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Leading article The Week

Leading article: The power of ideas

As Keynes observed, the power of ideas — good ones and tragic, wrong-headed ones — is far greater than is commonly understood.

23 July 2011

12:00 AM

23 July 2011

12:00 AM

As Keynes observed, the power of ideas — good ones and tragic, wrong-headed ones — is far greater than is commonly understood.

As Keynes observed, the power of ideas — good ones and tragic, wrong-headed ones — is far greater than is commonly understood. The Thatcher counter-revolution in the 1980s was made
possible by intellectual bulldozing a decade earlier. It took Sir Keith Joseph and Centre for Policy Studies to clear the way for Britain’s economic regeneration. The blueprint for the social
regeneration now underway was written by another think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice, whose ideas are now being implemented by Iain Duncan Smith. The schools revolution is a little different,
having gestated mainly in the ideas laboratory that is Michael Gove’s head. But after that the great ideas dry up.

The right, in Britain, has fared dismally in the battle of ideas and it is being outgunned even with a Conservative prime minister. David Cameron is, of course, proudly post-ideological. He
believes that modern prime ministers are fated to run along the tramlines of received wisdom, and he is by no means the first Tory leader to take this view. So the direction of British politics
depends on who lays the tramlines, and of what quality they are. Here, the traditional allies of the Labour party are very much in charge, churning out research of undeniably high quality and, as a
result, setting much of the agenda.

There is no great conspiracy here, but a simple truth: organisations which rely on tax money will always make the case for higher taxes. The ‘institutes’ funded by research grants
(which means, usually, tax money) will always argue for more expensive meddling by the state. These groups dislike the idea that society will be better and stronger if people are given greater
freedom, and allowed to keep more of their money. Freedom, to the institutes, is messy and chaotic. There must be projects, judged by complicated spreadsheets, with billions in taxpayers’
money behind them.


The most striking example is the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It has tremendous influence over government life, and in the era where Gordon Brown was concealing basic facts from the people whose
money he was spending, it was relied upon to give a clearer picture. But the sheer volume and quality of its reports gave it power over the government that is not, even now, understood. Its device
for measuring poverty — to calculate how many millions were above and below a ‘poverty line’ — took over the entire debate. Instead of tackling poverty, Brown tried to
manipulate the IFS spreadsheets, so those just beneath the poverty line could be nudged above it and described as being ‘lifted out of poverty’. Those affected would be amazed to find
themselves so described.

This rotten orthodoxy has been challenged by Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice, which supplied two reports demonstrating another point: the welfare payments had destroyed the incentive
to work for millions. This will be changed, but over a ten-year period. And meanwhile the CPS’s campaign for the family has made little progress — opposed by the Liberal Democrats, who
believe it is a moral preference rather than recognising that the family is the most powerful welfare tool ever invented.

This week, the IFS had a new pronouncement to make. Marriage, it proclaimed, does not matter. It knows: its researchers have done the sums. ‘Policies aimed at encouraging parents to get
married before they bear children thus require a rationale other than one based on the impact of marriage on child development,’ it declared. In other words: if the narrow-minded Tories want
to preserve a regressive 1950s ideal of a two-parent family, they had best admit their motives and stop pretending that marriage serves a wider social function.

Were this America, a well-armed think-tank such as the Heritage Foundation would reply with an avalanche of social studies challenging the IFS’s notion. It would point out that even the IFS
data finds that children do markedly better with married, rather than cohabiting, parents. Heritage finds that unmarried couples are four times as likely to succumb to poverty as married ones. It
is notoriously hard to tell whether family life encourages wealth, or wealth makes people disposed to marriage. But to claim that the argument is settled and that marriage does not matter —
as the IFS does — is bunkum.

Twenty years ago, an American academic and adviser to Bill Clinton, William Galston, compiled a different way of looking at poverty. To avoid being poor, he said, take three simple steps. Finish
secondary school, marry before having a child, and don’t marry in your teens. His research found that only 8 per cent of American families who do this are poor, whereas 79 per cent of
those who broke one of these rules are. Such an analysis is anathema to Britain’s social policy institutions, which firmly believe the only way of improving society is to think of complicated
ways of giving one man’s money to another.

It is impossible to imagine the Galston study being conducted in Britain. There are plenty of organisations that have the resources to do it — social science departments of universities, and
the like. But good luck to any university researcher seeking funding for such a project. In America, donations to think-tanks (and all manner of similar organisations) are tax-deductable, which
greatly fuels what one might call that country’s Big Society. If David Cameron is serious about boosting our own, he might think of a similar arrangement. He intends to transform Britain as
radically as Thatcher did. But like her, he will need intellectual reinforcements.


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