Blinkered belief systems

June 13, 2013

They wanted to believe, and so they believed. That seems to be the consensus among critics of the policy called austerity, including the anti-austerian, Nobel prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman.

Economists and policymakers of the Right and the centre wanted to believe that in straitened times, conserving the wealth of the wealthy while reducing the resources of the poor would make both the wealthy wealthier and the poor less poor. They had no evidence that this would work: indeed, the experience of austerity policies during the Great Depression of the 1930s seemed to show just the opposite.

But economists came up with figures and policymakers came up with programmes to promote the idea that in the face of the fiscal crisis that began in 2008, the best thing to do was to conserve, as far as possible, the wealth of the wealthy and cut, as far as possible, the resources of the poor, along with the non-productive “entitlements” of the middling sort. Time to balance the books!

But the results are in: an economic disaster in the southern states of Europe, difficulties all around and no progress in sight anywhere. Here in Sweden, led by the Moderate Party, we are treading water. For the Moderates believe in moderation, and there is nothing more moderate than frantically flapping one’s arms and legs about in order to stay in pretty much the same place.

A similar, sorry problem was posed, I think, by England’s Browne review, set in motion by the Labour government in 2009 and embraced by the coalition that followed, a report whose policies, once adopted, upended the world of higher education in England. The people behind the Browne review wanted to believe. They wanted to believe that increasing the cost of higher education to students would actually increase the supply and availability of quality education for everybody, including the less well off. They wanted to believe that making something dearer was actually making something cheaper - and so they believed.

The desire to believe is a problem with regard to which universities are supposed to represent a solution. “What is the difference between someone who is convinced and one who is deceived?” Friedrich Nietzsche asked. “None, if he is well deceived.” Nietzsche went on to say that this was “a very popular error…having the courage of one’s convictions. Rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions.”

Of course, the courage of conviction is a disease suffered on the Left as well as the Right, by academics as well as businesspeople and politicians. Perhaps even Stiglitz and Krugman have been guilty on occasion of having been infected by courage of this kind. Sometimes thinking according to a conviction is indistinguishable from thinking according to a paradigm, and paradigms are indispensable, as is the ability to stick with them in the face of vexing evidence against them. “Seek not to understand that you may believe,” St Augustine said, “but believe that you may understand.”

Yet if in higher education we do not encourage an endless attack on our own convictions, we are not encouraging anything at all. Hook, line and sinker, the neoliberal illusion, which included the idea that the best way to help young people get a start in life was to burden them with onerous debt, became a conviction that it was impossible for anyone with any say in the matter courageously to doubt.

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