maple trees in spring for maple syrup
maple trees in spring for maple syrup

SocietyAugust 19, 2017

Outside the Asylum: Why New Zealand is an oasis in a weird world

maple trees in spring for maple syrup
maple trees in spring for maple syrup

Living in New Zealand and focusing on our very real social issues, it’s easy to forget that there are many things we do quite well. Or, to put it another way, that things are frequently a lot worse in other countries, even advanced prosperous ones. Over the next couple of weeks we serialise an epic essay from the New Zealand Initiative’s Eric Crampton, exploring what life is like in and out of New Zealand. Today: chapters one and two, after an introduction from author Joe Bennett.

Foreword by Joe Bennett

This is a think tank report. I distrust think tanks. The very name think tank is smug and presumptuous. It implies giant thrumming intellects addressing the topics that we scuttling proles are too silly or simple to grasp.

And what grandiose names think tanks give themselves. The Center for American Progress, The Heritage Foundation, even, I’m afraid, The New Zealand Initiative. Not A New Zealand Initiative, but The, the one and only.

Many think tanks do the opposite of independent thinking. They just come up with the answers their paymasters want. They exist only to give the appearance of intellectual rigour to preconceived opinion.

Some implicitly admit as much in their self-description – a conservative think tank, for example, or a Christian think tank. Such think tanks start with what ought to be conclusions. That’s not thinking. That’s prejudice.

But while I distrust think tanks I cherish good thinkers. And a good thinker is easy to spot. He or she clarifies complexity and writes well. Indeed those two qualities are effectively the same thing.

Good thinkers use no jargon. They deal in concrete matters. Their words and their sentences are short and emphatic. Their meaning is immediately apparent. And to read them is to feel a suffusion of delight, because the truth is always pleasing and often comic.

Such a thinker is Eric Crampton. I have never read a piece of his I haven’t enjoyed. When he asked me if I’d write a foreword for his next report I hoped I’d be able to say that here was a think tank piece that deserved the name. And now that I’ve read it, I emphatically can.

In the following chapters Eric illustrates the lunacy of various authorities around the world and the comparative sanity of most New Zealand authorities. In doing so he maps the awful path that awaits us if we follow bad examples and succumb to bad thinking. The Outside of the Asylum is a heartening read for New Zealanders at the same time as being a much-needed warning. And it’s a bloody good laugh.

Joe Bennett


Chapter 1: Noticing the Asylum

Hold stick near center of its length. Moisten pointed end in mouth. Insert in tooth space, blunt end next to gum. Use gentle in-out motion.

John Watson realised the world had gone mad when he noticed the instructions on a packet of toothpicks – at least as Douglas Adams tells it in So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. A world needing the instructions copied above was not a sane place.

If you had the good fortune to be born in New Zealand after the 1980s reforms, you might only recently have started learning about the true nature of the world.

I grew up in Canada.

As a teenager there, seeing farmers on the news handcuffed for selling their own wheat without the permission of the Canadian Wheat Board, I started to understand Watson’s point.

Canada is a wonderful place. It is among the world’s saner places. But it is still a mad place.

At the same time as wheat farmers were being handcuffed for selling wheat, dairy farmers were paying thousands of dollars to milk a cow. Not to buy a cow, mind you, but the permit to sell the milk. The cost of the permit to milk a cow has only gone up since then. Dairy products face tariffs nearing 300% at the border, so news stories of cheese smuggling are no surprise.

Yes, people smuggle cheese into Canada due to insane tariffs on cheese. It sounds like the plot for a Pixar film with heroic mice sneaking cheese into Canada for hungry Canadian mouselings.

It gets better. The muddled regulations around cheese imports meant that until 2013, Canadians could import cheese-and-pepperoni pizza kits without facing the tariff wall – the kits counted as food preparations rather than cheese. Restaurants started buying the kits to make ‘fresh’ pizzas, until Canada’s dairy cartel forced a rule change.

But ice-cream makers continued to import American products close enough to cream to make ice-cream, but not close enough for the cream to be hit by tariffs. The quality of Canadian ice-cream was not improved by any of these tariff-induced shenanigans.

And if Guy Ritchie were ever hard up for a plot, he need look no further than Canada’s Great Maple Syrup Heist.

Quebec has a vast strategic maple syrup reserve. Now that may not seem entirely mad. A country short of an essential strategic resource like maple syrup may risk revolution. But the industry is propped up by the classic Canadian quotas and rules, and supply management.

One maple syrup producer who tried to defy the Quebec maple syrup cartel reported, “It’s a mafia. Last year, they tried to seize my syrup. I had to move [the syrup to New Brunswick] at night.”

Vanity Fair reported on the Heist, in which some 10,000 barrels of maple syrup, each worth some $1,300, were stolen from the maple syrup reserve.

“The Reserve is a monument to collective planning, to thousands of little guys each giving up a little freedom in return for security. Canadians call this a better life. Americans call it socialism. Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek might call it “the Road to Serfdom”. It’s like all the other roads in Quebec. Calm and predictable, without a single Camaro blasting Bon Jovi, or a sticker of a cartoon man flipping you off while peeing. But it’s had the perverse effect of pooling wealth, of creating just the sort of target Willie Sutton meant when he supposedly said he robs banks because that’s where the money is. [the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers’ Caroline] Cyr encouraged me to lift one of the barrels. I couldn’t budge it. Imagine trying to steal one of those barrels – now imagine trying to steal 10,000.”

As a movie plot, this would have been too incredible to believe – if you have not adjusted to the madness of Canada.

And if Canadian dairy quotas came as a tattoo fixed to the cow rather than as a footnote in a spreadsheet, Canada would have had similar problems with cattle rustling.

I was finishing my doctorate in economics at George Mason University just outside Washington, D.C. and looking for an academic posting when I first visited New Zealand.

America, too, was mad. But its madness was very different from Canada’s.

Anything fun required layers of forms and waivers absolving everyone involved of legal liability for everything. Even then, nobody was sure they couldn’t be sued into bankruptcy. Trial lawyers’ billboards all but promised to use the legal system to make you rich while crushing your enemies.

It is not that America eschews danger and risk. Only danger and risk pursued voluntarily seem illegal. Even kids selling lemonade on their driveway is deemed risky. If things are too safe, the police restore the fear factor by being heavily armed with surplus army equipment, sending SWAT teams whenever possible, and shooting people posing no conceivable threat to anyone.

The 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center made everything worse. On the ride to Reagan National Airport past the Pentagon, a soldier with a large machine gun on top of a Humvee watched me and the other commuters crawling past.

The airports themselves became armed camps with machine-gun toting police everywhere. Every high school bully who resented everyone who had made something of their lives, and who longed to resume his position on the school yard, seemed to be employed as an airport guard.

It was a relief to be on an outward-bound plane.

On arriving in Christchurch for my job interview with the Economics Department at the University of Canterbury, Associate Professor Jeremy Clark took me for a drive around Port Hills. Driving on roads that would have sent council lawyers in America into apoplexies over the lack of guardrails (and over the sheep occupying the roads), I started to have a feeling that I had stumbled on something substantial.

But I knew it for sure when Jeremy took me to Cave Stream.

In the middle of Arthur’s Pass, a river had carved an underground channel through the limestone. At the head of the trail by the Department of Conservation’s parking lot was a sign.

The sign had instructions that were the opposite of the ones on John Watson’s packet of toothpicks. The instructions were a sign of a sane civilisation, a society I yearned to join.

The sign read, essentially, as follows. I wish I had taken a picture of the sign; this is just my paraphrase.

“Welcome to Cave Stream. The cave is dark and cold. We do not provide any lights. The ladder at the end is very slippery. If you enter the cave in winter without proper clothing, you may die of hypothermia. Have fun.”

We had fun.

Confronted with the reality of the world, Douglas Adams’ John Watson did the only sensible thing. He changed his name to Wonko the Sane, built a wall around his beachfront property, decorated the outside of the wall, and put a sign welcoming visitors to his Outside of the Asylum.

Adams’s book was published only in 1984, so for Wonko the Sane escape to New Zealand was not an option. New Zealand was only just coming out of the Asylum. It would soon show its brilliance to the world, but it was still too late to be able to help poor Wonko.

I was far luckier. The University of Canterbury offered me the lectureship, and I moved to New Zealand. The sign at Customs when I arrived might have said, “Welcome to New Zealand.” What it really meant was, “Welcome to the Outside of the Asylum.”

This isn’t an essay on the madness of Canada. Or, not just on the madness of Canada, or America, or even the rest of the world.

It is an essay about the sanity of New Zealand – and the importance of keeping it that way.

A pessimist might say New Zealand is only going mad far less quickly than the rest of the world. But it is still just about the only sane place left.

We don’t know how lucky we are in this country.

Chapter 2: We don’t know how lucky we are

I was speaking to a mate of mine, just the other day
A bloke called Bruce Bayliss actually who lives up our way
He’s been away on a round the world Eighth Army do for a year
More or less
I said “Describe the global position, Bruce.”
He said “Fred, it’s a mess.
We don’t know how lucky we are in this country.
Fred Dagg

The Dunning-Kruger Effect holds that ignorant people never adequately appreciate the depths of their own ignorance, and so have a difficult time compensating for it. New Zealand suffers from what I call the Dagg Effect. We don’t know how lucky we are in this country.

In totalitarian states, the safest way to survive is to convince yourself that the leader really is good – so you can show appropriate emotions at appropriate times and avoid being shot dead.

Everywhere else, complaining about the government is a national sport. New Zealand is no exception. And while the complaints are very often very right, they can lack a sense of proportion.

Armchair quarterbacks can rightly point out the failings of every provincial rugby team, and they can all be correct. But if each of those provincial teams still has a decent chance of beating the British and Irish Lions, a team drawn from a population 10 times that of New Zealand, the provincial teams’ problems might not be that big in the grand scheme of things.

None of this is to say New Zealand is perfect: far from it. New Zealand’s housing affordability problems stem directly from terrible urban planning policies. And while those policies may make sense as the outcome of terrible incentives facing councils, the system as a whole is ludicrous and destructive. Policies in too many other areas risk sliding into the Asylum.

But we really should take a world tour of policy insanity to appreciate just how lucky we are. Perhaps then we might be less quick to smash holes in the Asylum’s walls.

Read the next instalment of Outside the Asylum here, or the full series here. If you’d rather listen to it, the full text exists below as a soundcloud.

Keep going!