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by James Mitchell
27 October 2022
Fundamentalism rejects evidence, alternatives, and ignores scepticism

Fundamentalism rejects evidence, alternatives, and ignores scepticism

The reaction of the markets to the Truss/Kwarteng mini-Budget was not only predictable but predicted. Tory members had heard the arguments before choosing Liz Truss over Rishi Sunak. Past experience and theoretical understandings pointed overwhelmingly in one direction. This was ignored by the party faithful.

The government’s refusal to allow the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to make its forecasts public only contributed to the ensuing chaos. The OBR forecasts were even worse than those of the highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). Dismissing experienced and expert critics as part of the “international hectoring class”, as David Frost did, was par for the course from the Brexit negotiator.

The big question is why ignore the evidence and silence voices that might disagree?  Making sense of this senselessness goes well beyond the Budget and tells much about a strand in politics that is not limited to this episode, party, or belief system.

At its heart lies the problem of unthinking fundamentalism. In its various forms, fundamentalism rejects evidence, alternatives and ignores scepticism. Its authority rests on self-referential assertion. Fundamentalism is the fever of our times. Scepticism, on the other hand, is a healthy mindset in policy making so long as it does not lead to dithering or cynicism.
Euro-sceptics might have started out doubtful and distrustful of European integration but hardened into dogma, into certainties that ignored evidence and simply fabricated dishonest claims. Euroscepticism had little to do with scepticism but was a massive misappropriation of language.

Fundamentalism lends itself well to campaigning – with simple unambiguous messages – and can win the day but offers only a temporary victory.  In the short run, as the great Scottish philosopher David Hume remarked, “tis not reason, which carries the prize, but eloquence”. But winning elections is much easier than delivering in government.

Liz Truss won over the Tory faithful with radical simplification, ignoring evidence and alternative views. As scholars writing on fundamentalism note, “self-questioning, recognising our own limitations, and attentive listening to those who differ” are “necessary for respectful, productive dialogue”. These are also essential traits in government.

There are, of course, some issues for which policy responses are unambiguous and tidy. And principles need to be clear and concise to guide action, but conflating principles and action can be costly. A fundamentalist intellectual case can pare back an idea to its essentials and help elucidate, but the jump to policy prescription is dangerous.

Gary Becker, Nobel economics laureate, was a market fundamentalist whose work is intellectually fascinating. He applied economic principles to a wide range of social and political problems.  But while his support for a free market in organ transplants to address scarcities might be logical from his standpoint, it ignores so much – ethical questions and not least why people are forced into a position to consider selling biologically essential body parts.

Truss, Kwarteng and co.’s faith in market fundamentalism was clear in their book Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity. These MPs, elected together in 2010, were part of the Free Market Group but the book is a parody of serious scholarly work. Liz Truss is no Gary Becker. Not only is she a practising politician, but the Budget was patently motivated by a desire to redistribute wealth in favour of the excessively wealthy using free-market claims as thinly veiled cover. There was a delicious irony, amid all the turmoil and damage, to witness those who live by the markets, die by the markets.

But the refusal to engage with the OBR is only the most glaring recent example of a government turning its back on unpalatable evidence. One of the frustrations in observing Scottish politics is the tendency for parties to nod in the direction of evidence, offer the odd symbolic gesture or half-digested measure, but move swiftly to the comfort zone of campaigning.

The Scottish Fiscal Commission (SFC) is the equivalent to the OBR. Sadly, the opportunity to name it the Scottish OBR was lost. Its acronym would have been appropriate given its outputs. All MSPs ought to read, digest and consider the policy implications of its August report on Scottish population trends and impact on the economy and income tax. It is indeed sobering reading. Demographic trends including labour force participation rates allied with productivity, hours worked, income distribution and income tax revenues affect how much money the Scottish Government has to spend. Scotland is far from alone in facing significant demographic challenges, but as the SFC chair remarked “those facing Scotland are particularly acute” and “politicians and those delivering public services will need to consider how to respond to these future fiscal pressures”. Fundamentalism in any form will not do that. Respectful and serious dialogue engaging with ideas and data is needed.

If there is one lesson to be drawn from recent calamitous events, it is to beware of simplistic ‘solutions’ to complex challenges. Scotland needs a serious debate on its future. This will require more attention to evidence and different perspectives. Radical simplification is not only unhelpful, it can be dangerous.

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