Sanctimony, sanctimoney, and sanctimoany…
A little over 100 years ago American writer Henry Adams mused that “morality is a private and costly luxury”. Today is has become a cheap, public staple.
The national obsession with the level of contrition showed by Alan Jones for his extreme rhetoric at a political speech in September; shrill accusations of misogyny, along with revelations of hurt feelings, hurled at the Leader of the opposition by the Prime Minister are part of a trend toward public outpourings of sanctimony.
If the price of a good or service falls, people typically buy more. That iron law of economics applies equally to moral outrage, expressions of which have always involved forgoing alternatives. Rather than spend an hour writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper people would simply forget and move on. Time is money.
Demand has not shifted. People have not suddenly become more inclined to moralise – science and technology have only altered the means, not the ends, of human behaviour – but the cost of supplying moral outrage has collapsed.
Economic growth since the industrial revolution has been chipping away at the cost of production by giving people the technology and time to express themselves. But development of the internet, and in particular the spread of social media, have utterly felled it. Moral outrage is only a mouse-click or a ‘text message’ away.
Of course the internet and social media have improved life dramatically but they also have profoundly insidious consequences for the quality of public debate and the conduct of business.
Moral outrage crowds out debate on far more pressing matters. In the past fortnight alone more than 5 per cent of the year’s news has been dominated by the Alan Jones saga. Yesterday, whether or not some politicians condemned a joke by a comedian dominated national debate.
More pressing issues, even moral ones, are shunted aside. Why debate the justification for taxing poor workers to give a welfare handout for well-off couple to buy a house, for example, when one can agonise over whether the opposition leader hates women and hurt the prime minister’s feelings?
Enacting serious economic reform will become much harder as aggrieved parties marshal social media to mount campaigns against change, however worthwhile it may be. The risk of provoking a campaign in the first place will dampen the candour of public debate.
Big companies will tread especially carefully to avoid giving offence to anyone, which will ultimately push up their costs as they spend more on market research to work out which groups might take offence. They will need to develop costly marketing schemes that cater to the moral vanity of customers.
If financial damage is done to enough companies over time, the value of the entire stock market will wane, as the risk of investing increases. Nothing is without cost, even emotion writ large.
As the payments system develops to enable immediate transfer of funds from our mobile phones, causes based on sanctimonious rage, for instance, will more easily be able to attract funds, boosting their impact even further.
In the 19th century American economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’, partly to mock Americans’ use of possessions to flaunt their social status. But free markets have so successfully slashed the price of physical luxuries they no longer serve that purpose so well.
Conspicuous compassion is becoming the norm. Emotion of all sorts – not only sanctimony – is taking the place of reason in public debate, feelings are taking precedence over fact.
Free markets should hold these forces in check, but the profusion of government regulations, purportedly for the wellbeing of the ordinary person, has entrenched the belief that any misfortune is someone else’s fault. They have bolstered the notion that every mistake and intemperate comment deserves peremptory and relentless sanction by all and sundry.
English author CS Lewis wrote in 1965 that he preferred morality over moral earnestness: “I’d sooner live among people who don’t cheat at cards than among people who are earnest about not cheating at cards”.
Australia desperately needs more airing of such views.
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