More skirmishes in the Battle of Ideas
Saturday, October 20, 2012
To be honest, the event today was better than the first session had augured. I guess it's just what you have to expect if you go to a debate about "equality" in Britain, but if I had heard just one more person say that "obviously" we were all in favour of it, I think I would have needed a sick bag. Most of the time (except, notably, for equality before the law and - as far as can be engineered - equality of educational opportunity) equality is not merely undesirable but unjust. Lots of different economic, social and judicial outcomes are appropriate according to an individual's talent, effort and compliance with relevant law.
Even one of the leftist speakers, Professor Thomas Eriksen from Norway, suggested that the Left might have overplayed its hand with category discrimination. Too right, professor. Not least because the social categories at least, far from being fixed forever by destiny, are fluid. As Sir Keith Joseph said to me at university when I told him (recent ex-Marxist as I then was) that I still had a problem with inherited wealth;
Clogs to clogs in three generations.
My late wife and I would have qualified for positive discrimination on access to university according to current thinking. Our admissions tutor should have moved our grades up to account for the poor performance of our bog-standard comprehensive school and the social deprivation of its pupils. Our daughters however should have been discriminated against on such logic as the privileged, private-school educated children of a then partner in a City of London law firm. As I listened to speaker Joyce McMillan dismiss all such students as my daughters as drunken yahoos who only made it to university because they were "coached to the nth degree", I wept inwardly for her. Such pathetic hate-warped ignorance and prejudice is more to be pitied than feared. Come on Alex Salmond. Take these archaic class warrior despisers of excellence off our hands forever.
The highlight of that first session for me however was provided by that oxygen thief Trevor Phillips, a lifelong shallow-witted student politician who has learned nothing since I first knew of him in his NUS days. He expressed puzzlement as to why, when he researched educational attainment in Britain's schools, he found that children of Chinese ethnic origin outperformed all other groups. I asked him from the audience if that didn't prove that the logic of the Left had been at fault for twenty or more years. After all, whatever precise mechanism explained their performance, it proved that they were not doomed to fail by racism or social deprivation. it was clearly within the power of any group in society to change educational outcomes if its members chose to do so. Unsurprisingly, he didn't reply to that. The Chinese community in Britain has proved that race has bugger all to do with educational attainment. Nor of course have any of the other "protected characteristics" in the ridiculous Equalities Acts. The true racists, sexists and classists are those who pronounce a false doom on victims who need never be victims at all.
The session on "Social Media: good or bad?" tended rather to the latter alas. Dr Norman Lewis suggested that they were replacing - for the West's cosseted children - the opportunities they used to have for spending unsupervised time with friends. Andrew Keen, digital entrepreneur and author, advised potential investors in social media to forget about open platforms and to focus instead on closed, subscription-model privacy. "Darkness is the new sexy", apparently, and "the internet needs to be taught to forget", if necessary by government diktat.
Dr Lewis said we should be focussing on the positive applications of social media in business, rather than worrying constantly about the threat to privacy. When I suggested that we needn't worry much about the anonymised information collected by social sites as the price for their "free" services, but that the State was the real threat, Keen was dismissive. The State, he opined, is not the threat it was. Big Brother has become "lots of little brothers." He has a way with a soundbite, I have to confess, but I am damned if I can extract any actual meaning from that one.
The session on "Capitalism: kill or cure" however was so relentlessly sensible that some time traveler from the 1970s was moved to cry,
But you are all in favour of it and no-one has uttered the 's' word... Socialism!
As even the anti-capitalists in the audience were not offering any alternative, but rather proposing to 'improve' it by forcing companies to ignore all market signals (e.g. a desire for Prada handbags) that contradicted their views, his outburst was duly ignored.
Had I been called upon to speak from the floor in that session, I would have pointed out that the "global crisis" they kept mentioning was actually only a crisis of the West. The Chinese Communist Party's (highly tentative) unleashing of market forces has already raised 100 million people from poverty. When their peoples' average income passes that of India (as it will in the next decade) we can expect a similar unleashing in that corrupt nation. We can then hope for perhaps a half billion people a decade to escape poverty in the East while the West pays the price, not for capitalism, but for an imprudent affection for public and private debt. Of course, the typical Guardian-reading attendee of the Battle of Ideas would probably then pity the newly unimpoverished Easterners for their resulting "enslavement to materialism." The rest of us, however, will duly note the arrival of more customers for our businesses and rejoice.
I enjoyed my final session today on "Can the Law make us Equal". The speakers were mainly lawyers and even the Leftist on the panel, blogger Jack of Kent, expressed the sensible (and to leftists in the audience, surprising) view that we need to be aware of the law's limitations. There is nothing like the practice of law, no doubt, to educate one about those. He did not quite adhere to the wisdom of Montesquieu that;
Quand il n'est pas nécessaire de faire une loi, il est nécessaire de ne pas en faire
but he came closer than any leftist of my recent acquaintance. I wanted, but did not get the chance, to observe that the "magic" of law is much undermined by its use to impose unpopular views on the people. The trick is to secure compliance with minimal violence and this requires those bound by the laws, in general, to consent to them. The more we accustom people to being in conflict with the law, the less they will respect it in general.
In fairness, the panelists generally were skeptical about the the Law's usefulness as an educational tool. Sometimes it gets ahead of public opinion, they thought, but generally it should reflect it. As for the audience members, there were some sensible ideas expressed but - again - they seemed to be in a forlorn minority. The Battle of Ideas may continue, fitfully, but in England the War seems lost. I sat open-mouthed, for example, as a speaker from the audience said to liberal-minded panel member Alex Deane;
We don't want freedom any more Alex. We want regulation. We want control
I waited for the laughter as I first assumed he was joking. Then I realised he was serious and waited for the jeers. Reaction was there none. This sentiment, in modern London, was completely uncontroversial. Ouch.