Wednesday, 12 January 2011

The Free Market Fundamentalist

There was Nigel Lawson on Start The Week on Monday - telling us essentially not to worry about climate change because it'll all blow over probably. The important thing is to keep making money. After all,he said, it's making money that causes climate change and er... Where was I?

Nigel I suppose is one of them there Free Market Fundamentalists. I don't know all the details of what his own personal views are and frankly  I don't care, but I've got a fair idea what he thinks - heck, I grew up with these people. He's a type. He'll do for my purposes.
They were debating Protectionism (the restricting of free trade between nations to protect local jobs and/or prices.) Dambisa Moyo was arguing that some protectionism might be necessary if certain developing nations are ever to get their local economies off the ground. Nigel was against, basically because it's not Free Trade, and anything other than totally Free trade is anathema. No restrictions, no regulations, just Free. Anything less would be the start of 'The Slippery Slope'.
Slippery Slope arguments are almost always bogus. In almost every area of life we have to accept that there are shades of grey and we have to make judgement calls, but not for Nigel. People like Nigel like things to be all or nothing, black or white. Simple yes/no answers. Are you with us or are you against us? The ability to make quick uncompromising decisions and stick to them no matter what is taken as a sign of strong leadership and sound judgement. (Look at his old boss for example.)
No doubt Nigel likes to think he's being Realistic - that it's just Human Nature - 'Common Sense'. People like Nigel like to tell the rest of us what we're like (and not just some or part of us, but all of us, deep down, even if we can't admit it) - that we're ruthless, competitive and obsessed with power and material wealth. We might coo over our own children but otherwise it's dog-eat-dog out there. It's the Law of the Jungle - survival of the fittest. And therefore it's Natural. And what is Natural is right isn't it? We all know what is Natural - the Sociobiologists and Evolutionary Psychologists have looked at our closest relatives - the apes and monkeys (and any other species that seem instructive) and confirmed what we always knew about ourselves - ruthless self interest, xenophobia, racism, sexism, internecine warfare...
The Conservatives see themselves as the Natural Party of Government. The reason Thatcher achieved so much is because she took away the restrictions on what would happen 'naturally'. People again mistook this for sound political sense and strong leadership, when what she actually did was squash the resistance, who never had that much power in the first place (unless you count not collecting the rubbish and letting the lights go out, which I agree is a nuisance) and let the powerful become even more so.
The idea that what is natural is good is a very popular philosophy among everyone from hedonistic New Age Hippies ('If it feels good do it') to libertarian Social Darwinists ('Sod you Jack, I'm alright'), but Ethics 1.0.1. when I was at university (Ok, Brighton Poly) told us that 'Is' does not imply 'Ought.' In other words you cannot logically derive what ought to be the case from what is the case. Even if human nature is ruthless, competitive, and obsessed with power and material wealth (and that's a big 'if'), that does not make it right. There is this other thing - ethics, or morality, that tells us how things should be.

Of course, our Nigel would tell us that what he advocates is how things should be as well - because the Free Market is the only guarantor of improved living standards for all, which has got to be good, right? Climate change, mass migration and the odd genocide in Africa is just a temporary glitch.
And he's sort of right in a way. I will argue elsewhere that life for unprecedented numbers of us is safer, healthier and longer than it's ever been at any other time in human history, and a lot of that is due to medical, technological and social advances made possible by capitalism. (Ok, I don't entirely buy that but give them the benefit of the doubt.)
But even if that has been true in the past, is it possible or even likely that it will continue to be true in the future?
Again the 'strong leadership'/'uncompromising decision making' school of political thinking would counsel us not to be pessimistic. Doubt is a sign of weakness.

But doubt is reasonable. Already we're coming to the end of the resources and space we have available to an exponentially increasing human population. Already, we talk about places like China and India - home to vast fractions of that population aspiring to Western standards of living and we already know that for everybody to live to US standards would require, I don't remember the exact figure (probably it's not an exact figure) but it's something like five or six Earths' worth of space and resources. And if climate change takes hold in even the more modest ways predicted there will be less space, not more, to house and feed the world's population, never mind all the other species we share the place with. (That the problems are not certain is no excuse to assume that there will be no problems, as Nigel appears to.)
And yet Nigel simply believes that there won't be a problem because growth in the economy and advances in technology will make everything fine.

As a burgeoning Leftie back in my teens I was routinely accused of being naive and unrealistic. Left wingers also tend to be the ones accused of living by dogma and ideology instead of in 'The Real World'. And yet our Nigel looks at the future described above and says 'Growth and Technology will solve everything.'
Technology is going to have to make us the equivalent of five or six earth's worth of energy and resources in the next  fifty years. And the only way to make this happen apparently is to free up the economy. As his old boss would have said 'There is no alternative'.
Now who's the naive dreamer? Now who's living by dogma?

But what's the alternative? Anything less than unrestrained (wild) Western style growth and development is holding back progress, and the pursuit of happiness. Aspirational is the key word here, and who can deny it? Who does not want to aspire to greatness? It's the one thing the previous government and this agree on - the right to aspire - to want more than the previous generation - to do more - to have more. Who can argue with that?
Well I can. Most of us in The West are already pretty comfortably off materially (People in Ulster telling us their problems with the water supply recently made it 'like living in the Third World' not withstanding.) The fact that we don't seem to be any happier is another thing I'll come back to in another post.
But why are we framing our ideas of Aspiration only in material terms? Surely there's more to life. We've been sold the idea that any pass-time that doesn't involve buying the latest this or the most advanced that is just a bit 'Sad', but is spending so much time at work doing something you don't really care about for someone you don't respect, just to earn the money to pay someone else to do things for you that you could do for yourself if only you had more time, really all that liberating (or aspirational)? And can we really afford to have half as many people again as there are now expecting to live that way?
GMOs are a good example. Normally they are, at least partly, promoted as solving the problem of malnourishment in the developing world. And yet there is already enough food in the world to feed everybody (and well - not just on gruel). The reasons we don't feed everyone are economic and political. GMOs won't change that. Like most new technology, GMOs will mostly be used to provide more choice (aspirations) for those who already have more than they know what to do with.
There is an alternative to growth then, and it's the 'R' word - redistribution. But who wants that? How anti-aspirational is that?

Well Nigel doesn't want it, that's for sure, because the truth is that all this stuff about Capitalism improving life for everyone is Bullshit. (Technically, the difference between Bullshit and Lies is that the bullshitter doesn't care whether what he says is true or not, as long as it serves his purposes.) There is no moral agenda in the Free Market. Nigel Lawson advocates the expansion and deregulation of the Free Market because he wants to make money. Deep down he may even know that there's very little chance of Growth and Technology bringing the benefits to the world he predicts, but he doesn't care. He simply calculates that he will be on the right side of the razor wire when the day comes.

1 comment:

paulgrand said...

Very good points, I just wished I'd seen what Nigel Lawson had said before reading this! :-)