Sunday, 3 February 2013

Priests and prophets


Social scientists can play two roles. There are the priests. They express the dominant consensus views - not just of science, but of society too. They tell us that the current ideas are right, and they detail the mistakes and crimes of the past. Not surprisingly, they tend to be comfortably off, at ease with the surrounding society, and some are even celebrated.

Then there are the prophets. These are the people who wear sackcloth and ashes and tell us that the dominant ideas are bad and wrong, and that as a result society has gone wrong too. Some of them may become famous or infamous, but on average they are not comfortable and do not fit in. (And quite right too, for according to society they are misleading the young.) They write Jeremiads denouncing the current state of affairs.

In the 1970s, neoliberalism was a prophetic theory. "Doom, doom unto ye", wailed its proponents, "for the tax rate shall approach unity and the bureaucracy shall assuredly devour us like a ravening wolf; furthermore the central bank shall create inflation, which is a monetary phenomenon always and everywhere and forever, amen." They had their own journal - Public Choice - and mainstream economists looked down on them as right-wing extremists. Yet gradually their ideas spread and indeed came into power, in some sense, with Proposition 13 in California, then with Thatcher and Reagan.

Slowly, the character of these ideas changed with power. Its adherents cast off the Public Choice sackcloth and ashes, and wrote respectable screeds detailing how competitive mechanisms could improve the public sector. Their ideas were listened to, and gained grudging respect even from some on the Left. And gradually these ideas became a sleek common sense. The challenge of its concepts was watered down. From being a rival form of society to the state - a "spontaneous order" - the market became a useful tool in which a set of prespecified goals might be achieved. Its central proponents stopped being monomaniacs and started to be sophisticated people who could appreciate their opponents' arguments (some of them were even bon vivants). In short, neoliberalism became a priestly creed.

Well, now the new Gods, if they have not failed, at least are looking decidedly shaky. Who will be our new prophets?