How do markets optimise the delivery of social services and social welfare? This question surfaces many of the challenges for the Austrian School, the philosophy that free markets and the price mechanism can do a remarkable job in managing people and their behaviour. While initially Friedrich Hayek’s theorising argued that the role of the State should be minimal, he ultimately conceded that some State regulation was required in order to maintain markets, and some other functions. For example, ‘[t]o prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances, or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements, is fully compatible with the preservation of competition. The only question here is whether in the particular instance the advantages gained are greater than the social costs they impose.’ (The Road to Serfdom, p.38/9) The ultimate question of Hayekian liberalism is how much does the government have to interfere? What is the minimum possible function of government?
Dublin in The Rare Old Times, by Pete St. John, is a beautiful and poignant folk song about Dublin, its history and change. It’s full of pathos, remorse, and nostalgia, a story told by an old man whose identity has been overtaken by time, and made redundant. It’s also a story about technology and its impact on people and culture, and how the architecture of a city can redefine its people.
The song opens with remembrances of heroes and about the city, and the history that is embedded in the walls and structures that made up Dublin – but that is gone now. Memory, it seems, is all that is left. The narrator – Sean – remembers a girlfriend he lost, and a job that became irrelevant as technology made barrel making (coopering) an unnecessary trade. His old house was replaced – by ‘progress’, he says – a word dripping with resentment. His house was a fine house it seems, it served him well, but some external force, some outside actor decided that it would be in the interests of the city, of the society, to have it removed.
Since the second world war, our politics has become increasingly distant from people. Voter participation has declined, distrust in politicians has grown, and corruption perceptions have increased in many jurisdictions. Inequality has accelerated as those with the highest wealth and income acquire ever greater resources – far more than they can reasonably consume – while those at the other end of the economic spectrum see their lot diminish. The relationships between commerce and politics have deepened as free market policies have governed national policy in western liberal democracies across the range of services, from social welfare and healthcare to infrastructure and defence. These institutions, invested with authority and legitimacy by democratic processes, appear foreign to the people they claim to serve; their values – of costs, efficiencies, and performance – seem distant from their clients. These institutions often instil fear, driven as they are by objectives of enforcement, compliance, and law.
I’ve long had an idea about the curved nature of things, the non-binary natural order. This is not the same as relativism versus absolutism, which is one sense a binary opposition in itself; rather, it is a straight acknowledgement that truth is never fully observable, that is it at least always subjective, and that even in the subjective moment it is mutable. What I see may not be what you see; and what I see is inconstant. Time impacts on that observation such that its character is unstable. Take pain and pleasure, for example. While on the one hand some people take a kind of satisfaction from pain, and are attracted to it, whether physical or emotional, so too others recoil from pleasure, perhaps based on guilt, or other psychological alignments. Still further, the same act – a touch – can bring immediate pleasure, while the same act, more forcefully applied, can either increase the pleasure or turn at some point to pain.
In reading several articles on Friedrich Hayek recently, two words kept coming to mind: absolutism and elegance. Hayek appears to my inexpert reading to have been a highly scientific thinker, one with a good degree of faith in the scientific method. Attached to this is a consciousness of the sublime, a sense that there is a truth to be found in thought, an awareness of a tangible human goal of understanding. There is, in other words, a destination for our species.
Dr Hans Sluga is William and Trudy Ausfahl Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley, and concerned about the health of our politics. I say our – his concerns are particularly American, but certainly not confined to America. In a recent interview with the gregarious host of Stanford’s Entitled Opinions, Robert Harrison, he extended his comments on the presidency of Donald Trump from a recent lecture Between Populism and Plutocracy. He was critical of both Trump’s populism and tendency to favour the wealth wealthy through tax breaks and reducing regulatory constraints, but particularly concerned with the real estate factor. ‘We have underestimated the political significance of real estate in our world,’ he said.
On the day when Apple are supposed to be launching a new iPhone with facial scanning capability, the Guardian has delightfully timed a piece warning of the dangers of the technology. Its functions potentially extend to predicting sexual orientation, political disposition, or nefarious intent. What secrets can remain in the face of this extraordinary power! Indeed, it’s two years ago since I heard Martin Geddes talking about people continuing to wear face masks in Hong Kong not because of the smog, but to avoid facial scanning technologies deployed by an overbearing security apparatus. There’s no hiding from the data, no forgetting.