09 August 2007

Jamie Whyte: must try harder

I've just come across* Jamie Whyte's critique of David Cameron in last week's Financial Times. While I usually enjoy reading Whyte's articles, and agree broadly with his point that Cameron has abandoned traditional Conservative principles, I don't think he makes his case particularly well.

Whyte starts well enough by arguing that Thatcher's observation:

there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families
is considered so ideologically unacceptable that "anybody who now agrees with her is generally regarded as unfit for public office." This seems very plausible.

However, he spoils his case against reifying "society" — i.e. turning the concept into a moral entity as Cameron, like his socialist rivals, has been doing — by conceding that
A sensible case can be made for some redistribution of wealth. Since a pound is worth more to a pauper than to a millionaire, transferring money from the latter to the former increases aggregate wealth.
That is neither sound philosophy nor sound economics. If you wanted to construct an intellectual case for welfare you would need to use a different basis than that one. If the argument about transferring from rich to poor to increase aggregate wealth were sound (it isn't) then mightn't you just as well go on doing it to the point of complete equalisation? Whyte's principal counterargument to this appears to be as follows.
if maximising wealth were the goal, we would need to take seriously the anti-work and anti-investment incentives created by such transfers. Anyone thinking of the matter in this way would probably conclude that transfers are currently too great.
Hmm. So here is a philosopher apparently arguing that the main reason we don't aim for full equalisation of outcomes is because we need to preserve economic incentives. Now if I were writing an article attacking the Left's anti-individualist, anti-libertarian interventionism, I think I would avoid providing that kind of support for "redistribution" — which in any case in practice is usually distribution from individuals to state rather than between individuals. To assume that redistribution is morally justified to an unlimited extent, and that the only thing we have to decide is how much to temper this by reference to incentives, is more or less what the Left does these days, so this isn't exactly counterblast stuff.

While on the subject of Whyte, I also think he has the wrong end of the stick in offering this explanation of why "the celebrity fool thrives" (last month in the Times).
Society is dumbing down, we are told. But this is an unlikely explanation for the premium now placed on foolishness. Since when did an increasing supply of something — be it oil, orange juice or stupidity — cause its price to go up? The opposite hypothesis seems more plausible. It is because we are so much cleverer and better educated than previous generations that foolishness commands such a high price.
We are so much cleverer? We are all better educated? Then how come forty percent of 11-year-olds cannot read, write and add up properly?

A more reasonable explanation is that 'stupidity' has become a fashionable pose. It expresses all the ideologically correct (i.e. mediocratic) attitudes — proletarianisation, anti-intellectualism, pseudo-individualism, aggressification. More of my take on this can be found on page 168 of the Mediocracy book.

I recently wrote to a libertarian that
Celia Green is one of the few libertarian philosophers this country has. Unlike the others I'm aware of, she is not remunerated by her society via a university salary or an income from journalism. That, sadly, seems to be possible only for those prepared to water down their views so they're not too remote from the prevailing illiberal consensus.
He (the person I wrote to) doesn't seem to have liked this. At least I assume he didn't, because I didn't hear from him again. But reading Whyte's column confirms my opinion that the only would-be libertarian views that are permitted a hearing in Britain these days — outside the (so far) costless and unregulated blogosphere — are those which are sufficiently distorted so as to be unthreatening. It's good, I guess, that someone is questioning the "society" idea. But doing so in a half-baked way may do as much harm as good to the cause Whyte appears to be espousing.

* h/t Saltburn Subversives


Saltburn subversives said...

Interesting. I too enjoy Jamie Whyte's work, though I don't always agree with him or sometimes even understand him fully. For example, his argument in 'Bad Thoughts' that truth is absolute but falsehood comes by degrees. I also don't understand his point about aggregate wealth. Maybe I'm just a bit thick.
Maybe he means that there is a moral case for some distribution, i.e. in cases of genuine distress, but then we run into the practical difficulties of how to do this efficiently and without producing dependency.
He has argued recently that there is no such thing as poverty in Britain and that the Commission for Racial Equality should be abolished. Whilst both these views are perfectly reasonable, they hardly accord with the present lefty consensus. Sometimes he seems genuinely angry at this consensus
and sometimes he seems to poke fun at it. Personally I'd like to see sarcasm.

Fabian Tassano said...

Yes, I thought Whyte was brave to reject the dogma that there is poverty in Britain. And he is one of the few people writing in the mainstream media who attacks the illiberal hegemony without (usually) too much pussyfooting.

The problem is, when a commentator who comes clearly labelled ‘as extremely anti-left as we permit in the mainstream media’ says that redistribution “increases aggregate wealth”, this is in some ways more harmful than if Roy Hattersley argues that Mill’s concept of liberty is no longer relevant (as he recently did).

There is no sound philosophical or economic argument for enforced contributions to welfare, in my opinion. The best you could do would be to construct some kind of pragmatic case for it, along the lines that there is a tragedy-of-the-commons difficulty in cooperating, or a market failure in insurance.

Moving money from rich to poor doesn’t increase ‘aggregate wealth’. It might increase something called the ‘welfare function’ (a sort of utilitarian sum-of-happinesses), but it might just as easily decrease it; there is no way of knowing. That is, if you accept the somewhat dodgy concept of ‘welfare function’ in the first place.

Saltburn subversives said...

interesting comments on this, here

Also here,

and here,

I would be interested in your views, obviously there is a difference between 'society' and the State.

Fabian Tassano said...

Thanks for those references. The whole issue of what is meant by 'society' is a large one, but I may get round to saying something about it at some point.

Out of all the blog takes, I thought this one, from Bruce Charlton commenting at S&M, was the most insightful:
"I always felt that the 'no such thing as society' line caused such hostility because it challenged the authority of public sector elites to justify their top-down prescriptions (in health, education, broadcasting, the arts etc.) on the basis that it was good for 'society' - without having to describe which individual people benefitted and were harmed."