Paul Seabright

Paul Seabright is a professor of economics at the University of Toulouse-1.

Who is the villain? the new economy

Paul Seabright, 22 August 2002

Of the many fantasies provoked by the spread of the Internet, few are creepier than the vision of a world in which every relationship can be dissolved at the click of a mouse. Yet the click might also seem liberating, empowering even, to the person doing the clicking. Robert Reich’s book is about the consequences, for our work and our lives, of the so-called new economy and – more...

Diary: What Explosion?

Paul Seabright, 1 November 2001

On 21 September, the day of the explosion, I should not have been in Toulouse at all. I was due to be in America, where a conference that involved many people flying long distances was being held in a defiant gesture of business as usual. My excuse seemed curiously convenient. ‘You fell off a bridge?’ There were no external traces, barely even a bruise, just a tendency to wince...

In the Languedoc there is a vineyard that teaches us an important lesson about textbook learning and its application to the world. In the early Seventies it was bought by a wealthy couple, who consulted professors Emile Peynaud and Henri Enjalbert, the world’s leading academic oenologist and oenological geologist respectively. Between them these men convinced the couple that their new vineyard had a theoretically ideal microclimate for wine-making. When planted with theoretically ideal vines whose fruits would be processed in the optimal way according to the up-to-date science of oenology, this vineyard had the potential to produce wine to match the great first growths of Bordeaux. The received wisdom that great wine was the product of an inscrutable (and untransferable) tradition was quite mistaken, the professors said: it could be done with hard work and a fanatical attention to detail. The couple, who had no experience of wine-making but much faith in professorial expertise, took a deep breath and went ahead.

The Operatic Theory of History: a new Russia

Paul Seabright, 26 November 1998

The current crisis in Russia and the near-unanimous pessimism it has generated about the country’s prospects make this an unfortunate time to be reviewing two books with titles as upbeat as Rebirth of a Nation and Resurrection. Curiously, though, neither book has dated as much as one might have expected since the events of last August – which is to say that the crisis has told us little we did not know, at least in outline, before.’

Down with deflation!

Paul Seabright, 12 December 1996

The power of central bankers – about which Edward Luttwak wrote in the LRB of 14 November – arises not just from their control over important aspects of economic policy, but also from the acceptance by the rest of us of what they may legitimately do in the exercise of this control. Until recently, our acceptance of the notion that central bankers should be committed to price stability has been entirely uncritical; and price stability (not low, but zero inflation) is what the European Central Bank will be required to maintain. But now that European Monetary Union suddenly looks a real, even an imminent possibility, a skirmish has broken out among economists about whether price stability is what monetary policy should be required to achieve.

Five Tools for Going Forward

Paul Seabright, 23 July 1992

Twenty years after The Limits to Growth comes the sequel. It’s a hard act to follow: the original sold nine million copies and made its authors and backers, the so-called Club of Rome, famous with its prophecy that the comfortable optimism of the Sixties was threatened by a combination of population growth, resource exhaustion and the effluents produced by affluence. The authors used a large computer model to project economic and demographic trends, and predicted a collapse of living standards by the middle of the 21st century unless dramatic changes were made. A decade after the Cuba missile crisis, a world that was learning to live with the superpower confrontation reacted in alarm to the warning that a population explosion would be no less deadly than that of the ICBMs, and much harder to control. Some pessimists even derived a certain lugubrious pleasure from thinking the baby boom more inevitable and more damaging than the atomic kind. Demographic warfare differs from the traditional sort in that going nuclear usually signals de-escalation. But the authors warned that slowing the birth rate (did they choose the title Club of Rome deliberately?) would be nothing like enough to avoid calamity. At any foreseeable stable population level, even existing consumption trends would exhaust the world’s resources and pollute its environment beyond repair.

Death by erosion

Paul Seabright, 11 July 1991

Two of Britain’s largest remaining nationalised industries – the Church of England and the National Health Service – have recently acquired new bosses who have publicly declared that the Nineties will be a decade of major change. This has set me wondering what kind of reaction George Carey might expect if the plans he had in mind for his own organisation were at all like those being implemented under William Waldegrave. Capitation fees and evangelism budgets for individual priests? The chance for churches to opt out of diocesan control? A division between purchasers and providers so that a diocese can draft in the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Wee Frees if it suspects that the fare in its own parishes is becoming a little dull? A small minority would no doubt welcome these along with other transatlantic innovations, but for most the sheer, well, commercialism of it all would provoke a delicious shudder of horror.’

Sri Lanka’s Crisis

Paul Seabright, 29 October 1987

Until the end of last month, the peace accord signed between India and Sri Lanka on 29 July appeared, precariously and against the odds, to be holding firm. As I write this article, several incidents of major violence are threatening to destroy an agreement which, for two astonishing months, seemed to promise the country reconstruction and renewal. When, in May, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces launched an assault on the northern Jaffna peninsula, which had for two years been almost entirely controlled by the main Tamil militant organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE), nobody could have foreseen imminent peace. So bleak and featureless was the political horizon that the BBC’s Colombo correspondent was on holiday when the accord was announced. The surprise, and the relief it brought to those sections of the community most devastated by the war, were remarkable. But Rajiv Gandhi has signed accords before. The Punjab accord was pulled like a rabbit out of a turban with much the same wizardry less than three years ago, and the Punjab is now virtually in civil war. Is the same happening to Sri Lanka?

Shall we tell the children?

Paul Seabright, 3 July 1986

When Alix Strachey, translator of Freud, went to Berlin in 1924 to seek psychoanalysis with Freud’s colleague, Karl Abraham, her most momentous acquisition, in an accumulation consisting inter alia of books, antique knick-knacks and (to a compulsive extent, on the evidence of her letters) of Apfeltorte under lashings of cream, was a then little-known child-analyst of Polish-Slovakian extraction named Melanie Klein. It was largely thanks to the efforts of Alix and her husband James in bringing Klein to the attention of the British Psycho-Analytical Society that she moved to London in 1926 after the death of Abraham. He had been Klein’s mentor and analyst, and without him she had little defence against the hostility that was surfacing in the Berlin Society and that she was to provoke in one form or another throughout her career. Klein was, by general consent, not an easy person, but Alix Strachey (no pushover herself) quickly came to a warm appreciation of her qualities of mind even while considering her a testimonial to the effects of psychoanalysis on the grounds that ‘she’d be almost intolerable if she had’nt [sic] been well basted by it.’ In personal matters Alix was intolerant: Klein, she said, ‘dances like an elephant’ – a severe handicap when the major preoccupation in Twenties Berlin was party-going. Alix clearly found vulgar Klein’s penchant for dressing up for these parties ‘as a kind of Cleopatra – terrifically décolletée – and covered in bangles and rouge’ and for being ‘frightfully excited and determined to have a thousand adventures’. But ‘my respect for her continues to grow. She’s got not only vast hoards of data, but a great many ideas, all rather formless and mixed, but clearly capable of crystallising in her mind.’ Alix sent a résumé of one of Klein’s papers for discussion in the British Society (fertile ground already since an interest in child analysis had been evinced by several of its members, including Nina Searl, Ella Sharpe, Susan Isaacs, Donald Winnicott and Barbara Low). Ernest Jones, the President and later Freud’s biographer, was enthusiastic (‘absolutely heart-and-soul whole-hogging pro-Melanie’, according to James Strachey). In July 1925 Klein visited London to give a course of lectures on child analysis, and her arrival for good in 1926 was a most natural consequence. Britain was to remain her home until she died in 1960, and the British Psycho-Analytical Society the vehicle for an extraordinarily creative and controversial career, a vehicle which was nevertheless driven almost to disintegration by the wrangles and bitterness that career provoked. That these animosities and the gossip on which they fed persisted for so long makes especially welcome Phyllis Grosskurth’s scholarly book, the first full biography of Klein.’


Paul Seabright, 5 September 1985

Bernard Williams’s new book is the nearest thing to a systematic and comprehensive discussion of moral philosophy we can hope for from someone who thinks a yearning for systematic and comprehensive discussion is the main defect of moral philosophy today. The author identifies ethics as the subject constituted by certain kinds of attempt to answer Socrates’s question: how one should live. As the title suggests, much of the book consists of an attack on the claims of philosophy to provide ethical answers to the question. More precisely (since it never quite explains what is to count as philosophy), it attacks the claims of a certain rationalistic and foundationalist method in moral philosophy, a method broadly though not exclusively associated with Kant. In general, Professor Williams represents his target as an entire dominant trend in Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophy (though occasional grumblings in the footnotes suggest an annoyance at more specific currents, such as evangelical vegetarianism). In his first three chapters he contrasts it with some elements in classical ethical thought, which he thinks closer to providing an attractive account, even though its attempt to ground ethics entirely in considerations about human nature is a failure. But though some of the classical debris is salvageable, Williams is in no doubt that philosophy can provide ethical guidance only by accident: he concludes his book by affirming a substantial ethical individualism, a belief in ‘the continuing possibility of a meaningful individual life, one that does not reject society … but is enough unlike others, in its opacities and disorder as well as in its reasoned intentions, to make it somebody’s. Philosophy can help to make a society possible in which most people would live such lives, even if it still needs to learn how best to do so. Some people might even get help from philosophy in living such a life – but not, as Socrates supposed, each reflective person, and not from the ground up.’’

Dependence and Danger

Paul Seabright, 4 July 1985

Is it possible for the aspirations of politics in mass societies to be informed by that central tradition in art, religion and psychology which emphasises the world of personal relationships as the supreme source of value and fulfilment for human beings? This question, one of the most important in political philosophy, has been curiously neglected by the Anglo-Saxon tradition in our own time. It is marginal even in political rhetoric, the province of hippies and High Church totalitarians. How many of those on the left, who in their public lives advocate a ‘politics of compassion’, would be satisfied in their private lives with receiving compassion from others instead of dignity or love? How many of those on the right who see the aim of politics as the expansion of freedom would regard the pursuit of freedom per se in their own lives as anything other than empty, even wanton? In the relationships that matter to us most, it can be bitter to be offered compassion without passion, freedom without attachment. There is, it is true, a version of pluralism in political thought which draws a neat line between the public and the private spheres. It allocates to politics the role of ensuring that the conditions of public life (the distribution of power and wealth, the protection of individual rights) are such as to allow individuals the best opportunities to pursue a life of private personal encounter, in which life alone human fulfilment lies. It thus reconciles (or defends the inconsistency between) the values of politics and those of personal encounter at the cost of an unconvincing dichotomy between public and private: unconvincing partly because with improving techniques of communication and control, with ‘personality polities’, the private realm extends increasingly outward, but chiefly because, as artists have always known, even into relationships of the most familial and intimate kind politics can reach very far.


Paul Seabright, 21 March 1985

One evening last September, millions of viewers watched three young men forge a Modigliani sculpture live on Italian television. Three things distinguished the programme from other forgers’ At Homes, such as the BBC’s regular visits to the studio of Tom Keating (a sale of whose work had raised £274,000 at Christie’s that very day). The men were undergoing a public trial of their claim to be the sculptors of one of the three heads found underwater in the Fosso Reale in Leghorn in July, and declared by a hallelujah chorus of critics to be among ‘the crowning achievements of Modigliani’s oeuvre’. Unlike Keating, the three had had no training in artistic technique. And their method of producing Modigliani forgeries – including the one that had been described by Cesare Brandi, one of Italy’s most prestigious critics, as having ‘an interior light, like a veilleuse’ – was to lean on an old paving slab with a Black and Decker drill. ‘Though they do not yet have the characteristic, marvellously elongated and consumptive shapes,’ Brandi continued, ‘here in these stones we see their annunciation, their presence.’’

Why are we bad?

Paul Seabright, 15 November 1984

‘Of all the creatures that were made,’ wrote Mark Twain, ‘man is the most detestable. Of the entire brood he is the only one, the solitary one, that possesses malice. That is the basest of all instincts, passions, vices – the most hateful. He is the only creature that inflicts pain for sport, knowing it to be pain. Also in all the list, he is the only creature that has a nasty mind.’ Why? There, in a word, you have the question addressed by Mary Midgley’s new book. It is different from the Problem of Evil as this has been traditionally known to theologians – namely, how an omnipotent and good God could create a world that has evil within. Theodicy has always been capable of interpretation in two ways: most traditionally, as a question of justification, of coming to terms with the fact of evil in the world, consistently with our respect for God its creator. Alternatively, and increasingly with the advance of secular thought, the problem has been seen as an evidential one. does the evil visible in the world admit of the existence of a good and omnipotent God at all? For the traditional problem, evil not due to human agency has always presented the greatest challenge. But the modern version, which Mary Midgley sees ‘as our problem, not God’s’, focuses entirely on the evil caused by the actions of man. It arises for both believers and unbelievers, and is best described as a humanist version of the justification question: how can we come to terms with the evil that we do, consistently with our self-respect? Now just as over time the presumption of respect for God has increasingly been questioned, a fact that has changed the way in which the traditional problem is viewed, so it may be (as Mark Twain’s sour tone suggests) that taking our self-respect for granted is a vain prejudice too, and that the only answer to the problem of human evil is that it has no answer: that we are just a revoltingly evil species. But even if that is so, most of us are still unable to live with the self-knowledge. And the prematurity of the pessimistic conclusion is underlined by another reflection: the Problem of Evil is distinct from the problem of accounting for the moral categories of good and evil in human life; in neither the traditional nor the humanist versions has anybody worried about the Problem of Good. Whether foolishly or not, once we think in moral terms we do find it natural to assume a modicum of self-respect, just as (whether simple-mindedly or not) we have thought it natural to assume respect for anybody who has created the universe. It has been evil that seemed anomalous, and it is the understanding of evil in terms compatible with our self-respect that is attempted by Mary Midgley’s book.’

When three is one

Paul Seabright, 20 September 1984

Outside the community of analytic philosophers (and occasionally, subtly, within it) few figures are regarded with quite the mixture of coolness and condescension accorded to the thoroughly rational man. Robert Musil wrote of the wife of a civil servant that ‘what she called “soul” was nothing but a small capital of capacity for love that she had possessed at the time of her marriage. Permanent Secretary Tuzzi was not the right stock to invest it in … apart from the period of honeymoon caresses, Permanent Secretary Tuzzi had always been a utilitarian and a rationalist, who never lost his equilibrium.’ Rationality, we are invited to conclude, may be good for you in doses but can wither the spirit; beyond a certain point its study becomes the province of moral pathology. It has not always been thought so, but there would be few dissenters nowadays. So when David Pears writes of his book Motivated Irrationality that ‘Western philosophy has always puffed the pretensions of reason, which, therefore, can do with a certain amount of deflation,’ one has a sense of relief that a philosophically neglected subject is at last being accorded serious treatment. But it mingles with curiosity as to whether his iconoclasm will be radical enough to shock any but the most austere professionals. David Pears writes with an abstract analytical rigour that is an unexpected vehicle for his anti-rational ambitions. As with every poacher-turned-gamekeeper (or is it vice versa?) his qualifications for the job could not be better – but one wonders how far his heart is in it.–

Genetic Supermarket

Paul Seabright, 3 May 1984

Positive genetic engineering – aimed not just at the elimination of identifiable genetic defects but at the promotion of physical, mental and emotional characteristics in our descendants by direct genetic manipulation – is likely to be technologically possible in the fairly near future. How should we greet this development? The history of our century has given ample reason to fear the abuse of such technology in the hands of totalitarian governments. But the caution that should temper our response does not exhaust the issues raised, nor does it necessarily override all other considerations. Just as the morality of splitting the atom raises questions in fields far beyond the reach of Doctor Strangelove, so genetic engineering confronts us with questions that stand clear of the shadow of Auschwitz and Brave New World.

Blite and Whack

Paul Seabright, 19 January 1984

A year or two ago my eye was caught by the cover of a magazine on an American news-stand. It was a magazine for the working woman, and its title, in the best traditions of the me-generation, was Self. The cover advertised articles with titles like ‘The Problems of the Kept Man’ and ‘What if He Says No?’ But what attracted my attention was the rather Californian injunction flashed in bold letters across the top: ‘Let’s Be Real!’

Human Welfare

Paul Seabright, 18 August 1983

‘It’s pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness: poverty and wealth have both failed,’ says Kin Hubbard’s creation Abe Martin. Since the pursuit of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ has proved so perplexingly difficult in practice, discussion of the philosophical foundations of utilitarianism can easily appear to be otiose. Sometimes it seems obvious that the pursuit of general welfare is what morality and public policy must be all about now that the theological underpinnings of traditional morality have crumbled, and a waste of time to argue over that when the technical obstacles are so pressing. At other times the very elusiveness of welfare, happiness and related notions can make it seem equally obvious that the whole enterprise is shot through with hubris.

Conversations with Rorty

Paul Seabright, 16 June 1983

In the opening pages of Gibbon’s Autobiography, there is an entertaining account of a visit to Virginia in 1659 by his ancestor Matthew Gibbon:


Planet Wal-Mart

22 June 2006

John Lanchester writes that ‘the most damaging damage done by Wal-Mart is in the developing world,’ citing as instances the 189,000 seamstresses employed in Bangladesh in conditions that he and I would find unspeakably harsh, and the imports from China to Wal-Mart of $18 billion per year (LRB, 22 June). Does Lanchester imagine that Wal-Mart has created the poverty in Bangladesh and China...

How to Say It

2 January 2003

Peter Pulzer (Letters, 23 January) puts his finger on a difficult point when he writes that for Tom Paulin to deny ‘the legitimacy of Israel as a state … is to imply that all peoples may have nation-states, with just one exception.’ Is there no room then for a point of view that would deny any peoples as such the entitlement to a nation-state, which sees nation-states as owing duties...
Since he first ran in a Presidential election in 1974, Jean-Marie Le Pen has been telling his audiences that the French political classes are lying to them. He is not wrong. Mainstream politicians of all parties have maintained, even more than in most other industrial democracies, a pas devant les enfants approach to difficult issues of all kinds, including the funding of political parties, economic...

Explosion in Toulouse

1 November 2001

I was gloomily unsurprised to learn from Chris Miller (Letters, 29 November 2001) that the UK is even more densely packed with sites stocked with poisons and explosives than is France. The fact that Toulouse is a relatively safe place makes the recent explosion here all the more disturbing. Until 11 September public policy sought to secure aircraft against accidents and sabotage by the prudent, but...
Multinationals are a complex and troubling feature of modern society, but they will not go away and it is not remotely desirable that they should. They wield a lot of political influence, some bad and some good. They are the theatre for much of the comedy and tragedy of personal life at the turn of the millennium. They also transmit knowledge and skills across frontiers and generations. They value...
Michael Byers’s article on the lessons of Seattle (LRB, 6 January) managed to add to the already voluminous confusion on this subject, as much by what it did not say as what it did. It began with an accurate account of the way the WTO has failed sufficiently to advance the aspirations of the world’s poorest countries. It concluded with an approving nod to ‘the rise in power …...

Brief Shining Moments

19 February 1998

Did I miss something, or was Christopher Hitchens’s rubbishing of the claim that ‘sexual conduct’ has ‘little to do with leadership capabilities’ unsupported by any of the evidence in the rest of his piece about Kennedy? The article amasses such overwhelming reasons to despise Kennedy on familiarly political grounds that it’s puzzling why Hitchens thinks anything...

Alas! Deceived

25 March 1993

Alan Bennett’s piece on Philip Larkin (LRB, 25 March) was so subtle about the impact of the art on the life (and especially Larkin’s tendency to use his ‘fall-back position as Great Poet’ as a let-out for banal everyday selfishness) that it was a surprise to see Bennett approach the question of the impact our knowledge of the life should have on our reaction to the art by citing...

Serial Killers

11 July 1991

John Lanchester’s article (LRB, 11 July) about serial killers made particularly interesting reading in the light of Isabel Hilton’s piece in the same issue about what she called ‘the criminal underside of Reagan’s Central America policy’. As Amnesty International routinely reminds us, armies, police forces and secret services around the world employ serial killers in large...
Paul Seabright writes: n the light of the fact that Professor Grosskurth and I were supplied by the Melanie Klein Trust with different versions of the Autobiography, I unreservedly withdraw my remarks about misquotation. The Trust did not inform me of the discrepancy, and by telling me that the fragment had not been published because it ‘would need a lot of editing’, implied that it had...
SIR: I have to report that, in spite of Richard Rorty’s valiant efforts, Descartes’s malicious demon is alive and well and living in Bedford Square. In my review of Consequences of Pragmatism (LRB, 16 June), I quoted Rorty’s claims that the realist confuses two views, and wrote that I doubted ‘whether the most rampant realist would assent to such palpable nonsense as 2’....

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