By the time one has waded to page 22 of Them and Us, through what may most politely be described as a stream of consciousness, assailed by random thoughts and plangent expression larded with clichés, one starts to wonder what the point is in going on.
By the time one has waded to page 22 of Them and Us, through what may most politely be described as a stream of consciousness, assailed by random thoughts and plangent expression larded with clichés, one starts to wonder what the point is in going on. We have been told that we ‘ache’ for a ‘compelling, moral, national story’. We have been treated to now-compulsory cries of despair about bankers and their high salaries and bonuses. We have been reminded of some of the expensive things that high- earning people spend their money on. We have met the assertion with disbelief, and the outcry and the reminder with a silent ‘so?’ But then, on page 22, the author calms down, and seeks to tell us what he means by ‘fairness’. It is not a hopeful start. He plunges at once into the warm bath of cliché. ‘Capitalism’, he tells us, ‘walks a tightrope’.
This is an absurd book not because Hutton is wrong about the nature of inequalities in our society and the supposed remedy for them — though he is that too — but because he appears to have the thought processes one normally associates with those who require some sort of counselling. Having hinted that he is going to define fairness, he doesn’t. He merely says that it — whatever ‘it’ is — is essential if capitalism is going to stay on its ‘tightrope’. Hutton is good, as another cliché used to have it, at making a drama out of a crisis. He warns of ‘elites who want to use rigged and manipulated profits to sustain their status and position’, which would cause capitalism’s ‘degrading into racketeering, exploitation and speculation’. But of course this doesn’t happen, as he then says himself: ‘the capitalist with a reputation for double-dealing rarely survives for long’. Quite. And that platitude would seem to remove much of the point of Hutton producing this tedious, rambling and dismally written book.
On page 38 he once more promises to tell us what fairness is. This is not a short trek, nor an especially enlightening one. He seems excited by the idea of ‘proportionality’, and even quotes Aristotle and Shakespeare on the subject, lest we should doubt his intellectual underpinnings. He dislikes the notion, apparent in recent years, that some should earn enormous sums of money that he clearly feels are not proportionate to their effort. But who is he to judge this? He of all people should understand the concept of risk; and that these people have skills that trade at a high cost in their particular marketplace.
He has decided, in his pompous phrase, that what such people earn is no longer ‘proportional desert’. Proportional to what? Until the crash, these firms made huge profits. The people capable of making them, because of the operation of the jobs market they were in, could command high rewards that were without question proportional to what they raked in. And when they stopped raking it in, many of them were fired. Those who are still making piles of money are doing so because they are making profits and helping revive this important sector of the economy. What would Hutton prefer? That they were all driving tractors?
There is much psychobabble in the book about various academic studies of how people regard ‘fairness’. We can only presume that since we have not had a revolution in this country, and that bankers and their ilk have not all been hanged from lamp-posts, that these things concern the majority of the British people less than Hutton and his leftist friends imagine, or would like.
He devotes a chapter to luck, which makes irresistible in the mind of the reader the recognition of the old saw that ‘life isn’t fair’. He applauds ‘interventions’ such as inheritance tax and the NHS that help deal with apparently excessive good or bad luck. What is lucky, though, about a parent who chooses to be thrifty all his or her life and leave the proceeds to children who have shown their filial duty, or unlucky about the person who chooses to be profligate, or dislikes his children so much that he leaves them nothing? Hutton himself asks the question about the heavy smoker who gets lung cancer and then throws himself on the mercy of the NHS, as well he might. The author may not want to acknowledge it, but in many cases we get the ‘luck’ we deserve.
What exercises Hutton most, though, is highly paid corporate executives. He deplores the fact that Bart Becht, the CEO of Reckitt Benckiser, earned £36.8 million in 2009. Rather than rejoicing at his success and the huge amount of tax he would therefore have paid to help the victims of ‘unfairness’, Hutton rails against this ‘disproportionality’: and, ex cathedra, says that ‘the argument that paying CEOs like Mr Becht is a private affair between company and shareholders is also weak’. No it isn’t. In precisely the sort of deregulated economy that we require if we are to compete internationally and to be prosperous, it is the only argument that holds any force at all. The logical culmination of the opposite idea is the command economy, such as we saw in that former epitome of fairness, the Soviet bloc.
Later on in his book Hutton explores why the recent financial crisis happened, condemning both Gordon Brown and Alan Greenspan for their regulatory failures. Why not condemn them for the pumping of money into the system that made it so easy for the banks to acquire capital so cheaply, and lend it on so recklessly? He talks about the need to observe more caution in reducing the deficit and our debt than the present government seems minded to do, with a cavalier disregard for the means of funding that debt as interest rates inevitably rise. Given his obsession with fairness, is Hutton really happier for financial institutions to benefit from those high interest payments than having the funds put to the service of the deserving (or even the undeserving) poor? For all such mountains of debt will do, in the end, is benefit the people whom Hutton despises so much for getting such ‘disproportional deserts’.
In his conclusion, the author quotes President Obama’s rhetorical flourish, made at the start of his incumbency, about restoring prosperity to his nation. That Hutton can do this with obvious approval when the financial management of the United States is in deep crisis itself, and Obama’s own stimulus package has failed so catastrophically, marks out the insight and sense of this breathless, shallow attempt at a sub-political philosophy. People will continue to earn lots of money if they can convince the shareholders in their enterprises that they are worth it. There will be relatively few opportunities to do this as a proportion of the workforce. Many people who fail in that competition, or who seek not to enter it in the first place, may complain that they deserve more than they get. But why do they deserve it? The only measure of fairness is that the competition is open to all and that those who succeed will have the abilities to do so. This is no longer dictated by race, gender or even — as the barrow boys of the City will tell you — class. Perhaps life is fair after all, though not in the convoluted and almost impenetrable way Hutton thinks it should be.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 16, 2010Tags: Book reviews, Non-fiction, Politics (UK), Will hutton