Tag Archives: Social Darwinism

The Economics of the School Playground or Free Market Economics

Recently I met a group of friends who like me are nearer to seventy than sixty. What surprised me was that the ethics of the school playground still prevailed amongst us. As we had not met for several years, there was an immediate struggle within the group for supremacy. One particularly made a determined effort. First through trying to put down what he saw as the weakest member of the group, by making a slighting references to his speech impediment. Once having demonstrated his superiority to over him in his mind, he went on to list his recent achievements to demonstrate his superiority over the others. This competitive behaviour is apparently typical behaviour of men in any social situation. Once he felt that he had achieved top dog status he calmed down and returned to a more normal conversational mode. This is little more than a grown version of the  playground behaviour we indulged in as children. In my primary school it  was superiority in the traditional sports of marbles, conkers or any athletic activity that counted.  There was inevitably one boy who excelled at all things and who had the admiration of all, the alpha boy (male). What struck me was that if the behaviour and the ethics of the playground still governed the behaviour of this group of near seventy old men, surely these playground behaviours must come to the fore in all spheres of activity in which men participate.

Obviously it is possible to overstate the influence of the learnt playground behaviours on adult males; however there do seem to be striking similarities between behaviours of boys in the playground and those of adult males.  Is this not demonstrated in the male obsession with competitive sport? Men are taught from their earliest age that life is a competition in which its necessary to win or at least do well. Losers are beneath contempt, I still remember with horror the way us boys treated the designated loser in the playground. The vital social skill of co-operation is placed well below that of competitive ability. Until very recently economists were men, the Cambridge economist Joan Robinson (1903-83) being one of the exceptions. Does the dominance of men in economics with their competitive behaviours influence there understanding of the economy? The answer is a probable yes. Economists see the competitive market as the infra structure upon which the economy is grounded. All sectors of the economy are nothing more than competitive markets in one guise or another. Economic theory is a theory of winners and losers. Losers play an essential role in the economy as through their failure they remove from the market those producers that are inefficient, those that produce the wrong products and those workers that are less efficient. Unfortunately the losers suffer the penalty of unemployment, but they have a function in that they provide an incentive to those in work to try harder to avoid the penalty of unemployment.

Co-operation rarely gets a mention in economic textbooks, except in negative terms;  trade associations and trade unions are seen as nothing than barriers to the efficient working of the market. However this ignores the fact that society as a whole is largely a co-operative enterprise,in which people co-operate for the greater good. Education and healthcare in this country are  examples of collaborative enterprises. Even in the commercial market the rival traders see the benefits of collaboration. When I worked for a London insurance broker, my employers and others collaborated in the financing of the Lloyds insurance market and its management. They co-operated because they knew a regulated and well organised market would attract more business as people with place their money with businesses they trusted. Unfortunately with the deregulation of the market in the 1908s there has been a falling away of standards and trust particularly in regard to the life assurance companies.

There is one example from the playground that male economists seem to have forgotten. Rules are needed to make the games boys play work. One game that we used to play at the Scout hut was British Bulldog. There would be two teams of boys, one trying to stop the other team from  reaching the other side of the room. The easiest way to stop the members of the team trying to cross the room would have been  through extreme violence, such as a punch. To prevent this game degenerating into a fight rules were imposed which prohibited any contact apart from the grabbing and tackling of opponents. Just as British Bulldog needed rules to make the game work, so does the economy needs rules as without them bad practice thrives.

Seemingly economists have voiced their approval of the actions of the playground bully, he who but for rules would have got his pleasure from hurting others. All influential economists are of the Neo-Liberal school which sees government regulation hampering the legitimate activities of business entrepreneur (bully).  Their mantra is that business knows what is best for business. The malign impact of this abandoning of all rules is demonstrated clearly in the food market. There successive governments have since the 1980s weakened or removed much of the legislation governing food hygiene, In tandem with this they have reduced to an almost insignificant number, the number public health and food inspectors. One consequence of this has been shown in the recurrent food scandals, most recently the beef scandal in which supermarkets were found to be selling horse meat instead of beef in many of their processed meat products.  Criminal gangs have also found that lax food and healthy regulation make it possible to relabel and process food that unfit meat to the supermarkets for sale to the public. Food writers write of a food mafia that is exploiting lax food and hygiene regulations to the detriment of public health.

There is hope for change as there are now many more women becoming economists. I don’t want to make the suggestion that women are any less competitive than men, having two daughters I can testify that women can be extremely competitive. However women value co-operative behaviours more highly, they learn from an early age the value of supportive groupings. One example of this co-operative behaviour is the support that mothers offer each other with childcare. All the pre-school child care groups in my locality were organised and run by local women with or more usually without government support (funding). What I am trying to suggest is that the different life experiences of women make them value collaborative behaviours more highly than men.

Many of these new economists reject the  social darwinism of the mainstream, one economist such economist is Ann Pettifor. She has warned of the dangers of the unregulated financial markets in her book ‘The Coming First World Debt Crisis’. These unregulated market she explains are in danger of bringing about an economic crash greater than that of 2008/9. In the UK private sector indebtedness amounts to 2000% of GDP, the highest in the developed world. This level of debt is a threat to the future viability of the economy, yet the government persistently ignores their problem. Lord Oakshot described the British Treasury as the bastion of free market fundamentalism. It almost goes without saying that the senior economists at the Treasury are male and are so wedded to the idea of competitive markets, that they refuse to consider any other than the most minimal of regulation in the financial markets.

This is not to deny that some of the new women economists are of the orthodox persuasion, as a number of them work for that centre of economic orthodoxy the British Treasury. What I suspect is that a greater percentage of female economists are of the non-mainstream variety, than is true of their male colleagues. If men tend to see the world as nothing more than a series of competitive interactions, they will have a preference for those economic practices that encourage competition and they will see any regulation of the competitive market as anathema.  Unfortunately despite its public statements to the contrary, the male dominated Treasury sees little reason to do other than minimally regulate the financial markets, despite the likelihood of an unregulated financial market repeating the experience of the crash of 2008/9.

Silly and childish economics, the perspective of a Christian sceptic

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Perhaps it is less so now, but when I was a first year economics student there was the inevitable lectures and seminars on the nature of economics. What we students were supposed to understand was that economics was a value free subject, a subject whose analyses were not skewed by individual value judgements. The techniques employed by economists offered an objective means for finding solutions to problems not influenced by ideology. In theory economists can offer objective impartial advice to both right of centre and left of centre politicians. Their arguments for example, against legislation to protect workers incomes is not part of a centre right ideology but based on sound economic analysis economists would state. Governments that set artificially high wages are more likely to cause distress by creating unemployment which adds to the misery of the working classes. Most famously demonstrated in Samuelson’s case of the New York tailors who secured legislation to guarantee high wages only to see their jobs disappear to the low wage tailors in Puerto Rico. This can be demonstrated by through the use of marginal revenue product analysis, which is a rational non ideological truth.

However this claim to value neutrality is fallacious as a very strange value laden ideology has been smuggled in through the back door. Underpinning much economic analysis is a simplistic social Darwinism. Darwin states only the fittest survive in the evolutionary struggle and in economics theory only the strongest business best adapted to the market survive. The theory of ‘creative destruction’ whereby only the strongest businesses survive after a period of intense struggle in the competitive market is nothing other than social Darwinism. The pain and suffering caused to humanity by pursuit social Darwinism theories are irrelevant; they are of one mind with the eugenicists such as Chamberlain, who saw the pain of eliminating the undesirable human elements as a price worth paying to save the human race. Yet coexisting with this social Darwinism is a strange Panglossian optimism, which believes that the free market economics and society is the most perfect of all possible societies. These advocates of free market economics believe that like some latter day Leibinz (who believes a good God was incapable of creating a less than perfect world), the market economy is incapable of delivering nothing less than the perfect world

When stated in its barest and simplest form the fundamentals of economics seem just plain silly. Yet as critical thinking is absent in the study of economics, as most economics faculties operate like some latter day religious cult. They reveal step by step the received truths of economics and students become acolytes who preach the received truths to unbelievers. To prevent being swallowed up in this nonsense it is necessary to achieve some distancing from the subject; another perspective that enables you to separate the economic ‘wheat’ from the economic ‘chaff’. What economists need is an ethical standpoint that enabling them to distance themselves from the subject, taking a more objective standpoint.

Christianity has enabled me to distance myself from the subject. It has imbued me with a healthy scepticism towards the follies of trending intellectuals. However my Christianity is not of the usual form. Fortunately the Anglican Church has a tradition of tolerating heretics such as myself.

The starting point for my personal philosophy is two fold. A childhood immersed in the Anglican theology, I was a choirboy at St. Peter’s church and a study of theology at York St. John when I was made redundant in my fifties. This has I think given me two perspectives on Christianity, the child like vision of God as a loving father of his children and a more reflective understanding of a sixty year old negative theologian. I think that despite my sophisticated theological training in times of crisis I tend to revert to my child like faith for consolation. It was perhaps my child like faith that enabled me to hang on to my sense of there being a truth, even though scepticism dominated my philosophy classes a scepticism which repeatedly demonstrated how fallacious were my most cherished longest beliefs.

There is a trite phrase that states something along the lines that each generation creates their own Christianity to suit their own beliefs. This is the belief of the traditionalists who regard many of the contemporary religious practices and beliefs as a passing fancy and that The Old Testament truths such as the condemnation homosexuality are one of the eternal truths to which the church will return once the current fads in religious belief have passed away. They cannot recognise that religion evolves into a progressively more sophisticated forms along with advance of other forms of human knowledge. They would accept that science and medicine have evolved into a more advanced understanding of disease, yet they cannot accept that religion must evolve in the same way. It cannot be locked within the beliefs and practices of the early Christian fathers.

Any starting point for a new Christian interpretation must accept that much of ‘The New Testament’ is nothing more than a series of forgeries. The four gospels were written not by the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but by writers writing after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.; when it is highly unlikely that any of the apostles were still alive. Probably this is why the four gospels do not agree on the life of Jesus in particular with the details of the crucifixion. Matthew for instance makes only reference to the crucifixion but not the resurrection. The bible we read today is the creation of the Christian Fathers who selected which religious texts to include in the bible. Rather than dismissing the bible as a simple work of fiction, it should instead be recognised as the way of expressing the truths of religion in the language of its times.

The myths that populate ‘The New Testament’ must be seen as Karl Jaspers explains as the only possible way of expressing difficult religious truths. God is essentially unknowable, yet we must have some means of expressing our knowledge of God.

The supernatural should not be taken to mean that there is some religious super being who has powers beyond human comprehension; but simply a being who exists beyond or outside the natural world of human understanding. I accept the truth of Jesus’s miracles not as true stories, but as a person of the 1st century AD struggling to explain the concept ‘Godness’. We all know what the word God means, but struggle to explain it. The religious myths of The New Testament give expression to our sense of what God is and what it means to be God. Christ did not walk on water but he was unique and different from other men. How else could a religious writer explain this difference from other men except by granting Christ miraculous powers?

Negative theologians can be mocked for worshipping an unknown God. Bertrand Russell long ago mocked Christians for believing in an unknowable, invisible God, as he in his experience was unlikely ever to come across such an being. However our answer is that God makes his presence felt amongst us, he pushes himself into our existence and it is this presence that we can know, so this unknowable God can be known.

This I can express through my understanding of the concept good. Everybody knows what good means yet they cannot explain it except through describing good actions. Visiting and comforting an ill house bound neighbour is good, we can describe the good action, but not the essence of goodness. God for me is the essence of what we understand by good, Good is God’s presence within society. A presence which gives the meaning to our moral actions. I am what is more correctly termed a Neo-Platonist; yet I believe than people such as me are part of the Christian consensus.

What is needed is a new set of myths for a contemporary Christianity. How can an ethical language forged in the early centuries AD combat the contemporary social Darwinism of the new economics? A language that is completely at odds with the culture of our times. Even the simplest and dumbest of parliamentarians can understand the simple truths of Neo-Liberal economics. What is needed is a new set of contemporary myths that can counter this ideology, yet simple enough for even the least bright MP to understand.

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