Who is David Selbourne?

When I picked up this week’s Spectator, you expect a range of interesting, well argued pieces which inform and provoke, by people of note. This week’s contained one by a “political philosopher and theorist” called David Selbourne who argues that Britain is a country in steep moral decline. If he is, as Lord Carlile of Berriew described him, “perhaps the leading political philosopher and theorist of our day”, then I don’t know about the morals, but Britain is certainly a country in intellectual decline.

You expect “lights out, it’s time to go” nonsense from the right: we’ve just endured 13 years of economic lunacy under a spendthrift government which tripled an already oleaginous tax code and heaped more ill thought out regulation on business and inposed a new crime a day on the benighted people of this country; more than any regime in its history. As a result, I made plans for a new life in Gibraltar should Labour have won the election. But to see this opinion from a man of the left surely can be marked as an admission of defeat for the leftist vision?

But that’s making a serious point, and I would like to indulge in a bit of ad-hominem first. He’s a political philosopher, and clearly thinks in terms of morality. Yet he spends the first few paragraphs demonstrating his profound lack of understanding of economics: “Britain” he says

“has been impoverished by the mismanagement of the National Economy”

that’s true,

“the running down of manufacturing”

which is false,

“and the voraciousness of free-market ethics”

which is arguable.

Manufacturing output has not shrunk since the recession of the early 90’s in the UK. What he means is that Manufacturing has shrunk as a share of GDP. Well so’s agriculture, the sector stupid, visionless people thought was the ultimate root of wealth in the 18th century as people left the land for jobs in factories. The shrinking of manufacturing is a mark of progress. What once took 50 people now takes one and some machines, just as farming used to employ an army of labourers now employs tractors. Quite why hammering things together is seen as noble is a mystery to me, though it is surely the same notion as the Romantics had of the pastoral idyll. Making something you can drop on your foot is not, as common wisdom would have it, any better an economic activity than designing the thing or selling the thing.

So we come to Selbourne’s notion of “Free Market Ethics” which he blames for the atomisation of society. This is arguable and I argue that he’s as full of shit about the morality of markets as he is of the economics of them. There is nothing moral, or indeed immoral, about a free market. The market is a statistical collection of the decisions of millions of moral agents: you and me. What Selbourne is clearly hankering for is state direction of the economy so that less is directed to paying bankers which are “bad, m’kay” and more is directed to nurses and teachers who are “good, m’kay”. However the most cursory glance at the 20th century’s bloody history would show that free markets are vastly superior to state direction in every way. Command economies turned themselves into vast prisons rather than let their people escape, and succeeded as in turning a Nation populated by Germans into a poor country. The relative economic performance since the war of Germany, east and west should give you a clue about the utility of state control of the economy – one’s a mass-murdering prison with an astronomical suicide rate, and one the most successful economy in Europe. Or if that isn’t enough evidence there’s North and South Korea, Cuba and Spain (which had similar GDP per capita before the Cuban revolution), and so on. To suggest a market has “ethics”, though is facile.

He tries to hide his obvious leftism by pretending to balance.

Moreover the truth about these matters is not in the exclusive possession of either left or right but lies between them: you cannot strengthen “social cohesion” while privatising public institutions which hold civil society together…

…why not? Who owns what is less important than whether it works…

…or by slashing public provision in order to pay for the harms caused to the polity and economy by unbridled private interest.

Which is pure Marxist hatred of any sort of mutual or private provision. It’s just as easy to argue, especially now, that excessive public interest in the form of a decade of excessive state spending has damaged the economy more than the private interest.

So let’s look at the individual people who make up the market, and here, you’d think Selbourne was on surer ground. However this part of his essay is a long rant about the teaching of History in schools, which went tits-up with the abolition of Grammar schools, a policy a “man of the left” like Selbourne probably supports axiomatically. Indeed the one place you can still have knowledge of Britain’s history transmitted to the next generation is the fee-paying sector, whose alumni decorate the higher echelons of the professions, politics and indeed celebrity to a greater extent than at almost any time since education became universal.

As for the idea that the country has “coarsened”; anyone of any sense knows that Aristotle had the same complaint. There is nothing new under the sun.

“The difference between freedom and license has been unlearned”

and to cut a long story short, has led to a profound moral collapse, or so he says and therefore we should find “somewhere happier”.

Of course “society” of the great unwashed are always looked down upon by the intellectuals who have always espoused socialism as a way to “improve” the people. The desire to improve has led the Fabians in the past to support euthanasia, condone Gulags and deliberate famines Here, it leads the likes of Selbourne to support policies around welfare and education which have condemned millions to a life rotting on benefits bereft of the skill necessary to secure gainful employment. The majority however still do pretty well, despite the state education system Selbourne describes. This is because people, in all their variety pass on values and knowledge, not just state indoctrination centres Selbourne calls ‘schools’.

I, for example, don’t care whether one family gets round the TV to watch Big Brother with a plate of Pizza, or whether they eat organic rocket and discuss Proust. Whether you inculcate your offspring with the…

“…talent and stamina carefully to record, and to analyse, the travails of this country in a philosophical spirit…”

…is up to you. Whilst there are people of culture and interest, and the blogosphere will show you most eloquently that there are from all walks of life and it is up to you to seek out their company. By indulging in the free movement of people and the free exchange of ideas, we can each seek out our own interpretation of this most excellent collection of islands.

You see, Selbourne fails to understand what the market is. He expects the society of erudite philosopher kings to be laid at his feet by the benign action of an all-seeing state, but the state, or “Society” whatever that is, cannot deliver that any more than it was able to deliver guns AND butter to the Soviet empire. Your choice of your society – your friends and family is every bit of a market decision as that informing the car you drive or the breakfast you eat. Markets are indeed the only freedom, properly regulated with respect for property rights and trades descriptions where appropriate do not represent

“self-degrading moral and market free-for-all”,

but the triumph of freedom of choice. The fact that he bemoans that some people choose not to indulge in philosophical discourse is merely evidence of the universal leftist loathing of the people their dishonest rhetoric seeks to serve.

Now we have a Government which is seeking, however imperfectly, to return power to lower and more organic echelons of decision making, I think there’s a hope that freedom from an oppressive state will lead to a renaissance of learning and a “big society”. But I don’t care, because in my home, and amongst my friends, we don’t need a renaissance of learning or of hope and ingenuity. It never went away.

13 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    You say that you want "indulge in a bit of ad-homiem [sic] first," but you never actually do indulge in an ad-hominem attack. You're very nearly reasonable with your claims about the free market; I would argue, however, that as much as you don't want there to be an ethical (I wouldn't say moral) component to the free market, one nevertheless exists, my darling.

    The way in which someone people are able to afford to expose their children to Proust or whatever pretentious author they'd like, and how others are exhausted and just have enough energy to throw a pizza on the table and turn on the television is a choice to you, but it doesn't necessarily always seem like a choice to them.

    That is my only criticism of this otherwise well thought out piece.

    You've impressed me a little today.


  2. Raedwald
    Raedwald says:

    Who is he? A confused old leftie.

    He wrote back in 2008;

    "Britain's social crisis demands more public spending, not less; as the country falls into recession, more intervention is needed, not less. A small state and low taxes will not cure the ills that are daily increasing public alarm. Only a strong state can."

    Thus neatly confusing a 'big' State with a 'strong' State; as we know, the opposite is true – a big central State is inherently a weak State, that our society draws its strength from the horizontal ties of family and community, from Burke's 'little platoons'.

    As you say, just a confused old Marxist popping his head out of his shell from time to time.

  3. Fretful Porpentine
    Fretful Porpentine says:

    Great piece – found via Coffee House comments.

    Selbourne seems to assume the benignity of the state and the malignity of the markets, which is a surprising point of departure for a Spectator article. I suspect the pessimists in his audience have come to the same conclusions as him, but for diametrically opposite reasons.

  4. Laban
    Laban says:

    "What Selbourne is clearly hankering for is state direction of the economy so that less is directed to paying bankers which are "bad, m'kay" and more is directed to nurses and teachers who are "good, m'kay"."

    Surely that's better than state direction of the economy in the opposite direction, which is what we have now ?

  5. Laban
    Laban says:

    When the Government cut NSI rates :

    "Given its huge deficit, the government needs all the money it can raise, whether from wholesale markets through the sale of gilts or from retail depositors through national savings. The phrase about raising more money than expected while technically correct rings hollow. NS&I’s decision to withdraw the accounts almost certainly reflects strong pressure from the commercial banking industry."

    I was reminded of this :

    "The Quiet Coup"

  6. MacTurk
    MacTurk says:

    Mr Selbourne would appear to fit the definition of a neo-conserbvative(neo-con). In effect, he is a leftist/marxist who has been mugged by reality.
    The article is such a silly, hopeless, woe-is-we whine about how Britain is not the country of his youth. And so?
    And it is not as if there is anything new here; the same type of "Doom! Doom, I tell you" article is being published almost every day in "The Daily Mail". I fondly remember Peregrine Worsthorne's editorials in "The Sunday Telegraph". They were very often about the total moral collapse of Western civilization(it used to arrive at Platform 9, or was that the Hogwarts Express?).
    This article is not some much Hogwarts as hogwash.

  7. DocRichard
    DocRichard says:

    Dear Dude
    Is reality truly split into a binary choice between the free market and the command economy? That dichotomy is only possible to someone fitted with blinkers to cut out what is happening out there in the real world. You may find a reference to the real world if you look up "Externalities" in the index of whichever economics textbook you were raised on. In fact, aforesaid real world is the ultimate source of our water, food, shelter, energy and health. And those who study these things find that its ability to support us is diminishing. Inexorably.

    Some people deal with unwelcome truth with denial and with Peter Simple derived satirical barbs. These attitudes and words can obscure, but cannot change the facts.

    The choice we face in 2010 is not the 20th century debate between free market fundamentalism and the command economy. Our choice now is between the ideology of ecological denial and the ideology of ecological economics, which requires a guided market – guided towards social cohesion and environmental sustainability.

    The debate has moved on. But do feel free to continue to wrestle with a foe who died in 1989.

    Sorry if this all sounds a bit blunt. I love you really.

  8. Malcolm Bracken
    Malcolm Bracken says:

    All this ecological economics crap "guiding" the market is just watermelon economics. Green on the outside, red on the inside.

    Externalities are already dealt with (if you believe stern) in fuel duties.

    Guided economics sounds like socialism. Gided by whom? How do we know they don't make as complete a horlicks of it as the last bunch of idealogues who tried it.

    Sorry doc Richard, you're full of crap. Admit you're a socialist and stop dressing it up in Gaia-coloured drag.

  9. Malcolm Bracken
    Malcolm Bracken says:

    And I'd rather be a baboon's bottom arguing against socialism and the political control of so-called experts, rather than dishonestly dress a political philosphy responsible for hundreds of millions of deaths in the clothes of perverted science.


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