Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Evil of Equity

The New Zealand Government has caught the equity bug. Everywhere you look they are trying to achieve it. I asked a senior public servant recently what he understood equity to mean and he said it meant 'fairness', but when I pressed him further, he defined it as 'equality of outcome'.

He used as an example the Government's intention to produce equity in health outcomes. In New Zealand, Maori have worse health outcomes than non-Maori, something that must be fixed according to government and social commentators. It is a legacy of 'colonialism' they say, although how the poor health outcomes of New Zealanders who have a fraction of Maori ancestry in 2019 can be blamed on a system of government that ended in 1852, is beyond reason.

One of the reasons Maori have worse health outcomes than non-Maori is that they have much higher rates of smoking than the population as a whole, which is directly linked to morbidity rates. Successive governments have tried to reduce smoking with advertising bans, packaging warnings and one of the highest rates of tobacco excise in the world (with a pack of 20 cigarettes costing around NZ$30 currently). Smoking rates, particularly amongst Maori, have been stubbornly resistant to these measures in recent years with around 15% of adult New Zealanders and about a third of Maori still smoking.

Other reasons for poor health outcomes include diet, lack of exercise and unwillingness to seek medical advice, despite various government policies designed to encourage healthy eating, promote regular exercise and to provide free healthcare for those who most need it. 

My senior public servant admitted that equality of health outcomes clearly required something more persuasive than the 'nudge' policies that governments hav employed to date.
"We should ban tobacco products completely," he said. "And fatty foods and sugary drinks."
"And what about exercise?" I said.
"Well, we should encourage it," he replied.
"And if people refuse?"
"All workplaces should have compulsory exercises in the morning," he said.
"And if they fail to comply?" I pressed. "Should we shoot the bosses or the staff?"
"Now, you're just being silly," he said. And there, the conversation ended.

I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's great book, The Gulag Archipelago, recently. It tells the story of how the government of the Soviet Union came to imprison and kill a huge number of its people. The most profound message in the book is that the Soviet government's actions were a direct consequence of its misguided moral mission to produce equality of outcome. Solzhenitsyn makes the case that ultimately there couldn't have been any other result than mass imprisonment and murder from the single-minded pursuit of equity.

The only way for a government to achieve equality of outcome is to control every aspect of its citizens' lives - in other words, to impose totalitarianism. Those who refuse to be lifted out of their poor habits, need to be constantly monitored and prodded to improve. Those who already have better outcomes than others, have to be forcibly handicapped - as were the kulaks (the peasant farmers in the Soviet Union who had managed to accumulate a small amount of personal property who were starved or executed for their privilege*).

Equity cannot be achieved without force. And it cannot be achieved without dragging everyone down to the level of the lowest in society. The only exception is for the rulers, like the senior public servant I spoke to and his political masters, who earn more than 99% of their subjects. It is salient that as our rulers become detached from the rest of us, the more the word equity is upon their lips.

*Bear that in mind whenever you hear someone use the expression "check your privilege" today.