Book Review: “Fairness and Freedom” — A Study in Binocular History

“Fairness and Freedom” is a cultural/political/social history of the United States and New Zealand in one volume. To the general reader’s likely question, “Why would anyone put the two in one book?” the author’s answer and binding theme is that both former British colonies are open societies with liberal democratic systems but with a difference.

Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies, New Zealand and the United States by David Hackett Fischer. Oxford University Press, 629 pages, $34.95.

By David Mehegan

The row of David Hackett Fischer’s books on my shelf does not include a single slender volume. Paul Revere’s Ride, his 1995 bestseller, is 464 pages, while Washington’s Crossing, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for history, has 576. Champlain’s Dream, published in 2008, is 848 pages. Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Idea (2004), runs to 864 pages, while Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989) remains the weightiest at 972 pages.

This might sound like a complaint, but it is not. More than most who tackle large subjects, the Warren Professor of History at Brandeis University has a remarkable ability to keep his narrative moving, to write with clarity and telling detail, to pause for measured reflection without losing headway. Fischer’s books are uniformly well-written, full of surprises, and crisply entertaining. In those about Paul Revere and Washington’s crossing of the Delaware in December 1776, he unearthed much that was fresh in those well-ploughed fields. In the former, we learned how highly wired and organized the rebellious Massachusetts countryside already was before Revere et al. mounted up. Nobody realized, before Washington’s Crossing, how partisans and militia companies, encouraged by the Virginian general, mercilessly harassed British forces in the months after the battles of Trenton and Princeton, eventually driving them back to their coastal bases. In Albion’s Seed (a remarkable profile of the four very different social strains of colonial immigration), Champlain’s Dream (a history of the founding of French Canada), and now in Fairness and Freedom, Fischer marshals a huge amount of scholarship on subjects most of us would not have thought of in order to illuminate the moral and cultural dilemmas of our own time.

Fairness and Freedom is a cultural/political/social history of the United States and New Zealand in one volume. To the general reader’s likely question, “Why would anyone put the two in one book?” Fischer’s answer and binding theme is that both former British colonies are open societies with liberal democratic systems but with a difference. For Americans, the critical and foundational value is freedom. For the Kiwis, it is fairness.

It is not that Americans, in Fischer’s view, are uninterested in fairness (it is a watchword of the 2012 presidential campaign) or that New Zealanders are indifferent to freedom. Rather, it is a difference of what comes first. He devotes space and attention to defining the Kiwi model of fairness—much less to defining American concepts of freedom. In New Zealand tradition, “fair and fairness have long been substantive and procedural ideas of right conduct, designed to regulate relations among people who are in conflict or rivalry or opposition in particular ways. Fairness means not taking undue advantage of others. It is also about finding ways to settle differences through a mutual acceptance of rules and processes that are thought to be impartial and honest. . . . And it is also about living with results that are obtained in this way.” In the United States, while fairness “has always held an important place in the American pantheon of private virtues . . . Americans tend to be divided and deeply ambivalent on the importance of fairness as an organizing principle of their open society.”

Fischer has wrought a kind of binocular history of liberal reform. Not “liberal” in the narrow, contemporary American sense of government activism in favor of the disadvantaged but the older sense (beginning with Magna Carta, if not earlier) of a just society in which the powers of the rulers (indeed of anyone) are limited and the basic rights of the weakest and smallest are held to be inviolable. These stories of two countries are all about how problems are solved and conflicts resolved within that liberal framework.

The heart of the work is a detailed and sweeping survey of New Zealand’s founding, in the early nineteenth century, as a collection of widely spaced, British communities (not given a central government until 1852) among longstanding Maori inhabitants, carrying forward on the theme of fairness to the present day. The cast of characters, most of them shown in paintings or photographs, is immense, and each is vividly sketched, from the first governor in the 1830s, William Hobson, and Maori leader Taratoa to such modern pols as Ruth Richardson, Geoffrey Palmer, and Robert Muldoon.

While in each chapter, Fischer breaks away and writes about parallel events and cultural approaches in the United States, it seems clear that the main subject of his interest is New Zealand and what Americans could learn from its political and social culture. There is a perfunctory quality to the American narratives—America is not the focus of Fischer’s freshest research. Among the subjects for “compare and contrast” are the treatment of indigenous peoples (Indians here, Maoris there), relations with the mother country, women’s rights and roles, immigration, military traditions, approaches to foreign relations, political responses to depression and hard times, and finally, the elaboration of national political systems.

Fischer gives some attention—but perhaps not as much weight as it deserves—to the role of geography in the development of American ideas of freedom. In a country where there seemed always to be a new place to move on to, the chance to “light out for the territory” in Huckleberry Finn’s words, to spread out and pursue one’s goals without impinging on the rights of others, there would naturally be less of a sense of the careful allocation of benefits and rights than in a small country like New Zealand, where everything must be divided into relatively minute portions and not endlessly expanded.

New Zealand feminist Anna Stout

On the place of women, Fischer describes the relatively confrontational history of the woman suffrage movement (he consistently calls it “women’s suffrage”) in the United States in contrast with the milder, quieter process by which New Zealand women received the vote in 1893, 27 years before the United States. In New Zealand, there were no fiery agitators like Alice Paul, who compared Woodrow Wilson to the German Kaiser and chained herself to the White House fence. More common were the likes of Anna Stout (1858–1931), who “combined a complete devotion to her domestic role as wife and mother of six children with outspoken feminism.” Fischer says one key difference between approaches of the movements in the two countries was that in New Zealand, women activists successfully enlisted the support of powerful men. They and the feminists talked things over and eventually came to agreement more or less amicably. Here it took a fierce, long campaign that only ended with the 19th Amendment in 1920.

As in Albion’s Seed and Champlain’s Dream, it is amazing how much detail Fischer manages to stuff into Fairness and Freedom without seeming to stray off the subject. The respective military tactics of American and New Zealand armies in World War II are discussed in detail, as another illuminating aspect of the cultural differences between the two countries. In foreign affairs, we read about New Zealand diplomat William Jordan’s loud warnings about the Axis powers, while such now-forgotten isolationists as William Borah and Hiram Johnson wanted the United States to turn its back on the world. On this as on other matters, the Kiwis’ instinct was that it can be a fatal mistake to paddle one’s own canoe

It is difficult to see, for all of Fischer’s labor in drawing the distinction, a fundamental difference between the two societies as to ideas of fair treatment. Although one can say that the people of New Zealand place the principle of fairness before freedom, it does not appear that the country ever sacrificed or curtailed the latter. Perhaps they did not talk about freedom as much as we do, but it was always protected. The country has been a parliamentary democracy with vigorous parties and electoral politics at almost every stage, at least after the franchise was extended to all adult males in 1879. For its part, even if the United States does not use the word “fairness” in its constitutional guarantees, “justice” is surely a governing concept and not so very far from that of fairness.

The real difference that Fischer is getting at is not etymological or lexicographic. It is the question of what is justice: is it process or is it outcome? In our tradition, justice usually means scrupulous observance of the rules of process, whatever outcome that process yields. So, for example, if the law calls for a long prison sentence for a minor offense, we tend to think such a sentence is not unjust as long as the law was constitutionally enacted and due process in its enforcement fully followed. Not wise, perhaps, but just. One example of this view was Bowles v. Russell in 2007, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a plaintiff whose incompetent lawyer had missed a deadline for filing a writ of habeas corpus. Justice David Souter was perhaps thinking more like a Kiwi than an American when he wrote in his furious dissent, “It is intolerable for the judicial system to treat people this way.”

Likewise we see stubborn resistance to the release of convicted prisoners in some states, even when key incriminating witnesses have recanted. After all, they were duly convicted under the law. In the New Zealand model as Fischer presents it, more attention would be given to the question of whether the outcomes are fair in the larger sense, notwithstanding the process. The final allocation of rights and outcomes in society has to be part of the calculus in that outlook, whatever the process. It seems to be the difference between the priority of mutualism/negotiation/accommodation and that of individualism, a la Ayn Rand. Rand, of course, is a Republican heroine.

Author David Hackett Fischer

Fischer never writes explicitly that fairness is a superior value to freedom—only different—but it is hard to miss the implication that we could learn from the New Zealand way. He clearly is troubled by the prospects of a society where rules are set and social, political, and economic contestants left to battle it out, devil take the hindmost. He quotes with disapproval a 1999 essay by Boston Globe business columnist Hiawatha Bray: “Life is unfair, thank God. If nobody was richer, tougher, or smarter than me, I’d be sitting in a cave somewhere. All of us benefit from unfair advantages held by others.”

The book seems to thin out as it approaches the present, as histories do when there has not been time for events to marinate in the lively juices of historiography. When he writes about George Bush and Bill Clinton, Fischer sounds more like an op-ed columnist than a historian. In its conclusions, whether one agrees with them or not, Fairness and Freedom is less history than homily. Homiletics is not what historians do best, however they may see the lessons of the past and the right path forward.

Whatever relevance New Zealand’s traditions may have for our own, Fischer is correct that in American politics there is less interest than in past times in having a hard fight, then talking things over and working them out. The days when Lyndon Johnson would have a drink with Everett Dirksen and when Teddy Kennedy and Orrin Hatch could be the best of friends seem quaint and distant. Some in our political system do not want simply to defeat their opponents at the polls, they want to break them altogether, eliminate them for all time. They want no compromise before or after an election. They would sooner everyone lose than their enemy win. They’re free to feel that way, but the result for the rest of us might be anything but fair.

David Mehegan may be reached at


  1. Richard McDonough on April 29, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    What’s with this FAIR thing, Mehegan. As we Americans know, fairness is some sort of wimpy bleeding heart thing in opposition to our tough Calvinism and Lone Cowboy view of reality. Harumph!

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