/A reminder from Berlin

A reminder from Berlin

from Peter Radford

Sorting out my old bookshelves I came across an old Isaiah Berlin Essay “The Pursuit of the Ideal”.  At the risk of being boring here is a very long extract, he begins the essay this way:

“There are, in my view, two factors that, above all others, have shaped human history in this century.  One is the development of the natural sciences and technology, certainly the greatest success story of our time — to this, great and mounting attention has been paid from all quarters.  The other, without doubt, consists in the great ideological storms that have altered the lives of virtually all mankind: the Russian Revolution and its aftermath — totalitarian tyrannies of both right and left and the explosions of nationalism, racism, and, in places, of religious bigotry, which, interestingly enough, not one among the most perceptive social thinkers of the nineteenth century had ever predicted.

When our descendants, in two or three centuries’ time (if mankind survives until then), come to look at our age, it is these two phenomena that will, I think, be held to be the outstanding characteristics of our century, the most demanding of explanation and analysis.  But it is as well to realize that these great movements began with ideas in people’s heads: ideas about what relations between men have been, are, might be and should be; and to realize how they came to be transformed in the name of a vision of some supreme goal in the minds of the leaders, above all the prophets with armies at their backs.  Such ideas are the substance of ethics …”

Yes indeed.

The substance of ethics.

The ideas that have dominated the minds and actions of our leaders over these past few decades, those that produced the day-to-day world we live in, those that resulted in the inequality and inequity of our modern western societies, those that created a giant rift in society between the mass and the few, and those that now need urgent reconsideration and change, those ideas are in sore need of an ethical reckoning.

High on the list of those ideas are those that came to dominate economics starting in the mid-twentieth century.

The pursuit of logic for the sake of formal clarity allowed economics to shed the social part of its social science designation.  Economics, as it attempted to emerge from its older “political economy” roots, found, that in order to do so, it had to dissociate itself from considerations and arguments about socially ethical questions.  It failed.  So it erected its own technocratic version.  Ethical virtue became synonymous with things such as efficiency and optimization.  Social morality was re-modeled to fit neatly whatever the most elegant formalization appeared to be.  The social was tossed aside as a source of inefficiency.  The market was lauded as the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong.  No matter what the consequences were.

That this allowed our leaders to pursue policies leading to the hollowing out of the post-war middle class, stagnation of living standards, and to the advance of extreme politics threatening democratic governance, was side-stepped as beyond the purview of economists.  Those economists engaged in public argument either defended the market as a source of all things virtuous or they slid uneasily back to retrofit older ideas within the mainstream view as if these ideas were somehow consistent with the relentless market logic they taught elsewhere.

After the mid-century turn in ideology, given so much intellectual heft by its economist enablers, the state became an object of derision and suspicion.  The question of state efficacy was always couched within a comparison with the supposed virtues of the market.  Never was there a sophisticated discussion of the ethical values being represented in that comparison.  Whole swathes of social-economic decision making, the very stuff of democratic oversight, were thus thrown over the side into the willing hands of the private sector.

The disconnect between the market as modeled and the economy as experienced  was never allowed to intrude into the sanitized versions of economics that dominated the entire period.  The private sector was assumed to conform to the absurd restrictions the economists imposed on their models to make them tractable.  That most practicing economists realized this gap between their theory and reality existed, and yet failed to create a newer more realistic economics, is a damning comment about the ethics of an entire generation of them.

The private sector is nothing like that modeled in economics.  Nothing like it.  In many respects it is the living disproof of economic theory.  That we have allowed,  for the best part of a generation, major social decisions to be made without democratic input or oversight is the fact of democratic demise that I think needs reaction.  It is the central fact of recent history.

Somewhere in the future people will ask how it was that the social cohesion and modest prosperity of the immediate post-war years was allowed to slide so precipitously.  The ideas of economics will have to be reviewed for culpability.

Berlin is right: it is a question of ethics.  Where is it?