Friday, June 29, 2007

Happiness and meaning

Ruthie muses:

"I've just realized (out of the blue) that that would no longer be my wish. I'd wish for wisdom. I would wish to know the truth— the absolute truth— about everything I've ever wondered.

Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Truth can hurt.

But it's just occurred to me that I'd rather live meaningfully than happily."

The most complete enthusiast for happiness in modern politics is Lord Layard. He works from the assumption of a utilitarianism particularly focussed on the sensory experience of satisfaction as revealed by "happiness surveys" (that he puts far too much faith in). There are massive flaws with his political agenda even if one does wish to maximise happiness which I won't go into here. Instead, let's consider the more fundamental question of whether if we knew how to make everyone happy, perhaps because a genie offered to make it that way, we would be right to do so.

It is a struggle to name a more obviously important novel than A Brave New World, although Rasselas is a candidate. It has to be the start of a critique of the strong-form utilitarianism that Layard espouses.

The book isn't a direct intellectual case against utilitarianism. It paints a picture of the utilitarian society at its most successful: Everyone is happy with their place. Intoxication and license provide sensory pleasure. The deeper feeling that can drive us to a mellow distraction has been minimised and eliminated where possible. Under the kind of analysis that Layard employs it would have to be seen as a triumph. In any comparison of happiness surveys the London of A Brave New World would undoubtedly emerge triumphant as its inhabitants enjoy what Christopher Hitchens has described as "a painless, amusement-sodden, and stress-free consensus."

However, it is a deeply pointless society. Happiness is a superficial emotion. It is generally a satisfaction with the condition a person finds themselves in which can either be created by good conditions or low expectations. Layard focusses primarily on combatting inequality such that high expectations, which most will be unable to meet, are not created. It is the case for not wanting anything that you do not have, and may not be able to achieve.

This is intrinsically a manifesto for pointlessness. If you take Layard's logic properly to its conclusions not just inequalities in wealth would need to be tackled. All status competition creates pressures and unhappinesses in the vast majority who never reach a given pinnacle. After all, I do not wish to be Damon Buffini, for all the private equity magnate's wealth. I have other standards to which I hold myself. Money is a fine thing to have but my dreams are rarely of fabulous wealth. There are people who have inspired me and set an awe-inspiring standard for my behaviour and achievements. Others who, in my less noble moments, I envy. When I compare my lot to theirs I rarely think of their wealth but of other achievements. A much deeper and sadder equality than a uniformity of wealth would need to be created for us to see the end of the stresses of status competition.

It is easy for Layard to attack the impulse to emulate those of greater material wealth; he can appeal to old prejudices that seeking wealth is a grubby and disreputable practice. However, one of my aspirations is to fight great political battles. I am envious of those who have lived and triumphed in momentous days. I hope to emulate them one day. This will undoubtedly mean that I work harder, have less of the leisure time Layard is so keen for people to maintain (what free time I have will often be spent doing more political things such as blogging) and am more stressed and discontented from time to time than if I had no such driving objective. Would a happiness with my place make me a better person, would it be better if I were that way? I don't think so and I don't think I'm alone in taking that conclusion. Having a reach within your grasp is a sad fate.

My challenge to Ruthie would have to be: Does she really want to know everything? Couldn't perfect knowledge rob her life of meaning, particularly as a journalist, just as surely as perfect happiness?

I think enlightenment is the moment you rub a lamp, discover a genie and are offered wishes but then turn them down entirely without regret. Not because your life is one of idle contentment but because you both accept and love your struggle.

That enlightenment would seem to lead to a deeper happiness than the satisfaction that utilitarians seek. It is a spiritual rather than a material condition. It is not somewhere that others can take us but an ideal we have to find in ourselves.

Des Browne's new job

This, from WebCameron, is a very good point about Des Browne and his new position:

"First, how can the PM make the Defence secretary carry out the responsibilities of Scottish Secretary as well? We have troops in action in Iraq and Afghanistan and a vital need to deal with welfare issues for forces families and tackle overstretch. If ever there was a need for a totally committed cabinet minister, this is it. After the Iran hostages shambles, it is not clear that Des Browne is up to one job, let alone two."

The existence of the Scottish parliament does make the Scottish Secretary's job a lot smaller. There is a case for combining it with another brief so that it can justify remaining in the Cabinet. However, that is the case for combining it with another small portfolio like the Duchy of Lancaster. An imaginative PM could combine it with the post of Welsh Secretary to create a sort of "Celtic Fringe Affairs" or "Devolved Assemblies Liaison" ministry.

However, Defence clearly needs a huge amount of work in terms of fighting waste (more bureaucrats than troops), doing some new thinking about procurement and ensuring that our forces are properly equipped and prepared for the huge strains they are under. It is just about the last job you would want to see diluted through combination with another portfolio.

The TaxPayers' Alliance Guide to the New Cabinet

The TaxPayers' Alliance Guide to the New Cabinet has been released this morning. A decade spent attempting to improve public services with huge amounts of new spending instead of genuine reform has left dismal failures on the record of every one of them.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The New Cabinet

The announcement of the Cabinet today hardly lived up to it's government of all talents billing did it? Maybe I'm just blinkered but they look like Brownite old hands of rather dubious quality to me. Two points:

1) Jacqui Smith and David Miliband are now responsible for our security. They are the ones who are supposed to stop our enemies killing us and defend our interests abroad. If I were Osama bin Laden or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad I think there are Finnish Eurovision entries that would scare me more than our new foreign and domestic security team. I mean, listen to David Miliband:

"He pledged a "diplomacy that is patient as well as purposeful, which listens as well as leads"."

I'm not saying that when I heard Gordon Brown call for a government of all talents I was thinking "Genghis Khan would strike fear into our enemies". However, both Home and Foreign Secretaries should have at least a mild ruthless streak. It's a credibility thing.

2) The best way to progress in modern government is to secure a post in which the objectives are fuzzy and imprecise. David Miliband did well out of a DEFRA brief where if you screwed up it wouldn’t be too obvious. Mistakes like the EU Emissions Trading scheme which operates as a subsidy from our industries and hospitals to the industries of less ‘green’ nations are the kind of errors that the public don’t get worked up about. You can be high-minded and 'principled' without too much risk of the crummy state of public services becoming apparent and making a mess of your career plans.

By contrast, the Home Office is the worst department to be assigned. Underperforming schools produce students without the literacy required to complain. The victims of a lethal healthcare service are quiet as the grave. By the time the rest of us notice you can move, Johnson-like, on to another brief. In contrast, criminals who are let out of jail too early thanks to a perennial failure to build enough new prisons make their presence uncomfortably obvious with new criminal sprees.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is a fine brief for a Conservative but an awful one for a Labour MP. The reason for this is simple: Conservatives tend to think that British power is a benign influence on the world so they respect those who exercise it. By contrast, Labourites usually see Western and British power as deeply malign and are, at best, suspicious of whoever is asked to be its human face.

That's why, unlike most commentators I think the person who did best out of this reshuffle was Hillary Benn. He has spent some time in International Development which is close to the perfect place for building a reputation as caring and thoughtful. Now, in the Environment brief, he can set himself up as a green messiah. In fact, if I were a betting man I would, tomorrow, go and lay a bet on Hillary Benn being the next Labour leader.

Jacqui Smith, by contrast, is evidently expendable. Another bet I might be tempted to make is that she resigns within twenty-four months. Miliband would be unlucky to do that badly, however, there are now a host of ways his prospects of becoming Prime Minister could be irreparably damaged.

The American Scene Returns

The American Scene used to be, in my opinion, the best US blog. It has now returned without Ross Douthat but with about half a dozen new writers to replace him and make it a proper hyperactive group blog. Well worth keeping an eye on.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Analysis and Facts

Gracchi's article on facts and analysis makes a simple but possibly important point. That reporting without sufficient analysis can be just as troubling as analysis without good grounds. I worry that he makes exactly the mistake, of noting a fact but not analysing what it means, that he cautions against:

"[More] Palestinians than Israelis have been killed over the last five years. [That fact doesn't] excuse but [does] help explain what has happened and why a peace process is necessary-"

The relevance of that fact isn't explained. Gracchi, a very careful and usually comprehensive thinker, has felt it appropriate to trust that fact's importance, and its contribution to the case for a peace process, is self-explanatory.

The old logic used to be that might was right. This was rationalised in all manner of ways. In the Arthurian sense, the logic that God strengthened the arm of the just. However, it seems plausible that logic was never really 'bought' by civilised peoples and it has certainly been left behind as rather subtler forms of morality have come to the fore. Now the idea that right being on one's side will make victory easier is a statement of hope for an already justified cause rather than a justification in itself.

However, an assumption in the other direction, that losing makes ones cause more just, is just as toxic. Gracchi has left behind the idea that might makes right and instead made a statement that sees weakness making right. Because the Palestinians have suffered they will need to have that hurt compensated for in some way with a compromise. He may think that being weaker makes them more worthy. They are the 'oppressed' or a plucky underdog; this is a common fallacy of the Left although not one I would expect Gracchi to hold to. Another possibility is that he simply thinks that we need to accept that, rightly or wrongly, the deaths do aggrieve the Palestinians and that will mean they need some form of 'compensation' in order to achieve peace.

There were undoubtedly more Arabs killed in their full-scale wars with Israel than Israelis. Does that mean they were in the right?

Clearly not. They lost more people because they did not fight as well. They were attempting to drive a legitimate state into abject surrender or into the sea. While those who died may have simply been following orders their nation had no right to feel aggrieved over their deaths. Any anger that the families of those who died felt should have been directed towards their leaders. The Arab states were defeated in wars in which they were the injust side.

If Gracchi were making the more practical argument that addressing a grievance is worthwhile whether that grievance is legitimate or not his logic is equally troubling:

The Germans clearly felt very aggrieved in the period before the Second World War. They clearly had suffered hugely in the First World War and with the economic instability that followed it. However, that does not mean that a compromise should have been forced on other European states. The Germans were still in the wrong when demanding territorial sacrifices from other nations. They needed to be confronted instead of being appeased. Anything else implied forcing an injustice on another European state and rewarding intransigence, such rewards usually feed rather than sate an appetite for more 'compensation'.

I do not think that Hamas, or Fatah in its extremist moments, has a legitimate cause. Israel is a state with a right to exist. Hamas are attempting to destroy them, do not wish for peace and show no desire to properly run the quasi-state that they have. Israel has honestly sought peace in the past and been utterly rebuffed by the Palestinian leadership, Arafat, simply so that he might appear credible at a meeting of Arab leaders.

Hamas gunmen may die attacking Israeli soldiers but that is the responsibility of Hamas. Hamas bear complete responsibility for innocent Israelis killed by suicide bombs targetted directly at civilians. Israel does not bear the same responsibility for innocent Palestinians caught in the crossfire of strikes that do all they can to avoid civilians but cannot do so entirely when fighting an enemy that hides among the population. Palestinian militants, just like Hizbollah in the Lebanon, use civilians as a shield to protect themselves and the resulting deaths as a propaganda tool. Their strategy is based around maximising casualties in Palestine as well as Israel. Israel is under no obligation to make some penance for the self-destructive actions of the Palestinians who choose leaders like Hamas.

Casualties do not create a just cause. Unless you think, for some other reason, that their cause is just deaths within a people do not strengthen the case that people deserve better treatment. Suffering and dying thanks to their own injust policies should not be seen as cause to give them favourable treatment. What this means, in turn, is that their sense of grievance against Israel is misguided, their sufferings are the fault of their own leaders, and should be disputed instead of being indulged.

American Constitutional Law manages to get even more bizarre...

Blockquoting from a blog as popular as Instapundit seems bizarre but still. This is hilarious:

"IMPEACH CHENEY IF YOU WANT, but do bear in mind that he'll preside over his own impeachment trial.

No, really. The Senate has the sole power to try impeachments. The Vice President is the President of the Senate. He presides. The Constitution provides for only one exception in cases of impeachment: "When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside." That's because of the obvious conflict-of-interest of having the VP preside when the President is tried. But there's no similar provision for having someone else preside if the Vice President is impeached."

Americans get crazier by the day.

Being British constitutional law confuses me at the best of times. The very idea of courts telling politicians what do. I know we have that here but it is still rare enough to feel vaguely unnatural.