‘INDIVIDUALISM RAMPANT!’ the headline might as well of read, rather than the more demographically mealy ‘Generation Self‘. Apparently the youth of today are a source of concern to their elders, this time less in the form of angry old Colonel Blimp types despairing about their lack of a work ethic and more in the form of decrepit socialists bemoaning their lack of attachment to the mighty institutions of the Collective Good.The young ‘uns don’t see the NHS as something they must lay down their very lives for, and are more likely to view those on benefits as being lazy scroungers rather than noble souls down on their luck.

And yet paradoxically (to the Guardian at least) they are bang-on message on subjects like gay rights, not being horrible racists, and women being equal to men. The notion that there could be some kind of connection between a belief in individualism and freedom to live the life you choose unconstrained by society is something that eludes that newspaper’s fine people of letters.

Liberalism is stronger in the coming generation, which should be a cause for celebration amongst liberals everywhere. However, it is important to understand why individualism is on the up. There are two competing narratives:

  • The Guardian reaches for the handy lefty trope of Thatcher being to blame for all the bad things that have ever happened. The children brought up under her austere regime know that this is a dog-eat-dog world and are determined to not be eaten by dogs of any kind. Indeed, some of them are breeding bigger and bigger dogs just to avoid this. Then, in a sign of how ruthlessly capitalistic these young people are, they’re selling them for a profit.
  • Conservatives blame the over-mighty State for taking away things people used to do together and making them the preserve of the faraway man in Whitehall. Remember those wonderful days when the only way to afford healthcare was by clubbing together with the other people who worked at the factory in the scant few hours you had outside of work to build collective institutions, and how if you weren’t working and got sick you basically just died? Weren’t they wonderful? LET’S GO BACK TO THAT.

The wonderful thing about these narratives, like so much political messaging, is that they can both be true at the same time. It is true that Government-promoted individualism will encourage individualism. It is also true that removing the responsibility of looking after your fellow man engendered by his or her need by shifting it into something you do at two steps removed through the taxation system will excuse you of the guilt of failing to help. You can then blame the NHS when it makes mistakes, because it’s making you guilty by proxy.

Outwith my sneering at both ends of the political spectrum, I do agree with them on the point that they share, which is that compassion is a virtue which should be fostered regardless of how individualistic you are; you can believe in absolute freedom from the individual, zero taxes on everything and a nightwatchman state and still think you should care about the least well off. Lack of compassion is a serious character flaw. The institutions originally charged with fostering compassion, the churches, still do good work at a local level, but at a macro level have bafflingly decided to devote their time to reacting against the sweeping tide of liberalism, which in itself says nothing about the compassion their creed requires. Compassion remains a requirement of a society in which people actively want to participate: a liberal society requires that people have the minimum of compassion for their fellows sufficient to be in favour of their freedom.

We therefore do require some kind of civil institution charged not with fostering a vision of the collective good, but with the compassion that can lead to people freely agreeing to such visions. . It can’t be the State; it will never be the job of Government to prescribe morality in a way which goes beyond the law. It can’t be the churches; the metaphysical commitments they require for their compassion are now beyond the interest of much of British society. And it certainly can’t be the unions; they have too frequently revealed themselves to be the guardians of sectional interests. So what can it be?

Answers on a postcard, please.

Shadows of the Future

July 11, 2012

During the brief spike of intellectual interest in the Blue Labour movement a few years back, I was somewhat baffled by the inability of most commentators to understand where it came from and what it was really about. I have been reminded of this today by a comment from Jonathan Freedland on identity, which I shall reproduce below and explain its importance.

Firstly, I want to cover some ground on what the likes of Maurice Glasman were intending to bring onto the political agenda. As Keynes nearly said, ‘Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct philosopher’ and in this case the philosopher is Alasdair MacIntyre.

MacIntyre is credited with reviving the Aristotelian understanding of virtue ethics, perhaps best understood as the notion that the ethical life consists in achieving excellence in a range of virtues, rather than simply acting correctly in a given situation. He is directly cited by Glasman, and has the privilege of not being defunct yet; improvements in communication technology apparently hastening the pace of intellectual slavery.

His position is complex, and I will not do it justice in this post – you can find a useful summary here. Broadly, it can be characterised as a theory of communal virtue. The individual in MacIntyre’s proposed communities is an individual that is subordinate to the agreed practices of that community, which are aimed at the good life. Participation in those practices, and engagement with the traditions from which they arise and are composed, enables the individual to develop the internal excellences associated with them. The goods derived from playing chess, for example, are internal: skill, planning and strategy. They cannot simply be given, but must be achieved through practice. Moreover, they are good for the community, as everyone can learn from the games of chess you play as part of your practice. Examining games played in the past must form part of your practice, and amendments cannot be made to the rules without the consent of the community of chess players, following internal debate from those with sufficient excellence to meaningfully participate.

MacIntyre claims that this is the way our society should function, and it should be clear from this that the identity of an individual would be necessarily bound up with their community as a result. Indeed MacIntyre claims that this is always the case anyway, even we believe ourselves to be separate, because our opinions are formed in large part by the traditions of our community. Attempts to philosophise about morality outwith this context are doomed to failure, which is how MacIntyre describes the rest of moral philosophy post-Enlightenment. Individual moral claims are meaningless outside the context of a community that agrees to aim at a definition of the good life.

This is a philosophy fundamentally opposed to liberalism, as the practices of a community are the bounds of the identity of its members, and the liberty of the individual to define their own forms of practice is not recognised. Members of a community have a claim to condemn others if they do not believe they are fulfilling their role in that community, regardless of that individual’s attempts to be virtuous on their own terms. If all virtues are communal, then failing to exhibit that community’s virtues is a sin, which can be punished.

So, for small communities with particular traditions of practice, you can forget several things. You can forget rights for gays, women, outsiders, and indeed anyone who does not cohere with that community’s idea of the good life. This is not a bad thing on this reading (although MacIntyre somehow tries to claim that it is, seemingly ignoring his own logic), as the community defines individuals, and disruptive ideas about individuals’ freedom to develop themselves are attacks on the whole community. You can forget capitalism too, as trade outwith the community can damage internal practice – if I can sell my products elsewhere and acquire more external goods, then my wellbeing is no longer dependent on my community and I do not need to be subordinate to it. MacIntyre describes this as ‘undermining communal ties’.

I bring this up because of the Freedland comment I mentioned above. It comes in the context of an article in which he claims that attacks on Islam are frequently tantamount to racism, instantly drawing the ire of people who think that the adherents of Islam who are opposed to women’s rights are bad people regardless of what race they are:

“I think much of the trouble with this subject comes in this area. Some believe that in attacking Islam they are simply attacking a set of intellectual beliefs – like criticising, say, fiscal conservatism. The trouble is, what we call religion is for many people not really a matter of adherence to a set of theological ideas. Rather it is about their identity, their tradition, their family, their history. I suspect that for many Muslims, as for many Jews and perhaps for many Christians too, what others call their religion is really better described as their identity.”

Freedland is here affirming his agreement with Glasman and other communalists: attacking an individual whose beliefs are sourced from traditions and a specific community is the same as attacking that community. Attacking a community-based identity is, on this reading, the same as attacking anyone who is part of that community. ‘Racist’ is not the correct word, but given that we do not have an appropriate word (perhaps ‘communalist’), Freedland’s reasoning now becomes understandable.

It is important to put this the context of a wider movement. The likes of the New Economics Foundation, and their promotion of the work of Polanyi on community-based politics fall under the heading of the anti-individualist camp. The attacks from the Church of England on gay marriage bring them under this heading too. The attempts by Tory traditionalists to maintain the House of Lords in its present form also fall under this category too, as they are focused on asserting existing forms of practice and subordination. Labour’s renewed focus on immigration is part of this movement.

All this may yet be the beginning of a new political alignment – or the revival of a very old one – and, as a threat to the freedom of all individuals to cultivate their own virtues in any way they choose, it must be resisted.

The lovely folk of Occupy have finally put together a list of policy demands, which have been perhaps unfairly compared to the demands of every student union for the last century. It’s true that they are long on rhetoric and short on actual research on how their world would actually work in practice and why it’s different to the forms of socialism we’ve already tried. It’s also true that they haven’t stopped to think about how the words in their manifesto cash out once they’re translated into their underlying components. For example:

“The economy must be put to the service of people’s welfare, and to support and serve the environment, not private profit. We want a system where labour is appreciated by its social utility, not its financial or commercial profit.”

What is ‘the economy’? The economy is the labour of everyone, the products of the effort of everyone in our country and on our planet. Translated, this means that everyone must be forced to labour for people’s welfare, which while it is a noble end is hardly a noble means. Slavery in the service of virtue remains slavery.

Unless the Occupy people can find a way of reconciling this fundamental problem, their manifesto will pass into history as yet another attempt to claim socialism works. History has already had other ideas.

Grayling plays the long game

February 27, 2012

Over the weekend, the employment minister Chris Grayling ‘revealed’ to the Telegraph and their right-wing media buddies that the Socialist Workers’ Party was behind the high-profile opposition to the Government’s workfare proposals. Quite frankly, I think the Government subsidising free workers for business is wrong; they should at least be paying the market rate for labour they procure through the scheme, even if that rate is below the minimum wage and requires top-ups to reach even the level of Job Seekers’ Allowance. But that’s by the by. What’s interesting is the choice by Grayling and his motley crew of Red-bashers to paint the SWP as the prime movers behind the anti-workfare campaign. They’re not; plenty of people have played a part, even the relatively mainstream Liberal Conspiracy.

So why focus on the SWP? Simply to frighten the horsey people who read the Telegraph? While there’s some short-term political gain from doing so, one has to look at this tactic in a broader context.

The anti-workfare campaign has been surprisingly successful; pushing the likes of Tesco to take public issue with some unpalatable elements of the scheme, and helping push the much-loathed chair of A4e out of employment. Someone has to take responsibility for that success, and the rewards it attracts in terms of increased support and funding. Labour’s almost invisible response to the issue has been telling, which is hardly surprising given that it stands in a continuum with their policies implemented in Government. Labour have been attracting an increased level of support on the back of anti-coalition feeling, but are still tainted with their Government record. Far better, if you do not wish to see another Labour Government, to see some of that support – particularly the activists support that actually knocks on doors and delivers leaflets – to be diverted to another party.

The coverage of the SWP over the weekend has given them a higher profile than they’ve perhaps had for decades; they’ve been presented as achieving a Big Win over the Evil Tories. This attracts a certain sort of person; the kind of soft Left intellectual who’s still put off by Labour killing lots of foreigners and being in favour of those awful market things. Labour will need those people if it’s to win again, and diverting them away to hilarious fringe groups like the SWP helps those of us who don’t want Labour to win again.

I’m not claiming that this was Grayling’s intent, but it’s always preferable to assume cunning rather than stupidity. It’ll be interesting to see what else gets blamed on far-left extremists, and the extent to which that blame ends up on the front pages of the Daily Mail.

Mike Konczal on Rortybomb has asked people on the Occupy Wall Street protest to define freedom. The definitions they choose are simultaneously interesting and terrifying. Before we get onto the ‘terrifying’ bit, there are several quite sensible definitions, particularly this one:

Eight:  ”Realization of human potentiality.”

It’s pretty broad, but I would similarly broadly agree. Freedom means the freedom to reach your potential, however you define it; to not be constrained by circumstances of birth, by lack of access to knowledge or by things over which you have no control, such as your health. This freedom does not yet exist for everyone, but I’d argue its achievement is a clear liberal* goal.

However, some of the definitions ask for freedom from reality:

Two:  ”Revolution means freedom from necessity.”

Six:  ”Freedom means freedom from necessity, freedom to do what you want without having to sell yourself in order to survive.  Freedom to express who you are through whatever you want to do without any forces stopping you.”

Ten:  “I think that freedom is your ability to carry out what you want to do.  It’s not just about your social freedom, it is also about economic freedom.  If you are always working for a boss, you don’t have freedom either.  Freedom is always that you’re emancipated from your physical necessities and your mental baggage.”

What these definitions miss is that someone, somewhere, always has to be thinking about physical necessities. We can’t all be artists, because we’d starve to death. Someone needs to farm. Someone needs to deliver healthcare. Someone needs to get rid of the shit.

A society in which we are free from necessity is an impossible society; someone somewhere needs to take account of the necessities. If the people taking part in the Wall Street occupation genuinely believe such a thing to be possible, then they are calling for the slavery of others in order to remove the need for themselves to consider necessity, because that is what is required for such a thing to be the case.

The only fair way of distributing necessity within a society is for everyone to experience it. It is only through confrontation with the demands of necessity that we can identify effective ways of living in the world. Necessity breeds judgement, breeds character, and – above all – breeds virtue.

If the only call of the occupiers was for the rich to experience necessity themselves in the form of taxes, I could understand it. As it is, anyone calling for freedom from necessity is themselves an enemy of freedom.

*not in the American sense, in the actual sense.

The Backlash Begins

July 25, 2011

One of the striking features of the banking crisis was the way in which the Left utterly failed to capitalise upon it. A casual observer would’ve thought that worldwide financial calamity brought on by the mismanagement by the private sector of the planet’s finances would provide the perfect prop to those demanding more state intervention. But this failed to happen – across Europe, right-wing parties cemented their grip on power, in the US a tidal wave of populist anti-statism arose, and in South America the previously leftist governments reached their high water mark.

The populace of the West did not demand revolutionary change. In the Anglo-Saxon world, the ideals of Thatcher and Reagan remained dominant, and libertarianism – the belief in the moral worthiness of the unrestrained entrepreneur – rose in prominence. The reason for this may simply be the absence of an alternate model; with the failure of socialism, what remains? The Left remains mired in a quagmire between infeasible socialism and an economic model – the Third Way – that shackles social concerns to the cyclical nature of capitalism.

There are signs that this may change, however. The third of the UK’s Transparency Crises, the hacking scandal, has reinforced a point that was not made opaquely in the first two. The banking crisis revolved in part around the mis-selling of financial products complex to the point of opacity. An information failure in the banking system – the inability to know whether the people borrowing money were able to pay it back – led to the freezing up of credit. The MPs’ expenses scandal involved the revelation that the complex mechanisms by which MPs were paid for ‘expenses’ were in fact de facto wage hikes concealed in paperwork. The hacking scandal has demonstrated that individuals in possession of a great deal of power and influence are apt to abuse it.

For this is a crisis not just of the relationship between media and Government, but of individualism itself. Markets perform inadequately when their participants have insufficient information. If the power structures of a given market lead to the concealment of information, then that market fails to perform effectively. The post-Thatcher society of individuals maximising their net worth lends itself to the creation of these power structures, as we have seen. If individuals cannot be trusted, then a political and economic system based on that requirement is cast into doubt.

It is notable that the first response of Government to this latest crisis has been to reach for the regulatory toolbox, which stands in contrast to the way in which regulation was only dragged out of the Government in the previous two crises. There is an implicit recognition that individualism has failed, and some form of collective regulation is necessary. Even The Telegraph begins to accept this.

This is a tremendous challenge to libertarians. Socialism failed not because it was perceived as immoral, as they would have you believe, but because it failed to deliver sufficient benefit to those living within it. It failed because individuals are selfish, and best motivated by that. But if that selfishness is so extreme as to necessarily subvert the restricted power structures endorsed by libertarians with ones born of money, then libertarianism fails for the same reason. Morality doesn’t come into it; practicality trumps all.

Chris argues that this failure of individualism requires that some mechanism is set up by the left to prevent capitalists capturing the state in the way in which the hacking scandal has illustrated. I would disagree. These are transparency crises, and the way to overcome transparency crises is to provide more information. I would argue instead for a General Right of Information, giving any member public the right to see any document held by any corporation or similarly legally constituted entity, as well as the public sector. As a liberal, one would think this challenge to individualism is a challenge to my political beliefs. Not a bit of it. At the centre of liberalism has always been the understanding that education – information provision – is necessary for the effective state. It is now our task to extend it.


One of the most amusing parts of the hacking scandal has been the increasingly shrill voices of the Right, who have taken it upon themselves to defend someone they perceive as their man from the Guardian-BBC Axis of Lefties. Somehow, all this phone-hacking nonsense is all the fault of dreadful unwashed types who hate that nice Mr Murdoch for that worst of crimes, being successful.  After all, they say, if you want to take a pop at an organisation with an excessive influence on the media, look at the BBC, which positively dominates our daily life, and refuses to accept that hanging should be brought back and that unmarried mothers should be forcibly sterilised. Clearly its influence upon our lives is pernicious.

Well. That’s quite a strong claim. Contrasted with it are the triumphant cries of the left, sensing the blood of their ancient and decrepit prey in the water. Mr Murdoch is eighty years old, and if he was a bit more poverty-stricken and in a nursing home surrounded by snapping paparazzi, would suddenly find his erstwhile persecutors become his greatest allies. Clearly, once this decrepit Emperor falls down the central shaft of Fox News, we’ll have an immediate revolution in the way our media represent reality.

Okay, perhaps no-one’s making the latter claim, but the former paragraph does summarise the attitude of the likes of Phillips. What’s interesting about this issue is that both left and right manage be simultaneously correct and wrong in exactly the same way.

You see, the media is two different things:

  • A means by which the population access information they use to inform their decisions. This is a clear public good; an educated populace is both more economically productive and better at engaging with democratic decision-making.
  • A means by which the population accesses information that entertains them. This is a clear public good; everyone likes titillating pieces of info, be it gossip, jokes or just an interesting story about something a long way off, and it helps make people happy.

Obviously, there are crossovers, making the above more of a continuum with The Open University at one end and The Daily Sport at the other. Nonetheless, they should both be perceived as separate public goods, with separate means of delivering them. It is immediately clear that different organisations will contain more of one and less than another, depending on their priorities. Herein lies the dispute: lefties think the media is all doing more of the first bit, while righties think the media is all doing more of the second bit. News International is perceived as poisonous by the Left because they think it’s contaminating public discourse by failing to stimulate real debate, while the Right resents the BBC at least in part because it’s hampering the ability of private companies to deliver similar offerings to the market.

What we want, if we’re good liberals, is to determine the most efficient method of delivering a given public good. The answer to this may simply be ‘The Market’. This is clearly true of the second aspect of the media – people have direct access to their preferences and desires with regard to entertainment, and can make the best choices for themselves. It is not, however, entirely true with regard to the first statement – you don’t know the things you don’t know, and can’t determine how best to access them if you have no information on how to access them. You need some mechanism by which people can access information that doesn’t depend upon the information they already possess. The media market can’t deliver that, as people obviously can’t express a preference for something they know nothing about.

Of course, the first aspect of the media is also provided through other methods – via schools, education, public awareness campaigns and self-directed learning. The question for liberals is whether these methods in themselves are sufficient to produce the reflective citizens considered by the likes of Adam Smith to be necessary for a flourishing society.

I feel safe to say that Smith would advocate making learning endemic throughout our society, and in the media especially – the most immediate form of information present to us. Information should not be simply dumped, but presented in many and varying ways in order to stimulate reflection upon it. A significant percentage of this can be left to the markets for art and literature, but they present their own informational barriers to entry. We require an institution that delivers information that encourages reflection and analysis to everyone via modes accessible to them, and does it on a daily basis.

This is the thinking behind the BBC as a means to deliver part of a public good. By and large, it is successful in doing so – its soap operas deal with social issues, it has innumerable documentaries and a solid news service. It is, however, guilty of ‘bloat’ into areas that are more properly the preserve of media intended to serve that second aspect – for example, is it really necessary that the BBC produces little Doctor Who computer games? It can also, especially in the present context, be guilty of not being able to differentiate between objectivity and its perspective as a media organisation, resulting in allegations that it has had an inappropriate focus on the hacking scandal. This may require some institutional tinkering to remedy.

It’s also important to be clear that the BBC isn’t left-leaning – perhaps its individual staff members are, but there’s a strong distinction between individuals and an organisational perspective. What it does do is follow the established line of the main democratically elected parties. None of the main parties advocate a complete halt to all immigration, so the BBC excludes anti-immigration voices – except when they’re elected, like the BNP. None of the main parties is calling for the criminalisation of homosexuality or endorsing discrimination against homosexuals, so the BBC has no space for homophobes. More broadly, questions of its political persuasion actually appear to be a feature of phraseology – referring to Government cuts as Government cuts, for example. This is a matter for the parties to debate between themselves and make representations to the BBC on the back of, which it is institutionally committed to take into account.

So, the BBC is a public service designed to deliver information to the public. This is not the same thing as News International, which is designed to deliver a news product to the public for them to buy if they wish it. They don’t ‘compete’ per se, because they’re designed to do different things, and the public understands that. To illustrate this, compare two figures. One is the audience share for all BBC channels (32.9%), versus the audience share for all Sky channels (6.61%). The other is the audience share for BBC News (70.67%) versus Sky News (4.41%). If the BBC were producing the same product as Sky, it would attract news watchers broadly in line with its overall audience. It’s not, because people actively want news delivered by an institution designed to deliver it as objectively as possible, and simply do not trust non-BBC providers to do so. The market couldn’t deliver that result.

Source for figures: BARB

Few things are more irritating than otherwise sensible people claiming that they read the likes of the Mail and the Telegraph in order to get ‘all the sides of a story’. Newspapers don’t present sides of a story in terms of a measured weighing of pros and cons, they present the range of feelings you could have about a particular story. They certainly don’t, especially in the case of the Mail, bother to argue about why you should have them.

I’ve always felt that if you genuinely want to try to see other points of view, you should try to understand the philosophical underpinnings behind him. Unfortunately, not all points of view have proper philosophical underpinnings, so in those cases it’s better to understand the emotional case that lies at its root.

Last year I blogged my way through Atlas Shrugged, perhaps the most famous libertarian polemic. I did this initially with the hope that Ayn Rand had a proper philosophical backing for the internet’s most popular religion, but was rapidly disabused of this idea. Instead, what I found most fascinating about the book was the emotional case it presented; the virtues of the industrious presented against the moral cowardice of the feckless and avaricious. It is this emotional case which has led to its appeal.

Going to the opposite end of the political spectrum, I have recently finished reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. This book is in many ways the mirror of Atlas Shrugged; a morally compelling account of how capitalism has screwed the working classes over and how only socialism can afford a release. Originally, I considered blogging my way through it, but decided against it for two main reasons. The first is that the standard of prose in TRTP is much better than Rand’s work, which shuts down a whole avenue of potential mocking. The second is that the book is so much less overtly philosophical than Atlas Shrugged, and is set very firmly within a real town at a real period in history. Much of its content makes reference to contemporary legislative and political issues, and a blog of it would prove incomprehensible without providing enough ancillary material to fill a second book.

Nonetheless, it presents a very powerful picture of how capitalism can fail the worst off in society. There are two pieces of it I’d like to explore: The Money Trick and the Co-operative Commonwealth.

The Money Trick is an argument about how capitalism by its very nature screws over the worker. If one considers the capitalist class and the working class as two separate entities, one can understand this argument very clearly. The working class labours for the capitalist class to produce the necessities of life, which on production are owned by the capitalist class. The capitalist class pays the working classes for their labour. The working classes then have to use the money thus paid to buy back the necessities of life after they undertook the work to produce them. The capitalists end up with both the labour they paid for and the money they paid for it. The working classes get to exist.

It’s very clear from this argument that this arrangement is actually worse than slavery. An owner of a slave has an interest in their wellbeing, to ensure that they get maximum value out of their asset. A capitalist employer doesn’t need to care if his employees get sick or die, as there’s plenty more where they came form.

The obvious rejoinder is that the class analysis is wrong; class is a confused inchoate thing, and people on various levels of income have different roles within the economy, and can genuinely see their living standards rise. This is correct, but it’s also important to recognise the fundamental truth contained within the argument: if you’re working all the hours you have to merely sustain your existence, then you’re worse off than a slave. You have no means by which you can improve your prospects if you’re at the top of your field already, as the author’s painters and decorators are. It’s clear that if capitalism is to work for people like that, an element of redistribution is necessary to permit at a minimum some form of advanced training.

The Co-0perative Commonwealth is the author’s vision of a future socialist society, in which all industries are managed by the State and everyone is paid the same, regardless of the work they do. It is presumed that more prestigious jobs will be rewards in themselves for those who choose to take them up, while for jobs such as rubbish collecting, the hours of labour will be constrained to reflect their low status. Pay will remain the same regardless.

There are many other details of this future society in the book, which I will not go into here. However, it’s important to be clear that the society envisioned by the author is inherently romantic. It is an idealised society in which everyone has a chance to flourish in line with their own wishes. And – let’s be clear – it is a wonderful vision of how society might work. Absolute freedom from worrying about the cost of living is something that capitalism will never be able to offer by itself.

The book was written before the formation of the Soviet Union, so it’s wrong to call it to account for not anticipating the horrors that socialism actually brought. However, while socialism never worked in practice, the Co-operative Commonwealth provides an argument that the Right will never be able to refute: that a society in which everyone is free to flourish by any means of their choosing is a wonderful vision. It’s an impossible vision, but that doesn’t stop it being a wonderful vision.

This discord lies at the heart of many of the disputes in politics: an impossible but just society is still something many of the Left would argue politics should be directed towards, while those on the Right argue that politics should be directed towards the possible. The conflict of impossible justice against vicious reality is eternal, and unlike Rand’s doorstopper, this is a book I can heartily recommend.

Yesterday was fun. While I do enjoy the writings of Johann Hari, there’s no denying that he’s frequently sanctimonious and pompous, and the sight of hundreds of people gently mocking his erstwhile practice of replacing quotes from his interviewees with quotes from their other public outpourings was, quite frankly, hilarious.

Hari appears to have taken it all in good, albeit pompous, spirit. This is much more than can be said for Guido, who took this example of Hari’s pretentiousness and decided to run a politically motivated attack piece. This spoiling of the joke allowed other pompous blowhards on the left to rush to Hari’s defence. Guido then had the nerve to ask if those blowhards would’ve defended him in a similar situation. A more pertinent question would be if Guido would demand that a right-wing journalist be stripped of their awards for systemic deception. Somehow, I doubt it, otherwise he’d do little else.

However, this whole saga raises an interesting point. It’s clear that the public have different expectations of journalists than journalists do of themselves. Many of Hari’s defenders seemed to think that an ‘unstylish‘ peccadillo like this was not something worth mocking Hari over. Moreover, his defenders in what you could call the celebrity twitterati seemed to resent the fact that their friends were as open to public mocking as the likes of Jan Moir. Twitter provides a near-instant expression of popular opinion on a given subject, and in this instance it appears that a significant number of tweeters were of the opinion that any transgression of journalistic integrity was worth, if not condemning, at least worth mocking.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that journalists now want to draw a line under this episode, and move on. The Hari issue will go away. However, it’s clear that the issue of accountability in journalism will not. The market provides an inadequate method of assuring journalistic integrity, because people who buy news products do not necessarily do so on the basis of the accuracy of that product, but on to what extent that product coheres with and confirms their worldview. The columnists of the Daily Mail are not held to high standards because their product is so effective at appealing to their audiences’ worldview that purchasers of the Mail do not stop buying it when their inaccuracies are (repeatedly) revealed. We need another mechanism for insuring such integrity, in the interests of having the sort of properly informed public debate necessary for a liberal society to work. The Press Complaints Commission, chaired as it is by Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, does not constitute such a mechanism. The crowd-sourced mocking of Twitter might point the way towards something that does.

Bad Economics

June 28, 2011

Via the normally excellent Chris Dillow, I have learned that there is a thing called Experimental Economics. Apparently, some of these experimental economists are studying something called Ego Depletion. This is the idea that we have a limited amount of self control at any given time, and that actions undertaken that require self control deplete that amount.

In the paper I’ve linked, experimental economists have been doing some experimenting. They’ve found that people who’ve been ‘ego depleted’ are more likely to act selfishly. Naturally, this is a great boon for anyone who wants to explain away the behaviour of anyone undertaking tedious work; it’s not their fault they’re alcoholics, as their ego has been depleted. Look at how small it is now.

So how does this experiment work? Well, our economists make a distinction between implicit and explicit motives. Broadly, this distinction is between instinctive, habitual reactions to a situation and rational, reasoned responses. When determining your reaction to a situation you have to spend some of your self-control resource in order to opt for the latter. So people who’ve spent their self-control will be more likely to make instinctive or emotional choices. Our economists test this by giving two groups of people two slightly different tasks. In one group, participants in the experiment have to cross out all the ‘e’s in a document, while the other group had to cross out every ‘e’ except when it was followed by another vowel or had a vowel two letters away in the same word. The second group had to spend more self-control, and so were ego-depleted.

Participants then took part in an ultimatum game. This is a game in which one participant makes an offer of a share of a sum of money to another participant. If the latter accepts the share, both get the money in accordance with that share. If they refuse, neither do. This experiment has been used to demonstrate that people value fairness in the distribution of resources. In this case, our experimental economists predicted that people with diminished self-control would be more likely to make selfish offers as a consequence of that lower self control, while on the flip side they’d be more likely to reject unfair offers as a consequence of their emotional reaction to the unfairness of the situation.

What a massive heap of shit.

This is what happens when you let economists play Dungeons & Dragons for too long. They’ve decided that people have an amount of ‘Ego points’ that they can spend on casting spells – sorry, exercising self-control – before they have to replenish them by resting at an inn or similar. One imagines that they believe the working world goes somewhat like this:


It’s super effective!

I can’t even begin to go into what’s wrong with this experiment, there’s just so much. Firstly, it’s not clear why any task requiring more mental effort somehow counts as ‘depleting ego’. Both tasks are tedious. The one they’ve chosen as ‘depleting ego’ is actually marginally more interesting than the other as it actually requires concentration, rather than mundane ticking of recognised letters. It would, however, mean that people are more likely to be tired afterwards, and have less energy to use to analyse the consequences of their choices when playing the ultimatum game. They’d therefore make less successful choices. This appears to be case from the results as presented. However, there is no way of distinguishing this hypothesis from the one actually put forward by the experimental economists. This, I would aver, is a bit of a Flaw.

You can’t just magic up a pretend psychological model and then use experiments to ‘prove’ it which could prove practically anything. However, this has been the habit of economists for centuries – I’m not surprised Chris likes this paper, as he’s a Marxist, and Marxism is nothing if not a magicked up model of human psychology. It’s also been their habit to ignore bits of evidence which don’t fit with their pet theory, and indeed in the paper the experimenters point to some neurological evidence which appears to contradict their ‘implict-explicit’ model, and then decide that the evidence is equivocal!

It’s always worth bearing in mind that big tranches of economics are based on glib one-size-fits all psychological models like this one. This is why economists keep getting stuff wrong.


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