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.
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.
People aren't angels, but they're not demons either. We've all got great capacity for good, but 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, and rely upon families and communities for their development, and it is through this lens that we have to look when making policy.
The recent argy-bargy between National's Simon Bridges and Labour's Carmel Sepuloni on sanctions on beneficiaries highlights the usual reductive 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 that the rise shows that the previous regime was too harsh.
Putting aside the debatable effectiveness of incentives on behaviour, soft or harsh are moral arguments, and policies are necessarily moral. If our moral framework is based on assumptions of decision-making individuals, our compass, both as politicians and voters, will be off.
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.
I recently had a conversation with a mother who shared, through tears of pride, that she 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 families when it comes to policy-making. Sadly, we've seen the Families Commission technocratically renamed the Social Policy Research and Evaluation Unit, and then finally told to shut up shop by the current Government.
We have Oranga Tamariki, but here we are viewing children abstracted from their family, from their history. Treasury is offering some hope as it seeks to move from just growing GDP to improving intergenerational wellbeing, but there's more we can do.
Incorporating the wider perspective of whanau from te ao Maori would be a good place to start.
Families and whanau look different, but this doesn't change the fact that it should be a starting point for understanding both challenges and public policy solutions. Thriving families should be our ultimate goal.