Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Fri, 5 Mar 2021, 12:07 PM


Character, context and work

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It is fitting that Donald Trump should leave office in the same week that Phil Spector died, because both remind us that the quality of a man's character is not the same as the quality of his work.

As a human being, Mr Trump reminds me of the words of the great Fred Thursday: he's worth nowt a pound, and shit's tuppence. As a president, however, his performance wasn't quite as disastrous as his character. He didn't start any new wars (though he did continue old ones); broke the confines of fiscal orthodoxy; (marginally) reformed the awful criminal justice system; and showed an awareness that millions of Americans were let down and alienated from conventional politics. Of course, there's huge downsides too - on immigration policy and climate change not to mention the mishandling of Covid (though the awful handling of Hurricane Katrina suggests he's not the first president to horribly fail during a natural disaster.) ENDEAVOUR_EPISODE5_07.JPG

My point here, though, is not really about Trump. It is that we cannot judge a man's work by his character. Phil Spector exemplifies this much better than Trump,
music whilst being utterly reprehensible as a person. And of course he is just one of a long line: think of Richard Wagner, Eric Gill, Woody Allan, Jimmy Donley, William Shockley, Steve Jobs and so on. So much so, in fact, that it has long been a cliché that we must separate the man (less so the woman) from the work.

What's going on here? It's not that genius requires drive and selfishness that are only found in monsters. Good people can be geniuses too: think of David Bowie, Duke Ellington, Thomas Hardy or Jane Austen.

Instead, what matters is context. Had they not gone into politics, Stalin would have been just a failed seminarian and Pol Pot an average engineer.

Herein lies an under-appreciated merit of markets. When they work properly the make bad people do good things. As Adam Smith said,

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.

There are tens of thousands of greedy, psychopathic narcissists in the world, and market forces compel them to serve the social good.

I'd add an indirect benefit of markets. In providing affluence and innovation they give more people more ways to develop and demonstrate their genius. Without a film industry Woody Allan and Roman Polanski would just have been nonces. And without a music business Phil Spector would just have been a psychopath.

But of course, well-functioning markets are only one of many things that mediate character and outcomes. Another was recognised by Marx:

Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society.

Which is why capitalism worked best in the post-war period, when social norms and trades union power mitigated exploitation.

Here, we might contrast Trump with one of his predecessors, Lyndon Johnson. As a man, Johnson shared Trump's crassness and was perhaps even more racist. And yet in getting the Civil Rights Act passed he did more for racial equality than many presidents. Why? In part, because he was under compulsion from society: he'd not have done it if it had been a vote-loser.

By the same token, much of what we dislike about Trump's presidency reflects social pressures. His anti-migrant policies for example have been popular; his mishandling of Covid might be a reflection of a lack of state capacity; and his racism, conspiracy theories and contempt for the truth resonate with millions of Americans.

We'll wake up tomorrow with a new president. But we'll also wake up with the same longstanding American problems: racism; capitalist stagnation and the intolerance that it breeds; chronic inequality; neoliberalism; cronyism; and the strength of the military industrial complex. It is these that shape policy, more so than good or bad men.

All good businessmen know that every bad employee is a bad hiring decision. The same is true in politics. Rather than persist in a simplistic moralistic search for heroes and villains we must ask how to change politics and society so they either select against the likes of Trump or at least channel nasty impulses towards more useful purposes.

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