The eminent philosopher Harry Frankfurt has issued a small book comprising parts of two essays written some decades ago (On Equality, 2015, Princeton University Press). The stimulus to this publication is the recent work of Thomas Piketty on economic inequality in the developed countries, and Frankfurt’s view that
It is, I believe, of some considerable importance to get clear about these matters. Appreciating the inherent moral innocence of economic inequality leads to an understanding that it is misguided to endorse economic egalitarianism as an authentic moral ideal. Further, it facilitates recognition of why it may actually be harmful to regard economic equality as being, in itself, a morally important goal.
We will see however, that Frankfurt strips the concept of ‘economic inequality’ so bare as to render it meaningless more or less by definition, and that what he does regard as important inevitably brings us back to economic inequality as a highly significant issue as it manifests in the real world. Continue reading Harry Frankfurt Gets It Wrong On Inequality→
Why do I consider myself to be of the ‘left’ rather than the ‘right’, despite the tendency for each term to be converted to a straw-man for all the pet hates of those attaching to the opposing label? For me, to be of the left designates a prioritisation of co-operation over competition. It is to believe that human satisfaction and happiness depends more on the former than on the latter and it is to believe that co-operation comes logically and practically before competition. Co-operation should therefore be actively promoted. How much competitive superstructure is to be placed on the co-operative base is then entirely up for debate, much of it empirical in nature.
Free exchange of goods, services and labour is the essence of co-operation, and as such genuinely free markets, which being an expression of ‘the propensity [in human nature] to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another’ (Adam Smith) are completely compatible with maximum co-operation and thus, I would argue, with any viable conception of socialism. The competition that arises from free exchange, to provide better quality goods at lower cost, is on the face of it, also pure social benefit. This can be misleading, however, if reliance is placed on the abstract economic concept of perfect competition – where all market participants are equal in access and power, fully informed, infinitely lived and have perfect foresight. This concept requires isolation of the market from the human, the social and the physical world. To harness markets for benefit therefore requires a huge degree of co-operation in terms of setting up the infrastructure and regulation of market institutions. Continue reading Socialism, Free Markets, Capitalism and Christopher Snowdon→
I found myself reading an alarming article by ‘Red Tory’ Philip Blond recently. The piece was a response to the book ‘The Politics of Virtue’, by John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, two academics who have been associated with the Red Tory/Blue Labour nexus that combines, to a greater or lesser degree depending on flavour, social conservatism with economic collectivism. I haven’t read the book, but I don’t think this is important to the points I raise here.
Blond identifies the purpose of Milbank and Pabst’s book as being ‘to challenge the ascendancy of liberalism and recommend a humane post-liberalism that can succeed it’. He criticises a reviewer of the book for failing to see a ‘link between the social liberalism of the left and the economic liberalism of the right’. Blond quotes approvingly from the book the claim that ‘liberalism brings about…an isolated individual abstracted from all social ties and duties’ and himself states:
Liberalism finds its quintessential form in a market state that enforces individualism. The market state must abolish anything that stands in the way of unconstrained freedom; it must eliminate solidarity or shared associations with other people, places, or things…Social liberalism (left-inspired) was necessary to take apart social solidarity in order to make possible its (right-inspired) economic correlate: economic liberalism.
Having recently had the opportunity to visit China and combine that with some reading about the country, I’ve come away with some inevitably fairly superficial thoughts about how the Chinese and the West do things differently. While the Chinese government sets limits on voiced or organised challenges to the Communist Party’s control of the country, it seems that most Chinese are able to pretty much get on with their lives as they wish. Having visited the great open spaces at the centre of London, Paris, New York, Berlin and Madrid, it felt disturbing to be shooed off Tiananmen Square at dusk, but otherwise despite the presence of police and soldiers at nearly every turn in central Beijing, I felt able to move around and take photographs pretty much as elsewhere.
I suspect the vast politically apathetic majority of Westerners would feel no restriction of their freedom under the Chinese regime. If the rise of Donald Trump and apparently popular strongmen such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, along with Brexit, show that the ability to vote is not enough to sustain government by reason then Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution show that the lack of a democratic buffer leads to the deaths of millions.
‘Modern Thinking: Atomism and Communication’ – Although written four years ago for an essay competition, I still think this piece encapsulates as well as anything my approach to economics, politics and social institutions.
Bertrand Russell, the great British mathematician and philosopher, believed that to be ‘modern-minded’ was to make the error of thinking with the fashion rather than ahead of it. When he wrote about this in 1937 he believed that with God’s role as arbiter of truth and beauty having been usurped, ‘detachment and objectivity, both in thought and feeling’ had also been thrown overboard. Russell, as a rationalist and a non-believer, believed it was ‘possible and important’ to preserve them without recourse to a Creator. To do so, he believed, required ‘solitude’ and ‘a certain degree of isolation both in space and time’. While he may have been right when it comes to studying the physical world and creating great art, his advice is less helpful when it comes to human nature and society. Even if we wanted to, as human beings ourselves, we cannot stand apart from other humans and society as a whole. Unfortunately when this recognition came it was in part responsible for a critical wrong turning in our approach to social phenomena. This wrong turning came about because modern thinking, having dispensed with God guiding from above, had already turned to look for causes and drivers of events at the level below that at which they are observed. The properties of substances had to be derived from the properties of their molecules; the properties of the forces that change the world about us from day to day are derived from the waves and particles into which they can be decomposed. Continue reading Modern Thinking: Atomism and Communication→
Whichever side of the argument you might be on, it’s worth looking at a very cogent and entertaining video talk by the late Professor G.A Cohen on some of the problems of ‘actually existing capitalism’. I found it while following up a reading of his Tanner Lecture, ‘Incentives, Inequality, and Community’, given at Stanford University in 1990-91, which contains a powerful argument against incentive justifications for income/wealth inequality.
What is economics for? It’s often characterised as being about the choice between ‘guns or butter’. This choice is one not only about which we want to consume, but also about which we want to produce. Strangely, the dominant neoclassical paradigm attempts to render this a choice that need not be made, since it proposes the possibility of an entirely voluntary and stable production and trading outcome (equilibrium) that cannot be bettered. Or at least it cannot be bettered in the sense that no change is possible without making somebody worse off.
This process was described by the ‘father’ of modern economics Adam Smith as being an ‘invisible hand’ that brought about the welfare of all through the self-interest of traders, and that this is possible with markets and a set of prices for goods has been proven mathematically. It forms the basis of an approach to economics that starts from the position that in the absence of identifiable forces shifting things in the other direction, the economy will tend toward the ‘equilibrium’ outcome. In the apparent absence of a way of establishing the relative merits of individuals’ claims against each other this outcome is the best we can or should aim for, and so provides a justification for doing everything we can to remove any forces that might prevent this equilibrium being reached and maintained. Continue reading What is economics for? Part 1→
I had the chance to see the great economist and social philosopher Professor Amartya Sen at the Edinburgh Book Festival on the 29th of August. I use the word ‘see’ not to imply that I had a personal meeting with him, but because he actually said disappointingly little at the large public event in which he took part.
Assuming that these superstitions are in fact not true – this raises the general question of the potential value of held beliefs that may or may not be true. In other words their value to the community and/or individual may have nothing to do with their truth value.
I wrote an essay on this particular topic a few years ago. The essay was in response to a competition run by a philosophy magazine – with the stimulus being the choice offered to the character Neo in the film ‘The Matrix’. This choice consisted of two pills, red and blue; one of which would return him to the illusory world with which he was familiar, and the other which would lead him to enter a strange and frightening but real world. I reproduce the essay below. (It didn’t win…too analytic, going by the one that did win!)
The Matrix — Which Pill?
Diarmid J G Weir
Shorn of its cinematic context, the decision facing Neo in ‘The Matrix’ is a choice of futures; return to a familiar illusion with the blue pill or entry to what Morpheus describes as a ‘desert of the real’ irrevocably revealed by the red pill. The relative comfort of the illusion might seem the obvious choice but Neo chooses to know the truth, and takes the red. Is this just foolish bravado or is his decision the right one? Two conditions might make him right. Either Morpheus’ claims for the blue pill are not sustainable, or truth has some intrinsic merit for human beings. Continue reading The Value of Truth→
I got myself into an odd debate on Peter Hitchens’ blog site of all places recently. It was a blog (one of several by PH) denouncing the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). After I had made some points about the nature of the scientific method and its reliance on ‘auxiliary hypotheses’ a commenter came up with this statement:
‘Faith in science is at least as superstitious as any faith in God’.
My response was:
I don’t believe it is, despite the problems I mention in my earlier post. If we broaden ‘science’ to include all knowledge acquired by the experimental method – ie: we find a consistent correlation between particular events, assume this to be a persistent feature of the world, and then proceed further on this basis – then this method is adopted because it is self-reinforcing. We can build up a network of propositions that, while none of them are certain, tend to support each other. Every time we find one confirmed, this helps in a small way to confirm the others. Continue reading Religious Logic and Religious Morality→