Fracking duties

I don’t know whether Professor Michael Sandel supports fracking for shale oil and gas or not. What I do know is that he argues in his book What money can’t buy (2012) that the current ‘neoliberal’ trend for allowing markets to put monetary prices on goods and values like academic study, surrogate mothers, gifts, conservation, or even death tends to ‘crowd out’ (his expression) nonmarket values and can distort or corrupt the goods being offered for sale. One of the nonmarket values or norms he discusses is the sense of civic duty and responsibility – which is where fracking comes in. David Cameron has explicitly endorsed the proposition put to him at the G7 summit that opponents of fracking have a duty to support the controversial technique for extracting shale gas for sake of the UK’s energy security, especially from Russia. Presumably on the same reasoning opponents of fracking elsewhere in Europe have a duty to support both its development at home and arrangements to buy (cheaper) gas in from the USA.

One reason why I agree with Sandel’s call for a public debate on where markets are appropriate and where not is because of the role of nonmarket values themselves in relation to markets and monetisation of goods of all kinds. Maybe we can be happy about civic duty promoting the shale gas industry, depending, of course, on who we believe about pollution risks to the water supply or geological stability and earthquakes. But that is not the issue here. The point is that since state planning for growth (anyone remember the National Plan?) was discredited and it became accepted that economic security requires deregulation and reliance on markets wherever possible, the public aspect of nonmarket values – which includes civic responsibility and patriotism alongside communal values generally – is a promoter of the so-called neoliberal agenda, not an alternative to it. Those campaigners, as well as academic philosophers like Professor Sandel, looking for moral limits to markets need to be very careful. The lesson of fracking is: Watch those nonmarket values. They can bite.


If, like me, you suspect that Scottish (winter) rainfall is a useful marker for climate, then you might like this post’s title. Curiously, I actually agree with American conservatives and various other climate change ‘sceptics’ that we will have to adapt as well as doing whatever may be possible to limit at least the speed of change. But if anyone imagines we can thereby avoid ‘big government’, I reckon they might be in for a rude wakeup.

Adaptation basically means fitting yourself in (say to your ecological niche). Even before technowizards with flint cutters and fire came on the scene, there was nothing unusual about animals or plants altering their own environment and then having to adjust to the changes. The difference with humans and therefore technology is all about speed and organisation, including of the status quo and its territorial boundaries. Islands face a particular challenge. Already private ingenuity is playing a part with ideas like floating houses. But is it really credible to suppose we do the amount of adapting that climate change is likely to require without government at least pulling strings in the background (say with research funding and the like), if not in the foreground as well?

Bearing in mind the ever growing list of problems which the nation state cannot handle without at least international cooperation, the resulting big government promises to be bigger than any deregulation enthusiast imagined. Moreover, without any politician daring to tell people harsh truths about what their countries can’t do alone, there is no reason to suppose a global power would have to worry about democratic accountability. How about a global protection racket run by a multicultural coterie of criminal gangsters?

Will IPCC and philosophy mix?

As a moral philosopher myself, I might not be expected to groan at the reporting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) decision to engage the services of John Broome, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford University. Yet if Professor Broome really thinks what he is reported as writing in Scientific American the problems are with his moral philosophy itself. For climate change, like most politically charged issues these days, is not amenable to ‘elementary’ moral philosophy which so easily comes across as dogmatic preaching based on shallow thinking. It is not self-evident that fewer people being born would be bad for the future of humanity or the rest the earth’s ecology. Nor is it obvious that everything we do for our own benefit harms others in a way that deserves compensation – the opposite assumption from free market economics and just as open to question.

I do not cavil at including philosophers in dealing with climate change, although anyone working for the IPCC needs to show sensitivity to political and economic realities as well as to the hard science which must underpin all arguments around climate change. I hope Professor Broome will seek to cultivate such sensitivity himself. In particular, it is surely time for the IPCC to ensure attention is paid to the recent decline in solar activity, which would normally be expected to mean the earth cooling over the past 20 years rather than warming merely levelling off as the records suggest. Meanwhile, the theory that heating may have gone down into the deep ocean needs to be investigated. Those points would at once show attention being paid to science proper, recognition of the possible risks to future generations, and directly challenge the dubious arguments being put up by climate change ‘sceptics’. Where moral philosophy can come in is both to open up the argument over why every country is driven by a misguided patriotism (more than economics as such) to concentrate on short term benefits only, and to frame the practical arguments into a wider picture. I wish Professor Broome the best in this, but the start is not promising.

One other brief point on a related topic: Alice Thomson in The Times of 11 September is, probably rightly, optimistic about the concern of ordinary British people for their local environments. But why should anyone suppose that the Conservative Party, or its equivalents elsewhere, could be naturally a party of environment conservation? Conservation of national identities means keeping up with the global race, i.e., doing exactly what Mr. Cameron (now) says.

Second time lucky?

Max Hastings in the Daily Mail, of all people, is the first person I have heard of to see the connection between the Falklands episode of 1982, and Mrs Thatcher’s political benefit therefrom, and the subsequent dubious cases of Iraq, Afghanistan, and then Cameron’s cropper over Syria. Just to be clear: I always agreed with the actual military retaliation in the Falklands (I have never been a pacifist), but I objected strongly to the following hoo-hah which revived British optimism on a very shallow basis. The message of the Suez crisis 26 years earlier should have been allowed to stand, and ‘turning the country round’ confined to restricting a (sadly) narrow and backward-looking trade union culture and privatisations with less inflationary share selloffs.

It is not at all clear whether Parliament’s rejection of British military action in Syria will be a gain or a loss, whether to Britain, Syria, or anyone else. Maybe we shall never know. But it is clear that the shadows of Iraq and Afghanistan played a big part in influencing MPs, which in turn means the bill left by the Falklands triumphalism continues to mount. Instinctively, I would love to see a world where vicious dictators can be sent packing, but history tells us that interventions by foreigners are all too often counterproductive. Further, the cultures in these parts of the world can be very alien to modern conceptions of humanity, which is why the suggestion that the chemical attack in Damascus might have been revenge for the rebels’ attack on the Assad convoy and family a month earlier is plausible. So, hopefully, the British will now keep to modest aims in international affairs. At the same time, we must hope that the contemporary social problems accompanying moral confusion which have led some commentators and politicians to set a ludicrous store on patriotism as an antidote will come to be resolved in more sensible ways.

Inner outlooks, banks, capitalism and what else?

Sometimes I do have to compliment The Times on their variety. On the very same morning that they reported the Bishop of Durham and favourite for next Archbishop of Canturbury, the Right Rev Justin Welby, urging that a new banking Act should replace the system destroyed in 2008 with something ‘…dedicated to the support of human society, to the common good and to solidarity’, Tim Montgomerie quoted Gary Streeter, MP, saying a new Archbishop should end all clerical attacks on politicians and believe that if you ‘transform a person’s inner outlook then their political manifesto, business behaviour or parenting will take care of itself’. Now, these two things need not be contradictory, at least in terms of pure reason. But at the very least, proposing legislation about the organisation of banks and finance – a central part of a capitalist economic system – on grounds of the common good and solidarity implies a belief that legislation can play a part in framing people’s ‘inner outlooks’. Once governments are involved with that in any way, their policies become, on Montgomerie’s and Streeter’s own premises, a matter of direct concern to the clerics. In theory, they could, as Streeter wishes, just whisper in politicians’ ears behind the scenes. But we all know that publicly controversial matters do not stay behind the scenes, whilst covert lobbyists are a favourite object of suspicion and distrust – the last thing a churchman would want.

Montgomerie and Streeter display a typically conservative delusion that political life can stick to bread-and-butter issues because religion will take care of everybody’s spiritual needs and moral concerns. Banks and organised capital in general provide as good an illustration as any of why this won’t wash. The notorious liability of capitalism to periodic crises is not altogether a bad thing; it helps to prevent the rich winners under capitalism turning into a sacerdotal caste which imagines itself superior to the rest and which stifles social mobility. But it does mean inherent instability and insecurity. Further, if we are to limit speculative crises in particular, as well as protect ecologically sensitive areas like the Arctic, we are likely to need a curb on pursuit of patriotic pride and identity through economic competition. That would, persumably, mean a change in people’s ‘inner outlooks’ that most Conservatives and their equivalents around the world would dislike to put it mildly.

I have managed to follow Streeter’s advice (to Christians) in one important respect so far. I have not said one word about sex. The issues around capitalism demonstrate that there is plenty of scope for religion and politics to brush up against one another without sexual matters appearing at all. Oh, and what about Islamic finance?

Two ways to overspend

The sort of stuff we are hearing from some of the participants in The Times CEO summit about slashing taxes and government spending, or flat taxes is very plausible, not least because it would be more effective than the familar alternative. Business leaders cannot be blamed for having swallowed the same implicit doctrine as everyone else. Namely, the only alternative to a ‘New Right’ free market style agenda for the combined financial and economic crisis is an old style socialist programme of public investment and measures aimed at raising the spending power of the poorer groups in society (who usually spend most of any extra income they receive). Most of us have absorbed the lesson from history that the state is not a canny investor, and that it is important for the poor themselves that welfare systems do not prevent them from seeking work. Part of the lesson is that socialist governments have tended (with a limited group of exceptions, chiefly in Scandanavia) to come to grief quite quickly.

It is therefore only too easy to imagine that the ‘let the market rip’ alternative is safe and sound. No, it is not. True it is likely to take longer to fail than the socialist path, but fail it will. Naturally, business people trained to please – and never to argue with or criticise – the customer will find it hard to think in terms of private overspending and indebtedness even when we have already experienced that as well as the governmental version. From a psychological standpoint, this is a similar delusion to that of trade union activists or poverty campaigners who cannot come to terms with a society where only a minority struggle for the necessities of life. Yet experience from the 1950s to 1960s, and then more sharply from the 1980s onward shows that an expanding private sector and affluent populace will eventually shade over into overspending of resources. The impact of status competition and ‘keeping up with the Jones’ is very effective at casting aside any limits here. This means overspending in straightforward economic terms reflected by balance of trade and/or levels of personal (including family) debt, without worrying about the environment. For a time a policy of cutting government spending and taxes means a free ride for a majority of the public (which socialism cannot match, even temporarily) but free rides ultimately come to an end.

I would like to think that some speakers at the CEO summit, be they politicians or, better still, business leaders themselves will be wise enough to take note of this. Sadly, the signs are that the dogmas of both left and right are too ingrained in our culture for that to happen. The Liberal Democrats used to pride themselves on being neither right nor left. How about starting to define what that might mean by working out an economic strategy that would not lead to overspending in one form or other, or indeed both?