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