Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Gray Areas

Fall 1997

John Gray
Polity Press, 1997, xii + 212 pgs.

John Gray is a hard man to pin down. Just when you think you have understood his position, he declares inadequate what he has advocated only moments before. Endgames thus marks a definite stage forward in John Gray's thought. Before this book, he changed ideologies every six months: now, matters stay in constant uproar within the confines of a single book.

But John Gray does seem to hold fast to one constant. He finds much of contemporary political philosophy radically unsatisfactory. It says nothing of value to much of the world: "Unlike the liberalism of Hobbes, or of J.S. Mill, Rawls's liberalism has nothing to say to our contemporaries in Ankara, in Delhi, in St. Petersburg on in Shanghai. It is silent on the dilemmas confronting these people, the majority of humankind after all, who do not enjoy the blessings of American institutions, and who may not even take any western country as their model" (p. 53).

Thus, Rawls is to be condemned for devising a political theory that depends upon the particular understandings of those who live in modern Western societies: far better a theory universal in scope, in the style of Hobbes or Mill. If you think you have now grasped our author s view, I fear that you do not know John Gray. Elsewhere he maintains that justification is local and contextual, appealing to Wittgenstein. He writes with evident approval of Richard Rorty's "sustained polemic against a certain conception of philosophy the conception, roughly, that Wittgenstein attributed to F.P. Ramsay [sic] and condemned as 'bourgeois.' In this bourgeois understanding, philosophers aim to secure foundations of the practices of particular communities" (p. 56). (Names give our author trouble: besides "Ramsay" for "Ramsey" we have "John Ashberry" instead of "Ashbery" [p. 156].)

"Bourgeois" the quest for foundations may be, though I doubt it; but why is this observation an argument? By the way, it is implausible to attribute foundationalism to Ramsey, who was a pragmatist.

Regardless of the merits of Gray's case, it is now fairly clear what he has in mind. Universalist political theories, including classical liberalism, must be rejected because they disregard the contextual nature of justification. But at the same time, Rawls's Political Liberalism is to be condemned because it is local and contextual, in contrast to Hobbes's and Mill's far superior universalist theories. Welcome to the world of John Gray.

Those left reeling by Gray's espousal of contradiction need not give up hope: there are constants in his thought. One of these is loathing for the free market. He falls for the old bromide that the market destroys traditional values. Neo-liberal theory "failed to anticipate that among the unintended consequences of its policy of freeing up markets was a fracturing of communities, and a depletion of ethos and trust within institutions, which muted or thwarted the economic renewal which free markets were supposed to generate" (p. 36).

This view strikes me as radically false. As Mises stresses over and over, free market capitalism is a system of mass production for the masses. It provides consumers with whatever they wish to purchase: that is the way to fame and fortune. If people wish to retain traditional values and practices, will not producers have every incentive to offer them goods and services which are adapted to those preferences? Gray evidently takes the market to be a filtering device that sifts out preferences based on custom. But he neglects to tell us why the market has this singular property.

Once more, we are in danger of underestimating John Gray's ability to hold beliefs that appear inconsistent. He accuses "neo-liberal theory" of failing to recognize that "flourishing market institutions may be accompanied by, or even depend upon, non-individualist [presumably traditional] forms of social and moral life" (p. 35). He evidently has Singapore principally in mind here. How can the market both destroy traditional values, on the one hand, yet be accompanied by, and depend on, traditional values on the other? I fear that no one less eminent than an Oxford don can hope to understand this I for one cannot.

In spite of this last example of shall we say "tension"? in Gray's thought, his dominant view stands out clearly: for him the market is a destructive force. One might expect that, since he condemns the market for loosening traditional bonds, groups that endeavor to maintain these values would win his support. But, once again, this is not John Gray's style. He sharply opposes such groups. They are "cultural fundamentalists" who seek to restore values that are irretrievably dead and gone." "'[T]raditional Christian morality' is for most people in Britain today not even a historical memory" (p. 129).

Perhaps we can reconcile the apparent contradiction in this way. The market destroys traditional values and is hence to be condemned. But it is too late to restore them: thus the efforts of cultural conservatives are futile.

But I do not think that this line of analysis will do the trick. Gray not only thinks that the market destroys traditional values (except of course when it depends on them): he also thinks that modern people, at least in Britain, have developed a new set of values. And of this phenomenon he is entirely in favor: "This common culture is liberal about sexuality and marriage and is concerned about illegitimacy and one-parent families only where they are unchosen and harmful to the interests of children. It rejects religious beliefs about the value of human life and is favorably inclined to euthanasia. Increasingly, it departs not only from Christian values but also from humanism in its concern for the well-being of animals and the integrity of the natural environment, considered not as means to human purposes but as goods in themselves" (p. 129).

Let us pause to recapitulate. The market destroys traditional values; it is bad for doing so; groups that attempt to restore traditional values are bad; and we have a new set of non- traditional values that is to be applauded. Did the market produce this set of values? If it did, why does Gray condemn it; if it did not, how did these values arise? My head is swimming.

I hope no reader is so benighted as to ask why the new values are worthy of adoption. If you are looking for arguments for moral theories you had best exit Endgames at once. Argument is so "bourgeois," is it not?

The epigraph of this book might well have been "one step forward, two steps back." A last instance of Gray's pattern must suffice for now. The National Health Service, established by the post-World War II Labour government, was an institution of surpassing excellence. The attempt by Mrs. Thatcher's government to introduce market principles into the NHS led to disaster, and her innovations must be reversed. But the old NHS has gone the way of history, and efforts to restore it are futile.

I have so far presented a number of puzzles that arise out of John Gray's views. I should now like to pose a puzzle of my own. How can a once well-known classical liberal theorist embrace the farrago of nonsense on continual display in Endgames?

A vital clue that helps us solve this puzzle may be found on the last page of the text. Gray writes: "Rightly called the purest thinker of the West, Socrates embodied, if he did not originate, the understanding of humans as rational animals. By now it is very old news that such an understanding of ourselves is one of the many things that comes to an end with the modern age. Yet the idea of humans as thinking beings remains, perhaps, the chief obstacle to thinking in our age" (p. 186).

Now, the veil is removed, and we grasp John Gray's position in its inmost essence. He has decided to give up thought and has carried out his resolution with notable success. Who but a believer in outmoded rationality could fail to extend Dr. Gray congratulations?


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