Monday, February 27, 2012

The amoral market

A strong case can he made that free market capitalism has enhanced human welfare more effectively than any other system and consequently offers our best hope for the future. But, as the economies of the developed world falter, questions about the viability and moral status of capitalism are being raised (just in case you hadn't noticed).

In my view the fatal flaw of the system lies not so much with the market side of things as with the current system of populist, majoritarian democracy. In other words it is our understanding of democracy which requires a radical rethink rather than capitalism. Though there is scope for argument about the extent of regulation and social security arrangements, I see no need for a radical critique of capitalism itself.

But of course the radical left thinks otherwise, and the vast bulk of the commentary on these matters has a leftist character and is driven - it seems - largely by anger and resentment against the rich and powerful, but also at times by youthful (or not so youthful) idealism. The history of European radical thought incorporates both these elements, but I always have the sense that an atavistic lust for blood or a desire for social destruction lurks at the heart of left-wing radicalism. I even sense a fascination with this side of things in the writings of Isaiah Berlin, whose attraction to such figures as Alexander Herzen and Georges Sorel I have never quite understood.

There is something childish or adolescent about radical thinking. Look at what is happening in Greece: many leftists and nationalists are acting like rebellious children, first of all in not accepting the hard, boring realities of needing to make a living in the world, and secondly in demonizing authority-figures (Merkel as Hitler) for persecuting them and humiliating them and treating them unfairly.

Hugh Schofield* has described an aggravating, adolescent strand (he goes further actually but I'll call it a strand) in French culture. And the French are notoriously averse to the unromantic but grown-up realities of what they call Anglo-Saxon economics.

French culture (unlike English or American) holds a respected place for moralists. The word 'moralist' has a strong negative connotation in English, but moraliste, a term often applied to French writers, does not have a similar connotation. More significant however is the strong state-supported arts-centered culture which is infused with an inflated sense of its own importance. Carla Bruni, when asked last year about her political position, told the interviewer that she was an artist and, of course, all artists in France were of the left.

The market is not romantic and is not a worthy object of contemplation for artists and idealists. The market is not moral, and so, for those who have a strong sense that all key social institutions should be moral, it is seriously flawed and must be abolished. Or - as what passes for the center-right in France would have it - merely taxed into oblivion.

* In a BBC radio piece. [Click on Chapter 6, 'Grumpy in Paris'.] Very much worth a listen.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Muddying the waters

Nick Miller interviewed a pink-haired Jesse Prinz in a Manhattan cafe about a new book which the City University of New York philosopher has written challenging the supposed orthodoxy of genetic determinism. But the current consensus on the old nature versus nurture question is not genetic determinism: it is a view which recognizes the complex interactions between human genes and the environment. Prinz is also arguing against the idea that our brains are, as it were, primed for language. And he tries to undermine the credibility of the studies of identical twins which underlie current mainstream views.

There is something going on here. Such overweening intellectual ambition and contrarianism can't be driven solely by a dispassionate reassessment of the evidence. Fortunately, Professor Prinz is very upfront about the ideological motivations of his ideas. Like his CUNY colleague, Massimo Pigliucci, his intellectual work is inextricably bound up with his passionate commitment to progressive causes. The trouble is, mixing ideology and science is at best a distraction, a muddying of the waters, and at worst positively dangerous.

For his article, Miller also interviewed Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico who effectively undermined the line which Prinz was taking by confirming what anyone with even a passing interest in these matters already knows: that studies of identical twins over the past two decades have demonstrated conclusively that virtually every aspect of personality is heritable (to a significant extent).

Steven Pinker, who has written on what he calls our language instinct as well as on broader issues of evolutionary psychology, is the most prominent public spokesman for the mainstream position which Prinz is setting out to attack. The following passage is from Pinker's book, The Blank Slate:

Identical twins, whether separated at birth or not, are eerily alike in just about any trait one can measure - verbal, mathematical and general intelligence, in their degree of life satisfaction, personality traits such as introversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness and openness to experience. They have similar attitudes towards controversial issues such as the death penalty, religion and modern music. They resemble each other in gambling, divorce, committing crimes, getting into accidents and watching television. They even boast dozens of shared idiosyncrasies such as giggling incessantly, giving interminable answers to simple questions, dipping buttered toast in coffee and writing indistinguishable syndicated advice columns.

If we want to improve our lives, the first step surely is to understand as best we can the situation we are in and this involves a recognition of the truly surprising power and influence of our genes.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Politics beyond borders

Kemal Derviş* highlights what he sees as the crucial problem facing political systems. "Around the world, the stock of financial assets has become so large, relative to national income flows, that financial-market movements can overwhelm most countries. Even the largest economies are vulnerable, particularly if they are highly dependent on debt finance."

But citizens, according to Derviş, want to debate policies and give or withhold their consent. "Thus a more supra-national form of politics is needed to re-embed markets in democratic processes."

This, essentially, is the problem the EU is grappling with - so ineffectively. "Nonetheless, unless globalization can be slowed down or partly reversed, which is unlikely and undesirable in the long run, the kind of 'politics beyond borders' for which Europe is groping will become a global necessity."

"Indeed," Derviş continues, "the European crisis may be providing a mere foretaste of what will likely be the central political debate of the first half of the 21st century: how to resolve the tension between global markets and national politics."

Though this last prediction seems very plausible, the analysis as a whole betrays a degree of wishful thinking. Politics beyond borders may be a global necessity, but democracy is not.

Democracy will of necessity be constrained by the operation of global markets as the power of smaller and/or indebted states to determine the rules they live by is diminished.

On the other hand, the role of mega-states like China is becoming more significant as they relentlessly extend their spheres of influence. It seems likely that we are in the early stages of a new imperial age.

*Former Turkish Minister for Economic Affairs and head of the United Nations Development Programme.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

No foreign devils

A friendship with the daughter of one of Mao Zedong's generals gave me an insight into some aspects of recent Chinese history and culture. Her political perspectives (for example, on Tibet – which her father helped to 'liberate' – or on the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square) often struck me as naive, but they were always sincere and apparently based on humanitarian values. She was probably more conservative than many of her contemporaries, having been educated in classical Chinese culture by her maternal grandmother who had been a concubine in the old China. Her views were a mixture of Confucianism, Buddhism, socialism and nationalism.

I was reminded of my friend when I read a piece recently about the Children of Yan'an Fellowship, a political association comprised of children of party leaders of earlier years. Hu Muying, the daughter of the chief speechwriter for Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, gave a speech at a recent gathering in Beijing which had an almost religious flavor:

Thirty years of opening and reform have achieved remarkable economic achievements, but those brilliant achievements were followed by class polarization, a public spiritual vacuum, chaotic thinking, moral decline, prostitution, drugs, triads and so on... These evils that were exterminated at the founding of New China have made a comeback and may even have grown worse.

We, the children of veteran party members, keep thinking, "Is this the New China our fathers sacrificed their blood to fight for and establish?"

According to Geremie Barme of the Australian National University, Hu Muying's organization represents the first attempt since the 1980s to establish a 'loyal opposition'. "They matter because in China today the only legitimate form of critique is from within the party's own heritage, which is a socialist-Maoist amalgam." It is easy to overlook China's deeper search for meaning and to forget its capacity for abrupt policy changes. According to Professor Barme, China's red culture is far from over.

And it is well to remember that the Chinese radical tradition – drawing on much older traditions – incorporates nationalism into its very core.

As a child my friend – despite her privileged background – had been sent to stay with peasants as part of her education, and I was struck by her genuine sense of solidarity with the poor. But her point of view was certainly not a universalist Marxist one.

Once she made a strange sign as we were walking down an ill-lit street after dark. When I queried her she admitted it was a gesture designed to keep spirits away. She was reluctant to talk about these matters, but I did discover that her view of heaven was very exclusive. The celestial paradise had places for her family and fellow countrymen but not for me. No Europeans. Or as she put it, "No foreign devils."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Philosophy's future

I suggested in a previous post that philosophy would not exist today as a scholarly discipline - at least in the form it is in - were it not for a body of practitioners who seek (explicitly or implicitly) to defend an essentially religious or at least anti-physicalist view of the world. It is also clear that academic philosophy has provided a home and a platform for certain secular ideologies (such as feminism, radical environmentalism and leftist politics generally) which flourish widely within the arts and humanities.

I continue, however, to be interested in some of the key questions commonly addressed by philosophers, and have recently been doing some more reading in philosophy-related areas, including some work by Pascal Engel, a French epistemologist and philosopher of logic who is currently based at the University of Geneva. Engel is unusual amongst French philosophers in identifying with the analytic tradition, and he has an interest (as I do) in the logical positivist movement of the early and mid-20th century.

In 2002, Engel engaged in a debate in Paris with the American Richard Rorty. The debate was published in book form in 2007 (the year Rorty died) under the title, What's the Use of Truth? Rorty was a left-wing, secular pragmatist with an unfortunate anti-science streak. Though his writing is lucid and persuasive he is not on my list of favorite thinkers, essentially because of his attitude to science. However, this short review by Rorty of a book about truth by Pascal Engel (in which Engel roundly attacks Rorty's position) is marvellously elegant and restrained, and I am very much in sympathy with Rorty's view concerning the futility of much contemporary philosophical debate.

In fact, it seems pretty evident that philosophy is dying as an academic discipline. Real jobs in the discipline are disappearing. I wrote a piece late last year on City University of New York philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci's battle against proposed changes to the curricula at his institution which he saw as being part of a nationwide trend to dismantle not just philosophy but the entire liberal arts component of higher education. It is a sign of the times that a philosopher (Peter Ludlow), who is a member of a task force set up to reform the American Philosophical Association (which has both financial and organizational problems), has made a case for the dissolution of the Association.

The travails of academic philosophy may be due in part to its perceived irrelevance to mainstream concerns, or to a general perception that it, like other disciplines within the humanities, has become too closely identified with certain ideological tendencies, or to any number of other factors. But I am more concerned to salvage something from the wreckage than to speculate on the causes of the crash.

First of all, I'm sure that philosophizing (in the sense of scholars and others reflecting on their respective disciplines) will continue. Meta-thinking is just something people do, and always will do.

Secondly, even if much recent epistemology, philosophy of logic, etc. is of little worth, that is not to say that earlier work in these areas was not important and valuable. I personally continue to be fascinated by some 20th century thinkers whom I intend to continue reading and trying to understand better. And people like Pascal Engel may prove to be very useful and valuable guides.

Of course, no one can really foresee whether or not philosophy has a future, much less the nature of any possible future (though I am inclined to think it will involve fragmentation).

I conclude with a couple of personal comments on the discipline known as the history of ideas. I am not really interested, as an historian might be, in seeking simply to understand how certain ideas grew out of other ideas and how they developed, or in how certain thinkers developed their ideas and influenced subsequent thought. I (like many other intellectually curious people) am more interested in the ideas themselves than in the history, even if I always prefer to see ideas within their historical context.

Furthermore, I prefer some ideas to others: I am really only interested in the ideas which are still 'viable'. Or - if you prefer - 'true'.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Ten ways to enhance your economic security

1. Education and professional training is the single most important factor in determining one's level of income, so obviously a lot of attention has to be given to making good choices in this regard. Unfortunately, choices need to be made before most of us are capable of choosing wisely, and bad early choices usually have a negative impact which lasts a lifetime. But such is the price of freedom.

2. Cultivate a taste for frugality and saving. See saving in a positive light - as deferred gratification, for example.

3. Aim to pay half of what your spendthrift twin would pay for anything you do buy, from food to clothes to larger items.

4. Pay off loans. The fashion for living on credit is solely for the benefit of lenders. So lend.

5. If you don't have capital or a satisfactory job, use all your spare time and brainpower to figure out what kind of paid work would be acceptable to you; and then try to find it. If you fail to find it, adjust your expectations and try again. Simply and steadfastly 'following your dream' is, more often than not, a recipe for disaster.

6. Beware of business partners.

7. Don't go into business at all unless you have extensive experience. Work for someone else.

8. Don't keep pets, and especially not a horse.

9. The rewards of having and raising children should be balanced against the fact that the fewer children you have, the more prosperous you (and they) will be.

10. Distrust all financial advice which is not blindingly obvious.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ten examples of racially-based thinking

1. A subjective preference to live and interact with one's own population group (defined in terms of genetic relatedness).

2. A subjective preference to marry within one's own population group.

3. A conviction that members of one's own population group are morally obliged only to marry within the group.

4. A belief that population groups (defined in terms of genetic relatedness) exhibit statistically significant differences in terms of psychological and cognitive characteristics and abilities.

5. A belief that one's own population group exhibits a higher incidence and/or higher levels of subjectively desirable psychological or behavioral characteristics than some other groups.

6. A belief that one's own population group exhibits a higher incidence and/or higher levels of subjectively desirable psychological or behavioral characteristics than all other groups.

7. A belief that one's own population group exhibits higher levels of objectively quantifiable cognitive abilities than some other groups.

8. A belief that one's own population group exhibits higher levels of objectively quantifiable cognitive abilities than all other groups.

9. A belief that one's own population group is intrinsically superior to some other population groups.

10. A belief that one's own population group is intrinsically superior to all other population groups.