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.