Can economists ever do good for human kind? If its contemporary economists that the question is asked of, the answer must be no. There are a few exceptions but generally speaking economists support the most inhumane of political experiments on mankind. With very few exceptions they have been the cheer leaders for the programme of austerity that has been inflicted on societies in Western Europe and the USA. Possibly there is some poetic justice in this turn of events. The leader of the IMF is always a European and the IMF has wreaked havoc on the economies of the developing world over the past decades. Whenever a developing country has turned to the IMF to finance its debts, the money has only been given on the condition that the country adopts the harshest of austerity policies. Health and education services are always the first the IMF insists on cutting, its a kind of perverse morality that believes the inhabitants of poor countries are deserving of poor health and education. Now the EU has adopted the same austerity policies to protect the debt holders (in this case German banks) who over invested in the Greek economy. The loans that saved the Greek banks from bankruptcy was only given on condition that Greece adopted the policies that turned the country into a basket case.
What I would like to suggest that governments adopt a ten year moratorium disbarring them from employing economists for that period. Society would be far better governed if politicians took responsibility for their actions instead of outsourcing the decision taking and blame to others. Perhaps if Tony Blair instead of sending his shadow cabinet on a business consultancy course but one on moral philosophy the horrors of the Iraq war may have been avoided. Infra structure products are hopelessly delayed as government invariably outsources decision making to think tanks, such as ‘The Adam Smith Institute’ or in the case the Third Heathrow Airport to an economist called Howard Davies. Stanley Baldwin when under pressure from the press barons to reverse his policy giving self governance to part of the British Empire spoke of them wanting the prerogative of power without responsibility, this is the prerogative of the harlot. The current generation of politicians want neither the power or the responsibility, just the opportunity to enjoy the trappings of power. The British government will not make the final decision on the High Speed 2 railway, that will be left to others.
There is a striking counter example which both throws light on the poor political governance of the UK and that is the Senate of Republican Rome. The Senate before it authorised any major action by the Roman State, asked the Pontifex Maximus (High Priest) to read the auspices to assess the prospects for success. This involved divining the attitude of the Gods to the enterprise by examining the entrails of a sacrificed animal. If the enterprise failed it was because the priest reading the entrails had made an error and had failed to recognise the hostility of the Gods to this enterprise. Today economists are asked to perform the a similar ritual, it is the economic report into the viability of the project. They read the auspices by examining the entrails (statistics) of the economy. While it is not hard for a minister to find a tame economist who will divine the government’s intention and predict the success of the enterprise, our system has one major flaw and that is the divining the auspices rarely delivers a single definitive reading. There are several economists who claim to perform the economic ritual better than the chosen government economist. They will deny that the government economist gave the correct reading of the economic auspices which generates confusion as to what is the correct reading and hesitancy in decision making. Their are too many high economic priests.
George Osborne the Chancellor of the Exchequer is the driving force behind proposal to build a new town at Ebbsfleet in Kent. What I can predict is that is that there will be numerous other economists claiming that the entrails were read incorrectly by the Treasury and that a new town is not needed or that Ebbsfleet is the wrong location etc. Putting a measure in the Queen’s speech does not guarantee that the town will ever built, as it depends on the agreement of that quarrelsome collective the economists to sanction it. With the government having outsourced decision making to the economists, I cannot see the new town of Ebbsfleet being built. Rather it will be a project whose merits will be debated into the indefinite future.
Despite the Roman system of decision taking appearing to depend on the whim of a supernatural deity, it was far more effective than ours. Firstly the Roman Pontifex Maximus (High Priest) was a senator and was always a powerful figure , unlike in Britain where the equivalent of the Pontifex Maximus is an outsider and is not regarded as an authoritative figure by other priests (economists). In Rome the reading of the auspices was merely confirming what the most powerful group in the Senate had decided. Murder was not an uncommon way of eliminating one’s opponents, as eliminating one’s opponents either ensured that only your supporters remained in the a Senate or it cowed the opposition into acquiescence. Mark Anthony was initially a gangster used by Caesar to intimidate his opponents in Rome. Our political leaders have rarely decided in advance what the policy will be, even if they favour one decision over another, they still outsource the decision to others. Economists the chosen group of outsiders lack the authority of the Pontifex Maximus, they all claim to be the Pontifex so there is no authoritative policy statement. What makes the Roman Senate a superior policy making body to the British Parliament was that the ritual was subordinate to art of decision making, whereas it is the reverse in the UK. The Senate unlike the British Parliament could make decisions even if they were bad ones. A similar phenomenon can be observed in the US congress which also appears incapable of decision making. One of the few policies Congress agreed on was designating the tomato sauce on pizzas as being one of an individuals five a day portions of fruit and vegetables. Congress can agree on meaningless acts but avoids difficult decisions.
Another advantage of the Roman reliance on the Gods providing supernatural policy sanctions is that such authority is far more persuasive than that conferred by economists on government policy. If the Senate wanted to oppose a particular policy, usually one that favoured the lower order the plebeians, they could claim the opposition of the Gods. Threatening natural omens would be reported such as cows with two heads all suggesting that the Gods were angry. Claiming a policy that you don’t favour will make people worse off, does not carry the same threat as a policy that angers the Gods.
It may seem strange to state that the decision making process of the Roman Senate is superior to that of the UK government, when it has access to a wealth of economic statistics and computers to aid decision taking. I argue that the Roman system was superior because the Senate’s decisions were made on qualitative grounds not quantitative. A boldness of vision comes naturally to individuals who celebrated virtue. Their moral exemplars were men such as Lars Porsena who burnt off his right hand to demonstrate Roman courage and steadfastness to the enemies of Rome, who held him captive. British politicians schooled in the world of cost and benefits are incapable of any grand vision. It breeds a kind of modesty in decision making and with it a desire to avoid big difficult decisions. There was a heroic generation of British politicians it was those who had guided us through a Great War. It was that generation that gave us a National Health system, free legal aid so the poor would be on an equal footing with the rich in court. Both of which our modest generation of pseudo economists want to end because of their supposed ‘unaffordability’ . The grandest vision any contemporary politician could envisage, is cutting the cost of a public service. In these modest time the hero is the cost cutting politician. Certainly there is not one contemporary politician who venture any project as grand as a national health service.
This is why this particular economist wants all economists banished from government and all forms of public service. I want to take away that prop politicians use to avoid making decisions, that is the economy, when everything is deferred due to economic considerations. University education is too expensive so the pseudo economists increase university fees to £9000 pa. The consequence is that a black hole develops in university funding into which the government is having to pour more and more money. Stupidity rules in Westminster/Whitehall masquerading as economic good sense, if higher education is really that unaffordable why not just cut the number of university places, instead of using the economic fudge of pretending it will be solved by increasing fees.
One further observation the contemporary Lars Porsena would not be the one who resisted the over mighty enemy, but the one who capitulated to the enemy and who facilitated their aims. Successive British governments when faced with the problem of tax evasion and avoidance by the rich and powerful, rather than taking action to end this abuse of power and offend these powerful men instead took action to make tax avoidance easier.