BBC Question Time is quite literally a waste of time. Nothing intelligent comes from it and yet it’s the BBC’s primetime topical debate programme, which regularly features politicians from the three main political parties and other public figures.
Last week, I happen to catch the start of the programme. It was cringe-worthy, surreal and disturbing in equal measure. A grotesque charade of intellectualism. The show put me in mind of the people who live in the Capitol in The Hunger Games novels. This was life imitating art.
The first question from the audience to the panel came from a middle-class lady in her forties or early fifties who asked: “workers are worse off than ten years ago; what’s the point of capitalism?”
She was implying that capitalism is to blame for the fact that average real earnings in the UK are lower now than they were in 2007. She seemed to be also implying capitalism is not a force for social progress, or at the very least she was doubting whether it is.
We’ll come to what she’s defining as capitalism in a moment, but workers aren’t worse off because of ‘capitalism’ (on the timescale of a few centuries they’re hugely better off). it’s true they’re worse off compared to a decade ago because of the impact the global economic depression had on the UK’s economy, but the depression itself wasn’t caused by unrestrained capitalism. It was caused by unrestrained government.
To the question “what is the point of capitalism?” my short answer would be this. The point of capitalism is to minimize human suffering and maximise human pleasure and flourishing.
But given that capitalism is freedom, her question is a deeper and bigger one: what’s the point of human freedom? What’s the point of being free to act according to one’s own will?
Well, freedom enables you to do what makes you happy and fulfilled. Without freedom, you can’t live the life you want to. You can only live the life others want you to.
It was obvious from her question that this audience member believed the UK’s current political and economic state is best described as simply capitalism. But she’s mistaken. The truth is more complicated than that.
Capitalism proper does not exist anywhere in the world today. All free market economies in the world today are instances of state-controlled capitalism because nowhere is there capitalism without a state looming over it. Some governments exert less control than others, but pure capitalism is not functioning anywhere in the world today. It never has in the past, either, but it may in the future. Who knows.
So her question really is, “what’s the point of state-controlled capitalism”? This is essentially the same as asking why do people seek political power over other people? The answer to that is the same as the answer to why any people ever seek power over others: for their own material and/or psychic gain.
On the BBC Question Time panel was Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, whom we were told was celebrating thirty years as an MP.
I bet she was celebrating. It is indeed quite an achievement to live (an upper-middle-class lifestyle) for three decades without ever having had a job or running a business – i.e. without ever engaging in mutually beneficial economic exchange. This parasitic existence is only possible as a Member of Parliament or as a member of a successful criminal organisation. Ethically, the difference between the two is negligible.
Abbott’s answer to the audience member’s question came in the form of a deluded rant about capitalism. She said “capitalism is a way of organising the economy but the problems with capitalism arise when it is unregulated or not properly regulated. It was bankers who were not properly regulated who tipped us into this economic crisis which we are still struggling with.”
The only part of Abbott’s response vaguely aligned with the truth is the first part where she says capitalism is a way of organising the economy. Although the fact that she didn’t venture even a slightly more detailed explanation suggests that’s as far as her understanding of capitalism goes.
Her answer suggested she thinks capitalism is a system imposed on society from above, by authority, just like socialism. But it’s not. It’s a system of order which spontaneously emerges from the bottom up wherever people have some degree of economic freedom. Typical of someone with an anti-capitalist mindset, Abbott has a fuzzy or incomplete conception of what capitalism is.
What Abbott believes was the cause of the economic crisis isn’t just wrong, it’s the opposite of the truth. As such she demonstrates she has no better comprehension of the problem than the average man on the street.
It wasn’t, as Abbott believes, a lack of proper regulating of bankers that caused the economic crash. It was the opposite. It was an abundance of regulation and government control.
The one part of the global economy that governments have the most control and influence over is the banking and finance sector. Which is precisely why it crashed the global economy. Abbott believes the problem was governments weren’t watching banks closely enough. But in reality, the problem was that the relationship between the two was far too interdependent and intimate. (Hence the bank bailouts and the fact that banks are still behaving in exactly the same way as before).
After a spontaneous round of applause died down, which broke out after her improperly regulated bankers remark, Abbott randomly started bleating that healthcare should be free for everyone. Which, of course, drew more applause.
At that point, I knew I had to stop watching for my brain’s sake. After hastily pressing the off button on the remote, I vowed never to watch again. I dread to think what nonsense was vomited back and forth between the audience and the panel during the rest of the programme.
One could watch a thousand episodes of BBC Question Time and never get a fraction closer to understanding how the world works or what the causes of our society’s economic and social ills are. Instead, you’ll be dragged so far from the truth that you may never find your way back again.