Thursday, 23 January 2014

Laissez faire with added moral fibre

Behavioural economics is nothing but Victorian morality passed down, through figures like Edgeworth, to the modern age. What is laughed at in the works of the Victorian moralists is codified into foreboding and difficult to understand terminology in behavioural economics. But it is all the same thing. It is a program that seeks to domesticate mankind and destroy what the vast majority of people hold dear.

And what is the great irony of this program? Namely, that it will be rejected by the marketplace. Where the behaviourists’ ideas may find practitioners in the more authoritarian halls of government the marketplace will continue to sell dreams of breaking boundaries, pushing extremities and engaging in short-term pleasures.
Philip Pilkington. The only thing I'd disagree with is the idea that people are still laughing at the works of Victorian moralists. That may have been true in the 1960s and '70s, when we thought we'd finally said goodbye and good riddance to the workhouse morality of the "undeserving poor", but nobody's laughing now. Specific words like "improvident" may have fallen out of fashion, but the self-satisfied, paternalistic finger-wagging tone adopted by our political and journalistic thought leaders echoes some of the most complacent platitudes ever to come down from a Victorian pulpit, or the self-serving blather of some Nineteenth century mill owner setting the world to rights over brandy and cigars.

Looking back, it seems that the dominant  ideology that replaced the post-war consensus was always an uneasy mixture of market fundamentalism and moralising, although the moralising has had to adapt to survive. It started off with the socially conservative Moral Majority and Margaret Thatcher's "Victorian values" but, at least in this country, some aspects have been mugged by reality and have had to be adjusted.

For example, we do still laugh at Victorian sexual attitudes, so measures like Section 28 are no longer part of the programme and nobody today is likely to repeat the own goal of John Major's "Back to Basics" campaign, derailed, in large part, by the sexual incontinence of his own ministers. To be fair, the re-launch was intended to be about more than sexual morality, but it's a fact of life that the press aren't necessarily fair and if you think they gave Major a monstering, that's nothing to the one they'd have given him, had his affair with Edwina Currie (link NSFW, or for anywhere else, really) come to light while he was in office.

So today's moralisers pick their way more carefully and pick on the targets it's still safe to bully, the poor, organised labour, (now safely neutered by the effect of several recessions and anti-union legislation) and suspect outsiders (the Victorians had fits of the vapours over the morals of pogrom-fleeing Jews  and imagined depravity in Chinese opium dens;* we've got "bogus" asylum seekers and Romanian immigrants to get all hot and bothered about).

And when they're not loudly condemning from their media pulpits, they've got the Nudge Unit and useful idiots like Jamie Oliver on tap, because we can always trust in the Invisible Hand, but we can't trust the lower orders who, like children or savages, don't know what's good for them and are prone to waste their pittance on dog food and tattoos, instead of the wholesome lentil and polenta diet preached by their betters.

In the USA, the moralising part of the project seems to have hit some turbulence, due to its capture by Tea Party extremists determined, Canute-like, to turn back the tide of social change, rather than selectively adapting to it, but there's still enough pontificating about on both sides of the Atlantic to induce head-splitting cognitive dissonance. We're supposed to be thrifty, responsible and industrious in an economy which is fuelled by aspiration, debt and the advertising-primed gratification of whims and to believe in the market in an age of massive subsidies to the finance sector and the outsourcing-led ballooning of corporations which grow fat on government contracts. A conflict which Pilkington sees as a bug, although it may also be a feature of the noise machine.

*A moral panic which, given that Britain fought wars in order to profit from selling opium to the Chinese, elevated Victorian hypocrisy to an art form.