Our politicians regularly try to convince us that they are just practical people interested in what works and not beholden to any theory. The idea that reality can be directly perceived just as it is, without recourse to any system of ideas, is idiotic. Making this claim is not an attractive trait. It means that the politician making it is either stupid enough to believe it, or that it is designed to make political gain on the basis of assumed general ignorance.
It might be claimed that we can tell whether car or a television is better than another without any theoretical insight just by observing performance. But on what basis would we do this? It could be on the basis of speed, acceleration, fuel efficiency, environmental pollution, build quality, price and availability of spare parts, reputation of the car company and a host of other factors. None of these are issues of direct perception. Most of them require measurement with special techniques or checking of past records. These ideas, unlike those of political philosophy, are generally understood but they are none the less ideas with a basis in theory and not perceptions.
We interpret what we see in the light of our knowledge and past experience. When that knowledge is defective or the experience inadequate we are liable to misinterpret what we see. We cannot separate what we hear and see from the ideas/theories we have about the way things are.
A classic display of the atheorectical stance was made by Harold Wilson years ago in an interview with The Observer. When asked how much influence Marxism had had on him he said that he had never got past the footnotes on page one of Capital and that the boys scouts had influenced him more. This was nonsense because, apart from anything else, the footnotes on page 1 of Capital pose no difficulties. Wilson obviously felt that this anti-theory approach would impress and would appeal to the anti-intellectual component in our culture.
The latest addition to this sorry list of theory deniers is Ed Balls on the Andrew Marr show (29/6/14). Asked if Labour’s plan was to nationalise the railways bit-by-bit as the franchises came to an end he replied
What we want to say is, without ideology, we’re not going to say that this is about nationalisation or privatisation. Let’s make sure that the franchising process in the future gets the best deal for the tax payer and the best deal for passengers … I am not going to say that it’s a matter of ideology that it should always be private or that it should always be public. … I think that it’s a good thing for us to say, in the bidding process, we’re happy for private and East Coast to bid into that process on a level playing field. I am not going to take an ideological approach. I don’t want to go back to the nationalisation of the 70’s. … Let’s get to a level playing field, not be ideological …
So, Ed Balls believes, apparently, that “without ideology” he can determine the best way to organise the railway system. His argument is simple: we will call in all bids and choose the companies most likely to provide a good service. It is as if he had never read, and even never heard of, the detailed case against the assumption behind this view that a franchise bidding system for different sections of the rail system is either an efficient, let alone intelligent, way of organising a rail system. These arguments were well stated by Christian Wolmar in a recent Guardian article.
The really disturbing thing is not just the inanities of this “without ideology” approach but also the implied lowering of the public sphere to just another providing institution of the same status as all the alternative private suppliers of the the same or similar services. And is not just the railways. The various draft documents on education (spoken of by Ed Miliband and Tristram Hunt as if they were Party policy, ahead of the forthcoming National Policy Forum meeting) that in future new schools would be created by a similar tendering process. A government vetted Director of School Standards (appointed by local authorities but statutorily independent from them) would decide when a new school is needed and would then open a bidding process. Local authorities may be allowed to compete (although even that is not yet clear) but only as one provider among many competing “on a level playing field” with the various private bodies wanting to get in on the act.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Policy being negotiated by the EU and the USA adds an additional dimension to the above concerns. Its critics argue that it will allow companies to take governments and public authorities to court if it believes that their regulatory actions have unduly harmed their commercial operations. If this is what results then it will confirm that Ed Ball’s level playing field is one in which public authorities can only provide services by behaving as just another private provider. The implications are truly disturbing.
Ed Balls is inconsistent about all this in that in another mode he likes to tell people what a big admirer he is of John Maynard Keynes. It is therefore a pity that he doesn’t yet seem to have got as far as the last page of The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money where Keynes says
… the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.