‘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.


Markets and Morals

June 27, 2012

While in the supermarket, watching my purchases slowly trundle down the conveyor belt to a bored-looking cashier, I happened to notice a young lady behind us in the queue wearing a black chador. This is not unusual; our part of North London is home to people from a wide variety of backgrounds; Turks, Persians, Albanians, Somalis and Poles, to provide a small selection. What could have been interpreted as unusual, certainly to those who believe that Islamic dress marks a woman as somehow ‘other’, was that she was leafing through a copy of Reveal. This is a magazine dedicated to the kind of mindless celebrity gossip typified by headlines like, “ADDICTED TO BAD BOYS!”, “HOW I LOST TWO STONE!” or, indeed, “SEX LIFE LOSING ITS SPARK!” There is a disjunction between the content of this magazine and the typical media portrayal of women from Islamic cultures as demure, subservient, and – in marked contrast to British women – uninterested in anything as tawdry as gossip.

I’ve recounted this incident because I want to discuss Michael Sandel’s ‘What Money Can’t Buy’, which was released a few months ago but which has been brought to my attention by Professor Pigliucci’s review of it. Sandel proposes we consider which goods we want to have a market for, and which goods we value independently of any potential price tag. He undertakes this analysis by considering the purposiveness of goods; whether if allowing a good to be bought and sold in a market undermines the purpose or role we see it as having. A clear example is friendship; we could certainly pay people to act as though they were our friends, but doing so is intuitively repugnant: our notion of friendship is based upon bonds of trust and reciprocity, not something that can be easily commodified.

There is a clear step before we undertake Sandel’s analysis, and that is to consider how we attribute value in the first instance; how we establish purpose. This is where Sandel’s advocacy of virtue ethics comes in: we attribute purpose in line with those actions which will best help us cultivate the virtues we wish to cultivate; purpose is derived from our desired character. Regular readers of this blog will know that this is a position I am rather fond of.

However, there is a step before this, and this is the meta-ethical question of how we identify the virtues we want to cultivate; how we determine the character we wish to possess. The reason for my recounting of the tiny tale of the Muslim and the Magazine is to capture the role that markets play in this process, and thus why our consideration of their ethical role must sit, at least initially, outwith the purposive framework Sandel advocates.

Markets require us to meet new people. We can try to shut ourselves off from modern society as much as we like, but eventually someone is going to notice that we have money we’re not spending, and try to contrive of a way of separating us from it. As part of this process, we will be exposed to the ideas, values and beliefs from out-groups, in much the same way as the lady in the supermarket was. This can take the form of an open debate with a contractor over hiring practices as some North London councils are doing with regard to the Living Wage, the potential realisation of a new want through exposure to its object, or the recasting of old ways of servicing values in the light of new information, as above.

This is important, because it stands in contrast to the kind of communitarism that Sandel advocates. Our values and beliefs are not wholly derived from our community or society, but from all the communities and societies with which we do business. In this context, markets provide a check upon our moral beliefs: do they stand up to scrutiny outwith the embedded norms of our community? For example, is discrimination against women a disadvantage when competing in the marketplace? (Answer: Yes.)

Debate within communities can provide a check, but given that your fellow community members will take positions derived from existing beliefs of that community it will necessarily be inadequate when compared to debate with an out-group. Trade and markets provide a way of facilitating that debate, a mechanism which has instrumental value in the context of the meta-ethical consideration of how we determine which virtues we want to develop.

Therefore, I propose the question that comes before Sandel’s consideration of the purpose of goods should be: which of our ethical claims can we be so confident of that we can risk excluding markets from them entirely? The answer to this, I suspect, will paint a very different picture to the one Sandel outlines.

If there’s one exemplar of capitalism, it’s Coca-Cola. The sheer pervading nature of this brand means that no matter where you go in the world, the inhabitants will always know at least two English words – also, perhaps, ‘Hello!’ if you’re lucky. It’s success is not in itself the reason for it being the poster boy of our Western economic system; rather, it’s the nature of that success.

Put simply, Coca-Cola is the prime example of the creation of want that has defined an economic system based on consumption. No-one needs Coke, but nonetheless they drink it. Why? Since the invention of carbonated drinks, Coke has had many competitors come onto the market, but people are still willing to pay a premium for a product with a lower-priced equivalent that differs in perhaps branding alone.

The answer lies in the subtle subversion of judgement that advertising begets. A high-profile brand has more social status associated with its consumption than a low-profile brand; any child mocked in the 80s and 90s for drinking Panda Pop would understand that. The added value that permits the price premium is this accrued social status modifier arising from Coke’s superb advertising campaigns. That said, it’s not actually true that Coke gave Santa his red cloak.

What does any of this have to do with the title of this post? The answer is that I want to examine a parallel between the invention of want by Coke’s advertising campaigns and the invention of moral cause by agents interested in the consequences of its creation.

Being attached to a particular moral cause confers a certain amount of prestige; if that cause is sufficient, it can also confer funding to work on that cause. To give an example, today’s news of the Government deciding to retain the implementation of ‘go orders’ to protect victims of domestic abuse was discussed on the Today Programme with the head of Refuge, the domestic violence help charity. She made the point that in the 48 hours initial ‘go orders’ would last, the victim of domestic violence would require expert support to ensure he or she was able to cope with the situation appropriately. Refuge provides that sort of service.

I do not wish to accuse Refuge of pushing its wares on a national radio programme – the work Refuge does is very important and worthwhile – but it’s clear that this move by the Government has opened up an area of what I would call moral want, rather than moral need. It is not clearly the case that the absence of this sort of provision would have a negative impact on all people in the situation prescribed; but nonetheless comprehensive support appears to be being advocated.

This sort of moral want argument is not the preserve of charities alone, but was a feature of the Labour Government’s policy making, as well as the media’s approach to issues of public good. Edge cases identified by media stories contributed disproportionately to the previous Governments’ policy making, and continue to contribute disproportionately to the response to the policies made by the present Government.

The division between moral want and moral need is the division between an instance of a particular failing with apparent moral implications, but which can be avoided given the choices of an individual and the moral implications of a systemic example of injustice over which an individual would have minimal influence. For example, Labour’s implementation of the ASBO was in response to neighbourhoods that had difficulty in dealing with problem tenants – but the powers to deal with such (e.g. eviction from council properties) already existed. Rather than tackling the systemic injustice of poor use of existing powers and lack of access to information that would support local action, ASBOs answered the moral want rather than the need. In doing so, they created a new support structure for the bureaucracy around them, generating an interest group in their retention. They were then able to sell this to a media trading in the moral want generated by particular cases.

Labour’s method of media-driven policy making seemed designed to serve moral wants, and in doing so built an industry based on their expansion. The political premium associated with responding to a moral want became a reason to do it. This resulted in the expansion of the third sector, as organisations realised they could bid to run services to meet a want they identified in their research.

This public identification of ‘wants’ and the political premium associated with funding them over and above the amount necessary to meet the moral need is functionally equivalent to the marketing of Coca-Cola; both are strong examples of irrational behaviour based on marketing. In this, the main offender is perhaps the media, who have realised that there is a strong market in tales of moral want – including examples of moral want such as families on benefit who are abusing the system – and so tell those tales, and have the commensurate political impact.

Part 16 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.

Chapter 16: Miracle Metal

This chapter is annoying. Annoying not in the standard Rand sense of teenage characters having pretend angst, but rather in the sheer number of obvious stupidities it crams into relatively few pages.

We’ll start with the opening section, which deals with what Rand clearly considers to be a council of evil. It consists of the various strawmen we’ve encountered so far; James Taggart, Wesley Mouch, Orren Boyle, and more ridiculous chaps with silly names. There’s also a representative of the unions, Fred Kinnan, who just appears at this point without any prior reference to him in the book. Given that he’s now responsible for much of the ensuing, this seems something of an oversight (i.e. something Rand forgot to put in because she was too busy raving about other things, and couldn’t be arsed to go back and correct her mistake, because it’s her work so must already be perfect, dammit).

The strawmen mince around their subject rather pathetically for a while, talking about how making sure peoples’ needs are fulfilled is the most important thing in the world, while Kinnan (who for some reason is presented as the embodiment of knowing evil; the evil that’s happy to deliver men into socialist bondage in the full knowledge of what it’s doing) makes occasional sarcastic remarks about their pretensions. They commit to a directive that institutionalises socialism in the USA – or rather a Randian version of socialism that involves various insanities like not being able to fire anyone at all any more or demanding that all invention and innovation stops. Kinnan is the enabler of this directive, inasmuch as he agrees to commit the workers he represents to it and by weight of numbers will ensure its enactment. In exchange he gets control of the Unification Board, the body discharged with overseeing the wacky new employment laws.

I don’t understand Rand’s antipathy towards unions. The free exchange of goods in the marketplace is her moral standard, and unions merely improve the relative position of the worker selling their labour by virtue of collective bargaining. This is free association – while closed shops would obviously be immoral to Rand, someone paying for the representative service that union membership represents is exchanging value for value. Many of Thatcher’s anti-union reforms were anti-libertarian in this sense; they curtailed the freedom of that private enterprise. This, much like the janus-faced moral argument in preceding chapters, implies that libertarianism is nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with class. Hence the title of this post.

The directive is implemented, and Dagny quits, refusing to deliver men into bondage. She retreats to a cottage in the country. Rearden stays in position, intending to defy a requirement that he surrender his patent to Rearden Metal to the State.

Dr Ferris comes to collect, and reveals to Rearden that the strawmen know about his relationship with Dagny and will reveal it to the world if he does not voluntarily surrender his patent. Rearden gets lost in a reverie, which begins with:

‘It was not to Dr. Ferris that Rearden was speaking. He was seeing a long line of men stretched through the centuries from Plato onward, who heir and final product was an incompetent little professor with the appearance of a gigolo and the soul of a thug.’

This is yet another Randian slander on philosophers. Plato’s political philosophy involved no reference to need, and in fact celebrated reason above all other qualities – as Rand does. His aristocracy of reason bears more resemblance to Rand’s aristocracy of talent than she appears to realise.

There follows some of the most tortured reasoning it has ever been my misfortune to read in any attempt at moral prose. The net result is that Rearden signs over his patent to protect Dagny, on the grounds that he placed her in jeopardy in the first place and so is culpable on the grounds of his own moral failure. He should’ve divorced Lillian and married Dagny, to avoid this very situation.

But this makes absolutely no sense under Rand’s moral system. Self-flagellation is unreasonable, as one’s moral worth is judged by one’s ability to produce and exchange goods. There is no exchange here, no demolition of property. Dagny’s perceived morality in the eyes of the world is not something one can exchange – rather, from earlier chapters, it’s a form of public relations and so is irrelevant. It is noble of Rearden to take the act he does, to sacrifice himself – but self-sacrifice, and a moral system which demands it of oneself, has previously been condemned by Rand.

I suspect that Rand, at the last, couldn’t permit her hero to be ignoble to a lady. This betrays a certain latent morality deep within a confused attempt to be ‘rational’; certainly the passages in which Rearden makes his choice are the most human of the book so far. I doubt Rand will permit herself any more.

Part 17 is here.