Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Using humour as a tool

A Tool

When using humour to make a political point, it can help actually to be amusing. As regular readers of this blog will know, this is an ideal from which it is very easy to fall. There is, however, very little excuse for this column by Mark Steel. Tim has already properly dismissed the column and its author as not being worth the effort, and while I agree with this diagnosis, I also feel that some of his stupidity might benefit from a little examination.
The basic premise of the article appears to be that the Adam Smith Institute are fools/knaves. To demonstrate this he makes excellent use of a method pioneered by Germaine Greer on the death of Steve Irwin: make up something that the target did not say, and then ridicule it. Greer imagined Irwin saying that a stingray could kill a horse, and 'pointed out' that stingrays don't eat horses. Steel does this:
So you'd read stories like: "A new report from the Adam Smith Institute has discovered babies are lame-duck enterprises who contribute nothing to the economy, costing the country nine million pounds a day, and demands this subsidy be stopped by selling them off to a gangster from the Ukraine. Ministers are said to be considering the proposals carefully."
Or they'd insist the Army should be divided into competing regiments and sold to private enterprise, claiming: "Once competition is introduced, there'll be an incentive to see who gets to bomb a Middle-Eastern slum first, increasing efficiency, especially if we do away with bureaucratic restrictions regulating who can and can't destroy whom. Also, they'll be free to capture foreigners and force them to build a railway until they starve, which proved a huge economic success for the Japanese."
It's a good tactic. This group is silly. To prove it here are some silly statements that they didn't make. It's this sort of rigorous engagement with the opposing side's arguments that has made the left the intellectual powerhouse it is today.
While he supported the idea of "free trade", he insisted that wages should be sufficient to allow the worker to enjoy leisure, culture and beer. Surely the Adam Smith Institute should lead a boycott of anything made in Third World sweatshops, until the 12-year-old machinists are given a week off, a free pass for art galleries and a six-pack of their choice.
As Tim says, the ASI would stand for the engagement, through open and free trade, with third world industries, allowing wages to rise to the level where such amenities are possible. Real wage levels in 18th Century Scotland were no higher, and often lower, than in modern 'sweatshops' in any event. If the alternative to low-wage employment is no-wage unemployment, which do you think is the better option? It may come as a surprise to Steel, but the alternative to low-paid work in, say, Zimbabwe isn't sitting on the sofa watching Trisha waiting for a better offer. Even Nike sweatshops are better than starvation.
He certainly wouldn't recognise the insatiable greed of modern business, in which nothing is assumed to have any value unless it makes a profit. If someone turned up on Dragons' Den, saying they needed a few grand because they'd love to set up a home for destitute sick people, the panel would go: "How dare you waste our time? This crackpot scheme's going to lose money hand over fist."
Because in Smith's time, businesses were aiming to make a loss? Really, I can't believe this one. It's iniquitous, and an entirely new phenomenon, that businesses should seek to make profit? It's such a transparently fatuous argument that it is genuinely not worth the energy to rebut. I suppose I ought to point out that the majority of Britain's hospitals were built originally on the back of charitable donations - private money. That wealthy industrialists are often also philanthropists. But the vacuity of Steel's argument has left me vaguely stunned.
Could there be a more shambolic way to organise everyone's houses, than leaving it to the free market?
Yes. It could be left in the hands of the Government. So, Mark Steel then. Not funny enough to make up for his stupidity.


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