I know it is usually the epitome of lazyblogging to point out the deficiencies of Louise Mensch's thinking, but there's something she tweeted recently (via) that deserves attention. Objecting to the continued backlash against the Sun's despicable coverage of Hillsborough, she said:
Nobody at the Sun was bloody even working there then. They were mostly kids and teens. It's absolutely immoral to blame them.
This is wrong. Put it this way. Why does she (and her colleagues) work for the Sun rather than simply blog on their own? The answer is obvious - the Sun has a big, monetizable readership that Ms Mensch couldn't create for herself, and this allows her to earn more from writing for the Sun than she could from blogging.
But why does the Sun have this advantage? It's because it built it up over time. Ms Mensch is profiting from the Sun's history. And if she wants to benefit from that history, she can hardly complain when others point out that the history is a less than glorious one.
But here's the thing. What's true of Ms Mensch is true for all of us who work for big, old organizations. Why do I get paid by the Investors Chronicle but not for blogging? It's not because my blogging is mere hot air whereas my day job isn't. Nor is it because I have ability when I write for the IC but not when I blog. Instead, it's because my writing for the IC generates a useful and monetizable match between my skills (such as they are) and my employers' vintage organizational capital. My wages are not a pure return to my skill - if they were, I could be paid for blogging too - so much as a share of that monetizable match.
For most of us, skills alone don't generate income; it is instead the match between skills and organizations that do so. This is why Wayne Rooney earns so much more than Tom Finney did. Ms Mensch gets (I presume) a decent wage from the Sun because there's a good match between writing shit and selling shit.
Most of us owe our salaries to history - to the existence of organizations which have built up monetizability over time.
It's in this context that Ms Mensch's error is a widespread one. She sees people as individuals detached from history. But we are not. Not only are we shaped by history, but we owe our wealth or poverty to history too.
This is trivially true of the differences between nations. I'm rich and the typical Burundian is poor not because I'm clever and hard-working whilst he isn't but because I was born in a country with three centuries of economic growth behind it and he wasn't.
It is also true of differences between people in the same nation. Imagine we'd had no social or technical change since medieval times. Then me and Ms Mensch wouldn't earn much, whereas the otherwise unemployable meathead who's good in a fight would do OK. But because we've had such change, we're doing OK and the meathead is on the dole. We've benefited from centuries of literacy-biased technical change just as some folk more recently have benefited from maths-biased technical change.
We recently - and rightly - commemorated the heroes who fought at D-Day. But we don't just owe our good fortune to them, but to the millions of our predecessors in the last few centuries who contributed to economic growth, to companies, and to the institutions which sustain and enhance our well-being.
When Barack Obama said "you didn't build that", he was speaking an important truth. Some people like Ms Mensch, however, are too knuckleheadly narcissistic to appreciate this.