An Economic Issue

In a fascinating London Review of Books essay earlier this Spring, the distinguished historian Peter Clarke engages in a singular attempt to resuscitate the reputation of Enoch Powell, the late British parliamentarian and classicist who became infamous for a xenophobic address in Parliament in 1968 that was later dubbed the “Rivers of Blood” speech.

Acts of political rehabilitation are to me suspect, particularly in the case of a man whose legacy has been hijacked by the lunatic fringe. This one is difficult to dismiss out of hand because it is taken from the perspective of history. Clarke does not attempt to justify or defend Powell’s most odious ideas: if Clarke is an apologist for Powell, he appears motivated not by ideology or ulterior drives, but by a sense that history is ill-served in settling for a one-dimensional caricature of an influential figure.

Let us be clear: Enoch Powell rode into the scrap heap of history at full gallop and of his own free will. But a cursory review of his life reveals at least  two salient truths: first, that artful couching, superb logic, and fine language do not improve a repugnant idea; and second, that the espousal by an individual of one or more bad ideas does not prima facie brand all of the other ideas espoused by that individual as bad.

I will return to that second theme in another post.

One idea that is worth consideration is one that drove Powell through most of his political career: that some government programs, policies, and actions have value that cannot be measured by economic or purely utilitarian means, and indeed that some policies and actions that may appear economically foolhardy are nonetheless good ideas. As Clarke notes:

It wasn’t part of [Powell’s] doctrine to scrimp on the legitimate functions of the state as he saw them; and if a function were deemed legitimate, he made very high claims indeed. Intuition rather than economic logic guided him. For example, he began a speech in 1981 – in favour of public subsidy of the ferry service to Northern Ireland – by stating his premise as the sort of mere common sense everyone would accept: ‘Communication is the essence of all government: it is not for nothing that the mail is the Royal Mail.’ The idea that such conclusions can be reached by treating the royal status of the mail as axiomatic would surprise many latter-day Thatcherites, who argue that the market could sort this problem out more efficiently.

This was a tough one for me to get down initially: it flies in the face of good business sense and an approach to policy-making that has been ascendant for at least 160 years. It implies that the Congressional Budget Office brand of economics-based cost-benefits analysis does not always produce the best policy.

My instinct is to argue the opposite: I do not think we give enough consideration to non-partisan cost-benefits analysis when making policy decisions; that programs are born and outlive their usefulness because of ideology, pork-barrel politics, or bureaucratic self-interest.

But Clarke’s article on Powell compels me to rethink my orthodox adherence to that principle.

Here are the questions I am pondering:

  1. If we cannot measure the return-on-investment of a policy, is it worthwhile?
  2. What makes that policy more or less worthy than a policy whose impact can be measured in a material form?
  3. Have we placed too much reliance on economics as a measure? Or do we place insufficient reliance on economics and cost-benefits analysis?
  4. Is it time we recognize that decisions taken by non-commercial actors (individuals, organizations, governments) may and sometimes should be made for reasons that defy economic logic or even pure utility?
  5. Should we identify and recognize other determinants of policy quality?
  6. On what basis do we decide which means of analysis is best for a given policy?

I have been long away from the study of these matters, so I recognize I may have meandered onto well-trod ground. If so, please tell me.

A government run by roving bands of ideologues, self-interested legislators, and nest-feathering bureaucrats is a recipe for revolution.  At the same time, government by abacus taken to its logical end is a tyranny. On a river of hard questions we must navigate our way back to a passage between those two extremes. The alternative is The End of America As We Know It (TEOAAWKI).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

The Golden West Review

A Californian Perspective on History, Arts, Land, Literature, and Politics

A Bucket and a Pen

Capturing Life after the Career

coffeesteffi ♡

coffee, art & my brewed thoughts

Sea Scout Ship 9201

Channel Islands Harbor • Ventura County Council, BSA

Troop 234, Boy Scouts of America

Port Hueneme/Channel Islands Harbor, CA

Dirty Sci-Fi Buddha

Musings and books from a grunty overthinker

The Chinafornia Wolf

Gratefully Chronicling a Remarkable Journey

The Thousand Books Project

Reading a Meaningful Life

Cafe Book Bean

Talk Books. Drink Coffee.

Silicon Hutong

Addressing China as it is, not as we want it to be

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Historian and Writer

Runningwinegirl's Blog

Colorado Girl Sharing Insights on Wine, Public Relations and Life's Adventures

ARLIN REPORT...................walking this path together

PERSPECTIVE FROM AN AGING SENIOR CITIZEN

Blue-eyed Ronin

A contrarian who enjoys challenging existing illusions, one truth at a time.

Observer

People and Trends

commentisfreewatch.wordpress.com/

Promoting fair and accurate coverage of Israel

twitchy.com

Who Said What

Barton's Blog

To the clouds and beyond...

Coffee Shop Rabbi

Basic Judaism spoken here.

Cami Ryan

Science, society, and life

Pacific Paratrooper

This WordPress.com site is Pacific War era information

______Assessing China / The TEA Collaborative______

Tech, Energy & Ambitions: Assessments at the Intersection of Technology, Investment and Policy

An Ordinary Website

of interest to few.

Der Bananenplanet

Alternatives Informationsmedium

Corey Robin

Author of "The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin" and "The Enigma of Clarence Thomas"

Ragan Communications

The Center Must Hold

The China Story

The Center Must Hold

Yale E360

The Center Must Hold

Xindanwei | 新单位

The Center Must Hold

WritersDigest.com

The Center Must Hold

WordCount

Freelancing in the Digital Age

FriendFeed Blog

The Center Must Hold

Business

The Center Must Hold

Blog Daily Listings RSS

The Center Must Hold

Speakeasy

The Center Must Hold

The Center Must Hold

Opinions

The Center Must Hold

RSSOpinion

The Center Must Hold

WebMD Health

The Center Must Hold

Renewal

The Center Must Hold

Village Voice

The Center Must Hold

Uploads from The U.S. Army

The Center Must Hold

TechNode

Latest news and trends about tech in China

WritersDigest.com

The Center Must Hold

Techmeme

The Center Must Hold

The Center Must Hold

Latest Items from TreeHugger

The Center Must Hold

%d bloggers like this: