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?

Family Favourites

What is so disappointing about ideologues of all types is that they are so often partly right, only to spoil things by being partly wrong as well! For my money, Tim Montgomerie is on the ball in noticing that Labour and Liberal Democrats fail to recognise the part family breakdown plays with inequality. Yet the characteristic disease of ideologists – oversimplification – appears with him also. Tackling inequality, the housing shortage, and dysfunctional families is not just a matter of being family friendly in simple terms.
Montgomerie assumes that parental care for development and best education of children is a matter of self-sacrifice, and indeed it frequently is (including in cases where people send children to private or faith schools for reasons of discipline). But we should all be familiar with the sort of people who boast about their children’s real or alleged achievements and push them beyond the natural level of effort. These are not self-sacrificing. Any policy or system which encourages that kind of vainglory is not only harmful to children, but also likely to damage the economy through encouraging over-consumption and indebtedness. What is needed for sake of the family itself is a medium course between uncaring fecklessness and straining vainglory. It is not clear that any politician (or preacher) would be capable of finding that.
One point where Montgomerie, the Left, and myself can all agree is that the supply of houses needs to be increased. Of course, where the arguments begin is over where to put the additional houses.

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.

Small state with no religion?

One opinion poll is hardly a new cultural epoch, but when a series of polls taken on both sides of the Atlantic over several years tells us that young people in particular are becoming less inclined to believe in God or have a religious identity, then that may signal something important and not just a symptom of growing up. However great my differences with Ann Widdicombe on matters of theology, I had until this past week agreed with her view that the current generation of young people are merely indifferent to religion and religious matters rather than actually hostile, as had been the case with many of the ‘baby boomers’ of an earlier generation. But YouGov in the Sun this week raise a new possibility.

If as many as 41 per cent of British 18-24 year olds accept a proposition like ‘religion is more often the cause of evil in the world’ with only 14 per cent accepting the opposite proposition for good, then much of secular ideology as well as religion itself faces a huge challenge in our society. In particular, the advocates of a small State and low taxes often rely, at least in part, on faith groups and on charities where religious inspiration may be central or at least encourage certain donors, to provide support for those who might be left aside by a shrunken State. Welfare dependency can indeed be a very real problem for those seeking to return to work and good health, and faith groups can seem an independent source of help more sensitive to local and personal problems on the ground. Moreover, all the religions are supposed to stand for moral values conducive to a healthy society. But just at a time when confidence in secular solutions (especially state action) has never been lower, something is going badly wrong with the obvious social alternative to a big State.

It is not hard to think of reasons why younger people, and to a lesser degree the entire population, might be turning downright hostile to religion in 2013. The strife within religious communities themselves on many moral and social issues ranging from gay marriage to taxation cannot be helping. But I guess the international scene is far more destructive. Here feuds long-standing and exposed more sharply by the collapse of officially atheistic communism are now supplemented by a new factor. Even a few years ago many commentators thought Islam was a more united culture than other religions. Now we are learning in the most brutal manner that this belief (or fear in some cases) is quite unfounded. At the same time, the officially Christian West flounders in confusion with the new world disorder. In the 1960s and 1970s many simply thought religious faith outdated or inimical to personal freedoms. Now they may have more dramatic, but also deeper and more solid, reasons for doubting faith. Even those (including myself) unconvinced by the old secularist claim that religion causes wars and tyranny can believe that it fails to prevent them despite the ideals of peace and justice that all religions proclaim.

If we really are experiencing a new decline in religious faith (perhaps including people who haven’t even heard of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens) then small State free market enthusiasts face two choices, both incredibly difficult. One is to get the various conflicts, moral and political alike, which are poisoning relations both within religious communities and between them, resolved and quickly. To say that looks unlikely to be achieved is an understatement. The other path would be to ignore religion altogether and find other secular substitutes for the welfare state in particular. Bearing in mind the importance of patriotism in all its guises for secular history, and the degree to which we already rely on local communities (many lacking resources without state support), that may well be no easier. In the British case a small start might come from abolition of the Church Establishment, but that would do nothing with the main issues. Further, a problem for the New Right may be emerging even in the US with its separation of church and state, and high rates of religious faith. Many people who find much in common at home with others in a multicultural and multifaith setting still have the entire international scene to worry them. I suggest the Institute of Economic Affairs, the American Enterprise Institute, and all their various sympathisers, think again – fast.

The Bickering Society

To misquote Jonathan Swift, the Thatcher funeral should have reminded us that in the country of the blind, the one-eyed woman is Queen.
Yet, if my acquaintance is any guide, many ordinary people are waking up to the reality of life in the 21st century with its host of bickering groups. Anyone looking for a quick introduction to that in the UK should tune in to The Big Questions or Sunday Morning Live on a Sunday morning. Then just ask yourself: When does anybody ever acknowledge a good point from their antagonists or modify their position in response to what they said? Sadly the political class still show no sign of awakening to this reality. Yet even a casual perusal of reports on affairs elsewhere in the world tells you that campaigning pluralism is truly a global phenomenon.
The half-blindness of Thatcherism (‘neo-liberalism’ in some quarters) and its associates reveals itself in failure to see that the very disintegration of international Communism has, amongst other things, opened the door to a feuding variety of religious groups around the world. It is not only on ceremonial occasions that the political class assume that religion(s) will unite us – no doubt through the common values of empathy and compassion that religions claim to express. The problem here is that the world’s religions may share common values, but they do not share a common theology, identity, or history, and that can vitiate the common values.
The more complete blindness of Thatcherism’s antagonists shows up in refusal to acknowledge that class politics is already replaced by a chaos of sub-groups, with the poor (very different from the old working class) as merely one amongst others. The mishmash of campaigning cultural, economic, regional, religious, gender, charity, and moral cause groups – some of them NGOs with global reach – shows itself in startling ways, such as the fragmentation of the Arab Spring; leading to actual civil war in Syria. My personal acquaintance includes people alarmed for intellectual and cultural freedom in face of commercial pressures, one reason why intellectual and cultural freedom became associated with the Left as freedom itself disintegrated after the Second World War (except in dictatorships which denied freedom in all forms). But my advice to such people would be to stand up for their part of freedom directly, and not dress it up in the clothes of 19th century ideologies which simply do not speak to the 21st century world.

Tim and labels

Not for ‘right-wing’ reasons, I respected Tim Montgomerie’s very honest and (I guess) accurate piece in The Times this morning on the British credit downgrade and the state finances, except in that it glosses over the fact that the private sector is living beyond its means as well as the public. But in the spirit of friendly advice I would urge Mr Montgomerie, his readers, and think tank associates to look again at the silly ideological labelling which can actually get in the way of cross-party support for certain measures which he has helpfully identified. Of the four measures he says Mr Osborne is not being allowed to carry out, only one; namely, no strike agreements in the public sector, might reasonably be classed as ‘right-wing’. Shifting the balance of tax from income to property is, if anything, ‘left-wing’ and, indeed, the Liberal Democrats supported Osborne on that one. A similar point applies to some other policies proposed from similar quarters such as more housebuilding in rural areas or cuts to welfare benefits to more affluent pensioners (pensions account for 50 per cent of the welfare budget, I understand). Whatever the merits or demerits of those proposals, they are not particularly ‘right-wing’ in so far that term means anything. For at least some policies to deal with the public finances, cross-party support would be easier if nonsensical labelling, a typical result of the human need for identities at all costs, were eliminated.

One other warning for Montgomerie, and other Conservatives like Heseltine who used to be incensed by left-wing moral arrogance. The latest ruckus ahead of the Eastleigh by-election again places Mr Clegg as an ass – a role he has played before. But the way certain Tories, or more often their uncontrollable allies, have played politics back to 1924 or even earlier lends a certain credibility to left pride whatever the Tories’ actual policies or actions in government. Further, the old left would certainly have expected Osborne to be ditched as an embarrassment once the cuts became too unpopular ahead of the general election and sterling began taking a hit, whatever the merits of his plans. Maybe not for the first time, the Tories are threatened with the financial markets agreeing with the old left.

Bureaucrats and power

For once I quite agree with a Times leader. In connection with the latest British NHS scandal it points out that large bureaucracies always tend to aggregate power to the bureaucrats with power flowing away from the people. Just a word of explanation from me: this applies to any large bureaucracy. Whether it’s any government department (you name it), church (say Magdelen laundries, etc), corporation (say latest business or finance scandal or eco-disaster), trade union (say corruption scandal or political strikes, etc),…you get the idea.
The only other point is a bit of Wittgensteinian jiggery-pokery: ‘private bureaucracy’ is at least a strange term, if not a definite logical contradiction. In short, the public/private argument is irrelevant, large-scale bureaucrats are the same in all times, places, and organisations.

Listening in at Hobsbawm conference

As a philosopher rather than an historian, I came along to Brighton University’s conference on Eric Hobsbawm who died just recently to listen rather than take active part. Also I had to leave promptly at the end, so I am using cyberspace to make two particular comments which occurred to me – only one directly connected to Hobsbawm himself.

First, the point was made by Mark Perryman that Hobsbawm believed that patriotism could run along with militant class consciousness (on Marxist lines) and that he had opposed Scottish nationalism. Tom Hickey, another contributor, objected that patriotism can never fit the Marxist bill because it is always linked to tradition and history. Now, whilst I would agree with Hickey on that theoretically, it needs to be remembered that most, if not all, Communist and allied movements in fact tried to combine patriotism with their other aims. This applied not only to regimes in the Communist world (we need only think of the Soviet designation of their war against Hitler as The Great Patriotic War) but also to those ‘national liberation’ movements in Asia, Africa, or central and south America during the 1950s to 1970s which clearly appeared as patriotic as well as Marxist in their ideology. In their case the chief problem was probably that the combination with patriotism made it even more likely that these movements would turn into tyrannical dictatorships if they gained power than the Marxist ideology alone would. That is a different problem from that of conservatives who try to fight the social problems of modernity with patriotism only to find they have to modernise in order to hold onto their identities and traditions in the first place, although again tyranny can result therefrom.

Second, in talking about student protests of 2010 rather than Hobsbawm himself, Lucy Robinson suggested that in some situations it might be important not to tell the truth, but to ‘make the truth happen’ as she put it. I have to say this seems to me to be an incredibly dangerous position to take. To begin with, any black propagandist from Goebbels to McCarthy would be delighted to find such a notion of truth accepted – simply there would never be a problem with being accused of lying or deception whatever you say or do; all you are doing is trying to make truth happen (for you). In addition, it is probably fair to say that none of the various philosophical theories of truth would accept such an idea. However, a danger with the pragmatic or coherence theories is just that they could lead in that direction because in reality it is impossible to be sure that the rational and expert judgment which those theories rely on is really as trustworthy as they need it to be. That is, the thought sequence ‘Let’s make the consensus and then we make the truth to fit what we want’ is a possibility in these cases; for instance, because experts can be misled, bribed or intimidated. So, I would plead with Ms Robinson to think again.