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Cultural criticism

July 30th, 2005

My review of Affluenza by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss was in yesterday’s Fin (subscription only). Thanks to all who commented on the earlier draft.

One point that attracts a strong reaction whenever I make it refers to

the vigorous hostile reaction to arguments of this kind. Although this reaction is often phrased in terms of attacks on ‘paternalism’ or (switching genders) the ‘Nanny State’ it is notable that policy proposals for differential taxes on luxury goods attract far less hostility than do purely cultural critiques of excessive consumption. The former threaten only the hip pocket of luxury consumers, while the latter threatens their sense of self-worth.

The response is typically along the lines of “My self worth is fine: I just object to people giving me unsolicited advice to change my lifestyle.”

Well, let’s see. In the time it took me to, read the book, write this review and get it published, I’d say I received at least thirty phone calls from people suggesting that I needed their services in relation to mortgage refinancing, negatively geared investments, telephone plans and so on. I was presented with hundreds of advertisements on TV and the Internet suggesting that I should consume more of just about everything. Even walking down the street, I’m presented with billboards, direct solicitations and so on, all with the same message. And, then, of course, there’s spam. Yet half the blogosphere seems to be upset by the mere existence of a book suggesting they are spending too much.

I don’t object to the TV ads: if I want to watch AFL on TV, it has to be paid for, and the ads are part of the deal. And as long as I don’t get hit with sneaky pop-ups and so on, the same is pretty much true for Internet ads, though I tend to avoid ad-heavy sites, and only run into them by mistake. But if I accept TV and Internet ads a straightforward commercial transaction – my attention as long as the ads can hold it, in return for the content it’s bundled with – then the billboards, spammers and phone pests aren’t just annoyances, they’re thieves, trying to take my valuable attention without paying me for it.

With the exception of spammers and phone pests[1], I don’t have a strong objection to advertising in general, though some examples annoy me. Still, when I see people complaining about the coercive nature of Clive Hamilton’s arguments, I have to wonder if they’re living in the same country as I am.

fn1. I’ve signed up for the ADMA “Do not call” list, but this is purely voluntary, and doesn’t include most of the worst examples.

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  1. July 30th, 2005 at 14:02 | #1

    On closer inspection, that comparison does not invalidate the objection to unsolicited nanny statism. The objection is actually to a further encroachment, and acquiescence in old ones does not necessarily imply acquiescence in the principle of encroachment. If it did, that would make all thin end of the wedge arguments valid; regardless of objections that no, we will only do this, nevertheless acceptance would always provide a concession that further encroachment was valid.

    For a further comparison, think of the old adage “a good tax is an old tax”; people have been pushed into submission over old versions, and can be pursued more easily along those lines. But the physical defeat in no sense implies a moral victory.

    The fact that JQ (say) has internalised the intrusions of advertisements does not only relate to their legitimacy but to how people get comfortable with themselves. A valid comparison with advertisements would be, how would people react if they were being introduced de novo? What, for instance, would be people’s reactions to proposals that the ABC should use advertising? That might well produce the same reaction, thinking of the proposal as an impertinence.

  2. Andrew Norton
    July 30th, 2005 at 16:15 | #2

    I don’t find Hamilton’s arguments coercive, or indeed anyone else’s. If his books are read purely as lifestyle advice I think they are over-the-top but the basic point that material things are not going to produce happiness on their own is sound. But when you get to policy suggestions like a maximum 35 hour week I think he is advocating what would in practice be a coercive policy.

  3. stoptherubbish
    July 30th, 2005 at 17:13 | #3

    Are economic arrangements that require people to work 50 hours a week in order to live at a basic level equally coercive? Is it coercive if people decide through their elected representatives that people should be required to wear seat belts? Is it coercive for people to make a collective decision about the nature and extent of the intrusion inot their lives of unsolicited advertising?

    I just don’t get the argument of libertarians about the nature of coercion. Coercion is applied to people by a variety of means and ways, and involves a number of different agencies (meaning ways of imposition). The fact that particular economic or social arrangments produce certain outcomes maybe no less coercive, for being the result of the decisions of private actors, than for being the result of the decision of public power. The question surely is to what ends is any power of pothers exercised, what are the means applied and cui bono?

  4. James Farrell
    July 30th, 2005 at 21:44 | #4

    Andrew, you made the same argument using the 35-hour-week example on Late Night Live, and I thought Clive dealt it with it quite well. No one wants to stop entrepreneurs or people in creative professions from doing what they love. But most full time employees just work 40 or 37.5 hours because it hapens to be the standard, and it’s very hard for them to opt out on an indivdual basis. Unless you think that leisure ceases to be a normal good at forty hours, then whatever reasoning governed the reduction from 50 to 45 and then to 40 must still apply, as productivity and incomes continue to grow. For those who want it, overtime would still be available. Salaried white collar workers in private enterprise would continue to be bullied into doing unpaid overtime, but if the official hours were reduced to 35 there would be strong moral pressure on exploitative employers to reduce total hours accordingly.

    And for what it’s worth, I seem to recall that you did use the word coercive at one stage in the debate on LNL. That’s when Clive got cross and started going on about seat belts.

  5. July 31st, 2005 at 10:56 | #5

    Having a silent number is a good way to avoid unwanted commercial phone calls.

  6. Andrew Norton
    July 31st, 2005 at 14:23 | #6

    “No one wants to stop entrepreneurs or people in creative professions from doing what they love. ” James, I am not sure that this is clear at all from the manifesto, and who is going to decide who is allowed to work longer hours? Working hours strikes me as a good example of an issue where there are so many potential variables that the only way to deal with it is on a decentralised basis.

    Some people do think seat bet laws are coercive, but there are important distinctions between these and laws on maximum working hours. Seat belt laws are only incidental, they do not stop you driving where you want to go, in the way that working hours laws stop you working as much as you like. They also do much better on the cost-benefit analysis, as they significantly reduce injury and death while costing low sums to instal and taking trivial amounts of time to put on and off. Working hours laws would impose heavy costs on those who enjoy working, and on the people who rely on the goods and services produced during the long hours and the families that rely on the incomes earned by these people.

    The seat belt example is the standard one Hamilton uses to avoid answering questions about the practical effects of his policies (he used in on this blog when the manifesto came out). It hardly deals with the substantive points being made against him.

  7. July 31st, 2005 at 17:31 | #7

    Stoptherubbish, there are one dimensional libertarians and others with more depth. Have a look at Kevin Carson’s blog and see what he has to say about what he calls “vulgar libertarians” (by analogy to “vulgar marxists”).

  8. the commenter formally known as anon
    August 1st, 2005 at 10:57 | #8

    I don’t get your point JQ. Are you claiming that you are correct in assuming that cultural critiques of excessive consumption threaten our sense of self worth because you are bombarded with advertising?

    I don’t see the connection. I hate unsolicited advertising just as much as the next person, but I also resent the inference that my self-worth is somehow tied up in my consumption.

    [aside: a silent number does wonders for reducing telemarketing.] [second aside: next time someone calls asking for "Mr Quiggin" or whoever, ask who is calling, and once you have established that they are indeed a telemarketer (although just the "Mr Quiggin" would usually be enough for that), tell them you will go find him. Then simply put the phone down without hanging up. In addition to costing the telemarketing companies a lot of money, it is very satisfying. If we all did it they'd be out of business].

  9. Darryl Rosin
    August 1st, 2005 at 15:29 | #9

    Silent numbers probably won’t save you from market research. When I was in the biz we’d start with a number from the phone book, then we’d dial the 5 consectutive numbers above and below it. So if we got 3396 1234, we’d call call the numbers from 3396 1229 to 3396 1239.

    I used to hit quite a few silent numbers, with very very angry people on the end demanding to know how we got their number. (And not believing the explanation I gave them)

    Telemarketing’s a bit different and usually driven by lists compiled in various ways. If you enter some promotion where you write your phone number on the entry form at a home show, your number is likely to get on a telemarketing list for products targeted at home show attendees. If you never, ever write your phone number on anything, that will probably keep you off marketer’s lists more effectively thasn a silent number.

    (and why are they called ‘silent’? How do ‘silent’ numbers make less noise than normal numbers?)

    d

  10. jquiggin
    August 1st, 2005 at 16:25 | #10

    I like the idea of leaving them hanging,though being a typical wet liberal I tend to feel sorry for the unfortunates who’ve signed up for this awful job, so I usually just say “Not Interested” as rapidly as possible then hang up.

  11. jquiggin
    August 1st, 2005 at 16:29 | #11

    to clarify my argument, anon, we’re so routinely bombarded with advertising telling us that our current lifestyle is no good because we don’t consume enough that it seems to me unreasonable to give a strong hostile reaction to a single book saying that our current lifestyle is no good because we consume too much. If you don’t buy either message, then it would seem reasonable either to ignore both or to attack both in similar terms.

  12. the commenter formally known as anon
    August 1st, 2005 at 17:42 | #12

    OK jquiggin, but most advertising is not judging your current lifestyle – it is just trying to convince you that you’ll be better off buying their product.

    But not only is Affluenza judging my lifestyle, you interpret my (and others) negative reaction to that judgment as weakness: proof that our self-worth is defined by our consumption. Double whammy on the judgmental front.

    It is the judgmentalism that gives people the sh*ts. (can I say that?)

  13. August 1st, 2005 at 20:15 | #13

    Advertisers don’t use coercion. Hamilton’s book is not coercive, but his policy proposals are. I don’t object to the existence of his book — I object to the policies in it.

  14. the commenter formally known as anon
    August 1st, 2005 at 21:11 | #14

    For the record, I also do not object to the existence of the book.

    And while not coercive, I often find writing that is judgmental about lifestyle objectionable. It all tends to look like religious zealotry of one form or another.

  15. James Farrell
    August 2nd, 2005 at 10:49 | #15

    ‘Hamilton’s book is not coercive, but his policy proposals are.’

    Well, that’s an incisive distinction, JH. It separates Hamilton’s book from that huge category of books that both propose coercive policies and are inherently coercive. I wonder if there is a further category of books that, while coercive in themselves, do not propose coercive policies.

  16. James Farrell
    August 2nd, 2005 at 10:53 | #16

    Only ‘and’ was meant to be in italics. I’m lost without Comment Preview.

  17. August 2nd, 2005 at 17:20 | #17

    Textbooks for students are coercive. Students have to buy them, as a captive market. Indeed, academics often recommend their own or their colleagues’ own works for precisely this reason, but the policies (if any) therein are not necessarily coercive.

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