Sunday, February 20, 2011

Pragmatism vs Ideology

There comes a stage in relationships where the frivolity is over and you've both decided this is probably a Serious Relationship. You know it's at the Serious stage when one party brings out the Behaviour Modification Programme and starts to explain to the other where they've transgressed the Rules.

There's been one or two occasions where I've found the Rules surprisingly difficult to follow. This, in retrospect, was on account of the fact that they weren't actually rules by any accepted definition of the term. Explanations as to why the sort of things I did were so outrageous whereas similar things done by them were totally understandable, acceptable and even virtuous were so convoluted they made my head heart. I appreciate you may find this already heart-breakingly naive... I was, of course, missing the universal caveat into which all these nuanced interpretations of our respective behaviours could be collapsed - this being, "It's ok when I do it."

Don't mean to be sexist: girls will have had the same problem with their guys, or girls, or guys with their guys - but the experience is the same; you get a couple of people pretending to talk about, or scream about, abstract principles when all they're really doing is defending their respective corners.

I was reminded of this weighty truth when I read Nick Cohen's puzzlement at the Tories' failure to condemn large wads of tax-payers' cash being spent on feckless bankers:
"Tories of all people ought to hate the bank bailout. Their every fibre ought to revolt against the state using public money to reward failure.
[...]
Why can’t you stand by your principles?"
I take it the question is rhetorical but we'll assume it actually requires an answer. It is because it's ok when they do it - which is another way of saying they don't defend their principles because they haven't got any.

By this I mean the Conservatives have historically been a pragmatic party and it's perhaps the Thatcher experience that has clouded a proper picture of the longer-run tradition. I liked the story - told by Ian Gilmour, I think - of an occasion when Thatcher struts into a Cabinet meeting, pounds a copy of Freddie Hayek's Constitution of Liberty on the table and declares, "This is what we believe!", to the assembled Ministers who were now looking rather bemused, having been hitherto under the impression that they didn't believe in anything much.

It's something of a cliché but this pragmatism has generally been understood to be a feature of British politics in general. No need for Labour to have a Bad Godesberg, for example; they never were believers that way in the first place.

This is an over-simplification but there is some truth in this? Yet William Keegan's comments today reminded me of one area where this pragmatism doesn't seem to hold and that is in the area of economic policy:
"Britain has a reputation for pragmatism, but when it comes to economic policy, one finds that our policymakers generally are in the grip of some dogma or obsession."
There's some truth in this too. What William Keegan is referring to is the way that the British establishment has had a long history of fixating on particular targets - such as the value of the pound in the Gold Standard or the ERM, or inflation via the eighties' monetary targets - in the most doctrinaire fashion, only to see these blow up in their faces.

This is really a long-winded way of posing a question to people who know more about this than I do. Is this fair and if so, why is this? Sidney Pollard in this slim volume published nearly thirty years ago leaves space in his list of culprits responsible for the state of the British economy (a list which includes just about everyone, if memory serves) for economists themselves. His suggestion was that the often doctrinaire position of the 'Treasury view' could partly be attributed to the fact that it was, with all due respect to our Austrian friends, the English-speaking world that gave the world the 'dismal science'. This formed part of the reason why Britain found itself fetishizing things like the exchange rate while the Germans and the French just got on with making stuff that people wanted to buy.

I can't say I find this very convincing - and it probably doesn't do justice to Pollard's argument anyway. But there is perhaps something that requires explanation, which could be restated in a more circumspect way: the Conservatives' economic policies of the last thirty years have been a little short of their supposed pragmatism, especially in practice. Is this because the ideas of Freddie Hayek and Milton Friedman have had a profound and lasting impact on the Conservative Party and that what they believe is just narrower than more comprehensive ideologies? Or are they being doctrinaire when it suits them and not when, for example, their friends in the banks are getting a hand-up and a hand-out? Because ideology is ok when they do it, even when they do it inconsistently.
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