Monday, October 1, 2012

Ends and life-chances

Eric Hobsbawm, the famous British Marxist historian, just died. The Guardian reprinted a piece of his from 2009.

But a progressive policy needs more than just a bigger break with the economic and moral assumptions of the past 30 years. It needs a return to the conviction that economic growth and the affluence it brings is a means and not an end. The end is what it does to the lives, life-chances and hopes of people. Look at London. Of course it matters to all of us that London's economy flourishes. But the test of the enormous wealth generated in patches of the capital is not that it contributed 20%-30% to Britain's GDP but how it affects the lives of the millions who live and work there. What kind of lives are available to them? Can they afford to live there? If they can't, it is not compensation that London is also a paradise for the ultra-rich. Can they get decently paid jobs or jobs at all? If they can't, don't brag about all those Michelin-starred restaurants and their self-dramatising chefs. Or schooling for children? Inadequate schools are not offset by the fact that London universities could field a football team of Nobel prize winners.

The test of a progressive policy is not private but public, not just rising income and consumption for individuals, but widening the opportunities and what Amartya Sen calls the "capabilities" of all through collective action. But that means, it must mean, public non-profit initiative, even if only in redistributing private accumulation. Public decisions aimed at collective social improvement from which all human lives should gain. That is the basis of progressive policy - not maximising economic growth and personal incomes. Nowhere will this be more important than in tackling the greatest problem facing us this century, the environmental crisis. Whatever ideological logo we choose for it, it will mean a major shift away from the free market and towards public action, a bigger shift than the British government has yet envisaged. And, given the acuteness of the economic crisis, probably a fairly rapid shift. Time is not on our side.

He is of course right that the main point ought to be "The end is what it does to the lives, life-chances and hopes of people." Economic growth is only a means to an end.

In practice, of course, Hobsbawn was sympathetic with regimes that mostly destroyed life-chances, and indeed lives. Judged in terms of consequences, progressive policy often accomplishes the opposite of what it intends or officially advocates. Lenin offered "Peace, Land, Bread". Russia got civil war and expropriation and famine.

But what this ought to tell us is that if you pretend to be neutral about ways of life, by default you are allowing other people to set the terms of the conversation. You still will have a consequential version of the good life even if you do not intend it.

There is no reason at all why a more concrete focus on the kind of life available to people ought to entail massive shifts towards government. But if all the right has to counter it is a libertarian Ayn Rand utopia, or ignoring the matter altogether, it only makes turgid back-to-the-1970s outcomes it more likely. Romney's libertarian approach is very unconvincing. Arguing about market v government, as this election campaign seems to circling around, is stale and outdated.

We need a more concrete discussion about the good life - the kind of lives we want in practice, the kind of lives we want GDP to buy us. Of course, people will not agree on every detail. But psychology tells us they is more commanality in what people want out of daily life than we usually believe.

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