country. Surely there is enough? They simply fail to recognise the existence of inequality.

        It is possible to have a sustainable economy that provides prosperity for all in a developed economy, the challenge now is to work towards that goal.

        • Colonial Viper

          I’d take it one half step further and say that human well being, achievement and satisfaction has to be the goal, not “prosperity.”

          • Macro

            I purposely did not define “prosperity” Neither does Tim Jackson in his book “Prosperity without Growth” (recommended reading) But it could well be used for all of the above. Wealth without general well being achievement and satisfaction is hardly prosperity. 🙂

          • Francis

            I remember learning about an alternative measure to GDP in economics several years ago, one which takes into account things like literacy rates, morality rates, wealth distribution, etc. That’s probably the kinds of measures the world as a whole should be moving onto, rather than just the production of goods and services divided by the total population…

        • Mike S

          The actual word ‘economy’ has been hijacked. It really means to economise or arrange things so that we have the most efficient (economic) and sustainable distribution and use of the resources available. Growth is relevant only in how it relates to the economic use of resources.

          I’ve written before in an old thread that under our current system, “there is no room in the market economic model for social relations or responsibility. People and their welfare are not deemed important other than they are producers and consumers. Take any of the free market model calculations or measures and you’ll see none of them have the welfare or stableness of society as part of the equation. The family and their ability to survive are not considered as relevant in terms of inputs into calculations.

          The world is saturated in debt (all money is created as debt) and is going bankrupt. Debt doesn’t even exist in the physical reality, it is just part of a game called economics that we’ve created. Yet the well-being of billions of people is now being compromised due to debt.

          Unfortunately, there is no profit in things that are beneficial to society such as saving lives, peace, sustainability, social responsibility. We live in a society where there are unprecedented levels of wealth, yet there are also unprecedented levels of social failings; increasing levels of violence, self harm amongst kids, drug abuse, mental illness, child abuse, etc. Does that not seem wrong? Activities which are detrimental to society and human kind such as war, illness and disease, financial speculation, greed, etc; are the activities which within our monetary and economic system are rewarded with massive profits. That’s a defective system surely? Poverty shouldn’t exist yet it does and is increasing rapidly. This clearly shows the system is not working.”

          A sustainable economy is impossible under our current monetary and economic system. Our current system is based completely upon exponentially ever increasing consumption. The world has finite resources so exponentially increasing consumption of those resources obviously has to come to a crashing halt at some stage.

          No amount of tinkering will resolve the issues we face. The system needs a complete redesign, which is a hugely difficult task, mainly due to politics and the fact that the very wealthy control the system and are obviously reluctant to change from that which has rewarded them so handsomely and continues to do so.

          Unfortunately, drastic change on a societal level usually only comes about due to some sort of catastrophic event or natural disaster. It could be that a complete financial collapse (which is a mathematical certainty under our current system) will be the thing that forces massive changes.It could happen very soon, or maybe not for a couple of decades or more, but it will happen.

  6. Olwyn 6

    “Human rights are basically ego-centric. As a result, the enforcement of human rights by individuals – or groups of individuals – is compatible with individualism.”

    Karol, I understood this statement as suggesting that a good starting place for change is a promising point on the current conceptual map; that the individualism the neo-libs have cultivated in people might be able to be extended in the direction of substantive human rights. I did not take him to be endorsing individualism as such.

    • karol 6.1

      That’s a good point, Olwyn. I read that paragraph a couple of times because I was troubled by it. I some ways it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of his lecture.

      There’s a couple of places where I stopped to ponder. On the one hand Thomas is advocating all out uncompromising, possibly turbulent, resistance to the current status quo. On the other hand he’s talking of (individualistic) human rights as a buffer against the harshest elements of market capitalism – as the

      most productive means of protecting the individual or groups of individuals from the harsh extremes of liberal individualism and capitalism.

      Then he also seems to contradict that with this:

      The free market should not be permitted to dictate or direct the values of the community. Rather, the community must determine its own values, and impose those values on the free market.

      Which is very much a focus on the collective putting extreme pressure on the “free market”.

      But maybe he is advocating more of a multi-facted struggle as you indicate.

      • Olwyn 6.1.1

        I was at the lecture. Apart from his rejection of neo-liberalism, he seemed rather agnostic about the economic system to be followed, provided it did not dominate community life and values. And he seemed to see substantive human rights as the issue capable of uniting people in a situation where their historic power bases have been lost to them, or greatly weakened.

        • karol

          Human rights do have a lot of unifying potential. Although, I suspect it’s Thomas’s legal background that gives it strong meaning for him.

          It may not be the term that’s as important as the values that communities agree on for themselves – as he suggests. Maybe focusing on various grass campaigns for more equality and livable communities (housing, income, affordable basic services and resources, etc) would lead to a set of (more abstract) basic values.

          I’m all for not treating “economy” as a leading philosophy.

          • Olwyn

            Substantive human rights are outlined in a 1948 UN document. Their lack, in common with the lack of civil rights, greatly reduces people’s agency. I think he is also looking at the the way the Civil Rights movement in the US was able to make its presence felt, despite the lack of a recognised power base underpinning it. The idea also transcends the varying interests that can set the left bickering with each other. The more I think about it, the more I am in favour of it.

            • karol

              Yes. I was thinking of the UN on human rights. I’m not sure if everyone on the left is all that keen on the UN. And I do mean that I’m not sure. Need more information on how “human rights” are seen throughout the left.

              • Olwyn

                Whatever the shortcomings of the UN, the document in question outlines a standard that the neo-liberal countries, including New Zealand, are failing to meet. Which gives it a certain authority – it cannot simply be dismissed as the latest harebrained scheme.

  7. Adele 7


    Why be ugly about Sian Elias? Methinks you aren’t that tight a righty otherwise you would be wallowing at her feet in awe.

    Sian Elias is the epitome of what the right aspires to represent. She breathes a privileged atmosphere; wears conservative attire; sits at the top table; is at the pinnacle of her profession; has lots of money, and is even married to a captain of industry in Sir Hugh Fletcher.

    Perhaps her being a decent human being is the cause of your puku ache. In which case, poor you, not even an enema shaped like John Key can loosen your particular tightness.

    • TightyRighty 7.1

      Right oh Adele. Whose Sue Kedgley married to again? the great thing about having a strong belief in feminism amongst right wing men as that they can tolerate the diversity of their wife’s opinion from their own and even have a happy home life. you don’t see that on the left now do you? just because you couldn’t tolerate having someone who didn’t slavishly worship the same beliefs beside you for life, doesn’t mean others can’t bigoted much?

      I think Sian Elias was a political appointment by the previous government, US supreme court style, and therefore deserving of scrutiny and a certain cynicism about her judgements. to be fair though, she’s done pretty well at being an upholder of justice in this country.

      and who let tricledown out it’s cage again? just puerile rubbish from that ip address. so because you googled “Sian Elias – Privy Council” you somehow become smarter than me?

      • lprent 7.1.1

        Hey political idiot…

        I think Sian Elias was a political appointment by the previous government

        Stupid and wrong. Go and read up about the formation of the Supreme court. In particular where the judges came from and how the chief was picked

        Jez. You really are a bit of a fuckwit when it comes to just looking stuff up….

  8. tricledrown 8

    Dame Sian alias has also sat on the privy council.
    Tighty almighty has sat on the privy and left what little brains He has got in the sewer.

  9. Adele 9

    Kiaora Karol,

    I see no ambiguity in Sir Edmund’s rather excellent speech.

    I thought his argument was that human rights (despite being ego-centrically driven) would eviscerate the extremes of individualism and capitalism from the human psyche.

    That human rights are compatible with individualism sets up the dilemma for the typical individualist capitalist. Human rights allows them to function as individualist and as capitalist therefore to argue against human rights is to argue against their own self-interest.

    They may of course think that some are entitled to more human rights than others but as history shows that sort of thinking eventually ends up being garrotted. Which is the substance of his other kōrero. Revolution is inevitable under conditions of extreme disparity. Substantive human rights are in everyone’s best interest.

    How human rights evolve beyond the current understanding is where indigenous peoples intersect with the moralising.

    • karol 9.1

      Thanks, Adele.

      Yes, I can understand the logic of this. I guess in the longer term, I would like to see a term more based in cooperative community values.

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