Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!


Monday, December 18, 2006

 
I shit on the progressives of this planet

Shorter: (with thanks to Alex) "Please! Don't press any of those fucking buttons, some of them are dangerous!"

This is in some way a reply to the "Never Trust A Hippy" blog. The author appears to be dedicated to building a consensual, progressive political culture and to be dead set against nihilism and in favour of communitarian values. Nevertheless, he claims not to be a hippy and in the absence of photographic evidence I am prepared to believe him. It follows on from this exchange at Chicken Yoghurt, at which the waggy finger of disapproval was pointed at those of us who spend most of our time in criticising the government because of its corruption and authoritarianism, rather than praising it for opening SureStart schemes and perhaps suggesting our own plans for a community based after-school organic yoghurt collective ... no sorry, I must emphasise that Paulie of the "Never Trust A Hippy" blog is not a hippy, despite appearances and I will refrain from further suggestions that he is. It all spilled out into the blogosphere, leading to Damian Counsell (as far as I can tell) challenging Justin to a game of Petulant Post Poker (my suggestion would be to open up strong with this one, J-Mac). And so on. So anyway, for fans of windy manifestoes (and I know you all are), here is mine.

Part 1: General facts about the world

First of all, do no harm. It is perhaps notable that, for a profession that has making things better as its entire reason for being, the Hippocratic Oath of the doctors starts off with these words. First of all, do no harm. This is about as old and fundamental as moral principles get. Preventing things from getting worse has to be the first priority. This is why it often makes sense to be allied with conservatives or even reactionaries on all sorts of issues. Plenty of government schemes involve removing important liberties from the population, in return for either nothing very much, or for spurious projections of jam tomorrow. Such things are almost always best opposed on general principles. The duty of opposition to the bad is in general much more important than the promotion of the good - if there is a piece of shit in your stew, you need less shit, not more stew.

We are a First World country. The UK is not a Third World country. It is part of that very small geographical and historical island where people have enough food to eat to maintain their health. This makes an important political difference, because it means that order of magnitude gains in the material well-being of anyone in the UK are unlikely to be possible. The trade-off between liberty and other social goods is very different for us than for the vast majority of humanity now and throughout history. Even if such tradeoffs exist (which I doubt), they should not be taken. The possible material gains are just too small for what is being sacrificed. The big change of the last forty years is that the preoccupations of the British public are not, for the most part, economic any more, and in so far as they are, they are problems that can be solved simply by writing more generous cheques through the existing social welfare systems, without any great over-reaching change.

The government can't make you happy. As I say, this is a First World country. It is possible to lead a good, rewarding life here, more or less whoever you are. It is nicer to be rich than poor, but even being poor is not so bad. The important thing, however, is that there is not that much that the government can do to make you happy. It can remove obstacles from your way, like curable ill health, but the responsibility to enjoy your life is basically your own.

Part 2: Why the self-styled progressives are dangerous, practically

Progressives mess around with things they don't understand. In general, things are how they are for a reason. Not necessarily the best of reasons, but always for reasons, and people who don't understand those reasons are engaged in exactly the kind of activity that the Hippocratic Oath was meant to prevent; a regrettable tendency of mankind called "fucking around with things you don't understand".

It is much more difficult to come up with positive suggestions than to shoot down other people's ideas. Our progressive friends are very proud of this slogan, taking the implication that they should be admired for attempting something difficult, whereas we "Negativists" ought to be castigated for our laziness in taking the easy road. However, they are perhaps forgetting the important principle:

If something is difficult to do well, it is often easy to do badly. It is very difficult to come up with specific suggestions for the improvement of a complicated system. This is why management consultants are so well paid. It is also why so many management consultants' ideas end in failure. It is, however, much easier to see the flaws in an idea. Given this, what should somebody with no specific expertise in public policy do? Should they try to generate suggestions for far-reaching change despite the handicap of having no specific or systemic knowledge of what they are talking about? Or, given that the status quo is at least tolerable and has got to where it is for a reason, should they restrict themselves to looking for the mistakes that the reformers and progressives might be making (in the knowledge that progressives are never all that keen on thinking themselves about why they might be wrong)? Which task is easier? Which is more likely to be done well?

Let me repeat that three times, because it is important.

1. There is no such thing as a general purpose expert. Most people know one or two things very well. In their own field, most people are capable of making a contribution and having a good idea. Unless that field is social policy, constitutional law or international relations, the sphere in which most people can make a useful positive suggestion is unlikely to overlap with what is in the newspapers. It is possible to pretend to be able to make a useful positive contribution, but this is like pretending to be able to swim; it doesn't actually confer the ability.

2. It's a lot easier to spot the flaws in someone else's work. I cannot fly an aeroplane but I can spot a crappy landing. I can't cook a stew, but I can tell the difference between beef and shit. I can't write a symphony but I can tell when something's out of key. In general, for most people and most fields, their opinions about what is wrong with something are more likely to be worth listening to than their ideas about what might be done right. Karl Popper built a whole philosophy on this important point.

3. Everyone secretly enjoys the smell of their own farts. Even if the previous two points were not true (and they are), the fact remains that the common man has to find fault with the schemes of the benefactors of humanity, because they will not criticise themselves. Everyone is always in love with their own idea. Nobody is objective about their own creation. The "Progressives" will always try to think through the consequences of their actions, but end up daydreaming about how great things will be in their perfect world.

The point here is that negativism is the only sensible course of action for the plain man, because many "progressive" schemes are practically worthless or dangerous.

Progressives assume that everyone is a progressive. Most or at least many of our progressive cousins are people of good will, who simply believe that they know a little bit better than the mass of humanity, and who just want to organise things a little bit better. However, it can't but be noticed that most of their progressive schemes involve nothing so simple as the handing out of chunks of cash (which I am in general in favour of, so long as the taxation isn't too ruinous), but rather all sorts of little schemes aimed at controlling people's behaviour – either direct restrictions on liberty, or the million and one little incentives and means-tests that they love to slip in there in order to nudge people in the "right" direction. The Original Tory Anarchist had a wonderful line in the Road to Wigan Pier about the kind of person attracted to socialist politics not so much out of any real concern for justice but out of a hypertrophied sense of order, and it is surprisingly (or rather, unsurprisingly) difficult to find a single example in all the volumes of the Collected Works Of Saint George of a positive policy suggestion for anything. (My own intellectual hero, JM Keynes, was always making positive suggestions, but this is because he was as close as we're going to get to a genuine all-purpose expert).

The trouble with this hypertrophied concern for order is that the progressive always underestimates the extent to which he is providing the infrastructure for repression. An identity card system makes all sorts of jolly schemes easier to implement, but it also makes it possible to institute pass laws at a later date. The ASBO is a fine way of ensuring that old ladies aren't intimidated by the sight of teenagers "hanging around", but it is also a means of criminalising non-criminal offences. Maybe National Service would be fun and healthy for a lot of kids, but it is conscription. And so on.

Progressives are in general, unnecessary for the purpose they puport to serve. Progress does, in fact, happen. It in general happens because even the dullest man working on a job for forty years will come up with a way to do it better, if only out of a desire to reduce the onerousness of the task. Institutions get better over time, or they collapse entirely and are replaced by better ones. Wars and great crises will often accelerate the process, or allow new social bargains to be struck to replace old ones which are unfair or inefficient. The actual results which can be attributed to the self-appointed uplifters of mankind are quite laughably meagre when compared either to their grandiose self-praise, or to the achievements of people who simply wanted to get on with their lives.

Part 3: Why progressives are in general odious

They are so bumptious. As I mentioned above, the progressives are people who think they know best. They are the Residents' committees, the Parent Teacher Association, the Sixth Form Council. Or rather, they are not any of these things, all of which are sensible and necessary institutions (perhaps with the exception of Sixth Form Councils). They are, rather, the loudest-mouthed and most self-important members of said organisations, the self-promoters. The people whose defining characteristic is the belief that the simple fact that they have organised a meeting implies a positive duty upon others to turn up to it; who regard "apathy" as a weakness and moral failing in the population, one which must be cleansed from us all via some progressive scheme aimed at educating us until we give a fuck.

They proliferate committees and call it success. I mentioned above how pitifully thin on the ground successes are for the self-styled progressives (as opposed to successes of other people for which they are happy to take credit). So often, you will see a progressive touting "increased involvement" in some damnable progressive committee or other as a success in and of itself; he counts himself a hero because he has encouraged more and more of his fellow men to waste their time on dreary committees which had previously only troubled himself and his progressive mates. If one ever wishes to know why it is that the state tends to expand so much, it is for this reason; it takes a bricklayer to make a wall, but any fool can make a committee and most of them have tried.

They bear an ugly contempt for those who they are trying to stiff with the bill. The baker does not worry that others are "consumers" of bread, nor the ukulele player that others are "consumers" of music. But the progressive certainly looks down on the "consumer" of politics with an entirely unwarranted condescension. Because the consumer of politics, of course, is the economic base of the whole bloody thing. Every grand progressive scheme is a new imposition on general taxation. This is of course not to say that taxation is too onerous, or that any particular scheme is a bad idea. Just that it is unseemly beyond measure (and more than a little bit redolent of the petulant teenager) to simultaneously snub someone for their lack of enthusiasm in your hobby, and present them with the bill. Whatever our Prime Minister thinks, there are no duties of a citizen beyond paying one's taxes and obeying the law ... but here I drift into defending the basic principles of political liberalism, which I no more intend to bother with than to defend the principle that bread is more nutritious than brick dust. Note that this is not incompatible with believing in any particular ideal size of tax and benefit system, and the idea that libertarianism in any sensible form is incompatible with the welfare state is a close cousin of the point I am about to make.

Their political proposition is so close to blackmail. And the progressive, in guise as the "grown up liberal" is always up in our face, warning us of the dire consequences of what will happen if we grow too grumpy at being alternately patronised, soaked for cash and stripped of our constitution. The Tories will get in! The Tories will get in! And the poor, old and infirm are dragged out again and waved in our faces ... see what will happen if you don't vote for more of this? They'll cut her housing benefit! They'll close his school! And it'll all be your fault, not mine!

This is quite simply, the politics of "nice welfare state you've got here ... be a shame if something happened to it". As a good middle class burgher, I am no more likely to submit to it than to any other kind of extortion, and I note from the electoral statistics that the working class of the UK did not actually respond any better to this crude threat than people like me. We have most of us lived through a Tory government, and while much of what they did was stupid and nasty, the sky did not fall in and the world did not end, or at least not to a sufficient extent that the other lot can rely on our uncritical support come what may and till Kingdom Come.

So many of them are careerists. Is it unserious or insulting to mention this? Well I shall be unserious and insulting then. It is possible to make a very good living out of the creation of grand schemes for the uplifting of the masses or the superior organisation of the infrastructure of the state. And making a living in this way has the very great advantage over the normal way that it matters much less if your ideas work. The social reformer with an eye for the main chance is a subject which has been dealt with sufficiently in his guise as Kenneth Widmerpool, so I don't think I need to spend much more time on it at the end of this already grossly tedious document (If it was a bore to read, think what it was like to write).

Conclusion

The only honourable profession for anyone with the "progressive" disposition is as a foreign aid worker. The developing world is full of places where "progress" of the sort that the socialists of the 1930s talked about is needed. There is a massive world of poor people out there who might be able to benefit from your schemes, and only the tiniest bit of it is controlled by the EZLN. Please do make sure that you copy the Subcommandante in combining your progressive vision with a little humility and humanity first however; consider the possibility that actually the people of the world might want to get along without your help and that actually, your destiny is to stay at home and be a consumer of politics too. As a greater philosopher than I once said, a man's gotta know his limitations. On the other hand, if central heating and football on the telly are more attractive to you than Landrovers and dysentery, please keep your schemes for the general betterment of mankind to yourself. Get a job as a councillor or something and stick to the nuts and bolts of getting things done, in your specific area of competence, and spend more of your time on protecting your constituents from the daily attacks made on them by the political system, than in trying to dragoon them into projects of your own devising. There is a German proverb which points out that it is a mistake to try to shit higher than your arse.


PS: It is clear that the "Progressive" bears more than a family resemblance to the "Managerialist", in the same way that with the perspective of thirty years, the punk rocker rather resembles the hippy.

PPS: with the greatest of apologies to Subcomandante Marcos, in my opinion certainly the most important political thinker of this century so far, for stealing his jokes. Note that to pretend to be a Zapatista in Dalston is about as silly as pretending to be a churchwarden in Chiapas.

PPS: In case the above does not make things sufficiently clear, I shit on the progressives of this planet.

PPPS: I find it curious that someone could look "through the archives" of my blog and claim to be unsure of whether I have any ideas which I am in favour of. The title bar is not a joke. I only need to add that I have no specific progressive schemes aimed at increasing the size of British pies or shortening the British working week, for the excellent reason that I am neither a baker nor a trade unionist.

PPPPS: In the words of Robert Anton Wilson, "perhaps I should have voted for the libertarian party, but I'm not that kind of libertarian. I don't hate the poor enough".

PPPPPS: of course, my favourable comments regarding Subcommandante Marcos above should not be taken as in any sense glorifying terrorism for the purposes of our indubitably progressive UK law.

PPPPPPPS: Some of my best friends are progressives. No really. If the cap does not fit, why wear it?

PPPPPPPPPPPPPS: (thanks for comments from Chris Bertram) Please take this as my alternative suggestion to all future proposals to uplift the working classes "why not achieve this through a cash transfer through the tax and benefit system?". Many things have been tried as solutions to the problem of poverty, but the only cure to have demonstrated consistent success is money.
67 comments this item posted by the management 12/18/2006 07:27:00 AM


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