By Kieran Madden - 03/08/2018

By Kieran Madden -

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Generational perspective necessary to do policy well

Our view of human nature makes a big difference on which policies we devise and support. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” said James Madison, the “father” of the United States Constitution. “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

People aren’t angels, but they’re not demons either. We’ve all got great capacity for good and we also fall short. When it comes to public policy, if we’re to move beyond angel-and-demon politics we must dispel the myth that decisions are made by rational, autonomous individuals in a vacuum. People are relational, relying upon families and communities for their development and resilience, and it is through this lens we have to look when making policy.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary”

The recent argy-bargy between National’s Simon Bridges and Labour’s Carmel Sepuloni over sanctions for beneficiaries highlights the usual reductive nature of moral arguments around welfare. As the number of New Zealanders on the unemployment benefit rises, Bridges says Labour is “going soft” with their new requirement for a senior Work and Income staffer to approve any suspension of benefits. Sepuloni fired back that these comments are “really uncalled for,” and the rise simply shows the previous regime was too harsh.

Putting aside the debatable effectiveness of incentives on behaviour, accusations of being “too soft” or “too harsh” are moral arguments. Policy necessarily must have a moral framework to determine what is a good or bad outcome of those policy settings, and how people are likely to respond to the incentives or disincentives of the policy.

A little empathy here can be a game-changer

If our moral framework is based on assumptions of autonomous, decision-making individuals, our compass—both as politicians and voters—will be off. Now life isn’t simply thrust upon us, leaving us with no decisions to make—but considering people’s connectedness in intergenerational families helps contextualise over-simplified “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” arguments.

A little empathy here can be a game-changer. Imagine, for example, that you grew up in a family where no one had worked for generations. I recently had a conversation with a mother who shared—through tears of pride—that her and her partner were the only dual-income family in her community. Her kids were proud too. Imagine you grew up in this neighbourhood. Where would you have learned about the value of work? Where would you have developed the aspirations, habits, and skills needed to get and hold a job in the modern economy?

We need to rediscover the role of families when it comes to policy-making. Sadly, we’ve seen the Families Commission technocratically renamed to the Social Policy Research and Evaluation Unit, and then finally told to shut up shop by the current government. We have Oranga Tamariki yes, but here we are viewing children here abstracted from their family, from their history.

We need to rediscover the role of families when it comes to policy-making

Treasury are offering some hope as they seek to move from just growing GDP to improving intergenerational wellbeing, but there’s more we can do. Incorporating the wider perspective of whānau from te ao Māori would be a good place to start.

Families and whānau look different around New Zealand—but this doesn’t change the fact that it should be a starting point for understanding both challenges and public policy solutions too. Thriving families should be our ultimate goal.

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By Kieran Madden -

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