Thursday, 24 November 2011

Knowledge and belief

This post is a long overdue response to Richard Murphy's post "I believe in belief", which directly criticises comments I made about another of his posts and makes false and unjustified assertions about my beliefs and my background.

I thought long and hard before writing this post. I don't want to be seen as someone whose aim is to discredit another writer: frankly, life's too short to expend much time on such a fruitless task, and I have far more interesting things to do. But this post touches on some fundamental issues. And that is my real reason for writing this post.

I reproduce here the comments I made on the Liberal Conspiracy blog regarding this post from Richard Murphy:
Can I comment on two quotes: 
Quote number 1:
“A Courageous State is populated by politicians who believe in government. They believe in the power of the office they hold. They believe that office exists for the sake of the public good. They know what that public good is.” 
Quote no. 2, six paragraphs later:
“A Courageous politician knows that there is a great deal that he or she does not know, and knows that despite that they will have to act.”
Conceivably that might mean they don’t actually know what the public good is, but they will act for the sake of it anyway. Or is the idea that politicians MUST know what the public good is, even if they know nothing at all about anything else? I can’t help feeling that logical inconsistencies like this should have been ironed out in the proof-reading process.
I am also a little concerned by the quasi-religious language. Beliefs abound, but on what are they based? Not much, it seems, except your definitions. What exactly qualifies you to define what politicians should believe? 

In response, Murphy claims that my questions arise from my supposed belief in neoliberalism, which he seems to regard as more of a philosophy, or even a religion, than an economic theory. Here are two of  his descriptions of me from this post:
This commentator’s observation is based upon that neoliberal thinking that presumes us automatons without, for example, belief systems.... 
....as this commentator shows, for those schooled in neoliberalism that whole exercise of normal human thinking and decision making has been utterly undermined by the false philosophy they follow.....
What concerns me is the manner in which Murphy presents his beliefs - about me, in this case, though he tends to do this generally anyway - as gospel truth. He has no evidence for these assertions. He is making a statement of faith.

Now, I don't have a problem with people making statements of faith, where there are no facts to be found. Humans need beliefs - it is how we attempt to make sense of a world we don't understand. But when facts are available, it is quite wrong to make assertions without checking those facts.  And it is not only wrong, it is immoral to make assertions about another person that are not supported by anything they have said and done and are clearly intended to discredit.

Murphy knows NOTHING about what I believe. Nothing at all.  All he knows is that I do not agree with him on the best course of action in relation to the problems in banking and finance and the future direction of economics in this country. He knows nothing at all about my background, my training or my personal beliefs. But because of our disagreement he BELIEVES that I hold "neoliberal" views - despite the many, many statements that I have made that undermine that belief. He BELIEVES that I regard humans as automatons who make decisions entirely on the basis of facts and knowledge, without any need for belief systems. And he BELIEVES that I have no other belief system.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I am not "schooled in neoliberalism".  Yes, I did some economics as part of my MBA, and have voluntarily studied more since. But I read material from across the range of economic thinking, from left to right, Marx to Friedman, Keynes to Hayek, Adam Smith to modern MMT theorists (whom I rather like). And where I stand on economic and political matters is my own creation. I am the "cat that walked by himself". Many, many people have said that I am "hard to place" on the left-right political spectrum: my understanding of banking and finance, and my opposition to economic solutions that involve spending yet more government money, suggest right-wing tendencies, but my social views are decidedly lefty. I have been called both "hard-right" and "far left" by various people.

But even more important, I am not "without beliefs". Far from it, actually. What underpins everything I do and everything I say is my Christian faith. Indeed the reason why I started writing about banking and finance earlier this year was that I felt I was being called to do so. And it was absolutely against my wishes. When I left banking, I believed I would never return - that after years of holding my family together by doing well-paid jobs that left me no time for my family and no energy for singing, I was finally being given the chance to follow my heart and use the voice (and, it turned out, the teaching gift) that I have been given, both to keep my family and to benefit others. I still hope that I am not being asked to return - that my involvement will be limited to standing on the sidelines and chucking grenades. But my Lord has the last word, and my faith requires obedience. When he calls me to do something, I must do it. So if he makes it clear that I must give up all I have gained and return to the job that tore me apart, then that is what I will do.

So Murphy's notion that I think belief systems are unnecessary is so far removed from the truth that it is laughable.  My whole life is driven by my Christian beliefs.  I get it wrong, of course - because I am human. I say things I shouldn't, and I do things I shouldn't. When I get it wrong (which is pretty much every day) I am called to account for that and I have to repent, apologise and if possible make amends.

And further to this....if my own life is driven by my belief system, how could I possibly criticise others for acting according to their beliefs? That was not the point of my comments at all. My concerns are twofold:
  • that politicians acting on faith alone, and refusing to acknowledge facts that, if considered, would suggest an alternative course of action, are dangerous; 
  • that people who think they have the right to define what other people, especially those in public life, should believe, are also dangerous
Murphy's response does not address either of these points. Distressingly, if he had actually taken the trouble to address my concerns instead of trying to discredit me by imputing to me beliefs I don't hold, he might actually have agreed with me on the first, at least. After all, ideological adherence to an austerity agenda despite overwhelming evidence that this is driving economies into recession, is a large part of what is already terrribly wrong in the Eurozone and is rapidly going wrong in the UK.

But the most worrying part of all of this is that he has completely misunderstood my second point. Instead of answering my question "what qualifies you to define what politicians should believe?", he redefines it as questioning his "right to believe in belief". I have no problem with Murphy believing in belief, if that's what he wants to believe in, though it sounds a tad tautological to me: personally I'd rather believe in God, but there you go. And I defend absolutely a politician's right to believe in whatever they want to, even Murphy's ideas if that's what floats their boat: they are human just as I am, and as I said above, humans need beliefs. But I reject absolutely the notion that Murphy has the right to define what politicians SHOULD believe. No-one, absolutely no-one has the right to tell someone else what they should believe. That way lies the Inquisition:  repression, persecution and genocide....it has happened so many, many times before. Freedom of belief is one of the great blessings of our Western society, and a rare thing in our world even now. We must guard against the desire - that we all have - to suppress dissent and force others to adopt our worldview.

7 comments:

  1. You comment chez Worstall. And not in a "Tim's a misogynist cock and you're all evil" monologue like Arnald. Therefore you must be a neo-liberal. Which is, of course, in the world of Ritchie, the same as a neo-classical economist.

    "that politicians acting on faith alone, and refusing to acknowledge facts that, if considered, would suggest an alternative course of action, are dangerous; "

    As 12 years of New Labour leadership showed.

    "that people who think they have the right to define what other people, especially those in public life, should believe, are also dangerous"

    But this is the entire point of the reactionary media - not to suggest it is dangerous but to be or to assist the various gatekeepers of the 'modern conscience' - Murph, Laurie Penny, Michael Mann, Deborah Arnott, Chris Huhne. Not just the Guardian but the Daily Hate as well - Clarkson, Melanie Philips, Nadine Dorries. Global warming, tobacco and alcohol, Europe, religious limits on secular society - the various attempts to frame and shift the parameters of acceptable discussion are now both endemic and entrenched.

    W/v: "Haries" - at least he's be temporarily debunked.

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  2. Surreptitious Evil

    I do indeed comment at Worstall's site, but that doesn't mean I agree with him. I don't - on many things. But Tim doesn't censor posts, he is happy to debate points and he has a sense of humour, as do many of the other commentors on his blog. That's why I comment there.

    But you are right - Richard Murphy does equate neoclassical with neoliberal, and thereby dismisses pretty much the entire mainstream economics profession, including his hero Keynes. I would regard my economic stance as generally neoclassical, although as I said in the post I have a lot of time for the MMT theorists, not least because they DO understand how fractional reserve banking works. So according to his worldview his dismissal of me as "neoliberal" is accurate, I suppose.

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  3. you should not expect to get any sense out of him - I have never once seen him respond sensibly to anybody disagreeing with him, even if they are merely pointing out an easily verified error of fact.

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  4. I used to read Richard Murphy's blog, agree with much of what he says, and admire his commitment to social justice, but this kind of behaviour has really put me off. His response to anyone who disagrees with him just seems to be "you're obviously a just neoliberal and therefore wrong, a priori, and I don't need to exert any effort showing why". It weakens what case he does have.

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  5. You have all put in a nutshell why I've switched from Ritchie to Timmy in my efforts to get to grips with economics

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  6. "You have all put in a nutshell why I've switched from Ritchie to Timmy in my efforts to get to grips with economics"

    But that's very dangerous....have you not heard that Timmy is a neoliberal?

    Being serious, my problem with the Murph is his reaction to critique. No, not even criticism, but the, you know, you sure you got this right bit?

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  7. I used to get quite wound up by Murphy. His ignorance, his verbal assaults on anyone who held a different view, his blinkered preference for anything that stunk of government overspend and inefficiency.

    I have realised however that it is really not worth it. The man either ignores reality and goes about his daily life avoiding NI and income tax on publishing money, erhemm! or he is simply unable to understand the situation. Either way I have had enough worrying about a guy who has a following that would prefer to live in North Korea. Good luck to them. I hear dog is quite good.

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