John Brunner, “The new idolatry,” in Rebirth of Britain. By eighteen distinguished writers including The Rt. Hon. J. Enoch Powell M.P. (London: Institute of Economic Affairs & Pan Books, 1964), pp. 32-43.

One of the most cherished of our contemporary illusions is the notion that ours is a tough-minded sceptical generation, imbued with the scientific spirit and disrespectful of all authority. We contrast our scientific selves with our poor benighted ancestors sunk as they were in religion, superstition and all irrationalism, and most of us find the comparison rather flattering.

But is it, or have we merely substituted one set of symbols for another? Is our present deference to economists and other experts who think they can identify “the public interest” with the aid of the computer so very different from the deference of the ancient Greeks to the priests and acolytes who interpreted the word of the oracle for the populace to learn the will of the gods? One sees at work the same very human motivations, the same craving for certainty and the resolution of conflict, the same gullibility in face of those who claim to know the answers.

The present consensus on what is wrong in Britain is really rather remarkable. The great “soft centre” now seems to embrace everyone from the so-called left wing leader of the Labour party to the so-called right wing press who vie with each other in taking credit for the conversion of their ostensible opponents.

The gist of their diagnosis can I think be fairly summarised in terms of 3 Ps, the need for more Professionals, more Planning and a sense of National Purpose. There are obviously differences of emphasis here and there, but these three ingredients, closely related as they are, seem to be common to almost all current recipes for national revival. Just how far does this diagnosis stand up? How relevant are the proposed remedies to the shortcomings, real and imaginary, they are supposed to cure? How much scientific evidence is there to support an analysis put forward in the name of science?

The pitfalls of professionalism
Take for a start this question of professionals. Now it is easy to sympathise with the emotional revulsion against the gentlemen v. players mentality, against the grotesque social divisions that still afflict us, and against the nepotism that continues in so many sectors of our society and economy. (These affronts could well be tackled by a wealth tax or, if this is too much for the Inland Revenue, a capital levy, measures that the Labour party apparently eschews as much as the Conservatives.) But to pretend merely because we dislike these injustices that more professionals are the answer to our problems, and more specifically, the key to a higher rate of economic growth, is a most disingenuous rationalisation. A moment’s reflection on the situation of the US which, for all its much-vaunted schools of business and institutes of technology, is one of the few comparable nations with a lower rate of growth per head than ours, should be enough to make us hesitate before ascribing too many magical attributes to professionalism.

In fact, of course, virtually no attempt has been made to show just how more professionals would galvanise our economy. The imprecise manner in which the word “professional” is being used is evidence of the totally unscientific nature of the argument. Those who bandy the word about cannot conceivably mean us to model ourselves on the learned professions who, whatever their other merits, can hardly be regarded seriously as the spearhead of the drive to get Britain moving when they themselves are among its unregenerate elements. Nor is the word “professional” being used to describe anyone with a good general or scientific training, since so many of the most dynamic of our entrepreneurs (Sir Isaac Wolfson, John James, Kenneth Wood, John Bloom, Harry Rael-Brook) had only the most rudimentary formal education. Nor again can “professional” be meant to indicate someone who has specialised at his job, since the two blue-eyed boys of the cult of professionalism are Dr Richard Beeching and Lord Robens, and in no sense can they be described as professional railwaymen or miners. (When this point was put to perhaps the most influential of all contemporary anatomists, he changed the euphemism to “technocrat”, but this word too of course is quite inappropriate as a description of Lord Robens, ex trade union official and politician as he is.)

Another equally absurd aspect of the current reverence for the professional is the idea that recognition of his role is in some way the mark of a modern and scientific attitude. We are lectured on how the vast sum of human knowledge makes it impossible for any individual to remain proficient in more than one subject. We are continually being reminded of the virtues of specialisation. Somehow it all seems vaguely familiar, until suddenly one remembers where one heard it all before. It is of course one’s first year economics all over again, only then it was called the division of labour and credited to that old square Adam Smith. Who says it is only practical men who are the slaves of some defunct economist?

This new-found respect for Adam Smith comes at a time when many people less emotionally embattled on this question are beginning to have serious doubts about the merits of the division of labour in a dynamic economy. Men who received a specialised training in their youth are all too liable in the rapidly changing economic conditions of today to find that their skills are outdated long before the end of their working lives. They are thus obliged to adopt Luddite-like tactics to defend their jobs and thereby constitute a serious obstacle to growth.

In trying to counter this and other arguments for a rather more qualified support for specialists, the devotees of professionalism have confused the issue still further. In their efforts to knock the specialists they dislike without detriment to the good name of the expert, they have tied themselves up in the most incredible knots. For instance we have Professor Brian Chapman in his fashionable tract British Government Observed being forced to distinguish between good specialists, technical civil servants, and bad specialists because too specialised (sic), the administrative class. And Mr Anthony Wedgwood Benn, M.P., in a recent Guardian article ended an astonishingly tortuous attempt to square the circle with a stirring appeal to “generalise professionally”.

From all this it would seem reasonable to conclude that words like professional and expert have lost all useful meaning in the mouths of their partisans, and are being used simply to distinguish the good guys from the bad.

The pretensions of planning
If this were no more than a quibble about the meaning of words, the time might be coming to say joke over, but no great harm would have been done. There are, however, dangers in encouraging too credulous a belief in professionals, for it is a cause, as well as being to some extent a symptom, of something that is rather disturbing. We seem to be excessively prone to believe in objective solutions to problems which, particularly in public policy, are not capable of such solution. The inflated reputation of economists and a correspondingly exaggerated faith in their ability to plan is a case in point.

That the economist should be treated as a contemporary saviour is not altogether surprising. Our national shortcomings are seen so much in economic terms — growth leagues and so on — that their solution is felt to be peculiarly the affair of the economist. Hence the virtually unanimous demand by all analysts of our discontents for the recruitment of more economists, a demand which economists have not gone out of their way to discourage. (Like other specialists, economists tend to believe in the employment of their fellows, their belief in the law of diminishing returns being conveniently suspended in this instance!) But how far is faith in economists and thus in economic planning justified?

Economic planning as the term is generally understood has two essential elements — prediction and prescription. To plan effectively one has to be able to take a view of the future, of what will happen in the absence of the plan. The quality of a plan depends to a large extent therefore on the accuracy of the forecast on which it is based. How far then are economists competent to predict the course of economic effects?

The record frankly is not very impressive. Despite some immensely sophisticated model-building involving the use of econometrics, computers and all the other fashionable tools of contemporary economics, the accuracy of forecasts shows little improvement. And the reason is simple. Human behaviour cannot be predicted in the way that natural phenomena can be because history cannot be relied on to repeat itself. The assumption that history does repeat itself — or at any rate that past trends can be supposed to continue — which is implicit in so much economic crystal-gazing has no more validity in practice than the reliance on “form” in other fields where the forecasting of human behaviour is involved, e.g. football results, elections, population changes, stock exchange prices. (“Invest in failure” seems to be at least as good a working rule as “invest in success”.)

But if form is an inadequate guide to the economic future, what then? Judgement is clearly called for to guess in what way the future will depart from the past, and judgement is a quality with which economists do not appear to be very much better endowed than other members of the community, which is only to be expected. For the causes of economic phenomena are often found well outside the province of the economist. Economic changes may arise from technological breakthroughs, political upsets, shifts in tastes, events abroad, none of them matters on which economists can talk with any particular authority.

Most economic practitioners would I think admit this, though many would claim that it is early days yet and that anyhow it is better to spell out the numerical implications of forecasts if only for consistency’s sake rather than operate on mere intuition. (As Sir Robert Hall once said, “If intuition were given the ‘scientific’ name of ‘non-statistical inference’, no one would look down his nose at it.”) There is undoubtedly something in this claim, though elaborate projections can introduce their own causes of error.

Preoccupation with the refinements tends to distract attention from the assumptions, which are of course a much more potent source of error. Similarly, too great a delight in exposing trends and influences in the form of figures tends to introduce a subtle bias in favour of the measurable at the expense of the often crucial intangibles. This is not only true of “macro-economic models” used for forecasting changes in total income, production etc. in the economy as a whole;1 it is also in evidence in industry where big efforts are being made, quite properly, to improve on traditional methods employed by accountants for calculating the return on new investment. So carried away are the disciples of the new enlightenment with the elegance of their models that they are apt to forget that faulty techniques of appraisal remain a small source of error compared with the sales and costs forecasts which they take as more or less given.

One wonders how far the present vogue for planning would survive a closer public scrutiny of the record of economists in predicting the future. But even if they were much better than they are at saying what will happen, by what criteria are economists to say what should happen?

The search for the economist’s stone — the formula defining the proper objectives of economic policy — has engaged the attention of economists at least since the time of Bentham. The so-called science of welfare economics which developed out of the attempts of the utilitarians to maximise happiness, and was refined at such length by Marshall, Pigou and others, received what should have been a death blow from Mr Ian Little’s Critique of Welfare Economics in which he conclusively demonstrated the inevitable part played by value-judgements in all such discussions. And indeed welfare economics as such has never really recovered from Mr Little’s strictures, although it occasionally flickers to life in the columns of the learned journals. What has happened, though, is that it has arisen in a new form, the phoenix in question going by the name of cost-benefit analysis.2

This concept which is essentially an attempt to set monetary values on goods and services for which no market exists, has its uses, but the role of judgement remains paramount. Those who doubt this view might care to consult Appendix 2 to the Buchanan Report, Traffic in Towns, where the technique is employed to evaluate the cost-benefit ratios from three different redevelopment schemes at Newbury, the benefits being defined as improvements to the environment and greater accessibility. Even its advocates had to admit that “this system relies on: enumerating particular aspects of the scheme; allocating an arbitrary number of points to each and thereby weighting them for importance; and ‘measuring’ the quality of the scheme under each heading by the subjective allocation of points.” Cost-benefit analysis at the most offers a helpful method of choosing between alternative means; it is no guide whatever to the desirability of ends.

And this goes for economics in general. Economists cannot properly be asked what to do, only how to do it, and even here — and this is especially so in the realm of public policy — political bias cannot be altogether excluded. This should of course be obvious from the very varied policy recommendations of different economists on how to deal with a clearly defined problem. Whether in combating inflation an economist is a deflator, devalue or incomes policy man is largely a matter of political bent and temperament.

The hocus-pocus of “the public interest”
I have discussed the limitations of economics and economists at some length, not by way of a gratuitous attack but because economists are after all regarded as experts par excellence when it comes to allocating the nation’s resources. If they turn out to be fallible, this is less of a criticism of them than it is of the layman who expects too much of them. Why should this be so? Why should we persist in believing there is such a thing as “the public interest” which experts can identify for us?

The concept of the public interest so widely accepted at present is entirely devoid of serious content, at any rate in domestic policy. It is immeasurable, indefinable and purely subjective. As Dr David Riesman has observed (in his new collection of essays, Abundance for What?) about a similar concept fashionable in the US, it “tends to crumble when one asks in whose interest within the country are the various definitions of the national interest”. Why then do we cling to it? No doubt partly from our yearning for revelation, but also I fear from impatience with our plural society.

Thus we have Professor Colin Buchanan, the intellectual folk-hero of our time with his vision of the public interest, pure and undefiled, under continual attack from “powerful commercial and vested interests”. (He is also much given to lauding amenity in general while deploring particular manifestations of it such as cafés and garages with a similar lack of philosophical scruple.) Or again we have Professor Chapman, whose book I make no apology for returning to when people such as Mr Richard Crossman can seriously regard it as “the most important book I have read since The Affluent Society.”3 Writes Professor Chapman:

Most important of all is the genuine lack of doctrinal significance attached to the concept of public office in Britain. There is no sentiment that public office should involve public responsibility, or that public power should involve the exercise of dispassionate and disinterested judgement. All the evidence indicates that public policy is simply equated with finding the least controversial course between the conflicting interests of vociferous private groups. It is not a doctrine of government: it is a doctrine of subordination.

The myth of the public interest, like so much else about the current zeitgeist, is really little more than a throwback to an earlier age. It can in fact be directly traced back to Delphi via Rousseau’s general will and Lycurgus’ constitution for Sparta. Rousseau betrays the same naïve belief in our ability to achieve detachment, the same distaste for pressure groups. “It is therefore essential, if the general will is to express itself, that there should be no partial society within the State and that each citizen should think his own thoughts: which was indeed the sublime and unique system established by the great Lycurgus.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même mythologie.

What is at stake here is the proper role of government. Either one believes that government is a matter of asking supposedly disinterested experts to tell us what to do and acting accordingly (what Professor Chapman calls “the rational apportioning of resources and responsibilities between public authorities”), or one sees it largely as a process of adjudication between the various interested parties on the basis of the acceptability to the electorate of a particular policy. This does not mean to say that the government should always try to avoid incurring short-term unpopularity — with five-year parliaments a government can and must think more of a long-term approval — but it can never be altogether insensitive to political repercussions. Between those who see sensitivity to opinion as the mark of democratic government and those who see it as a defect the divide is apparently as deep as ever.

The one-track mind
As if to emphasise the point further the representatives of the new enlightenment stress the need for “a sense of national purpose”. On the face of it this seems an innocent enough plea, but on closer scrutiny it appears as either merely fatuous or decidedly unhealthy. For under what circumstances will people start thinking more in terms of the public weal and less of their own hopes and ambitions, more of their loyalty to the state and less of their responsibilities to family, friends and immediate associations (those “partial societies” at which Rousseau and his new-found disciples sneer)? I know of no case of democracies achieving sustained bursts of patriotism except at times of war, coronation or other national emergency. Which of these fates are we being asked to look forward to?

Our sort of democracy is an untidy business. It encourages wastes, publicises conflicts and tolerates a multiplicity of purposes. But are the alternatives any more preferable? If I might quote once more from the infinitely wise essay by Mr Riesman:

Not even an institution, let alone a country can survive and prosper over any considerable period of time by serving only a single goal or purpose. If individuals try to purify their own lives to dedicate them to a single purpose only, they become fanatics. If they use their occupations and callings to define their purposes, even as artists and thinkers, they run the danger of becoming over-professionalised and less than fully human. And if in relative default of group and individual purposes, we use the nation to absorb the surplus, the chances are that we shall become more nationalistic — and in a world where others are doing the same, threaten the very goal (the relaxation of world tension) we seem to cherish.

That the Americans should also be preoccupied with a quest for national purpose throws some light, I think, on why the monolithic mood should be so prevalent in Britain at the moment. As I have tried to show, the totalitarian or “holist” urge is something that is always latent (like we understand other forms of cancer). It only becomes rampant when the body politic is seriously disturbed. The most likely disturbance in this case would seem to be the need that both countries have been experiencing to adjust to a more dependent status in the world. This, strangely enough, seems to have affected our intellectuals worse than the ex-colonial officials, tea planters and others who have suffered directly from the demise of our empire. But some soul-searching and hankering after a new identity is only to be expected where nations, which have got used to pushing others around, find almost overnight that their freedom of manoeuvre has been seriously restricted.

Another common feature of Britain and the US since the war has of course been their relatively low rate of economic growth, and it would appear quite plausible that a yearning for national purpose stems in part from a low rate of expansion. Similarly, a high rate of growth in so far as it widens individual horizons is likely to be destructive of patriotic fervour.

There is finally the all important influence of fashion, or what Marx would have called the dialectic of history. To some extent both here and in the United States we are witnessing the inevitable swing of fashion against climates of opinion and governments in the 1950s that (according to taste) were comparatively permissive or laissez faire. We are also in the rationalistic phase of the intellectual fashion cycle. After the war, with the memory of Hiroshima and Buchenwald fresh in our minds, it was difficult to believe in man’s claim to be a rational creature. Books were written deploring the “Retreat from Reason” and the rationalists were thrown on the defensive. Now as memories of the war are fading, rationalism and the idea of progress is becoming respectable again. Hence our renewed faith in experts, planning and harmony among men.

As a believer in the force of fashion in a world that puts such a premium on the appearance of novelty, I would not expect this phase of the cycle to outlive another Labour government (even allowing for the vast vested interests being built up in expertise and planning by the growing army of experts and planners). When the pendulum swings back, it may be an exaggeration to talk about the rebirth of Britain, but only because it will then become clear that we never committed suicide.

[The original intro to this article was: John Brunner questions some of the nostra currently fashionable in politico-economic circles suggesting that at best they are merely fatuous, at worst highly authoritarian in their implications. And whatever else they may be, they are certainly not modern.]

[And the autobiographical paragraph accompanying this chapter was: I was born on the glorious first of June 1927 and formally educated in the suburbs of Windsor and Cowley. From 1950 to 1953 I was with Political and Economic Planning (sic) and from 1953 to 1958 at the BBC where I had a modest behind-the-scenes part in a number of comparatively early essays in national introspection/disparagement. Subsequent disenchantment with inverted patriotism might be put down to a three-year spell in the Economic Section of the Treasury, from which I certainly emerged with a surprising degree of respect for a much maligned institution (the principal scapegoat for our national and intellectual impotence?). But I doubt whether it really had much of an influence. For one thing the Treasury, like other monastic orders, can only mould its novitiates properly if it gets them for longer and at a more impressionable age. I would prefer to attribute my misgivings to the heretic’s instinctive reaction to orthodoxy — even to yesterday’s heresy turned orthodoxy. Since 1961 I have been on the management of the Observer, and of one’s present employers, like the dead, nil nisi bonum.]

Footnotes

  1. Interested readers may like to see Macro-Economic Models: Nature, Purpose and Limitations, by Dr Malcolm Fisher, Eaton Paper 2, Institute of Economic Affairs, 1963. — Ed.
  2. See Wiseman, pp. 87-90.
  3. In the Guardian, 6th September, 1963.