Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Year: 2014 (page 1 of 2)

What Monopoly Teaches us about the Welfare State

I didn’t know until recently that the game Monopoly was originally designed to teach people about the perils of capitalism. Sadly I think I’m not the only one who missed the point and just saw it as a chance to win. How often our best intentions are mistaken and misused.

But for the sake of Elizabeth Magie and her noble, if flawed, educational effort I am going to reclaim Monopoly for its intended purpose, to show that it can still teach us some important lessons about capitalism and the welfare state.

1. There is no alternative but to play

Monopoly forces people to buy, to rent and to pay up. We keep going round the board, some getting richer, some getting poorer. Perhaps to some worthy souls this all seems sordid and material; but there is no choice. It’s how the game works and so far the only real world alternative to capitalism – state socialism – is far worse. State socialism is the equivalent of giving all control to the Banker. The Banker then decides what you’ll get and what you’ll give – and it turns out that the Banker is no more interested in equality than real bankers. Orwell’s “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” is an exact description of state socialism. You are no longer playing Monopoly, you are playing Who Can Please the Banker – a game which is both more boring, yet much more dangerous.

2. The goal is not the goal

Monopoly forces you to compete – kind of. But we also learn, often with great difficulty, that winning is not the point of the game. The game is about having fun, not winning. If only the victor enjoys himself then you have all missed the point. In the same way life is not about winning. Life is about joy, goodness, love and beauty. You can’t win life and if you think that having more money makes you a better person then you are a fool. What is the point, as Steve Jobs put it, of being “richest man in the cemetery?”

3. Skill doesn’t count for much

There’s definitely some skill involved in Monopoly, but it’s a pretty basic skill. You need to understand the power of holding property and of using it to squeeze out as much money from everyone else as possible. If you are playing against people who haven’t figured that out then you will win more often. But if all of you have figured that out then its mostly luck – who lands on the best squares before they’ve been purchased. Life’s much the same – it’s not the best, the brightest or the most worthy who get rich – it’s the lucky ones. Even our talents are mostly a matter of luck. The trouble is we also want to feel that all our victories were deserved – that we are ‘entitled.’  But in reality almost everything we have was given to us – without our deserving it.

4. Redistribution is essential

Monopoly, like capitalism, takes small natural differences and turns them into huge inequalities. If we are winning we kid ourselves into believing that we deserve to be winning; if we are losing we can feel unworthy, unlucky or even cheated. But in reality it’s just a game which some will win and some will lose. The key to Monopoly’s success is that it normally lasts a good length of time – but doesn’t go on forever. If we only had the money that we started with then the game would be finished much more quickly; however most of us are kept in the game because we keep going past GO and getting £200 from the Banker.
Of course Monopoly is a game. In real life we don’t want one person to ‘win’. We want everyone to win and that doesn’t mean everyone getting the same money – which turns out to be impossible. It means everyone living full lives – as equal citizens. It means everyone getting the chance to use their talents – in their own way. It means living with joy, finding love and experiencing beauty.
But this is impossible if we only look out for ourselves. Markets do not redistribute resources to the poor, they concentrate resources in the hands of the rich. The only way to rebalance things is to control the inevitable inequality-making machine which is capitalism.
This is the job of the welfare state – to make sure people are not driven to poverty, and to make sure that some people or some groups do not get too powerful. Instead, to help us all work together, to thrive, to create and to share.
So the lessons of Monopoly are:

  • Having money and property is okay, if it helps people have fun and do useful things
  • You can win Monopoly alone, but you can only win life together
  • Don’t kid yourself you’ve deserved whatever you’ve earned
  • Share – make sure everyone can keep only playing, with dignity and with rights
There has never been a better time to learn the lessons of Monopoly; and if we don’t then none of us will be having much fun in the future.

In addition, Monopoly can even teach us some valuable lessons about the true meaning of welfare reform:

1. No means-testing for the poor

Imagine if, when you got to Go, you weren’t given £200 but instead the banker looked at how much money you had and decided whether you poor were enough to ‘deserve’ your £200. Very quickly you would find many more people in poverty, barely struggling to get round the board. The game would be over much more quickly. But that’s how the UK benefit system works. Monopoly is actually using a system of basic income (sometimes called citizen’s income) – everybody gets £200. This gives you a much better chance of bouncing back if you do hit hard times.

2. Essential services are free

Actually there are very few safe spaces on a monopoly board: Go, Jail and Free Parking. But Free Parking gives us a good metaphor for the important way in which the welfare state works – free support for essential services. For some parts of life it is not enough to just distribute income – sometimes income is not enough. For example, if you are seriously ill you need good medical care and its much better that the community organises this than people go shopping for it. The same is true for education, disability support and many things we do to create a safe environment. Private property (or private insurance) is inadequate and it just leads some people getting unacceptably poor support. Something things need to be like Free Parking – free and a safe haven from the pressures of the market.

3. Markets can be disciplined

Monopoly also teaches us that measures to control prices and to limit monopolies can be very helpful. Notice how the price of rail fares goes up when one person controls all the stations. Notice how the price of energy goes up when one person owns both the energy firms. Imagine how quickly the game would end if rents could be set at any level the landlord chose! In the same way it makes sense for communities to discipline the market, to restrain monopolies and to set decent wages.

We’ve forgotten what the welfare state is for and welfare reform has lost its true meaning. The welfare state is now treated by politicians as if it were just some great exercise in Government sponsored charity; welfare reform has become a mean-spirited attack on citizen’s rights. Real welfare reform is needed, but it is reform that restores the welfare state to its proper role in ensuring everyone can live with rights, dignity and the ability to contribute to the making of a better society for all.

Why We’re Launching the LDA for England

We are only 8 months or so away from the General Election of the 7th May 2015 and nobody knows who will win that election. However, over the last four years our Government has taught us that people with learning disabilities cannot expect things to get better on their own:

  • Benefits are being cut and sanctions are hurting and shaming people
  • Public services have been cut – 25% fewer people now get social care
  • Cuts target people with severe disabilities 6 times more than most people
  • The bedroom tax and the end of the ILF is making independent living harder 
  • Basic human and legal rights are ignored as Legal Aid is slashed
  • Thousands live in the likes of Winterbourne View instead of their own homes

The cuts and attacks have happened – not because of over-spending on disabled people – but because of bad management by Government and by the financial system. Instead of solving our real problems Government has falsely blamed disabled people for problems they did not create.

I must admit that all of this surprised me. I have no connection to any political party and, as someone who has worked in the public and voluntary sector for 25 years, mostly with people with learning disabilities, I did not expect this level of social injustice. It seems I had too much faith in the decency of the political classes and I expected a much stronger reaction from the Church, charities, the media and the general public. I just never thought things could get this bad.

We seem to be sleep-walking into injustice – how can we wake up? What can WE do?

The novelist Dorothy L Sayers wrote: “A government must be either servant or master. If you do not chivvy it, it may chivvy you.”

In modern English I guess that might translate as:

If you don’t stand up for yourself – then expect to be bossed around.

So, with colleagues, friends and other allies, we have decided to launch Learning Disability Alliance England – LDA for short.

LDA will be hosted by the Campaign for a Fair Society in England.

Our initial development group includes, people from:

  • People First England
  • Bringing Us Together
  • Housing & Support Alliance
  • The Centre for Welfare Reform

Hopefully others will join us as we grow.

We’re still at a very early stage and there’s still lots of details to work out;  but I thought it might be useful to offer some initial thinking about what we are doing and why.

First of all we want to make sure that the voice of people with learning disabilities is as loud and as powerful as possible. That’s why we are going to encourage every individual and organisation we can to join the Learning Disability Alliance.

Second we want as many people and organisations to work together as possible. The opinions of people with learning disabilities are the most important. But others can help. Families are often the key to helping people have the best life possible – they provide love, passion and support – we must listen to families too. And the voices of professionals and workers also count – they mustn’t become too loud or too important – but they still have much to say that can help.

That’s why LDA England is going to give every organisation a vote – BUT we will make sure that people with learning disabilities CANNOT be out-voted.

Third we are going to work with others. I had really hoped that perhaps some bigger alliance might emerge – women, families, disabled people, asylum seekers, the poor – they are all under attack and in an ideal world they would all work together. But this isn’t happening – so we must begin where we can and then reach out to these other groups.

There are one million people with learning disabilities in the UK. Most have family and friends, many have support from paid workers or professionals – together that’s probably about 5 million voters – 10% of the electorate.

Let’s make those votes count. Let’s chivvy back.

So this is our initial plan:

  1. Invite as many organisations as possible to join LDA
  2. Describe what’s wrong and what needs to change – develop LDA’s manifesto
  3. Listen to discussion and debate about these ideas
  4. Vote on our policies – making sure people with learning disabilities can’t be out voted
  5. Publish our own ideas, telling other voters and the politicians
  6. Test each party’s manifesto before the election and decide which best support people with learning disabilities
  7. Encourage as many as people to get out and vote

It’s going to be hard work – but we can do it. We’ve got 8 months to make sure people with learning disabilities get their voice heard and can challenge growing injustice.

Why not join us?

At the moment:

You can like our Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/LDAEngland

You can follow us on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LDAEngland

UPDATE

You can now sign up online: www.learningdisabilityalliance.org

The Liberal Fallacy or Yet Another Argument for Basic Income

Liberalism, or neoliberalism, has many flaws but we don’t always focus on its biggest flaw.

You can see this flaw most obviously once you accept one of the most important axiom’s of liberal economics: if prices are flexible then the market will clear.

But what does that mean?

Well let’s begin with a simple example:

Farmers come to the market in order to sell their harvest. Shoppers go to the market in order to buy their food. The price is whatever money is exchanged for the goods. Now, if prices are flexible, then we can expect all the goods to be sold – the market will be ‘cleared’. When shoppers compete to buy some rarer item then its price will rise. When sellers compete to offload a less popular item then its price will drop. Eventually everything, even the most unattractive item should be sold as the price approaches zero.

Now the most obvious flaw in this account is that real markets don’t work like this:

The day finishes, and some goods are left over, even when there has been heavy discounting at the end of the day. This might be for all sorts of practical reasons – perhaps fewer people came to the market that day etc. But also the seller does not always accept the logic of liberal economics. He might insist on holding to his notion of a fair price – whatever the market conditions. Like the grandfather in Halldór Laxness’ The Fish Can Sing, who always sells his fish at the same price: On a day when there is high demand for fish he does not increase his price – he simply sells his ‘bargain’ fish quickly. On a day when demand is low he may not even sell his fish at all.

So, real markets are not like the pure markets of economics, not just because of the complexities of reality, but also because some people simply refuse to bend to the idea that the market should set the price. For the liberal this is a kind of irrationality: how can the fish have a value outside of the market mechanism? If nobody will pay your ‘fair price’ how can you imagine that this is its true value?

The liberal is competing with an older view (certainly the medieval view) that things really do have a fair price. And this is probably linked to Aristotle’s way of looking at things. Within the Aristotelian tradition all things have their true essence – their meaning or their value – which the wise can discern. But too often we see only the accidental properties of a thing – their semblance or their price. Within this tradition the market can no more measure value than the fool can find truth.

It seems to me that this debate about value has been at the heart of politics and society for some centuries. Liberals are modernists. The notion of an essential value is, for them, a fiction. Only the social mechanism of the market gives things a price. This may be sad and unromantic, they argue, but, for example ‘Your house is only really worth what someone is willing to pay.’ And unattractive as this is in some respects, as an argument it does have a certain power.

Today we can see these two competing perspectives playing out in the debate between those want to see greater market flexibility in wages, versus those who want to see greater rigidity, for example by the application of minimum wages, living wages or stronger employment rights. The liberal argues that, whatever the apparent disadvantages of zero-hours contracts, self-employment or reduced employment rights, any increased flexibility will improve market efficiency and so does benefit society in the long-run.

Liberalism may be rational but it is certainly unrealistic. Real markets don’t clear and real people certainly don’t behave ‘rationally’. In fact we all turn out to be a strange mixture of the modern and the medieval. When house prices went up by 360% in 11 years we became liberals, enjoying (if we owned a house!) the ‘rising housing market.’ [Interestingly this kind of jargon reveals exactly our confusion, for markets don’t rise or fall – they are just spaces.] But now that bubble seems ready to burst we have all turned medieval. We want the Government to bail us out and defend the ‘value’ of our house and to ensure that we don’t lose out from our own bad investments. Our sense of the fair price for our own home seems wonderfully flexible as long as its direction is upwards.

We are liberals when it suits us. Bubbles make fools of us all.

But this debate between fair-value and market-value is a sideshow; it does not reveal the essential flaw in liberalism. It cannot lead to any helpful answers to the fundamental questions of social justice.

The essential flaw in liberalism is much simpler – there is nothing in the market that will ensure the seller will get enough – enough to live on, enough to thrive, enough to support their citizenship. Market’s don’t care, they are not moral, they are not fair and they don’t need to ensure the survival of those who ‘come to the market.’

A flexible labour market certainly benefits employers, especially if they need to compete on price with organisations in countries who have much lower labour costs. Investors certainly prefer the cost of labour to be controlled or reduced employment securities. This reduces their liabilities.

But whatever benefits a flexible labour market offers to employers or investors, it still does not ensure that people will have enough to live on. Like the canny shopper, waiting until the end of market day, to see what price the unsold bananas might fall to, the employer knows that, when the seller is desperate enough, they will be able to buy the labour they need, at almost any price.

The essential flaw in liberalism is that, by its very logic, it will never provide a decent and secure income for citizens. To do so would be to undermine the market itself.

Of course, those who campaign for increased minimum wages or a living wage know all this. But they are forced to deploy the medieval argument – which while is attractive in many ways – is also fraught with many problems. They have been drawn onto the enemy’s territory. Their motivation is good, but perhaps their strategy is wrong. They seek to mitigate the market’s inevitable injustices, but they thereby accept that the regulation of the price of labour is the proper means of reducing social injustice. This brings with it a host of problems.

By arguing about prices we are arguing on the liberal’s territory. Instead, we must, as the Chinese say, lure the tiger from the mountains. We must start with need and justice.

This is how we can strike at the heart of the liberal fallacy. For, if the market cannot deliver fair and secure incomes for all, then perhaps so we must abandon the market for that purpose. Instead we must secure our basic income or our citizen’s income socially and politically. We must agree together what is fair, and distribute to each other the necessary resources for our basic or citizen’s income.

This is not to abandon the market for all purposes. It is to put the market in its place (in a more humble place – a secondary place). The market cannot ensure that we each have enough. So let us stop trying to make it. Instead we must create real income security together – we set a basic income and ensure that each citizen gets it. We must fix what is fair together and then we can let the labour market help us distribute our gifts and our talents between each other – at prices we are free to set ourselves.

This strategy has two further advantages over the mitigation of the market strategy which is currently being deployed by our allies.

First, it just lets the market do what is does do well – connect people’s needs to other people’s gifts. Price flexibility (once our basic income is secured) is a boon, not just to employers, but to employees, not just to customers but also to producers. If I love to write poetry, but the going rate for poetry is low, then I can sell myself cheaply, while knowing that I am doing what I really value. If I choose to do something that few others seem to value, like cleaning toilets, I can demand a higher price for my labour. We are free to decide what is important to us – in both buying labour and selling labour. We are no longer at the mercy of the market.

Second, we start to breakdown the illusion that the market can value us. Today we are constantly being told that all sorts of people are worth more than the rest of us and so are deservedly entitled to whatever salaries they award themselves – be they bankers, politicians, footballers or whoever. The price we pay for this exploitation of markets by the powerful is not only economic, it is spiritual. We are only too likely to believe the nonsensical idea that some banker is ‘worth more’ than some other person – perhaps the toilet cleaner. Constantly we forget what a proper understanding of economics can always teach us – there is no real relationship between value and price: water is cheap; diamonds are expensive; but it is water that we need to live.

Perhaps it is time to put the market in perspective. It is not a demon, it is not a saviour. It is just a useful tool for any society that understands that we are each worth infinitely more than our price in the labour market and that markets don’t take care of us – they never will. Only we can take care of us.

The Eugenic Fallacy

The contemporary philosopher, Peter Singer, is not the only modern thinker who thinks ‘the handicapped baby should die’. Eugenics is not dead, it is just in hiding. Singer is just more outspoken than most.

But he, like other eugenicists, is guilty of a fallacy. His views may seem obviously wicked to some of us; but to many others they are quite tempting. Yet they are also deeply illogical – as I will attempt to show – and it is logic by which philosophers like Singer must live or die.
To begin with, let us acknowledge, even if we know that we  disagree with the eugenicist, that their  arguments do build on some kind of distorted truth.
Humanity is varied (as it should be) and, of course, part of that variability means that there are some of us who are weaker than others. [Although the concept of weakness is quite ambiguous concept, but we’ll leave that for another day.] This weakness, for example, might mean that I might need help to eat or to thrive; and this help can be treated as a cost – not just a financial cost – but as a cost in the lives of others. 
The eugenicist then demands that we put aside compassion, sympathy or love and instead we judge ‘honestly’ and examine the ‘burden’ that love or morality seems to demand: all the feeding, the caring, or the helping. At some point, they argue, we must recognise that this burden just becomes ‘unreasonable.’ And, of course, there is a genuine temptation here. Most of us might resent the care that we must take of others – all of us can imagine something else that we might do that would be more fun, pleasurable, relaxing, creative, productive etc. [Here we can each choose our own utilitarian poison.]
But how can there be an end to this. Each time we destroy the weakest a new weakest must emerge. Those who were second from last will now become last. There will always be someone with less, who needs more, it is a fundamental aspect of the human condition. The eugenic knife must keep on cutting – once we’ve decided that we are at liberty to destroy the weak we will find new people who are weak – and who must therefore be destroyed.
There can be no end to the destruction. And as the process destruction begins there must therefore appear two classes, those who destroy and those to be destroyed. We may feel that we will not belong to either class, but ultimately we must choose – there is only the illusion of a middle ground. If we are silent while the destruction goes on then we are complicit with destruction. If we resist then we stand with those who they wish to destroy.
Eugenics always opens this gulf within humanity – it is profoundly inhuman because it forgets that diversity and weakness is of our very essence. But it is profoundly illogical because it forgets that eugenics changes everything, for all of us. The eugenicist argues as if the act of genocide is merely some neutral act of science. But always there will be those who wield the knife, inject the toxin or turn on the gas. We must become killer or victim. And as the victims pile up the killers must turn on each other. Eugenics is pragmatically self-contradictory – it cannot be sustained (which is not to say it cannot happen – it is happening now).
Eugenics is a particularly tempting philosophy for those who are powerful or wish to be amongst the powerful. In the nineteenth century, as Arendt argued, it was a critical element in the thinking of al the competing elites – liberals, progressives, imperialists and racists:

Darwinism met with such overwhelming success because it provided, on the basis of inheritance, the ideological weapons for race as well as class rule and could be used for, as well as against, race discrimination. Politically speaking, Darwinism as such was neutral, and it has led, indeed, to all kinds of pacifism and cosmopolitanism as well as to the sharpest forms of imperialistic ideologies. In the seventies and eighties of the last century, Darwinism was still almost exclusively in the hands of the utilitarian anti-colonial party in England. And the first philosopher of evolution, Herbert Spencer, who treated sociology as part of biology, believed natural selection to benefit the evolution of mankind and to result in everlasting peace. For political discussion, Darwinism offered two important concepts: the struggle for existence with optimistic assertion of the necessary and automatic “survival of the fittest,” and the indefinite possibilities which seemed to lie in the evolution of man out of animal life and which started the new “science” of eugenics. 

The doctrine of the necessary survival of the fittest, with its implication that the top layers in society eventually are the “fittest,” dies as the conquest doctrine had died, namely, at the moment when the ruling classes in England or the English domination in colonial possessions were no longer absolutely secure, and when it became highly doubtful whether those who were the “fittest” today would still be the fittest tomorrow. The other part of Darwinism, the genealogy of man from animal life, unfortunately survived. Eugenics promised to overcome the troublesome uncertainties of the survival doctrine according to which it was impossible either to predict who would turn out to be the the fittest or to provide the means for the nations to develop everlasting fitness. This possible consequence of applied eugenics was stressed in Germany in the twenties as a reaction to Spengler’s Decline of the West. The process of selection had only to be changed from a natural necessity which worked behind the backs of men into an “artificial,” consciously applied physical tool. Bestiality had always been inherent in eugenics, and Ernst Haeckel’s early remark [1904] that mercy-death would save “useless expenses for family and state” is quite characteristic. Finally the last disciples of Darwinism in Germany decided to leave the field of scientific research altogether, to forget about the search for the missing link between man and ape, and started instead their practical efforts to change man into what the Darwinists thought an ape is.

Hannah Arendt from The Origins of Totalitarianism 

Today we have our own ‘neoliberal’ version of eugenics. ‘Let the market do the work of the eugenicist. Let those who are unworthy fall aside. Greed is natural and good. We are powerful, rich and strong because we are the best. We should survive and thrive, they should fail.’
This road to Hell has been trod before. The fact that it is all illogical nonsense does not stop it from growing in strength. Its strength is rooted, not in truth, but in fear and in our natural desire not to find ourselves on the losing side – the side of the weak. 
The only thing that will stop it before it destroys everything is that either when the weak themselves resist or that those who have not yet been marked out as weak choose to stand beside them. 
The trial lies before us now, but we close our eyes and hope it will go away of its own accord. This never works.

Weil’s or Pascal’s Wager

Here is Pascal’s famous wager, which proposes the absolute rationality of believing in God: 

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is….

“God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. 

A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

Do not, then, reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. “No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.”

Yes; but you must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. 

“That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.” Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite.

Blaise Pascal, Thoughts

Pascal appeals to our reason, by asking us to recognise that reason itself has come to its limits. Instead we must make that great existential choice – we must commit ourselves. But to choose not to believe is to risk everything – an infinity of happinesses.

There is a power to this argument, but it is also fraught with problems. In particular, as Simone Weil recognised, its very logic is inconsistent with true faith.

Here is an alternative wager, put forward by Weil:

If we put obedience to God above everything else, unreservedly, with the following thought: ‘Suppose God is real, then our gain is total – even though we fall into nothingness at the point of death; suppose the word ‘God’ stands only for illusions, then we have still lost nothing because on this assumption there is absolutely nothing good, and consequently nothing to lose; we have even gained, through being in accord with truth, because we have left aside the illusory goods which exists but are not good, for the sake of something which (on this assumption) does not exist but which, if it did exist, would be the only good… 

If one follows this rule of life, then no revelation at the the moment of death can cause any regrets; because if chance or the devil governs all worlds we would still have no regrets for having lived this way. 

This is greatly preferable to Pascal’s wager.

Simone Weil, Gateway to God, p. 44 

The attraction of Weil’s wager is that she refuses to separate truth and goodness. If God exists then we have truth – even without Paradise or any eternal happiness – even if we crumble away into nothing. We had faith in truth, even if that truth turns out to be inconsistent with our eternal happiness.

And, if God does not exist, we also lose nothing, because we have not deluded ourselves with meaningless goods. She will not allow Pascal’s easy separation of a good that may be false.

Weil’s is the harder road, but it is the better road. Faith in God cannot be a gamble on a free ride to Heaven. And belief cannot mean just the mouthing of words or the holding of ideas. Belief is our commitment – belief is an action of the will – the very essence of our being.

Ideal Markets or Real Markets

In public policy we use the word ‘market’ in radically different ways and in fundamentally inconsistent ways.

For the liberal (or if you prefer, neoliberal) the word ‘market’ is used to describe a special kind of human interaction – the ‘free exchange of goods or services at an agreed price’. The beauty of this liberal vision lies in the market’s seemingly magical ability to achieve three wonderful things at the same time:

  • It is a place of freedom – free individuals come together to bargain and exchange
  • It is a place of community – people make promises to each other and bind each other by contracts
  • It is a place of productivity – time, energy and money flow into the places which have the most value.
Of course, this vision of the market is just a beautiful ideal. In the real world:
  • The starting point is not fair, and advantages accrue to those already advantaged, and so freedom turns into exploitation.
  • When relationships of power are radically unequal then the community we create is atomised and elitist.
  • The most productive is not always the best; commerce can destroy nature, community, industry and even politics itself (as we are finding out to our cost in the UK).
And most liberals do know this. The market is their ideal, but they accept that in many areas there will be what they call ‘market failure’ and – for various reasons – it is recognised that the ideal market cannot really exist. So they will – to varying degrees – accept that markets must be controlled or an alternative system offered in their place. The market is for the liberal a ‘Platonic ideal’ – it may not be fully realisable – but we should strive towards it and use it evaluate the real.

Thus economics becomes the measure of man, not man the measure of economics.

Of course there are those who do not worship the market. These anti-liberals include socialists and conservatives. This may seem a surprising alliance and we often forget that there used to be a very different kind of conservative (small c) philosophy – one that valued King, country, religion, the local and the small. But this kind of conservatism now has nothing to do with the UK’s Conservative party. The Conservative party is now the leading ‘liberal’ party and it is no longer in the business of ‘conserving’ anything at all – except perhaps the interests of the rich and the powerful.

The anti-liberal thinks of the market not as a space but as a force:

  • The financial market is a malevolent force selling fraudulent products or gambling with our savings.
  • The housing market is crazy bubble where our own greed drives up prices to the benefit only of those who can escape it at the right point.
  • Markets drive the growth of monopolies, big business and the industrialisation of almost everything – markets even seem to kill the possibility of markets.
Of course socialists and conservatives also will accept the need for markets. Only the most zealous want to control food production, everyday shopping or enterprise. But the market is, for them, not an ideal space, but a demon, to be controlled and harnessed. At best its energy provides other resources and so it can be taxed to support the things the anti-liberal really values.

Until the 1990s the battle between the liberal and the anti-liberal was largely fought on the margin of the sphere of public services. Markets were for private goods and services; when it came to public services it was the state that was in control. There was a disagreement about what should be nationalised and what should be left free – but no disagreement that nationalisation meant – ‘outside the market’.

But this has now changed radically. Today it is quite common to hear people talk about markets for public services: the social care market, the healthcare market, the market for social housing. However these markets rarely have any of the qualities that the liberal associates with markets. It is not people, making free decisions, who buy these services – it is commissioners or governments. Here the word ‘market’ takes on a third meaning – roughly – ‘the stuff we spend public money on’.

So we are left with three entirely different and contradictory meanings for the term market:

  1. A space within which free, contractual and efficient exchanges can take place – the idealised market
  2. A force which can redistribute, steal or exploit resources and power – the demonised market
  3. An array of objects, services or products, perhaps purchased by the state or its agent – the phoney market
Of course when a word is so used and abused it is easy to lose patience and to simply abandon the whole concept. What is the value of the word ‘market’ when it means three contradictory things?
However I would like to make the case for a fourth use of the term – I would like to make the case for the market as an ‘agora’ – a free, protected and public space where a whole range of human activities can be carried out. The agora is not primarily economic – it is simply the space the community needs to collaborate and to work together. Business can be done there, but it is not defined by business.
I was very struck a few years ago to find, on a visit to Athens, that the ancient agora had been marked off by sacred stones. The purpose of these stones was to protect the agora from the private – from the invasion of the sacred space by people’s desire to extend their houses or gardens. It was sacrilege to privatise the market – the market was public property – divinely blessed.
What is more the agora was not just for shopping. The agora was for every kind of public business. The school master taught his students; philosophers sat on the stoa, a shaded area on the edge of the agora (hence stoics); government officers worked and ran meetings; and temples operated. The agora is messy and human – lots of stuff goes on – out in the public square. The agora even housed the building for weights and measures – the system for checking on cheats – for ‘regulating the market’.
Interestingly the agora excluded the Acropolis (the centre of religious life), the assembly which met on the Pnyx (the centre of political power) and the Areopagus (the centre of justice). Each of these institutions was based on one of the hills looking down over the agora from on high.
Perhaps it is time to leave the idealised, demonised and phoney markets behind us. Perhaps it is time to work out how to protect and cherish real markets – the agora – those essential public arenas in which we do stuff together.

Today these place will not just be physical – they will also be virtual – but they are essential. Without the agora we cannot be fully human.

Keeping Money Fresh – The Ideas of Malcolm Henry

Nothing that could be got from the heart of the earth could have been put to better purposes than the silver the king’s miners got for him. There were people in the country who, when it came into their hands, degraded it by locking it up in a chest, and then it grew diseased and was called mammon, and bred all sorts of quarrels; but when first it left the king’s hands it never made any but friends, and the air of the world kept it clean. 

From the Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald

I’ve just watched a brilliant film my Malcolm Henry on the creation of money and the case it creates for a basic (or citizen’s) income.

http://youtu.be/gue9Q6wgdjQ

I won’t summarise the argument he makes, other than to say that – like MacDonald – he distinguishes two kinds of money (a) the money in circulation in the productive economy which the air of the world keeps clean and (b) the money in savings or gambling which has become diseased. Henry then argues that we are locked into a toxic relationship with the latter; while a system of taxation for savings plus citizen’s income restores a healthy pattern of productive recirculation.

I do not know exactly whether this is the perfect solution to our problems; but it sounds compelling and intriguing to me. I will think more on this – and buy his book.

But it does strike me that in order to shift our thinking about social justice and to achieve a saner and fairer world we will need a new kind of economics. Henry seems to be doing exactly the right thing – offering us a way of picturing our situation which is true to our real challenges:

We are wealthy, but income is distributed unfairly; we are productive, but locked in debt.

It is worth remembering that the welfare state was partly the child of Beveridge – who designed some of its basic institutions – but it was also partly the child of Keynes – whose economic theory provided government with the confidence to act as the agent of growth. Today, while Beveridge and Keynes both have much to teach us, we re also suffering from the some of the limitations implicit in their models. In particular the Keynes-Beveridge welfare state tried to offer security of income through security of employment – but this model looks out-dated today.

Security is necessary, but the security we need must come from each other and not be linked to working as an ’employee’. Eventually we will find that freedom and security can be reconciled in a new economic framework.

So a big thank you to Malcolm Henry – a great innovator in the new economics we need!

The Cancer of English Anti-Semitism

The 200 year-old arrangement – by which the Jews rendered money-lending services in return for protection and freedom of travel around the kingdom – was torn to shreds. The first sign was the sudden enforcement of the wearing of the badge of difference, the ‘tabula’. Now they were marked people. Then, the towns in which they were allowed to reside, were limited; whole communities now moved elsewhere. When Edward got back from the crusade it got worse. A state on the Jews in 1275 forbade money-lending, the essential activity, whatever its odium and perils, that supported what would be otherwise indigent communities.

Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews, p. 323

This pattern keeps repeating itself – destroy a people by attacking their rights, their presence and their economic contribution. I explore this issue in more detail in The Unmaking of Man.

The same pattern can be seen in the lives of disabled people trapped in institutions. The same pattern was repeated in Hitler’s Germany.

As Arendt observes the final cruel blow is to rob people of any role – as either exploited or exploiter:

Persecution of powerless or power-losing groups may not be a very pleasant spectacle, but it does not spring from human meanness alone. What makes men obey or tolerate real power and, on the other hand, hate people who have wealth without power, is the rational instinct that power has a certain function and is of some general use. Even exploitation and oppression still make society work and establish some kind of order. Only wealth without power or aloofness without a policy are felt to be parasitical, useless, revolting, because such conditions cut all the threads which tie men together. Wealth which does not exploit lacks even the relationship which exists between exploiter and exploited; aloofness without policy does not even imply the minimum concern of the oppressor for the oppressed.

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 5

We must protect each other’s rights – with no excuses, no exceptions. But we must also guard against segregation and special badges that mark some people off as ‘special’. And we must never allow anyone to be treated as if they have nothing to offer – we need everyone – everyone has something to offer.

Otherwise, horror awaits.

1275 was a particular low point for England. English anti-Semitism unleashed the trend towards the ghetto and the pogrom, a trend which spread across Europe in the centuries that followed. In turn this led to modern anti-Semitism and the death camps. We may warm our consciences by the fact that the worst excesses were not ours – but many of them started in England and spread outwards like cancer.

The Inquisition – A Truly Modern Institution

The Inquisition was its own dominion of judgement, a state within a state, answerable to no one other than the Pope, the Crown and its own array of imposing bureaucratic regulations. As well as the inquisitors and those who staffed the tribunals of interrogation, a huge array of ‘familiars’, who were responsible for handling the bureaucratic work that oiled the machinery of terror. So many carefully considered regulations surrounded the application of torture, for example, that those who oversaw it constituted the first systematically organised bureaucracy of pain. The Inquisition even had its own miniature armies of protection and intimidation. The Inquisitor General Tomas de Torquemada never travelled anywhere without his own army of horsemen, especially after an inquisitor had been murdered in Saragossa Cathedral by a desperate group of ‘conversos’. Notoriously, virtually unlimited powers of torture were granted to extract ‘full’ confessions from those suspected of relapsing or, worse, those who were impenitent, active Judaisers. Thus the snooping state made its way into history: servants, family members, neighbours frightened and cajoled into becoming informers and spies. Even in monasteries and convents, monks and nuns would report on brothers and sisters whom they suspected of looking down when the Host was raised, stumbling over the Paternoster or Ave Maria and saying who knew what in the solitude of their cells. Yirimiyahu Yovel is right to see in this the germ of a modern malevolent modern institution rather than a medieval relic. It was indeed something fresh in its inhumanity.

Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews, p. 405

Support for Yovel and Schama is found in Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and in Foucault’s account of the prison. The Inquisition may have been one of the first modern institutions, but the hospital, the prison, the asylum, concentration camps and extermination centres were to quickly follow. The religious and the anti-religious joined together in a barbaric assault on humanity.

Modern doesn’t mean better.

And as Arendt and Foucault noticed, the sign of a truly modern institution is that it refuses to accept merely outward signs of conformity. It is not good enough that we seem to be fitting in – we must really fit in – and if not we must be remade or destroyed.

What is the connection between this modern desire to invade the inner private sphere of the mind and spirit and the growing conviction that no such sphere exists? It is almost as if the declining faith in metaphysics (not just Christian, but any deeper metaphysics) leaves us exposed to the most extreme outrages by those who seek control.

Materialism leaves us naked, ready to be herded hither and thither.

Perhaps the Inquisition was the first sign of our declining faith – no longer do we trust in the Holy Spirit and the judgement of Christ – we presume to act on their behalf.

What is Neoliberalism Good For?

It would be fair to say that the world of politics seems to be dominated by an ideology that we in the UK call liberalism and which argues for the primacy of freedom and the pursuit of individual happiness. This is an influential theory; but one that is full of paradoxes and perversities.

The most obvious is that we can’t even agree what to call it.

On the other side of the Atlantic liberalism means, roughly, what we would call Left-wing.

On this side of the Atlantic we use the term either to describe the thoughts of the centrist political party we now call the Liberal Democrats, or the entirely different theoretical tradition championed by sections of the Conservative Party – which is also sometimes called Thatcherism.

How confusing!

Many on the Left now call it neoliberalism – although I’ve never been able to distinguish ‘new liberalism’ from ‘old liberalism’. Perhaps neoliberalism is just code for the version of completely batty extreme Right-wing liberalism that nobody could believe in.

Usually, if someone is talking about neoliberalism they refer to Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. But when I studied this very interesting book I got the sense that the author himself didn’t really believe his own theory. The whole thing is an elegant reductio ad absurdam of his own position. It seemed to be designed half in jest; moreover a few years later he outlined a very different theory in The Examined Life.

Even those radical Republicans who use liberal arguments are only half serious. Take for instance the Republican satirist, P J O’Rourke, who summarises his position thus:

The other secret to balancing the budget is to remember that all tax revenue is the result of holding a gun to somebody’s head. Not paying taxes is against the law. If you don’t pay your taxes, you’ll be fined. If you don’t pay the fine you’ll be jailed. If you try to escape from jail, you’ll be shot. Thus, I – in my role as citizen and voter – am going to shoot you – in your role as taxpayer and ripe suck – if you do not pay your share of the national tab. Therefore, every time the government spends money on anything, you have to ask yourself, “Would I kill my kindly, gray haired mother for this?” In the case of defence spending, the argument is simple: “Come on Ma, everybody’s in this together. If those Canadian hordes come down over the border, we’ll all be dead meat. Pony up.” In the case of helping cripples, orphans and blind people, the argument is almost as persuasive: “Mother, I know you don’t know these people from Adam, but we’ve got five thousand years of Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist-Hindu-Confucian-animist-jungle-God morality going here. Fork over the dough.” But day care doesn’t fly: ”You’re paying the next-door neighbour’s baby-sitter, or its curtains for you, Mom.” 

P J O’Rourke, Parliament of Whores, p.100

In other words, neoliberalism is secondary to “Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist-Hindu-Confucian-animist-jungle-God morality” which is another way of saying that there are much more important and truthful ideas than liberalism.

The point is that even many of the extreme advocates of neoliberalism don’t really pretend to take their own theory that seriously. Nobody but a lunatic would think that just pursuing your own selfish goals is a sensible way to think about your own purpose or about the well-being of society.

So if neoliberals don’t believe in neoliberalism, who does?

I think the paradoxical answer is that only the opponents of neoliberalism really believe in neoliberalism – but they believe in it negatively. It serves the same rhetorical purpose on the Left as a term like communist does on the Right. It is also socially helpful; if you are of the Left then you are united by your opposition to neoliberalism. It is not so much a straw man as a straw enemy.

Now I need to be careful here.

I am not suggesting that there are not plenty of greedy or self-interested people in the world. There are plenty. There are also corporate bodies that behave in ways that are motivated by avarice and which are profoundly damaging to our society.

Greed is real and greed is not good. Corruption is very real.

And I know that there are a few people who believe in the ravings of Ayn Rand or the musings of Robert Nozick. Although I don’t think these people are the ones we really have to worry about.

In my view neoliberalism has never been a coherent or attractive theory. What it is, is a bag of rhetorical devices that can be deployed to protect the interests of powerful elites. It offers rhetorical tropes – phrases and concepts – which if unexamined – lend depth to the self-serving policies of the powerful. But these devices not really rooted in liberalism – instead they take genuine moral concepts but twist them into narrow concepts in order serve their own selfish ends:

  • Our desire for freedom is whittled down to consumerism
  • Citizenship loses its meaning and is reduced to vain individualism
  • Virtue is emptied of real content and just becomes responsibility – looking after your own
  • Community becomes a market, and a particularly uninteresting kind of market
  • Government becomes the state, not something we do together, just an external device to keep us all in order

The rhetorical device works because it is starts with in something valuable. But the valuable concepts are not the concepts of liberalism. Something good is being suggested; yet by the time we find out what the liberal means by freedom, citizenship or virtue we are left with something toxic.

In practice the rhetoric of liberalism is useful to those who use it because it encourages people to leave well alone:

  • Why would you want to rule yourselves? Leave that to us.
  • Why would you want a community or public goods? Private goods are good enough for you.
  • Don’t worry about freedom. Why not go shopping instead?
  • Don’t worry about virtue. Just pay your taxes; we’ll do the rest.

Don’t worry leave it to us, leave it to the market, leave it to our contractors – we know just the man for the job.

Neoliberalism is not neutral – it turns out there are a whole class of people who get the job of running the minimal state, the markets and the corporations.

Perhaps I should join in the attack on neoliberalism. I have certainly had lots of good people telling me that I am foolish for not understanding its power or the threat that it presents. Perhaps it is naive of me to think that I shouldn’t have to attack a stupid theory – one in which no one but a fool would believe.

But I can’t believe attacking straw enemies is good for us. It seems to me that we run the risk of giving life to a monster – wasting our energy fighting something which does not really exist. And gross enemies sometimes get in the way of really examining what we are fighting for.

Meanwhile we fail to notice the way in which power and control is centralised in the hands of political and commercial elites – not because they believe in neoliberalism – but because they are greedy and arrogant – and because we have let them get away with it.

Use and Abuse of Standards

To have standards or regulations imposed upon us means we all cannot succeed; some will make it and some will fail. It is by the nature of such measures that they must divide us into sheep and goats.

The only standards that we should really accept are those we willingly accept. Only the standards that we set for ourselves can keep pace with our own learning.

Of course society does need valid tests; but these should be as objective as possible. For instance, Charles Handy compared the UK’s driving test with its exam system:

  • The first test is objective, we take it when we are ready, and it tells us something useful – you really can drive – these kinds of tests are much harder for politicians to corrupt.
  • The second is a system of ranking, which we are herded through whether we are ready or not – and it has proved very easy to corrupt.

A driving test is a standard that we can measure ourselves by. Music exams have also remained robust – you take each Grade when you are ready to pass it.

But an exam system which seeks to grade us and which is also taken as measure of the success of the school or the area or the government becomes corrupt. Perhaps systems that try to test both the person and yet which are somehow taken as a measure of the system’s own successfulness seem prone to collapse under their own inner contradiction.

The Devolution of Blame

Now I don’t want to be misunderstood – I am not blaming Devolution, what I want to talk about is the opposite problem.

Emilie Whitaker coined the term “blame devolution” to describe, I think, the way in which bureaucracies or other hierarchical systems seek to devolve blame to the point of least resistance. For example, ‘Let’s blame the social worker.’

This fact corresponds to the principle outlined by my Greek grandfather-in-law, Petros Protopapadakis: The fish always rots from the head down. In other words, in any system, the likely point of responsibility for any failure will lie with its leadership.

There is a dreadful paradox which plays out behind these two truths: The centre tends to exploit the periphery, and so we grow to mistrust the periphery and try to push power and accountability to the centre. But we can end up with the worst of all possible worlds – more centralisation, giving the centre more power to abuse its power.

A better framework for dealing with such abuses is constitutional or legal. We must have rights to protect us form the abuse of power. And any necessary powers must be located with those who are best able to meet those rights. (This sometimes means central power, sometimes local and sometimes just personal freedom).

We must be on guard against the policy soundbite – the lazy assumption that decentralisation always means better. But at the same time we must also ensure that power and control are properly devolved outwards, as far away from the centre as is possible, and in a way that is consistent with our secure rights.

What Would Aristotle Make of Modern Britain?

Aristotle famously divided the forms of government into three:

  • Monarchy – rule by one
  • Aristocracy – rule by the best
  • Polity – rule by the many

Each in turn can be corrupted into:

  • Rule by a tyrant, who is concerned only with his own interests
  • Rule by oligarchs, an elite who protect their own interests
  • Rule by the mass or the mob, who look after the interests of the majority

In other words we can distinguish the structural forms of government, from their proper concern: which in all cases is a full and balanced concern for the whole community – over time – including respect for the past, as well as concern for the future.

How would Aristotle classify the modern welfare democracy of the UK today?

Structurally it is a mixed model: (1) a constitutional monarch (2) competing elites, taking turns to control a bureaucracy which is itself an elite, or transferring power to private businesses, where similar elite groups can be found (3) accountability every five years to the population through an election.

But what is the spirit of this trifold constitution? Is it properly concerned with the welfare of all and the communities well-being and continuity over time? Or is it only interested in promoting particular interests? Is it healthy or is it corrupt?

Aristotle was no fool. He would probably recognise that no society can ever manage to avoid some degree of corruption – people will just keep seeking to look after their own interests or the interests of their friends. But he would surely worry, looking at the UK today, that the direction of travel is unhealthy. The elites who run our society begin to look more and more like each other; and less and less like the rest of us. And their conception of what is good for society sounds more and more like what is good for them.

Living Forever

The patriarch Ching of Ch’i was with his companions on Mount Ox. As he looked northward out over his capital, tears rose in his eyes. “Such a splendid land,” he said, “swarming, burgeoning; if only I didn’t have to die and leave it as the waters pass! What if from from eldest times there were no death: would I ever have to leave here?”

His companions joined him in weeping. “Even for the simple fare we eat,” they said, “for the nag and plank wagon we have to ride, we depend upon our lord’s generosity. If we have no wish to die, how much less must our lord.”

Yen Tzu was the only one smiling, somewhat apart. The patriarch wiped away his tears and looked hard at Yen Tzu. “These two who weep with me share the sadness I feel on today’s venture,” said the patriarch. “Why do you alone smile, sir?”

“What is the worthiest ruled forever?” asked Yen Tzu. “Then T’ai or Huan would be patriarch forever. What if the bravest? Then Chuang or Ling would be patriarch forever. With such as those in power, my lord, you would now be in the rice fields, wearing a straw cape and bamboo hat, careworn from digging, with no time to brood over death. And then, my lord, how could you have reached the position you now hold? It was through the succession of your predecessors, who held and vacated the throne each in his turn, that you came to be lord over this land. For you to lament this is selfish. Seeing a selfish lord and his fawning, flattering subjects, I presumed to smile.”

The patriarch was embarrassed, raised his flagon, and penalised his companions two drafts of wine apiece.

Lieh Tzu

Sometimes I hear scientists or others express great excitement at the thought that we might use science to extend our lives for many years beyond our natural span. Then I hear others express great concern that the planet is becoming too full and that human numbers must be curtailed.  I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Life of course (by which I also mean death) is designed to balance things out. To allow the new to replace the old. To offer us each a time under the sun and on the planet. We cannot have our cake (longer and longer lives) and eat it too (no overcrowding, no change, no rebirth); unless, like the patriarch Ching of Ch’i we suddenly become myopic and imagine that only our life matters.

Of course the reality of our limits – our mortality – an awareness of which is a moral obligation – raises fundamental theological questions. What does life or time mean in heaven? What of our life now could be ‘transplanted’ into heaven? How is the idea of heaven reconcilable with what we know of our own requirements and essential limitations? Some will say that this provides good reason to doubt the reasonableness of heaven, others will argue that this just demonstrates the limits of human rationality and imagination.

Yet the fundamental truth, which is captured in this story, is that any mortal desire for immortality is the highest form of vanity – imagining that it is we who are somehow worthy of such a state, unwilling to recognise how much we have relied on the passing away of others, and unwilling to pass on our inheritance to our children and grand-children.

Measurements

There was a man of Cheng who was going to buy himself shoes. First he measured his foot; then he put the measurements away. When he got to the market he discovered that he had left them behind. After he found the shoes he wanted, he went home to fetch the measurements; but the marketplace was closed when he returned, and he never got his shoes. Someone asked him: “Why didn’t you use your own foot?” “I trusted the measurements more than my foot,” he replied.

Han Fei Tzu

This Chinese story reminds me of how often we find ourselves measuring things that don’t need to be measured. Instead of giving people choice and control we measure their satisfaction or their outcomes. So we exercise a subtle act of power – invalidating their choice and validating our own right to determine what we count as valuable.

Measuring has always been political. It was considered sacrilegious to carry out a census, precisely because such a census (which could then be used to levy taxes) was a way of giving power to the measurer – in this case the king.

Today we are more relaxed about measurement. We measure ourselves, take surveys, monitor our health and subject ourselves to a battery of bureaucratic measurements and assessments. But do we know why? Have we subjected ourselves to the measuring state in the hope that it will thereby take care of us?

As genetic controls increase such measurements will take on a new dimension – they will start to determine our credit scores, our suitability as a parent, the cost of our insurance. We may start to feel much less relaxed about giving up so much information about ourselves.

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