Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Answer

Experts on the case

Big Government gets a whole lot of stuff wrong, but one of its most abiding errors is an unshakeable belief in "The Answer": if it can just assemble enough experts, then it can find some technically optimal solution that all right thinking people can accept.

In the Soviet Union this found expression in a massive state planning system, harnessing the country's very best brains to the very best of American managerialism. We all know where that led, and you’d think it might have put most people off. But you can find exactly the same thinking today in the comments on the new Labour Home.

Britain's chief exponent of "The Answer" is Gordon Brown. From his early dalliance with post-neoclassical endogenous growth theory, through all those academic seminars at No 11, and onto his tortuously targeted tax credits, he has been infatuated with the Appliance of Science.

Of course, taken to its logical scientific conclusion, “The Answer” eliminates the need for politics altogether. You just leave things to the experts to manage for the benefit of all in the Best of All Possible Worlds.

And that’s exactly what Gordo did with his masterstroke of Bank of England independence. Whereas interest rates used to be decided in frenetic smoke filled rooms at Westminster, now a group of apolitical experts sits down once a month in the calm marbled halls of Threadneedle Street. It’s worked very well. As we’re constantly being told, Britain has enjoyed the longest period of low inflation and interest rates since 1327.

The indefatigable Doc Crippen has recently flushed out the possibility that Gordo is thinking of following the same approach with the NHS. Doc quotes an article in the British Medical Journal:

“…the NHS needs a system that replaces political dogma with clinically driven decisions, confrontation with consensus, unaccountability with democracy, and short term decision making with long term stability. The NHS is too complex and too vital to our future prosperity to be governed by the self interest of any specific party."

How much better to have a non-political expert committee modelled on the Bank's Monetary Policy Committee (pictured above):

"The proposed NHS body has similarities with that committee. Economic stability and the health of the nation are major factors in the country's prosperity. Both bodies' decisions would affect everyone in the UK; this is not necessarily true for the Home Office or the Ministry of Education, for example. Since its inception in 1997 people have respected the decisions of the Monetary Policy Committee, and the interest rate has ceased to be the political football it used to be.”


Healthcare would be much much more complex than the Bank of England’s task. In particular, the Bank has been set a single target - the inflation rate - which, give or take the odd bit of statistical goalpost moving by Gordo, is very clear and straightforward. But what target could he set for a Health Policy Committee?

To make Britain healthy? How healthy? How measured? And you do understand Mr Brown that you need to quadruple the health budget. And oh yes, you’ll have to ban fags, booze, unauthorised sex, super size BKs, the school run, slumping in front of the telly, computer games, and- especially- old age.

In reality a Health Committee would face a multiplicity of targets and a limited budget. It would be forced to make all those messy trade offs that cause so much difficulty today. Breast cancer drugs or IVF? Free nicotine patches or home visits from GPs? Free liposuction or stomach stapling?

And why would unaccountable "experts" be any better at making the right choices than politicians? Obviously the latter are pretty rubbish, but at least we can sack them.

Of course, Gordo’s not dumb and it’s quite likely this is just another eye-catching initiative. He needs a Big Gesture because he knows as well as we do that his huge NHS cash injection has failed, and there’s no more money in the pot.

But at some gut socialist level, Gordo still Believes. So despite all the evidence to the contrary, it’s quite possible he still thinks The Answer is out there somewhere.

God save us from the experts.

PS Experts come in all flavours. Of the ones shown in the photo, I've been taught by one, worked for one, and been called a clot by one. Sadly of course, one of them has died since the photo was taken.

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