Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Is there ever 'no alternative'?

In Britain we are waiting with some anxiety for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to announce, on Thursday, the results of the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review. We are expecting severe cuts in public spending, and we are being told ‘there is no alternative’ because of the state of the public finances.

This week’s post comes from Simon Beard. Simon is a freelance political researcher and consultant working on a wide range of issues, from feed-in tariffs to same-sex marriage. He writes for several think tanks and is also currently studying philosophy and public policy at the LSE. He is a member of Littlehampton Quaker Meeting.
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Readers familiar with the UK in the 1980s may shudder at the mention of the name TINA. Nothing to do with the pop star Tina Turner but an acronym, for ‘There Is No Alternative’, frequently used by the Conservative government in the 1980s, under Margaret Thatcher, to justify a whole range of drastic market based policies, many of which later proved disastrous. Schools, Housing, the National Health Service and taxation were all cut, sold off, chopped and changed, all under the assumption that doing anything else would simply have been impossible.

Readers who are also familiar with the UK at the moment may feel a sense of déja-vu as a coalition government of the Conservatives and (my own) Liberal Democrats appears to be making a strikingly similar argument to achieve the same purpose.

Personally I find this disturbing, for two reasons. First, because of now only lingering attachment to a party I have supported for as long as I can remember; but secondly because, despite many misgivings, I find myself thinking that they have a point – when we are leaving our children a world of depleted resources and a changed climate is it really acceptable to leave them substantial public debt as well?

However, it is really something we should all feel disturbed about, whatever our views of government cuts and market based reforms, because as campaigners for the abatement of climate change we often end up using the same arguments ourselves. How many times have you ended up exasperated by a climate sceptic or shameless consumerist thinking 'why can't they see that living like that just isn't an option?'

It is also a wider problem for Quakers. For instance, while we are very good at making the case for alternatives to violence, I think many Friends end up in denial about the existence of acceptable alternatives to non-violence, for instance in the case of intervening in the Rwandan genocide. I do not mean by this that we should change our position on cuts, climate change or pacifism. The thing is to remember that we are arguing for the best option, not the only option (or even for the only acceptable, rational, moral, feasible or 'Quakerly' option).

The problem with thinking like TINA is twofold. First, as the case of Thatcher's reforms illustrates, it can lead to making disastrous decisions, and to keep on making disastrous decisions in the face of the evidence that this is what is happening. However, even if the right choices are being made, TINA is still dangerous because it gets in the way of persuading others that these choices are the right ones.

When we cease to accept that there are alternatives to our own way of thinking, and move from believing it to be the best alternative to assuming it is the only alternative, we cease to take seriously the arguments of those who disagree with us. They move from being 'bad' arguments to being 'wrong' arguments and eventually to 'irrelevant' arguments not worthy of our consideration.

However, when we do this we can no longer engage with them, and hence put ourselves at a clear disadvantage when trying to persuade others that it is we who are correct. In closing ourselves to the possibility that we may be mistaken we can end up closing ourselves to the possibility of showing others their own mistakes. I find I can hardly bare to read the arguments of climate change deniers any more, but if I do not read them how can I hope to refute them?

No matter how convinced we are that climate change is real, that the moral and economic arguments for acting quickly to reduce it are compelling, that the means of doing so are effective, and that the effect of changing our own lives is more likely to be positive than negative, we still need to entertain the possibility that there is an alternative. If we start to think that all these beliefs cannot be false - i.e., if we start to think that there really is no alternative - then we become less able to show others the errors in their thinking, and so less able to help them see that all these things are true.
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Thanks to Simon for this post. Simon will be the co-tutor for the Good Lives(politics) weekend 1-3 April next year (not yet on Woodbrooke’s http://www.woodbrooke.org.uk/pages/courses-learning.html website).
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If you want to post a comment, and are having technical difficulties, you can email your comment to me at Good.Lives@woodbrooke.org.uk  and I can post it for you.

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1 comment:

  1. For a substantial financial and political discussion of public debt, in relation to climate change and capital investment in renewables, see:


    Sorry the comment box doesn't do live links!