Monday, 10 September 2012

Debating climate change: The need for economic reasoning

The global climate change debate has gone badly wrong. Many mainstream environmentalists are arguing for the wrong actions and for the wrong reasons, and so long as they continue to do so they put all our futures in jeopardy.

My diagnosis is a twofold ethical failure: of pragmatism and perspective (or, more eloquently, of ‘sense and sensibility’). Many environmentalists argue that climate change is fundamentally a values problem. And yet their interpretation of this has taken a narrow moralising form that systematically excludes consideration of such important ethical values as improving the lives of the 1 billion people presently living in unacceptable poverty or even protecting other aspects of the environment (such as wilderness areas). That narrowness also leads to self-defeating policy proposals founded almost entirely in the economy of nature rather than political economy. The result is a fixation on global CO2 levels alone as the problem and solution, at the cost of systematic and broad evaluation of the feasible policy space.

These foundational errors have induced a kind of millenarian meltdown in many otherwise sensible people, to the extent that to be an environmentalist these days is to fear the oncoming storm and know that all hope is lost. To put it mildly, people in this state of mind are not well placed to contribute helpfully to the political debate about what we should do about the fact of climate change. In their reconciliation with despair environmentalists are not only mistaken, but display a disturbing symmetry with those opponents of action who are mistakenly complacent about the status quo. My recommended treatment, to reinvigorate their confidence as well as their ethics, is a dose of economic reasoning.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Politics Vs. Economics?

A modern polity is made up of several autonomous but overlapping components. Two of the most significant are the political and the economic (culture and society are the others). The greatness of democratic politics is its relationship to the general will; its failure is the institutionalisation of hypocrisy. The efficiency of free market economics is in revealing and achieving the will of all, the satisfaction of the most needs of the most individuals possible; its dismal side is the mass production and consumption of the trivial. The challenge is to find a way to reconcile the best of both in an equal partnership.

Friday, 25 May 2012

If Obama is a socialist, so was Adam Smith

James Otteson, professor of philosophy and economics and author of learned books on Adam Smith and other weighty subjects recently wrote a short paean to capitalism - An Audacious Promise: The Moral Case for Capitalism. He begins by noting that "President Obama has oddly claimed that we’ve tried free-market capitalism, and it 'has never worked'." Yet by the criterion Otteson is using - criticising the sufficiency of free markets in any way - Otteson's own libertarian hero, Adam Smith, must also have been against capitalism.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Does moral theory create extremism?

Moral theory is what most moral philosophers spend our time doing. We try to clarify our moral intuitions about things like fairness, freedom, and responsibility and how they relate to each other. We do that by working them out as specific concepts which operate according to consistent and coherent rules (theory). When done well in an academic context this exercise produces not only a private aesthetic pleasure to the philosopher, but also an incremental contribution to the public good of human understanding. But when the same approach is directly applied to our political debates about complex moral issues - like abortion and vivisection - it can easily give rise to extremism.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Exile The Rich!

We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.  (Justice Louis Brandeis)
The rich have two defining capabilities: independence from and command over others. Those two features make being rich very pleasant indeed. But they are also what make the rich bad for democracy, and indeed even for capitalism itself. The problems I am concerned with are not about justice. Perhaps it is morally wrong that some people are rich and others are poor, and perhaps it would be right to redistribute wealth from rich to poor, and from wealthy countries to poorer countries. But from my perspective that resembles debating the proper (re)arrangement of deck chairs. What I'm concerned with is the sinking ship - the threat the rich pose to liberal democracy itself. Democracies are extended moral communities whose flourishing and indeed survival depend on the interdependence and equality of their members. The rich not only have no place in this kind of community, but their very presence undermines it. Therefore, if we believe our democracy is worth preserving, we should offer the rich a choice: give up your money or give up your membership of our society.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

National Responsibility for Historic Crimes: It's a Matter of Honour

Your country has probably done some very bad things. Perhaps recently, perhaps before you or even your parents were born. How do you feel about that? Does your present government have a duty to make amends for the bad things it has done, for example with apologies and reparations? Intuitively most people think so, but what kind of duty is that and what does it require from you as a citizen or subject? And how can you get other countries to admit that they have done wrong?

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Economists and the Crisis: a story of denial and opportunism

It is now generally understood that our present economic crisis was not caused by external factors but by dynamics internal to the system. Economists as a profession - in academia, government, international institutions, and the financial industry - failed to grasp the fundamental instability of the system they are all, in one way or another, paid as experts to understand and help us master. Furthermore they have largely failed to predict each iteration of the crisis as it has mutated from investment bank liquidity crunch to general financial sector insolvency, to a credit crisis on main street, to an economic recession on everyone’s street, to a threat to government solvency and the international political crisis in the Eurozone. This is not only because prediction is very difficult in social sciences, but because the situation in the real economy has fallen outside orthodox (neo-classical) economics’ standard models and theories (which excluded such extraneous elements as the banking system). Their theoretical expertise has been painfully irrelevant throughout the crisis, and we have been saved from a second Great Depression rather by the informal arts of political economy than by economic theory per se. 

It is not only the economy, but also the study of the economy which is in crisis. How have economists responded? A mixture of denial and opportunism.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Reading Jane Austen as a moral philosopher

Jane Austen wrote delicious romantic comedies about middle-class girls looking for a good husband among the landed gentry of Regency England. But if that were all there was to it we wouldn't take her any more seriously now than the genre hacks published by Mills and Boon. 

In this essay I want to explain what I think makes Austen so special. She was a brilliant moral philosopher who analysed and taught a virtue ethics for middle-class life that is surprisingly contemporary. Appreciating this can help us understand why she wrote the way she did and how we should read her today.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Recovering Adam Smith's ethical economics

While some men are born small and some achieve smallness, it is clear that Adam Smith has had much smallness thrust upon him (Amartya Sen)
Adam Smith is famous for founding economics as an independent field of study by synthesising and systemizing classical economics in The Wealth of Nations. But he was also a significant moral philosopher in his own right who deserves to be recognised alongside his close friend David Hume as a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith saw economics as a branch of moral philosophy, and he saw capitalism as an ethical project whose success required political commitment to justice and freedom, not merely an understanding of economic logistics. 

Monday, 5 December 2011

Democracy is not a truth machine

In a democracy people are free to express their opinions and question those of others. This is an important personal freedom, and also essential to the very idea of government by discussion. But it has also been held to be instrumentally important because in open public debate true ideas will conquer false ones by their merit, and the people will see the truth for themselves. In other words, democracy has an epistemic function as a kind of truth machine. From this it follows that in a democracy there should be no dogma: no knowledge protected from public challenge and debate. Yet this whole argument is founded on embarrassing misconceptions of  the nature of truth and of the working of democracy.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Criminal justice in the modern age

Liberal criminal justice systems try to analyse responsibility in terms of whether or not individuals deliberately cause bad events. That is fine for most crime - the kind that doesn't cause too much harm or lead to very severe punishment. But deep down it doesn't really fit with liberalism's thoughtfulness and fairness. Liberals take the responsibility of assigning responsibility seriously and once you do that it's obvious that this rough and ready legal approach doesn't rest on very firm foundations. Three such problems - fractional responsibility, corporate responsibility, and collective responsibility - make clear the compelling need for innovative new legal concepts, norms, and procedures.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The cult of victimhood

Victims are everywhere these days, whining about one thing or another. Sometimes they are still complaining about things that happened decades ago (or even hundreds of years ago to other people with the same skin colour); sometimes they seem to be 'status-victims' who feel entitled to oppress others because of their special personal sense of oppression. Very few seem to be complaining justifiably, or even comprehensibly, about some genuinely significant injustice being done to them right now that others should address. This is not healthy. Much of the limited space for morality in politics is being taken over by the study and art of victimhood at the expense of proper moral reasoning. It has a deleterious effect on public discourse and behaviour, with people seeming to compete more about their degrees of victimhood than the rights and wrongs of their case.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Are children public goods?

You might think that the family would be safe from the cold logic of economists but, as Gary Becker long ago demonstrated with his models of the marriage market and children as durable goods, the economic approach knows no bounds! It can ask an economistic question about anything and get an economistic answer. (Whether that's helpful for anything except the publishing record of that economist is another matter.) I recently came across one such example of economics imperialism in the question: Are children public goods? Or else private goods? My answer: No and no. They're children.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

How religion became secular

Once upon a time religion was in the world and made the world. Religion made the messy chaotic world legible to human understanding and amenable to human purposes. It fixed things in place, like the stars in the sky and the differences between men and women. It ordered the flux of time and events into meaningful cycles of life, whether the turning of the sun, seasons, and harvests or birth and death. It explained and justified the social order: why one man is born to wealth and power and another to be a serf. It told us with all the force of a mighty and all-encompassing metaphysics what our lives really meant, and how we should act, think and feel. But no more. Religion has been brought low by its old foes, philosophy and politics. Religion persists and is even popular. But it is now in the mind, a matter of personal belief projected outwards ('faith'). In short, religion is now secular. 

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The art of business and the science of economics

Business and economics are tied up together in lots of people's minds. After all, they're both about money, aren't they? An awful lot of people seem to believe that economics is Big Business and business is small economics. (Even the generally reliable Economist magazine seems to use this definition in deciding what should go in its business or economics sections.) The failure to keep the two apart leads to some bizarre misconceptions in the popular understanding. For example the idea  that countries are businesses in competition with each other, or that business is about self-serving greed and economics is the soulless science of large scale greed.