The Good Storyteller

April 16, 2013

I am reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. I fundamentally disagree with this attempt to recast Marxism through Aristotle, but this book provides a very helpful prism through which to view contemporary political debate. It does so because of its resurrection of an ancient idea which is at the core of modern politics, albeit in a very different form: that of the telos of a life. This is a complicated idea which will take a while to unpack, so I ask you to bear with me while I do so.

After Virtue is a rejection of individualism, not simply in political terms but in methodological terms too. Contemporary philosophy in the Anglo-Saxon world typically involves the inspection of whether a particular statement is true, or whether a particular act is moral. This atomistic approach to reasoning, while giving philosophy some of the reductive qualities of science, may literally miss the point: a statement may be true in the context of a corpus of work, or an act may be moral in the context of a particular society. By shearing these items from their context, their instructive value is lost, and any philosophical theories based upon such an analysis may fundamentally fail.

Similarly, if we consider whether an individual leads a moral life without looking at the society in which they were born, raised and live, we may reach very different conclusions. The morality of a society can be considered as bound up in the stories it tells itself, not because they provide rules and regulations which an individual must obey, but rather provide exemplars that individuals who have particular roles in a society should aim to emulate. The Illiad and the Odyssey are epic poems in which particular qualities are manifested by heroes in particular roles, and those qualities are those that ancient Greek society required people in those roles to demonstrate. The aggregate of those exemplars contributes towards an understanding of what the ancient Greek city-states took to be the good for man, which each of those states was striving for in their own particular way.

It is important to note that there is no strong distinction between the qualities that make one a good person and the qualities that make one a good blacksmith; both are types of excellences necessary for a society that aims at the good for man. The qualities that one should manifest are those of the role the story one finds oneself within. MacIntyre contends that personal identity is bound up with a narrative or story-based understanding of one’s life, and from one’s role in the story flows all that one should do.

So far, so Paul Coelho, but this is a fascinating idea to contemplate, not least for the things it says about morality. While I can author my own story, I am much more likely to understand my role in society from the myths and stories it tells. This implies that moral agency, whether someone can be understood as responsible for their own actions, is two-tiered: the individual is responsible for developing the qualities necessary for their role, but storytellers are the authors of society. The inventors of stories ascribe qualities to roles which inform how those roles are to be delivered by their actors. Those actors are us, for whom acting is another word for being human; we can only be understood in terms of the telos of our role. There is no division between art and society, and attempts to claim that there is underestimate the influence of storytelling on our understanding of social roles even without the author intending to so.

If you think this sounds illiberal you would be correct. MacIntyre is explicitly reacting against atomistic individualist liberalism and indeed almost all the moral discourse that has taken place since the Enlightenment. However, MacIntyre’s approach is exceptionally helpful for understanding contemporary politics, not least because he influenced Maurice Glasman and hence Blue Labour, but because the dominant way in which political parties attempt to communicate with the public is through narrative. All the parties have recognised that the best way of getting their message across is through telling a story about what they’re trying to achieve and who they are. In my next post, I shall explain why these stories are impoverished, and why this presents  a problem for all political parties.

Political parties are broad churches, and comprise many different ideologies and ways of interpreting the world. In the UK, it is almost certainly the case that one of the biggest pressures leading to membership of the Conservatives or Labour is being opposed to the other; both parties make such a significant play of the evil of the other that one suspects the only reason that, say, libertarians and right-wing Christians get into bed together is to upset people they view as socialists.

Even still, one can normally point to a few trends the members of a party have in common, perhaps for the Conservatives a belief in emergent order arising from free markets and historical tradition. For the Liberal Democrats, this is more difficult, as they are not aligned on a traditional left-right axis, and their internal debates on economic issues are not necessarily framed in this manner. The purpose of this post is to gain a better understanding of the Party. To do so, it is instructive to look at what the Party did at this year’s Autumn Conference in sodden Brighton, and develop a framework with which to explain it.

To be clear: trying to explain a series of events is to not try to say whether one’s ‘side’ won or lost; the boring and turgid debate between those who want slightly more markets and those who want slightly more Government intervention is not the focus here, unless one can provide more explanatory value than the other. Rather, what I am interested in is identifying threads that bind the party together, to which all its members to a greater or lesser extent would assent to, even if they arrive at them from a different direction.

I will consider the motions put to Conference and passed by it. Handily for our purposes, all the motions to put to Conference this year were accepted, with some amendment and counter-amendment. I will attempt to identify a philosophy that best captures all the motions, but is sufficiently prescriptive to be distinct from the other two main parties. In doing so, it is important to stress that just because one ‘side’ lost out it does not automatically mean that another provides the best explanation; the rejection of proposals to water down the planning system does not mean the converse of classical liberalism holds sway. Similarly, the rejection of secret courts does not mean the Party is now opposed to all forms of state power. While catch-all explanations like that have a certain attractive elegance, they do not adequately cover the full range of policies that the Liberal Democrats have decided to advocate.

We can, however, make an easy observation. This is that education remains important to the Party. However, this is trivial; education has always been a preferred good of Lib Dems. What is interesting is looking at the language used within the linked motions to understand why it is a preferred good. There are various strands here to unpick. Firstly, education is important because a child’s development is important. Secondly, a child’s development is important, but a parent’s freedom to work is also important. Thirdly, that circumstances that present limitations to development should be overcome. What we can pick out from that is that education is a good inasmuch as it relates to one’s personal development, and that one should be free to develop oneself through employment as one sees fit.

Moving on, consider these motions on the House of Lords, on welfare reform and on the economy. The twin goods here are the dispersal of power to citizens and the empowerment of those citizens as a result. The latter makes particular sense in the context of the previous section on education; development is empowerment, and if one is dispersing power to citizens one would prefer if they were sufficiently empowered to utilise it.

In the context of the above, this implies that Government and its institutions – in this instance the police – are, to Liberal Democrats, the servants of empowered citizens. This is interesting, because it implies a radically different relationship between citizens and State than either of the other two parties. The State is not the sole deliverer of all virtuous things in the world, or a scurrilous imposition upon the backs of the common businessman, to viciously characterise Labour and the Conservatives. Rather, the State is an extension of society; society not being wholly defined as the State or wholly without the State.

This is important, because much of contemporary political discourse rests on a hard distinction between the State and its citizens. Railing against ‘Big Gubbermint’ makes less sense when you’re referring to an organisation to which you by extension belong and have influence over. It is very clear that a cornerstone of Liberal Democrat ideology is that the citizen should take as full a role in their own Government as possible, not simply through elections, but through direct civic participation. Petitioning your local councillor – or indeed standing for election – should be thought of in the same breath as volunteering in an old people’s home. While this is an individualist philosophy, it is not concerned with freeing the individual from the shackles of the State so much as giving that individual as much influence over the governance of the community in which they live as they care to take up.

On this model, the State is not Leviathan, but rather a club to which we all happen to belong. It would make no sense to give that club a privilege over its members, as it is comprised and run by its membership for its benefit. Break the rules and you get kicked out, of course, but should be able to apply for readmission once you’ve proved you can obey the rules. The club has an interest in providing resources for its members so that they can play a full and active role within it, rather like how sports clubs normally have beginner classes as well as competitive teams. The club, of course, is not all of the life of its members, but rather something in which they can participate if they choose to do so. It arises from that voluntary action, not from imposition.

The relative balance of free markets and State intervention in the economy is almost incidental on this view: far more important is the role each play in facilitating the development of members of society. A Lib Dem argument for markets, on the approach I have outlined, would not focus on economic growth as an outcome but rather the importance that participating in a self-governing market can play in one’s personal development, with one’s successes and failures judged by an intersubjective process. People should certainly be able develop their role in society in any way they choose; it seems absurd that a sports club would tell you in exacting detail exactly how you should train, although it can of course provide suggestions. Tutelage has an immediate role for new members, but is certainly something that should not last too long.

The problem with the above is obvious: it is a fundamentally bourgeois philosophy based on the perspective of someone who already participates fully in society and wants to help others do so too. It is a philosophy of a governing intellectual class, rather than necessarily something with mass appeal. It represents an attempt by the bourgeoisie to expand civic participation into all branches of society, that they might be more like them. If one is fond of just-so stories, one could say that the decline of the Liberals to the betterment of Labour at the start of the 20th century was as a result of Labour offering a new model of civic participation to the working classes who had once formed a core part of their vote. With that model, of bourgeois intellectuals using the political support of the working classes to put forward ‘collective’ social goals, the more gentle Liberal approach of slowly turning everyone into the bourgeoisie was set aside. Of course, when the working classes realised that the intellectuals’ social goals were not necessarily their social goals, they lost interest in politics, and have become much less likely to vote. The Lib Dems have yet to be able to enunciate their alternative in such a compelling way as to attract back those voters, but there may yet be scope to do so.

In conclusion, we can say this: the philosophy of the Liberal Democrats is that every individual should be able to participate in their own governance, and the role of the State as an extension of a society of individuals to provide the resources that enable every individual to achieve that civic participation. This does not necessarily speak to the Party’s’ potential electoral success after the Coalition, but as the above makes clear, for the Lib Dems, it’s the taking part that counts.

Recapturing Rationality

September 4, 2012

A rational man is one who aims at goals and takes action to achieve them. This is a definition of rationality currently in vogue in some schools of thought. However, it is a fundamentally uninteresting definition: ‘goals’ are construed as whatever a person was aiming to achieve with an action, and so any action is rational. If every action is rational – because every conscious action must aim at a goal – then there is no such thing as an irrational action, and the very word becomes meaningless. By inference, I can describe the aimless swimming of a goldfish as ‘rational’; I know naught of fishy goals, and it is not for me to say when they are rational and when they are not.

While this is not an incoherent position, we should be wary of any stance which says that a commonly used word is being used incorrectly by the rest of mankind; humility is a useful intellectual virtue. Is there another definition of ‘rationality’ which captures the useful insight that rational action is the preserve of the individual while still retaining the distinction between rational and irrational in a coherent fashion?

Luckily, there is. Regular readers will know of my affection for the work of Fleischacker on liberty, and it provides a useful steer here. The first question we should ask is what we mean when we say ‘action’. The definition above considers ‘action’ to be basic, without considering what it is we do when we act. However, this involves a rather basic conceit: that in the split second of decision-making about whether to, say, kill the fat man, we somehow weigh all the pros and cons of each potential act. Of course we do not; our brains are not hyper light speed quantum counting engines. Rather, we act in accordance with the principles we have accepted and considered in advance, before we were thrust into such a situation. What we do when acting is not to assess every possible outcome, but rather to make a judgement: this context falls under this principle, so this action should be performed.

The creation of these principles is something we do when reflecting, or opting to adhere to a particular moral code. It is in the practice of these principles that they are reinforced, and we become more likely to act in such a way in future. This leads us onto a useful definition of rationality: acting in accordance with our principles.

Our principles are self-determined, even if we are signing up to someone else’s – that remains our decision. As a result, only we can determine whether we have been acting irrationally or not. I can state quite categorically that I am more likely to act irrationally while drunk, for example, which captures the common intuition about the meaning of rationality quite happily.

Moreover, this definition of irrationality – failure to determine the correct principle to apply to a particular context – is something which is only known to the self, and so cannot be a tool for another to step in and remove one’s autonomy, unless one wishes it. This may prove useful to members of that particular school I linked above, who do seem to worry so about such things.

Supply-Side Shock and Awe

September 3, 2012

There are at least three levels of rhetoric which one can use to justify a policy: the historical, the ideological, and the pragmatic. When it comes to markets versus central planning, the first is eminently preferable: as Timmy is fond of telling us, the 20th century can be viewed as a great experiment about the relative merits of both systems in terms of delivering growth, with markets defeating central planning under the Nazis and the Soviets in turn. It is clear that, if one wishes to deliver growth, markets are on average the tool for the job.

However, from an ideological perspective, this argument doesn’t wash. If I am a great believer in economic freedoms, then whether those freedoms deliver growth is a moot point: I want them regardless, and making them contingent upon delivering growth is to devalue them. Freedom has value in and of itself, and while the historical context may have value when trying to sway non-believers, it should not form the justification for that belief.

On pragmatic grounds, neither of the arguments above work. Economics is fundamentally about trade-offs: a particular form of freedom may impose costs upon others, and the adjudication of which costs are heavier may come in the form of market forces or of public policy. Let us say that we forbade employers from requiring a notice period from their employees, while still requiring that an employer provided a notice period before letting someone go. Employees are free to change jobs at will, assuming someone else will take them on, while employers still find it difficult to get rid of a difficult employee quickly. This increases the economic freedom of employees in our present context, in which almost all desirable jobs require a notice period before departure, while decreasing that of employers.  While we can argue about the particulars, simply demanding increased economic freedom on ideological or historical grounds does not necessarily lead to a particular set of policies. Pragmatically speaking, we have to weigh up which and whose freedoms are more important.

I bring up the above because of a regrettable tendency among the Right to reach for supply-side reforms as an answer to our current economic problems seemingly as a result of an ideological position, and only then going into pragmatic reasons why such reforms are appropriate. Handily, today David Davis has provided an example par excellence of this kind of thinking, which I shall analyse.

His speech meshes the historical, the ideological and the pragmatic into a melange of recommendations. Consider the following selected passages:

“Let us take Switzerland as an example. Its economic dependence on banking was a third greater than ours, and its exports are predominantly to its Euro zone neighbours. Yet, while our economy struggles, Switzerland’s is back up and running. So Britain’s problem cannot simply be attributed to bad banks at home and collapsing export markets abroad.”

“[We] must liberate individuals and companies from the impediments that are undermining their confidence and limiting their freedom of action.”

“The virtue of small businesses is they create jobs and wealth. […] Jump starting the economy will above all else involve liberating this sector to do what it does best, create jobs and wealth.”

“Our Business Secretary congratulates himself that we have one of the most lightly regulated labour markets in the developed world. Perhaps, from the point of view of a large company we do, but not according to the real job creators – small and medium sized businesses.”

“When the German government launched its growth strategy in 2003, the labour market
was the centre of the reform program. Special exemptions from employment law for small companies, easing of laws governing dismissals and redundancies, protection of companies from vexatious employee lawsuits, were combined with reform of the welfare system to improve incentives to work. And it worked.”

On historical grounds, because Switzerland shows our current economic difficulties are not related to our banking sector or exports, we should liberalise our employment market. On ideological grounds, because small business have virtues that must be freed to flourish, we should liberalise our employment market. On pragmatic grounds, because it worked for Germany and Switzerland, we should liberalise our employment market. This would seem to be a coherent argument.

Unfortunately, if you mash differing lines of thought together to create an argument, you leave it open to being picked apart. For example, our employment protections were amongst the lowest in the OECD (below Germany and Switzerland) going into the economic crisis, and I’m fairly sure they haven’t suddenly gone up since then. Germany’s reforms to their labour market were put in place because they were in relative decline compared to their competitor nations with more liberalised employment policies (e.g. the UK); right now, the UK is actually doing worse than countries with more rigorous employment protection (e.g. France). One is left with the ideological argument, which does have merit, but is devalued by all the other arguments around it being incorrect.

There are genuine pragmatic arguments for supply-side reform, and indeed Mr Davis makes one – it should be easier to set up banks, and banks should be more exposed to competition. It’s fairly clear that our banking sector suffered during the economic crisis, and a good dose of marketisation should help it return to health. Unfortunately, the fact that Mr Davis makes it after claiming that woes with our banks aren’t the cause of our current woes again devalues it – but Mr Davis needs to make that claim to justify all his other supply-side recommendations.

If you start from a position of ideology and then reach for arguments of pragmatism and historicity, you devalue your own position. If you’re in favour of freedom, then argue for freedom. If you’re in favour of growth regardless of how it’s achieved, then argue for that. But mashing the two together results in ridiculous situations like Mr Davis objecting to support for green energy, when it’s one of the few examples of the UK actually generating wealth in the current climate, if you’ll pardon the pun.

What does it mean to have a right to a particular piece of property? This is a useful question. Understanding the way in which you conceptualise property rights can be an instructive way of gaining a fuller understanding of your own political intuitions. For example, in my pocket there is a pen, which I own. To me, this means that if society consisted of only you and I, then saying I own something is tantamount to saying you and I have agreed that the pen should be mine. If we expand this into real world, to say I have the property right associated with that object effectively means that we have all agreed that I should own the pen. Of course, going through an adjudication process for every single object in the world would be time consuming, and so we have devised a set of principles from which you can derive the ownership of any given object. We call these ‘laws’.

Other political philosophies have a very different understanding of property rights. Rather than being the subject of mutual agreement, they are instead moral rights ultimately derived from the self. They can be understood as a relation between a person P and an object X such that P has the exclusive right to determine a range of X’s parameters, and countermanding this is wrong.

On this model, property rights are ultimately derived from the self; you own yourself, and any wealth you create is yours as a result of being derived from that fundamental ownership. My pen is mine because I exchanged money I earned through my labour for it in a free and fair exchange.

However, this way of thinking about property rights is fundamentally weird. As given above, property rights are a relationship between the possessed and the possessor. ‘Self-ownership’ can only fit into this model in an odd way. Either the self has at least two parts, one of which owns the other, or the relationship is somehow reflexive.

On the former description, self-ownership is tantamount to the mind owning the body, and the two being distinct things in order to allow this relationship to work. This is quite a claim, and going down this path commits adherents to a rather strong form of dualism, with all the problems that implies. It also has an extra problem: to make it work, adherents would need to find a way of demonstrating that the controlling relationship between the mind and the body is different to other forms of possession inasmuch as it is necessary; i.e. the mind necessarily owns the body and is inextricable from that relationship. Without this being the case, the adherent is trapped in a regressive argument – ownership is derived from the mind, but the mind does not own itself, so there must be at least two distinct entitities within it and so on, ad infinitum. To avoid this, a person advocating a dualist form of self-ownership must find a way of avoiding Cartesian doubt to demonstrate the necessity of that self-ownership. Needless to say, that is quite a challenge.

The latter description, that of a reflexive relationship in which the self owns the self, is perhaps even more puzzling. I fully understand what it means for me to own a pen. I can write with it, place it in a pen jar for safe-keeping, balance it on my top lip when bored of writing, and even destroy it if I choose. All these things are a clear relationship between myself and an object; when this relationship does not exist, what comprises ownership?

Perhaps if we are to understand the reflexive self-ownership model more sympathetically, we should think of it less as a relationship and more of a question of determination. I determine the parameters of my pen; what it writes, when writes, and where it is kept. Similarly, I determine the parameters of myself; when I eat, when I sleep, and what I say. If we adjust the language we use here slightly so we avoid even implicit reference to dualism, we can say that these parameters determine themselves. Self-determining parameters are therefore what is required to make this reflexive model work.

We can therefore see this as a ‘tree’ of parameters: these self-determining parameters also determine these other parameters (the pen). We could then say that this relationship of determination adequately captures what we mean when we say self-ownership, and hence property rights. However, it does not seem to do so satisfactorily: we have not defined a relationship of work, the moral intuition which this form of property rights appeals to, but rather a causal relationship between the self and the world that requires other moral clauses laid on top of it to get property rights out. If a collection of self-determining parameters hits another collection of self-determining parameters and takes a parameter-bearing object from them, then, causally, that object is now theirs. This is not what we normally consider to be property rights.

This reveals, perhaps, the greatest flaw in self-ownership models of property rights: despite claiming that property rights are derived from self-ownership, they in fact require additional moral suppositions in order to work. Given that each of these suppositions are open to question in turn, this model would appear to rest on very precarious foundations indeed. On balance, I would prefer to stick to convincing other people that I should be allowed pens.

Everyday Arete

August 22, 2012

Did you see the Great British Bake-Off last night? Well, one of the twenty-something lads won, but the bad-teeth fella got kicked out after he got his plaits wrong. I spent much of the episode lusting hungrily after the various bready products portrayed on screen, and largely in incomprehension proportionate to my terrible cooking skills.

But still, it got me thinking: cooking is a skill, and a skill in which a great many people take pleasure. It is simultaneously a chore and an arete; a pain and an excellence. Clearly it is an excellence which our culture celebrates, judging by the number of cooking programmes and celebrity chefs our culture produces. It stands alongside singing and dancing and DIY as an arete which is simultaneously accessible to all and the subject of media offerings which have mass appeal. There is clearly a market in providing the public with examples and illustrations of excellence in a given skill, just so long as that skill is open to everyone to try.

Now hold on, you might say, I’m a keen wood-whittler and there’s no prime-time show showing how best to carve your own oaken squirrel. The only thing you need to whittle wood is some kind of knife and a bit of wood. This is true, but the barrier to involvement in wood-whittling is not its accessibility but the difficulty associated with achieving excellence in it. It is much easier to paint a room well with the minimum of practice than it is to carve a gargoyle made of chestnut. The learning curve is, in this instance, a clear barrier to The Great British Whittle Off being a thing.

Why is this important? There’s a strange inclination in the philosophical world to describe ‘excellences’ and ‘virtues’ as things that pertain to ‘higher’ pursuits; MacIntyre uses the example of chess to illustrate his theory, and of course classical Aristotelian virtues mainly relate to aspects of interpersonal relations and personal conduct. However, in doing so we miss out on a whole set of arete that actually matter to people, and in doing miss out on some important insights into the nature of virtue.

For example, MacIntyre claims that ‘real’ virtues can only exist in a small community or polis, that in a vast and alienated capitalist society the only ethical theory possible is a bleak emotivism. Cooking demonstrates that this is untrue. The reason The Great British Bake-Off exists is that there is an appetite for the celebration of excellence amongst a public MacIntyre and his followers believe to be only expressing emotive preferences. If the arete identified through the judging process were unpalatable to the viewers, they would switch off, and if arete identification was a mere emotive process in our society there is no reason why one baking practice should be favoured over another. But, given we are now on the third series of this show, this seems unlikely. What it shows is that the great meta-community of baking fans, brought together through this shared experience, is capable of identifying and celebrating virtue through an aggregate of individual preferences. While the show has gurus, they only receive their status as gurus through their excellence being agreed by the community, rather than by the rules and traditions of a Baking Brotherhood. The internal excellences wrought by the practice of baking are ones determined by all participants, no matter their skill. The preference of each participating individual determines the community, not inner rules of the community itself. Virtues are emergent, not wholly defined by a historical context to which a novice must adhere.

Therefore, we can coherently talk about arete in a market economy. Virtue can exist in a capitalist system; we do not need the polis when we have tele-vision.

The Virtuous Citizen

August 1, 2012

Today, returning to blogging after a brief interval while I settle into my new job, I’d like to be a bit naughty and compare Chris’s two most recent posts, on Corporate Crime and the Rightness of Romney. The first concerns the role of incentives in law-breaking amongst our corporate friends, making the clear point that for any given legal enforcement framework there is a level of law-breaking for which the returns are greater than the costs (i.e. fines/imprisonment). We should therefore expect that level of law-breaking to obtain. Furthermore, this lesson applies to the whole of society too: criminals, like everyone else, take a rational approach to their law-breaking based on the costs and benefits of doing so. The Daily Mail assumption that criminals are simply evil is not particularly useful in understanding actual criminal behaviour.

The second covers the relationship between culture and economics, and briefly reviews a number of studies and arguments which link social virtues and cultural differences to economic growth. Certain norms, such as trust, individualism and wealth being seen as a good in itself appear to have a positive effect on long-term economic development. Culture is not simply the domain of politics, but flows from a variety of sources, including religion. This presents an interesting challenge to policy-makers, because as Chris says:

“On the one hand there are the (dwindling) number of economists who think that long-run growth is a matter of technocratic fixes, of establishing the right policies and institutions. On the other hand, there are politicians who think that culture can be changed by talk and wishful thinking. The truth is more interesting than either group realizes.”

Policy by itself has only limited impacts on culture, with other actors – and history itself – having a much stronger influence. This is interesting, because the implications of the findings mentioned above is that there is likely an ideal set or family of virtues that are conducive to economic growth if they are held as social norms; certainly, Chris refers to the claim that bourgeois values are conducive to growth.

For policy-makers or other actors looking to magnify growth, therefore, the promotion of this set of virtues would be helpful. Now, the constant advocacy of supply-side solutions to our current economic difficulties by a certain section of the debate – including those currently giving succour to Naomi Klein-esque conspiracy theories – would point to the peculiar bundle of virtues bound up with Ayn Rand-style libertarianism as being conducive to growth. In a world with little regulation beyond contracts between individuals, virtues which demand that one be proud of one’s own efforts and not engage in force or fraud to secure those of anyone else are most useful under such an understanding of economics; if markets are always the best way of delivering growth* then virtues most likely to lead to totally unfettered markets will help.

In contrast, virtues that include caring for others when one judges them to be incapable for caring for themselves will encourage the public advocacy of regulation on certain economic matters, as well as the setting aside of a portion of the wealth of individuals to non-productive uses, including, say, looking after the elderly. This will be less conducive to growth on this economic model.

However, what’s left out of this picture – and the reason I draw the contrast between Chris’s two posts – is that economic circumstances influence culture in turn. For example, for certain demographics file-sharing and piracy could be considered to be a norm. This is, effectively, the incorporation of crime into cultural mores because the benefits (free consumer goods) are much less than the cost (risk of being caught stealing). And so, you have a section of society actively agitating for their cultural norm to become legally recognised too.

Under Rand-style libertarianism, the ordinary worker is supposed to be content to be allowed to purchase goods and services from those with a greater capacity for production, to be content with a lowly lot in life and to be entirely dependent on their capacity to produce. In a hypothetical society in which everyone signed up to those norms, it is difficult to see how long those norms would last in the face of the overwhelmingly disadvantaged in that society agitating for a greater share of the wealth. Such agitation, even if illegal, would be rational: the benefits that may accrue would be far higher than the cost. Any libertarian society – or libertarian culture – would be fundamentally unstable as a result. Given the shift in attitudes towards the rich over the relatively small economic differences caused by the recession, it is difficult to see how anyone could claim otherwise.

Cultural norms both influence and are influenced by economic circumstances, and politics is influenced by and influences both. All three are deeply intertwined, and any useful understanding of society must consider them all.

*Tim does not claim this, but some of his fellow travellers certainly do.

The Paradox of Walden

July 17, 2012

Yesterday, watching Paul Kingsnorth and Tim Worstall spar on Twitter over the price of milk, I was struck by two notions. Firstly, it’s fun to watch people who are wrong for different reasons argue. Secondly, the reasons for their disagreement are so fundamental that such a debate is pointless; there’s insufficient common ground for any kind of resolution to be reached.

Tim is a neoliberal, while Paul fancies himself as some kind of neo-Thoreau. Tim describes neoliberalism using the following:

“[Neoliberalism] does rather assume that individuals maximise, to the best of their ability and knowledge, their utility. But as any fule kno, utility and profit are not the same thing. Utility leaves room for feeling better about contributing to the care of others for example, something that profit doesn’t.”

This is actually an astonishingly weak claim; all it’s saying is that individuals aim to achieve their goals, whatever they may be, and however short-term they are. I can maximise my utility by buying either a full-fat meaty burrito this lunchtime, or a healthy snack consisting entirely of fruit, depending on my preferences and objectives. As such, it’s so tautological as to be almost entirely uninteresting: claiming that ‘people aim to achieve their aims’ is not going to set the intellectual world on fire.

The interesting claim is the second half of neoliberalism: ‘and markets are frequently the best way of enabling people to maximise their utility’. Tim might contrast this with an alternative, which is getting the Government to decide how best you maximise your utility. Certainly, it seems clear that you have a better understanding of your preferences than a far away civil servant in Whitehall, and that being able to decide which product or service that will be better at meeting your needs can be a preference in itself.

However, there is a problem with this approach, and it relates to the idea of untradeable goods. In deference to Paul’s position, let us consider this in the context of Thoreau’s Walden, accounted one of the greatest American novels and a forbear of modern environmentalism. Walden is a pond near Concord in Massachusetts by which Thoreau spent two years of his life in an effort to develop his understanding, intellect and spirituality through the tenets of the contemporary philosophy of transcendentalism.

Transcendentalism holds that society and its institutions corrupts the purity of Man, and that a true community can only be derived from self-reliant and independent individuals. In Walden, Thoreau goes a little beyond this to discuss the role of nature and wilderness in the introspection necessary to cultivate the spiritually self-reliant individual.

The self-reliant man creates the goods he needs to maximise his utility himself, and his utility is maximised because he created them himself. The utility provided by these goods is therefore not wholly intrinsic, but rather their extrinsic quality of being untraded.

It is this value – that a good being untraded provides maximum utility – that presents a problem for neoliberalism. If a good has utility because it is untraded, then this form of utility cannot be maximised by a preference expressed in a market. Thoreau expresses the price of the components of his hut at Walden in dollars, in order to demonstrate how cheaply it is possible to live a fulfilling life, but the actual cost of the hut should include the labour he spent creating it. If Thoreau were to buy such a hut on the open market, it would have a value, but because the utility of the hut to Thoreau is given by it being his own creation, the two are incommensurable. The paradox is that the market value of the hut is simultaneously zero and infinite: zero, because it is not offered for sale, and infinite, because no amount of money would persuade Thoreau to part with it.

This value presents a problem to neoliberalism because any dispute over a good to which some ascribe utility as a result of its non-traded status must necessarily be solved by politics. That is to say, when some members of a society ascribe value to a good as a result of it not participating in a market, the resolution of a dispute over its use can only be carried out within an agreed political framework, as the alternative is violence. If trade or negotiation is impossible, then the only way of resolving a problem is through force, whether in person or via the Government. Therefore, the Government must have a role to play in determining how we maximise our utility if such disputes cannot be resolved within a community. Moreover, if you ascribe value on the basis of goods being non-traded, it is preferable to have Government resolve disputes than leave it to the market.

It is worth noting that the wisdom of ascribing value as a result of a good’s non-traded status is not considered, I merely observe than there are people who do so. Paul’s attribution of non-tradeable extrinsic value to small-scale ‘uneconomic’ dairy farmers is something about which Tim will never be able to persuade him. I therefore suggest that both gentlemen resolve this issue in an appropriate fashion, with duelling pistols at dawn.

Chris presents us with a question: what are politicians for? And this, although it may not be obvious, is in fact a very naughty question. We know that Chris knows this is a naughty question because he cites the person I spent yesterday’s post complaining about, Alasdair MacIntyre.

To MacIntyre, everything has a purpose or telos (from Aristotle) in line with a community’s ends. This means each person has a telos too, a purpose which is defined by their membership of that community, and can be understood as the role they play within it. As a result, other members of that community can justly condemn and punish someone for failing to fulfil their role within that community.

What Chris is doing in asking for the purpose of politicians is subtle: it’s to ask you to consider how society should judge its politicians as a whole, rather than as individuals making individual judgements about particular politicians. He wants us to consider the telos of politicians as a class, rather than a given politician in particular. In doing so, you’re thinking like MacIntyre, and less like one of those despicable liberals.

I can’t help but wonder whether Chris is trying out matchstick theory for himself…

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.