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Conservatives v Liberals v Universal Moral Intuitions

4th July 2011

Fascinating and important piece by FT's Clive Crook on the deep moral assumptions underpinning the USA's latest public spending dramas:

Prof Haidt finds that liberals are driven mainly by intuitions about fairness (who gets what) and harm to victims. Conservatives are guided by those intuitions too, but also by intuitions about loyalty, authority, and purity (including bodily purity). These are not views so much as deeply embedded moral impulses. They are often wrapped up in religion, or lack of it. Transgressing them is a kind of sacrilege.

In the US, differences in these moral-psychological foundations are very marked. The more progressive you are, the harder you find it to understand the claims of loyalty, authority and purity. The more conservative you are, the more indispensable those claims appear to be. This matters because US politics, especially at the conservative end, is powered by the energy at the extremes.

Interesting. But the key point (my emphasis) comes next, making the US liberals squirm!

Why did the Aspen audience squirm? Because Prof Haidt also notes that the wider conservative spectrum of moral intuitions is the global norm. Those conservative impulses are nearly universal across world religions and cultures. Secular liberals are the anomaly.

This is the trouble. Ever since the French Revolution and then the Russian Revolution, a systemic attempt has been made by supposedly progressive tendencies to downplay certain essentially human 'traditional' values and to 'relativise' the way issues are looked at.

This explains why the Greece Debt problem is so important and interesting - it forces to the fore all sorts of moral assumptions lurking beneath EU policy about the link between hardworking discipline and outcomes, and about the limits of associated 'solidarity' (or not) with relatives, neighbours and strangers Try this readable and energetic essay at LRB by John Lanchester (my emphasis):

The euro was launched with a fundamental democratic deficit, which didn’t trouble the European elite behind it because they had come to believe in a version of manifest destiny ... The system had no enforcement, and no reality principle other than the value of the euro on international currency markets, and the rating value of euro government debt.

No reality principle!? Just think about that for a moment.

The 'subjective' value of the Euro on the markets is in fact quite a good reality system - as far as it goes. But when it looks as if the game has been rumbled, that value may collapse in quite a vivid way.

As the euro’s troubles go on and the lineaments of this arrangement become clearer, however, the signs are that the German electorate is becoming steadily less eager to go along with it.

The downmarket German press has been asking why Germans should work until 69 to fund the retirement of Greek public sector workers who knock off at 55. That’s a loaded way of putting the question, but it is a good question even so, and one to which Angela Merkel is manifestly sympathetic.

Why is it such a good question? Because it goes to the very heart of how human beings think about each other. I'll lend my close friends and relatives some of my hard-earned money if I think they are going to use it wisely - should I lend it to them if I am sure they won't, or can't?

And should governments use force to extract taxes from people in country A to pay for fecklessness by citizens in in country B?   

Germany has to put the broader European interest on the same level as its own national interest, or the euro is toast. This, if you think about it from a broad historical perspective, is quite a reversal.

During the 20th century, the greatest danger to European stability was Germany’s sense of its special destiny. During the 21st century, the greatest danger to European stability is Germany’s reluctance to accept its special destiny. If the German taxpayer manages, however grudgingly, to accept that it’s her duty to shoulder the burden, the euro will muddle through. But it won’t be pretty.

Here's already one very unpretty but curiously expressed argument - that Greece stands to suffer 'massive limitations on its sovereignty':

Jean-Claude Juncker, chairman of the Eurogroup of finance ministers, told Germany's Focus magazine that teams of privatisation experts from around Europe would now be heading to Athens to push through the state sell-offs, which are slated to raise €50bn (£45bn): "The sovereignty of Greece will be massively limited," he said...

Juncker said Greece needed to adopt a process similar to the Treuhand agency, used by Germany to sell off 14,000 former East German firms between 1990 and 1994 – even though Treuhand failed to deliver any profit, oversaw huge job losses and eventually closed its books with a deficit.

But he did appear to acknowledge that the Greeks were hostile to foreign officials appearing to take charge: "One cannot be allowed to insult the Greeks. But one has to help them. They have said they are ready to accept expertise from the eurozone."

That is not a limitation on sovereignty. Much more a practical application of time-honoured global - and basically sensible - conservative common sense 

If you want to borrow money from your neighbours, behave responsibly.

And if you can't look after your own house without posing a risk to the neighbours, the neighbours may walk through the front door to calm you down a bit.

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