Sunday, June 17, 2007

Social Standards

Chris Dillow has a post up arguing that the choice of a criminal lifestyle is not necessarily irrational; it is possible to understand someone choosing the particular spectrum of risks and rewards that comes with a life of crime.

His post reminded me of something that happened about six months ago. I was travelling back into London from my family home in Hertfordshire. In Kings Cross I ran into someone I had known at school. He had always been a somewhat strange and creepy kid and had dropped out of school after GCSEs. I had thought little about him since.

I said hello and we exchanged the obligatory "what have you been up to?"

I reported that I had just finished my Master's at the LSE and was now looking for work. His story was more extreme. While writing this post I've realised it may have been untrue but that wasn't the impression I got and isn't important to my point.

He had set up a pornographic website. This had been quite successful and he had sold it for a fair amount of money. He was now living on that money somewhere in Chelsea.

In terms of material conditions he clearly had me beat. While I was lucky enough to be emerging from university without any debt I was, at that stage, not working and living on the end of my mother's patience. I lived in the same flat I occupy now, a comfortable Westminster two-bedroom that is affordable thanks to being near the Victoria Coach Station. My employment prospects were quite reasonable and I have, of course, since found work. However, a political career is unlikely to involve retiring early in Chelsea money.

Now, why, despite the vastly better material rewards that he had obtained, probably for far less effort, did I never feel jealous?

It could be a moral decision. Certainly I do, in moral terms, think that my career is a superior choice. However, were it purely a moral decision presumably I would feel that I was making a sacrifice. I didn't, and don't, have the feeling that I'm really paying a net price for the decision to follow what I think is a morally preferable career.

The compensation I get is social standing. While I didn't nearly have the income I had far more social status. I had finished an advanced university degree at a fine university while he had hardly managed GCSEs. Education has almost entirely replaced ancestry as an indicator of class these days. Equally, while the average person connects the word politician with something like bubonic plague there is still a respectability in the job "Policy Analyst" that there isn't in "pornographer".

While criminals and pornographers do form their own communities that attempt to make up for their shunning by respectable types they will always be aware that they are somehow outside the community proper. The only way this changes is if, for example, the career of a pornographer becomes more socially acceptable. A successful community won't let this happen for a criminal lifestyle.

Now, maintaining this social standing is important to people. It is particularly important to white, middle class people. That is deeply important to our success. One of Chris Dillow's reasons why people choose a criminal lifestyle illustrates how that has broken down in troubled communities:

"4. Non-pecuniary advantages. Success in music or crime brings you some mix of fame, respect or affection. It gets you the girls. Modest professional success doesn't. Quite the opposite. Roland Fryer shows (pdf) that blacks who do well at school have fewer same-race friends. Conventional "success" therefore, gives you isolation."

That is a very clear failure to socially reward useful behaviour.

That I not only choose to accept far lower material standards of living but do so without a moment's hesitation is the power of social standards. No law or subsidy can push people towards socially useful pursuits as effectively. Breaking those social standards down, as far too many left-wing movements have, is therefore extremely dangerous. The breakdown in standards leads, rapidly, to a wider social breakdown as choosing a civilised way of life is then not the rational choice for far too large a body of people. That is why, for all the repressive effects that social mores can have, I respect their vital importance. It is this insight, more than anything, that causes me to describe myself as a conservative these days.


Vino S said...

At the risk of making an obvious ideological point, surely you as a free-marketeer would find it perfectly justifiable for him to make money this way since he is providing a service to willing buyers that is not illegal in the UK?

I am not sure that free market views are necessarily that compatible with a view that attaches social stigma to a businessman, so long as he is offering products that are legal and that there had been no fraud or force involved.

It is one of the many reasons why I am not a free marketeer, since I do think that markets need to be regulated and controlled.

El Dave. said...

I'm going to be a little conspiratorial and say that your free-market views are only allowed to come to the fore when they do not conflict with your conservative views and that you generally like the free-market because it tends to reinforce the people in power who have, by and large, the same social mores as you.

Matthew Sinclair said...

Vino & Dave,

Your understanding of 'free-market views' is bizarrely simplistic. Unlike socialists we're grown up enough to find things distasteful and not want the state to ban or regulate them.

There is no contradiction at all in wanting a society that encourages socially useful behaviours and believing that using state power to force people to change their behaviour can be repressive, often counterproductive and generally unimpressive.


Ruthie said...

I think the other compensation you get is a clear conscience. At the risk of sounding obnoxious/pious/arrogant, virtue is truly its own reward.

Incidentally, while success in music or ill-gotten fame may get you girls, it'll be the wrong sort of girls. The kind who are only interested in the money or the notoriety.

"Education has almost entirely replaced ancestry as an indicator of class these days. "

Yep. It sure has. This is probably why families like mine that are very close to their impoverished immigrant roots work so hard to get an education, it gives us a sense of accomplishment and self-worth and propels us into a different SES bracket.

Congratulations on the Master's degree, by the way.

edmund said...

Vilno given you ( I presume) belive i'ts consuit for mitlant athies to blieve in freedom of speech and religon for fundamenti protestants and vice verse adon't you think it's possible to object to pornography and belive it can be legal?

Why are such free market views not compaitble? Ther's a diffence between socia stimga and legal prohibion is adulty either great or needing to be banned?

AS for El Dave- can you an example of this ignon market behaviour by Matt- and even better an example from this article to which this point seems relevent ?

And what' the evidnce "the power in power," a) have the same social mores as Matt Sinclair ( this one I'd be willing to accpet since I think the Labour governet social mores as opposed to economic and political philosophy are quite similar to Sinclair's

b) that makre tend to refin their power- what the top of sociyt get a much worst comparative deal in Brazil than the US with North Korean elites having the most equitable and least domiant postion of all? and

c) That mr sinciar has any desire to support the "people in power" if he did surel he'd be a member of the Labour party? -}

Vino S said...

Point taken - obviously someone can object to behaviour without wanting it banned. But I was trying to make the point that the guy is showing the kind of entrepreneurial tendencies i thought you wanted to encourage. And (depending on what he is showing on his website) it is perfectly legal.

I find it odd when people praise the market as a mechanism and then seem surprised by its results. After all, the dynamism and change that flow from market mechanisms change the communities that they exist in in ways that conservatives may then bemoan.

El Dave. said...


You well know that I don't want to ban everything I find distasteful. We've had enough arguments about incest to know that much.

What I am saying is that the free market does not encourage all things equally and that you claim a light-handed governmental touch when, by trying to leave things the same, you unleash a torrent of change.

"This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to caost, Man's laws, not God's, and if you cut them down -- and you're just the man to do it -- do you really think you could stand upright in the wind that would blow then?"


edmund said...

Vilno I think part of the convusion comes from "free market" freemakrets ousside some VVD/ FDP? economics ty;es blies in a free socieyt as a whole. Thus the undersitanble social effects of free makets- which in the case of pornography you reaosnly draw atteniton to can be conouer by preduices/ social pressure of the fre society

Vino S said...

But, edmund, that's not what a lot of conservatives are calling for. They call for a free market but also call for restrictions on certain types of activity [look at the US laws against online betting, for example, passed by congressmen who are normally quite free market]. There is a tension between the free market and the socially restrictive aspects of conservatism. Which is presumably why there are libertarians who resolve this by taking an liberal stand on social issues as well.

alsknownas said...

The idea that the left is responsible for fewer people undertaking socially responsible roles seems to run counter to common sense. I don't have the statistics but I think it is true to say that teachers, social workers, nurses, doctors and people working in charitys are to the let of the population as a whole.

The arguement that the right has traditionally used is that making money in itself is socially beneficial becase it creates employment, as well as revenue for the treasury. When those on the left complain about the percieved injustices and excesses of the free market (fat cat bonuses, pornographers being paid more than policy analysts etc) they are told not to be so squimish.

To clarify, I am not arguing that every apparent injustice could, or should, be regulated away. But perhaps that instead of blaming the left, your ire should fall on the Thatcherite "greed is good" culture. It is telling that it is propriator of the Daily Express, not the guardian or Indie who moonlights as a ponographer.

TDK said...

Prior to the rise of feminism, the movement to soften laws angainst pornography was clearly one of the left. This status is reinforced when one considers some of the opponents of this such as Mary Whitehouse or the "moral majority". Even today the objection of the left to pornography isn't per se against the depiction of sex as much as against big business aspects and the concurrent "exploitation of women". In contrast if Madonna makes a porn film then that's "daring", "empowering", "transgressive" etc etc.

It's curious to me how the left claim Richard Desmond is some right wing paragon now he owns the Express. That he had links to Labour and the paper gave it support in the 2001 election is now generally forgotten.

I take it as read that the commentator clearly understands the Guardian and Independent do not include light porn precisely for the reason given by Matt - they do not wish to lose their social standing. The same explanation might logically also apply to the Telegraph, not a noted left wing paper.