13 April 2022

Sir Paul's book on capitalism

Paul Collier is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Oxford. Browsing Amazon for books on capitalism, I came across his The Future of Capitalism. Unlike many books in this area, Collier's makes an effort to take on board the post-2010 backlash against the paternalist-interventionist approach that has been popular with intellectuals since the late 1800s. This makes the book relatively readable. We don't get the leftwing virulence of a Stiglitz tome, or the dogmatic fervour of the average American philosophy professor. The book is critical of Marxists who have failed to learn lessons from the collapse of Soviet communism.
   Left-leaning readers need not be alarmed however; Professor Collier remains firmly in the socialist camp. He hopes his book can become another socialist blueprint, along the lines of Tony Crosland's The Future of Socialism.*
   TFOC is not of course an economics book. Like others in its subject area, it is little more than informed story-telling. Collier tries to extract meaning and morality from hard data, but this requires the weaving of a subjective narrative around the data that, by necessity, is highly sensitive to the worldview of its author. A completely different narrative is possible. The success of any one narrative tends to be judged by how well it is told, and how well it fits with the preconceptions of its readers. Collier's story certainly starts well, and his first chapter hits some of the right notes.
The newly successful are ... the well educated with new skills. They have ... developed a distinctive morality, elevating characteristics such as minority ethnicity and sexual orientation into group identities as victims. On the basis of their distinctive concern for victim groups, they claim moral superiority over the less-well educated [and have] forged themselves into a new ruling class ...
One of TFOC's targets for criticism is utilitarianism. It's an attitude I broadly have sympathy with, though some of Collier's detail seems a bit skew-whiff.
The intellectuals of the left were attracted by the ideas of a nineteenth-century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. His philosophy, Utilitarianism, detached morality from our instinctive values, deducing it from a single principle of reason: an action should be judged as moral according to whether it promoted 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'. Because people's instinctive values fell short of this saintly standard, society would need a vanguard of morally sound technocrats who would run the state.
Bentham and J.S. Mill are credited with building utilitarianism. (J.S. Mill's father James Mill, who along with Bentham was one of the earliest appliers of utilitarianism to practical policy, is left out of Collier's equation.) Their philosophy was implemented by a vanguard of social planners, confident of their moral rightness.
The emblematic illustration of this confident paternalism was post-war policy for cities. The growing number of cars needed flyovers and the growing number of people needed housing. In response, entire streets and neighbourhoods were bulldozed, to be replaced by modernist flyovers and high-rise towers ... Bulldozing communities made sense if all that mattered was to raise the material housing standards of poor individuals. But it jeopardized the communities that actually gave meaning to people's lives.
There are two major difficulties with Collier's analysis. First, he sees part of the problem stemming from the fact that Bentham and J.S. Mill "were not latter-day moral giants, equivalent to Moses, Jesus and Muhammad; they were weirdly asocial individuals."
Bentham was so bizarre that he is now thought to have been autistic, and incapable of having a sense of community. Mill stood little chance of normality: deliberately kept away from other children, he was probably more familiar with ancient Greece that with his own society. Given such origins, it is unsurprising that the ethics of their followers are highly divergent from the rest of us.
It's always helpful for a story if you can identify one or two specific individuals on whom to hang the blame. But it's unlikely that the source of the problems Collier discusses were the personalities of Bentham and John Stuart Mill, or that things would necessarily have been very different if they had been more like Moses or Muhammad. Any philosophical idea is capable of being over-applied, and the drive for doing so came largely from the social tinkerers who came long after the initial philosophical input. Marx and Engels may have been less 'autistic' than Bentham or Mill; that didn't stop their followers from generating policies that were seriously at odds with the values of those on whom the policies were imposed.
   From a socialist point of view, Bentham should surely count as heroic rather than dodgy. He helped to reduce the barbarity of many aspects of British law, particularly with regard to sentencing and punishment.
   The second oddity is that Collier blames the excessive application of utilitarianism on economists. That doesn't chime with my understanding of the history of utilitarianist policy. It's hard to know what to make of this nostra culpa assertion. Should one respect Collier for being willing to criticise his own profession? Or is it a way of avoiding criticism of other professions such as sociology — which we know doesn't go down well within the academic community (the likely response would be: you're not qualified to comment).
The weird values of Bentham would not have had any impact had they not been incorporated into economics ... Economic man is utterly selfish and infinitely greedy, caring about nobody but himself. He became the bedrock of the economic theory of human behaviour. But for the purpose of evaluating public policy, economics needed a measure for aggregating the well-being, or 'utility', of each of these psychopathic individuals. Utilitarianism became the intellectual underpinning for this arithmetic ...
I think Professor Collier may have his history a bit askew here. It was part of nineteenth-century ideology, following on from the Enlightenment, to seek secular intellectual input into policy issues. It's how the whole -ism thing got going in Europe (ultimately culminating in disaster and disillusionment). The involvement of professional economists doesn't seem to have been an essential ingredient in this process. To give one illustration, in Uday Mehta's fascinating book Liberalism and Empire we read that James Mill was told in 1827 by the Governor-General of India:
"I am going to British India, but I shall not be Governor General. It is you that will be Governor General."
In other words, there was a definite plan to apply the utilitarian logic of philosophers to social policy in India. This suggests a British state that was already very open to input from intellectuals and their abstract systems, independently of any later detailed cost-benefit rules contributed by economists.

* Privately-educated Anthony Crosland is now best remembered as the 1960s education minister who said he was determined to destroy "every ****ing grammar school" in Britain — a quest at which he largely succeeded.