A group of 52 “academics” has written to the Observer newspaper to criticise the British government’s deficit reduction plan.
Those of us blessed with the gift of memory were at once reminded of the letter that was sent to the Times in 1981 from no less than 364 “economists” to criticise the policies of the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
Although it is possible to argue that the Thatcher reforms were too rapid or too severe or both, few these days would argue that they were unnecessary. Mrs Thatcher found Britain “the sick man of Europe” and left it with a competitive modern economy. She achieved that in the face of considerable opposition from so-called “experts”, like those who signed the Times letter. How many of those opponents later had the guts to admit they were wrong? What happened to them afterwards? Are any among the signatories of the Observer letter?
The media gave the Times letter a lot of publicity at the time. It would have been useful if they had followed up on the story and pointed out the conclusion that we should not be so trusting of self-styled “experts”. That is in fact a basic lesson, one that has had to be repeated many times, not least in 2008 and its aftermath. The philosopher Santayana was wise to say that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
Indeed, we should ask who is the real “expert”? Academic degrees are less important than the judgment and experience necessary to make the right call under pressure.
So it was no surprise that another of the lessons confirmed in 2008 – and in 1981 – is that entrepreneurs tend to be better at reading the situation than most professors. After all, if the professors were that clever, they would probably have gone into business for themselves. Some do, but the proportion of academics who are also successful entrepreneurs is very small.
Yet even those who have been proved to be clueless in practice continue to enjoy comfortable salaries – usually thanks to the poor taxpayer – and the status that encourages the media to take them seriously when they write silly letters to the newspapers.
Of course, this does not mean that the government’s deficit reduction programme is above criticism. Many of us would argue it is still too little too late. As to where the cuts should be made, it is clear that there is a lot of dead wood in our state-funded universities – although that 364 is down to 52 may at least be a sign of progress.