Sphere crossing

How many organisations give platforms to their critics? That’s what the CIS did when Kevin Rudd delivered this speech (pdf) last Thursday. Much of it is a critique of Friedrich Hayek. But the part that caught my eye was a common criticism of markets, that its self-interested values invade other spheres where other values ought to prevail. Rudd is unconvinced by what he regards Hayek’s ‘ex cathedra pronouncements’ that the family and the market can be maintained as separate moral realms, as different ‘orders’, a ‘private’ order for the family and ‘extended’ order for market where altruistic values are less applicable. Rudd says:

…this is formalistic nonsense given that Hayek’s fundamental concern is individual liberty and the same individuals are who are participants in family life are active in the market. Is it seriously contended that behaviours in one sphere do not affect behaviours in the other?

In a quote from David McKnight, he elaborates on the problem:

We must be ruthlessly self-interested in the market and sweetly caring in the family, greedy at work, selfless at home.

I don’t think Rudd realises the difficulties this critique creates for his own position. After all, he does not oppose the market. He maintains that ‘social democrats maintain a robust support for the market economy’, just not of the neo-liberal minimal state variety. Yet this would surely mean that everyone would still have their principal exposure to the self-interested values of the market, ie as consumers. Don’t we all like to get a bargain? How often do we really consider the full implications of our purchases for other people or the environment?

When Clive Hamilton makes the sphere-crossing argument it does not contradict his overall position. He does not believe in material advancement or consumer choice, so if Hamilton had his way we would have few contexts in which to learn ‘market values’. But for Rudd, if the sphere crossing argument is right it is nearly as damaging to his argument as it is for Hayek’s.

Fortunately for Rudd’s social-democratic market economy, though not for his attack on Hayek, the sphere-crossing critique of markets is not strong. As I argued in my review (pdf) of Hamilton’s book Affluenza, it’s hard to find evidence consistent with it in stated attitudes. Materialism in the sense of emphasising material goals in life is more common in poor countries than rich countries, and in rich countries it is more frequently found among the poor than the rich.

If anything, the boundaries between spheres are more clearly drawn than at earlier times in history. Economic growth means that for most people in the West their lives are no longer consumed with sheer physical survival. In other words, wealth lifts the pervasive pressure of acquiring material goods, leaving space for other things. It is possible to put self-interest in the realm where it belongs, without it invading other spheres. This is evident in the family, where the last few centuries have seen romantic love narrowed – in the West, again – to virtually the only justification for marriage. Once, family was as much a matter of economic necessity as a matter of love.

It can also be seen in politics, where both self-interest from the economic sphere and personal affection from the family sphere have been marginalised. In the African countries where the spheres do not have strong cultural dividing lines, rulers plunder the country for their own gain and appoint their relatives to political positions.

In the West, where the dividing lines between realms are now largely internalised, few of us have any difficulty being ‘ruthlessly self-interested in the market and sweetly caring in the family’. I’m sure even Kevin Rudd, who must spend more than half the year away from his family in the political sphere, doesn’t think the same values apply to his kids that apply to the political contest.

21 thoughts on “Sphere crossing

  1. Rudd’s diatribe against Hayek is strange. Hayek opposes ‘unlimited government’ – while Rudd, himself, decrys the Howard governments WorkChoices legislation. If anything Rudd can be described as a (Hayekian) liberal. Reading Chapter 7 of The Constitution of Liberty we find

    It is not “antidemocratic” to try to persuade the majority that there are limits beyond which its actions ceases to be beneficial and that it should observe principles which are not of its own deliberate making.

    Given the federal governments total control of the parliament, by democratic means, I would have thought Rudd would be quoting Hayek more favorably.

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  2. Yes Andrew, your last point is exactly what I thought on reading Rudd’s ‘behaviours in one sphere’ assertion. I’m sure that he behaves differently at home to the way that he behaves in Parliament and the party room.

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  3. On the flip side to your point Andrew, his position also creates difficulties for his self-proclaimed “robust support for the market economy”.

    He asserts market values inevitably undermine family values when there are seperate moral spheres (or is at least a pretense of them if they are just formalistic nonsense). Rudd says “Hayek

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  4. I attended the speech on Thursday evening and found it difficult to separate Rudd the politician from Rudd the intellectual.
    He was always looking for a way to score points against Howard and his argument suffered considerably as a result. He really tried to push the line that the Howard government is “neoliberal”, and when challenged on this during the questions he was less than convincing.

    Partisanship is understandable for a leadership contender coming into an election year but it makes it difficult to gauge the depth of his understanding.
    My impression was that his knowledge of Hayek came mostly from reading David McKnight, google and perhaps skimming the Road to Serfdom rather than a careful reading of the Constitution of Liberty.

    To be fair, there wasn’t much time to really probe his knowledge as half the questions came from nitwits with geopolitical obsessions (hicks/palestine/fiji/solomons/west papuan refugees etc) which were unrelated to his talk.

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  5. “How many organisations give platforms to their critics?”
    Blogs? (Well most of them) (but then again some blogs are prolly better off without comments)

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  6. Wasn’t Rudd’s point simply that market values have to be limited to the areas where we think market values are appropriate, otherwise they could have a damaging effect on our lives ?

    Sorry to refer to it again, but the retail trading hours referendum in WA seems apposite here. Players who could profit by expanding the market to 7 day trading put their case, others put the case that Sunday trading would damage family life, reduce sociability etc. People voted to protect their family and social/community lives against the corrosive effects of extending market values to Sundays.

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  7. Andrew,

    Why do you say this: “Materialism in the sense of emphasising material goals in life is more common in poor countries than rich countries” ? It isn’t so in my experience.

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  8. Russell – We need to be careful here to distinguish between values/attitudes/aspirations and issues of time allocation. Materialism as a set of beliefs is measured by asking questions about what people think are their most important priorities. Poorer people are more likely to list material advancement as their goal – which makes intuitive sense, since that is what they lack in life. The research has found that people with materialist attitudes tend to be less satisfied with their lives.

    A separate issue is the time allocated to various realms of activity – since factors other than values influence these. As there are limited hours in the day, there is inevitably some trade-off between the different things people want to do in life. Rudd’s argument is essentially that work is excessively invading family time, and your argument relates to shop trading hours. My position on this is not that there cannot be imbalances between market and non-market activities, but that these things involve complex trade-offs that cannot be centrally decided with crude devices (as for example advocated by Clive Hamilton) as maximum 35 hours weeks or in your example telling people when they should do their shopping.

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  9. Andrew – still not convinced that Indonesians are more materialistic than Australians, for example. Or even that the comparison can be made so simply – people in “poor countries” often have strong religious beliefs, or traditional cultural practices, which put materialism into a context so different from our own.

    And I still think that the retail trading hours referendum was a values debate which resulted in most people favouring family and community values over convenience and consumer values. They were trying to quarantine some part of their lives from market values.

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  10. In my experience, Indonesians and other south-east asians definitely value money much more highly than us evil westerners. As Andrew says, this is logical because they have less of it.

    One example would be to consider which attributes s/e asian look for in a partner. Money is nearly always very high on the list. In contrast, a much larger number of westerns would prefer attributes such as humour, sex, looks, attitude etc.

    Also contrast the way a Thai person will treat you if (a) you’re about to give them money (b) you’re not about to give them money. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see what triggers their smiles.

    And I haven’t yet met a poor s/e asian who can understand why I decided to quit my job. I sacrificed money for time, which seems absolutely absurd to them.

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  11. Russell – here we go again. I think this time I quite agree with your description of what referendum was about (only partly though, since the small business lobby played a strong part, and had the support of the Liberals and Nationals).

    However, crucially, Kevin Rudd’s party supported the change! That’s exactly Andrew’s point, isn’t it? It is understandable when these things are said by either Clive Hamilton or Russell, but far less convincing in the words of Kevin Rudd or, say, Paul Keating.

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  12. Some very sweeping generalisations here about rich and poor, and westerners and Asians etc. I don’t believe the ‘poor’ value money more highly than the ‘rich’. Sounds like a silly justification for progressive income tax.

    John, do you explain to these incredulous se Asians that you are a rentier living off the interest and dividends while travelling the world? They might understand that.

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  13. One might also look at some of the poorest Australians – the Aborigines – probably the least materialistic of us ?? Could be culture is more important than wealth in determining ‘materialism’.

    John, I lived in a little Indonesian village in West Java for a couple of years, and they were the least materialistic people I’ve ever met, by a long way. I lived in China for a few years and even the famously materialistic Chinese were contemptous of western societies just because of our materialism. Perhaps we’re not defining materialism in the same way – people everywhere need and want certain things, but it seems a much more western thing to think that having things will create a more fulfilling life. Maybe because traditional beliefs have broken down here so quickly and it’s left a sort of vacuum ….. which has been so successfully exploited by by entrepreneurs.

    Boris – glad you agree that is was a ‘values’ referendum. Andrew, people didn’t see themselves as voting to tell “people when they should do their shopping”, but to tell business that they didn’t want people to have to work on any day of the week.
    There may be people in the ALP with a different view to Rudd’s, but I don’t think he has contradicted himself.

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  14. Russell, what about the position of the two major WA parties in the referendum? Doesn’t exactly fit the bill, does it? (Liberals pro big business, ALP pro workers rights?)

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  15. An interesting speech for many of us to dissect or analyse but I suspect that the average marginal seat voter will have little interest in Rudd’s interpretation of von Hayek at the next election. Political leaders of all persuasions continue to be unable to take the essence of any political philosophy and put it in a language that translates into box-office success. His efforts would be better served at winning that constituency unless of course he is about to leave politics and establish a think tank.

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  16. Just scanning an article on incivility and my eye was caught by the phrase ‘runaway capitalist values’: “Commonplace incivil
    interactions were seen to result from excessive individualism, runaway capitalist values and a diminished sense of community.” (1.)

    But Rudd may have an uphill battle convincing the punters because the study also found that: “little direct corrective action was suggested with respect to capitalist values. In other words, while the hyper-distended
    state of the competitive ethos and consumer culture were seen as giving rise to incivil events in everyday life, the groups did not entertain the idea of reigning in their influence. There was quite simply a distinct absence of talk about the possibility of alleviating incivil occurrences between strangers by placing limits around the reach of capitalist values into the sphere of everyday life (Habermas, 1987). This point is significant in that it would seem to suggest that participants found it hard to countenance
    how a solution to incivil relations among strangers might require a questioning of the felt-excesses of dominant economic values such as laissez-faire and the work ethic …”

    1. Phillips, Timothy “Accounting for everyday incivility: an Australian study” Australian Journal of Social Issues 41(3) Spring 2006

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