Chris Dillow – Devaluing excellence

As Hayek said: “The main task of those who believe in the basic principles of capitalism must frequently be to defend this system against the capitalists.”

Chris Dillow is an economics writer at Investors Chronicle. He blogs at Stumbling and Mumbling, and is the author of New Labour and the End of Politics.

Cross-posted from Chris’s website Stumbling and Mumbling


Disputes about wages are rarely about financial considerations alone, but are often tied up with ideas of respect, expectations and morality. The fact that we call wages “earnings” alerts us to the close link between pay and our sense of desert. As Daniel Kahneman, Jack Knetsch and Richard Thaler wrote in a famous paper (pdf), “rules of fairness can also have significant economic effects.”

We should regard the pay disputes of academics and junior doctors in this light.

The thing is that they all did what teachers tell us are the right things to do. They studied hard and got top grades. And their reward? For junior doctors, it’s a mere £14 an hour (pdf). And many academics cannot afford (pdf) basic necessities and face job insecurity. Doctors

Yes, some will become well-paid senior doctors and professors (although even the latter have seen pension cuts). But their landlords won’t accept the promise of big money in future instead of payment now, so why should they?

Hence their sense of injustice – a sense heightened by the contrasts between doctors’ pay and the millions handed to firms’ for often-defective PPE, and between academics’ pay and that of vice-chancellors.

What we pay is what we value, and these priorities signal that the Tories value cronyism and managerialism more than learning.

From this perspective, we should regard the underpayment of junior doctors and academics alongside cuts to arts funding and the BBC’s attacks on the BBC Singers and orchestras. (Yes, redunancies have been suspended, but the mere initial announcement of them indicated the BBC’s priorities.) What all these have in common is an undervaluing of academic and technical excellence and an overvaluing of cronyism – not just in PPE contracts but in the BBC appointing Tories such as Robbie Gibb, Richard Sharp and John McAndrew to senior positions.

Here. as so often, we need Alasdair MacIntyre. He distinguished between goods of excellence – which consisted in mastery of particular practices – and goods of effectiveness: wealth, power and fame. Sometimes these two goods go together: if you are an excellent footballer, you’ll acquire the goods of effectiveness. But often they don’t, as when musicians struggle to earn a living.

The word “neoliberalism” is much misused. We might, however, attach that label to the valorization of the goods of effectiveness over those of excellence – of winning at all costs over performing well. This is true not just in the NHS, the BBC or universities. Barney Ronay’s observation that the Chelsea team shows the “distorting effects of money without sense or love or care” is a complaint that the goods of effectiveness have eclipsed those of excellence. It’s also a trend in both business and the public sector generally, where managerialism is eroding professional skill and autonomy; a big reason why many erstwhile “middle-class” people voted Labour in 2019 was that they have become proletarianized.

The intellectual decline of the Tory party is part of this trend. When MPs such as Dorries, Gullis or Anderson flaunt their boorish ignorance like pigs wallowing in muck they are demonstrating the same contempt for learning that causes them to underpay well-qualified professionals. Not that the disease is confined to a few grotesque outliers. Even the “sensible technocrats” such as Sunak or Hunt never give any hint of being influenced by serious thinkers in the way that Thatcher often expressed her debt to Hayek, Popper or Friedman. Matt Goodwin, emboldened perhaps by the knowledge that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king, has espied a gap in the market for a Tory intellectual – but his sneer that anyone demonstrating a sign of education is a member of the “liberal elite” merely further reveals the party’s philistinism.

Which, from a historic perspective, is odd. Many Tories traditionally aligned themselves with an educated elite. Think of Edmund Burke fearing that, in a revolution, “learning will be cast into the mire and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude.” Or Michael Oakeshott’s claim that education is “an initiation into a civilization”. Or Roger Scruton’s defences of “high culture” against the depredations of the left. Or Allan Bloom’s defence of the “canon” against the “closing of the American mind”.

That the right has, perhaps with the sole exception of Jesse Norman, abandoned this tradition shows just how far it has been taken over by an obsession with money and power to the exclusion of excellence.

It’s not just its crass philistinism that should trouble us about this. Everyone with a stake in currently-existing capitalism should be worried.

Intelligent defenders of capitalism have long known that its stability requires a large and contented middle class. Thatcher tried to create a property-owning democracy for just this reason. Which is just what her epigones are not doing. In alienating professionals such as junior doctors and academics (and squeezing them out of property ownership) they are creating a narrow elite to which erstwhile allies are now hostile. If doctors – a traditionally conservative bunch – won’t side with the ruling class, then who will?

History has a warning here. Peter Turchin has shown that revolutions are more likely when the ruling elite becomes narrow, closed and antagonistic to the middle-class: think of the French and Russian revolutions.

Which is why everyone wanting capitalism to be sustained must support academics and doctors – not just because doing so valorizes intellectual achievement, but because it forestalls a dangerous isolation of the ruling elite. Sometimes capitalism needs an inoculation – a small illness to prevent a worse one.

You might think it odd that a Marxist is making this point. Well, whilst my brain and heart favour revolution, my Isa statements do not. As Hayek said (pdf):

The main task of those who believe in the basic principles of capitalism must frequently be to defend this system against the capitalists.

Of course I appreciate that some conservatives don’t want to support “woke” academics, just as some leftists won’t like seeing that there’s a conservative case for higher pay in the public sector. But politics, if it is to be a worthwhile activity, must not be a search for ideological purity but rather a building of alliances.

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