Friday, September 17, 2004


I'm have other stuff to write today, some of which should eventually end up here, so to fill in here's something I wrote several months ago in response to Philosophy, et cetera and then never got round to posting.

Aquaculture and Treaty settlements

In response to my aquaculture post, Philosophy, et cetera reels out the list of standard responses to any sort of restorative justice for past wrongs. Since we've been seeing a lot of this sort of thing recently, and it's all in one spot, I thought I might as well do a detailed response.

1) Individuals are not morally responsible for the actions of their ancestors. "We" didn't steal anything.

Of course not. But no-one is accusing any living individual over past land seizures - they're accusing the Crown. Our government. Which has maintained a continuous legal existence for the entire period, and can certainly be held responsible for its past actions.

Now, ultimately the cost of any compensation paid will be borne by people who were not responsible in any way for those past wrongs, and had no say over them - but that's hardly unusual. Some of the tax I pay is going towards paying off debt that was run up before I could vote, but I don't see anyone screaming about principles there. And you cannot argue that the settlement program represents a crippling burden on current taxpayers - Treaty settlements accounted for only 0.109 percent of government spending in the lat five years.

2) I have a general distaste for legalistic obsession with 'property rights'. There exists no 'natural law' which gives first occupants an enduring metaphysical right to their land. It's irritating when libertarians get hung up over this, and no less so with lefty anti-colonialists who hijack these right-wing ideals. There are other considerations besides history.

You don't have to be a propertarian absolutist to recognise that the Crown has a moral burden here - not least because of their specific agreement in the Treaty to respect the "lands and estates, forests, fisheries and other properties" of the other partner.

Propertarian absolutists would demand the return of everything that was stolen - every square metre of land, every branch of every tree - and financial compensation for everything that had been destroyed. Plus over a hundred years of accrued interest, at market rates, of course. The government is doing nothing of the sort. For a start, privately-owned land is completely off the table, no matter how significant it is. The government may buy if it finds a willing seller, but it will not forcibly return your backyard to the local iwi. Secondly, the amount of land and compensation paid does not even begin to approach the value of what was stolen; Tainui received $170 million, which I suspect is substantially less than the real estate value of the entire Waikato. The settlements are mostly symbolic, but the symbolism (and the Crown acknowledgment of its past wrongdoing) is extremely potent.

Dubious use of corporate entities [...]

Or, as Margaret Thatcher put it, "society does not exist". Of course all references to groups are ultimately references to distinct individuals. It was distinct individuals who were harmed, and it will ultimately be distinct individuals who benefit from compensation (through the intermediary of some legal corporate body). This does not mean that we cannot generalise where appropriate.

4) Due to generations of interbreeding, there is no longer a clear-cut distinction between Pakeha and Maori. All Maori now have at least some European blood in them. [...]

Or, as they put it in talkback-land, "there aren't any real Maoris left anyway". But even if it were true (and its not), it simply doesn't matter.

What happens to your property when you die? It passes to your heirs and assignees. If you've got a will, then it goes to the people in it. If you don't, then there's a default setting. But regardless, property passes by inheritance, from you to (usually) your descendents.

Treaty settlements are the same. If property had not been seized by the Crown, it would have passed to the heirs and assignees of the original owners. And since land ownership was generally communal, this means from the past members of the iwi to the present ones. Some of those present members may not have very much Maori blood in them, but that doesn't matter - any more than the fact that you only have 1/8th of your great-grandfather's DNA matters when it comes to inheriting his pocketwatch.

5) Why favour the tribal elite, rather than urban Maori?

This is the part that I like the least. But the fact is that the Treaty was signed with iwi, as represented by their chiefs. It was iwi who were disposessed of their communally-owned land. It is therefore iwi who need justice and compensation for those wrongs.

Finally, I think it needs to be pointed out that Treaty settlements, such as the aquaculture settlement, are not any form of "affirmative action". They're not (primarily) about advancing disadvantaged Maori by granting them "special rights". They're about justice, about making some recompense for a past wrong so that we can move on.