The Reith Lectures: “Bankers lose millions but seem not to care”

This year's Reith Lecturer Niall Ferguson talks about our age of moral failure with Justin Webb

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Professor Niall Ferguson has a question. How many clubs am I in? He is unimpressed with my reply – two – and tells me sternly that in the past a fellow like me would have been in a dozen or more. And his point? Moral decline, folks. Civil society in tatters thanks to my failure – and yours – to engage with our fellow citizens, hence on a global scale Western values no longer useful, the Western example no longer relevant.

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Unsurprisingly, among the primary symptoms of this decline is, according to Ferguson, debt. I say unsurprisingly because we are all of us – even those of us who are not Harvard economic historians – painfully aware that entire economies are hanging by threads this summer because of an overhang of unsustainable debt. Debt incurred by governments, by individuals, and by banks. Debt that, in all honesty, can probably never be repaid. Debt that must be turned into loss: a loss that will permanently reduce our wealth.

Ferguson, who is delivering the 2012 Reith Lectures, links our debt with our wider attitudes and behaviours. He acknowledges (as politicians sometimes fail to) that debt can work: it can finance expansion and the creation of wealth. But we have used it badly. There has been, he says, “a kind of moral failure – a moral failure in the private sector to finance investment rather than consumption and a moral failure in the public sector where debt was used as a way of avoiding difficult decisions about taxation and spending in the good times.” Debt, the professor points out, “is not a technical subject to be addressed only in the Financial Times – it is of much more profound importance than that.”

So these are Reith Lectures for our times. They are focused on us. You can switch them off, indeed you can fail to switch them on in the first place, but you can’t escape them: they are about you and your lifestyle, and its implications.

Much of this, as I say, we already know. We do not need a Reith lecture to tell us that society is in a mess and economic failure is a symptom of something worse. Politicians regularly tell us these things: in America and in Britain they have been saying it ever since the financial crisis began. But Ferguson tries to dig deeper into areas where the politicians fail to tread. He connects the breakdown of civil society, the clubs in which informal but powerful boundaries were put on our behaviour, with our failure to keep control of our debt and our failure to keep control of our financial institutions.

And then he goes further: it is no use, he claims in his second lecture, simply calling for more regulation of those financial institutions and assuming that our job is done. Failure of regulation was not the cause of our financial demise: the failure was a much deeper one. “Bankers lose millions of dollars but seem not to care,” says Ferguson. “Once, they’d have committed suicide for less.” More regulation can’t solve that underlying moral decay that rots not just the financial industry but, Ferguson claims, many other institutions that no longer serve us as they should.

Another Ferguson question: when did I last use a lawyer? Er, quite recently, in fact, to challenge a contractor who had installed a dud central heating system. And were you satisfied? Certainly not – the advice was useless and the bill huge. Bingo. Grimly, the professor marks up another piece of evidence for his charge that the law no longer works for people – it exists increasingly, he will claim in these lectures, to fund and sustain and satisfy itself. For there to be a proper “rule of law” you have to have a legal system that gives access to justice to all: we do not have this properly any more.

One of the immediate results of these multiple failures of institutions that once worked, Ferguson claims, is a horrible inability of the West to provide a decent example of how to behave at the very moment that the Middle East is throwing off the shackles of its un-free past, at the very moment that China is wondering what kind of politics should match its economic success, at the very moment when Africa is stirring as a distinct and vibrant force in the world. Ferguson puts it bluntly: “Our credibility is shot.”

Is it? These days the Reith lectures are interactive affairs – the audiences can question the lecturer afterwards, and I suspect Ferguson will be taken to task for a view that fails to note an inconvenient fact about modern life: it ain’t all bad. In fact, compared with the 1950s or the 1920s or whatever golden era Ferguson has in mind, it is in respects, you could argue, a good deal better. Our fellow club members probably did keep us in check in those days, but they also blackmailed us if we were gay. My mother was sacked from her job for getting pregnant without being married in 1960. That was the club in action.

Perhaps Ferguson will adapt his talks as he hears his critics’ voices; after all, he is an extraordinarily prolific author and famously able to write quickly. I ask him how long the lectures took him.

“What makes you think they’re finished?” Off-the-cuff Reith? That would be truly modern.

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Listen to the first Reith Lecture – Tuesday at 9am on Radio 4 – with the other three on Radio 4 on 26 June, 3 and 10 July.