Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Sat, 23 Sep 2017, 01:02 PM


Willing the ends but not the means

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There's a link between two of my recent posts which I'd like to bring out. It's that actually-existing centrists and rightists make a mistake of willing the ends but not the means.

For example, centrists rightly want us to remain in the EU. Many, however, fail to appreciate that the vote to leave was strengthened by economic conditions which they helped to create. Austerity - in which the Lib Dems colluded - and capitalist stagnation (of which some have been insufficiently attentive) generated hostility to immigration, antipathy to elites and a desire for change.

Likewise, centrists and the right want an open, tolerant society but fail to see that stagnation creates closed-mindedness and intolerance.

Let's take another example. Robert Halfon says Conservatism means "giving everyone a chance to climb." But he doesn't seem to realize that actually-existing capitalism militates against this. Inequality reduces social mobility (pdf): this is the message of the "Great Gatsby curve". This is partly because it's harder to climb a ladder when the rungs are further apart, and also because the rich give their children opportunities and connections which are denied to others. And on top of this, job polarization further reduces mobility, simply by removing rungs from the ladder.

Here's another example. Whilst rightists profess a love of freedom, they fail to appreciate that capitalism can retard it. This isn't just because capitalists impose oppressive working conditions upon millions of people. It's also because policies that would create real freedom - such as a basic income or jobs guarantee - might undermine capitalism by giving people the freedom to reject bad pay and conditions.

I'd add that competitive markets are incompatible with actually-existing capitalism. One reason for this is that capitalism tends to degenerate into cronyism as big business buys politicians. On top of this, technical change seems to have made capitalism less competitive than it used to be.

There's a common theme here. It's that actually-existing capitalism nowadays thwarts the values that centre-rightists profess to have: toleration, openness, opportunity, freedom and competitive markets.

They'll reply to this that capitalism has done wonders to create prosperity, and in doing so has created real freedom and civilized values.

They are absolutely correct. However, to take for granted that capitalism will continue to do so is to commit the fallacy of induction. Marx claimed that:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production...From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

It may be that this is now true of capitalist relations of production. If so, we need much more critical thinking about capitalism, and reform thereof (to put it mildly) if we are to promote the values of centrists and rightist. Such thinking, however, is absent especially on the right. Insofar as it takes an interest in economics, it is in the fantasies of Patrick Minford rather than in analysis of the real economy.

It's for this reason that I say they will the ends but not the means.

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