Russell Taylor – In Praise of Nastiness


At some point in the past couple of decades it seems to have been decided that being a ‘good’ person entitles you to tell everyone else how to live. Most of the things that make modern life intolerable, like high taxes, blundering bureaucracies and government nannying, are the logical conclusion of a determination to do the ‘right thing’.

I suspect this is down to the rise of our political and cultural elite – everyone from politicians and academics to journalists and the Twitterati – which prides itself on its powers of compassion, and wants to make this quality our guiding social principle. Members of this elite have nothing to sell but ideas, and they bring them to life through the power of the government. Consequently, they tend to believe there is no limit to the good the state can do, providing it does the bidding of the right people – namely, themselves. They see public services as an expression of their tribe’s good intentions, and an important bulwark against the world of business, which they consider ruthless and greedy, and think that, left unchecked, will grow in power until we are helpless against it.

In many ways, the direction of our society is dictated by which of these power blocs we put our faith in. Although most of us still work for private companies and look to them to provide the things we need, there is a general distrust of business in this country. There lingers a widespread sense that we are better off siding with well-meaning bureaucracies and socially-conscious media figures than profit-hungry corporations. But is this reasonable? Do these rival factions really live up to their billing?

Certainly, I think the business world gets an unfair rap. Contrary to popular opinion, businesses don’t have any real power. They can’t pass laws or levy taxes. They can’t even make you buy what they’re selling. A corporation might be said to control a particular market, but the control is really with its customers, since they are free to take their business elsewhere. For all its so-called power, how long do you think Wal-Mart would last if its customers boycotted the company en masse? What could it do about it, other than give in to its customers’ demands? The square-root of jack, that’s what.

Unlike corporations, a government can pass laws and levy taxes. If you’re dissatisfied with what it’s selling, tough. If you to decline to pay, it can throw you in jail. Sure, you have a chance to vote it out of office every few years, but the rest of the time it’s free to torment you as it pleases. Then there are the groups the government is in thrall to. Where do you go to vote out the BMA, the RSPCA, the IPCC, or any of those other unaccountable, politicised, tax-funded bodies? How do you stop the liberal media from hounding the government until it turns minority obsessions into laws?

If a business ignored the pressures of competition, failure and customer demand, it would rapidly become a basket case, staffed by obstructive incompetents, flogging overpriced junk. Thankfully, most companies don’t work this way (if they did, they’d go bust in a hurry), but the public sector certainly does. That’s why state bureaucracies are doomed to expand in size and cost as their service deteriorates. It’s why, as a rule, if you want something done properly, you shouldn’t put your faith in a system that counted Stalin and Ceausescu among its supporters.

The modern state is guided and managed by the political and cultural elite, and its ruling principle of compassion should not be a source of comfort to us, but of concern. When someone’s identity is founded on their sense of righteousness, there’s no room for moral ambiguity – they must be right and everyone else must be wrong. To think otherwise would be to admit there are legitimate opinions that differ from their own, meaning they don’t have a monopoly on virtue. And without that monopoly, there is nothing to mark them out as special and deserving of a say in the running of things.

Such people won’t accept that you must sometimes be cruel to be kind, because they don’t want to be cruel. Anything that stains their pristine conscience is instinctively rejected, even if it does considerable good in the long-term. Instead of making hard decisions and sensible trade-offs, they prefer to offer eye-catching assistance to conspicuous beneficiaries for the maximum feel-good effect. This kind of big, dumb policy is invariably disastrous, but the harm it does is generally a knock-on effect, inflicted out of plain sight, and not attributable to the intentions of the original policy. Consequently, it doesn’t trouble those who supported it, who can carry on believing they’re on the side of the angels, even as their ideas wreak havoc.

This self-righteousness lends itself naturally to authoritarianism. If you’re morally infallible, whatever you do is in everyone’s best interests, whether they like it or not. Better the government imposes top-down plans that you can feel good about supporting than individuals are allowed to think for themselves. Self-righteousness also requires constant affirmation. Once your latest moral benchmark has become a social norm, it no longer offers the same emotional return, requiring you to climb further up the ladder of virtue, to stay a few rungs above everyone else. This leads to a game of moral one-upmanship with the rest of society, with practices that were previously considered benign suddenly deemed off-limits. And woe betide anyone who doesn’t confess to the error of their ways and embrace the new ethical code.

It’s time we told these well-meaning buffoons where to get off. They are taking us down a road paved with good intentions – and we all know where that leads. Their ideas and policies undermine our own moral agency, and are increasingly reckless, illiberal and unaffordable. I believe Milton Friedman was on the right tack when he said we should create a climate of opinion that encourages the wrong people to do the right thing. That doesn’t mean putting your faith in the state and its holier-than-thou cheerleaders; it means supporting institutions that reward good decisions and punish bad ones. That’s why, given a choice between the elites, I’d choose the fat cats over the do-gooders every time.

2 comments on “Russell Taylor – In Praise of Nastiness

  1. jazz606
    April 3, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

    There aren’t many votes in doing the right thing.

  2. Carl Wilson
    April 3, 2013 at 8:14 pm #

    Another cracking article. Thanks.

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