Rule of Conformity
It is not compatible with the egalitarian ideal that there should be sharp differences in the scale of monetary reward for services performed. In New Zealand, care of the underdog has long since been a more important consideration than is the case in very many other countries. Successive governments may claim with some justice to have abolished poverty, but this has not been done without there taking place a narrowing of margins between the rewards for skilled and unskilled labour, with its consequent denial of incentive to acquire skill, to strive for self-improvement. The country's citizens have come to regard social security as their inalienable right, but by taking too readily for granted the State's obligation towards themselves they are apt to lose sight of the converse proposition that they themselves have obligations to the State.
The reluctance to reward skilled labour at rates calculated to provide an incentive for acquiring skill has its counterpart in the reluctance to remunerate the nations' best scholars and scientists on a scale sufficient to keep a fair proportion of them at home.
The fact is often deplored that so many young men of the highest ability prefer to take up a career overseas, but it is doubtful whether higher salaries would stem their exodus in more than a minor degree. Under any circumstances, regardless of monetary reward, the intellectual élite would be tempted to go abroad in search of a wider field of endeavour than can be found in so small a country as New Zealand.
In a society where great wealth is regarded as antisocial, it is natural that ostentation should be looked at askance. Marks of distinction are liable to be a handicap. For instance, the politician who accepts a title does not usually improve his chances of gaining or retaining office by doing so. Richard Seddon, it will be remembered, consistently and doubtless wisely, refused to accept a knighthood. Wealth carries with it a minimum of prestige; it is a positive disadvantage to the aspirant to a political career. Strongly marked individuality or eccentricity are seldom in evidence among New Zealanders, and even where they do exist, the qualities are tolerated rather than appreciated. The rule of conformity prevails, and if the American writer, Sydney Greenbie, is to be believed, it has already produced a considerable measure of standardisation among the inhabitants of the Dominion. “In face and feature, in mind and taste,” writes Greenbie, “the modern New Zealanders are so much alike that it is hard to remember the names of persons you meet casually for lack of distinguishing characteristics to which the eye can cling.”
Under conditions such as those described above, it is not surprising that no privileged class should have come into existence through long possession of landed estate or other permanent source of income. Nevertheless, the claim that New Zealanders have developed a classless society can scarcely be substantiated. Snobbery, when discouraged in one quarter, is prone to appear in some new form elsewhere. Recent investigations by A. A. Congalton and R. J. Havighurst show that there is a fairly well defined and universal appreciation of the graduated social status attaching to various social occupations. Results of a survey in which a cross section of the public was asked to answer a series of apposite questions showed, for example, that doctors, lawyers, and big businessmen were graded above heads of Government Departments, clergymen, and university professors; that office workers rated higher than shop assistants, miners than wharf labourers, and so on. Incidentally, the investigation also brought to light the fact that any attempt to inquire into the existence of social distinctions within the community invariably roused resentment.
A privileged class being also a leisured class, its rejection is in keeping with a deep-seated belief that work has a virtue in its own right, without regard to its usefulness. In pioneer days, when hands were few and subsistence hard to win, it was indeed a crime to remain idle, and the habit of seeing idleness as a vice has endured. At the beginning of the great slump, when Forbes the Prime Minister, shocked at what he had seen of the “dole” during a visit to England, declared that so long as he retained office there would be no payment without work, his words appealed to a moral precept deeply inculcated not only in the minds of reactionaries but of many radicals as well.