Dear Mr. Duffy,
I am an enthusiastic, if spasmodic listener to Radio National – spasmodic because of my work patterns. Fast moving, noisy machinery is not the best companion for radio. I have in fact noticed a correlation between the amount of noise an agricultural machine makes and its potential for removing unattended bits of one’s anatomy.
I am enthusiastic because of the variety and quality of RN programmes. I prefer this medium to newspapers because it gives direct and substantial access to primary sources of data and informed opinion, unfiltered by the editorial and intellectual constraints of journalists.
Thus, I am disproportionately subject to the infamous ABC Leftwing bias.
The ABC biased?
It is an interesting notion, this bias of the ABC. The news and current affairs departments are minutely scrutinised for biased reporting. However, even during an event as controversial as the invasion of Iraq, only a small handful of heat of the moment reports were found to be unbalanced.
Compare this to the avalanche of pro war propaganda and jingoism in the commercial media. I heard little criticism about this, because as John Clark has a fictitious Senator Alston say, “There is no problem with bias in the commercial media; they’re conservative.”
However, I would have to agree that there is an ABC bias. It is a bias towards considered, informed and non-sensationalised debate. It is a bias towards a broader debate than economics and an obsession with its growth. It is a bias towards the values of a liberal democracy, as implicitly prescribed by its charter and is therefore, intrinsically Leftwing. As such, the ABC is the counterpoint to an almost universally Rightwing media industry.
The above statement raises some issues about which I am confident we disagree. Specifically, I am sure that we would differ over the meanings of “liberal”, “Leftwing” and “Rightwing”. You have made the definition of these words a recurrent theme on Counterpoint and it is my opinion that you have been both deliberate and disingenuous in your manner of doing so.
Your Raison D’etre seems to be to assume the role of a Rightwing iconoclast in a Left dominated world. In reality, the demoralisation of the Left would seem to be almost complete and the voice of liberal values barely audible above the feeding frenzy of our conspicuously consuming society. Your fantasy about the pervasiveness of the Left has led you into a quixotic enterprise to subvert your audience to Right thinking. To this end you indulge in constant editorial denigration of those on the Left in a way that I believe, lacks both intellectual and professional integrity.
In particular, you like to sneer at environmentalists and their concerns.
It is the intention of this essay to contest some of the more specious agendas that you pursue on air. Specifically, I will argue that not only are commonly accepted definitions of the Left facile, but that our very survival may well depend upon the Left once again creating an Age of Enlightenment.
I’ll show you my liberal if you show me yours.
A recurring theme of your programme is that of your simplistic and distorted presentation of “liberalism”.
My Oxford Dictionary defines liberal as, “favourable to democratic reform and individual liberty, progressive…open-minded, candid, unprejudiced.” It does not mention free trade or government intervention in the economy. You designate this country’s drunken lurch to the Right as a long overdue move towards liberalism. It is nothing of the kind. Our American cousins are more candid in their designations. They know a liberal when they see one and Boy, he aint no Republican, no Sirree Baarb! You, on the other hand, reject Malcolm Fraser’s credentials as a liberal because he is not sufficiently “dry”, for your tastes.
Your contrived narrowing of “liberalism” to the context of free market economics and the rights of private property, together with your misrepresentation of the ideas of people like Adam Smith, is spurious if not dishonest. Liberalism is not synonymous with capitalism (cf. free enterprise), in fact, in many ways, they are antipathetic.
The Right is rather confused about the concept of freedom. The Religious Right is certainly not interested in a whole raft of freedoms that the Left advocate: gender rights, gay rights, religious freedoms, freedom from censorship and a range of lifestyle choices. Economic libertarians on the other hand are only concerned about the rights of property and the freedom to do business as they wish. They are troubled little by the fact that poverty, (absolute or relative), corporate power and environmental degradation are profoundly corrosive to individual freedoms as well as social cohesion. Sorry I forgot, there is no such thing as society, is there?
I am perfectly aware that economic liberalism was an important part of the Scottish Enlightenment. This singular intellectual movement spawned so much of what we take for granted as the foundations for liberal democratic societies. Adam Smith in particular saw the benefits of unleashing the potential of individual ambition and creativity in a market place free from the heavy hand of political orchestration. However, Smith was not primarily interested in economics. He saw himself as a philosopher concerned broadly with human society and its pursuit of happiness (i.e. the greatest happiness for the greatest number).
His economic theories were part only of his work and his advocacy of a free market, a means to an end. He was primarily advocating his vision of a free enterprise culture as the most effective means of creating the wealth necessary to create a civil society. This vision was necessarily a product of his experience.
Consider the world of Adam Smith. Scotland was reinventing itself. An astounding transformation was in train, from desperately poor agrarian and in part, semi feudal subsistence economy, to a vibrant mercantile centre and an intellectual hub of The Enlightenment. The poverty of much of the Highlands was not just relative but absolute. Disease and famine were constant spectres. By contrast, the enterprise of the Glasgow tobacco entrepreneurs and the consequent cultural sophistication could not but help inspire Smith’s economic and social visions. His concept of capitalism however, predated the full force of the Industrial Revolution, of Darwin and the awareness of our total dependence on a global ecology to sustain us.
That intimate, pre-industrial society, largely comprised of family businesses and personal relationships, provided the perfect environment for Smith’s theories to take root.
The Scottish Enlightenment was predicated on a dedication to the ideals of universal education, enthusiastic open-minded enquiry, tolerance, social refinement and yes, a rough egalitarianism. However, two and a half centuries later, I am certain Smith would be horrified by the extent to which myopic flunkies to a pointless materialism have reduced his wisdom to self-serving dogma. The East India Companies notwithstanding, he could never have envisaged a world so dominated by behemoth corporations, which are not only anti-democratic, but which so profoundly separate beneficial ownership, governance, moral responsibility and social allegiance.
That is not to say that Smith did not perceive the dangers and disadvantages of his proposed economic system and offered a range of caveats to his vision. He was as much concerned with the corrupting effects of the concentration of power by business as he was by big government. Indeed, he considered a government dominated by mercantile interests as “the worst of all governments for any country whatsoever”.
Adam Smith pre-empted the Marxist notion of alienation and worried that an ignorant and culturally degraded citizenry could be easily manipulated by anti democratic forces to the detriment of the longer-term interests of society.
His seemingly low opinion of the mercantile culture supports the contention that Smith thought capitalism was not only a means to an end, but a necessary evil, the dangers of which must be considered very carefully. In particular, he was concerned about the effects of commercialism on that very cornerstone of the Scottish Enlightenment, liberal education.
“In all commercial countries the division of labour is infinite, and everyone’s thoughts are employed about one particular thing….The minds of men are contracted, and rendered incapable of elevation. Education is despised, or at least neglected, and heroic spirit is utterly extinguished.”
Karl Marx? No, Adam Smith. (Lectures on Jurisprudence.)
From the same series of lectures Smith articulated a prejudice against the social consequences of industrialisation:
“There are some inconveniences, however, arising from a commercial spirit. The first we shall mention is that it confines the views of men. Where the division of labour is brought to perfection, every man has only a simple operation to perform. To this his whole attention is confined, and few ideas pass in his mind but what have an immediate connection with it. When the mind is employed about a variety of objects it is some how expanded and enlarged, and on this account a country artist is generally acknowledged to have a range of thoughts much above a city one. The former is perhaps a joiner, a house carpenter, and a cabinet maker all in one, and his attention must of course be employed about a number of objects of very different kinds. | The latter is perhaps only a cabinet maker. That particular kind of work employs all his thoughts, and as he had not an opportunity of comparing a number of objects, his views of things beyond his own trade are by no means so extensive as those of the former. This must be much more the case when a person’s whole attention is bestowed on the 17th part of a pin or the 80th part of a button, so far divided are these manufactures. It is remarkable that in every commercial nation the low people are exceedingly stupid. The Dutch vulgar are eminently so, and the English are more so than the Scotch. The rule is general, in towns they are not so intelligent as in the country, nor in a rich country as in a poor one.
Adam Smith Lectures on Jurisprudence 1762
Today, in this country, where “intellectual” has become a pejorative term and fewer and fewer people seem able to distinguish between education and training, I wonder whether Adam Smith would agree with your definition of liberalism.
[The High School that my son attends has dropped history from its senior school curriculum in favour of photography. Insufficient interest. You can’t make a buck out of history, so what is the point of it.]
In a country where educational resources are increasingly allocated on the basis of ability to pay rather than ability to learn (and so we enthusiastically subsidise intellectual mediocrity), are we really following the liberal ideals of Smith and his colleagues?
There are also small matters like the suspension of habeas corpus and privately run “detention centres” where damaged and desperate people are imprisoned indefinitely; not because they have committed a crime, but as a deterrence to others (i.e. for political reasons). My Oxford tells me these are concentration camps. Just how much of this “liberalism” can you stomach Mr. Duffy?
In a two-party political system where both sides are held hostage to the same outdated and unsustainable assumptions and where the interests of a commercial and therefore populist media dictate the political agenda, Adam Smith’s concerns for good government and the long-term interests of society seem very valid.
Counterpoint delights in disassociating liberal values from the Left while appropriating them to the Right.
This type of disingenuous double-speak would have warmed the cockles of Joseph Goebbels heart. The “Big Lie” is alive and well in this wide brown land.
It is obviously correct that the Right, after some initial resistance, has been most enthusiastic in its adoption of what you style “economic liberalism”, which is derived from liberal philosophers like Smith, Hume and later Mill. However, to take only those fragments of their work that speak to economic freedoms and the rights of property and ignore the full scope of their vision, is a travesty.
Liberal democracy and ironically, free enterprise, is a creation of the Left.
The liberalism of the Scottish Enlightenment is a paradigm of Leftwing politics. How could Smith and Hume’s radicalism be anything else than Leftwing? They were not motivated by the desire to entrench the privileges of an elite. Just the opposite is true. They envisaged an open society of broad opportunity. They were not attempting to justify the status quo, but proposed dramatic watersheds in assumptions and thinking.
The Left has certainly challenged, at times, the property rights of overbearing establishments. Such challenges have been surprisingly rare considering the misery the common people have been subjected to throughout history, by self-serving and corrupt regimes. It is true that as the industrial revolution built up a head of steam, the Left grew to become less committed to the more laissez faire aspects of Smith’s theories. Perhaps this was because he was ultimately a little optimistic about the market place’s potential for creating a civil society, without a little help from its friends.
It is also true that socialism represented a definite rejection of Smith’s vision of economic freedom, as an inevitable consequence of the ruthlessly exploitative behaviour of the new capitalist elites during the nineteenth century. Well-led troops rarely mutiny.
No matter how misguided, who would question the basic integrity of the socialist ideal of a more humane, fairer, educated society, motivated by the intention of providing the greatest happiness and opportunity for the greatest number?
Until the rise of Socialism the Left was not so concerned with economic dogma as with economic outcomes. The means of achieving those outcomes invariably revolved around seeking greater freedoms for disadvantaged or repressed people. Reform of existing systems had always been the dominant goal. The Left’s credo could well have been, we will reform you if we can, but usurp you if we must.
There is no doubt that socialism and its bastard offspring, communism, caused huge embarrassment and confusion for the Left, and it would seem, still does. This is a mystery.
Socialism, or at least “democratic socialism”, was an honourable experiment in the best traditions of the Enlightenment and like all experiments, produced valuable insight and understanding, whatever one’s assessment of its efficacy.
It is fatuous to define the Left forever in terms of socialism, and it is bizarre that in recent times the Left has not only allowed the Right to set the political agenda, but to actually define the Left’s identity. This supine acquiescence of the Left is as infuriating as it is inexplicable.
By contrast, the Right has had no difficulty shrugging off its dalliance with fascism. Indeed, whilst any serious form of socialism seems anachronistic, an inclination towards fascism (by way of corporatism) still has a strong resonance on the Right side of politics.
To define the Left in terms of communism is even more perverse. Like virtually all popular revolutions, the Russian Revolution was, by definition, Leftwing.*
However, after the Bolshevik coup and certainly by the time Joe Stalin stole the show, it is hard to fit the USSR into that definition of “Leftwing”. The revolution had gone the way of many before: autocratic tyranny. Such regimes are invariably characterised by fear and suspicion, of and by the dictator(s), who must exert centralised control. This fear and suspicion infects the entire culture of the state and serves to paralyse incentive and innovation. Such regimes tend to be intensely conservative.
The Soviet Union differed from the standard totalitarianism that litters human history, in that it was wrapped, not just in mystery and enigma, but also in the dogma of a secular religion. Heresy was usually fatal. It was, to all intents and purposes, a theocracy, probably the most conservative form of government yet devised. That is the very type of government that led, via the Reformation and Renaissance, to the theories of Adam Smith. In this regard, the USSR (and subsequently other communist states) had more in common with the Holy Roman Empire than any contemporary state, with the obvious exception of Nazi Germany and North Korea.
Whilst the USSR, through huge sacrifice by its people, did achieve some astounding collective enterprises and innovations, by most measures, it was a very conservative society.
Leftwing politics did not start with Marx.
It did not start with that most successful of Leftwing revolutions, the American War of Independence.# Nor did it start with the French Revolution or even the Enlightenment. It predated its name by thousands of years. It existed in the minds of every slave who, like Sparticus, had a vision of a better future. How many times have repressed people attempted to throw off their shackles. How many uprisings have thrown their destinies to hazard with the cry of, “Freedom or death”? Through these millennia of struggle, is there really any doubt about which side was of the Left and which side the Right.
Do you seriously assert that the liberal reformers of nineteenth century Britain were Rightwing and that their reactionary opponents were of the Left? Were the apologists for slavery really defenders of liberal democratic values? Such a position owes more to “Alice in Wonderland” than serious political analysis.
You enthusiastically align yourself with the Right, which is the same side of the political spectrum that has consistently opposed liberal reforms throughout human history.
As a conservative, over the last couple of hundred years you would have:
- Transported trade unionists
- Shot and hung Luddites
- Supported child labour
- Opposed any sort of occupational health and safety regulation
- Opposed universal suffrage
- Opposed freedom of speech and association
- Opposed women’s rights
- Opposed setting minimum wages
- Opposed Florence Nightingale’s housing and public health reforms
- Opposed the introduction of old age and disability pensions
- Opposed unemployment relief
- Opposed anti trust legislation (US)
- Opposed free education
- Opposed free health care
- Opposed consumer protection laws
- Opposed anti-discrimination laws
- Opposed environmental protection Laws
In fact, you would have opposed almost every reform, including many of those promoting free enterprise, which we now take for granted as being essential attributes of a civilised liberal democracy.
I am sure you would not advocate that we send children down mines or into factories, but you would have, a century and a half ago, and you would have used the same arguments against the liberal reformers that economic rationalists/liberals use today:
“It will slow economic growth”
“It will cost jobs”
“It will discourage investment”
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Scotland was the technological centre of the British Empire. The Clyde shipyards and Glasgow’s tool shops were hives of industry. Economic activity had been prodigious and vast wealth had been generated as a consequence. Free market economic theories proved beyond doubt their ability to generate economic growth, just as Adam Smith envisaged.
However, something was wrong. The predicted trickle down effect did not appear to be occurring. The population of Glasgow in particular, exploded with economic refugees from Ireland and the Highlands, seeking escape from famine and crushing poverty. They crowded into increasingly grim slums where their competition for work kept wages at rock bottom. Education, health, housing and dignity declined while crime, disease and degradation flourished. A civil society seemed a very whimsical notion indeed. The partnership between intellectual and capitalist that had overcome the post feudal, landed oligarchy, turned sour. The Scottish Enlightenment ran out of puff and the liberal baton was handed to a new generation of reformers in England. New battle lines were drawn, as the increasingly powerful free market capitalists became conservatives, defending their recently acquired wealth and power against middle class reformers and worker’s militancy. The days of Darwin and Marx were dawning.
The Green Evolution
Advocates for laissez faire capitalism have a penchant for distorting the work of Darwin as well as Smith. The “law of the jungle” model for competition policy is still not short of disciples. It is a very attractive rationalisation for economic ruthlessness because of its simplicity and pseudo scientific appearance. It is of course, complete nonsense. How can the activities of animals be any sort of model for capitalism, when the only capital individual animals can accumulate is body fat and experience? The jungle is arguably the ultimate level playing field, but capitalists do not actually like level playing fields, which tend to negate the whole point of accumulating capital: i.e. the reduction of competition (Cf. the history of US Anti Trust legislation).
In the jungle, the survival of the fittest means just that. The losers do not survive long enough to reproduce. The analogy with human economics only works if poverty is made a capital offence, (which health statistics indicate it often is). Of course, such draconian measures would not be an option in a tolerant, relaxed country like Australia. We would need to become considerably more economically liberal before we could finally countenance such a solution. Perhaps sterilisation would be more appropriate for underachievers.
It is instructive that the Social Darwinists are drawn to such a primitive economic model. Whilst there is much to be learnt about ourselves from considering our hunting and gathering ancestors, who populate all but a tiny fraction of our history as homo sapiens, surely inspiration for 21st century civilisation could be found somewhere this side of the agricultural revolution. I suggest that instead of constructing a society to reflect the savagery of the jungle, that we borrow from our collective agrarian wisdom, which was after all, the means by which we created the whole idea of civilisation in the first place. We could adopt, as an economic metaphor, the farming paradigm that the most cost efficient use of fertiliser is to put it on your poorest land.
This is not socialism, merely good husbandry.
The most important point the Social Darwinists and other “economic liberals” seem to miss are the evolutionary imperatives of biodiversity and inter-species symbiosis. In other words:
IT’S THE ENVIRONMENT STUPID!
I have been a “greenie,” man and boy, for some thirty-five years. At school, my best subjects were geography and economics. It occurred to me that there was an apparent conflict between these disciplines. On the one hand I was taught that we live on a small, blue-green planet supporting an incredibly diverse biosphere, which is in-turn dependant on a set of finely calibrated interrelationships of even greater complexity. At the same time I was asked to accept that our society, past, present and future, was absolutely identified with the economic philosophy of perpetual growth. Now I am only a simple farmer and maths was never my long suit, which may explain why I could never quite grasp how an economic system based on the equation: finite resources divided by infinite demand could equal anything but ultimate disappointment. It is simply a matter of carrying capacity.
Of course, being green I am pretty used to being denigrated. A common insult is that I am having it off with the tooth fairy because I question the religion of economic growth. I admit to committing this heresy, but in thirty-five years, I have never been blessed with a cogent answer to the apparent paradox of endless growth in a finite world.
One memorable conversation I had a few years ago, with a senior economics lecturer at Adelaide University, is notable. He was glib and patronising when I asked him whether, given the impact of ever increasing human activity, was anyone working on an alternative economic model. He replied that the laws of supply and demand would solve such problems because eventually, when resources became sufficiently valuable, or technology sufficiently sophisticated, it would become viable to extract them from the seabed, or the Moon or Mars. When I asked him whether this analysis included arable land, biodiversity, stable climate, clean air and water, or indeed standing room, he hung up. He probably remembered an appointment with Father Christmas.
While our economic philosophy remains hostage to this over-arching assumption, that the Earth is a magic pudding, it is not and never can be sustainable. Even if we totally embrace best environmental practice in every facet of our culture; even if we rely totally on renewable energy and recycle 100 % of our resources, we must reach a limit to the Earth’s ability to cope with our economic expansion. This is closely related to population growth, but by no means synonymous with it.
If this assertion is accepted and an end to growth is inevitable, then the question arises as to when enough is enough. Given that we are so far short of best practise, and that we are facing an imminent ecological crisis, at what point do we start to consider the limits to growth.
Unfortunately, economic growth is an idea of religious immutability, less subject to subversion than dedication to any mere deity. This is an idea to which not just deluded individuals are prepared to martyr themselves, but an entire culture, if not a species.
The green perspective is by no means a homogenous one and it certainly has its lunatic fringe, as does any political grouping. When you offer your apologias for the “Right” you don’t lump free traders in with the Christian Right. [You know, those amiable folks with guns in their houses and inclinations towards terrorism (the KKK, exploding abortion clinics etc) and Armageddon.]
Why then, do you dismiss legions of reputable scientists along with the emotional responses of people who no longer believe a political and commercial culture that assures them that they can have their cake and still eat it?
This tendency is exemplified in your programmes about global warming
Economic Growth and the Precautionary Principle
Your interview with Harlan Watson was one that caught my ear. Here is a political advocate for the White House, arguing that we should not be concerned about Green House emissions because we cannot exactly quantify the component caused by human activity. This may be true and the science might be inconclusive because, as he would have it, those wicked European Greens have captured the vast majority of the world’s scientists. It may all be true. I fervently hope it is true. I really hope that every word Harlen Watson and your other greenhouse sceptics say, is true. I am reduced to hope because I am in no position to judge the veracity of their assertions of “fact”.
However, I can make a judgement about their reasoning, which runs something like this: the exact relationship between human activity and global warming is uncertain, therefore we should do nothing which might reduce (US) economic growth. Why must we maintain economic growth at all costs? The answer to this, I admit, did surprise me. Apparently, we have a moral obligation to stop spending money on research into climate because that money could be better spent on relieving the suffering of the poorest peoples in the world. Really?
Given that the USA gives the smallest percentage of GDP in aid (non military i.e.) of the OECD nations, and that the Europeans spend more per capita on both climate change and aid, and that the poorest people would be the first to bear the brunt of climate change, old Harlan lost a little bit of credibility at this point.
However, his disingenuous cant aside, the salient point here is economic growth. Harlan is correct in asserting that the Europeans are sacrificing economic growth as a consequence of invoking the precautionary principle. Given the catastrophe that in all probability awaits this planet because of our greed and stupidity, the foregoing of some of the surfeit of affluence that is actually making us physically and spiritually sick, seems a rather sensible option. The Europeans are simply dismissed by Watson as being “risk averse”.
By the way, are you one of those snivelling risk averse people who carry insurance? How very un-American of you.
The sloppiness of this reasoning is also demonstrated in the programme in which you discuss with author, Gregg Easterbrook, his new book The Progress Paradox. This book obviously attracted you because it appears to give support to your view that environmentalists are hysterical doomsayers, and gave you an opportunity to indulge your habit of making snide remarks about them. Easterbrook certainly makes some very dubious assertions that support your cause, but then goes on to present a thesis that could not be more reflective of Green philosophy.
Easterbrook’s general contention that things have never been so good for the vast majority of citizens of western industrialised democracies, is one that I completely endorse. His assertion that the environment should be included among his good time indicators is one I cannot. It is undoubtedly correct that tough, mandatory regulation in these countries (opposed all the way by the Right, sorry, I mean economic liberals) has dramatically reduced many point sources of pollution with a consequent improvement in the immediate health of air and water. However, his argument is so qualified and at least as far as Australia is concerned, so inaccurate, that it is quite counterproductive to his argument, and to your cause. Certainly, if you exclude global warming and the vast majority of the populations and ecosystems of the world from your analysis, as Easterbrook does, and you only look at a few of the more egregious environmental indicators, then you may well subscribe to his optimistic view of the biosphere.
However, if one considers the base line indicators of global ecological health, like biodiversity, rates of extinction, fishery collapse, forest destruction, degradation of river systems, desertification, salination, coral reef decline, soil erosion, feral plant and animal invasion, loss of local food plant genetic material, then things look a little different.
[I am surprised that you did not point out to your guest that he was being either disingenuous or hysterical for considering green house emissions a serious problem.]
Easterbrook’s book questions why, if things are so much better for most people of the developed world, is depression, anxiety and spiritual malaise rampant? One theory, he suggests is that natural selection has favoured those of us who, no matter how good the times, remain alert (but presumably not alarmed) to potential dangers before they become manifest. It seems that scepticism and a certain amount of pessimism (realism?) and anxiety is a factor enhancing survival. In other words, Easterbrook is providing an evolutionary testimonial for the precautionary principle.
Cost Benefit Analysis
The argument in favour of adopting the precautionary principle is really a simple cost benefit analysis. If you are living in a state of absolute poverty, a very modest improvement in your standard of living is likely to pay huge dividends in terms of happiness, whereas insurance policies will not. Having a full stomach and a roof over your head may seem like utopia. Seeing your children survive infancy because they have clean drinking water and perhaps going to school will undoubtedly make your spirits soar with thanksgiving. Having a sense of making economic progress and attaining some buffer against the inevitable hard times, makes you sanguine and inclined to benevolence. However, the wealthier you become the less cost efficient is the acquisition of happiness.
The best analogy is that of addictive behaviour, which of course, is exactly what excessive materialism is. There is even a name for this pathological syndrome: affluenza. Eventually, wealth is not about increasing happiness, but about warding off the unhappiness that attends the prospect of a decline in prosperity, or any of the other forms of malaise abroad in our increasingly fey society. A variation of afluenza is what might be called Murdochulosis, where the sufferer becomes obsessed with wealth, not for its promised pleasures, but for the power it gives over those people who are less ill.
If we were to take out some insurance against climate change, even though it cost us a significant amount of economic growth, would it really matter very much if we never had to make a claim? After all, the opportunity cost of the premiums is only making us sick and the unused resources are not going anywhere. Perhaps buying some peace of mind would bring us more happiness than that plasma TV. I am sure we could still afford to help the poor, … if we really wanted to.
The global economy spent many billions of dollars attempting to forestall the possible consequences of the millennium bug, which proved to be largely illusory. Why was the precautionary principle appropriate to invoke to keep our computers alive, but not appropriate to potentially save a sizeable percentage of the earth’s species, including possibly, our own.
The cost of dealing with Y2K would have been nominal had we not adopted the same approach as we have with global warming, that is, the ostrich strategy. It is worth noting that research has repeatedly indicated that our society wastes in the order of sixty percent of the energy that we consume. By an odd coincidence that is the same percentage, it is estimated, that we need to reduce green house emissions.
A New Enlightenment
Counterpoint did a programme earlier this year in which it purported to explore the question of why our universities are full of Lefties. You looked behind whiteboards and under library trolleys but could not quite find the answer. If my memory serves, the best you could do was a variation on the old sheltered workshop gag.
This really was one of your more pathetic articles and I would not bother to mention it were it not useful to draw this argument together. The one explanation that you did not canvas is that universities are meant to be full of Lefties. Their Raison D’etre is to explore new ideas, to innovate, to push the intellectual envelope. This is hardly a job for conservatives, now is it? God gave us conservatives to oppose change and maintain the status quo. That is what they do best.
The reason that Glasgow and Edinburgh became the intellectual centres of excellence of Britain during the Enlightenment was that they were full of the best and brightest, not the wealthiest and most complacent. It was no accident that so many of the astounding number of brilliant minds of the age, came from humble Scottish origins. They were the beneficiaries of a national commitment to universal education that was so pervasive that it has defined the perception of Scottish character ever since. While the Enlightenment beamed from the radical faculties of the north, conservative Oxbridge reflected a relative mediocrity. The astounding consequence of all these brilliant, “bolshie”, Presbyterian dons was that in a somewhat uneasy partnership with the rising merchants and nascent industrialists, they swept away the remnants of feudalism. In the process, and in the face of much conservative opposition, they propelled Britain and much of the world, into modernity.
It is my suspicion that the Right in this country understands this history very well, which is why they are fundamentally opposed to education. Their policies of school funding, HECS loans, the bizarre campaign against student unions and the slow starvation of universities, all indicate a fear of social and philosophical innovation. The Right seems to view education spending as a cost to be minimised in the interests of efficient economic management, rather than a vital investment in the future of our collective enterprise.
If we are to avert the truly terrifying scenarios that are the likely consequences of current trends in resource management and biosphere impact, we must dig a little deeper, intellectually, than relying with devout assurance on technological fixes. We simply must change our relationship with this planet. This is not some romantic, post hippy notion; it is an inevitable conclusion, consequent to another great attribute of the Scottish Enlightenment, common sense. Common sense informed by science.
In 1992, some hundreds of senior biological scientists from around the world, including many Nobel Prize winners, published an open letter warning that unless we profoundly changed the way we did business with the Earth’s biosphere, within ten years, we could be in big trouble. They did not mean that this would be apparent in ten years, but that the damage might be irreversible.
Of course, that warning was completely ignored. Instead the media has given coverage to a handful of contrarians who tell us what we want to hear, that things are not that bad, that we should relax and get on with what we do best: consuming stuff. This message merely compliments the irresistible tide of social engineering that is commercial advertising. “Keep them stupid, keep them scared and keep them spending”.
Those C18th Scottish dons devised a new way to view the world, and reinvented our culture. The time has come, to at least attempt to do something similar, because if we do not, God help us. Instead, we are turning our universities into intellectually moribund, global sausage factories for corporate employers. If you think our academics are not up to scratch; too tired, comfortable or mediocre, it is because they are not Leftwing enough. The students I meet seem so placid and so constrained by their material ambitions and debt burden, it is hard to imagine them taking many intellectual risks, let alone changing the world.
Let me conclude by modifying an old 1970s countercultural aphorism:
A healthy environment will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of ecological disaster.
Have a nice day,
* That is, again from my Oxford Dictionary, “progressive, radical”… and “more advanced or innovative section of any group”. The “Right”, is simply defined as “conservative”.
# The revolution of the American colonies was in so many ways a product of the Scottish Enlightenment, as well as the salons of Paris. Its catalyst was an instinctive revolt against the corrupt corporate power of the British East India Company that resulted in the clear distinction between corporate and natural citizens in the US Constitutional. This distinction lasted for almost a hundred years before finally succumbing to the growing power of the railway companies after the Civil War.