Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Majorities and Money

Three particular features of modernity may be seen — in a pessimistic light — as making civilization either impossible or no longer desirable. We have liberal economic markets. If you can pay, you can have what you want so long as you do not break the law. Whether your choices are good or bad is for you to decide, and you can pursue them until you run out of credit. Therefore the market says: I do not care about quality of choice or whether people consume wisely. I care about whether or not they can pay for whatever it is they happen to want.

We have cultural democracy. Who is to say what sort of art or books or architecture I should like? Everyone's preference is on an equal footing. Some people like Beethoven, some Britney, others both. In the past, elites could trumpet their preferences as superior; they were the only ones in a position to do any trumpeting. Today, there is little cultural authority — there is little deference.

We have freedom of opinion. I am entitled to think whatever I happen to think — irrespective of logic, evidence and self-examination — so long as it doesn't directly and obviously harm other people. No one has any right to tell me what to think. Such freedom is rooted in the profound point that the truths we discover for ourselves are more valuable than those we merely accept on external authority. One is expected to have strong opinions on the widest range of baffling technical matters and impacted problems: how to bring peace and justice to the Middle East; how the economy can be put to rights; the relationship between science and religious faith. The quality of information on which we base our opinions may be low and the quantity slight. But we are perfectly entitled to our own views.

These conditions are associated with a pessimistic view of civilization today. Triumphant vulgarity rules the world (it is said) because the democratic numbers and the market forces always win. Once you have markets, cultural democracy and freedom of opinion, questions about merit and meaning will always be settled by majorities and money. But majorities and money have no real authority on questions of value.