Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Personal responsibility

In most modern democracies politicians tend to be a self-selecting sub-set of society which habitually allows its judgment to be clouded by ideology — and thus arguably one of those least apt for governing us.

No amount of empirical evidence demonstrating that Saddam was neither in cahoots with Al Qaeda nor stockpiling WMDs could shake Tony Blair from his conviction that invading Iraq was the right thing to do at the time. With the facts building up against him, he turned to Catholicism.

With their underlying ideological committment to personal responsibility British conservatives are once again donning their dogma goggles so that they may better pontificate on the perennially thorny matter of the undeserving poor and helpless.

Smokers and the clinically obese should pay more tax than people who lead healthy lifestyles, their leader David Cameron now tells us, because they present a greater risk of actually deriving some individual benefit from their taxes via hospital care.

But hold on, that's not what the facts say. Longer-living health nuts actually cost the NHS more than all those morally despicable fatties and fumadores; for it is longevity itself which determines an individual's lifetime burden on the health service. Smokers die young and quickly on average. But when did facts ever stop a politician — especially a right-winger who likes nothing better than kicking those who are already down. (Full disclosure: nunca he fumado.)

British Conservatism hasn't always been so Ayn Randy. According to Colin Kidd "ever since the rise of Margaret Thatcher, personal responsibility has been the irresistible itch that the Conservative Party dare not scratch - at least not in public."

Many old school party members have nevertheless remained convinced that consumerism has made us all a bit soft, degenerate even, and that — as Kidd puts it — it is "but a small step from..quilted toilet paper to long-haired decadence, dysfunctional families and drug addiction."

But Keith Joseph had made "saloon-bar Malthusianism" deeply unfashionabled, so Margaret Thatcher undertook to handle devisive ethical matters with a circumspection few American Republicans would get their heads around today.

Kidd's comments come in his excellent LRB review of Alexander Brown's Personal Responsibility: Why it Matters, a book which aims to show that politicians, perhaps more than any other social group, tend to underestimate the philosophical incommensurables surrounding the issue of how society determines which individuals to support (based on their circumstances and lifestyle choices).

Amongst the conceptual minefields are those of Free Will and Misfortune: eg. brute luck or misadventures arising from one's own or someone else's misguided risk-taking.

For example, there are many people in the world today, smokers and single mothers included, whose straightened circumstances can at least in part be blamed on the inability of certain Wall Street traders to understand basic economics and business practice. And Kidd explains how herd instincts, peer pressure etc. are liable to affect the behaviour of all members of society, such that not only bankers find it hard to take a principled strand.

There does seem to be a lot of evidence to suggest that we eat more if most of our friends are gluttons, and this in turn would appear to be the perfect recipe for one of those self-reinforcing cycles.


Adina said...

I really want to read that book now.

Prospero año nuevo!

norm said...

This essay would be relevant in 2016, as much as when you wrote it. Prophetic political thought is a rare thing Guy.