Friday, October 18, 2013

The invisible boot

Adam Smith has been something of a hero of mine ever since I read Samuel Fleischacker's book on distributive justice. Not because of his famous idea that selfish actions by the rich result in a beneficial trickling down of wealth to the poor but because he was among the first people in the West to recognize and promote the fact that poor people are human and deserve help. (I suppose Jesus and others had similar ideas, but they do not seem to have caught on as much as one might have hoped. In Fleischacker's story Smith is a key player.)

But what about that invisible hand? As I understand it, the idea is roughly this. If I buy a laptop, for instance, then although I am only interested in myself I accidentally pass on some of my wealth to the employees of the laptop shop, some shipping company, people who manufacture laptops, people who make or mine laptop components, and so on. Mostly this is a good thing. But some of those components come from mines run by gangsters and warlords. The same invisible hand that helps some workers also encourages rape and slavery (or at least forced labor and extortion, which sounds like the same thing to me). I don't deny Smith's insight, but the fact that the invisible hand gives the finger to so many should not be ignored either.

And I always link this in my mind with George Orwell's essay on politics and language. Orwell writes that:
In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.
This is questionable, of course, but the idea that honesty and clarity are related to concreteness seems important and true. When someone is suspected of speaking bull it can be very useful to try to trace their words to some concrete particular to which they refer. This is a lesson from Hume, I suppose, and it's one I think of when I think about Frege and Wittgenstein, even if Orwell, Hume, Frege, and Wittgenstein don't exactly say the same thing. They all favor clarity of meaning in their various ways, and connect this with distinguishing what only superficially appears to have meaning from the genuinely meaningful, as revealed by deeper investigation. It's hard to make Wittgenstein sound as though he belongs in the same camp as Hume and Orwell on this, but morally he does, even if his philosophy of language is very different. In a word what they all oppose is bullshit.

In the cases of both words and objects one can, and should, dig a bit, or think a bit, or do whatever it takes, to see their true meaning, their place in the workings of human life. Like language, bullshit is things we do. And when we see these workings clearly, when we achieve an overview of the whole machine, as it were, there are some things we will not say. And some things we will not buy or perhaps even use. The point seems obvious to me, and I wouldn't be surprised if it had been made before and often, but I don't remember coming across it. Not the point that consumption should be ethical, that is, but the point that exposing and avoiding bullshit involves not only analysis of language but analysis of economics, politics, and, in short, behavior. I should probably read Gavin Kitching's and Nigel Pleasants' book (actually there's no 'probably' about it), but if anyone in that collection makes the point I haven't heard about it. And it seems like the kind of thing that ought to be huge: that what (good, Wittgensteinian) philosophy aims to do with/for language (clarification through analysis of use, roughly speaking) could and should be done for economics. This isn't what I understand economists or sociologists or political theorists to do, but maybe outside what I know as the mainstream there are great things being done.  

It's (perhaps not really) surprisingly hard to find information about what our purchasing choices mean on the ground. Occasionally you hear that buying drugs helps fund terrorists or that there are sweat shops in Asia or that animals are badly treated on factory farms, but it seems to me that all this information and more ought to be gathered together and publicized widely. Perhaps even studied in schools and colleges. Is anyone doing this? Are there books or websites I should know about? I hope so. There are organizations and publications like Ethical Consumer, but their work seems a little haphazard to me. A quick look at their website shows that they don't like corrupt banks and they do like badgers, but I don't see anything that would help prioritize these matters. Where is the most harm being done? If I have limited outrage or limited patience for researching the ethics of consumption, where should I focus my energy?
Let me say in more concrete terms what I have in mind. I'm looking for the following kinds of information:
  • in what industries (the biggest ten or twenty, for instance) is most money made and are most people employed?
  • what are the benefits and harms, the pros and the cons, of these industries?
  • what can we do to reduce or remove the worst harms?
That's really about it. A lot of effort has been put into identifying the most worthwhile charitable organizations to give to. I'm looking for something similar as far as politics and economics goes. What are the most important companies to boycott and, at least as importantly, to support? That all sounds very utilitarian, but a question that seems related to me is: why aren't there more papers like Cora Diamond's "Eating Meat and Eating People"? This is a defence of vegetarianism at least in part on the basis of pointing out "a kind of inconsistency, or confusion mixed with hypocrisy [...] in our ordinary ways of thinking about animals..." There is, I think, a lot of inconsistency like this. Maybe not of the kind that takes sophisticated thinking to bring out, but inconsistency that could do with being brought out all the same. So I might be asking for better journalism, not more Cora Diamonds. Is it too clunkingly practical to want a list of the worst inconsistencies, and to want this list made very prominent along with practical advice about what one can do about it? I'm sure these things can get very complicated, but that's not an excuse for doing nothing.     

Apparently it's very hard to say what the biggest industries are because "biggest" can refer to profits or turnover or number of employees, and doubtless other things too, and there are questions like whether a gas station is part of the retail industry or the oil industry, and so on. But we surely could agree on some reasonable if imperfect standard if we wanted to. And people often do want to make claims about what the biggest industry in the world is, or what the top ten are (especially if they want to claim that some illegal industry is one of the top ten, for instance). So why not agree on some standard and go from there? At the moment people seem to choose arbitrarily to get worked up about, say, the environment or Wall Street or drugs or the sex industry, or try vainly to battle every evil in the world simultaneously. No doubt there is some vague feeling that it's arbitrary which causes one chooses to champion, but we ought to (and do really, I think) care about which causes are more important than others, which affect more people more seriously.

As silly and superficial as my desire for rankings might seem, or be, another way to say what I mean is to talk about depth or thinking things through. We might know about blood diamonds and avoid buying them, but many people don't. And does anyone (including me) seriously consider going without electronic devices because of the conflict minerals most of them include? It's easy to avoid blood diamonds if gemstones don't regularly feature on your shopping list, but give up my iPod? No way. And yet we claim to care about human rights a lot, as if nothing matters more. Why isn't our hypocrisy pointed out more loudly? Because it's boring, I suppose. What does that say about us?

I could go on. People disagree about whether drugs, or which drugs, should be legal, but why so many people take drugs in the first place seems to be largely ignored. Is it just because it's hard to answer the question? Or do we not want to think about despair? It's not so much the digging that I think we're reluctant to do. It's the hardness of the reality we would find if we dug deep enough. But aren't we ashamed of this cowardice/dishonesty?

We have a market for news and opinion, and bad news doesn't sell. What I'm asking for is basically a more nagging kind of NPR or PBS. It's no mystery why we don't have that. But it still seems symptomatic of something bad that we don't have it, and I think there really would be a market for practical advice about the biggest problems facing the world and what consumers can do to help. Maybe I should start up a website called "Degrees of Obscenity" that would rank the worst evils encouraged by our way of life and suggest practical steps we could take to reduce them.

I feel as though this is all half-baked but I haven't posted anything for a week so maybe it's time to hit 'publish' and see what happens.     


  1. I went straight to Orwell and have to finish your post later. (Thanks, and sorry.) I'm still chuckling about his modern rewrite of Ecclesiastes....

    1. Thanks. I might have overdone the gloom.

  2. i don't know, it seems like every online news/opinion 'magazine' (etc.) i read is like 'a more nagging version of...', and like they've all made a more and more committed decision to be as nagging as possible in the last 15 years.

    1. I'm sure there's lots of nagging out there. I want focused nagging (in part so I can listen less to the rest of it) combined with practical advice: "Here's a laptop that doesn't have conflict minerals in it." That would be nice. I also want everyone to be much deeper and less hypocritical, but you can't have everything.

  3. It seems to me that Smith's "guiding hand" is a bit like Leibniz's pre-established harmony in disguise. That is, he says "what the market decides is best" but he really means "'Best' = 'What the market decides'". So even though most people are having a terrible time we're still in the best of all possible worlds so long as the market has dictated events.

    And Smith's vision ignores two crucial things. First, the whole logic of market forces is that employers grind down their employees as much as they possibly can. Even the employers who don't want to do this end up doing it because if they don't then their competitors will, and if their competitors do then they'll gain an advantage and drive the employer out of business. It's a race to the bottom and the only way to prevent it is for businesses to form cartels and fix prices.

    Secondly, there is no such thing as a free market. Never has been, never will be. The market at all stages is saturated with political decisions, immigration policies being the most obvious.

    As for economists, one point: did you know that Alan Greenspan was a keen logical positivist in his younger days? Then he became an acolyte of Ayn Rand. That says it all, really.

    1. I've only ever read bits of Smith but he doesn't seem that bad to me. Markets are artificial and can only be relatively free, I agree (I think). To avoid excessive grinding down we need a minimum wage, free healthcare and education, pensions, etc. But if that's all done well it's probably the best system we have.

      I knew about Greenspan and Rand, but not the logical positivism. I'm glad he was sophisticated enough to be a logical positivist, but disappointed he got worse instead of better from there.

    2. [Puts on "raving Marxist" hat] Smith was, amongst other things, an 18th century middle-class liberal (in the classical sense) mythologising the economic system that stood to most benefit 18th century middle-class liberals. He certainly understood that system more clearly than his contemporaries (eg, the French), and his broader philosophy was strikingly humane considering the times in which he lived. Nonetheless, at its heart lies the contradiction that lies at the heart of all classical liberal thinking. It is couched in terms of universals ("freedom", "opportunity" etc), yet the means of production it defends considers "painful drudgery for most" as a prerequisite.

      The liberal's love of freedom originates in the long struggle to overcome the aristocracy. As such, it is about freedom for the middle class from aristocratic control. However, as that struggle went hand-in-hand with the rise of Reason it produced a philosophy that tended towards a rational universality of concepts. (Of course, behind the philosophy lay powerful economic facts concerning wealth and power.) In many ways the philosophy was undoubtedly an improvement on what had gone before, but it also proved a hostage to fortune. How can you talk about universal freedom when your economic system has - built into it as a requirement - the fact that most people live lives which are anything but free?

      The liberals were too conscientious to ignore that problem, and Smith's metaphor of the guiding hand is an attempt to square the circle. Its successor, of course, is "trickle-down".

      [Removes "raving Marxist" hat]

    3. Thanks. I need a bit of raving Marxist correction every now and again. But how much freedom is really possible? We can probably get beyond painful drudgery, but drudgery is surely here to stay. For almost everyone. At least some of the time.

      "Trickle-down economics" is basically a lie, but some wealth does trickle down. One point I wanted to make was that if we look down, as Smith encourages us to do (or perhaps to imagine that we do) then we don't just see wealth trickling down. We also see wealth failing to reach the bottom, or a bottom untrickled on. And we see all kinds of pain and drudgery too. Not as inevitable features of life but as consequences of specific economic choices. I.e. as evils that could be prevented by something less, and therefore perhaps more readily achievable, than worldwide revolution.

      And I wish more attention was given to the underside of the rock, because that would both show that people cared and also allow us to do something about it more easily.

      I used to associate Smith with Thatcher. I've been pleased to find that he isn't that bad. But he might not be as good as the likes of Fleischacker and Nussbaum make out either.

    4. As I say, Smith himself seems to have been a pretty humane guy - and he would certainly have something critical to say about Thatcher and the neo-cons (for example, he well understood the danger of price-fixing and business cartels). His Theory of Moral Sentiments has some fine passages in it about our tendency to delight in the pleasure of others for no reason apart from seeing it. And yet, in the end, it concludes that all human interaction is a sort of bartering. That, I think, is the decisive step. Once you've made it, it's easy enough to conclude that the best economic system for such a creature can only be a free market. And therefore anything which disrupts the free market is by definition wrong.

      Smith himself might not have been willing to go so far, but the thought is implicitly there in his work, and it's not too surprising that some of those who came after used it to justify atrocities. The famines in Ireland and India, for example, were both avoidable but millions were allowed to starve to death because providing relief would've "distorted the market" in grain. (And how hard do you have to look around the world to see similar things happening even now?)

      In Europe, at least, things took a turn for the better towards the end of the 19th Century. That was directly attributable to capitalist nations giving limited recognition to the legitimacy of some left-wing complaints. In other words, they sought to buy-off the revolution (Bismark's "Prussian Socialism", etc).

      I'm not sure Smith would've approved, but actually it worked surprisingly well. Conditions for the poor improved substantially - and they kept on improving right up until the end of the 1970s. And then they stopped improving.

      It seems to me you could call that period one of "traditional Conservativism". It sought to protect the best of what had already been established while (cautiously) improving the lot of those at the bottom of the heap. It kept revolution at bay (and revolution was a very real threat in 19th Century Europe) but also acted as a bulwark against the excesses of the market.

      But you might also say that it was a form of living in denial. The economic base was still thoroughly capitalist and, sooner or later, the capitalists would find a way to out-flank the "progressive" elements of government. The rise of global capitalism allowed them to do exactly that. Now they could intimidate governments into doing their bidding or, more simply still, buy political power wholesale. The age of the Conservatives was over. The Neo-Cons had come into their own.

    5. It is starting to look that way. I hope you're wrong. One way or another a socialist threat would be handy, but it doesn't seem to exist at the moment.

      On the other, positive, hand, the right wing in the US seems to be on the wane. Possibly, anyway. Which might explain their increasing looniness. And a lot of European neo-liberals seem to be influenced by a desire to follow the US. I'm out of date and out of my depth on this stuff, though, so I'm probably just imagining that there's grounds for hope.

    6. Well, the good news - or maybe the bad news - is that no-one knows whats going to happen next. Marx, for example, was very astute (I think) when it came to analysing capitalism's problems but very shaky when it came to predicting what would happen next (he was a typical economist in that regard). His forward-looking philosophy was mired in an awful,materialistic inversion of Hegel's theory of history.

      But at the very least I think Governments need to supply more support for ordinary people. My fear, however, is that that won't happen until the ordinary working people are close enough to starvation to make an all-or-nothing stand (just think how bad things had to get in the 19th C before workers demanded the right to organize. Once they did that they fought with incredible bravery, but they it seems they had to be close to annihilation before they were willing to fight.)

      If they don't find the will I think the global position is clear: accept working conditions that ever more closely approximate those of the third world.

    7. Smith was, amongst other things, an 18th century middle-class liberal (in the classical sense) mythologising the economic system that stood to most benefit 18th century middle-class liberals.

      What counts against Smith most in my book is that he's simply dated. The key word is "18th-century", not "mythologising". Smith died one year into the French Revolution, 127 years before the Russian one, and 223 years before the present day. He is mythologising too, but I view that as a somewhat secondary consideration, and one that has received very excessive attention compared to his datedness.

      To give just one example: Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations that "[f]ood [...] constitutes the principal part of the riches of the world". This is an extremely odd thought for us. But the world as a whole was still so poor that what he said was still true at that point: typically, some 70 % or 80 % of all income had to be spent on food just to stay alive. But today, only about 10 % to 15 % of household spending in Western countries goes on food.

      I can recommend Mark Rosenfelder's Blogging Adam Smith wholeheartedly. He reads through The Wealth of Nations, remarking repeatedly on 1) how much of it is a total embarrassment to Smith's contemporary worshippers, and 2) how much of it is of its time and totally irrelevant to today's concerns. Both considerations are independent of his pernicious influence on those contemporary worshippers. This influence exists, and much can be said about it, but it has been said already a number of times, while what Rosenfelder says has not.

      The rise of global capitalism allowed them to do exactly that. Now they could intimidate governments into doing their bidding or, more simply still, buy political power wholesale.

      But the governments only seem to do their bidding quite selectively. Just today I read the blog of the Marxist economist Chris Dillow, who pointed out that much in the policies of Cameron's coalition government is not in fact, by several different measures, tailored to capitalist interests. For instance, negative interest rates eat into the savings of the wealthy; limits on immigration help keep up the price of labour; and the coming EU referendum is viewed by most business leaders as insane, because Britain leaving the EU would be their worst nightmare. Yet these are the policies of Cameron, Osborne and their party.

      My fear, however, is that that won't happen until the ordinary working people are close enough to starvation to make an all-or-nothing stand [...]

      It's not likely to happen. The sociologist Adam Przeworski has pointed out that once the standard of living in a country exceeds a certain absolute threshold and stays above it, the likelihood of revolutionary political change seems to drop to zero in the light of the historical record.

      According to Przeworski's extremely thorough research, the richest country in history where an established system of bourgeois democracy has ever collapsed was Argentina in 1976. Its GDP at the time, adjusted for purchasing power, was approximately 13,000 US dollars per capita in today's money. Even in the dire post-Thatcherite Britain of today, it's approximately 37,000 dollars. If the likelihood of revolutionary threat is to be even slightly above zero – remember that Argentina in 1976 was just the limiting case – then Britain would have to sink to the level last seen around 1950, when the British GDP surpassed Argentina's 1976 figure. This means that the majority of ordinary people would have no TVs, fridges, Internet access, washing machines, or even landline phones or indoor plumbing. Personally I am about as smitten with Thatcherism as Morrissey, but I have to say that this is a long way off.

    8. That's two more blogs I have to start reading. Thanks!

  4. Yes: the future is very murky, Marx doesn't seem to have been right about it, and more support is needed for ordinary people. In the US there are some hopeful signs on that front (Obamacare most obviously, as flawed as it is), but plenty of dismal signs too. My hope is that the US will go sane in the next few decades and Europe will follow or at any rate stop copying its neo-liberal/neo-con tendencies. But perhaps what will happen is that Asia becomes dominant economically and everyone else will try to copy China or India or Korea or whoever. I think the British government is (at least capable of) showing how quickly goods like public universities can be ruined. Hard to be optimistic when stuff like that is going on. But hard to despair completely too. (At least from my comfortable position.)

    1. I used to be in a very comfortable position and then, in a moment of madness - or perhaps sanity (the jury's out) - I gave it up. Now I'm on the treadmill of drudgery interspersed with unemployment. The experience has radicalised me quite a bit.

      Anyway, I know you enjoy including songs in your blog - and most of them are excellent. So here's one that seems apposite.

    2. I've posted some stinkers, too. Tom Waits is a big improvement. And he/Brecht is right. But it surely doesn't have to be that way. And I don't think we need a revolution. But perhaps I'm just naive.

      I can imagine being radicalised by that kind of experience. It's probably almost inevitable. My dad went through something like that, although not by choice, and he's a different person now. Not so much politically, but partly that.

  5. I should probably read Gavin Kitching's and Nigel Pleasants' book (actually there's no 'probably' about it), but if anyone in that collection makes the point I haven't heard about it.

    Neither have I. I'm in the book myself, but I haven't written about this topic anywhere in English. On the other hand, my trilogy of political books in Finnish discusses this theme extensively. In fact there is a whole chapter in the middle of the first book that says, after a fashion, almost exactly the same things you say in this blog post of yours.

    The closest thing to what you're looking for to have constant reference to Wittgenstein are probably Gavin Kitching's own books Karl Marx and the Philosophy of Praxis and Marxism and Science. But personally I'm not sure that Wittgenstein needs to be brought into it at all. Of course his philosophical method is the one to use, much of the time at any rate, but he never developed anything resembling a political philosophy, and attempts helpfully to construct one for him posthumously have always embarrassed me somewhat.

    (Wittgenstein said, to Drury, that Kierkegaard "was by far the most profound thinker of the [19th] century". It strikes me that nobody who thought it was anyone other than Marx is probably not somebody to hang an emancipatory political philosophy on. And even Nietzsche would be far more promising that Kierkegaard.)

    But if we leave behind that part of philosophy which is visibly influenced by Wittgenstein, there are some excellent books and papers that are (or together add up to) a kind of "Consuming Consumer Goods and Consuming People":

    * G. A. Cohen, "If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?", Journal of Ethics (2000); also in his book of the same title (Harvard UP, 2000)

    * Daniel Miller, "Consumption as the Vanguard of History: A Polemic by Way of an Introduction", in Miller (ed.), Acknowledging Consumption: A Review of New Studies (Routledge, 1995)

    * Daniel Miller, "The Poverty of Morality", Journal of Consumer Culture (2001)

    * Nigel Pleasants, "Rich Egalitarianism, Ordinary Politics, and the Demands of Justice" (critical notice of Cohen's book), Inquiry (2002)

    * Kate Soper, "Socialism and Personal Morality", in David McLellan and Sean Sayers (eds.), Socialism and Morality (Macmillan, 1990)

    * Richard Wilk, "Consuming Morality", Journal of Consumer Culture (2001)

    * Catherine Wilson, "On Some Alleged Limitations to Moral Endeavor", Journal of Philosophy (1993)

    For my aforementioned book chapter, I read much more on the topic, but these are the (cora) diamonds of the lot, the ones I ended up footnoting and in each case with warm approval. They're all just papers, so maybe you could read some (I'm thinking, with deep sympathy, of your laments about your slowness as a reader). Were you to blog on what you read as well, it would be a dream come true.

    1. I'm not sure whether to thank you or cry, but thanks. And in return I will try to blog about at least some of these. (Once I've finished with Chantal Bax's book, which I'm finding slow-going (in a good way).)

      I'm mystified at not remembering reading your chapter in the book. Surely I knew it was there, in which case surely I would have read it. But my memory is just blank. Maybe it will all come back to me when I read it again.

      And I agree that Wittgenstein doesn't need to be brought in to politics. But some claims people make seem quite empty when you think about or look into what else they say and do. These inconsistencies and contradictions are interesting, and thoughts about what words mean can lead to them. So he's not irrelevant to politics, although I'm making the connection sound tenuous.

  6. This is questionable, of course, but the idea that honesty and clarity are related to concreteness seems important and true.

    I'm glad you find it questionable. Besides run-of-the-mill bullshit, there is also what Stefan Collini has aptly termed "no bullshit" bullshit, diagnosing it in Orwell and in some of his contemporary acolytes, such as Christopher Hitchens.

    Just like saying you're not making any normative claims is a good way of getting people to accept the normative claims you do in fact make, one of the easiest ways to get them to accept your bullshit is to claim that you're actually spouting it in the name of fighting other people's bullshit.

    But aren't we ashamed of this cowardice/dishonesty?

    Wittgenstein, again to Drury: "I know fish are caught in the most horrible way, and yet I continue to eat fish."

    So I might be asking for better journalism, not more Cora Diamonds.

    My books have made me into a public figure in Finland, so throughout this year and seemingly the next, I'm writing a regular column in the Sunday pages of the Nordic countries' biggest subscription newspaper. Much of the time it's in this same thematic area. It's a bit like The Stone in fact; only I'm discussing political science or social psychology much of the time and not just philosophy. And I only have approximately 400 words, which is ridiculously little.

    I've actually been thinking of doing a column on "Eating Meat..." which recently appeared in Finnish translation; as only the first piece of hers to do so, sadly. The Åbo people have popularised her admirably in Swedish, but Finnish is a different kettle of horribly caught fish.

    I'm doing my best, but it's hard to gauge how much real influence I'm having. The comments on the web site are mostly dogshit (as opposed to bullshit), while what few pieces of feedback I get by e-mail are almost invariably hear-hears. I've heard many first-, second- and even third-hand reports of reactions to my writing, but never any where the readers have changed their mind about anything as a result of reading me. Will be a red-letter day when the first one comes up.

    1. Besides run-of-the-mill bullshit, there is also what Stefan Collini has aptly termed "no bullshit" bullshit

      Yes, a bit like people who claim to be "no nonsense." It can be a rationalization of pig-headedness. Or an especially slippery kind of sophistry.

      Wittgenstein, again to Drury: "I know fish are caught in the most horrible way, and yet I continue to eat fish."

      I'd forgotten this! At least he was aware of it though. For the most part we don't know and don't want to know, and don't think about our not wanting to know (and I don't mean only about animals). There's a lot of evasion. Of course you can't pay attention to everything. But that's not an excuse for paying attention to nothing.

      More Tommi Uschanovs and more Cora Diamonds would be good. And at least hear-hears are better than boos.

      a different kettle of horribly caught fish

      This is the best thing I've read all day.