Friday, November 13, 2020

9: Politics

Finally, we come to the use of Bulverism to refute political claims. 

Lewis says: 

The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally communists must be bad economists because we know why they want communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.

“In reality, of course”. A huge explosion should go off in our heads at this point: at least as big as the one little Ezekiel experienced when his Mum and Dad had the row about the triangle. Ursula Le Guin made fun of Lewis and Tolkien for belonging to a cosy little High Church club and regarding everyone else with patronising disdain. 

“In reality, of course.” Of course.... 

There are, as the fictional Joy Davidman said in Shadowlands, at least four buried assumptions: 

1: Communism and Capitalism are economic doctrines which can be judged as true or untrue. 

2: The only way of finding this out is through reasoning 

3: The claim that Communists and Capitalists want Communism or Capitalism for some reason—and all other psychological theories—amount to mere name calling and low abuse. 

4: Communists and Capitalists honestly believe in the truth-value of their respective doctrines. Once you have pointed out their logical or factual errors, they will change their minds. The Bulverists, on the other hand, are arguing in bad faith. 

This last point was very important to C.S. Lewis. He says elsewhere that what is really hard in Christian apologetics is getting people to understand that Christians believe in Christianity because they think it is true. “They always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort”. The devil Screwtape is pleased whenever he catches humans saying “Believe in this, not because it is true, but for some other reason”. 

And that is the cardinal difficulty of Bulverism. 

People do in fact believe in things for lots of reasons other than them being true. Political beliefs are not like geometrical theorems. They aren’t like historical facts. Politics, by it's nature, is about what you want to be true: what you believe the good society would look like. You can’t find out who is in the right simply by reasoning. Liberals and conservatives really are looking at things from different angles. 

“But surely, Andrew, there is such a thing as evidence-based politics?” 

Well, up to a point. If we all agree that everyone should get the medical attention they need regardless of their ability to pay for it, but that the overall cost of medicine to the country should be kept as low as possible, then the question “Is socialised medicine better than subsidised national insurance?” is theoretically answerable. We have established what we mean by “better” and are now haggling about the price. 

Again: we can find out whether a harsh, punitive prison system is better than a humane, rehabilitative one: once we have agreed about what we mean by “better”. Perhaps the crime rate goes down when you replace the treadmill and solitary confinement with job training and counselling sessions? That certainly proves that the humane system is the better one: always assuming that “less crime” was what you were trying to achieve. 

Indeed, to push the hottest button of all: either the murder rate is higher in states where the supreme penalty is life imprisonment than it is in states where murderers can be killed, or it isn’t. If we want there to be less murders and are prepared to go with whatever works, then the argument about capital punishment can be answered to three significant figures and a statistical margin for error. 

If someone chipped in with “You only think socialised medicine is good value for money because you are a Star Trek fan” and “You only believe that prisoners should be helped to reform because you are a freemason” you would have my permission to call them a Bulverist. 

But arguments about locking people up, hanging them or paying their medical bills almost never come down to these kinds of factual points. They turn on disagreements about what we mean by good. 

Some people believe that it would be wrong for the state to spend even one cent of their hard-earned wages on the health care of even one black poor person. And others believe that it is morally wrong for a private company to make a single penny our of another human being’s sickness. Some people believe that all human beings should be treated humanely, however wicked they have been. Others believe in a thing called “justice” that requires that bad people should be made to suffer, even if it does no good at all. Nice people think it is wrong to kill a helpless prisoner in cold blood, no matter what he has done. Nasty people think that vengeance is an absolute moral imperative. They don’t say vengeance, of course: they say “closure” or “justice for...” or “expressing society’s outrage.” But they think that executions are an ultimate, not an instrumental good. 

Capitalism and communism are not two different theories about how we reach an agreed goal. They are two different ideas about what the goal is. Capitalism places a higher value on freedom; communism a higher value on equality. Communism cares more about the condition of the lowly worker in the factory; capitalism more about the right of the wealth creator to create wealth. And what you see as good depends greatly on which side of the table you are standing. What is good for me may not be good for you; what is good for you may not be good for me. 

“Oh: but if I am a good man, then I will not pick the side which is good for me; but the side which is good according to an objective moral standard.Yes: an objective moral standard. The objective moral standard that you were taught by your parents, teachers, writers and political leaders, all of whom happened to be of the same race and class and religion as you. Once you have corrected the skewed perspectives of the liberals on the left and the conservatives on the right you can see that the table really is rectangular. And very conveniently, rectangular tables are the ones which allow me to keep my nice house with its nice furniture and carry on paying the man who polishes the table slightly less than he needs to live on. It’s not my fault. French polishers are paid less than home tutors. It’s how the universe works. It’s what God decided. I don’t make the rules, I just tell you what they are. I have no opinions on any subject in the world. 

“We all know” why communists are communists and “we all know” why capitalists are capitalists. Well, yes. Communists think, rightly, that communism will benefit people of their own class, and capitalists think, rightly, that capitalism will benefit people of their class. I think that we get on better when we admit that frankly. I am Labour because Labour will stand up for the working man and you are Tory because the Tories will stand up for the bosses. I want an extra pound an a hour and a months paid leave; not because there is some value free geometrical formula which proves that is the correct wage; but because I want my members to have a pleasenter, healthier life. You want not to pay an extra penny or give workers a single day off, not because high wages and paid holidays are contrary to the Tao, but because you want your members to be free to make money for themselves and their shareholders. So we go at it hammer and tongs for an hour, and compromise on ten shillings and a fortnight in return for increased productivity and flexible tea breaks. 

That’s how politics works. I think that’s probably how politics ought work.


Mike Taylor said...

"Communists think, rightly, that communism will benefit people of their own class, and capitalists think, rightly, that capitalism will benefit people of their class. I think that we get on better when we admit that frankly."

I don't think that is true at all. Why is it that the very privileged group that is Oxford university students are so overwhelmingly left-leaning? Clearly not because leftist policies will best benefit them and their wealthy parents.

I think you have let yourself become too cynical here.

Richard Worth said...

I was born town rather than gown and half a century ago, so I don't know how far Oxford students these days come from wealthy families rather than fairly liberal professional backgrounds, and how far they are at a liberal phase of their lives before settling into a more conservative working life. However, I would agree that politics is not just about personal benefit, otherwise the working classes in the late 20th century would have overwhelmingly voted Communist governments into power. I would suggest that politics is more four-dimensional. A capitalist may support the NHS, but believe that the only way to get enough money to pay for it is through free enterprise. A socialist may support tax-and-spend policies but believe strongly in personal freedom rather than social engineering. A communist, in the sense of someone who supports the Soviet Union against the West and wants to nationalise the steel works and cola mines, doesn't really exist in the way they did fifty or a hundred years ago. The problem may not be getting too cynical, but too idealistic: assuming that systems that purport to benefit the majority must be technically accurate and morally right.

Mike Taylor said...

(For what it's worth, my take on the present political orientation of Oxford students is based on my son's experience there over the last three years.)

Andrew Stevens said...

The proletariat: Defying expectations since 1848.

Gavin Burrows said...

I love the idea of cola mines, nationalised or otherwise.

Richard Worth said...

Why do you think the company keeps the formula such a secret? The last time anyone found out sparked the Great Cola Rush of '49....

Gavin Burrows said...

Don't stop, you're on a roll...

Andrew Rilstone said...

Is C.S Lewis right that Tony Benn and Margaret Thatcher both wanted the same things, but had an honest theoretical differences about how best to achieve them; or am I right that Tony Benn snd Margaret Thatcher had different and unreconcilable beliefs about what constituted “the good”?

g said...

Surely you're both right.

I would bet fairly heavily that:

1. Benn and Thatcher both wanted the UK to be prosperous, but (a) Benn thought that greater prosperity would flow from giving more power and money to workers and (b) Thatcher thought that greater prosperity would flow from empowering business-owners to run their businesses in whatever way maximized profit.

2. Benn thought it was good in itself for workers to have more power and money (relative to owners, relative to the existing state of affairs) because workers are more deserving and more important to the task of actually getting things done, while Thatcher thought it was good in itself for business-owners to have more power and money (relative to workers, relative to the existing state of affairs) because business-owners are more deserving and more important to the task of actually getting things done.

(The disagreements in #2 arguably also derive from disagreements about matters of fact. I think they mostly don't -- I bet Benn and Thatcher didn't truly derive their attitudes to different social classes from any sort of first-principles reasoning -- but I bet it was also true that Benn and Thatcher disagreed about, e.g., how valuable equality is, and other definitely-fundamental questions of values.)

Some policy disagreements come from pursuing the same goals while holding different beliefs about what will achieve them best. Some come from genuine differences in underlying values.

g said...

Incidentally, while I'm here let me remark that I strongly agree with Mike and Richard: people's politics are not anything like wholly derived from self-interest.

Mike Taylor said...

I think g (in his longer comment) is onto an important distinction. Although I would characterise my own politics as broadly left-leaning, I am persuaded that as a matter of fact, capitalism achieves greater economic efficiency than a controlled economy, and so the best way to achieve to socialist goal of sufficient wealth for everyone is via regulated markets and redistribution of wealth via taxation and the provision of services.

In some ways this leaves me aligned with a traditional conservative — although not in any way aligned with the present "Conservative" party, which has been hollowed by a parasitic radical faction that has not time at all for conservatism. You could argue that in terms of what kind of economy I think the UK should have, I am more Thatcherite than Bennite. Yet the goal I want to achieve via that economy is much more more Bennite than Thatcherite.