24 July 2010

It's always been time to leave

David Selbourne, who it seems is "a political philosopher and theorist", argued for the motion "Too late to save Britain. It’s time to leave" in a recent Spectator debate, edited version here. Amusingly, he argues that unbridled or even "voracious" free market ethics lie at the heart of Britain's decomposition.

There is a simple test for this argument: where are the tens of thousands of young professionals who are leaving this country going? Is it to countries with more or less "free market ethics"? Are they not, in fact, seeking the best rewards for their skills? And is that not the essence of the free market in labour?

A couple of paragraphs at the core of Selbourne's presentation epitomize his philosophical incoherence:
The country’s broadly shared values rested, among other things, on convention, on common law and custom, on a sense of community despite social inequality, on respect for public service and on a belief in the work ethic. They have not survived the self-degrading moral and market free-for-all which has been unleashed upon the land. It has reduced the citizen to a mere customer and consumer, and has invited so many free-loaders - from duck-house parliamentary cheats to fiddlers of the welfare system, indigenous and incomers alike - to take liberties with this battered country rather than to fulfill their obligations to it.

Moreover, the truth about these matters is not in the exclusive possession of either left or right, but lies between them: you cannot strengthen ‘social cohesion’ while privatising public institutions which hold civil society together, or by slashing public provision in order to pay for the harms caused to the polity and the economy by unbridled private interest.
Where to start? Perhaps with the trade-off between the Welfare State and the Work Ethic? How can that be attributed the "market free-for-all"? Common Law has been supplanted by Statute Law as a direct result of membership of the protectionist and corporativist European Union. What has that got to do with the free market in anything?

More to the point, if the argument is that relative economic freedom has produced ugly results, does that not argue that the ugliness was there before the freedom permitted it to reveal itself? An ugliness incubated during the preceding decades of economic "planning" and "scientific socialism"?   

But the gem is Selbourne's assertion that "you cannot strengthen social cohesion while privatising public institutions which hold civil society together". Back in the good ol' days for which Selbourne yearns, what was it that held society together and generated civic responsibility? A shared history, culture and tribal identity, perhaps? And has it been the evil free market that deliberately destroyed these fundamental elements of social cohesion, or Marxist-dominated public institutions such as the educational establishment?

Leaving aside the inconsequentiality of Selbourne's argument, were I a young man I would certainly wish to bail out of Britain. Indeed when I was a young man, in the 1970s, I did. Although there were several "push" reasons for returning, the main "pull" was that I had failed to persuade my sons to emigrate when things seemed to be going well in Britain, and I did not want to miss out on seeing my grandchildren grow up.

As to where to go, my point has always been that although the grass is not necessarily greener in other pastures, I do not know of another which has the combination of stubborn popular ignorance, unwarranted institutional conceit, profound intellectual indiscipline even among the university educated, society-wide laziness and endemic managerial incompetence that makes Britain such an existentially dispiriting place.

Not for nothing did NuLabour seek to refresh the national genetic pool by encouraging mass immigration. The basic problem with Britain is the British. How they got they way they are today is the result of a cascade of bad decisions dating back a long time, compounded by an adamant refusal to learn even from domestic experience, and a complete inability to understand why other, more successful cultures do things better.

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