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Marquand's hopes for "moral reform"

Thomas Ash
4 June 2009

An OurKingdom conversation. [History: this post > David Marquand > Thomas Ash > George Gabriel > Thomas Ash > George Gabriel > Thomas Ash > George Gabriel]

As Britain plunges from economic crisis to political crisis, it is only natural that some should hope its whole system faces a crisis from which it will emerge altered in some respect they have long hoped for. For many OurKingdom contributors, the hope is for constitutional reform. Writing in the Observer last week Henry Porter hoped for a more profound awakening. Perhaps the most ambitious hope was expressed by David Marquand in an earlier Guardian article: that our moral culture itself should undergo "reform".

Marquand's target is the vision, "virtually unchallenged", he says, in the recent "neoliberal" era, that society ought to feature free, competitive markets in which individuals calculate and pursue their self-interest. (Supporters of this vision would replace 'their self-interest' with 'what they value', allowing for altruistic ends. The interests of individuals and their families have been the most common motivators however, and the expectation that this will be so has certainly shaped our moral culture.)

Marquand hopes for the replacement of this vision. This seem unrealistic to me. He makes the familiar objection that the emphasis placed on free markets has resulted in too little concern about disparity of outcome, and then mentions public anger at City bonus hunters' greed. But if this were itself enough to provoke public anger, it would have done so long ago; the anger flows instead from bonuses being propped up by taxpayer money. This was itself a violation of the idea of a competitive market, and it is quite possible that if bailouts fails to rescue the economy this will in fact lead to increased support for that idea, at least in the sphere of finance.

Marquand also places some of the blame for the current economic crisis on the moral culture he is challenging, suggesting that it led to households taking on more debt than they could afford. It is not clear how it is supposed to have done so, since this was manifestly not in these households' self-interest. As if to concede this Marquand shifts the blame to the fact that "realism that conflicted with immediate gratification had come to seem quaint and old-fashioned". This is an entirely different phenomenon, and it seems far more ripe for a change.

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