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On The Left - Luddite or Realo?

On The Left - Luddite or Realo?

Monday March 27, 2000.

I can see the responses of some to this column now - "this guy's stuck in the past, doesn't know what he's on about - needs to try thinking for a change" and other responses. However, it's not as bad as all that. What I want to look at is the nature of social controls on individualism and how they have disintegrated over the past 500 years or so.

Consider if you will the following proposition: that the core tension in society today is between the individual and their selfishness in the marketplace, and the state as representative of the public good and protector of the decent society. The strain is constantly between forces of selfish individualism trying to expand the area of marketplace (read selfish) activity, and the forces of government trying to protect the decent and thus selfless society.

I can't claim credit for thinking up the argument, but consider the state of life perhaps sometime around 1450AD in medieval Europe. A highly stable society was dominated by a totalitarian Catholic Church which saw one of its core roles as the control of individual selfishness. In a world of strictly limited resources (and it was - the age of Discovery had not yet begun) it was evident to the Church and to everyone else that selfishness on one person's part would lead to a direct and material loss on someone else's. The Church's authority was derived from its position between Man and Heaven, and the fact that the entire Bible was written in Latin rather than the languages the people spoke. This dependence on the Church to hear the word of God was a fairly strong signal that its authority should not be challenged.

But, oddly enough, this entire construct was undermined on a number of levels. First, the fires lit by the Protestant Reformation from the 1520's affected all Europe. Led by Martin Luther, who was objecting to the sale of indulgences and other examples of corruption in the Catholic Church, the Reformation included novel ideas such as translating the Bible into local languages and preaching for the idea of a personal relationship between God and individual people. No longer would the Church claim the right to control individuals' spiritual life - and with that prop gone, the Church's wider authority was undermined. This process was accelerated by the sorry spectacle of the Protestant churches fighting - literally, wars, swords and all - the Catholics for some hundreds of years. The moral authority of the Church's message was fatally undermined by centuries of warfare and propaganda between the two rival ideologies which, far from leaving one the victor, ruined the chances either may have had to curtail the selfishness of humankind.

Secondly, the age of limited resources itself was coming to a relative end. The era of exploration and discovery uncovered vast wealth for Western Europe that provided fields for expansion in every direction. A social control mechanism founded on the idea that resources are limited and not open for exploitation, as that would cause someone else to miss out, kind of became irrelevant as vast resources came on stream in the colonial lands. New theorists like Adam Smith (whose works have been trivialised and misrepresented to an enormous degree by the right in New Zealand) justified free trade and the flow of these resources into the European mainland. His works supported the liberation of the market - but within a given set of social norms. More on that below.

The classic example of the Church's control over individual selfishness was its stance on usury or the lending of money for immoral interest rates. People were condemned out of hand if they lent money for an unreasonable profit. The stability of the local communities meant that such condemnation was real - the usurer could not escape his crime easily as very few people moved away from the place where they were born. This stability is the third thing that changed to help undermine the previous controlling regime - with the coming of the industrial revolution and mass urbanisation, all of a sudden the concept of a tight-knit community regulating the selfishness of people is no longer all that relevant.

So these three factors (unlimited resources, decline of Church authority and destabilisation of communities) led to an entirely different set of values. Those values are the ones that have underpinned what we call the Enlightenment. Freedom for individuals, the democratic state rather than the autocratic Church protecting the public interest, and a rising chorus of economic thought (a sort of Bastardised Smith-ism) justifying our selfish mores wherever needed, based on the comfortable complacency of unlimited resources and limitless "opportunity"

Yet, a moment's consideration shows that all is not well. Three issues poke their heads up and literally beg for confrontation. Firstly, with a democratic state imposing the "public good" of electors' choice, the moral element disappears completely. When each person has one vote, then each person's views are equally weighty - whether they are selfish pricks or communitarians to the core. The notion of public good when there's no absolute moral authority to make the calls disappears into a morass of confusion, from which we have yet to emerge.

Secondly, the social setting of the selfishness that Smith and others unleashed has disappeared utterly. In his "Theory of Moral Sentiments" Smith spoke of the kind of society which could tolerate the selfish market - a society of strong social norms, decent civic values and stable communities where individuals would not be able to escape justice if they didn't "play by the rules". This world now clearly no longer exists. Mass urbanisation and the whole individualist nature of modern society means that Smith's "invisible leash" which allowed the invisible hand to function is well and truly broken. His prescriptions aren't as useful as they once were, because there aren't institutions - either the Catholic Church or civil society - to restrain selfishness in the non-market sphere.

And finally, anyone who thinks we still live in a world of limitless resources hasn't opened their eyes in many a long year.

I'll continue this argument next week, by looking at where we go from here. Dr. Ross Macdonald at the University of Auckland outlines this argument in a very interesting paper taught in the Management and Employment Relations department called "Business and Society." Well worth a look, if you have a spare $600 or so.

Till next week,

Jordan Carter Feedback to: carters@ihug.co.nz


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