Tag Archives: Michael Oakshott

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.

Bad economics, bad politics – Britain’s policy towards Syrian refugees

There has been an ongoing public debate in Britain about what the country’s policy should be towards the refugees arriving in Europe from Syria and other war torn countries. The consensus is that our Prime Minister’s response has been determined by the hatred expressed for refugees in the popular media and fear of losing votes to the anti immigration party (UKIP). However there is another compelling reason as to why our Prime Minister is so opposed to Britain taking its fair share of the immigrant population now arriving in Europe and that is bad economics. This government has claimed the mantle of fiscal probity and as such is committed to keeping public spending to minimal levels. If the government admitted large numbers of refugees to the country it would be committed to increasing it’s spending. Much of that increase would go to local authorities (to house the refugees) just at a time when the government is committed to reducing their budgets. It is fear of breaking its fiscal rules that prevents it from admitting these refugees.

The government has as a consequence made a pig’s ear of its policy and produced a immigration policy that will please no one. It has made a commitment to admit 20,000 refugees over five years or 4000 a year on average. This will be financed from the foreign aid budget, money that would otherwise be spent in developing countries will instead be used to finance the accommodation needs a modest number of refugees for one year. After that the councils will have to fund from their much reduced budget all the extra services that these new arrivals will require.

What the government fails to understand is that economics is unsuited to providing policy goals at what can be called the ‘summum bonum’ policy level. Economics is a servant subject a subject that when used correctly determines the feasibility of government policy proposals, it cannot provide the grand objectives that determine all policy decisions. The object of economic policy making is to set intermediate goals whose attainment will make possible the attainment of the greater goals of universal policy making. This government has reversed this process, the grand overall objective is to attain a budget surplus, whereas good economics would demonstrate how to or whether an open door policy to refugees is economically feasible. If this government is trying to disguise its greater policy goal of keeping Britain a predominantly white non-muslim country through rejecting these immigrants, this would count as a greater policy goal.

What I am trying to state is that economics is a terrible subject for providing the greater goals that should be at the heart of any government policy making, that is the role of ethics or political philosophy and economics should not intrude areas into which it is unfitted. Formerly the conservative party was a practitioner of “One Nation Toryism”, a philosophy that stated while the aristocracy, financial and industrial elites were best fitted and entitled to rule, they owed an obligation of care to the lower orders of society. This is why the Conservative party of the 1950’s was able to embrace the National Heath Service and full employment. Now the vision of the Conservative party has shrunk to accommodate the goals and principals of Neo-Liberal economics, which can offer nothing more than series of lower order objectives. The philosophy of Ayn Rand dominates this government, a government that like her sees the lower orders of society as nothing more than a drain on the nation’s resources. While the only people it see’s as demanding of respect are the giants of business and finance. These people it rewards with generous tax allowances and government grants. Hume, Oakshott and all the great conservative philosophers of the past would despair of a government that only had good housekeeping as the only summum bonus of its policy making. Minimal government of the sort practised by this government makes for ineffective and bad government.

The folly of an economics first policy is demonstrated by the government’s policy towards Syria. It is now proposing armed intervention to end the current conflict so as to halt the flow of refugees from that country, yet its policy of budget cuts have denied it the means to make any effective intervention. The cuts have reduced the fighter bomb force to a total of six planes and its cuts to the army budget have made it impossible for the army to make any effective contribution to any overseas conflict through lack of resources. Realism demands that the policy becomes not one of intervention but one of appealing to other countries to fight the battle on Britain’s behalf, not the most effective of policies.

Student loans, the bleak future for higher education

Self financing has become the big principle that guides university education. Rather than the state funding higher education, it will be the students who will do so by paying fees. These fees to be financed by loans from the state. The constant background noise that accompanies these ‘new’ policies is that after years of overspending, the government has become so indebted that what has to be done is to cut government spending to balance the books. It has been stated so often and by so many authoritative people that it has been become one of the accepted truths of our culture. However it is not true, it just that a series of misapprehensions of the recent past have been manipulated by powerful groups in society to produce a climate of opinion that makes possible a remaking of the social order in their interest. They want a small state, whose relatives low cost will enable them to minimise their tax burden and use their huge tax free incomes to indulge in conspicuous over consumption.

Part of that remaking of society is the introduction of student loans. It is so familiar that it hardly needs repeating, but with increasing numbers of students attending university the old system of financing higher education was said to unaffordable. When Lord Browne in his report recommended increasing student fees to £9000 per annum, his understanding of the situation was never queried. Why did nobody see the fault in his analysis which implied that a system in which all tax payers contributed a small sum each to higher education was less affordable than a system in which a much smaller group (all current undergraduates) would each pay a much larger sum to finance higher education. Logic suggests that this policy might be fallacious, why can a few afford what the nation as a whole cannot?

Much was made of the fact that under this new system even these much larger monthly payments would be reasonable and easily affordable. Modest is one of these words which can mean many things to many people. Modest for an oil executive or well paid cabinet minister is not the same as modest for a young professional. Those I know repaying their loan would not use the word modest to describe their repayments.

The phrase ‘smoke and mirrors’ comes to mind when describing the governments student loan policy. It will be many years before student loan repayments make a substantial contribution to the funding of higher education. Total government spending on higher education will not decrease for many years as the increase in loan repayments will take a number of years to take effect. Will it be twenty or thirty years before we see student loan repayments making a substantial contribution to higher education funding? When will break even point be reached? Even the government recognises that there a problem and is increasing the interest payments made on new loans so as to increase the graduate contributions to funding education. What matters is not that it will take decades for the policy to become self funding, if ever, but that the government says it will happen. Appearance counts for everything, reality can be safely ignored. Particularly as an overwhelming right wing media are conveniently myopic when it comes to the implementation of their favourite policies.

With the increasing commercialisation of the university sector it is unlikely that £9000 pa will remain the maximum fees for university. Foreign students pay in excess of £20,000 per annum in fees. At this level of payment the universities earn a surplus/profit on each student; it cannot be long before the universities find some new reason to negotiate a further fees increase. Only the most naive can believe that fees will remain at this level for any length of time. Universities as they become increasingly commercialised will increasingly behave any other business. Can we expect the annual announcement of a fees rise as occurs in the rail industry?

There is another possibility and that is that the universities will cut costs to squeeze as much of a cash as they can out of each student. As the main costs faced by a university is staff costs, there is for the less scrupulous Vice Chancellor lots of opportunities to do this.They can reduce staff student contact time, increasingly using IT as a staff free teaching resource or increasing staff student ratios (given the possibilities offered by IT the 1000 plus lecture is feasible). For the enterprising Vice Chancellor the possibilities are endless. Less prestigious universities will possibly lower fees to attract students to keep up numbers so as to keep them viable. However the price to be paid for such low cost universities will be horrendous. Their financial viability will only be secured by economising on all those things that make university education desirable. Financial objectives will increasingly come to dominate in universities at the expense of educational objectives.

Of concern must be the fact that the new system of university finance will be managed by for-profit businesses. Already it is reported in the press that the government is considering selling off its student loans book to a private provider. These loans are at present interest free, to make them more attractive to a potential buyer the government is considering adding interest to these loans. The costs of administering the student loans system will be considerable. In the past the American health care system was considered as an example of how not to manage a health care system, as 40% of health care costs went into the management of the system. Now any cabinet minister would tell you that it was a price worth paying for the efficient delivery of health care at the point of delivery. What share of the proceeds of loan repayments will go to the managers of the student finances? Whatever it might be, it will diminish the contribution of loan repayments to the financing of higher education.

When the government sells student debt to for profit companies, it will have to do so in way that guarantees these companies a profit. The obvious way to do that will be to sell it at a discount. If the private company pays less than the market value of the student debt, it is guaranteed a profit in the event of a shortfall in repayments. Whatever deal the government has with private companies it can only diminish the contribution of loan repayments to the financing of higher education.

No mention has been made of the difficulties of collecting these loan repayments. Many graduates are highly mobile in terms of jobs and location. A maths graduate from Oxbridge might decide to work for a New York finance house, only returning to the UK at retirement age. Such a person would given the current rules avoid repaying any of their student loan. The commercial organisations managing the repayments system would be under an obligation not only to remain viable but to make a substantial return on their investment. The only way this could be achieved is to increase the costs of loan repayments on those who cannot avoid making repayments, that is those residing in the UK. The government has shown that it is not adverse to such an arrangement, as it is considering charging interest on what were formerly interest free loans.

The change in funding is claimed to be a revolution, as universities will now be independent of the government as they will depend in future from their income from their customers the students. What can be best described as the ‘free market fallacy’. With the universities no longer dependent on government funding, they will be free it is said from government dictates on curriculum and be able to set a curriculum that needs the needs of their students and the UK economy. There is the sting in the tail, they must meet the needs of the UK economy. Universities will be obliged to provide those courses that will guarantee the employability of their students. This explains why there is a large increase in business and business related courses and a decline in the humanities, the range of modern languages on offer is rapidly diminishing and subjects such as philosophy which have no business application are disappearing from the curriculum altogether. It is an attack on the enlightenment project, that of education for education’s sake.

The strings by which the government puppet masters control the universities will no longer be visible, but they will remain in place never the less.

This ‘realist’ government has said it is prepared to accept that universities may be allowed to go bankrupt, it wants the stiff winds of competition to weed out those weak universities that provide a poor quality education. One suspects that what the government means is those new universities that attract large numbers of non traditional lower income students which instead of teaching them useful vocational and employment skills teach subjects that fall within the ‘liberal education’ ethos. Government boasting about the opening of private universities that focus on providing vocational education at lower cost than traditional universities show the direction in which the coalition government want higher education move.

The change in the attitudes university education is reflected in the views of two contrasting philosophers. Michael Oakshott writing on education in the 1960′ s defined education as the initiation into new areas of experience and knowledge which was in contrast to Keith Joseph who 20 years later saw education as being limited to those subject areas that had economic utility. Rather than opening up young minds to new experiences Keith Joseph wanted to limit the experiences of young people to those that had economic utility. Fine arts to be replaced by accountancy etc. It is Keith Joseph thinking rather than that of Michael Oakshott that has dominated government policy towards the universities.

Government policy is characterised by naivety and ignorance of the world beyond the confines of Westminster and dining rooms of Notting Hill. They foresee an exciting future in which the universities freed from government control will compete against each other and that competition will drive up standards as the universities compete for students. Any cursory examination of the economy will demonstrate that free markets are dominated by a few big firms. There are not numerous suppliers engaged in fierce competition with each other. We speak of the ‘big four or five’ when speaking of the banks, supermarkets, energy suppliers etc. not the numberless independents. One of the economists claimed by the government to provide the evidence for their policy is J S Schumpeter, but one suspects that their reading of his books has not been very thorough. He writes that although markets start as competitive they end up as monopolistic, that is dominated by a few large suppliers. The most successful firms eliminate competition by either driving out of the market their less successful competitors or by absorbing them into their business. By freeing the university sector from government control and opening it up to market forces, there is no reason why the university market should not follow the pattern outlined by Schumpeter.

Already the government has unwittingly made moves to reducing competition in this sector. They have suggested that the most successful universities should set up an external degree system whereby their students study for their degrees in local outreach institutions, such as further education colleges. This outsourcing of degrees will undermine smaller local universities that lack the prestige and resources of the major universities resulting in a consolidation within the university sector as universities close.
The government has said it is prepared too see universities close. The assumption being that the high quality universities will prosper and expand. However this is to misunderstand the market system. One factor in attaining market dominance is quality of the product, others equally important factors such as cost efficiencies may have little to do with the quality of the product. What will happen is that the new private universities will be best placed to take advantage of the new opportunities. They are the most cost efficient, they offer the least cost degrees and have the marketing skills of a successful business institution. It could well be that they supplant Oxbridge and the Russell Group as the dominant players in the university market. What we are looking at to borrow an analogy from the grocery trade is a future dominated by the ALDI university.

If cost is to be the deciding factor university education for the majority of students will be changed. It will no longer be the three year course at some hallowed institution but a low cost course lacking most of the features associated with a high quality education. An out sourced degree course at an FE college will be considerably inferior to one undertaken at the well resourced home university.

Is ASDA another precursor of the future? It is planning to offer degree courses to its own staff. These degrees will be both vocational and low cost. The two criteria which the government believes are the two key criteria for university education.

What the government and its supporters fail to realise is that the market has its own logic. If the government is responsible for the direction of education that direction is open to debate and it is likely that university education will be directed towards achieving a variety of desirable goals, which at its best is education for education’s sake. However a market dominated system directed to maximising profit will focus on a narrow range of courses that maximise returns. If profit maximisation is to be attained by cost cutting all innovation will disappear as new ideas cost money and would be contrary to the least cost consensus that prevailed in universities. Already such changes can be seen in the university sector with the increasing proliferation of business studies courses, increasingly universities will teach ‘to do’ rather than ‘to think’. The uniform mediocrity imposed by the market will be a more successful suppressor of free thinking that any of the repressive institutions of the past. Cost is a far better censor than the Inquisition.