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Sussex, United Kingdom - Recently at a dinner party, an old friend of impeccable good sense and wry humour uncharacteristically worried that his grand-daughter's graduation prom had been extravagant because it might make less prosperous peers feel inferior.
I admired his delicacy but said that we and our children were responsible for the dilemma Holly faced; we had at best tolerated and at worst continued to vote for and benefit from a widening gap between the rich and the poor. We had, in the era of Thatcher and Reagan, turned greed into a public virtue, ignoring the downstream consequences in the form of poverty and social dislocation, environmental damage, crumbling public services and scandals like Enron.
As if we had not seen all this before. The intellectuals of the Manchester School had turned laissez faire economics into a religion with the repeal of the Corn Laws as its chief doctrine. These economists said that setting minimum wages would simply drive costs up and instead of only men being out of work, leaving the women and children to earn a pittance, everybody would be unemployed. The result was a level of degradation almost unimaginable, concealed for a time by the remoteness of government and the 19thth Century penchant -- even in Engels -- for euphemism and gloss in matters concerning sanitation and sexual behaviour. What Dickens could only garb in pathos (Little Nell's journey through the industrial midlands of England) Zola had the courage to expose in all its savage sadness.
There was, for a beginning, the decline of ancient craft, of stability in wages, prices and housing, all of which were blown away in two generations of industrialisation. Children as young as three were handed over by the public authorities to mill owners until they worked themselves to crippledom or death and when that was outlawed immigrants (primarily from Ireland) were imported to force down wages.
Today the instability is not in wages but in pensions so that it is now perfectly possible to imagine a life of labour and thrift destroyed by liars and cheats. Today's equivalent of degradation, setting aside the conditions of slum dwellers in our cities, is the fact that 1 in 5 of our children is suffering from stress as the result of the tyrannical imbalance between work and family life.
There was, too a railway boom and bust although, it has to be said, the economic model for it was a good deal sounder than that for the com fiasco. Then, of course, investment was undertaken by people with capital to risk, today it is undertaken by institutions on behalf of small people who rely on judgment and integrity to preserve their savings and pensions.
Disraeli's warnings were ignored when he said that England's insistence on free trade depended on its equal acceptance by others; this would not last. It didn't. The carefully constructed set of reciprocal tariffs could never be re-built and England's long, inevitable economic decline began.
So, here we are, drunk on the promises of the revived Manchester School, ignoring Paul Kennedy and pushing the WTO into ever greater tariff cuts and more free trade. In his Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Kennedy explained that the most powerful economy in the world has always insisted on free trade and then tried to establish tariffs once its hegemony is challenged. You need look no further than the United States steel industry to see the writing on the rust belt walls. The whole of the traditional, Western economy is plunging into a doctrine of economic schizophrenia which promotes protection and free trade simultaneously.
This is where the generosity of my prose ceases. There is no doubt that some of those who promoted the views of the Manchester School, such as Cobden and Bright, did so for reasons of intellectual conviction but for the majority of their backers this was simply a matter of greed. Greed with a theory, even better.
This is why Thatcherism and Reagan (who never had an ism of his own) were so powerful; they were able to dress the greed of their friends and backers in respectable, academic garb. Well, Hayeck and Friedman was as far as it went; but it was enough.
What is interesting today, in the Presidency of George Bush is that there isn't a theory to justify Enron and WorldCom.
It is as if, drugged by two decades of shameless, unshakeable, publicly supported greed, we have lost our taxonomy and, flowing from that, our lexicography. We are speechless but not with rage. We are resigned; there is nothing we can do. We must accept the foolishness of public policy, our own straitened circumstances in old age and the risk of massive social instability. We shall consent to daylight robbery and do nothing.
- Everybody knows that Attorney-General Ashcroft, in charge of reforming the financial structure in general and audit in particular, received substantial sums from both organisations.
- Everybody knows that most of the Senate of both Parties took money from major corporates.
- Everybody knows that Bush is a scum ball who was temporarily garlanded after 9/11 because he was the only President of the USA that we had and yet the indignation is nugatory.
What does this say about a nominally Christian country like the United States where the plutocracy and the Biblocracy uncannily coincide? It says two things to me: first, the foundation of Christianity is self-criticism and not the judgment of others; secondly, the generosity of goods and spirit it requires go far beyond palliative philanthropy, indeed it requires sacrifice.
In this respect those who call themselves Christians and require some economic theory to justify their comfortable living might study the Difference Principle of John Rawls (in A Theory of Justice) which says that inequality of income and wealth is only justified so far as it is to the benefit of the least advantaged, i.e. you need capital to create employment.
The acid test for a 'libertarian' is duty.
Flirtation with some kind of utilitarianism is not enough. If duty amounts to the prudence of self protection that is too narrow a remit. At this moment, however, with my pension dwindling measurably with every week that passes, I would settle for prudence and, temporarily at least, foreswear my love of moralising.
As for Holly, it would be cruel to deprive her of a little extravagance while it lasts. She will soon learn, unless she finds her way through skill or good fortune to the very top of the economic tree, that her supposed birthright has been squandered.
She is not to blame for the social or environmental degradation, the coarseness of what passes for discourse and culture, the elevation of greed over every other human attribute, but she will suffer nonetheless. Her fine parents and grandparents will have given her some protection from the worst -- she will be both generous and resourceful, principled but liberal -- but the collective weight of what we have done will be too much for most of us.
With a peculiar hypocrisy born of callousness, our generation will dandle its grandchildren while it consumes now what it should pass on. It is difficult to see how social democracy can re-assert itself but that must be our key political hope.
As for the more important moral context, you only have to go to the opera, as I did twice last week, to know that you can both enjoy the fine singing and be indifferent to the howls of your workers. Culture, being but one wonderful attribute of the Christian life can, necessarily, be no substitute for it.
Conversely -- and here I have in mind those aristocrats of the deep South -- courtesy is no substitute for caring. I do not think that we are doomed in the way of the Jeremiad preacher man but for too long we have waited for somebody else, abstained from voting, assigned consent by silence to any amount of public nastiness, satisfied ourselves with the tithe rather than the ninth or eighth, wished each other a nice day, defined ourselves as victims rather than rulers and, above all else, we have travelled into the future indifferent to history, indifferent to our moral traditions, indifferent to our own sanity and indifferent to those who will come after us. Our indifference is all that greed requires.
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