Hugh McLachlan: Occupy camp is on shaky ground

The anti-capitalism protests simmer with resentment. Bankers are an easy target, but can we lay the blame for the economic crisis at their door?

THE protest campers in Glasgow, Edinburgh and, particularly, in London have attracted attention to themselves and to their dissatisfaction with contemporary capitalism. However, so far they have said little of interest or importance about the issues they purport to address while hinting that much remains to be said.

Their ideas, insofar as they have as yet expressed them, are feeble and unconvincing. Their emotions of resentment and blame are unfocused and unproductive. They seem to be against inequality and greed. They seem to be against what they think of as the free market and unregulated capitalism. They seem to blame bankers for the current financial and economic crisis. Their remarks about such things are not illuminating.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Some particular instances of inequality are wrong such as those that arise, say, from theft or fraud, but there is no convincing reason for condemning inequality as such. The protest campers do not indicate with sufficient clarity what particular sorts of inequality they disapprove of and why they disapprove of it.

To blame rich people for being rich is absurd. Greed, in some contexts, is unethical but it is a mistake to regard the possession of wealth in itself as a manifestation of greed. To blame rich people for accepting the high salaries and bonuses which they were offered is unreasonable.

The love of money might or might not be the root of all evil. However, poor people can have an inappropriate attitude towards money just as readily as rich people can.

Some people are far better looking than others. Some people are far more intelligent than others. Some people are far more popular and have far more friends than others. Some people have a more active and varied sex life than others. Some people are more famous than others. Some people are far healthier than others. Some people have far more children than others.

Whether or not they are healthier, some people have a far longer life span than others. Some people were born in Scotland in the 20th century. Some other people were born in other countries or born in Scotland at other times. Some people are far happier than others. Some people are far richer than others.

Are these vast inequalities unfair? They are not all a matter of what people deserve, but it is not clear that they are unfair. It is not clear that they are either fair or unfair.

Even if the inequalities are not deserved and are unfair, it does not follow that they are unethical. It does not follow that, somehow, the world would necessarily be a better or a fairer place were we all to be very similar in appearance, wealth, intelligence, health, number of children and so forth. Even if all the inequalities mentioned were unfair, it does not follow that it would be justifiable for the state to intervene to try to bring about a more equal distribution of these features. Apart from anything else, there may be no fair way of bringing such a state of affairs about.

Recently, a couple from Largs won more than £160 million in a lottery. They did not win because, more than anyone else, they deserved the money. Although it was not unfair that they happened to buy what turned out to be the winning ticket, neither was it fair. However, it would be outrageous if the state were to confiscate the couple’s winnings through taxation or, in the pursuit of equality, to ban bountiful lotteries.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

JK Rowling is vastly richer than I am because many more people buy her books than buy mine. I don’t see that I have any reasonable grounds for claiming that this is unfair. The royalty payments that she receives do not somehow rob me or anyone else of that which is due to us. The wealth that she receives is a fraction of that which she has created by her imaginative writing.

To resent her success and wealth would be spiteful and churlish of me were I to do so. To take her earnings from her in the promotion of economic equality would be an abuse of the power of the state, in my view.

There are important distinctions between the complex and over-lapping concepts of causation, responsibility and culpability that the camp protesters appear to ignore. Furthermore, they unreasonably blame bankers as a group for the alleged but unspecified unethical actions of particular unidentified bankers.

Suppose that there was a stampede in a cinema as a result of which there were injuries and fatalities. It might be the case that no-one was to blame for, and no-one responsible for, the disaster. If the owners of the cinema did not enforce appropriate safety regulations, they might be to an extent culpable even though they did not cause the stampede. However, their behaviour might have been exemplary. They might be blameless.

If a member of the audience had shouted “Fire” prior to the disaster, this action might have been one of the factors that led to the stampede and the unfortunate outcome even if it could not in itself have caused it. The person was not responsible for causing the injuries and deaths. He might or might not be to an extent culpable in shouting “Fire”, an action he was responsible for. If he believed that there was a fire, his behaviour might be blameless. It might even be commendable. But if he shouted merely as a joke, his action would have been blameworthy, reckless, unethical and, in all likelihood, a criminal offence even if only a breach of the peace.

It would be true but misleading to say that the audience in the cinema caused the injuries and fatalities. However, to blame the audience or to blame particular people for being part of that particular audience would, clearly, be inappropriate, inaccurate and unfair.

Economies, at the global, national and local level are subject to fluctuations of varying degrees of severity. The ups, downs and the periods in between are not “sustainable”. It is naïve to suppose that were it not for the activities of bankers, the boom years we were enjoying would have lasted indefinitely.

Like the protest campers, I do not doubt that some bankers acted criminally. I do not doubt that some others acted unethically in, for instance, taking an unfair advantage of people by offering them deals they knew were not as favourable as they were presented as being. However, it is wrong to blame bankers as such for being bankers or for being rich bankers. One might want to blame those who pay high salaries and bonuses to some particular bankers but that is another matter.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Similarly, if it is inappropriate that people become rich by the skilful application of particular rules and conventions, we should criticise the rules and conventions rather than the people who successfully apply them and become rich. To what extent was our current economic crisis caused by bankers? To what extent are they responsible for it? To what extent morally culpable? To what extent legally culpable? These are important and interesting questions. We have as yet no convincing systematic answers to them. As far as I can tell, the protest campers offer us none.

Of yet more importance is the unanswered question of precisely how, if at all, we should change the laws and regulations that apply to the operations of banks and related financial institutions. How, too, should we enforce them?

Can we prevent a recurrence of the excessive extent of our present sort of financial crisis without stifling the sort of “unsustainable” economic booms that so many of us including me – and the protest campers? – relish and hope to experience again soon?

• Hugh McLachlan is professor of applied philosophy in the Glasgow School for Business and Society at Glasgow Caledonian University.