Sunday, 18 July 2010

Tragedy and why we need it and the moral problems with new liberalism

Two Months in we are beginning to see the first flashlights of the coalitions agenda, it seems we are seeing the scaling back of the Public Sector and a bigger emphasis on us participating in our politics. Weather it be becoming part of the 'Big society' or forming a 'free school' or simply participating in in suggesting how the government may legislate better in the future. Certainly the angle is to increase social welfare by having the government do less and people do more to shape social welfare in way that they choose.

The angle is to create a more liberal ideal. That seems a natural shift from the Blairite years of nouveaux socialism.

Social engineering on government scale has largely been unsuccessful, particularly in the UK. It is worth noting that even in the boom years, the introduction of the minimum wage and increased access to working tax credits had only one outcome- the rich got richer, the poor got poorer. New Labour was a momentous failure. Increases in social services was funded by debt and was unsustainable, bureaucracies found themselves paid more with less to do and by the end they were approving projects with no fiscal backing to make the incoming government look bad when they cancelled them. By the end it degenerated into school yard politics. You spend too much. You don't spend enough. We've all heard it.

One thing I will gift New Labour with is idealism and a sense of moral purpose (illegal wars aside). As badly managed as it was they made a genuine attempt at making things better. Now I think the new government can't even be bothered incorporating a morality into itself at all. The moral basis for their social policy seems to be an emphasis on Liberalism and the freedom to choose. Liberalism sounded sexy to me at first- the losers lose, the winners win, free markets creating capital unhindered and a world where expression and opportunity are truly free. Hayek believes that these principals to be inseparable-

“Neither good intentions nor efficiency of organization can preserve decency in a system in which personal freedom and individual responsibility are destroyed.”

Unfortunately Hayek didn't graduate into recession caused by high rolling Gamblers. Free trade certainly pissed on my freedom. Individual responsibility meant 6 figure severance packages. Post-recession this emphasis on freedom worries me. It seems a failure of governance caused the recession, so our new masters in No 10 are suggesting now they do even less?

The reality is that power without money always results in optimistic low-cost social agendas. I'm worried that our new found freedoms will result in a new scapegoat for the government- us. Political development throughout the 20th century was a consensus throughout Europe that governments do more, this newfound assumption they now do less seems like a step back, not a step forward.

Getting back to creating a Liberal meritocracy may sound wonderful, but all liberalisers will admit that it is naturally- self serving system. Adam Smith used this as the basis suggesting the selfish ideals will drive will drive all markets including the moral market.

"Every individual... neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it... he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain."

Capitalism may work financially but I don't think it's a moral driver for how we live. It would assume that my interest in the social wellbeing of other is guided by selfish gain rather than that of empathy garnered from being a long sufferer of that terrible illness of being human. One of the problems in investigating economic theory is that those who publish tend to be the winners. Winners tend to be big on knowledge but small on empathy. Perhaps one of the most ironic tragedies of political philosophy is that it's written by people who often don't experience failure at all.

A society that begins and ends solely with self interest manifests itself in many terrible forms, it exploits, is ruled by cronyism and manifested in the very worst parts of the world where day-to-day government play no part in the lives of its citizens. An over managed government ensure social projects become toxic high tax, unsustainable failures.

The terrible thing about living in Britain is that under a two party system, the talk of a progressive politics is exactly that. The reality is we're back into a political swing towards Conservative austerity after years of wasteful socialist largesse. Identical as every political swing since 1945.

I hope one thing we take away from the Blair-Brown era are the moral sentiments that not all people who fail deserve it. Not all people who succeed deserve it either. The Moral bankruptcy of New Liberalism is the assumption that tragic figures could never exist in a Liberal utopia. It forgets even if systems are perfect humans are not.

It seems strange to me that tragedy being the most popular expression of art doesn't find itself into politics more. I accept that politicians or leaders of any kind should lead by by example, but this distorted image that politicians have to perfect all the time means the false picture we get is going to lack the genuine human facets- inconsistencey, the struggle of making hard decisions and the drama that we create when we ask people to put their reputations on the line to justify themselves. David Laws was such a tragic figure caught out not because wanted to make money (he had no need for it) but the fact he wanted to protect his private life from public scrutiny. Yet once smeared he was axed immediately. Politics demands perfection. This idea that politics has to have perfect people undermines it's capacity to accept that talented people sometimes fail.

People who never push themselves hard enough or are just too scared to make decisions they might be wrong on don't belong in politics. Dostoevsky was very aware that human capacity to allow others to redeem themselves is the part of the human condition that forges the strongest individuals and that harmony on the basis of mutual perfection can never be real-

“Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? I don't want harmony. From love for humanity I don't want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it.”

I think he's suggesting a love of humanity comes from an understanding that as moral agents we fail all the time, that some wisdom that can only comes from failure.

As we embrace New liberalism I would be careful of this idea that the less the government does the more culpable we are for our own fate. It can get horribly judgemental, in Victorian England someone of lower class would be called an “unfortunate” nowadays under in our more liberal society they would be called a “loser” Just because we've found ourselves in our more meritocratic society lets not forget the message of 3,000 years of tragedy- The pure meritocracy can never exist and on that basis many of those who fail deserve moral understanding.

We would do well to remember our fate is never ours alone, morality needs to compensate for both the randomness and the consistencies of the human condition. That in itself is an impossible task but never underestimate the value of investigating the impossible.

It's why philosophy matters.

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