Tag Archives: Billionaires

Against Riches

Socrates is perhaps the first of the great philosophers and he was hopeless with money. His wife was driven to despair when he instead of working at his profitable trade as a stone mason, he spent his time in philosophical discussions with his friends in the market place. There is some dissonance between philosophers and wealth. Even when such as Bertrand Russel they inherit wealth, they usually mismanage it and bequeath their heirs less wealth than they themselves inherited. Wittgenstein was a philosopher in the true socratic tradition, he gave the estates he inherited to his brother, as managing an estate would be a distraction to his study of philosophy. There is something about the love of wisdom that causes philosophers to disdain wealth.

Wealth does seem to produce trivial or just plain silly thinking in the people that possess it in abundance. Possibly best demonstrated in the life style website Goop of the actress of Gwyneth Paltrow. There one can find all manner of bizarre lifestyle practices that are claimed to enable the practitioner to lead a better life. While such sites are easily mocked and are of little real significance, what is disturbing the reverence with which the thoughts of the very rich are treated. Billionaires think that the possession of such great wealth distinguishes them from the common run of mankind. They see themselves as supermen, who think that they should be privileged not just for their possession of great wealth, but for there thinking, they are the thinkers of exceptional thougts. I remember reading as a child that the common man would be out of their depth at the dinner table of the Mountbatten’s*, because these gifted individuals thought thoughts beyond the comprehension of the ordinary man.

These ‘great thinkers’ can rely upon myth makers to weave a story that demonstrates their superiority. Ayn Rand is the latest of the myth makers who claim the possession of great wealth as an indicator of a great mind, a person who is one of society’s shakers and movers. Prior to that it was people such as Lord Blake who claimed that membership of the aristocracy was the best qualification that a person could have for leadership roles in society.

Yet when the thoughts of these great men are examined, they are notable not for there genius but their mediocrity. I remember reading of what billionaire who claimed to be able to solve Britain’s unemployment problem. He claimed that it could be done by abolishing the minimum wage. What he claimed was that the current wage rates made too many people to expensive to employ, therefore there was unemployment. Obviously if wages were cut all would be employed. What never occurred to him was that a certain minimum level of income was necessary for human survival. The fact that low wages would lead to hunger and other social ills was of no consequence to him. For him the poor never featured in his thinking as fellow human beings.

The question I want to answer is why does the possession of great wealth make it impossible to think great thoughts. I am not condemning the possession of wealth, just the possession of great wealth. As a person of modest wealth that would be hypocritical, I do believe that there is a certain minimum level of wealth that is necessary for the good life. There is no virtue is not being able to pay the bills.

When trying to ask why such ordinary men believe that they alone are uniquely gifted with knowledge denied to others, one answer is arrogance. The vast majority of the wealthy were born into wealth and as such from the very moment they were conscious, they expected to be deferred to by those around them.Whatever they said would be treated with respect, no matter how silly their ideas. Growing up on a country estate, I soon learnt that the greatest misdemeanour was to show disrespect to the seigneur or a member of his extended family. Disrespect meant uttering some disagreement no matter how moderate the thoughts expressed by a member of this group. The father of the current seigneur demanded that his workers only spoke to him if he spoke to them first. Anybody who disrespected this rule was immediately dismissed. While this is an extreme example, it does demonstrate how privilege of birth leads to the corruption of the intellect.

All of these people it can be argued have been educated at our elite universities, so they should as Lord Mountbatten thought be better educated than the common place individual. However such education seems to be designed to give them an elegance of expression rather than of thought. All the lazy prejudices of the wealthy are given a literary sheen that makes them when expressed appear profound. A friend of mine who was a former member of the working classes, always criticised Bob Crowe* when he appeared on television for the inarticulate nature of his expression and thinking. What he was doing was equating a limited verbal vocabulary with an unsophisticated manner of thinking. Yet I never heard him utter such criticisms of the various representatives of the employing class or the political right who appeared on TV. He as with all of us was over impressed with an elegance of speech which disguised a vacuity of thinking.

Probably it helps that the ideas of the wealthy are so often part of the mainstream of the public dialogue.  In an unequal society the ideology of social and intellectual inequality is one of the essential props necessary for the perpetuation of the system. Therefore it is easier to get one’s thinking accepted and into print if such thinking accords with the accepted belief system. Finding a publisher is much easier if an individual writes in the language of the mainstream. The media then confirms the thinking of the most mediocre of the class of the wealthy. It really should be of little surprise that the wealthy and privileged should think that their thoughts are those that are correct and true, as they are rarely exposed to contrary thinking in the media.

What I want to argue for is the superiority of the thinking of the lower middle classes, a group for whom life is often a struggle. This is not a struggle for survival but a struggle for success. A struggle to gain those material goods thought necessary for the good life. Yet they are also group which has sufficient leisure for study and whose education introduced them to the writings of the great thinkers of the past. Aristotle was a doctor and as such is one whose life is an exemplar for the middle class thinker. There is no privilege, one has to earn the right to heard, one has to compete within the market place of ideas. Not having a privileged status one is denied to opportunity to think stupid thoughts, as such thinking would be ridiculed. Isaiah Berlin wrote that the case for right wing philosophy is almost impossible to make*. A reasoned philosophy cannot have as it’s founding principles self satisfaction, complacency, greed or the abuse of power. When people such as Lord Blake defend privilege they rely upon tradition, they see tradition as the passing down of a superiority in thinking and manner from one privileged generation to another. Bear and bull baiting were traditional sports practised in Britain for centuries, yet this did not make them right, both were justly outlawed because of they were barbaric. Blake’s defence of privilege is equally fallacious.

Not having a privileged upbringing makes one aware of the inequalities and unfairness of human society, whether one wishes it or not you are constantly being reminded of the failings of that society. One is born a critic of society, a discontent being inured which makes one instantly critical of existing human practices and ideas.  Without this critical faculty, thinking becomes trivial ,insubstantial and uninteresting, it is the thinking of the self satisfied. This sense of a lack of an indefinable something in society is what drives us to look for new and different answers. Kierkegaard writes of the abyss, the point at beyond which the thinking person comes to that point at human thought ceases provide any meaning to life. For Kierkegaard it is at this point that people turn to Christ. Only Christ can provide this missing something . Although I love Kierkegaard as an author, I would suggest that this sense of an abyss instead forces on one a recognition of the inadequacy of existing ideas and the desperation to seek new answers.  I don’t believe philosophers can ever adequately answer the problem posed by the abyss. Every generation will find fault with existing thinking and will feel the need to find new answers to the challenge of the abyss. It is the reinventing of the wheel but a very profitable reinventing. Being born to wealth means the sense of the abyss will never be as acute, as wealth can always buy distractions from the abyss. Possibly this is why the life of the super rich is one of conspicuous consumption, they constantly need new toys to distract them from the emptiness of their lives.

If the rich and privileged are not capable of great thoughts, I would argue that they are disqualified from great holdings of wealth which give them power over the lives of others, which they are not qualified to possess. There is one contemporary example which demonstrates the unfitness of the rich to their wealth. Hugh Hefner the millionaire publisher used his magazine ‘Playboy’ as a vehicle for promoting his thinking and superior lifestyle. A man whose written thoughts were no more than a manual on how to exploit young women, which demonstrates the essential nastiness that is at the heart of the culture of the rich and powerful.

* A former member of the Royal family at whose table the now Prince of Wales regularly dined.

  • The former leader of the RMT union who in negotiations regularly outsmarted his opponents. Men all of whom had been educated at the elite universities and whom one would think would be superior in the skills of reasoning and argument. I do suspect Bob Crowe overplayed his inarticulacy, so as to give his opponents a false sense of superiority.
  • One exception to the rule is Michael Oakshott, but his conservative philosophy was a philosophy of scepticism, which was inherited  from the Greek philosophers of scepticism, men such as Pyrro and Sextus Empiricus. Reading Wikipedia `I see that I have a very different understanding of Michael Oakshott to that of the author of an article on him.
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Why does our government seem to be determined to increase the levels of criminality in our society

claudeduval

The famous incident in which Claude Duval the notorious highwayman tells a lady  whose coach that he has just held up that in exchange for a dance he will refrain from robbing her.

Our current government claims to be one that is tough on crime, yet in practice it seems to being doing the opposite. What I am going to suggest that the government through its policies is reverting back towards an earlier model of society, one similar to that of the 18th century. In that century policing was massively under resourced. Crime prevention and detection was in the hands of the Parish Constable. A man who had to rely on the support of his parishioners to arrest criminals. Policing was so ineffective that the government had to resort to the extreme measure of making most offences capital offences as a means of deterring crime. The Black Act of 1723 tried to compensate for the lack of an effective police force by making some 50 offences punishable by hanging, for example the punishment for breaking a farmer’s gate was hanging.The only way the to keep one’s household safe was to ensure that all the doors where secured by good locks and a variety of loaded guns where at hand to fend off any intruders. Ominously I was told by a member of the police force that his recommendation was to secure one’s house with good locks and stay in at night, he thought the policing levels were inadequate to guarantee the public’s safety. One senior police office ventured the opinion that he would not go into the centre of Manchester at night because it was not safe.

The combination of weak governments and under resourced policing is all to evident in Eire. Even before the financial crash and the austerity programme that forced large cuts on the Garda (Eire’s police force), this force was struggling to cope with the criminal activities of both terrorist groups and criminal gangs. These gangs were then so powerful that they could shoot a campaigning journalist at a busy cross roads and get away unhindered. Now an even more depleted police force is unable to prevent tit for tat killings that are occurring between these criminal gangs. Yet in spite of the evidence of the evident dangers of relying on an under resourced and undermanned police force to contain these dangerous criminal gangs the government is insistent on following the unwise path already trodden by Eire.

There is ominous evidence from my home city that this is already happening. Cuts to the number of the police have meant the ending of an effective pro active drugs strategy. The teams that were used to break up and disrupt the drug dealing gangs have been disbanded and the remaining police officers used to street patrols. The police will now only react to evidence of drug crime and only if it is thought that the individual in question has drugs in excess of a street value of £10,000. This means that the street dealers which are the bread and butter of the organised drugs trade are given a relatively free hand.

Why despite all the evidence of the dangers of allowing the drugs gangs to flourish has the government adopted policies that will encourage these gangs to flourish.

Why?

There are several possible answers but the most likely is the change in the philosophy of the government. The adoption of the brutalist philosophy of Neo-Liberalism, which emphasised the supremacy of free market, competition and the end of regulation. Regulation it was argued did not prevent wrong doing so much as impose additional and unnecessary burdens on business. However Hayek (The Road to Serfdom) who was the founding father of Neo-Liberalism did not argue for the extreme Neo-Liberal system of today. He believed in the good society, a society in which all paid tax for finance those items that made up the common good. He never once in his writings claimed that the ideal state is one in which the tax authorities collaborated with the rich in a programme of tax avoidance. He would have been horrified at the programme of tax cuts that reduced the effectiveness of the police and other public services.

Rather than looking to Hayek it is the writings of a novelist and minor philosopher called Ayn Rand that are the inspiration for the new Neo-Liberal State. In her influential novel “Atlas Shrugged” she wrote that the billionaires are the saviours of society. It is their energy and drive that moves society forward. Any restrictions on the activities of these people negatively impact on society as it prevents them fulfilling their primary purpose which is wealth creation. Therefore in her good society there are to be few regulations imposed on the billionaires or the businesses they run. Regulations that protect workers at their place of work are no more an unnecessary increase in costs as they disproportionately increase the costs of labour far beyond the contribution labour makes to wealth creation. All these high labour costs do is reduce the number of goods and service produced as what might have been produced if labour was fairly priced is now uneconomic. Similarly high rates of taxation on the rich do little more than reduce the amount of money that they have available for investing in the economy. In contrast the poor and the great majority contribute little to the economy, they are merely the simple tools that the billionaire uses to create wealth. Only if the billionaire class is freed from all restriction will they be able to use their energies creatively to add to the wealth of society. It is this author who is the inspiration behind the new Neo-Liberal State, that is the Britain of 2016.

Although her books are widely read amongst students at our elite universities, there has to be another reason as to why she has been adopted as the political philosopher of choice by our political classes. I think part of the answer is that they identify with her billionaire class. They see themselves as much victims of society as the billionaires of Ayn Rand. These leaders are continually frustrated in their great schemes for change and reform by the opposition of the little people. People of little worth, who lacking the skills or even intelligence for government think they have to right to a say in how policy is made. This contempt for the little people is demonstrated in the distain our leaders show for them. One former leader spoke of constantly being stabbed in back by public sector workers who failed to understand that the policies he was introducing were for their benefit and the good of society. Another continually referred to his opponents as the ‘blob’, abusive terms are the common currency of politicians who want to minimise the role of the people in a democracy.

It must also be mentioned that the political classes believed that the political and economic reforms espoused by Ayn Rand would if adopted would lead to a new political and economic dynamism in what they saw as a moribund society and economy , too rooted in the practices of the past.

Rather than continue with a psychological analysis of the political classes, what I want to demonstrate is the impact of what I shall call ‘Randism’ has on society and crime in particular. If the billionaires and their proxies the great business corporations are to be freed from almost controls and regulations, there are other greater predators the will benefit, which are the organised crime networks.

Changes in the legal system, in that is company law and tax law have created a situation in which the big corporations are largely outside the law (at least in the UK). What has been created is an opaque system of company organisation the will frustrate any attempt at regulation or control. However such a system is open to abuse and it offers possibilities for criminal organisations that had not previously existed. Formerly in the UK criminal groups used small businesses as a front for their illegal activities, such as scrap metal dealing, now they have the opportunity given the opaque nature of company organisations to move into large scale legitimate business. What is to be feared that the change or weakening of company regulation could result in a similar situation to that in southern Italy where the criminal gangs have penetrated legitimate businesses.This has already happened in the meat processing trade, there was a recent scandal in Britain where it was discovered that criminal gangs had infiltrated the food processing industry and were able to pass off horse meat as beef. While a few minor wrong doers were arrested the members of major criminal gangs were never arrested. The abolition of most regulation relating to food production has not freed the large supermarkets from unnecessary regulation but opened up a new field of opportunity for organised crime.
Perhaps the fate of the National Crime Agency illustrates best the dangers of an opaque legal system. The National Crime Agency was set up to tackle organised crime or more particularly the large drug gangs. It was to be a British FBI, with some of the best detectives seconded to it. However it has been largely ineffective in its main purpose which is to seize the assets of the big criminal gangs as a means of rendering them ineffective. Its ineffectiveness is a consequence of legal changes designed to minimise the impact of regulation on the big corporations and it is this lack of legal powers to intercept the flows of cash within big business that means this agency is unable to disrupt the large organised crime enterprises. It is not only in Britain that the law enforcement agencies are unable to confiscate the income of these criminal empires but also in Eire where the crime lords can amass their ill gotten gains without any apparent interference from the legal authorities.

Governments know that the lack of effective financial regulation means that the large income flows that enable the criminal gangs to prosper. What prevents them taking effective action is the corporate interest which is opposed to any stricter regulation of international finance. They see any change as a threat to them, what they want least of all is to be liable for their fair share of taxation. They will continue to work against any effective control of financial transactions, even if it means tolerating the growth of large scale criminal empires.

The political classes in Britain with the belief in Ayn Rand’s Neo-Liberal dream would never countenance any change in law which might disadvantage the billionaires or their proxies the large business corporation. Their rigid adherence this extreme ideology or dogma means that effective action will never be taken against these criminal empires as the consequence of any such actions may have what the big corporations see as negative consequences for them.

This belief is all to clearly illustrated in the actions of the British Treasury who believe that any government spending reduces national income and so the minimum should be spent on public services such as policing. Newspaper columnists can continue to write horror stories about the iniquities of the trades trade but the Treasury would never countenance any increase in spending on the police as they believe it would negatively impact on the nations wealth. They believe that if the price of greater wealth is increased criminality, that is a price worth paying, as its better to live in a dynamic society that has high growth and crime than in one that is the reverse.