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Monday, January 11, 2010
Dr. Dalrymple wrote an excellent column this month for the New English Review discussing the current global economic recession and where the blame should be laid. The version of the crisis here in America had several causes, not least of which was the sub-prime mortgage industry. The government should take a lot of the blame (of course they don't) for supporting the proliferation of bad loans. But perhaps the fault lies not just with some bank execs, mortgage brokers, or politicians. Perhaps we the people need to recognize that the bulk of responsibility falls on us... after all, as Dalrymple points out, "while you can lead a man to a loan, you cannot make him borrow." This whole issue serves as a perfect case study of how dumb legislation and governmental policies can drastically affect the moral behavior of a citizenry. If a policy encourages a certain behavior, no matter how vile that behavior may seem, a society will begin to embrace it. Look at welfare. Welfare encourages laziness, improvidence, and a sense of entitlement... so it is no surprise when those who receive welfare, rather than rise out of their low estate, sink farther down into them and become permanently stuck there. But, as Dalrymple discusses, this doesn't leave the masses innocent in the ordeal just because some self-preening mandarins enabled their vice.
Like many people, no doubt, I have been reflecting of late on an economic crisis that does not yet appear to me to be quite over, since many of its causes are still in operation, and despite the recovery everywhere of the stock markets. The crisis hardly affected me personally, but no man is an island and all that; besides, crises have a habit of eventually engulfing even those who thought themselves immune from their effects. It would only take a little inflation for me to start feeling some serious anxiety on my own behalf.

In the meantime, the search for people to blame continues. This is hardly surprising, because blaming is so much more fun than the supposedly more fruitful and intellectually mature activity of explaining.
There can be no doubt, I think, that bankers and assorted financiers have been amply excoriated, as far as I can see quite rightly, in the press and elsewhere. Nor have governments entirely escaped their share of the blame. Both by acts and omissions they created the circumstances in which crooked, or at least less than scrupulous, practices could escape detection. Moreover, all western governments (as far as I can see) have been operating Madoff schemes for many years, the main difference between Mr Madoff and themselves, apart from the matter of scale, being that governments can coerce contributions while Mr Madoff could merely solicit them. Whether this makes western governments or Mr Madoff the more villainous, I leave to moral philosophers to decide.
Having blamed the bankers and the governments, however, it is now time to turn the spotlight of blame onto ourselves: if by ourselves we mean the common or ordinary people. Here, on the whole, criticism has been much more muted or reticent, no doubt because it is not exactly bon ton in our democratic age to suggest that ordinary people are fully as capable of every human vice as those who rule over them.

But the fact is that it is not only governments that have been improvident and have spent well beyond their means; millions, scores of millions, of perfectly ordinary people have done so as well, and have behaved not only as if there were no tomorrow but as if there could be no tomorrow. In so far as they thought about their debts at all, they thought they could merely walk away from them, as if to do so were of no moral or characterological significance. Another day, another default, seems to have been their motto.

It could, I suppose, be said in their defence that almost everything possible has been done to encourage them in their improvidence. In the United States successive governments encouraged, indeed required, banks to lend money to people whom the banks knew to be bad risks.
No doubt it was very wrong of banks to offer credit to the uncreditworthy: but while you can lead a man to a loan, you cannot make him borrow. To give a feckless man a credit card is both wrong and feckless; but the man to whom it is given does not cease thereby to be feckless himself when he spends money he is never going to have.

Moreover, the figures for personal indebtedness, in America, Britain and elsewhere, suggest that fecklessness or improvidence are far from being the characteristics of a few individuals but have rather become almost normal, at least in the statistical sense. The idea of cutting one's coat according to one's cloth, or of taking pride in owing nothing (in the financial sense) to anyone, has disappeared among us.
How people behave is determined by what they believe; and if they come to believe that slow accretion is the policy of fools and that maximum consumption in the here and now is the only meaning of life, it is hardly surprising if what you get is an orgy of speculation combined with insouciant expenditure.

Of course, there is a wealth of question-begging in the phrase 'if they come to believe,' for how do people come to believe anything? Why do they change their minds, such that those things that once seemed to them good now seem to them bad, and vice versa? Still, enquiry must stop somewhere if we are to hold an opinion about anything; the search for ultimate or final causes of social phenomena often conceals a cowardly refusal to say anything that could possibly be contradicted by anyone or that risks refutation. And it doesn't really matter how people come to believe what they do believe, so long as it is accepted that what they believe is what causes them to behave as they do.

No doubt a twenty-third century revisionist historian will then come along and say that the whole debate is beside the point in any case, since there was no decline in the financial probity and prudence of the population in the years specified. This will be proved by a re-working of the statistics, which will show that the supposedly high levels of personal indebtedness were really nothing of the kind. Everyone layman will end up thoroughly confused and not knowing what to believe.

Really, though, it is all quite simple. Our banks were no good; our government was no good; and we were no good. Apart from that, everything was fine.


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Darius' book montage

The Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel The Main Thing
Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God
Overcoming Sin and Temptation
According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible
Disciplines of a Godly Man
Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem
When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Ourselves
The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
Respectable Sins
The Kite Runner
Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak
Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak
A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, ... anabaptist/anglican, metho
Show Them No Mercy
The Lord of the Rings
Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass
The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception
Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming
The Chronicles of Narnia
Les Misérables

Darius Teichroew's favorite books »