Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sinister influences

In a pluralistic society it seems sensible to let the market decide as far as possible who should be paid for doing what. The market may not itself be moral but ultimately it does reflect the values of market participants and in fact can provide fertile ground for the development and growth of many human virtues, such as prudence and a sense of responsibility.

It's all very well to say that someone should be paid to perform some (presumably worthwhile) activity, but if businesses or individuals are unwilling to fund them then any money must come from the state, from public resources. And - especially in these times of high government indebtedness - a strong case can be made that controversial or ideologically motivated activities or activities which are normally deemed to be inessential or which only benefit a small group should (whenever possible) be paid for directly by those involved.

Take sport and the arts. There is nothing to stop people getting together to play games if they want to. There is nothing to stop people putting on concerts or plays; and, if the product is popular, the audience will pay. Why should I subsidize writers or artists or performers in whom I have no interest and who, in many cases (given the left-leaning tendency of the arts community), are seeking to undermine the values I hold most dear?

I know that sports and the arts constitute only a small fraction of government budgets, but these areas are not discrete or easily defined, and they impinge on and merge into other more significant areas of government concern. For example, the arts merge into the media, advertising and propaganda. And sports funding is associated with community health initiatives. Nanny state, yes, but at least sport (unlike much activity in the arts) is not ideological.

Much arts funding is more about promoting multiculturalism (or, more cynically, about placating certain ethnic minorities) or winning votes from the broader 'arts community' than it is about encouraging artistic excellence (whatever that may be these days). But then, why should the state promote artistic excellence anyway? It is a good and worthwhile thing, but let it be left to artists to excel and to their followers to reward them.

At the elite end of the spectrum, both sport and the arts are used by governments to promote the 'national brand', an unfortunate tendency that appears - at least in respect of the arts in some European countries and in respect of sport just about everywhere - to have popular support.

Although the number of people directly employed by governments may be falling in some Western countries, the number who work for organizations which are dependent on government funding - including international organizations - is growing. And in areas such as health, education and aged care many mainstream churches and previously-independent welfare organizations have become mere 'service providers', following government rules and dependent on government largesse for their continued existence.

More insidious - if not sinister - is the way many groups espousing and promoting so-called progressive causes have inserted themselves, formally or informally, into the bureaucracy of national and local governments, redirecting resources and effectively reshaping the ethos of these bodies. Institutions and bureaucracies devoted to education are particularly culpable in this regard.

More broadly, laws and government regulations - promoted and encouraged by unions and other left-wing pressure groups - are making it increasingly difficult in many countries for businesses to make decisions about their own operations, including hiring and firing.

Similar constraints are being placed on professionals of all kinds. Once the professional-client relationship was, though essentially market-based, associated with well-understood and respected ethical standards. Direct and indirect government intrusions on this relationship are effectively undermining the very concept of the independent professional who maintains a direct relationship with clients based on trust and a sense of responsibility.

Freedom does not guarantee morality, but morality will only develop in the context of freedom, and withers in a highly regulated environment.


  1. Another field where this argument applies is public transport.

    In Michael Lewis's latest book (Boomerang), he cites a Greek economist who argued that the Greek government could save money by closing the railways and issuing everyone with taxi vouchers for the equivalent amount of travel.

    In my city it was argued that the public money spent on a (much admired) rail system could be better used by making all bus travel free.

    1. Buses certainly are more cost-effective than rail. And some cities do them with style. Good to see that the spirit of the old London Routemaster double-deckers has been recaptured in the new Boris Buses.

  2. Hi Mark

    This book review, and the book being reviewed, discuss themes you often write about:



    1. Yes, interesting stuff.

      By the way, I'm about to post another piece which could be seen as attacking philosophy. But I really am trying to figure out if there is something there for me or not.