Planet Littlewood

June 24, 2013

Mark Littlewood recently called for the names of benefit recipients to be made publicly available. Let’s imagine what that kind of world would be like.

There was a sign on his window again. Every morning when he opened his curtains, it would always be there, blocking out the light. He ripped it down every night, but it was always put back up. Even worse, it’d started changing every day. Originally the sign was just £2,953.60, but now it’d started rising by £8.11, every day. He considered just leaving it up this time, but Kev felt very strongly that this would be letting the bastards win.

It was his neighbor. He’d caught him at it a few times, coming back in from another fruitless job hunt, finding John slapping paste onto the glass and placing the various sheets of paper along a carefully measured line. His balding head bent over in intense concentration, John actually brought a level along with him to ensure that the sign was perfectly aligned. Such fastidious attention to detail doubtless explained why John had been able to keep his database job when the call centre downsized.

Every confrontation went the same way. Kev would yell out, and John would turn around with a vicious grin on his face. He’d then turn back to his task, aware than Kev could do nothing at all. Kev didn’t own his house, and his landlord was perfectly happy for scroungers like Kev to have their shame displayed on his property, even though he’d made his fortune on the back of the diminishing pool of Government housing benefit. When Kev had first complained, the landlord had laughed him out of his office and added John as a Facebook friend.

It had been so different, only two years ago. John and Kev had been colleagues, although never friends. Then the banks had gone down again. Prime Minister Littlewood, as he now was, had told the public that the problem wasn’t the banks, it was the Bank, and had come to power on the back of a promise to scrap the Bank of England and prevent credit bubbles ever happening again. Now there was no interest rate, only multiple competing interest rates, but somehow things hadn’t picked up. The papers were saying that this was all a necessary market correction and there was nothing the Government could or indeed should do.

But this correction seemed to be taking a very long time. People were getting angry, and so the Government had created The Register. It was a big online database containing the name and address of every benefit claimant in the UK, along with the amount they were claiming. Initially it had been an identity fraudsters’ paradise, with hundreds of thousands of people finding they’d lost their benefits to a range of criminal gangs. The Government claimed they’d sorted all this out, but Kev kept hearing stories about old ladies found dead in their flats because their pensions had stopped and they didn’t know how to look for help.

The call centre Kev and John worked in had let hundreds of its staff go. Lots of new centres were opening in Uganda, apparently, as part of this African Boom. Kev was happy for them, but there seemed to be a great deal less work around here, and every job he went for he seemed to be competing against people with far higher qualifications than him. Shortly after he left, John had started pasting signs on his window.

He should leave, he supposed, and look for work elsewhere. He really wanted to – the day after The Register was extended to people who used the NHS John had put a sign on his window saying ‘Treatment for herpes – £30′ because Kev had gone to the doctor to get cream for a coldsore. But if he left he’d count as Voluntarily Homeless and under the very strict new restrictions on benefits he wouldn’t be able to get a place to live anywhere else without already having a job. His benefits just covered the cost of living, and certainly didn’t extend to the train or bus ticket he’d need to attend interviews. He felt trapped.

Turning away from the window, he switched on the radio and started to make breakfast. The Today programme was playing, and the Prime Minister was on.

“…The Register has been a fantastic success in incentivising people to get into work and letting the public know exactly how their hard-earned money is being spent. That’s why today I’m pleased to announce the logical extension of this programme.

“From today, all benefit claimants, young and old, will be required to wear a yellow armband on which will be written the precise amount they claim from the State every year. When you meet a benefit claimant on the street, you should know exactly who they are so you can tell them what you think. Only through transparency and public information campaigns like this one will everyone be able to take part in monitoring how taxpayers’ money is spent. Remember, cutting spending helps the economy – and that’s what this initiative would help to do.”

Kev swore. Things were about to get a lot worse.

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.

Over on Crooked Timber, Bertram, Robin and Gourevitch (BRG) have put up an interesting argument claiming that the commonly understood objective of libertarian ideology, freedom (defined as the absence of coercion) does not necessarily imply that a market economy is the best way of organising society. This is for two reasons.

Firstly, the cornerstone of a market economy, the freedom to enter into contracts of your choosing, is not necessarily freedom-maximising as it is entirely possible to sign away your freedoms when signing a contract. Whether contracts are freedom-maximising is therefore an empirical question not amenable to philosophical analysis, and cannot be used as an ideological plank.

Secondly, an economy in which the price of labour is its value in the marketplace permits coercion within the workplace; changing jobs is not a frictionless process and the cost of changing jobs can be sufficient in particular contexts (e.g. debt, supporting a family) to prevent a worker from selling their labour elsewhere. This permits out-contract coercion on the part of the employer; the example used by BRG is an employer demanding a female worker sleep with him or lose her job.

The above are sufficient to demonstrate that libertarian principles are not necessarily freedom-maximising, which would appear to defeat what is commonly held to be the point of the ideology. However, over on Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Matt Zwolinski thinks differently:

“I think the idea that libertarianism can be understood as fundamentally about freedom, simpliciter, is a mistake. It is an even graver mistake to suppose that libertarianism is committed to the maximization of freedom. […] What makes restrictions of freedom acceptable, and what differentiates the acceptable from the unacceptable infringements of freedom, is a matter of some dispute among libertarians themselves. For neo-Lockean libertarians like Robert Nozick, freedom as a moral category is strictly subordinate to a prior theory of rights – my freedom to sell my kidney is worthy of political protection because it is compatible with my right of self-ownership and violates no one else’s rights; my freedom to swing my fist at your face is not. For consequentialist libertarians, freedom will only be worthy of political protection to the extent that this is compatible with the underlying teleological theory. But no libertarian, as far as I am aware, holds that mere freedom as such is the core value.

If you asked the philosopher in the street what the core value of libertarianism was, I’d be amazed if ‘freedom’ didn’t make up a majority of the responses. However, the above represents a wholesale retreat from the value, into the domains of rights and consequences. In order to spell out what this means, let’s consider the three questions that would be asked by three groups of people when considering how to organise society, the Neo-Lockean Libetarians, the Consequentialist Libertarians, and the liberals (small ‘l’, most definitely):

1) How do we organise society to best protect a given set of rights?

2) How do we organise society to best achieve a given set of goals?

3) How do we organise society to maximise freedom?

Now, the position being advanced by Zwolinksi is that libertarians are asking the first two questions, rather than the third, and that freedom (of various sorts) is frequently found to be the answer to them both. The problem is that in both cases freedom as a value is secondary – if there is a better way of organising society identified in response to those questions, then freedom will be eschewed.

As a result, the root of libertarianism is applied incorrectly: the philosophy is only incidentally related to liberty, and even then only on a empirical basis. If a way is found of protecting property rights that involves surrendering some civil liberties, then it’s possible that some libertarians will support it. If a way is found of maximising prosperity that involves shackling people unable to pay their debts to some kind of work engine, then it’s possible that some libertarians will support it. By allowing the name ‘libertarianism’ to be associated with a creed that supports liberty only as a matter of likelihood, our political discourse is tarnished. I would therefore call on anyone discussing the subject to eschew the term in favour of something more suited. I would opt for Possessionism.

A new website has been launched by Clifford Singer, the excitingly named chap behind The Other Taxpayers’ Alliance and It’s called, and attempts to highlight the transparency of the funding arrangements behind 20 prominent thinktanks.

As such, it’s something that fans of Public Choice Theory should welcome. For those not in the know, you can find an excellent primer on the subject on the website of the Institute for Economic Affairs. Broadly, it covers the application of the methods of economics to Government and to its influencing parties. It rests upon the key insight that incentives apply to the people that comprise Government and the interest groups that attempt to lobby them – not just markets. These incentives can lead to ‘Government Failure’ – regulation or Government action which fails to produce the outcomes it was ostensibly intended to deliver. This can be down to incentives on particular politicians or the corrosive influence of interest groups attempting to capture political action for their own cause. The primer puts it like this:

“In this struggle between interests, small groups with sharply focused interests have more influence in decision-making than much larger groups with more diffused concerns, such as consumers and taxpayers.”

“Because of the enormous benefits that can be won from the political process, it is rational for interest groups to spend large sums on lobbying for special privileges – an activity known as ‘rent seeking’.”

In order to be able to properly understand who is lobbying for special privileges, we need to understand who is spending large sums on doing so. In this context, is a welcome addition to the political landscape, by providing pressure upon interest groups to reveal their backers.

However, it has not been universally welcomed. This Guido Fawkes post highlights the response of the Adam Smith Institute to the site, which is to say that they have been ranked top for respecting donor privacy – the ‘E’ category of, reserved for the least transparent. This would be amusing, if the author of the primer on Public Choice Theory quoted above was not Dr Eamonn Butler, who is a Director of the Institute. It is difficult to not suppose that the large sums spent by the ASI on lobbying are being used to seek special privileges for their funders – not least for their advocacy of lower taxes for higher earners, which would directly benefit a minority.

Yet, somehow the ASI seems to be claiming that it is immune from incentives by declaring that it is independent and does not need to be transparent. It is bizarre for an organisation bearing the name of Adam Smith to claim that the fundamental insight of economics, that incentives matter, does not apply to it. It is difficult to believe that the kind of robust constitution advocated by Public Choice Theory advocates would not require any organisation seeking to influence Government policy to be wholly transparent, in order to ensure that all rent-seeking activities are on full display to the demos. Doing so is the best way of minimising the risk of Government failure, a fact to which the ASI seems to be blind.


Over on City AM, Eamonn Butler, the Director of the Adam Smith Institute, has written an article about what he calls the ‘powerful moral arguments’ against taxation. It’s fairly standard Randian demagoguery about taxation being confiscation through force, the use of force being necessarily evil; clearly, no-one should ever try to section a libertarian even if they’re a danger to themselves.

Butler also argues that people who disagree with what the Government does with their money are being forced to pay for things they don’t agree with. This is absolutely true, and a good thing too: if Government had refused to collect taxes during World War 1 because conscientious objectors didn’t want their taxes to be used to fight the dastardly Hun, we’d be part of the Second Reich. One of the downsides of living in society is that you’re prevented from doing absolutely everything you want, because other people have opinions about how things should be done. Adults realise this and figure out how to work with others to achieve the majority of what they want while comprising where necessary; children join the contemporary Republican Party.

This is because, quite fundamentally, moral claims are not relative when you’re the person making that moral claim. If you think doing a particular thing is good, then you think it’s good regardless of whether someone else thinks it’s bad. If you and that other person have to get along, then you need to find a way of compromising over this. If both of you think your moral claim should be privileged, then you’ll compete to find a way of implementing it. In a democracy, this often takes the form of competing over the right to implement a moral claim as part of law. In this context, the compromise is that you both sign up to a system that adjudicates the competition: democracy.

However, Butler seems to be saying that because all claims are relative to the person making them, allowing one moral claim to win out is bad. This is classic moral relativism, but in itself it involves a moral claim: that any form of non-individual moral adjudication is bad. Luckily, for those of us who disagree with this claim, it’s repeatedly lost out in the competition we run to determine who gets to implement their moral claims. By pushing it in the pages ofCity AM, Butler seems to want to get into this competition.


Butler also goes for the now classic claim that higher taxation means people give less to charity, based on two data points: the US and the UK. This has been repeated so many times it’s almost become a trope, but is it really the case?

Let’s map out this by using the Heritage Institute’s figures for percentage of GDP made up of Government spending in 2012 and the comparative data of the John Hopkins Centre for Civil Society Studies from between 1995-2002. While the distance between these two dates is a factor, comparable data for 1995-2002 is not readily available. The length of time the JHCCSS study covers should provide a useful average that we can extrapolate, however, especially as the relative figures for the US and the UK are broadly in line with the figures that Butler uses.

This is Government spending as a percentage of GDP against share of GDP made up by charitable giving:

It should be immediately obvious that there’s no relation, and indeed the correlation between the two is 0.13, implying if anything a tiny positive effect. However, the relationship between Government spending and volunteering as a percentage of GDP is more interesting:

The correlation is relatively higher at 0.44, implying that people in countries with a higher share of Government spending as a percentage of GDP are more likely to spend more time volunteering. This would imply that voting for a higher tax take by the Government is related in a positive way to people being willing to spend their own time working for society.

Those of you who, like me, find the Marxism*-style cult of libertarianism fascinating will doubtless be aware of the escalating conflict between the Cato Institute and those renowned champions of planet-raping, the Koch empire.The Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, is attempting to resist its wholesale takeover by the Kochs, who own the majority of the shares of the Institute, and are seeking to turn it into a Republican meme factory. Which of course they’re entitled to do, because it’s their property.

Everyone who’s ever pointed out that libertarianism doesn’t work in the real world is now pointing and laughing. Much as I’d like to devote several hundred words to how hilarious this is, I direct you towards Noahpinion‘s piece, which does much the same thing.

*It would work in real life if only people were how we think they should be!

With regard to the current fad for looting, Ken Livingstone said:

“The economic stagnation and cuts being imposed by the Tory government inevitably create social division. As when Margaret Thatcher imposed such policies during her recessions this creates the threat of people losing control, acting in completely unacceptable ways that threaten everyone, and culminating in events of the type we saw in Tottenham.”

There are two ways of interpreting Ken’s position here:

(1) The looters (oh, how Randroids must be loving drawing equivalences today) are the product of a given social context and are not responsible for their actions. Confronted with feelings of inadequacy and social failure, they react by lashing out with the only thing they know – violence. They are fundamentally incapable of determining their own actions.

(2) The looters have assessed the social contract, and determined that it is underperforming with regard to their share of resources. Having taken a view that a negotiated solution – i.e. traditional democratic politics – has failed to deliver what they regard as an adequate outcome, they have decided to use force to redress this balance.

On (1), Ken is describing the looters as fundamentally less than himself; as incapable of expressing moral agency. This is functionally equivalent to Tories dismissing them as feckless savages; both dehumanise and belittle the individuals involved. If all the looters were black, it would be racist; as it is, it’s a particular variant of misanthropy.

The claim that a particular subset of society is less human than oneself is evil. It permits sectarian division, it permits violence, and – of particular relevance when talking about Red Ken – it permits forms of social control that are fundamentally illiberal. So let’s be charitable to Ken, and assume he’s taking position (2).

I would support position (2) on a purely descriptive level. This was not a riot against an injustice, however it started, but a very clear effort to redress a perceived economic imbalance. The looters will have rationalised this to themselves by their perception of their social worth and economic opportunities in relation to the better off. Unlike (1), this is a rational human choice in a given context. This, of course, does not make it the correct choice.

Ken appears to be saying that policies which create social division through the removal of a given percentage of the proceeds of growth from a subset of society should expect to see that subset react violently. This is not an argument based on justice, but rather on social stability. It is not the case that last night’s looters ‘deserve’ new laptops, trainers and televisions purely because they live in a society in which other people possess these goods. The fact that they believe they do is the problem, not the imbalance of goods. Ken is supporting this position by saying that riots should be expected, instead of working to counteract that belief. That is fundamentally unwise – not evil, but certainly not clever.

Your share of society’s resources should be in proportion to the effort you put in to increasing them, above the fundamental level necessary for the development of judgement. Advocating a position other than this – that the relative wealth of others creates an additional share for you – is to advocate looting. And here, I do mean in the Randroid sense.

Death, and its fan club

August 1, 2011

This is Anders Breivik:

He believes that someone – specifically him – has the right to kill other people.

This is Paul Staines:

He believes that someone – specifically, a state-appointed murderer – has the right to kill other people.

Equating people you disagree with to murderous child-killers is a churlish argumentative technique, I would normally aver. Even in this more exceptional case, it still feels somewhat distasteful. The reason I have used it is that Staines’ campaign to re-instate the State’s right to kill child murderers (like Breivik) and cop killers throws the question of what death is – and whether it constitutes a suitable punishment for anything – into harsh relief.

The nature of death is not widely discussed in our society, beyond the witterings of teenage Goths. The rest of this post will therefore most likely resemble bad teenage angst poetry, because it’s very difficult to talk about death without lapsing into cliche.

Death represents the end of consciousness; the end of the means by which we have access to the material world, and the end of any possibility of altering one’s fate. It is the end of all experience. As such, it’s something I’d quite like to avoid if at all possible, being a fan of my continued experiencing of the world. However, inevitably, one day I shall die and my consciousness will end. I will cease to be in a sense which is fundamentally unimaginable; one cannot even conceptualise the absence of imagination, thought or conscious awareness, for they are the means by which anything is conceptualised. It is ultimately unknowable, the boundary of knowledge and the limit of understanding. It’s pretty bad.

What it is not, however, is punishment. Everyone dies, eventually. The death penalty simply means bringing this date forward. Breivik’s victims were not punished by their murder. My grandmother was not punished by dying. Punishment is an adverse outcome for a particular crime or transgression, but death is the end of any possible outcome, the termination of potential adversity. Certainly, death is a bad thing, as we cherish continued existence, but not all bad things are punishments. Being threatened with death, or being on death row, is a punishment, because you’re there to experience you not wanting to die. But as soon as you’re killed that want vanishes and it no longer makes sense to say that you’re being punished. How could you be? You’re dead. I am glad that the Moors murderers have spent decades in confinement, rather than being granted a swift death after they were judged, as that is far more punishing than a simple death could ever be.

Killing is not a punishment. Rather, it is an elimination – a removal of a potential threat to our existence. That is why we mandate the State to kill on our behalf in war. That is why we grant the right to kill in extreme self defence. If we kill child murderers and cop killers, we portray them as threats to our society, to our existence. To do so is a very dangerous thing, because it allows politicians to claim that they are defending our society by killing people who are not genuinely a threat to it (click for big):

Sources: National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund & Death Penalty Information Centre

In the US, executing more people doesn’t reduce the number of cops who are killed – if anything, the correlation works the other way round. All it provides is another tool for politicians to use to satisfy a primal lust for revenge on criminals, rather than a real tool to reduce the number of policemen killed in the line of duty. I don’t need to tell you about the uses to which politicians have put tools of the former sort in the past.

Both Breivik and Staines believe murder a suitable fate for people they despise. These fans of death both seek to open the door to the worst sort of politician. In the end, their endeavours may lead to deaths – albeit, not the ones they hoped for.

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.


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.