On the back cover Max Harris is described as a ‘“brilliant young New Zealander’ who is ‘unashamedly idealistic’. Max Harris is in his late twenties, and as a brilliant student he has been a Rhodes Scholar, and now a fellow at an Oxford college, after working for Helen Clark at the U.N. in New York. As becomes clear in the middle chapters, he has also worked with grassroots campaigning organisations on issues like homelessness. And his legal training comes to the fore on environmental problems.
All these qualifications explain how he was able to write this book at such an early age. Harris is certainly sincere and somewhat earnest, but always authentic. He talks to people on the ground and in the ivory towers. Indeed, he seems to have got interviews with some important people, as well as academic specialists in their fields. It is very well written, in that Harris is able to go from discussing complex theories and ideas to anecdotal evidence, without getting bogged down in academic terminology. The publisher has done a good job in editing the book, making it an effective blend of ideas on a range of varying subjects, some quite technical, within social science.
However, this is still essentially a student’s thesis, written in an engaging way, with some stylistic flourishes and quirky content. There is in fact some tension between the elitism of his elevation as an Oxford Don at a tender age, with none of the financial pressures that most of his generation face, and the position of an average indebted student. Harris is aware of his unique situation, due to his precarious heart condition, and his precocious talent. But this is more an academic treatise from afar than a new agenda of a young New Zealander, due to his adherence to the academic elite’s views.
Most of the conceptual problems with The New Zealand Project are evident in the fourth chapter, on the new framework for economic policy, and then in the political aspects of his alternative. Harris does not offer a new framework for economic policy, and, other than some interesting comments on legal cases to do with financial contracts, his alternative is to promote a more progressive tax system. Like many in the social sciences, Harris is critical of the prevailing ‘neo-liberal’ framework, based on academic economics, and accepts that its influence is embedded in current policies. But within the same chapter he states that it has succeeded in capturing the agenda, and that it has also failed in practical terms. I believe that ‘neo-liberalism’ is actually a construct of the critics, who’ve collapsed the difference between theory and practice.
The same conceptual problem gets extended to Harris’s own version of the new political project. This is evident in the last chapter in the discussion of the Third Way, the form of social democracy that he associates with Tony Blair’s Britain, but thinks is just another form of neo-liberalism. He states that ‘the Third Way has cast a long shadow over the rhetoric, policies and directions of New Zealand’ (p.271). I don’t think this is credible, as the idea has barely featured in debate, and Harris seems out of touch here. But this doesn’t mean that new ‘social liberal’ thinking is not needed.
If the actual project does not seem coherent yet, the middle chapters on policy issues are worth reading. In particular, the ‘politics of love’ as an approach to work and benefits is interesting. Although Harris could have stated that it is more ‘tough love’ that has dominated social policy, and the conservative attack on beneficiaries and their rights, in which mean-spiritedness is the experience for those without work.
Reviewed by Simon Boyce
The New Zealand Project
by Max Harris
Published by Bridget Williams Books