Brian Edwards Media

A Definition of Stupidity: Repeatedly trying the same ineffective solution to a problem. And why that makes a majority of Kiwis stupid.


Someone recently defined stupidity as repeatedly trying the same ineffective solution to a problem. By that definition, we New Zealanders are a very stupid people indeed.

The problem in this case is crime. The ineffective solution which we’ve been trying since Pakeha arrived here and are still trying today is punishment, particularly the imprisonment of offenders for longer and longer periods. I’ve compared this to throwing water on a fat fire which of course has the effect of spreading the flames and, quite possibly, burning down the house. The solution to this problem is not to throw more water on the fire, but to find a more efficient way of depriving the fire of oxygen.

Anyone who reads the papers must now know that New Zealand has the second highest daily prison muster rate in the developed world, second only to the United States in the number of  people we incarcerate per head of population.

If this approach to crime were working, the numbers of people being imprisoned ought to be dropping, as the deterrent of imprisonment and longer sentences discourages people from committing crimes. Clearly it isn’t working.  

To deal with this, the government is building more prisons to accommodate more offenders – almost half of whom will be Maori – in response to the public demand for ‘stricter penalties’. In other words, the same solution that’s been unsuccessfully tried by every previous New Zealand government.

This does look a lot like throwing more and more water on a fat fire. It looks a lot like repeatedly trying the same ineffective solution to a problem. It looks a lot like stupidity on a grand  scale.  

To add to that stupidity the National Government, supported by the Labour Opposition, now proposes to send people to prison for failing to pay accumulated court fines.

Like most of our ‘law and order’ legislation, this proposal is based on the idea that fear of going to gaol will persuade these defaulters – who previously showed no fear of going to gaol – to see the error of their ways and cough up.

I see a few problems with this. Though there may be exceptions, it’s likely that most of these people won’t have the money to ‘cough up’. Next, if you put them in prison, not only will you be paying for their stay, you won’t be getting back any of the money they owe while they’re inside and they’ll still have no money to pay with when they get out.

But the most significant flaw in the ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ mentality  is the belief that offenders are deterred by the prospect of going to prison. If that were the case, no thinking person would commit a crime. The trouble is that criminals aren’t very good at thinking. In particular they aren’t very good at forward thinking, at calculating the likely consequences of their actions. This is particularly true of violent offenders, whose actions are generally fuelled by alcohol or drugs. Does anyone really believe that the guy with the sawn-off shotgun and high on P thinks to himself: ‘Hmmm, the penalty for bank robbery used to be 12 years, but they’ve put it up to 17. Better rethink this, go home and see if I can get a job instead.’

Stupid eh? But it’s not the politicians who are stupid. It’s us. In fact the politicians rely on our stupidity and our fear to get themselves elected and re-elected. So every three years we have the auction of human liberty that masquerades as the ‘Law and Order’ or, even more inappropriately, the ‘Justice’ policies of the major parties. These policies have very little to do with reducing crime, even less to do with justice, and everything to do with getting votes.          

So don’t expect any difference between the major parties on this issue. There never has been and, in all probability, there never will be.

Cast your mind back to 1972. Norm Kirk was the Leader of the Opposition. Among his principal policies was getting tough on crime and, in particular, dealing to the gangs. The Eric Heath cartoon at the top of this post says it all. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  Almost 40 years later politicians are still ‘dealing to the gangs’, the gangs are still flourishing and our prisons are bursting at the seams. Doesn’t seem to be working, does it?

Maybe the problem is that our Justice system is still too soft on offenders. Maybe we’re far more concerned with their rights than we are with the rights of their victims, not to mention the rest of us. Isn’t that what Garth McVicar is always telling us? And he’s right, isn’t he? So the answer might be to take away some of these rights that are making it possible for crims to employ high-powered lawyers at the taxpayer’s expense, briefs who can use the law to get the crims off so they can go out and commit more crimes. Let’s redress the balance in favour of the good guys – the cops and the prosecutors and law-abiding citizens like you and me.

Seems like a good idea, doesn’t it?  Not according to my friend, criminal defence lawyer, Gary Gotlieb, who this week contributed an article to the New Zealand Herald, in which he explains how the Key Government and Minister of Justice Simon Power have been steadily eroding the rights of defendants in criminal cases. Even if you disagree with everything I’ve said in this post, I’d like you to read what Gotlieb has to say. He’s no bleeding heart liberal and he has no illusions about criminals. What he cares for, what he is passionate about, is the retention of a just society. And that, he says, is under threat in New Zealand.

Sadly, no government (and no opposition) is going to listen to him in election year – or any year. They’re not stupid.

Toss another bucket of water on the stove, dear. That should do the trick.

[Since I wrote this post, a number of commentators have pointed out to me that Einstein reportedly defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ Great minds?] 

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  1. It seems that Ireland during the 5-7th Centuries had a great system of justice using restorative justice (and equality of gender and even a form of democracy in kingship elections.) Wow!
    But the the Roman Catholic Church steadily eroded this system and filtered in the punitive “justice” and demolition of gender equality. But of course the people let it happen – as if there was any way they could stop it given that god was on the side of punishment and torture!
    Phil Goff went on a fact finding mission a few years ago seeking a better way – but you gotta win votes don’tcha?

  2. Great writing & Gary’s article was equally excellent.

    The things I’d add is in parallel with the USA one of the biggest minorities is seriously disproportionally represented in prison stats, in our case Maori, in their case African Americans.

    Some would argue this is a good thing as it reflects the crime stats, but I have a few problems with that.

    1) Because the stats are skewed, so is the enforcement ( Maori/African Americans suffer higher law enforcement attention & my money is on lower quality representation when in court ).
    2) There is a massive economic cost here & neither country can afford it, the relative cost of a working person vs someone in jail is way worse than welfare.
    3) The social costs are nasty, whether you are talking broken families or institutional criminal learning.

    I’d be lying if I said I knew any easy solutions, I doubt they exist.

    The one scenario I have heard where long sentences have worked is they broke the Mob in the US, but that is a specific organised crime scenario & surely that deserved targeted sentencing, instead of sweeping huge numbers along with it.


    BE: The solutions are certainly long-term. Consider for example the average profile of the Kiwi violent offender: male, under 30, more likely to be Polynesian than Pakeha, from a large family, abused as a child, below average IQ (in European tests), poor educational attainment, unemployed, history of early offending and institutional care. Quite a few things we should be addressing there. Poverty may well be the most significant factor in crime, but your reference to the statistics for Maori and African Americans is interesting. Colonised people are disproportionately represented in prison populations world-wide, the most familair to us being Maori in New Zealand, Aboriginals in Australia, African Americans in the US and American Indians in the US and Canada. Got to be a lesson there.

  3. I am led to believe it was Einstein who said:’Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’
    And you are right of course.I wonder which has been more effective in stopping domestic violence :tougher sentences for assault or an information campaign around it on the media.

    BE: Apparently it was. A case of ‘great minds’ perhaps. Thanks for that.

  4. Brian there are 3 major parties in NZ – Labour, National & the Greens only 2 of these parties have policies as you describe them above – please help us and everyone else by giving some airtime to Green Justice Policies

    BE: A fair enough comment. By ‘major’ I was referring to size, not merit. Your views are welcome on this site of course.

  5. I am constantly surprised at the mean, vengeful nature of much of New Zealand society. For some reason, trying to sort out some of the problems that seem to cause or exacerbate crime – poverty, addiction, alienation, lack of education, poor role models, etc – is seen as soft and, therefore, bad. Locking people up and throwing away the key is seen as tough and, therefore good. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that tough doesn’t work. If it did, we’d be a crime-free society by now.

  6. The loss of employment really seemed to give crime a boost none of us needed.The re distibution of wealth and subsequent unemployment was another step away from a ideal society.The question is how to address the inequities that have been created by greed and selfish actions.I would still prefer to have most available people working(even if it is a govt scheme) than what we have now. Those at the high end of the financial distribution scale need to be reigned in and money used to create alternative activities for those unfortunate enough to be unemployed.
    Idle hands……

  7. As an aside love him or hate him, Michael Moore, in his film “Capitalism: A Love Story” has an episode covering a Private “prison” for delinquent children. The potential for corruption… and we are considering going down the path of private prisons.
    Read under “Luzerne County hired a for-profit, private company to deal with juveniles, owned by two entrepreneurs, one of whom was attorney Robert Powell.

  8. The way to deal with our crime rate is to put probably about 2 to three times the resources into our education system (0-18) than we currently are doing. And perhaps change the way our schools and kindergartens were run.

    The earlier you are likely to drop out of school, the more likely you are to end up poor/on welfare, and regular associate of the police and court system.

    BE: Quite right. Unfortunately the current administration is going in the opposite direction.

  9. It’s easy to tear down, but it’s hard to build up.

    I agree that today’s justice system does not deter people from committing crime, but then what justice system would? The harshest punishment is death, surely if anything were to deter criminal harm then that would, yet it doesn’t seem to.

    If death is not sufficent to deter, then why would we think that years in prison would be? But then I have never thought prison sentences were about sending a warning to the next criminal, but about suiting a punishment to an action. If I do a terrible thing, and I am caught, why should I not face a consequence?

    Then of course we are turning to an eye for an eye or rather ten years in prison for an eye. Yet isn’t that our natural sense of justice that leads us to that? Look at children – “he hit me, so I hit him back”. As a mother of four boys I can say that this form of raw justice isn’t effective. The strong get more “justice” than the weak and it breeds resentment and escalation.

    The thing that seems to work is sorrow, forgiveness and reconciliation. But this works with people who are capable of love and empathy, is this possible with people whose empathy and compassion is next to nothing? What about people who enjoy their crimes? Can a serial killer be reconciled with?

    In the end all my musing leads me back to the same place… I really am not sure what to do. I do know there are people that I want kept away from society because they seem under an urge to hurt people.

    BE: I’m not suggesting of course that no-one should go to prison or that long periods of detention may not be necessary in some cases. Those who are or remain a threat to society must be kept apart from society. But their treatment must still be humane.

  10. Tess: “The thing that seems to work is sorrow, forgiveness and reconciliation. But this works with people who are capable of love and empathy, is this possible with people whose empathy and compassion is next to nothing?”
    My guess is that the majority of inmates would be capable of all of that. (Just put aside the psychopaths and sociopaths and look at the bulk of prisoners. The pro-punishment brigade always use the worst criminals to justify their stance!)
    Restorative Justice has a great success rate for selected people in schools and prison. For many the damage of their crime was not even considered until face to face brought it home.

  11. I am sure that a well nurtured baby/child/youth is one avenue. Let’s eliminate as much stress as possible amongst the nurturers – it may be as simple as not having to worry where the next dollar is coming from.

    Some primary schools in New Zealand are implementing the excellent Canadian programme “Roots of Empathy”

    I fear however that, with the increased focus of the curriculum on National Standards, initiatives like this may struggle to gain support from the Ministry.

  12. I agree with ianmac there is a need for prisons for those unable to function safely in our society.The imprisonment of fine defaulters does nothing to address the initial problem(although I do consider the $ 1,000,000 defaulter may be in need of incarceration).How would you let someone accrue that level of fines without some form of redress?I have always been a fan of community service properly managed(not the corrupt system we have in place at the moment),

  13. As a prize illustration of this stupidity, you indeed should look no further than the part of our authoritarian and punitive mindset that demands we arbitrarily set fines for motoring offenses ever higher and impose them ever more strictly and efficiently, without regard to the actual gravity of the offense or of the person’s being fined actually ability to pay, in order to ‘get tough’ on driving offenses.

    As you say, we are now in the Kafkaesque situation where the government “solution” to people who owe large traffic fines is to add to the already high cost of the huge bureaucracy needed to enforce the regulations of our nascent police state by sending these “criminals” to prison.

    I can’t quite see how this can work. As pointed out, if someone owes heaps on fines throwing them in prison won’t fix that. No one can earn an income to pay fines in jail. Or will there be a formula? You know, every $1000 owed = one night in the slammer? And what would that achieve exactly anyway? But the government still wouldn’t get any actual money, but that’s right – locking people up at vast cost to the taxpayer to cancel their fines makes the government look good, tough on crims and their non-payment of fines!

    The bottom line is you can’t get money out of people who can’t afford to pay. A large amount of these problem fines – no rego – $200, no warrant – $200, bald tyres or whatever – are imposed on people who can’t afford to properly run and maintain a vehicle. If they can’t afford the $$$ to register their car, what is the point of throwing them in jail for not paying a fine that might as well be twenty million as $200 for all their ablity to pay it?

    Sending people who can’t afford to pay to jail – when the middle class and the rich will simply pay up – simply opens up another front in the class war by the people for whom the system is run by and for against those who comprise the underclasses. If you can afford it, you pay a fine. If you are poor and can’t, the full retributive power of the state is brought to bear and off to jail you go.

    It seems to me it highlights the utter pointlessness of setting fines to arbitrary amounts that most of the people being fined can’t pay. How completely stupid. Yet our impulsively authoritarian and punitive mindset demands we keep indulging in this complete lunacy.

    Yet when I mentioned this to a enthusiastic hang ‘em high acquaintance of mine, his solution after a blank moment of silence was “Confiscate their car, sell it to pay for their fines. It will also stop them getting more speeding fines.”

    Jesus wept.

    If we insist on this idiocy, and knowing fining doesn’t work, then we should stop fining people and just put everyone in jail if they are caught for driving offenses. Better that than creating a two tier justice system, although I can’t imagine the middle class liking spending time in the slammer with “real” crims, you know, the brown people from the poorer parts of town.

    I suppose you could base the fines on someones income. If you earn say 80k+, you pay the base fine + 20%. On a sickness benefit? You pay the base fine less 80%, or whatever. It is no more fair than jailing someone for being poor, but then you’d collect a lot more of the money owed, the fines mountain would go down, and the minister could parade the success of the new crackdown….

    BE: I agree with much of this. But you can’t allow poor people to drive unsafe vehicles, endangering the lives of others, simply because they are poor, any more than you can allow the rich to drive safe vehicles dangerously. You’re right that fines impact more seriously on poorer people, but the penalty must reflect the seriousness of the offence, not the financial circumstances of the offender.

  14. Tom. A few decades ago there was an outcry about the plight of a Christchurch mother of 3 who was in prison for debt. Shock. How could the system imprison a mother who was unable to manage her finances? There was a scramble politically and I thought that the system was changed. So now back to the future! (I remember the incident but no more detail than that.)

    BE: Like you, I thought debtors’ prisons had been abolished. Some legal eagle may be able to enlighten us.

  15. Dear Brian,
    The best way to lessen crime is to privatise justice…private prisons, private police, private judges and a private Government.

    Every sensible person knows that business is the most efficient way of organising society and profit-driven incentives can be built into lessening the amount of people entering our justice system – here’s how it would work:

    Less and more efficient private police would be contracted to capture less criminals. Because there would be less laws (a private Government would do away with them all) this would be very cost effective.

    Any criminals would go up before Judges contracted to put less people in prisons more efficiently.

    Any criminals finding themselves contracted to a prison would have to pay for the privilege. The foreign owned prisons would get their money and the few prisoners who could raise the money off the foreign owned banks to pay for there stay would learn the value of hard work by…hmmm

    Wait a sec…none of this makes sense…I may have to rethink my position.

    BE: I was grinding my teeth until that last line, Real Tony. Nice one!

  16. Great idea The Real Tony. But now that the idea is loose the current secretive government will latch on to it! Hells Bells! What have you done? Market forces indeed! The Looney SSTrust will have it sewn up with public support by tomorrow!
    “Help! I’m innocent!”

  17. Loose? Loose?

    That idea is not loose…its as tight as Rodney Hyde’s sculpted buns…it just needs a little tweaking that’s all…

  18. The “major” parties (I note your comment regarding that term, Brian) will focus later this year on Bill Clinton’s dictum, “It’s the economy, stupid.” So I’m with millsy on this matter. Norway, more than ten years ago, as a means of lifting their economy, as well as seeking to reduce criminality in their society, took one significant step. They paid teachers a lot more. Now compare us to the Norwegians. I’m not a teacher. I don’t have any teachers in my family. The only teachers I know are the ones who taught me and my (now middle-aged) children. Too many of us are happy to pay to put plenty of the dispossessed in prison, and politicians, because it is vote-catching, run agendas giving the bash to the very people who know and understand how to educate our youth, give them skills, develop them as productive, useful contributors to our country who therefore don’t go to prison. Instead, no investment in knowledge. And the headline-makers are complicit. Doubt me? Keep an eye on the front and b(l)ack pages of “The Listener”. (Okay, its the holiday season and no teachers around so that might explain today’s headlines having another bash at the police, another institution that, if it becomes introspective, uncaring and poorly motivated, won’t be of much good to us. (That’s another issue but that is how such institutions develop a culture of corruption.) In any profession or occupation (politicians?) there is a bell curve of competence and teachers are not excluded so if Mr Key and Mr English and Mrs Tolley were serious about doing something about shifting that bell curve (and the bell curve of the economy) to the right, rather than a myopic focus on the next election, they would pay teachers more than an investment advisor. Some hope.

  19. Bring back the birch, I say.

    BE: Tell me this is ironic. Please!

  20. @Number Eleven

    Hearing today’s comments by Greg O’Connor of the Police suggesting the current report will have an affect on morale in the force, I thought – join the real world mate – the teaching profession has been subjected to that agenda from the right for some years now – the MBA’s see performance as measurable through exam outcomes. What they cannot measure is how much time a lot of teachers are spending being social workers.

    Just maybe, politicians could give some thought to funding and really revolutionising the staffing of schools and having specialists running targeted “sociallising programmes” alongside the teaching staff.

    And schools might then produce well rounded citizens ready to make productive contributions to society. If you read the NZ Curriculum, believe it or not, those are the objectives.

    Sadly, at the moment, schools are regarded by some as convenient child minding services

    BE: If you haven’t done so already, have a look at the post I wrote on Greg O’Connor. He hasn’t changed.

  21. BE: “You’re right that fines impact more seriously on poorer people, but the penalty must reflect the seriousness of the offence, not the financial circumstances of the offender.”

    In a fair and equitable society that is both reasonable and ideal. However as your post highlights if inequality had a growth index we would be a world leader. Until some balance is restored penalty and pocket is not a relativity I think can be ignored. At present the opposite often seems the norm. A mature professional who breaches trust and defrauds thousands of dollars wears an ankle bracelet at home while an immature 18 year old opportunistic lawbreaker is either fined, incarcerated or both.

  22. i am a teacher and, unfortunately, i don’t believe that paying teachers more is the answer. some teachers are unintentional punishers, just like other social control systems we have that don’t work. there is a programme that has started called Incredible Years and it is a well researched project for parents of young children(positively targetting anti social and non academic at risk behaviours). when a child reaches 8 years old, planned interventions are often to late, as hard data attests.

    BE: Interesting. Thanks for the reference to Incredible Years. I’m involved with a programme for kids in South Auckland with reading and comprehension difficulties. It’s great to see them improve and prosper. I’ll follow up on Incredible Years as well.

  23. Agree with bje .My sons teachers (Im fairly sure they were on the same salary) varied from great to hopeless irrespective of salary.Ive done the incredible years(my sons autistic and ADHD)and think it SHOULD BE MANDATORY FOR ALL PARENTS.

  24. Richard,you talk alot of sense.Inequality in society reliant on materialism and wealth as a definition of self worth is the underlying cause of ‘crime’.The ‘haves’ want to protect and increase their wealth .The ‘have nots’
    have little to lose in a society whose laws are set by the morals/values of the prevailing political masters.NZ has long been a haven for white collar crims,even the NZX is almost a boiler room in drag.As for ‘great minds’ the correct conclusion is….plagiarism!

    BE: Whoa there, what’s this ‘plagiarism’ reference? Who are you referring to? It’s perfectly possible for different people to come to the same conclusion and express that conclusion in roughly the same way without any knowledge of the other. And they don’t have to be Einsteins. As the old saying goes: Great minds think alike, fools seldom differ”.

  25. and who ascertains a ‘great’ mind.I’m sure Einstein would qualify….as for the ‘other’!!!

  26. “Tell me this is ironic. Please!”

    Not a hint of irony. Why do think there’s so much junk behaviour with the young kids, out there? Back in the days of school corporal punishment, there was greater respect for authority etc; none of this graffiti, and foul adolescent behaviour.
    Stop this fart-arsing about — give some of these hooligans a decent hiding, so that they’re still whimpering for several days.

  27. The rise of prisons as a means of “correcting’ law breakers is I understand a fairly recent phenomenon. Ancient uses of incarceration were mainly for political purposes. However the fact that it is used in practically all cultures suggests that it has some fundamental attractions, despite its obvious counter-productiveness.

    Could it be that it is related to the rise of what is now called “the rule of law”? Under this system the legal system, contrary to general belief, does not aim to produce justice. Its aim is to produce results that are consistent and in accordance with legal comity and precedence. In addition, criminal laws and regulations are drafted with little allowance for discretion, because discretion causes arguments and political uncertainty.
    In perhaps nine cases in ten this has a just result, but there is ample scope for gross miscarriages, as everyone knows.

    A second problem I believe lies in the conventional wisdom entrenched in virtually all societies that are based on religious canon law. The rules are “god says that sinners should be punished” and “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”. The fact that punishment and revenge never solved anything is irrelevant.

    Although the extreme forms of punishment of ancient religious regimes have now mostly been watered down, we are left with the universal sentence that most find acceptable – Prison. It is politically acceptable because, in addition to obeying religious imperatives, it is easily codified in the statutes, and no-one knows what goes on in there anyway and nor do they want to. Any attempt by politicians to try anything else is too politically risky.

    I don’t know what the answer is. People with simplistic solutions clearly don’t understand the problems. But I would suggest these principles:

    • Individuals who are a threat to others clearly need to have their freedom restricted in some way (but not in a monastery of other like-minded miscreants)
    • They should remain so not for a fixed term, but until they are no longer considered a threat. People who are not a threat should not be in prison.
    • Wherever possible some restitution for victims should be required of offenders.
    • No offender should be advantaged by his offence – preferably disadvantaged.
    • A human’s brain is “programmed” by the values of his associates. Correction is achieved by removing him from bad influences into “good” influences.
    • Forget about punishment.

    These principles are clearly impractical. As you say- don’t expect any change soon.