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.


  1. Thanks Mark. I suspect that the famous French rudeness is really Parisian rudeness. But the spoiled child thing is a very general problem.

    Have you read Michael Lewis's "Boomerang"? His stories about Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany and California are so weird, I no longer know what I think. Weird, weird, weird.

    The Californian county of Vallejo can no longer afford any municipal employees. It has gone totally broke paying for the retirement privileges of its former employees.

    1. I haven't read the book. Have been looking at articles etc. and trying to get a sense of what's driving him as it were. Is it merely irrationality - our tendency not to want to face facts, etc. - plus ordinary human greed which is the problem (according to Lewis) or does he have an ideological axe to grind? Lewis is very concerned about investment banks and their close relationship with governments, but I haven't figured out how radical a critic he is.