Edition number 85; dateline 30 September 2017

Humanity's greatest achievement: culture or profit?

According to Theresa May, the free market economy represents “the greatest agent of collective human progress ever created”. She presented these findings to the Conservative party conference at the end of September and her audience, such as it was, nodded sagely and generally showed every sign of lapping it up.

Like many political statements, it was the sort of rhetorical flourish that sounds as though it might be clever but subsequently does not bear much scrutiny. It was also another example of the modern presumption of the primacy of economics above all other considerations, including, perhaps particularly, the considerations of culture.

The sanctity of the free market has been the accepted truth of economic thinking in the UK for the past 30 years or so. Governments, political parties and public lives have come and gone but until very recently very few have challenged this article of economic faith. But of course the free market has never been the free market; few even advocate it. Ayn Rand’s vision of the triumph of unfettered capitalism (qv Atlas Shrugged and much of the rest of her bizarre fictional output) has some adherents in the United States and the nuttier corners of the Tory party conference but none of them would be allowed near sharp objects without supervision.

To a greater or lesser degree the free market has always been a regulated market using a myriad of economic and political levers. Given that the market is regulated, it is then only a question of who does the regulating and whose interests are being protected and served by the regulatory process. A recent suggestion to the UK electorate that the regulation should be in favour of those who do not happen to be rich found a sizeable audience that turned out to vote in large numbers. And lest we forget, the hero of the free-market ideology, Adam Smith, spoke not only of the hidden hand of the economy but also of the eagerness of those advocating market competition to enter a conspiracy to form a cartel at every opportunity. The first bit has been quoted quite often from political platforms, the second bit not quite so much.

So it is not a free market. Is it the greatest agent of collective human progress? To anyone with blood rather than code running through their veins the exchange of goods sounds more like part of the human condition than the greatest human achievement. We might as well be asking conference delegates to cheer breathing or the ability of living organisms to multiply and evolve. Claiming the free market as the pinnacle of humanity sounds like the thinking of someone who has never stood in front of a Rembrandt. Or sat in a jazz club within touching distance of the drummer’s brushes. Or seen an injury-time winner from behind the goal at the away end. Or seen five-year-olds in a playground. Or twelve-year-olds in a library. Or 16-year-olds discover their new favourite band.

It is the thinking of a politician (and Mrs May is not alone in this) for whom culture and all it entails is a mystery and a threat. A mystery because the empathy and abandon culture encourages, the commitment to the joy of self and of others culture requires, is alien to so many of those who find themselves in positions of influence and power. A threat because, while economic certainties are presented as the application of sober good sense in contrast to the juvenile ephemera of culture, many politicians and all historians understand that culture beats politics every time. Not quickly, sometimes not even noticeably, but eventually.

Far from offering certainty, the prime minister’s statement challenged her audience in the conference hall and beyond to disagree with her: “Is the free market the greatest human achievement? Do you know, I’m not sure it is.”

You will have your own view. But it is not Ayn Rand. It might be Rembrandt. It is almost certainly something that involves people rather than a process. It will undoubtedly be about joy, love and compassion. It is definitely not about the ability to turn a profit.

Jonathan Ives



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Claiming the free market as the pinnacle of humanity sounds like the thinking of someone who has never stood in front of a Rembrandt. Or sat in a jazz club within touching distance of the drummer’s brushes
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