Tag Archives: #Erasmus

What Erasmus can teach us about our political leaders.

Recently a visitor to my house, scoffed when he saw that I had been reading a book on stoicism. Stoicism was to him a philosophy of a dead past, which was of no relevance today. Actually the books of the past can have a lot to teach us about contemporary society. Human behaviour and motivations amongst the great and powerful change little.

Erasmus despaired about the behaviour of the petty princelings that ruled the various cities of renaissance Italy. What particularly angered him was the damage wrought on their cities by these vainglorious princes and dukes seeking to achieve fame through war. Inevitably these wars turned out badly for their cities, even if they won there was the huge cost in wealth squandered and lives lost. He correctly identified this lust for fame in the ‘great men’ of his time, as the main cause of suffering amongst the peoples of renaissance Italy. This lust for fame is still a powerful motivator amongst our politicians. Although it is not a recent example Theodore Roosevelt*, regretted that he was unable to lead the USA in some Great War. War for him was the supreme test of a statesman’s leadership skills.

War gives politicians the chance to demonstrate their virility, it shows them to be one of that elite band, those who change the destiny of nations. This lust for war was so evident in the Presidency of George Bush. Even before the Iraq war his advisors were writing articles or giving interviews in which they stated that they were eager to demonstrate the superiority of the new American military technology. While Saddam Hussein’s Iraq provided just such an opportunity, it also provided an illustration of that old proverb that nobody wins a war. Iraq and the Middle East ever since has been involved in the turmoil of constant warfare, costing the US more men and resources than did the initial invasion.

Living in a country much diminished through historical mishaps our leading politicians have little opportunity to express their masculinity through war. Our military is so reduced in strength that our prospects of waging war without the help of a powerful ally are almost impossible. In the age of globalisation there is no longer the prospect of invading some weak and easy to beat enemy. They all have powerful friends who would intervene to protect their trading interests in that country. Although it was never acknowledged Britain could only wage war in the Falklands against Argentina with the permission of the USA.

Consequently our glory seeking politicians have to find a new enemy to beat. These enemies must fulfil two requirements, they must be internal so having no powerful foreign allies who could intervene on their behalf and offer the prospect of easy victories. One such internal enemy is provided by the state education system. Decades of vilification by the right wing press have convinced many that state schooling is nothing but a system of institutionalised failure. Any reform announced by an education minister will garner instant applause, as an overdue reform of a system that is failing our children. More importantly teachers and children can offer little effective opposition. Teachers organisations are too weak to resist any changes imposed by the minister. Children of course, do as they are told. Through portraying themselves as takers on of the enemy within, these politicians can achieve the fleeting glory of being tomorrow’s newspaper headline.

What these politicians really want is a foreign enemy to beat. Such an enemy can rouse the xenophobic instincts of that part of the population that distrusts anything foreign. These are the people for whom Europe is holiday destination offering sun and beaches, but nothing more. Our lusting for glory politicians have for decades waged a war of words against that enemy of Britishness, the European Union. Now they have succeeded and Britain is no leaving the European Union. They have won their easy victory. However even this war of words and policies proves the truth of the saying that all are losers hen it comes to war. They like the Italian Renaissance Princes have through their victory cost their country much. Slowly it is being recognised what damage this brutal rupture with our greatest trading partner will cause to the economy and wealth of the British peoples. Already the government is stockpiling medicines and asking food companies to do the same with food in preparation for a disastrous exit from the EU. Such is there lust for glory and a place in the history books, they ignore any evidence contrary to there beliefs. It does not matter how often businesses tell government that they don’t have the facilities to stockpile food, the government’s response is that because they have told business to stockpile food they have done all that’s needed to offset a bad Brexit. As one despairing businessman said, this lot could not run a fish and chip shop.

One myth to which these politicians refer is Britain’s glorious history, it’s standing alone against the Nazi enemy and its saving Europe from itself. However these politicians don’t realise that the war exposed the incompetencies of the governing upper middle classes. The discredit they incurred from the disasters of Dunkirk and Singapore* led to there loss of power in the post war election and the election of a majority socialist government. Now these same people are in words of a former leading politician leading the country into ‘an act of self harm’.

What Erasmus teaches us through his writings that all to often the wrong people achieve supreme power. Glory seekers who to achieve there place in the sun and doing so wreak immense harm on society in an attempt to fulfil there ambitions. His book ‘The Adages’ is full of warnings against letting such people achieve supreme power. Once this book was regarded as an indispensable read for statesmen, now it is largely neglected. Perhaps if it was still widely read our political classes would realise the dangers of having leaders who possess little more than a narcissistic sense of self belief. The political education of our leaders seem sadly lacking, as in both Anglo Saxon democracies the political classes are in thrall to narcissistic politicians.

*US President 1901-1909

*Media producers collaborate in the perpetuation of this myth. There are endless films about the miracle of Dunkirk, but none about the ignominy that was Singapore. The British commander General Percival managed the defence so incompetently that his army of 85,000 men was rapidly overwhelmed by a smaller Japanese force of 30,000 men. After this disaster many said that never again should such men (public school educated and of the upper middle classes) run the country. Now such men are again in charge and leading the country and demonstrating that as a class they have learnt nothing since 1942.

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Seeking Solace in Philosophy

As an economist the quality that you most need is equanimity. Why, because as an economist you are all to aware of the follies of the politicians and the damage their policies can wreak on the economy and society. A concern heightened by my anxiety about the futures of my daughters and my expected grandchild. When a senior banker accused some of our leading politicians as being ‘clueless’ on the economy, I mouthed a silent ‘hear, hear’. What an economist needs is some defence mechanism that prevents them from being overwhelmed by pessimism. When one writer called economics the miserable science he was all too correct in his opinion.

Perhaps I should adopt the philosophy of Democritius, who dispelled this anxiety about the follies of mankind and in particular its leaders in laughter. However laughter is only a temporary source of relief and soon the feeling of pessimism returns. I find some solace in the classical Greek philosophy of scepticism. A philosophy which demonstrates that all which passes as human knowledge is fallacious. This is of some comfort when I realise that the ‘reforming’ policies of our latest group of reformist minded politicians are based on little more, that what can be described as a set of incoherent and wrong headed series of assumptions about human society. While I can get some pleasure from demolishing these policies in my mind, it does not help alleviate the blackness of mood.

Philosophy has always been a refuge for me. I can retreat to my philosophy books, which takes me to a world far removed from the pettiness of what passes for the public debate. Ever since I was introduced to him at university I have been entranced by the figure of Socrates. When Plato writes of about Socrates and one of his students going to the cool river bank to escape the hot sun in Athenian sun to find the a more congenial place for discussion, I feel that I could be there with them. Aristotle writes that the highest form of human activity is this, the contemplation of the great questions that have always puzzled and intrigued mankind. Students of philosophy such as myself enjoy the intellectual cut and thrust in the dialogue employed by the greatest of philosophers. What we understand is that there are no simple or easy answers to the great questions posed by the nature of human existence. While practising this very Western form of active contemplation, I can get so lost in the books that I’m reading so that I forget the world outside.

When devising his philosophy Plato would make use of the myth to make his reasoning comprehensible to his audience. Plato’s the cave is one very familiar myth, but there are others. One of my favourites is the myth of human creation in ‘The Timeaus’, he uses this myth to explain the fallibility of human understanding. Mankind he writes is fashioned by the demiurge (the divine craftsman) out of clay. If mankind is made out of some inferior substance to that of which the Gods are composed, they are therefore incapable of understanding or sharing superior knowledge possessed by the Gods. Compare this to the less interesting contemporary myth of the market, which dominates current policy making. It’s a myth that tells us little about the economy. The central tenet of market theory is that there is a price at which markets clear, that is there is a price at which supply equals demand. There has never been a market in which an equilibrium of supply and demand has been attained. In reality markets are inherently unstable, as supply and demand are constantly changing and are never equal. Consequently the myth of the market as a guide to policy making is unhelpful, although perhaps to call it useless is going too far. This is why I prefer philosophy to economics, the stories it tells are more interesting and more truthful.

Recently stoicism has begun to find favour. This is practical philosophy devised by the classical Greeks. Its purpose was to help its practitioners lead the good life. This practical philosophy teaches that the only things that one can control are the one’s own emotions and feelings. There is a story which demonstrates this. There was a stoic philosopher on a ship caught in a storm. He was the only person to remain calm during this storm. When asked why he was indifferent to the crisis, he said that the observed a pig on the ship. The pig seemed undisturbed by the storm, so he imitated the behaviour of the pig. There was nothing he could do to avert the possible impending disaster, so the only practical policy he could adopt was to remain calm, as his getting anxious would do nothing to avert the possible impending crisis. Those things in life that the individual cannot control they call the ‘indifferents’. There are many ‘indifferents’ that the individual cannot control, also some such as good health they can influence by adopting a sensible diet. Anxiety comes from worrying about these ‘indifferents’ over which the individual has little control.

Donald Trump and the alt. right are a threat to the way of life that enjoy. There ever willingness to resort to violence or to threaten its use, is a threat the the tolerant civilised lifestyle which I value. As is also his constant demeaning of various ethnic groups as the threatening other. As this is an indifferent over which I have little control, the person who suffers if I obsess about this is me. Constantly being anxious is damaging to the human personality. Being a good stoic I am concerned about the irrational and erratic behaviour of our leaders, but I am not going to be overwhelmed by my anxieties on that score. Also I can influence this particular indifference by becoming political active. I can become part of the resistance.

John Stuart Mill gives me solace when I read that freedom, is the freedom to think. Whatever the alt. right does it cannot control my thoughts. In doing this I do have an advantage in that I am retired and can devote my time to reading my philosophy books. Perusing one of Plato’s dialogues on Socrates I can lose myself in the world of the Classical Greek philosophy. Also I can counter the nasty xenophobia of the alt. right by going to my local coffee shop, and there I can immerse myself in the Italian culture. What can be more engrossing than a discussion of the merits of the various types of pasta, while enjoying a cup of Italian coffee. What I am trying to say is that for a stoic there is much I can focus on to enjoy in these unhappy times.

Stoicism offers an interesting historical parallel, Seneca one of the best known stoics lived in a Rome, whose ruler was the narcissistic Nero. Given the predominance of narcissistic leaders in the Anglo Saxon world, who mistake their personal well being and success as metaphor for that of society, one can see the value of reading Seneca. Despite being an advisor to one of the most capricious and unpredictable of Emperors, he not only survived in that role for many years while others perished, but he did for many years act as a restraining influence on Nero. During those years he lived a modest moral life in keeping with the tenets of stoicism. Although even he lost his life as Nero’s paranoia intensified. His ‘Letters’ and plays I believe should be required reading for staff in Donald Trump’s White House.

When I read Erasmus’s ‘Adages’ I am reminded that the curse of having leaders pursuing policies that are ruinous to their countries in order further their own personal ambition is nothing new. Renaissance Italy in which he lived was plagued by wars between the Princes and Dukes of the various city states, which might have brought fleeting glory to these men, but which were ruinous for there various city states and the Italian nation. Is there no more insightful into the psyche of politicians, than Erasmus’s adage that ‘war is sweet to those who have never tried it’? Despite the almost constant internecine warfare in Italy, Erasmus still managed to write and publish his criticisms of the crass behaviour of the ‘great’ men of Italy. Although, as with many writers living in authoritarian states to avoid persecution, his critiques of foolish and arrogant leaders were set in the past or given such ambiguous settings that no contemporary leader could consider themselves libelled.

Reading philosophy reminds me of the heights to which the human spirit can rise, in contrast to the gutters of the human spirit in which so many of our contemporary leaders reside. This is why I find solace in philosophy.

Why economics fails

There is it seems a present a desire to doubt the validity of economics and the skills of its practitioners.  Just yesterday there was Chief Economist at the Bank of England issuing a mea culpa on behalf of the profession, in which he apologised for his and their failings and said that economists must do better in the future. He is just another ‘failing expert’, as Michael Gove would have said. When Michael Gove said in the EU referendum debate that the people were fed up with experts and were best of without them, one assumes that he was speaking about economists. However Michael Gove as with many politicians is adept at deflecting the blame for their own mistakes on to others. Politicians are those in charge and they make the decisions on matters of economic policy and not the economists. Yet whatever failures of government policy that occurred in the period 2010 to 2016, Michael Gove and his colleagues will never put there hands up and accept their share of the blame. Politicians such as him have a list of scapegoats to use to disguise their failings and another such favourite is the  EU. Teresa May’s disparaging comments about citizens of the world being citizens of nowhere can be paraphrased to describe contemporary government ministers, they are the ‘ministers of nothing’ knowing and caring little about their departments. Just sitting out their ministerial brief waiting for an upgrade to a more high profile ministry.

While it is the politicians that have been responsible for the disasters of recent policy making, economists still share some of the responsibility, in that they have encouraged politicians to develop an almost papal like sense of infallibility. Neo-liberal or free market economists claimed in the decade 1970-80 to have discovered the holy grail of economic policy making. They claimed that at the heart of any economy there was a self regulating market which when left to itself produces the best results for all. This market mechanism was capable of outthinking any politician. If  left to itself it would settle on the natural equilibrium levels of growth, employment and inflation, which would in turn mean society would enjoy a level of prosperity that it would otherwise never achieved if the economy had been managed by politicians. All the politicians had to do was to create the optimum conditions in which to enable the market to work unhindered, which was quite simply a bonfire of regulations. They can maintain an Olympian disdain knowing that they know  the answers to everything and have to hand the one key policy measure, impose the free market on the seemingly intractable problem.

One thought  that never occurred to these politicians or economists is fallibility of human thought, never in history has mankind ever succeeded in creating the perfect social organism. They seem to have forgotten such schemes are referred to as utopian in the history books, because they are always hopelessly impracticable.

What cannot be said is that there were no warning signs. When with great enthusiasm the Conservative government of the 1980s followed the policy prescriptions of Milton Friedman, failing to notice that his major policy prescription was unworkable. He said that the government should be regulate the economy through control of the money supply. Unfortunately he had not done his homework, as in practice it proved impossible to define what exactly was money supply. The Bank of England came up with at least five possible descriptions of money supply. There preferred choice was description number 3, what was known as M3. The only reason for choosing M3 was that it was easier to calculate than the other possible choices. Then having settled on M3, they realised that it would be extremely difficult to devise ways of controlling this money supply. All possible solutions would involve interfering in how the banks managed their finances. Instead the government opted for controlling by money supply by controlling demand for money. If they changed interest rates this would either or lower the price at which people could borrow, so if they put up interest rates people would borrow less and the amount of money (bank deposits) in circulation would fall. Never once did it occur to the government that controlling interest rates was not the same as controlling the money supply. Interest rate changes could change the supply of money held but it was a very indirect and imprecise control. Unlike what Milton Friedman desired what the government used as a very rough and ready measure to control money.

Politicians were obvious to the problems of implementing this policy, is it because the economics of the time was encouraging them not to think and question. They cannot claim not to have any warnings of the volatility of the free market as there were many financial crashes from the period 1979 to 2008.Yet these politicians believing they possessed the holy grail of policy making were  able the collapse of the Asian tiger economies or the dot com crash.  In consequence the great financial crash of 2008 which should have been foreseeable became the catastrophe that came out of nowhere, a veritable economic tsunami.

What economists should also be blamed for is there willingness to overstate their abilities and knowledge of all things economic..The economy is one of the most complex of mechanisms developed by mankind and yet economists all to often suggest that they really do know, when they don’t. I as an economist take my lead from Socrates. The oracle at Delphi told him that he was the wisest of men, yet this was a man who claimed to know nothing. Was not the oracle stating that Socrates was wise because he was the only man prepared to acknowledge his ignorance? I always wished that as a teacher I had told my students that I really knew nothing about economics. Yet as an economist I know a thousand times more things about the economy that any politician. What I see Socrates as saying is not that he lacks knowledge but answers. He was I believe using his ignorance as ploy to unsettle  his rivals, as a reading of any of Plato’s dialogues does demonstrate that Socrates knew quite a lot. Any economist when faced with a problem should be prepared to state his ignorance, as with a rapidly evolving and every changing economy, yesterdays’ knowledge is never sufficient to provide today’s answers. As  an economist what I possess is a knowledge of problems that have occurred in the past which appear to have some similarities with the problem at hand. Using that knowledge I could suggest a variety of policy solutions and recommend that which I think would be most effective. However I know that in what is an ever changing economy events may happen to make my policy recommendations ineffective. Humility should be part of the economists weaponry. I know that I can’t give Michael Gove the definitive answer he craves, the world is much more complex than the one viewed from Westminster or his newspaper column. I do know that my answers are better than his on all matters economic, as some knowledge of the economy and its workings are always better than none.

The last word I leave to Erasmus, ‘only a fool boasts of their ignorance’ or should it be ‘that only a fool takes pride in their ignorance’. A faulty memory prevents me recalling Erasmus’s exact words.

The vain glorious and useful idiots of Brexit

Economists often seem afraid to use words in common circulation in their analysis, they will resort to made up technical words, when a much simpler phrase would have been more appropriate and useful. One little known book today is Erasmus’s  “The Adages”. In this book he demonstrates how the simple proverbs and phrases in common usage can conceal profound truths. One of the frequent themes of his essays are the damaging behaviors of vain glorious princes. These princes in their lust for glory start wars which damage their countries prosperity leaving them poorer and indebted. The only beneficiaries are the mercenaries they employ in their armies. These wars were so profitable for the mercenaries that one even took over a city state and made himself the Duke of Milan. What economics lacks is that despite being a science of human society are the terms to describe those irrational behaviours that have a major impact on the economy and society. Just as in renaissance Italy we have leaders that inflict significant damage on their economy in pursuit of vainglorious enterprises, that they believe will earn them a place in history. However what I cannot find in Erasmus is any reference to the ‘useful idiot’ a person that is now very common in our political classes.

A useful idiot is the one who in elieving that they are advancing their own interests are  in fact advancing the interests of another more powerful individual or group of individuals. This  group prefers to avoid attracting to much attention, as it would highlight the fact that their interests are damaging to the health of the wider society.

The most damaging to our economic prospects as a nation are the useful idiots in parliament, who have successfully campaigned for a damaging break with Europe. When one reads of the vast sums of money paid by the Brexit supporting billionaires to those politicians campaigning to leave Europe, it becomes obvious in whose interests they are operating. Senior politicians who supported the campaign are now being paid hundreds of thousands for newspaper columns and books by the very press barons who wanted to exit Europe. Do these politicians really think that their newspaper columns or books are really worth the hundreds of thousands that are paid for them? What can be said is the hundreds of thousands paid to these politicians are but the small change in the pocket of these billionaires? Only the politicians themselves can really think that their talent is worthy of such high salaries. What can usefully be said is the many books being written by these self serving politicians will the very books which will be the first to be pulped next year as most of them will remain unsold.

There are another group of useful idiots in our parliament, these are not the paid proxies of the billionaire class but those naive politicians who having spent a lifetime within the Westminster confuse reality with the world as seen from within the Westminster bubble. They over estimate their powers and the significance of their actions. They seem to have a naive Harry Potter like perspective take on the world, they believe that having access to the levers of power in Westminster gives them the power to change the world. What they despise is the mundane reality of power in which Westminster is but one player, a player that achieves it goals through negotiation and persuasion. They have no time for the mundanity of reality, they are lost in their own fantasy world.

One of the worst offenders are those on the left. They believe that by turning their back on reality they can create the just socialist society of their imaginings. If only they looked at the failing career of President Hollande they would be aware of the fallibility of their beliefs. He was elected promising to create a better France by increasing spending on the French welfare system and to reduce France’s high unemployment levels. To fulfil promises he would have to increase government spending, but this was in the Europe dominated by a Germany committed to an Europe wide austerity programme. Nothing he promised the French electorate could be delivered because his government was committed to the European programme of austerity. Now Hollande is the most unpopular of French Presidents, who if he wished to stand for President at the next election would be rejected by his party.

At present the leadership of the opposition party supports Brexit, because they believe that freed from EU regulation they can remake society according to their values. What they fail to realise is that a Britain shorn of EU membership will be but a small struggling country on the edge of Europe. They to solve what will be a problem of growing unemployment will be desperate to make deals with those businesses that can bring jobs to the UK. In such a situation the various multinationals will be able to dictate the terms on which they do business. What they will demand is a freedom from regulation, particularly employment regulation, together with cash subsidies of various kinds and infra structure  to benefit them. As demonstrated in Wales where the Labour government to persuade Amazon to locate a warehouse there was forced to spend billions on new roads to improve access to the new warehouse. Amazon is an employer noted for its use of exploitative working practices. This Welsh Labour government despite its socialist principles has turned a blind eye to this firms employment practices, so as not to offend a major local employer. A weak desperate government will sacrifice all its socialist principles to attract business to  the country in its desire  to create jobs. These people I class as useful idiots, because they will be doing exactly what the various rapacious multinational corporations want, creating a country in which they can operate largely free of regulation.

Those on the right seem to believe in some magical notion of Britishness. They believe that Britain really is some ‘spectred isle’ which will be restored to its former glory by breaking with Europe. One of their claims is that Britain will be free to trade with all those countries outside Europe, that they could not do as EU members. Again as with their left wing opponents they lack a firm grasp of reality. Unfortunately these dreamers dominate government and seem to think that by destroying all links with Europe, they will restore Britain to its past glory. If or when they achieve their break from Europe they will find that they become are reduced to governing a desperate vassal state, whose real governors are the multinational corporations.

The words Puerto Rico seem unknown to these ‘unrealists’. This country is independent and has a free trade treaty with the USA. Something desired by the ‘unrealists’, however any small weak country is at a disadvantage when negotiating with a powerful neighbour. In consequence  the free trade treaty has kept the country poor and impoverished. It is the location for American multinational companies who wish to operate in a low cost and regulation free environment, which of course is of little benefit to the people there.

What I am trying to suggest is that economics struggles to explain the why and what of human activity that is irrational and self destructive. Reading Erasmus’s explanations of the adages that explain the vain glorious actions of Princes, gives a far better understanding of the behaviours of today’s politicians than does any economic text.

Why politicians would benefit from reading fairy tales

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Folk tales and fairy stories with their black and white characterisation for example the evil step mother and the virtuous, noble and abused step daughter are characterised as stories only for children. Their tales of good and evil are seen as being far too simplistic for adult reading. This is a misreading as the fairy tales we tell our children are but sanitised versions of the original folk tales. In the original story the step sisters cut off parts of their feet so as to fit their feet into the glass slipper. What is not understood is that folk tales are but attempts to explain the malevolent world in which our peasant ancestors lived. Fairies were not seen as good but as spirits that had to appeased as angering them could result in misadventure. When the Church insisted this was a good world created by God, how could the misfortune that people suffered be understood except by understanding there must be a lower level of supernatural beings who were responsible for the evil men suffered. What our peasant ancestors saw was that they lived in a world in which good and evil co-existed, not so simple but realistic.

This simple world view is in contrast to the sophisticated society of today. Rather than the simple black and white world view, it a world view of greys, varying from the darkest of greys (bad) to the palest of greys (good) and between these two there are a whole series of different shades of grey. However bad is not totally excluded, but bad only applies to those people, the psychopaths who operate outside the normal range of behaviours. When morality is seen from the perspective of the political and dominant social classes there is an incredible fluidity to moral concepts, particularly when the politeriat who govern Britain is considered. This merging of good and bad can be seen in the concept of the just war. Killing is bad except when its undertaken as part of a just war. St. Augustine defined the concept when he cited the conditions under which a soldier could kill to defend his country. Others such as Thomas Aquinas further refined this concept. While there was justice in fighting the Second World War to remove Hitler the concept becomes stretched to breaking point with the Iraq war. Our leaders invented the threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and the threat they posed to the West to make the war just. One bad example does not made a moral principle bad, however the concept is open to misinterpretation or abuse, as political leaders are always tempted to give it a meaning that suits them. Government’s never fight bad wars only just wars.

Goodness takes on an incredible diversity of meanings when used by politicians. Good for them is the greater good, a good which only they understand. Only they can make the greater good a reality. The austerity programme the UK government imposed on society is for the good of all. It will like the medieval practice of bleeding purge society of ills. All very reminiscent of Stalin, who regularly sent thousands to the death camps, for the good of Russian society. Killing thousands of Ukrainian farmers led to starvation and the death of millions. Britain’s austerity programme has impoverished millions and the spread of poverty level wages has reduced demand and slowed the recovery from recession. When political leaders define good or the greater good it rapidly loses any moral content and all kind of evils can result from this. The Iraq war was intended to achieve two goods, the removal of weapons of mass destruction that threatened the West and the freeing of the Iraqi people from a cruel dictator. Instead of it being a being it good action the reverse happened. Thousands were killed in a bloody civil war consequent on the invasion and now the country is threatened with a new civil war, one against an extremist Sunni militia.

Perhaps if George Bush and Tony Blair had a sounder understanding of morality than they displayed at the time, they would not have committed themselves to the folly of the Iraq war. Politicians have long given up reading Christian moralists such as Erasmus, but if they had not, they might have come across his article entitled ‘War is sweet to those who have never tried it’. Nothing is new, ambitious princes have always through the folly of war damaged the health and welfare of their peoples.

There is a danger in our contemporary society of having leaders lacking any fixed moral reference points. If good is a flexible thing only given the meaning that the leaders and political class give it, there is nothing to stop them committing inhumane experiments of their people. Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot murdered millions in the name of their self proclaimed goods. On the same spectrum but at the other end our politician practice inhumane experiments on us. Austerity is perhaps the worse, although there are plenty of other examples. Children in Britain have had to endure endless experiments with their schooling experiments of varying degrees of cruelty. Education ministers impose diktat after diktat on our schools which seem destined to introduce the spirit of Gradgrind into our schools. Schools are becoming akin to Victorian factories with child labourers repeating a series of unending mundane tasks. Experimentation is not limited only to our children but also to the sick, the disabled and the young unemployed, all the major political parties seem to be engaged in a competition to produce the most inhumane policies towards these groups. When any real understanding of the good is lacking, cruel and inhumane policies will result not so much from a sense of cruelty but an inability to see people as other than things, just another resource. Possibly the bear pit that is Prime Minister’s Question Time is the best representation of the callous unfeeling nature of our politicians.

Not recognising or understanding good is only one part of the problem, the other is the failure to acknowledge the bad. Children understand that out there are bad people, be they evil fairies, step mothers, dwarves or trolls. Politicians having no conception of bad fail to recognise bad people. The evil financial wizards who managed to make billions disappear were never recognised for what they were, in fact many of them were rewarded with titles from the government. Similarly politicians never recognise the evil trolls, dwarves and queens that populate the market. There are many bad landlords who charge exorbitant rents for unfit housing, yet politicians don’t recognise that there can be bad landlords and that only government regulation can resolve this problem. When reforms of the private rental market are suggested, a chorus of ministers, politicians and journalist cry it is impossible. They claim that any regulation would make the market worse, claiming that regulation would force landlords to withdraw from the market. Conveniently ignoring that those self same landlords have borrowed vast sums to buy their rental properties and it would be suicidal not to let them. The free market for them is an unalloyed good in which their can be no bad or evil. Bad landlords are not a problem that the market can’t resolve.A child from their knowledge of fairy tales would recognise really do exist, while politicians with a moral free sensibility cannot.

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There has always been a clash between doing what is expedient in politics and what is principled. However what is unique in the present parliament is the lack of great principled individual politicians, our current parliament is a moral free zone. All the great reforms of the past have been driven by outstanding principled leaders. Lord Shaftesbury a Christian politician was the driving force behind the ending of child labour in the factories and Non-conformist Christian politicians such as Keir Hardie, Lloyd George and Aneurian Bevan were largely responsible for the creation of the welfare system, which their moral free successors are in the process of hastily dismantling.

It would be naive to claim that the politics practised in the past was much superior to today, but then unlike today there were moral giants who could drive through measures of social reform. One has to ask why is our parliament populated by a generation of moral pygmies? Perhaps an answer can be seen in the education of our predecessors. Not so much academic education as their education in values in the wider community. Wilberforce and Shaftesbury were evangelical Christians, Lloyd George and Aneurian Bevan were Non-Conformists and it was their Christian education that gave them a fierce attachment to a compassionate value system. Interestingly Lloyd George was as venal in many respects as our contemporary politicians, a womanising politician who willing sold political office; yet he was redeemed by a greater moral vision. What is lacking in contemporary society is the moral counterweight that the churches in the past provided to unbridled self interest. The great universities educate politicians in the practicalities of government, usually in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). Contemporary philosophy courses teach scepticism, politics courses the art of vote winning and economics the management of society, skills needed for the second rate political Machiavelli’s. As an economist I tend to single out economics for the greatest part of the blame, it is the great leveller, a subject in which everything is reduced to a material benefit or cost, much like Oscar Wilde’s cynic who knows the price of everything but is ignorant of the value of anything. Economics I believe has a tendency to shrink people’s moral vision. Particularly as current Neo-Liberal economics teaches that the economy is best left untouched by government intervention and that it is the unregulated free market that will deliver the goodies that people want, be it a home or high quality medical care.

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What is moral in a government that values the interests of the drinks industry above that of the health of the community. Successive governments be they Labour or Conservative have facilitated the expansion of the drinks industry by easing the licensing laws. Our more principled ancestors (Non-Conformist politicians) recognised the evils of too free a consumption of alcohol and introduced licensing laws. Neo-Liberal economics teaches that the greatest freedom is the freedom of the individual to consume what they please. The costs to the health service of alcohol abuse, the increase of the number of babies damaged through alcohol fetal syndrome and alcohol induced violence count as nought against the individuals right to self abuse.

The present cannot be remodelled according to the ground rules of the past societies. It is not possible to reinstate the church as a powerful institution in society and it is probably not desirable. There are too many examples from the past of the church abusing its powerful position, not least with the burning of heretics. One answer is to demote the inhuman human sciences from their dominant position in the political and public dialogue. Plato does for me provide a way forward, he said that whoever knows good desires nothing else. What he meant by this was that the study of the nature of good has the potential transforms the human personality. (Such a brief statement does not do justice to the complexity of Plato’s thought, to do it justice would require a lengthy exposition.) Only Christians take the study of good seriously, university ethics courses teach students that good is an unknowable concept and at worst an emotion. I guess contemporary philosophers would be unsuitable to the teaching of good and probably only theologians could teach it without self mockery. What I desire is a reordering of the university syllabus particularly for the great and good in the elite universities. Obviously I am not naive enough to think this teaching would modify the behaviour of the great and the good that enjoy the ‘frat boy’ life style at university, but it might produce a new Lord Shaftesbury to be a moral counter weight to the moral free sheep that populate our politics.