Our ever changing moods?


Same as it ever was

Are people more selfish now than they were in the 1970s? It’s often said they are and its just as often said that Margaret Thatcher is responsible. That’s usually said by the people who hold Margaret Thatcher responsible for everything.

But the evidence doesn’t support it. Consider the trade union leaders of the 1970s who plunged the country into darkness and cold, who treated corpses and rubbish the same as they refused to bury either as they were paid to. Consider the representative of the Confederation of Health Service Employees who appeared on television from a picket line outside a hospital the winter before Thatcher was elected; “if it means lives lost, that is how it must be…we are fed up of being Cinderellas. This time we are going to the ball”

Can you imagine anything more selfish than that? Any attitude less concerned with the ‘general welfare’ and more fixated on the ‘personal interest’?

The truth is that men and women have always been able to see what is in their interest as being in everybody else’s interest as well. Indeed, as the Roman poet Virgil wrote in the first century BC “Every man makes a god of his own desire”

A conversation between a libertarian and a statist

In the interest of greater interaction between ideologically opposed people below is a conversation I had recently with a statist acquaintance of mine along with some interjections by an open-minded observer. As Bob Hoskins said in those BT ads, its good to talk.

Statist – Tax is the subscription you pay for living in a complex society like ours.

Libertarian – Can I unsubscribe?

Statist – If you go and live somewhere else, yes.

Libertarian – No, I want to stay here, it’s where I’m from after all.

Statist – Well then you’re choosing to belong to this particular club and thus have to pay he subscription decided by the majority of the club.

Libertarian – That’s what I was looking for, the majoritarianism, our way or the highway. It’s not a subscription, it’s a forced levy.

Tell you what, why don’t you slash my taxes and I’ll sort my own pension and healthcare out and educate my own kids?

Statist – As I said, you can always leave the club if you don’t like the way its organised and go and live somewhere that suits you better.

Libertarian – I don’t see why I should, I was born in this country just like you and your mates in the majority. It’s as much mine as yours. In fact, what gives you the right to issue an ultimatum like that?

As I say, why don’t you slash my taxes and I’ll sort my own pension and healthcare out and educate my own kids? I’ll go and do my own thing and you and the majority can do your thing, set up an NHS, a comprehensive system and all the rest, whatever you like.

Statist – Eh?

You apparently want to be part of a community called the UK, yet apparently you don’t want to abide by the rules that the majority of that community decides upon.  That makes about as much sense as me joining a tennis club, voting for the subscription to be £80 and when the majority vote for it to be £100 complaining that they have no right to issue to me an ultimatum that I should pay £100 to be in the club.

I think we are different planets when we are on this issue and I am afraid I really do not get this moral indignation at having to abide by decisions that the majority make that I might not agree with.  I mean I don’t like having to contribute to Trident for example, but I don’t think subscriptions to the nuclear defence system should be voluntary, even though I am quite happy to go without the alleged benefits of Trident.

Libertarian – No, I want to live in the place I was born in (hence your tennis club analogy is a total dud). You want to make my living there conditional on handing my money over to you and your mates in the majority so that you can spend it as you wish which may not accord with how I wish it to be spent.

So you havent answered my question.

Statist – You are making a fetish of being born on a particular piece of ground.  That, to me, is irrelevant.

You want to live in a particular political community.  That community has rules.  You can choose to obey those rules or go and live somewhere else.  If you choose to  live in that political community you can also try to persuade others to change the rules to your way of thinking.

I am struggling to see what is objectionable about that unless you are arguing that any government spending is of necessity illegitimate (police? courts? military? – they are all funded by money taken from you and I to spend in ways we might not agree with).

Your argument ultimately leads you to some kind of anarchism – after all if you should not have to pay for pensions, education etc, a pacifist should not have to pay for police, military or the rest the state’s coercive arms.  You then get a situation where people only pay for government functions they agree with which, of course, makes government impossible.

Libertarian – It’s not irrelevant to me, I was born here. I’ve just as much right to be here as you or any of your majority. And, for that matter, I have just as much right to tell you all to clear off.

There’s a fundamental point here. My philosophy would leave you alone. If you and everyone else in the country wanted to set up an NHS or paint your heads green you could do that. I wouldn’t stop you.

Your philosophy, by complete contrast, demands that I be involved on pain of expulsion or imprisonment. It requires that what 51% want is swallowed by the other 49% on pain of punishment.

Not too appealing.

Statist – You would agree then that I should not have to pay towards Trident and a pacifist should get a full rebate on all taxes that go towards the military?  After all anyone else who wants to pay for Trident or the military can continue doing so.  Me and the pacifist wouldn’t stop them.

Libertarian – Fine. I’d join you, Trident is a waste of money.

Statist – The point is – as you are well aware – that you do, in fact agree that the state should be able to coerce people to fund some things – the military and the justice system for example.  What we are therefore arguing about is not a point of principle about state coercion but about for what particular purposes the state should be able to coerce people.

Some people think that the state should be able to coerce people to fund the military.  Other people disagree with that.  Ditto with healthcare. How do we resolve those disagreements?  I can’t think of a better way than a majority vote.

Libertarian – Well, I have my doubts about the justice system. I deal with county courts day in day out and they are a shambles. I saw a woman at Bow County Court treated appallingly by the staff last week. I was going to tell her to go to the competing court but, of course, there isn’t one. That’s what you and your majority have given us for our forced levy.

The question is how do people spend their money. I can’t think of a better way than to let them spend it themselves.

Statist – So you don’t believe there should be any state at all?    No military?  No police?  Every person for themselves?

Libertarian – I don’t see why you assume that just because I don’t want the State to do something you assume that I don’t want that thing done at all.

Statist – Because your argument was that it was illegitimate for the majority to impose its will on the minority in any circumstances.  If you think that, as a matter of principle, the majority of the population should not be able to force you to contribute towards the NHS it must follow that, as a matter of principle, the majority of the population should not be able to force the pacifist to contribute towards the military.  It then follows that contributions to all government services become voluntary, with the resulting collapse of the state.

Libertarian – It means the State stops doing certain things but it isn’t very good at doing them anyway and, as I say, that’s not to say that those things wouldn’t be done at all.

Statist – So you have no objection on principle to the state coercing people to pay for things they don’t want to pay for, it’s just a question of deciding what those things should be?

Libertarian – I’m not clear on how you’ve deduced that. I think a system which gives most people what they want is better than one which gives 51% of people what they want.

Swing voter – I’m pretty sure most people are in favour of the NHS.

Libertarian – I’m sure they are.

Swing voter – So given that you want a system that gives most people what they want, do you want to be outside that system sorting out your own healthcare?

Libertarian – Wouldnt the option be nice? I mean, how chuffed would you be if you went into a restaurant and ordered steak only to be told “Well, 51% of the diners wanted Lentil Soup so you’ll have to have that”?

Swing voter – I think I’d prefer that option than the other option which is “51% of the diners have had the lentil soup, so supply is quite limited at the moment. If you want the lentil soup, you’ll have to pay through the nose for it”

I don’t think we should be continuing the Restaurant/healthcare comparisons…

Libertarian – You might be right but if this restaurant is charging you loads for lentil soup and you’re gagging for it would pay another restaurant to flog lentil soup cheaper. Of course, that presupposes A) the availability of another restaurant and B) the ability to pick up your wallet and go there with it.

Statist – Your original point appeared to be that it was somehow illegitimate for the majority to force the minority to contribute towards something they don’t want to contribute towards. You were waxing all indignant about that. I pointed out that, taking that principle to its logical conclusion would make any form of state impossible as all contributions to the state would become purely voluntary.

You seemed to accept that in that you drew a distinction between the things that you considered the state wasn’t very good at with the things that you considered it was good at (I know you don’t say that explicitly but you certainly implied it earlier) and, I assume, accepted that people should be coerced into paying for the latter. You therefore accept that it is not illegitimate, in some circumstances, for the state to coerce people to do things they don’t want to do

That then, of course, raises the question as to how we decide which things the state should do (and which people should be coerced to pay for) and what it shouldn’t do. I can’t think of any better way of deciding this then a majority vote.

The thing is you are between a rock and a hard place here. The only two logically coherent positions are:

1. It is never legitimate for the majority to coerce the minority into paying for things they don’t want to pay for. As such, no form of state and no state functions are legitimate.

2. In some circumstances it is legitimate for the majority to coerce the minority to pay for things they don’t want to pay for. Thus some form of state and some state functions are legitimate and what is to be decided is what those functions are.

It, of course, does not necessarily follow from proposition 2 that how you decide what those functions should be should be via majority vote. There are competing theories – you can refer to your Holy Book or you can have some concept of rights and I actually think what you are groping towards is some notion of the latter. You want to hold that some things inalieanbly appertain to the individual and should not be invaded by the collective. The problem you then, of course, have is on what basis can you say that these rights to appertain to the individual when the majority of your society disagree with you.

Take the notion of the right to property. Since the rise of socialism in the 19th century, this has been hugely contested. Those with property generally argued that things like progressive income tax, inheritance tax, nationalisation etc invaded the individual’s inalienable right to property and was illegitimate no matter than the majority might vote for them. The socialists argued equally vehemently that there was no such right (or that the right was limited by the needs of society as a whole). How can one decide a dispute like that? It’s either by voting or by war isn’t it?

Libertarian – It does not follow that because “all contributions to the state would become purely voluntary” “any form of state (becomes) impossible” There are all sorts of voluntary associations which have lasted longer than most states. 

“You seemed to accept that in that you drew a distinction between the things that you considered the state wasn’t very good at with the things that you considered it was good at (I know you don’t say that explicitly but it is certainly implied in post 98 )..” I didn’t intent to make that implication (I can’t actually see that I did) so the rest doesn’t follow.

“The problem you then, of course, have is on what basis can you say that these rights to appertain to the individual when the majority of your society disagree with you.” Indeed, it was the same problem slaves had in the United States. It’s the same thing gays have when US voters decide not to let them marry. If you believe that no right is inalienable and that we only have the rights we have because the majority consents to letting us have them, then if that majority votes for slavery or discrimination you would have to accept that as perfectly legitimate.

Swing voter – And if the majority votes for a compulsory healthcare system you have to do the same.

Libertarian – Indeed, exactly the same principle which brought you Obamacare brought you California’s ban on gay marriage.

Statist – So do you agree or disagree that a state, as opposed to voluntary associations, should exist?

On your latter point, I agree, it’s a difficult issue.  I didn’t say that I didn’t believe they were inalienable rights, what I said was that the nature of such rights is heavily contested.  If people can’t agree what those rights are, you then have to decide how one decides what amounts to an inalienable right and what doesn’t.

A burglar might argue that, as a staunch social Darwinist, he believes in the survival of the fittest and that he has an inalienable right to pit his strength against that of an individual householder and see who comes out best.  It follows that it is an infringement of this right for society to lock him up if he commits a burglary.

If we can’t say the burglar is wrong because virtually everyone disagrees with him, how can we say he is wrong?

Libertarian – Well if we both agree that there are inalienable rights then it becomes a slightly more technical question of what those inalienable rights are. Id argue there is an inalienable right to life, that’s why I oppose the death penalty. I think we’d agree. Id also argue you have an inalienable right to do what you like with your own body. That might be more contentious?

Exactly, which then begs the question as to how we decide what are and what are not inalienable rights.  Which then, it seems to me, leaves us with the alternatives of either majority vote or war.

It’s not an easy issue.  On something like the right to property I would say that this is a matter of majority vote.  If society votes to tax those earning over £150,000 at 50%, then those who have to pay such a tax have a duty to pay it and not resist it by force as an illegitimate invasion of their right to property.

On the other hand if Hitler had held a (fair) referendum on the extermination of the Jews and, say 70%, voted for extermination, I would say that the 30% had a right to resist that majority decision by force as an illegitimate invasion of the Jews’ right to life.

So sometimes, it seems to me, it is reasonable to allow a majority to define an inalienable right and sometimes it isn’t.  Unfortunately, the circumstances of when allowing the majority to define an inalienable right is reasonable is also contested and we go into an infinite regression…

Libertarian – Possibly all correct, but first Id ask again about that individuals right to do what he or she wants with her body. I would consider that inalienable, would you?

Statist – To an extent.  Does an individual have a right to pay a doctor to amputate his leg when there is no medical need for such an operation?  I would say not, given that the subsequent disability will impose burdens on society.

Libertarian – That’s only a problem if ‘society’ accepts those burdens. If the guy knows in advance that it wont he might think twice before doing it.

Besides, Aids is, I understand, disproportionately a disease which afflicts homosexuals. We could reduce rates of HIV infection and avoid these supposed societal costs by voting to ban gay sex.

I wouldn’t support that.

Statist – I think the nature of humanity is such that if people see a one-legged man, they will not stop to enquire how he came by his disability, they will try to help him , so it’s pretty impossible not to get a situation where having only one leg does not impose a burden on other people.

In fact, I think a society where people are not allowed to pay doctors to chop their legs off on a whim (incidentally the doctor commits the offence not the amputee) but where the disabled are helped without deep enquiry as to how they came by their disability is much preferable to a society where such voluntary maiming is allowed but where disabled people are only helped if enquiry establishes that they are deserving of help.

Your final para again illustrates the difficulty of balancing the rights of the individual with the rights of society and how this is deeply contested (and historically contingent given that, until 40ish years ago gay sex was illegal virtually everywhere).

Libertarian – If individuals willingly want to help the one-legged man that’s up to them.

In both cases we have a negative externality which could, we are assuming, be mollified by legislation, either to stop the man having his leg chopped off or to stop men having sex with each other. How can one be accepted and the other not? Especially when the externalities of Aids are much greater than the externalities of people having their legs chopped off to solicit sympathy and money.

Statist – Actually people tend to get their legs chopped off for reasons of sexual gratification..

Virtually everything anyone does involves a “negative externality”.  If I choose to go to work by train rather than bus that involves a “negative externality” to the bus company and its employees as it deprives the former of revenue and makes it slightly more likely that the latter will lose their jobs.  Politics is all about making subjective judgments as to which forms of individual behaviour involve such an unnaceptable amount of “negative externality” that they should be forbidden.

There is no deep principle that says an individual should be able to do whatever he likes and that “negative externalities” don’t matter.  Going back to our friend the social Darwinist burglar, he is, after all, just acting in accordance with his individual desires and his individual conscience, yet I think you would agree that, in his case, the “negative externalities” of his behaviour are such that we should forcibly prevent him from committing burglary.

Libertarian – Well, you see, if I believe in an inalienable right to property then the burglar hasn’t got a leg to stand on. Just like your amputee.

The conversation sort of petered out there.

The polarization of politics: Let’s mingle more

My captain, my captain

As a Trekkie I was keen to watch Patrick Stewart, late of the Starship Enterprise, boldly going on the BBC’s Hardtalk. Stewart is a man I greatly admire not only for pulling off the impossible and filling Captain Kirk’s seat, but for an acting career that spans Sejanus in I, Claudius and a hypersexed version of himself in Extras.

So it was disappointing to actually see Stewart in action. I knew he was a Labour supporter; he’s a Yorkshireman and luvvie after all. But he went further. He said he actually feels “uncomfortable” around Conservatives. This was yet another manifestation of a depressing trend. People are increasingly unable to tolerate anyone whose politics aren’t just like theirs.

The trend is further developed in the United States than in Britain. In the US the tone of political debate is frequently poisonous. From the right you have ‘conservatives’ accusing ‘liberals’ of wanting to destroy America. From the left you get ‘liberals’ accusing ‘conservatives’ of wanting to grind everyone else into poverty. To each their opponents are not merely wrong, not simply possessed of a different philosophy, but are actually evil. Neither side recognises any common ground at all with the other.

We have not been free of this in Britain. In 1945 Winston Churchill warned that if Labour won the election Clement Atlee would usher in a British “Gestapo” and opposition to Margaret Thatcher frequently scaled quite epic heights of demented lunacy. It still does.

But this was the exception in Britain, perhaps because figures like Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, John Major, or Tony Blair drew most of their flack from their supposed supporters. Enoch Powell could disagree utterly with both Tony Benn and Michael Foot yet maintain warmer personal relations with either than Foot and Benn could manage with each other.

This has been changing. As the coalition undertakes to slow the growth in government debt so that it only doubles in five years, some on the Left have reacted as though civilization is about to end. Worse, they attribute it, as in America, not merely to error or possession of a different philosophy, but to evil itself.

Polly Toynbee, a trail blazer for the New Nastiness in British political discourse, described the popular proposal to cap Housing Benefit to a still pretty generous £400 a week for a four-bedroom property and £250 a week for a two-bedroom home as the Tories’ “final solution for the poor”, seeing in the cuddly Grant Shapps the echo of Heydrich and Himmler.

I am quite sure that someone of a left wing persuasion reading this will respond that the Right does plenty of it too. No doubt the Daily Mail and Peter Hitchens will be mentioned. And they may well be right. I concede the distinct possibility that both sides are as bad as each other but I shan’t find any comfort in it.

The rhetoric of someone like Toynbee and her counterparts on the Right is harmful. If, for example, you are a Guardian reader who accepts Toynbee’s view of the world then, by extension, you must consider people like me, as an occasional supporter of the Conservative Party, a crypto-Nazi.

If this sounds as ridiculous as it ought to then stick Toynbee in the bin. If, however, you do accept her world view that the coalition is evil and acting out of spite then you can understand why someone like Patrick Stewart would feel uncomfortable around Conservatives, even ones like me who wear plastic pointed ears from time to time. We’re Nazis, after all.

This matters. Democracies work because every few years, at election time, the losing party hands power to the winning party on the understanding that, at the next election, power will be handed back to them if they are successful. This is only possible because the parties consider themselves part of the same polity. If they don’t, if they see no common ground, then the basis for electoral democracy breaks down. In many places around the world elections are accompanied by fraud or violence precisely because this common polity doesn’t exist.

This also gives some clue as to where this bitterness comes from. Governments are now, increasingly, mechanisms by which wealth is transferred around society. Unlike wealth creation, which can generate wealth which didn’t previously exist and make everyone better off, wealth transfer is always a zero sum game; one party can only benefit to the extent that some else loses. Wealth creation creates winners. Wealth transfer creates losers as well.

And, as governments grow, so does their role as wealth transferors, increasing the number of both winners and losers in the zero sum game of government. Bitterness grows alongside.

I have a great many friends who would describe themselves as being of a left wing persuasion so I can see what people like Stewart are missing out on. Because I know lefties personally and not solely from the pages of the Mail I know that they don’t all want to put me in a Gulag run by Harriet Harman. And I hope that, from knowing me, they realise that not all ‘right wingers’ want to feast on the carcasses of the poor. Each of us thinks the other is wrong; neither thinks the other is evil.

What is under threat in Britain, and almost dead in America, is this sense of commonality, of being part of a shared polity with people we disagree with, but who are, for the most part, just as sincere and well-motivated as we are. And we won’t keep it if, like Patrick Stewart, we seal ourselves off from those we disagree with.

We need to mingle more, not less. Unless you think Picard was a better captain than Kirk, then I really will never talk to you again.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator