The tribute that vice pays to virtue

What with my acid remarks about “leftist hypocrisy” below and my occasional expressions of sympathy for social libertarians, some people in comments (and, as ever, in vast volumes of fictitious email correspondence all of which agrees with me, except some terrible, abusive fictitious letter-writers who everyone who disagrees with me should be ashamed of) have started suspecting me of harbouring Conservative tendencies. Oh yeh, and I said I was going to vote Tory at the next election. That also might have set people thinking.

To an extent, they’re right. I’ve just received my P60 and an itemised bill telling me precisely how much Camden Council proposes to charge me for 2003. Added to that I increasingly dispair of the likelihood of the ECB ever democratising, I’m having trouble distinguishing one pudding-faced Geordie fixer on the Labour frontbench from another and the Home Office still haven’t done anything about that bastard running a pirate radio station on the LBC frequency and ruining the Charlie Gregory show for me, and it’s perhaps not surprising that I feel nostalgic for a government that would combine xenophobic authoritarianism with a slightly lower higher rate of income tax. Feh.

Anyway, the Tory vote is non-negotiable. Blair lied to me about Iraq, I wanna lash out at him, Iit’s stupid and irrational but I’m going to do it anyway. But the question of “hypocrisy” bears a bit more explanation because it does appear to go to the heart of a lot of people’s emotional politics.

Think about it this way. In my post below, I suggested that the difference between the progressivity of the tax systems students suggested for income versus for their own grades “might serve as a useful index of the hypocrisy of leftist students”. When I use the word “hypocrisy” here, what do we actually mean? Well, the combination of the following two qualities:

1. A moral belief that (some loosely defined concept of) equality is (an actual or instrumental) good.
2. A personal desire to accumulate more, even at the expense of others.

The first is simply a baseline definition of what it means to have left wing politics. The second … well put it this way, Buddhist monks spend twenty years living ascetically and meditating for hours at a time before they presume to believe that they have conquered all selfish desires. If you’re talking about “leftist hypocrisy”, you’re just talking about “leftists who have not been able to transcend history, biology and socialisation in order to develop an unparticularised love for all sentient things”. In other words, you’re just talking about “leftists who happen to be humans”.

Contrast with rightwing politics. As I’ve posted earlier, the single most sensible thing said in political philosophy in the twentieth century was JK Galbraith’s aphorism that the quest of conservative thought throughout the ages has been “the search for a higher moral justification for selfishness”. Some rightwingers are not hypocrites because they admit that their basic moral principle is “what I have, I keep”. Some rightwingers are hypocrites because they pretend that “what I have, I keep” is always and everywhere the best way to express a general unparticularised love for all sentient things. Then there are the tricky cases where the rightwingers happen to be on the right side because we haven’t yet discovered a better form of social organisation than private property for solving several important classes of optimisation problem. But at base, the test of someone’s politics is simple; if their political aim is to advance all of humanity, they’re on our side, while if they have an overriding constraint that the current owners of property must always be satisfied first, they’re playing for the opposition. Hypocrisy doesn’t really enter into the equation with rightwing politics; you don’t (or shouldn’t) get any extra points for being sincere about being selfish.

So where does that leave our students? Well, they’re young. They’re most likely insecure. They don’t actually have a lot, and it’s hardly surprising that they’re a bit precious about what they have (a close runner for the most sensible thing said in political philosophy in the twentieth century was Michael Oakeshott’s remark that “a conservative is a man with something to lose”, and the genius of this remark is its ambiguity). One shouldn’t blame them for not being Boddhisattvas.

In general, one of the biggest problems with the psychological politics of left and right is the need that people feel to think of themselves as not just having made what looks like on balance the best decision given the things they regard as important, but as morally good people themselves. People in general seem to be horribly uncomfortable with the idea that, by the standards they use to judge political situations, they themselves don’t come out as moral heroes. At base, this is a fairly childish and decidedly illiberal attitude; childish because it demands a sort of moral perfection which everyone intellectually knows can’t exist outside fairy stories (unless you count the way that parents appear to their children) and illiberal because it suggests that you’re only prepared to have normal social interactions with people who pass your own personal moral examination (a rather prominent political philosopher has told me to my face on a couple of occasions that he regards me as morally beyond the pale because of the job I do; I’ve nonetheless been made to feel very welcome at his house).

So anyway, hypocrisy in people is not a vice, particularly when the alternative is to be sincerely horrible. In political parties, it’s much worse; people who presume to take control of the state’s monopoly on the use of ppowerhave to be held to a much higher standard of honesty, because they are explicitly asking for us to trust them on matters important to our lives. A double standard? Perhaps. But I just told you that I don’t care about hypocrisy. Perhaps I should have termed my imaginary measure above an “index of political self-righteousness”. On which score, it seems fairly clear, the political science professor himself would outscore most of his students.


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