Perhaps this is the only true law of political economy: Memories are short and lessons are never learned. At any rate, I thought of it as soon as I saw a front page advertisement in the Irish Times, taken out by the Irish Civil Public and Services Union (CPSU).
‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ asked Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, expecting no proper answer. In another context, that of economics, he might have asked ‘Why can’t one country be like another?’
I thought of Henry Higgins as I read a letter recently in the Financial Times. It was written by an Irish civil servant in praise of German efforts to save their weaker brethren of the European Union.
General elections in modern democracies bore much of the population—perhaps most of it. They even seem to many a form of slow torture by means of constant and inescapable publicity and propaganda in favor of the nonentities who stand for public office. Nevertheless, it is dangerous to despise practical politics on the grounds that politicians are all the same, which is to say no good. Such indiscriminate disdain creates an opening for a more extreme and dangerous form of politics that preys upon universal discontent.
Still, in almost every Western democracy, there is a growing feeling that the political class (including its bureaucratic allies) has become more like a caste—a self-enclosed and self-perpetuating group of people that arrogates privileges to itself, through the enjoyment of which it insulates itself from the rest of the population, whose interests it has therefore no reason to share or understand. We the people increasingly believe that the division between the political class and everyone else is much greater than any factional divisions within the political class.
Public spending seems as if it were attached to a ratchet because it moves in one direction only, which is to say upwards. Even if a downward movement is occasionally discernible, it is generally small, easily reversible, and the result of so ferocious a political struggle that it discourages further attempts of the same kind.
‘Men,’ said Marx in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, ‘make their own history, but they do not make just it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances already existing, given and transmitted from the past.’ This is true, despite its provenance; indeed so obviously true that it is virtually a truism. For if it were otherwise, men would find themselves behaving in no circumstances at all, which is literally inconceivable. Circumstances are like the poor, only even more so: ye have circumstances with you always.
But it does not follow from the fact that men don’t make their history just as they please because they inherit particular circumstances (in part self-created, as our past always is) that they have no choice but to act as they do, any more than grammatical rules determine what people say. Those rules prohibit, or rather make meaningless, certain utterances, but there remain an infinite number of possible meaningful utterances.
No word is so misused as the word “cowardly.” Terrorist attacks are often said to be cowardly, when in fact the terrorists who carry them out for the worst of ends are sometimes extremely brave. They risk their lives and even intentionally lose them by their acts. At the very least they risk long and condign legal punishment and public opprobrium. I doubt if one person in a thousand can claim to have acted in his life as courageously as most terrorists.
The reason we call terrorists cowardly is that bravery is generally considered a virtue, and we are reluctant to accord people whom we abhor any virtues at all. We want our enemies to be endowed only with detestable qualities, and we are only too aware that courage is the virtue without which other virtues cannot be exercised. If someone were to say “these brave terrorist attacks,” we should suspect him of sympathizing with them.
Life is a long succession of vested interests, though we are inclined to see everyone’s but our own. The term now having mainly a negative connotation, we usually think of some interests—namely those of a pecuniary nature—as being more vested than others. A money-interest is widely thought to be more corrupting than any other. If someone does something of which we disapprove, something dishonest, and we discover that he has benefited financially from it, we say aha, now we understand!
Even the most thoroughgoing of penological liberals, I have noticed, has a category of crime – a favourite of sorts, I suppose – that he thinks ought to be severely punished. However much he may deny that punishment is justified, morally or practically, for other crimes, the crime he has selected as being of special heinousness deserves only the most condign punishment. All other crimes may in his opinion merit, and be susceptible only to, explanation and understanding, but this crime must, for moral reasons, be treated with exemplary harshness. At present in Britain the crime selected by penological liberals for…
Political correctness is an informal system of partial censorship but it is not nearly as recent as we are inclined to imagine. It has always existed. If birds of a feather flock together, so do intellectuals of like opinion; and while intellectuals think of themselves as fearless seekers after truth, in practice they are often more afraid of giving offence to their circle of ideological friends and associates than interested in the harsh realities of the world outside their magic circle.
The relation between morality and law is (or ought to be) complex and subtle: the two are neither identical nor entirely separate. Once upon a time everyone seemed to understand this, as if by instinct; but the instinct, if it ever existed, has been lost. When someone says, by way of excuse for his bad behavior, that “There’s no law against it,” he implies that what is not legally forbidden is permissible in every other sense.
No one, incidentally, ever explained his good behavior by reference to this legal/illegal boundary. The misunderstanding is a motivated one.
A misunderstanding of the morality of punishment and its justification in law will not always be grounded in self-interest, however. We can see this from a brief column recently published in the Guardian by the philosopher Nigel Warburton. Warburton considered the case of a man called John Paul Burrows, a multimillionaire who worked in the City of London as the director of a very large investment company.