Sunday, 4 November 2007

Neo-con narratives

I was flicking through the business section of the Sunday Times this morning and decided to read the column written by Irwin Stelzer. For those of you that don't know, Stelzer is linked to the neo-conservative tendency in the US.

I call it a tendency as that is how Stelzer himself describes it in the collection of essays entitled Neo-Conservatism that he edited. I read that book a year or so back and what struck me is how loosely defined it is as a set of ideas. There were even, for example, some commentators identified as 'neo-cons' who were skeptical about the Iraq war. It really isn't the monolithic force some seem to suggest.

Anyway, I was reading Stelzer's piece this morning, trying not to be prejudiced by what I already know about his political ideas, but I couldn't help but notice how partisan someone who is supposed (in this context) to be acting as an economic commentator can be. Take this bit about healthcare policy in the US for example:

There can be no denying that the smoking and food police will extend their reach. In America, that process will accelerate when a Democratic-controlled White House and Congress – almost a certainty – make government an increasingly important player in healthcare markets. When an obese person has to pay for his own gluttony, there is little moral case for denying him the sustenance he feels he needs. When the cost of his care is borne by taxpayers – which would be the case under most of the Democratic plans – society has good reason for inducing him to replace his burgers with salads.

There are plenty of little messages in here. Those who want to try and improve the nation's health are the 'police'. The suggestion is there too that at least a laissez-faire approach means that the individual is responsible for their own predicament, and by implication the alternative approach relieves the individual of responsibility and is an invitation for the state to meddle in our lives. And he goes on to make the following bizarre statement:

So look for a long-term trend toward less satisfying, healthier eating, along with increasing sales of gym equipment and trainers.

I hadn't realised that healthier food was inherently less satisfying, especially since if you are sensible you can eat a wide range of food without damaging your health. Also quite a lot of people find physical exercise quite ...err... satisfying. Also Our Irwin seems to have failed to realise that it's not just the evil intrusive nanny state that might have an interest in making us healthier and fitter. What about Pru-Health offering to pay towards gym membership for policy-holders? I guess that must be OK because it is a market response...

To be honest I don't mind people making these kinds of points, but surely such inane commentary belongs in the Polly Filler type columns rather than the business section? It's surprising that the Times allows such Jeremy Clarkson-esque 'analysis' in its business pages. Surely Stelzer would be more at home with Jeff 'muppet' Randall at the Torygraph?

A final point about the whole 'neo-con' thing. Such people often describe themselves as liberals who have been 'mugged by reality'. The implication being that they would love to be as idealistic as us lefties, but they have seen the world as it really is, rather than as the left would like it to be.

The thing is that how you interpret being 'mugged by reality' will affect how your views develop. The implication that the Left isn't in touch with reality, and how unjust it can be, is misplaced. At a basic level this is stating the obvious. I have been the victim of crime a couple of times, but I am still optimistic about human nature in general, and I am sure that plenty of other people on the Left are in a similar position.

More broadly there is an argument that game theory suggests that those who take a co-operative, rather than a competitive, approach are more likely to apparently see their views disproved. The following quote is from the excellent book How We Know What Isn't So and describes how this process occurs in game theory using the 'prisoner's dilemma' game:

The co-operators and competitors were not equally successful in having their views of the game confirmed. If a co-operator was paired with a co-operator, they quickly began making mutually beneficial, co-operative moves. When paired with a competitor, the co-operator was forced into more competitive actions in order to avoid consistent losses. Competitive players, in contrast, always ended up in a cut-throat game: when paired with another competitor, the game quickly descended into an internecine struggle; when paired with a co-operator, their own actions forced the potential co-operator to become competitive out of self-defence. Thus, because competitive behaviour creates more of a demand for the other person to respond in kind than does co-operation, a competitive person's belief that the world of selfish opportunists will almost always be confirmed, whereas the less gloomy orientation of co-operative individuals will not. Sadly, negative prophecies are often more readily fulfilled.

So unfortunately the optimists amongst us will often be at a disadvantage, which is why the 'everyone for themselves' interpretation of those on Right will often seem to be 'proved'. It's not a pleasant message, but I think a useful one to bear in mind.

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