Monday, November 8, 2010

Michael Moore, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Irrational Hatred of Capitalism

Some time ago Daniel Hannan noted how frequently the Left resorts to language of evil when discussing capitalism. In "Michael Moore and the unquestioning self-righteousness of the left" Hannan quotes Moore as folllows:

“Capitalism is evil,” says Michael Moore. “You have to eliminate it.” . . .

The beauty of his position, of course, is that it doesn’t require him to come up with any alternatives. “What I’m asking for is a new economic order,” says Moore, adding feebly: “I don’t know how to construct that, I’m not an economist.”

OK, Mike, but all the people who have tried to construct it have ended up creating tyrannies.
The Archbishop of Canterbury made headlines recently by sounding like a typical left-winger by attacking the coalition government's plan to reform welfare by requiring people to work for welfare. Williams was quoted as saying:
'People who are struggling to find work and struggling to find a secure future are, I think, driven further into a sort of downward spiral of uncertainty, even despair, when the pressure is on in this way.''
Yesterday, Hannan had this to say about the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent statements criticizing the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government's plan to reform welfare along the lines that the Clinton administration and a Republican congress reformed it so successfully in the US in the 1990s.

I like Rowan Williams. He is an intelligent man who always does his hearers the courtesy of addressing them intelligently. This habit often gets him into trouble, either because he is genuinely misunderstood or because his detractors affect to misunderstand him. But he admirably refuses to dumb down.

Still, I think he was unwise to criticise Iain Duncan Smith’s scheme to make the receipt of benefits contingent on a willingness to work. IDS hadn’t come up with his plan on the back of an envelope; nor was he motivated by the need to save money. He has spent five years looking at the root causes of worklessness and poverty, and has concluded that keeping unemployed people in touch with the rhythms of a working day is likely to make them more employable as well as more content. I happen to agree with him, although, of course, you can honourably disagree. What is less honourable is to question the Tories’ motives, to call them morally wrong rather than intellectually wrong.

What the Archbishop and Moore have in common is a reflexive antipathy toward capitalism and a tendency to frame the economics debate in a simplistic manner as good (welfare state) versus evil (capitalism). This seems to be a bedrock, core conviction with people on the whole spectrum of the left which never goes away no matter how much evidence comes in to support the idea that socialism does not work. They still believe they are morally superior because they oppose capitalism even though capitalism is the only alternative to tyranny. It is hard to make sense of this position.

Christine Odone, however, in her blog post, "Rowan Williams wants to be like Thomas More but risks looking like Don Quixote," helps immensely, in my opinion:

Rowan Williams, the most interesting Archbishop of Canterbury in years, is as capable of a sophisticated analysis of Dostoyevsky as an innovative interpretation of Aquinas. Yet when it comes to politics he is a simple, old-fashioned socialist who believes the State should intervene when its citizens can’t cope. Hence his attack on the Coalition’s plans for welfare reform: Williams wants to cushion every blow for every citizen, and believes no one should ever feel the pinch of poverty or the pang of hunger.

For my colleague Janet Daley, Williams’s broadside seems a daft attack on work. The Archbishop’s target, in fact, is much more ambitious: capitalism. It is a system that he instinctively deplores, seeing in it greed-generating machine that cannot be controlled and that causes injustice and misery. Williams champions benefits as the humane face of the cruel market. . . .

Capitalism may be hugely flawed, but communism has been totally discredited, and the socialist experiments have evolved into capitalist-lite economies that owe little to Marx. Even the most hard-bitten Lefties, although they may have forgotten to tell Rowan Williams, have moved on from the “Capitalism Must Go” position.

In this new global understanding, the Christian ethic of William Temple and Rowan Williams, with its emphasis on community and mutual responsibility, still has a role to play. The Churches, with their voluntary groups and inclusive ethos, can establish themselves at the centre of the Big Society. They can provide a guiding light and a moral grounding. . . .

Instead, in a move that betrays a dangerous unworldliness, the Archbishop seeks to be the troublesome priest, the man of conscience who will make life difficult for government. It’s the wrong role, and the wrong target. It shows a misunderstanding of contemporary politics but also of contemporary principles such as “aspiration”.

For the unworldly Dr Williams, aspiration lies somewhere between unfettered ambition and greedy accumulation. It’s about having and achieving worldly goods which, in the great scheme of things, should not matter a jot. Aspiration smacks of “me”, not the caring sharing “we” that is at the heart of the Christian message.

This is why, when the Coalition – and in particular Iain Duncan Smith – argue that the present welfare system stifles aspiration, their words make no impression on Dr Williams. He refuses to consider that withdrawing some benefits might enable some citizens to create their own good fortune; in his view, a government that wants to reduce its role as provider is ducking its responsibility.

In fact, as Duncan Smith has argued, aspiration is as much about the single mum on the council estate wanting to improve her children’s chances as about the City banker gunning for the big Christmas bonus. Judicious, carefully targetted benefits do not hold back the citizen fizzing with get up and go. But a benefits culture, in which welfare guarantees you a better lifestyle than you can earn through hard graft, risks clogging the arteries of even the most eager, leaving them paralysed if not lifeless.

The Coalition is working to change this culture: the disadvantaged will benefit from its success. That is why the Archbishop of Canterbury must rein in his Don Quixote tendencies.

I have quoted Odone extensively here because she is so utterly lucid about what is the problem with old-fashioned left-wingers like Moore and Williams. As she explains, their relentless opposition to the notion of "aspiration" ends up hurting the very people they purport to be wanting to help. They cannot keep a firm grasp what is good, noble and humane about the virtue of working hard to support oneself and one's family because they cannot separate the idea of "aspiration" from those of greed, immoral manipulation and hoarding.

I think Odone is profoundly right on this and she has put her finger on the central problem of the old-fashioned socialist critique of capitalism. It fails to value highly enough something that is intrinsic to human nature: the need for self-respect that arises from working hard to gain a living. This self-respect must be earned; it cannot be received as a gift. This is a profound insight into human nature that seems to have escaped the socialists.

Capitalism needs to be defended as more than a necessary evil; it needs to be defended as being in harmony with the essence of human nature itself and not merely fallen human nature.

More on this theme will follow.

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