All of our beliefs and expectations depend on our assumptions and values. If you think that society is complex, and that human freedom matters, you'll be (broadly speaking) classically liberal. If you think that society is pretty straightforward, and that human equality is important, then you'll be more swayed by state intervention.
This post isn't designed to convince people that society of more complex than politicians appreciate, or human freedom is a more moral goal than human equality. (There's plenty of that elsewhere!)
Rather, consider the responsibility of both sides of the debate in arguing for their favoured system despite widely acknowledged failures. I'd like to argue that the collapse of Enron, pails into insignificance when compared to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) deciding that "we're"* eating too much salt.
If society is thought to be complex, then it's impossible to centrally plan and coordinate what's going on. Therefore we need a system ("capitalism") that allows decentralized decision making (by individuals) and the aggregation of information (via a price mechanism). There are no "goals" to this system, since the goals depend on the individual participants: society is a means.
If society is thought to be simple - i.e. we can identify that certain people lack resources, and can redistribute from rich to poor at low cost without creating unintended consequences now or in the future - then we need a system that can maximise the goals that we desire: society is an end.
Consider the problem of "too much salt in the diet". The "means" approach is to declare that we can't know each individuals dietary requirements, therefore they're in the best position to decide how much to intake. I might currently be eating too little salt, in which case I need to eat more. This may or may not be the same as the national average. Hence the social system is seen as the human body is - self regulating. Drink some water, and piss it out.
The alternative is to take the problem of "too much salt in the diet" and jump to an end "reduce the salt intake". We then see bureaucrats constructing elaborate guidelines, targets, action plans etc to ensure that the end is met. Ultimately, some foodstuffs that have high salt content - such as Stilton cheese - faces possible mandatory regulation, that would effectively ban the product.
Now, compare the following arguments:
- Statist to Liberal: Look at Enron, you bastards!
- Liberal to Statist: Look at Stilton, you bastards!
I would answer 1 by saying something along the following lines:
A1: (liberals response)
Firstly, I'm not sure the ins and outs but with any company of this size I expect they had some form of political power that disrupts analysis somewhat. Regardless, the general point is that Enron's collapsed cost a lot of people a lot of money, but they went out of business. This is a good thing. The whole point of the market economy is that good behaviour is rewarded, and bad behavior's punished. Despite the unfortunate consequences of this case, it demonstrates the positive role of competitive forces, and will ultimately improve corporate governance.
I imagine that a statist would answer 2 as follows (all i can do here is imagine. By all means help me out)
A2: (statists response)
OK, this is a little silly. Stilton will survive, and the right-wing press are just grabbing headlines to the detriment of the real public health issue: that too much salt is a bad thing, and many people are eating too much salt. For example school children have especially high salt content in their food, and all this policy is doing is increasing awareness and improving health.
I think these two examples demonstrate the points about means and ends. The (classical) liberal shows how bad outcomes are to be expected in a complex world, and so the issue is how they're treated. Rather than just sack the Minister, but let the Department remain, the entire corporation has gone under, taking it's accountants with it. This is an almighty lesson, and the very case that is supposed to undermine the market economy shows how important learning is. As a system of means, utopia is not expected, nor advocated.
Compare to the statist, who accepts that this particular scenario is nonsense, but because the greater end is so very important it's worth it. The actual case of Stilton cheese is therefore ignored, as the argument turns to the core issue of slat intake. It's accepted that these issues will arise, and few attempts are made to curtail them. The end of lowering salt intake trumps all. Notice also the rhetorical ploy of referring to children. The statist is using their own organizations (public schools) as examples are problems, never getting the irony that they themselves could well be the cause of high salt intake (if you've got a monopoly why not make a shitty product - that way you can sell the fixers as well). And remember, Stilton is a fair cost for the sake of the children. How can those "right-wingers" be against children!
By all means, contend my characterisations.
This issue pisses me off especially since one of the chief reasons I'm looking forward to coming home is to have access to affordable, quality cheeses. But I do think it points to a big difference in the foundations of left vs right debate. A means system won't create perfect outcomes, and doesn't try to since there's no way to judge what "perfection" is. But bad outcomes serve an important purpose to improve the chances of good outcomes emerging. An ends system will create disasters (such as the loss of stilton) for the sake of the bigger ends. And it's very hard to pin down a statist and discuss these bad outcomes, without them trying to turn the debate back to their larger point.
* "We" as in English people. As with all government departments, the action is localised to within national boundaries. The implicit assumption is that "we" matter more. see here.