Friday, April 06, 2007

Where have we gone wrong?

I recently spent the best part of three thousand words fisking a particular view of what has gone wrong with our society put forward by Tom Paine. Recently there was a similar effort from James Higham. I'll address two key issues; the rise of widespread private borrowing and infringements on civil liberties.

First civil liberties, a theme Paine also spent some time discussing. Fretting that our liberties may not survive our fear is a noble activity. There are certainly some alarming changes which could wind up creating a serious problem but, for the moment, I think a certain sense of perspective is needed. Some oscillation in our priorities between liberty and security is to be expected and I see no reason that this particular attack on civil liberties should be the end of freedom in Britain where so many others have proved transient.

Where Paine worried about government debt Higham is concerned by the growth of private borrowing. He notes that a relatively short time ago people might borrow for a car or a house but would rely on debt for little else. I think that his perspective is too narrow. It is not so long ago that the credit which allowed the masses to make those large scale purchases would have been thought impossible. Expanding the availability of credit is an emphatically good thing. It gives a huge number of people flexibility in their consumption. This is a good thing whether that flexibility is used to 'smooth out' occasional large purchases or to take advantage of a large expected future income.

This does, as Higham says, make many people more vulnerable to grand economic trends. Borrowing is a risky business. However, the system is not as fragile as he suggests. In order to make the expansion of credit possible a range of new checks and sources of information and security have been put in place. While there is risk and people can go bankrupt we are sufficiently able to ensure that this is rare and contained enough that these risks are well worth taking.

Does all this defending the status quo mean that I am contented, happy about where our society is going? No. However, if I were to choose one part of our current society which is really in shoddy shape, where the problems look genuinely intractable, I know where I'd look. The problem is in our culture. While culture is affected by politics and economics I think that it is important culture is understood to be the central issue. The seemingly inexorable death, among large chunks of the population, of the culture of honesty and hard work and the understanding that you should be the first person responsible for looking after yourself and your family is alarming. Certainly the death of those values would make it close to impossible to defend civil liberties, build a state good at what it does or maintain trustworthy politics.

Theodore Dalrymple is, to my mind, the most the most persuasive writer on this subject. His archive at City Journal is well worth perusing but, if forced to choose a single post, read The Frivolity of Evil from 2004. Despite his brilliance I'm not convinced Dalrymple really has a coherent programme to answer the issues he identifies; his contribution is to identify what is going wrong.

Fixing this problem is likely to be hard, complex and politically risky. The solutions to really serious problems invariably are. It will probably take time and a series of changes to our social and economic policy. However, the absence of easy answers should not be taken as a reason to focus only upon problems which are simpler and, hence, more conducive to getting angry.


Anonymous said...

well, daniel patrick moynihan did famously say:
"The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society." He did go on to say "The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."

but, since modern liberalism is completely indifferent (nonjudgemental) towards culture, it probably explains why his legacy (especially his role in uncovering the importance of family breakdown) is more of a neo-conservative one.

Tom Paine said...

Actually I was worrying about both types of debt and I certainly share James' concerns. Britain's individuals owe more than the whole of Continental Europe. They owe more than the sovereign debts of Africa and South America combined.

A financial adviser of my acquaintance told me his customers (dentists, vets, doctors) typically remortgage annually to borrow as much as they earn - reasoning that as their house's value has risen, they are just as rich as before.

When the economy turns down (as economies always do) there are going to be millions who are hopelessly indebted for the rest of their lives. Or, worse, there will be some political scam to dump their debts onto the prudent minority.

NHS said...

Pamphleteers, thinktankers etc. have traditionally concluded their work by saying what government should do about a problem. Directing ideas toward guiding how we, as individuals, might choose to live our lives and the implications of those actions - this is an equally "political" activity and one which removes the statist bias of twentieth-century politics. Alex Deane's "The Great Abdication" is just one such attempt from a twenty-something - a call for each to act rather than for all to legislate. In a globalising world, political discourse needs to be more about culture than structures.