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L’affaire Matt Cavanagh

In his latest post Chris Bertram of Crooked Timber gives the background to, and an unedited version of, his letter in today’s Guardian.

I agree with every word of his letter. Paticularly the bit about scavenging for soundbites that the Guardian edited out.

Judging from what I’ve read in blogs and the press about Cavanagh’s unreconstructed views, he did not put forward the standard libertarian argument that to forbid racial discrimination is to violate the human right of free association. (The standard libertarian view is the view I hold. It is quite compatible with thinking that in all but a few special situations racial discrimination is morally wrong, a view I also hold.) According to Edward Lucas in a letter further down the page, “We invited Mr Cavanagh [to the ICA debate that started all the fuss] as a leftwing critic of equality of opportunity. He argued, for example, that it leads to an overemphasis on competition between individuals.”

In other words the views I hold would be even more likely than Mr Cavanagh’s to be described as pyschotic by David Winnick MP, a member of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee. As described by the Guardian this prominent Labour MP’s own views appear close to totalitarian. He does not merely think it is pyschotic to oppose the discrimination laws he thinks it is psychotic even to question them.

That’s us lot for the loony bin then.

Still, you never know with the Guardian. Tomorrow we might be treated to the amusing spectacle of Mr Winnick saying that he was quoted out of context, just like Mr Cavanagh before him.

4 comments to L’affaire Matt Cavanagh

  • Two years ago when his book Against Equailty of Opportunity came out I organised a public lecture by Matt Cavanagh to help publicise the book. The lecture was very well attended and Cavanagh was very good value, pouring utter scorn on the ideas both of equality and meritocracy. There was even a coup de theatre when a wheelchair using attendee shouted some abuse and stormed off.

    Cavanagh is not a libertarian and his views are moderated by the provision that you may not ground discrimination on contempt. In fact his views add little, except some philosophical sophistication, to the standard positions put forward by the Austrian Economics school years and years ago.

    After his lecture I spent a couple of hours talking to him in the pub and I asked him what his wider political views were. He told me that he was a member and supporter of the Labour party. I thought this highly amusing coming from someone who had just spent the last hour intellectually filleting the idea of equality.

    Cavanagh was good company, entertaining, intelligent and clearly relishing the ‘outrage’ his views provoked. As a libertarian I found his views unexceptional yet very well put, what is astonishing is this hysterical reaction from the PC left. They obviously live in a closed , intellectually impoverished world, obsessed only with thier own failed dogmas if they are as appalled as they claim they are by the relatively tame views of Cavanagh.

  • toolkien

    triggered disbelief as senior Labour figures questioned the former Oxford academic’s suitability for a post in a government committed to expanding opportunities.

    (excerpted from ‘psychotic’ link)

    This is the fundemental problem. The State doesn’t expand opportunities in total, as the quote seems to indicate. They merely create opportunities for select people, based on their (the bureaucrats’) value system. There is only one opportunity, one job, in each instance, and someone either gets it or they don’t. It is the value system under which one candidate gets the position over another. The (right) libertarian view would hold, under free association, which eminates from the execution of property rights, that the firm’s system of value judgement controls the process. It may be rational or irrational (to an outsider’s opinion) but the firm bears the cost, and loss of property, for miscalculations.

    I suppose some would argue that the State defuses race clashes when there is ‘institutionalized’ racism when the execution of property rights trends inordinately in one direction (i.e. the sum of individual decisions, based on cultural mores, has the effect of near exclusion from the economic system of a particular race). Attempts then are made to be ‘proactive’ and to curb such situations from occurring by strict laws and State attempts to modify mores through reconditioning. But unfortunately the ‘cure’ is worse than the disease, as a the result is a central bureaucracy endlessly finding more Good to do, and leading to a tipping of the scales of justice inordinately in another direction. But perhaps this secenerio is preferred to a wholesale attack at the root, individual property rights. Regulation and interference in free markets and association blurs property rights, but allowing for such interfence, pragmatically, may be preferrable to a complete elimination of property rights.

  • Charles Copeland

    Matt Cavanagh has hardly re-invented the libertarian wheel but one has to be grateful for anything these days, I suppose. As Paul Coulam so elegantly put it, his views are ‘relatively tame’. But what interested me as much as Natalie Solent’s declaration of faith in freedom of association was the almost inevitable protestation that “in all but a few special situations racial discrimination is morally wrong”, in Natalie’s world view. Just in case we didn’t know – actually I thought she used to burn a cross on her lawn every weekend until she told us she doesn’t. In other words racial discrimination is something like sodomy in the eyes of the tolerant Christian beholder — there shouldn’t be a law against it but that doesn’t mean one wants one’s children to end up as homosexuals.

    Why on earth is it ‘morally’ wrong, or wrong in any way, morally or otherwise, to discriminate on grounds of race? Is it wrong for Orthodox Jews to discriminate in favour of marrying members of their own breeding population? After all, if they didn’t discriminate in this respect, the Jewish people would have exterminated itself through racial miscegenation centuries ago. Is it wrong for Chinese to prefer dealing with their fellow countrymen, with people who resemble themselves? Is it wrong for Black undergraduates to sit at different tables than their white colleagues, simply because they feel more comfortable amongst themselves?

    Racial discrimination (in the private sphere, at any rate) is no more morally wrong than facial discrimination (read L.P. Hartley’s novel ‘Facial Justice’ for more on that particular topic). What if an individual just has some kind of gut aversion against being in the company of Blacks, or Whites, or Red Indians – an aversion which may be completely instinctive and about which she can do absolutely nothing, just like I can do nothing about my aversion to close physical contact with big-bottomed women? My aversion may not be pleasant from the point of view of big-bottomed women who have a shine on me, but what am I supposed to do about it? Lie back and think of England?

    Perhaps there is a flaw in my reasoning somewhere – but I see no fundamental moral distinction between selecting one’s friends, acquaintances or fellow-workers on racial grounds and selecting one’s spouse or spouses on the grounds of their looks, social status, or intelligence. Of course, being at the receiving end of private discrimination isn’t always pleasant. But why should one feel more sympathy with a Negro who is refused a private sector job because of his colour than with a dwarf who is turned down when he tries to date an attractive female? Either way, for many people life’s a piece of shit even in the libertarian’s paradise.

  • And what an arresting moment du theatre this is. The Gruaniad out to get Blunkett, Berttram out to get the Gruaniad, Winnick out to get Cavanagh … or Blunkett, and Blunkett out to get, well, all of us, apparently. Confused? You will be.

    I can’t help feeling, though, that Chris B is right when he says, basically, that philosophers seek the extremities to test the universality of their laws. Matt Cavanagh may not be doing this consciously. He may indeed be just the contrarian he is said to be. But the nett effect of his thinking, from a left perspective, is surely needful.

    The left has never been able to incorporate the individual into its worldview. Everything has always and continues to this day to be about groups of oppressers or the oppressed. An egalitarian utopia is one that is sans oppression, for such is the limit of the left’s understand of and ambitions for freedom.

    Against this doctrinaire background it’s hardly surprising that Winnick reacts to Cavanagh with such ferocity … nor that Paul C found Cavanagh’s views tame. Cavanagh is testing the universality of the left’s law of equality, not the limits of the libertarian model of individualism.