Philosophical Notes: Marx, money and moral blind spots
Wednesday 17 March 1999
What Mr Soros is interested in is producing a successor volume to The Wealth of Nations, Baroness Thatcher's favourite book of political philosophy. He seeks to wear the mantle of Adam Smith and to become a philosopher of markets and economics, which he believes, unlike Smith, to be fundamentally irrational.
But there already has been a successor to The Wealth of Nations. It was printed in the 19th century by one Karl Marx, and is entitled Das Kapital. His theory was not so much that markets were "irrational" as fundamentally flawed. But it was popular for a while.
These days Marx is completely discredited as an economist. Yet, as a philosopher, something remains. (Even if he claimed to disdain the philosophers, and their attempts to "understand the world", rather than change it.)
His theory of dialectical materialism leading inevi-tably, through statism, to a socialist Utopia looks rather implausible now. But his philosophical points about "materialism" still ring true, even if they are not particularly original. (Plato said much the same, as did Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill, for example.) But Marx's cynical claim that the social and political aspects of society are only the superficial manifestations of the underlying economic forces - well, isn't that a new way to look at things?
Take the Gulf War(s) for example. Here we have an apparently idiosyncratic war of attrition in the name of human rights, by two of its stoutest defenders, which seems to have little effect other than to bring about more repression and starvation. But, seen as an economic manoeuvre, it can be explained very plausibly in terms of maintaining not just low oil prices but also high arms sales.
Or take the criticisms of the Chinese government, for years frozen out of the Western world for their abuses of human rights. Here there seems to be a well-established correlation between concern about the Chinese record and the desire either to protect the domestic markets from Chinese exports, or to encourage them.
Or apply it to the greatest unsung issue of the world, the exploitation of women. In many countries women have no "economic rights". Doesn't that also count as fewer "human rights"?
But this, by Western standards, fairly unacceptable behaviour often occurs in countries which are, by law and tradition, run entirely by men, following laws and traditions drawn up by other men, which take moral precedence over any other considerations, such as the right to life, to speech, to employment, to health, or whatever (at least of women).
How would economics explain this apparent moral blind spot? Well, economically, it makes excellent sense for countries that Western democracies wish to trade with to have as inefficient a social structure as possible. And the exploitation of women is very inefficient. In some countries the restrictions on women's social and economic rights are part and parcel of a rigid hierarchy where the country's wealth can be easily siphoned off by an elite to the advantage of the Western democracies. In others, inhibiting economic progress creates the conditions for the plundering of resources, both mineral and human. In these cases, the economic interests, at least interpreted narrowly, seem to favour this particular manifestation of moral relativism - allowing "rights" to be culturally defined.
But then, as George Soros was saying, people are fundamentally irrational.
Martin Cohen is editor of `The Philosopher'
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