Who is responsible for the current financial turmoil? Anyone?

Here is William Rees-Mogg using a sharp scalpel to cut through to what he says is the Prime Minister’s personal responsibility for a serious misjudgement on Lloyds/HBOS, with massive ramifications down the road for us all:

It is bad enough that Gordon Brown has helped to destroy the value and independence of Lloyds Bank. What is even more serious is that he has massively increased the contingent liabilities that will face future governments.

We do not know their eventual size, but they are already disproportionate to total national expenditure. They will overshadow every over payment in future budgets until they have been worked off … There will be less money to spend on all other requirements, including the National Health Service, education, welfare and our underfunded defence forces…

Responsibility comes in many different shapes and sizes.

Responsibility for specific outcomes you directly control, or should control.

Responsibility not so much for any given outcome within a system but instead for the health of that system as a whole, where you can shape the rules and workings and ideals of that system.

Responsibility for acting badly – or for shirking the responsibility to act.

And so on.

In the current maelstrom it is not easy to blame anyone specifically for the melt-down. No surprises there. Anyone with any direct responsibility probably will be doing a lot to throw up dust.

That said, history might look back quizzically on the various failed efforts supported by President Bush to act against unwise systemic risky mortgage excesses, and contrast them with the manoeuvres by the party of then Senator Obama to thwart said efforts. ‘Greed’ was not confined to banks, or indeed to one political tendency.

But what of the public? We have all all chortled when things were (or seemed to be) going well, and been happy to ignore warnings that it all might run awry. Where if anywhere does our own responsibility lie?

Back to Atlas Shrugged.

The book describes the battle of different people against the blandishments of collectivist socialism which slowly but surely drag the USA down. In one grim passage the corrupt owners of a railway company insist on an express train driving through a dangerous tunnel. But all down the command-chain line they sneak away from putting their own names on the order that it do so.

Eventually a hapless junior official authorises the journey and a drunk train-driver is found who will drive the train into what he knows is a high-risk situation.

In a chilling way Ayn Rand describes the attitudes of many of the passengers on the train:

It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.

She describes one by one how in their professional and private lives they each have espoused different sorts of facile sloganising irresponsibility, and/or blind adherence to collectivist dumbing-down of basic principles, and/or ungrateful sneering at talent and achievement. They hurtle to their doom.

Which brings us to Watchmen.

Steve Ditko, a creative force behind the Watchmen characters and co-creator of Spiderman, was a big Ayn Rand fan. And this for better or worse shows in the storyline, as explained by Brian Doherty at Reason:

Moore’s conception of what an Objectivist hero would be like in “real life” (or at least in his realistically detailed fantasy) is both respectful and disrespectful to Rand’s vision in interesting ways: Rorschach seems driven to madness by his ideology; a radical Objectivism forges a character that seems obviously damaged in unpleasant ways.

Yet he’s also the only man around who stands up for everyone’s right to be judged individually on the basis of their character and actions, their right not to be a means to someone else’s higher end—no matter what one might think of that end.

So, the question. What do we all ‘deserve’?

[G]iven Rorschach’s contempt for what he sees as the moral stink of the Watchmen world, it’s easy to imagine that he might have been willing to accept that each and every person killed in the movie’s central scheme might have actually deserved it (as Rand did in a smaller-scale disaster; Atlas Shrugged’s train wreck scene).

I think that is not quite right. Surely the point of the train-crash scene is not that the decadent, smug people on the train ‘deserved’ what they got. The idea of giving a view on what they deserve seems to suggest a higher being pronouncing on who should get what and why – just the opposite of what Rand proposed.

See here a baffling misreading of this passage by someone who should have known better, which asserts that it reveals the sheer cruelty/heartlessness of the Rand vision:

Indeed, her contempt for ordinary people extends so far that when a railway worker in ‘Atlas Shrugged’ decides to punish the wicked socialist government by making a train crash happen, Rand implies the passengers had it coming.

Not only is the cause of the train disaster totally mis-described in this review, the argument quite misses the point.

The core issue is rather that ‘ordinary people’ too have to think, and to have responsibility for the results of their decisions. Sooner or later if we all in our own spheres, high or low, act in a way which in fact risks disaster, disaster is inexorably what we eventually get.

It is the sheer relentless ‘objectivism’ of this position which is powerful and striking:

“We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.

Our politicians sense this. And see how appalling it is for them personally.

And so back to William Rees-Mogg, describing the response of the Prime Minister to calls for him to apologise:

“You want me to go on television and apologise, but I am not going to do it. I have nothing to apologise for. It is not my fault. Get in the real world.”

What, then, is the Prime Minister’s responsibility?