Abstract painting of subject, generated by DALL-E 2

Attack or surrender in the battle of ideas

01 Aug 2009 - Bruno Prior

In the long run, it's ideas that matter. And they aren't all equal. Truth is not subjective, and neither are right and wrong. Political tactics and novelty may seem all-important to the chattering class, but expedient can never make wrong right, or prevent reality from finding ways around illusion. Tactics and rhetoric can endlessly extend and exacerbate the harm that is done by bad ideas fighting a Canute-like battle against the tide of reality. They may prevent good ideas from being heard, understood and implemented. But they can't stop the effect that the true concept describes.

Most modern think-tanks are engaged in the political battle. Their ideas are superficial, inconsequential and often nonsensical, and developed in pursuit of a political objective, rather than the truth. Organisations like IPPR and Policy Exchange are window-dressing in the political shop-front. They may be effective in terms of short-term political influence (though effective may not be the right word to describe justifying concepts that their audience had already assumed to be true), but their shallow ideas will mostly fail in practice and be forgotten in due course.

The IEA exists for a different purpose. It exists to fight the intellectual, not the political battle. It does not trim its sails to the political wind. It has no political or commercial affiliation, although critics on the left often assume that it does, seeing everything through tribal eyes as they do. Its purpose is to preserve and promote the classical-liberal philosophy, and explore the ramifications of that philosophy for our understanding of policy, history, economy, society, etc.

At least, that's what I understand the purpose of the IEA to be, and that is why I am proud to support it. So what am I to make of the following bit of tittle-tattle in this month's -Prospect- magazine?

-"the grandest name on the right, the libertarian Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), finds itself in crisis. This June it gave director John Blundell the heave-ho. Officially, it was time for the long-serving Blundell to move on. Unofficially, his failure to impress team Cameron took its toll."-

John's departure was indeed unheralded, and there has been little effort to pretend that the usual platitudes are the real reason for his departure. Despite the absence of any more credible explanation, I was prepared to give the trustees the benefit of the doubt that they had good reason and had made the change in the best interests of the Institute and its objectives. But "failure to impress team Cameron" is not a good reason, and bringing in someone more to team Cameron's taste would not be in the best interests of the Institute.

The most likely explanation is that -Prospect's- diarist is talking out of his backside. He goes on to attribute Philip Blond's departure from Demos to the fact that "senior Cameroons were unconvinced by Blond's philosophical style". I don't know whether -Prospect- has an inside line at Demos, but it's unlikely that it has one at the IEA (they're not exactly on the same philsophical wave-length). The juxtaposition of these stories makes it look like the author wants to puff the influence of the Cameroons, whether at their instigation or not we cannot know. One gets the impression that it wouldn't be out of character.

But in the unlikely event that there is some substance to this rumour, the trustees would have made a serious misjudgment. We would be in -quis custodiet ipsos custodes- territory. Not because they decided it was time for a new Director, but because of the reason for that decision, and what that would imply for the direction they wanted the Institute to take in future. The IEA should not seek the approval of the Cameroons or any other group. The IEA should promote its principles and ideas as strongly as possible, but it is largely out of the IEA's control whether those principles and ideas find favour with leading political figures. After all, only for a small part of its history has the IEA found itself in this happy position. Should they have replaced Ralph Harris or Arthur Seldon because their ideas didn't generally impress Harold Macmillan or Ted Heath? If the IEA finds itself in philosophical opposition to the dominant group in the Conservative party, far from seeking approval and compromise, it should do its best to reveal why that group's philosophy is mistaken, and to provide intellectual artillery for those in any party (or none) who agree with the IEA's point of view, whether or not they are in control of the party.

Too many Cameroons have been soaked in the swamp of paternalism and positivism that is an Oxbridge or LSE human-sciences education. Too few of them have spent long enough outside politics to gain a first-hand understanding of the pernicious effects of well-intentioned government intervention. There is nothing that anyone at the IEA or elsewhere can do about that except point out their errors, promote a better alternative, and wait either for a conversion or (more likely) for their failure and replacement.


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