A few days ago I had a bit of a rant about a UK-based academic, Danny Dorling, who among other things seems to be scathing about those academics who have the effrontery to challenge egalitarianism, at least of the sort enforced by the coercive power of the state. Dorling is that rather perplexing example of a certain intellectual: penetratingly sharp and illuminating on some issues (he is marvellous about population control characters and some of his statistics are very interesting) but flat-out bloody awful in his political economy. (He describes David Ricardo’s crucial Law of Comparative Advantage insight as “infamous”.)
As example of the latter, he writes about the implications of a decelerating population growth rate for retirement systems, such as tax-funded pensions and retirement ages:
“Retirement ages may have to rise, although if far more of us did useful work rather than working simply for the profit of a few others, retirement age need not be raised much, but we are going to have to learn to share better.” (Page 327).
When someone works to obtain something of value by providing something/service to another, it is called trade. Both sides are better off than they would otherwise be from doing this – they profit – since otherwise there would be no point in doing so. So, Professor Dorling writes a paragraph about “useful work” as if it is opposition to the notion of profit, not perhaps stopping to wonder whether the word “useful” is question-begging. Useful to whom? If I can write a news article, mend a fence, take packages to firms as a courier or work in a metal-bashing factory, all of these things might be useful to someone so much that they are willing to pay me enough to be worth my time and trouble, and profit me to that extent, and so on. It might be more useful for me, perhaps, to spend my time writing books about population, about how we should “share better”, and so on, but since these things might be thought of as totally bloody useless to others, I might have an issue in being able to make a living out of this unless I am lucky enough to not to have to earn a living with the free consent of my fellows. Luckily for Professor Dorling, who is paid a salary as an academic by the taxpayer, and who might also make a few quid selling his books and doing lecture circuits and so on, he can make a living, although we taxpayers might suggest that some of that money spent on supporting the lifestyles of this man might be more “usefully” employed on something else.
And that is the craziness of it. When a significant portion of the UK electorate is supported by the coercively funded payments of others who toil in the evil capitalist system, the former will contain people who, even if they happen to look and sound clever with their academic honorifics, be utterly ignorant of the most basic facts of economic life.
Discussion point: one of the Professor’s contentions is that highly unequal societies are far more environmentally destructive than egalitarian ones, although I find his reasoning a bit odd. (Correlation is also not causation). Surely, if you have a society where wealth is relatively evenly spread, but where people consume lots of stuff, that could be more destructive than a less equal one where people nevertheless had to be careful about the environmental costs of their actions. What Prof Dorling seems to be saying is that it is high levels of consumption that is the issue; some of his attacks on the mega-rich seem to be as much aesthetic as driven by environmental concerns. He also claims that unequal societies have higher birth rates than egalitarian ones – he may be right about that – but again, his contention begs the question as to why this is a bad thing so long as production is able to keep pace and if the standard of living of even the poorest person improves at a healthy clip. I cannot help but wonder whether Prof. Dorling is an egalitarian first and who wants to use the Green argument to bolster it. In other words, he is very much the face of the modern Left and different in many respects from old-style Marxists. What he has in common with such people is the unspoken – or even spoken – belief in the need for the supposed chaos and venality of the market to be replaced by the rule of people such as themselves.