It’s cruel only to sound kind
Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 25 November 2022
Is it enough to have good intentions? Or is it better to focus on the outcomes of one’s actions?
A century ago, Max Weber, the founder of modern sociology, made this distinction.
I thought of Weber as Newshub broke an outrageous story on Tuesday. There are still the same number of mental health beds as there were in 2019.
Despite numerous speeches and pledges. Despite billions of dollars spent. And despite years of government activism.
Mental health patients sleep on mattresses on the floors of our hospitals. Those in the greatest need and desperation have not even the dignity of a bed.
These stories are hard to bear. They contrast sharply with New Zealand’s self-image as a kinder country.
But what makes all this even more galling is the blatant discrepancy between sad reality and lofty promises.
In early 2019, the Prime Minister penned a much-celebrated opinion piece for the Financial Times. She scolded past generations of New Zealand politicians for their economic reforms. And she promoted her own vision of a “wellbeing budget”, singling out mental health.
“From a purely economic perspective, there are clear benefits to supporting positive mental wellbeing, including enhanced productivity,” she wrote. “From a kindness perspective, the modern age places huge stresses on young people, which affects their ability to live full, meaningful lives. Confronting this will make us a better country.”
A few months later, the Ardern Government delivered the first wellbeing budget. Its signature programme: a $1.9 billion investment in mental health. Mental health showed up 73 times in the Health budget – but with no mention of outcomes or evaluation.
The Prime Minister concluded her 2019 FT article: “We in New Zealand hope to, once again, punch above our weight by forging a new economic system based on this powerful concept — one that is successful, but one that is also kind.”
And mental health patients now sleep on the floor.
Which brings us straight back to Max Weber.
There is Weber’s ethics of conviction, and the Prime Minister shows much of that. And then there is Weber’s ethics of responsibility, which is measured in outcomes. The Government’s record on that front is abysmal.
Before I hear one more grand vision from this Government, I would love to see them tackle at least one problem satisfactorily.
The way the Government is going, I will probably wait a long time.