Freedom from money

Mar 29th, 2009 | By | Category: International

Arthur and I used to go to Labour Party meetings together.  He was from Birmingham and held a good white collar job at the headquarters of a major retailer.  At one meeting there was discussion of Government policy.  A well spoken middle class lady felt that the Government should make spending decisions itself and not put money into the hands of working people, “the problem with many working class people” she said, “is that they don’t really know what the want”.

Arthur stood up, and in a loud Brummie accent declared, “This working class man knows what he wants!”

There was laughter in the room, but the words pointed to the real gulf between those who purported to speak for working people and the people themselves.  If you want to give people real freedom, don’t make decisions for them, but put money in their pockets, give them access to competitive markets, and let them decide for themselves.

Niall Ferguson in the closing pages of The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World recognizes the importance of an effective working of the financial system in bringing freedom to ordinary working people:

From ancient Mesopotamia to present-day China, in short, the ascent of money has been one of the driving forces behind human progress: a complex process of innovation, inter­mediation and integration that has been as vital as the advance of science or the spread of law in mankind’s escape from the drudgery of subsistence agriculture and the misery of the Malthusian trap. In the words of former Federal Reserve Governor Frederic Mishkin, ‘the financial system [is] the brain of the econ­omy … It acts as a coordinating mechanism that allocates capital, the lifeblood of economic activity, to its most productive uses by businesses and households. If capital goes to the wrong uses or does not flow at all, the economy will operate inefficiently, and ultimately economic growth will be low.

The G20 summit protesters walking in London yesterday (whose numbers were no more than the attendance at a middling Premiership football match)will have included many like the lady who decided the working classes didn’t really know what they wanted; many who were determined that they had the answers to all the world’s economic problems; large numbers who believed that their political philosophy was the right one. If their cause is so popular, why not test it at the local and European elections?

Capitalism isn’t working” declares a prominent banner in the crowd.  Indeed it’s not, but it’s the only game in town. If there is to be a viable future, it will be achieved through reform and not revolution.  Communism dominated Eastern Europe for forty years; it hardly did very much for working people as party officials and cronies creamed off what few benefits there were.  It was with delight that the subject populations overthrew the Communist regimes twenty years ago.  There aren’t too many who want to go back to the lives of Nineteenth Century peasants.

It’s thirty years since I saw Arthur.  Perhaps he now stands at meetings saying that the working classes don’t know what they want, I suspect not though.  I suspect he remains the scourge of anyone who talks down to working people.

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  1. The fundamental flaw with both capitalism and communism is corruption. The major flavour of capitalism promulgated originally by Milton Friedman purports to harness the inherent selfishness of man for the betterment of all and sundry. Likewise communism failed due to badly harnessed greed. This still fails to address the fact that our current model is founded upon greed and selfishness (oh and historically the protestant perspective that worldly wealth was an indication of God’s favour), leading to a culture of self interest pervading most areas of our existence. I don’t have a solution, but I feel strongly that simply stating that it’s the only game in town and thereby giving up looking for an improvement is failing before one even gets going. Personally I suffer from a different form of selfishness, one quite suited to subsistence farming, I do not wish to be reliant upon people I don’t know personally. I don’t have much choice these times though.

  2. I used to belong to group called the Progressive Co-operators (or something like that): it was inspired by the political principles of Robert Owen and the Nineteenth Century co-operative movement. It was founded upon a very optimistic view of humanity: a view to which I would now find it very difficult to subscribe having frequently encountered the worst side of humanity through the years.

    The old Protestant work ethic does stress a strong sense of self-dependence but prosperity theology, the belief that you are rich because God has favoured you, has appeared more recently and is strong in evangelical and Pentecostal circles in North America and in Nigeria – neither of which seem very attractive from an Irish Anglican perspective!

    I didn’t suggest not looking for an improvement; I said that a viable future will be achieved through reform and not through revolution. The Anarchist groups involved in the London protests have a hopelessly optimistic view of humanity – ‘Black Flag’, the anarchist magazine, used to be published online but the website has not been updated for years.

  3. Ah, I wasn’t taking a swipe at you or your church really, after all I doubt there is a religion that hasn’t had a dubious viewpoint at some stage in their existence :-). I agree that the anarchist viewpoint is overly optimistic, but the capitalist response is very much along the lines of you are either with us or against us. If people have alternative models then the powers that be should allow experimentation (initially in a controlled environment). Personally I’d like to see diversity of models operating in parallel, with the hope that if one is failing another might be functioning well, allowing a smoothing effect on the over-all wellbeing of the populate. It probably would achieve less short term progress, but might allow softer philosophies than greed and self interest to permeate the populace.

  4. My church probably deserves a great deal more criticism than we get!

    I rode into town on the DART with Sean Barrett, the veteran Fine Gael TD, one day last week. He felt that the problem with Irish politics was that it was almost devoid of policy. There are elections for local councils and for Europe coming up and hardly anyone would know what party policies were on most subjects.

    Perhaps if there were greater attempt at proper politics, there would be greater room for diversity. The agricultural co-operatives and the credit union movement in Ireland have been important in providing alternatives.

  5. It’s amazing that the Irish political parties haven’t replaced their founding identities with something more relevant to the present day and situation. Remove the cloak of the civil war and you expose a confused core with no real sense of their modern day relevance.

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