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How We Were All Misled

I think, though, that the failure of responsibility was linked to a failure of agency—the individual’s ability to affect the course of events. An enormous number of people today feel as if they have very little economic agency in their own lives: often, they are right to feel that. The decisions that affect their fates are taken far above their heads, and often aren’t conscious decisions at all, so much as they are the operation of large economic forces over which they have no control—impersonal forces whose effects are felt in directly personal ways.

It is difficult to feel responsible when you have no agency. Many of the people who did stupid things—who did things on that 0–10 scale—did so because everyone around them was doing them too, and because loud voices were telling them to carry on. The Icelanders who bought cars with foreign currency loans were sold them by financiers who promised that it was a good idea; the Irish who bought now-unsellable houses on empty estates were told, by builders and bankers and the state, that this was a once-in-a-generation opportunity; the Greeks who are, at the time of writing, furiously rebelling against austerity measures were falsely told that the state could afford to look after them, and arranged their lives accordingly.

The collective momentum of a culture is, for more or less everybody more or less all of the time, overwhelming. This is especially true for anything to do with economics. The evidence is clear: it is easy to mislead people about money, and easy to lead members of the public astray both individually and en masse, because when it comes to money, most of us, most of the time, don’t know what we’re doing. The corollary is also clear: the whole Western world misled itself over debt, and the road back from where we are goes only uphill.

—November 10, 2011

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