The Jamie Whyte Trade-off

Amol Rajan

Jamie Whyte is one of my favourite columnists.  He has an outstanding grasp of logic, the product (in part) of his tenure at the Moral Sciences Club in Cambridge.

Whyte shares two foundational values in his approach to politics with me: first, a distaste for tribalism; second, a belief that policy should be servant to moral considerations, rather than the other way round.

I’ll write about this in a column some day. 

To a much larger degree than is generally acknowledged, politics is the art of making the answers to the question “What’s the right policy?” and “What’s the right thing to do?” seem similar, when in fact they are wholly distinct.

Whyte works out the morality of a problem, and prescribes a policy solution.  I try to do the same.  This approach is obviously incompatible with modern democracies, which demand compromise and consensus (especially in Coalitions).  But it’s the right way to think about political problems.  Far too many of our politicians, and their various propagandists in the media, obsess over “What is the right policy?”, and provide themselves with the answer “Whatever gets us into power”.

Whyte’s approach has led him to a fanatical distaste for the State which I do not share. He thinks that it is always and inevitably the case that the State does not hold better information about your preferences or my preferences than you or I – and is therefore wrong to make decisions about our preferences on our behalf.

I like this. It is liberal. I enjoy Whyte’s liberalism when I agree with it, as when he argues beautifully for the legalisation of drugs.

But there are times when government intervention, with the associated curtailment of liberty, is morally necessary, to improve the standard of living of the vulnerable (many of whom are poor). This is called social justice.

So Whyte and I have our disagreements. But I cannot recommend highly enough his piece in the Wall Street Journal today, which elucidates his view on the ignorance that is often the basis of government – ignorance of our individual preferences, and how to satisfy them.

It is argued with a severe, unrelenting logic and clarity.  I wished I’d written it.

  • airmarshall

    Politics in reality has and always shall be a matter of moving things around. Consider the current global position, that is all that the worlds governments are doing right now, moving things around to suit their own ends.

    As to the question of morals being the driving force?

    Consider a moral position undertaken in your believing it to being the right thing, how do you know?

    In a world like this one you don’t and on the face of it any government only ever applies the use of morals when it suits them and to their own ends.

  • Guest

    Blair was, as nearly always, wrong when he said politics could be a place for great causes.

    Government may be the place for some with a desire for betterment of the whole and for good causes, but by definition politics is the use of expediency to gain power. It will always be a Machiavellian mechanism by which those with a desire for nothing but their own ends gravitate.

    I would, therefore, tend to agree witht he idea that politics would be best kept as far away from government as possible.

    As for moral rectitude or a logical thought process being the product of a club in Cambridge University, I find myself occasionally able to think proper and stuff without ever attending that place.

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