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326. Duration (VI)

Throughout the 1920s and the 1930s it was widely expected that the British coal industry would be nationalised. Everyone knew it was coming—after all, the economy had been effectively socialised during the First World War—and the same held true for the railways as well. At that time, until the 1980s really, the coal miners were the aristocracy of the working class—the vanguard of the labour movement, along, perhaps, with the railway workers. Our economy has changed so dramatically since then that this attitude seems absolutely antique, it is the attitude of Victorian industrialism—the understanding that everything relied, ultimately, on coal and that the railways were the premier technological innovation of the day.

For the socialists, of course, it was possible to run the country indirectly if they controlled the coal unions. Choke the coal supply through strike action and you became the sovereign, you could turn off the economy immediately and make any government fall; hence, in the 1980s, Thatcher posed the question: “Who runs Britain?” By this she meant, “Does the elected parliamentary government—the putative British sovereign—run Britain, or do the Communist-controlled coal unions run Britain?” Yet by the time that conflict arose the British coal industry was kaput and it was kaput, in part, because of what happened in the twenty-five years or so after the First World War: namely, the time horizon of the British coal industry was disrupted by the threat of nationalisation.

The right often talks about time horizons—and particularly so with regards to race, culture, and nations. This is because at the individual biological level an ability to delay gratification indicates intelligence and a facility to plan ahead; hence the famous “marshmallow test” tempts tots with a doubled mallowy reward if they can refrain from gobbling the marshmallow in front of them. The more intelligent children can delay their gratification and so receive the extra sweets, while the less intelligent gobble it up immediately—just like the grasshopper and the ant. And, as in Aesop’s fable, the disciplined and far-sighted child will go on to plan for retirement, invest in suitable stocks and shares, and so on. This capacity, so the researchers say, has an innate biological aspect and in turn explains why some countries are advanced industrial civilisations and others are not.

Yet it is also possible to distort time horizons, even for those little boys and girls who refrained from the immediate treat. This is what the British did to the coal industry in the inter-war period. The mine owners knew they could be nationalised at any moment, perhaps even by a so-called Conservative government, so they refused—quite rationally—to invest in the mines, for the investment would be lost.

As more modern mining nations, such as Germany, pulled ahead in production, Britain, the first kid on the industrial block, went backward. If a clear decision had been made one way or another it would not have been so bad; yet no decision was made until 1945, and by that time there had been twenty years of underinvestment in the industry. Notably, this change in time horizons—from responsible to short-sighted, “selfish” if you like—came about through an absence of a decisive decision.

Similar distortions exist in our contemporary sexual marketplace; since we have almost no restraints on sexuality in the West, women, primed to get the best deal for their eggs, find it difficult to settle on a man—often until it is too late—and are incentivised to leave their partners. Again, due to a situational condition, even people who think in the long-term, the more intelligent women, will act as short-termists—and it is perfectly rational for them to do so, given the incentives; they share the British coal industry’s fate, sterility. So this issue is not entirely about biological factors, although biology plays a role, and it is equally possible to imagine people who are inherently short-sighted being incentivised to act prudently for the future.


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