Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Can a Christian believe in Free Markets?

There has been some debate below Friday’s post about to what extent being an economic left-winger is a valid choice. We all know that socialism is not a successful way to achieve economic growth. It is less widely accepted, but I think still true, that the best way for a country to become rich is following an unfettered free-market and free-trade policy. For example, before 1990 India followed an economic policy that was centrally planned and protectionist. This resulted in an average growth rate of 3% per annum – respectable for an industrialised country but disastrous where it could not even keep pace with population increases. After over a decade of free market reform, growth is up to 10% a year and ordinary Indians are finally getting richer. Some are getting extremely rich and herein lies the left-winger’s gripe.

To be economically left wing is, I think, to value social justice and fairness more highly than economic growth. A left-winger would sacrifice some of the gains from an unfettered free market to even up the benefits. There are two powerful arguments in favour of this approach. The first is that, beyond a certain level, increased wealth does not seem to make us happier. Indeed, people are likely to be made unhappy by a neighbour who is clearly prospering more than they are (what we in England call having to keep up with the Joneses). Pop-psychologist Oliver James has written a couple of books claiming being rich has actually made us miserable but as he has declined to provide any evidence for his assertions, they must stand unproven.

The second powerful argument for the left winger is not one that many of them are inclined to make. It concerns equal opportunities. It is true that the best way to create opportunities for those willing and able to take them is an unfettered free market. However, many are either unwilling or cannot take their chances. The left will blame lack of education or other social disadvantages for this, but the real reason is the genetic lottery whereby many people do not have the raw brainpower or determination to give things a go. Thus, an unfettered market will always fail some people who are not, through their own efforts, able to do much about it. This might be what Jesus, whom we must at least credit with a shrewd idea of human nature, meant when he said that the poor would always be with us. He also blesses them and charges the rest of us with looking after them. Thus, I think it is possible to construct a left wing and Christian argument against leaving the market to its own devices.

Where do I stand? With a billion critically poor, I am not sure we have the luxury to worry about inequality. The quickest way to generate the trillions of dollars needed to lift the poor above the subsistence line is through global markets and free trade. That this money will end up very unevenly distributed is not, for the moment, the most pressing problem. My argument is not with those on the left whose priorities are different from mine, but with those who go on pretending that capitalism-lite can do the job better at wealth creation than capitalism.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The English Neo-Cons

Over on this side of the Atlantic to call someone a neo-conservative is far ruder than to question the genus to which their mother belongs or make implications about their destination after death. Like ‘heretic’, ‘neo-con’ is a word that no one would use to describe themselves. It is a throwaway insult, usually used to describe someone supportive, if only in a broad way, of United States foreign policy. But it can be applied to anyone you don’t like. Today an article by a bona fide left-winger on breast milk earned him the insult from someone who apparently equates bottle-feeding with American imperialism.

For this reason, I am not going to use the term neo-con to describe the English neo-cons. But this does leave us lacking a collective noun to describe a group that, although disparate, has quite a lot in common.

Interestingly, they all tend to be journalists. Apart from Tony Blair, now retired, few British politicians ever appeared to give wholehearted support to the Iraq War. Fewer betrayed any liking for George Bush. This was the same on the opposition benches where their erstwhile leader, Iain Duncan Smith – himself an ex-soldier – was one of the few Conservatives to summon up much enthusiasm for the venture. The only full blooded supporter of Iraq now in the shadow cabinet, Michael Gove, has been parked in the (admittedly important) education portfolio where he can’t stir up any foreign policy hornets.

Most of the other not-to-be-called-neo-cons in England are journalists or writers – Nick Cohen, Johann Hari, David Aaronovitch, Christopher Hitchens, Oliver Kamm and Martin Amis to name a few. Realising they have much in common, some have signed up to a document called the Euston Manifesto, which, in substance is a sort of mutual defence pact to watch each other’s backs in print. They tend to be from the left of the political spectrum. This echoes the situation of the original American neo-cons, whom, I understand, also found there way from Democratic or even socialist backgrounds. However, the English group claim that they continue to be left wingers and spend much of their time defending themselves from the old left for whom being anti-Israel and anti-American are articles of faith. The signatories of the Euston Manifesto supported the Iraq War because they believed that Saddam Hussein was a fascist and lefties should axiomatically be anti-Fascist. In this, together with their critical and some grudging support for Israel, I tend to agree with them.

However, the signatories extend their anti-fascist analysis to Islam as a whole. Many see this religion as a manifestation of evil that needs to be opposed wholeheartedly. Islam is, they say, anti-liberal, anti-democratic, anti-feminist and anti-enlightenment. This contrasts with some of the mainstream left which will cuddle up to even quite extreme Islamists in search of allies for the ‘real’ struggle against America and Israel. Here I part company with the Euston signatories because I have rather more respect and hope for Islam than they do. It should also be said that they are vehemently anti-Christian, but unlike the cowardly Toynbees and Dawkins of the world, they are brave enough to attack a Muslim target which might bite them back. I also admire the way that they follow their principles rather than run with the herd. The insults that they put up with on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site do not end with neo-con. In fact, that is one of the milder put downs.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Books for the Centre-Right

When I am drawn into a bookshop, which happens quite often, I am struck by the political bias of its contents. Heading for the politics section, usually found hugging the newly created environmentalism section to its chest, I find shelves packed with the works of Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and their various disciples. Tome after tome condemns globalisation, the West and America in particular. All things green are praised and all things corporate condemned. Supermarkets which have brought us unprecedented choice and value are accused of all sorts of crimes against humanity. Where are the books explaining how free trade has lifted hundreds of millions from poverty, why the market is the only sensible economic system and that Chomsky is full of it?

I can’t believe that conservatives don’t read. And I know they can write – star newspaper columnists like Daniel Finkelstein, Michael Gove and Matthew D’Ancona are essential to my week. The conservative Spectator is an infinitely better bet for a train journey than the dull-as-dishwater New Statesman. So where are the books for the centre-right? Why do we have the progressive Verso publishing in the UK, but not the reactionary Regnery? The only conservative book I regularly see is James Delingpole’s How to be Right. Not intended to be serious, it is, in fact, sad to say, a bit silly.

So, as a public service, let me list a rare few of the essential reads for moderate conservatives. In the field of history, things are a bit better with Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson both in action for the right, so I will stick to politics, economics and science. Further suggestions would be very welcome.

The Blank Slate – Steven Pinker’s best book to date demolishes the idea that nurture trumps nature. In forensic detail, it explains why everything that the left think about human nature is wrong. Occasional dud chapters on art and violence do little to soften its overall impact.

Freakonomics – An academic and a journalist explain how to use statistics to understand the world. There is not all that much about straight economics and not everything here will gladden the conservative’s heart. But the sections on political funding, law and order and education provide much satisfying food for thought.

The World is Flat РOr why globalisation is a good thing. Taking a truly worldwide perspective, we learn how India and China are outpacing the West. Most of the myths about globalisation are attacked but the best thing about the book is the examples are all real people, not statistics. The problem is it is overlong and written in an annoying dialect of journalistic clich̩.

The Undercover Economist
– A journalist from the Financial Times elucidates economics for idiots (like me). This book explains why markets and free trade work and why the socialist alternatives don’t. We find out why Africa is really poor (it’s not western imperialism) and China is getting richer. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the driving forces of today’s world.

What’s Left? – An attack on leftist shibboleths by Nick Cohen, one of their own. I’ll be looking at the phenomena of the English neo-cons a bit later.

Just out is Sex, Science and Profits which explicitly links the rise of capitalism to the rise of science. It claims all those scientists demanding public funding for their work would be better off without it. It’s something else to add to the reading list. Any further ideas would be most welcome.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Religion and Politics Part Two

I should update my post from last year on the religious views of Britain’s political leaders. Nick Clegg, newly anointed as the head of the Liberal Democrats, is now the only admitted non-believer leading a major political party in England. He claims to be an agnostic rather than an atheist. His wife, however, is a committed Catholic. Clegg’s first significant act as leader was to break his party’s manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on the European Union’s rewritten constitution. However, I hesitate to suggest that some religious feeling might have translated into greater probity on Clegg’s part. The deeply devout Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has done exactly the same thing.

Which brings me to 2007’s highest profile conversion – Tony Blair’s reception by Rome. I have to admit to being singularly unmoved by this. Newspaper comment was confined to some bitchy remarks from columnists who have never forgiven him for the Iraq war. This led to inevitable non-sequiturs but told us very little of substance. I would only say that the Catholic Church allows confession to be heard in private and does not require a public mea culpa from its converts. For this reason, those wanting to hear Blair apologise, whether they were exercised by his support for George Bush or his supporting abortion, have no right to feel disappointed. It is striking that Blair has as many enemies on the red extreme of the political spectrum as on the blue. He has become almost as much a hate figure on the left as Mrs Thatcher was. I suppose she still is among those lefties who keep the socialist flame alive.

Blair’s conversion led to one columnist making a fool of himself. Matthew Parris, who is usually quite sensible, has a bad case of Russell’s syndrome. Regular readers will know that this condition afflicts men and women of high intelligence who are, in most respects, indistinguishable from their fellow members of the academic elite. However, the sufferer of Russell’s Syndrome (first identified in the third Earl [Bertrand] Russell), looses all his common sense, discrimination and reason when his mind turns to religion. Parris, who has long believed Blair to be insane, thought to prove that because British Prime Ministers tended towards agnosticism at best, religion was bunk. The trouble was, the historical record was unhelpful and he had to mould it to his prejudices. One example will suffice. He mentions that he "never sensed any abiding belief on Ted Heath's part". I found this an odd remark. It may well be that Sir Edward Heath chose to spend his retirement in a house situated on the close of Salisbury Cathedral for purely aesthetic reasons. It is, after all, one of the most beautiful places in the world, dominated by the architectural colossus of the great church itself. Still, it is hard to see why a man of no faith would wish to live in a spot dominated by a place of worship.

Furthermore, from personal experience, I can supply an anecdote even more fatal to Parris’s argument. When I was a pupil at Marlborough College, Edward Heath came and preached to us in the school chapel. As Marlborough is your archetypical minor public school and Sir Edward had no particular connection with it, I assume he must have been doing the rounds. To live in the shadow of a spire is one thing, but to spend ones days in a pulpit is quite another. At the time, teenage atheist that I was, I had the ill grace to demand of the chaplain why Sir Edward should want to talk about the boring subject of God when he could instead have enlightened us on the fine art of politics. Today, with a better grasp of history, I realise that Ted Heath would have been able to tell us very little of use about his inglorious career as Prime Minister. I only wish I’d listened to his thoughts on God.

Suffice to say, in the only case where I have some information to add to the case, I find Parris’s grasp of the facts seriously wanting. His other examples of non-religious Prime Ministers may be more accurate. But as he is clearly in the throes of Russell’s Syndrome, I doubt it.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

Monday, January 21, 2008

I'm Back

It’s been a while. The new job has allowed me little time to write anything here. I’ve been very flattered by a few emails imploring my return (very few in fact, but still nice) and have now hit upon a wheeze to re-activate this blog. A new laptop computer that I can use on the long train journey into work means I can finally find some time to write. I am not sure how well this system will work but I am prepared to give it a go. However much anyone missed my thoughts, I have missed inflicting them on the world far more. Apart from the new job and new child, I have little to report. My PhD is still not granted although the final hurdle is in sight. Nor has God’s Philosophers been published. If you have not had a chance to look over the first chapter and sign my register of people wanting to see it published, then do please spare a moment at the web site here.

Before I got the computer, I read on the train. This has meant a substantial number of books on the ‘to read’ list have been knocked off. They include Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice, Francis Pryor's Britain in the Middle Ages, business bestseller The World is Flat and Jared Diamond’s Collapse. If anyone is keen on my thoughts about these, let me know. I may eventually get around to writing some brief reviews of them anyway. Of course, ‘to read’ lists never get any shorter. I’ve been adding to mine some big picture economic history – The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David Landes and The Green History of the World by Clive Ponting among them. I’d like to see if the rumoured link between science and prosperity has been noticed by historians of the dismal as well as of natural science.

Lots of things have happened while I’ve been busy. Richard Dawkins has admitted he likes Christmas carols (although who will be left to sing them if he gets his way, I have no idea. For a tradition to survive, it needs to be alive and not just a quaint museum piece, which is how he views the festival of the Nativity). In Rome, Italian communists have kept the Pope from opening a university year by complaining about a remark he made seventeen years ago about an event nearly four centuries before. In 1990, Benedict XVI had said he agreed with the late Paul Feyerabend that the trial of Galileo was “rational and just.” As the final chapter of my book will make clear, this is true in a narrow sense, but it hardly exonerates the Church from the initial mistake of banning heliocentricism. I expect the Pope acknowledged that too, but he is just going to have to get used to be quoted out of context by troublemakers, whether Muslim or atheist.

The neo-atheist storm shows no signs of blowing itself out but neither has the standard of debate improved. I have now had one email from someone for whom Dawkins’ book has been a disturbing experience. I’m not sure if that is a great return from sales approaching a million, but then it is hardly a great book. Christopher Hitchens’ companion screed, God is Not Great was reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement by none other than Dawkins himself. Needless to say, it was hardly a critical examinations of Hitchins’ arguments. Various other articles have appeared here and there. I’ll note a few of them over the next few posts. Having managed to type this post out, despite the train bouncing around like a revivalist minister, I am confident that there will be some more to come.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.