23 July 2010

More real motives behind ‘moral’ interventions

What taboos shall we break, or toy with breaking, this time? Mediocratic ideology has so many buttons to press. As is often the case, the official party line contains an inversion of this. In theory, it is awfully easy (and rewarding) to shock ‘conservatives’. The popular image is of a Colonel Gusset-Smythe type, spluttering into his gin and tonic. In reality such types, if they ever existed, have died out. Nowadays everyone falls over themselves to prove how ‘relaxed’ they are about, say, discussing the intricacies of their sex lives. (Ageing BBC presenters confessing they left it terribly late to lose their virginity, at age 11 or whatever.) In practice, the person spluttering into their G&T, or fainting in the aisles, is now much more likely to be a Guardian than a Telegraph reader.

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Why have we tolerated so much intervention in our lives over the past twenty years? To the point where civil liberties are arguably the lowest of any peacetime period for at least a century? Because the changes forced on us have supposedly been driven by ‘good intentions’. Double jeopardy is abolished, phone calls and emails can be tapped by local government staff, babies are removed from mothers by social workers within hours of delivery – but it is all done “for the good of others”. The sum of human misery produced by all this poking, prying and bulldozering must be frightful.

Good intentions has been the excuse that has fuelled the inexorable rise in statism. Even under Thatcher, the rise was merely slowed not reversed.

Libertarians seem to be no different in being taken in by this rationalisation. Recently a columnist on the Sunday Times bemoaned the degradation of the British university system, but then echoed the usual mantra, “no doubt all this was done with high-minded intentions”. Is it automatically “high-minded” to aim for an outcome in which more of us receive a shoddy product, compared to fewer of us receiving a decent one? Plenty of people behave as if it is, so perhaps the columnist in question thinks so too. [1]

That is why the revelation, publicised earlier this year, that the Labour government’s drive to have mass immigration was motivated at least in part by the desire to “rub the Right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date” was so interesting. (For “Right”, it is probably necessary to read “bourgeoisie”.) It is the first time that I can recall seeing an admission that the real agenda behind a do-gooding cover story was about doing down the wrong kind of people. Unless you count former BBC head Greg Dyke’s “hideously white” slogan.

A certain right-wing magazine downplayed the radical implications of this newly emerging anecdotal data, but to my mind this merely illustrates how collaboratist [2] with left-wing ideology the Right has become.

One of the ways in which Celia Green’s writings are unique is that she has dared to suggest that the motives behind intervention are typically destructive rather than benevolent. This idea seems to shock most people, libertarians included. Perhaps now there may be a bit more willingness to take it seriously.

I have compiled a table of other possible hidden motives. There are many other areas of intervention which could be added; I am sure you can think of some for yourselves.

Libertarians of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your belief in good intentions.

• The coalition's proposals to roll back some of the worst of Labour's anti-libertarian legislation are in the right direction (I suppose one should acknowledge that this is one area in which the Lib Dem influence is positive) but they do not go far enough.
Incidentally, I am not reassured by Mr Cameron trying to influence what appears on Facebook. Perhaps he has been reading the Daily Mail too much. There may be some poisonous stuff on the internet — hero-worship of a criminal seems relatively tame — but that is the price one pays for a new communication technology. As soon as you get into the game of trying to keep out offensive content, we shall have the dead hand of the state involved, and are likely to end up with something like this, according to which you can be imprisoned for writing 'terrorist poetry'.

• Have you ever met an interventionist? You know, a person who wants people’s behaviour restricted, allegedly for the benefit of some needy social group. I hesitate to call such persons socialists, since it is now the fashion among ‘conservative’ politicos to adopt a similar position. In my experience, such people would not necessarily cross the street to help someone who was bleeding to death. Yet we are expected to believe they care deeply about (e.g.) the possible educational under-attainment of someone living in a different part of the country, and coming from a class they would not dream of mixing with socially. I reserve the right to remain sceptical.

• Predictable hand-wringing from the ‘socially concerned’ about the proposed cutbacks. “Think of the children! Many more will die because of too few social workers! There will be differences in educational opportunity!” No wonder the country is in a mess. These people seem not to be able to grasp that (a) we cannot afford it, and never could, that is why there is a black hole in the public finances, (b) the policies did not, and could not, work – state intervention to correct social ills is inherently doomed, and inevitably authoritarian.
On the other hand, the relative mutedness of the moaning causes me to suspect that the proposals are not nearly swingeing enough to properly tackle the problem.

• According to the Financial Times, our universities minister has written a book "emphasising the unfairness of the distribution of wealth across generations". If I had the time, or someone was willing to pay me, I would wish to read this book and draw attention to the many absurdities and dodgy arguments which I would expect to find in it. Unfortunately, we have a state-sponsored cultural system which carefully selects against people who might criticise too damningly products that endorse what is now the dominant ideology.
The idea itself of sounding as if you care, or writing as if you think your readers will, about "intergenerational equity" is absurd. Does anyone care that it might be unfair that my colleagues and I are excluded, on ideological grounds, from a system that is supposed to allow people like us to have intellectual careers, and that we are left struggling in poverty [3] as a result? Not that I have noticed. Yet one is supposed to believe that people give a hoot about the possible unfairness of divvying up the cake between two major subgroups of the population.
Few enough people 'care' about intergenerational (or any other sort of) efficiency, but at least that concept has some intellectual basis. The notion of 'equity' is completely subjective and observer-dependent, notwithstanding that entire 'economics' books (and indeed entire careers) have been built on this pseudo-concept.
Re caring, the basic position has always been that everyone is out for what they can get, although you may get occasional exceptions if you are lucky. This is still very much the case, except that — as the lucrative careers of people like Tony Blair demonstrate — money and power can now be acquired by pretending that you, and others, care about unfairness.
If Mr Willetts really cared even a little about inequities, he would contact us to enquire about our position and our views; directly, rather than taking advice from those who, unfortunately, have to be regarded as our rivals and enemies. As universities minister, this would seem an obvious and natural thing for him to do.
If he cared a lot about inequity, which I realise may be rather far-fetched, he would donate a percentage of his annual income to our organisation.

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• “Why oh why are the English so bad at sports these days?” Thousands of column inches are devoted to this question every time our latest tennis star drops out of Wimbledon, or the European/World Cup is lost. My colleagues and I think the answer is simple: Britain, and England in particular, has a hang-up about winning at anything, because it has given itself a guilt complex about the past. It was too wickedly dominant in a previous era (c. 1850-1950), so now it has to prostrate itself. Subgroups less frowned upon by the ideology – e.g. Scots, women, ethnic minorities – tend to suffer less from the problem and its symptoms.
Perhaps by 2050, enough penance will have been done, and Britain can start again with a clean slate. By then, we may well have turned into the underdog of Europe, which will also help to motivate our sportsmen.

• An ideology which hints that intense ambition is pathological probably does not help either, if we embrace it more enthusiastically than other countries. I have noticed, for example, that it seems to have become obligatory for male tennis stars to have a g/f on show. The tabloids expect one, whom they can photograph looking supportive and reasonably gorgeous. A sporting prodigy who failed to demonstrate the ability to fit some regular good old-fashioned sex into his busy schedule, or at least some kind of relationship, would I suspect be regarded as exhibiting lack of balance, and as potentially iffy.

* * * * *

• Sad to hear about Beryl Bainbridge. She had charisma, if of a somewhat brittle kind. I met her once at a book party, wearing her regulation black and nicotine. The impression I got was of a cross between a cynical senior female executive and Lewis Carroll's Alice. She was probably one of those people who require an individualistic publisher willing and able to support mavericks — like Colin Haycraft, the former powerhouse behind Duckworths, though he was a bit of a bully. It was Haycraft who took a chance on The Power of Life or Death when every other publisher had turned it down (“too radical”). Unfortunately, he died suddenly of a heart attack not long after I met him. Without him, dealings with the old-school publisher, now increasingly marginalised in a world of mass markets and mega houses, have been far less rewarding.

• On the subject of hatch & despatch, can I be the first to wish Jimmy Wales happy birthday. I am not sure of the date (some time in August) so I am getting in early.
I predict that in a few years' time, Wikipedia will generally be agreed to be the best thing to have come out of the internet [4]. It has certainly improved my own quality of life — I seem to consult it on average five or six times a day. It may occasionally be unreliable but, in my opinion, no more than the average book.
Kudos to you, Mr Wales, though I am puzzled as to why Wiki should be uncertain about the precise date of birth of its founder.

• All my favourite actresses seem to keep coming out of the woodwork to give us their views on society, the universe and everything. First Joanna Lumley states that she strongly disapproves of moaning, especially about being bored, when there are so many things to keep one occupied — like darning socks. Then Kristin Scott Thomas, who (I once patiently explained to a female academic) was definitely the sexier one in The English Patient, even if Miss Binoche was on some measures more beautiful (she — the academic — didn't get it), told us about the importance of a stiff upper lip. Now The Thorn Birds' Rachel Ward, niece of the Earl of Dudley, informs us that upper-class men are particularly horrible.
Where would we be without our dear thesps? What they say is mostly nonsense, but they say it so charmingly! Next, I should like please to read about Natascha McElhone extolling the virtues of home and hearth. Thank you.

Oxford Forum is a research organisation which was set up to oppose declining standards and increasing ideological bias in mainstream academia. Its aim is to expand into an independent college cum university which would generate and publish research in several areas including philosophy, the psychology and physiology of perception, and theoretical physics. We are actively seeking potential patrons to provide funding for its activities.

1. It should be noted that ‘good intentions’ is not top of the list for silly justifications. There are worse ones. The Telegraph’s Jenny McCartney, for instance, argues in favour of compulsory breath testing for pregnant women on the basis that having children has already become an extraordinarily intrusive business, thanks to the rise of the interventionist state. “If you’re looking for a life free from intrusion, it might be wise to sidestep the baby notion altogether” she primly admonishes, adding that “there are times when a pregnant mother must be made to feel uncomfortable”. Meekly agreeing to new rebarbative interventions, because one has already got used to so many others? An awful-awful-person prize looms.
2. I reserve the right to make up new words when existing ones fail to do the job. Both 'collaborative' and 'collaborationist' have senses which are inappropriate in this context.
3. I am allowing myself the use of a relative definition of poverty.
4. Did I hear someone say Twitter? Please.