Ismail Lagardien: Back up those statements

I do not spend much time teaching on a daily basis, but when I do, I usually get agreement on a few basic principles. One of these principles is that when a student makes a statement of fact, he or she has to provide evidence to support his or her claims.

Now, there is a quite extensive discussion that can be provided by what constitutes evidence, but usually when one makes statements about public policy or claims about the real world, it helps to present some evidence.

It helps also, bluntly put, if you actually know what it is you’re talking about.

I should explain that my day-to-day work focuses on long-term strategic objectives by placing the faculty of business and economics sciences on a more progressive and open plane, and expanding the horizon of inquiry.

An important part of this is what Joseph Stiglitz, during his time as chief economist of the World Bank, referred to as a need for “more instruments and broader goals” to move us beyond what became known, two decades ago, as the Washington Consensus.

Very briefly stated, the Washington Consensus was identified almost incidentally during an event in Washington in 1990.

It was a general reference, never a stated objective, to the policies that were driven from the Wall Street-Washington Axis to the rest of the world from the early 1980s.

These policies were captured in a portmanteau concept of neo-liberalism, a belief that markets do, and necessarily had to be used to allocate resources and opportunities.

I have elided and somewhat simplified these two concepts – the Washington Consensus and neo-liberalism – without desperately misrepresenting them.

Anyway, the evidence shows that neo-liberalism, as the over-arching ideological concept, has resulted in policies that increased inequality around the world and high levels of distrust in the architecture of global capitalism.

Again, there is not much misrepresentation in this statement – although much of neo-liberalism’s destruction has been skipped over for the sake of brevity.

What is rather tragic, however, is that way that neo-liberalism, in particular, raises the levels of bile among many of us.

There is, however, a deeper tragedy.

It is quite unsettling that most of our political leaders, and aspirant leaders, readily denounce neo-liberalism, as well they should, but are rarely able explain the concept.

I recently met a young man whose distaste for neo-liberalism was expressed with a fixed certainty, a trance-like behaviour that one associates with the most devoted of zealots.

When I asked what he meant by neo-liberalism, and whether he actually understood the concept, he could explain only that he was told to believe it was evil.

Herein, perhaps, lies the deep crisis in our education system.

We seem to have produced a cadre of political leaders, young and old, who readily bandy about slogans and make the most diabolical decisions, but barely know what they’re talking about.

This ideological certainty runs from left to right of the ideological spectrum.

Free market fundamentalists can barely provide evidence of where markets were completely free, where there has been no state intervention over an extended period and which resulted in raised prosperity for all.

Free markets, as my favourite political economist, Karl Polanyi, explained, are by and large a myth.

Very many on the left, who would insist that all our problems will be resolved by communism, have either not lived in a communist country, or have no idea of the misery and injustices that were sowed in places like the old Soviet Union or during Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution.

The facts of both cases are usually avoided.

What we have, instead, are expressions of loyalty to ideal states with no evidence to demonstrate where any of this has ever worked.

The reason why I write about this is essentially a response to the shocking remarks made by ANC leaders over the past week or so that we have to “collapse the economy” – or “let the rand fall” – so we can pick it up again.

It is, of course, really difficult to work out whether these are leftist or rightest statements – what is certain is that they are not the brightest.

As for the requirement of evidence, well, my guess is that none of these politicians, nor the impressionable young people among us, have actually lived and worked in countries where “the economy” has collapsed, or where the local currency is worthless.

They rely on rhetoric and cant, and provide the most vacuous of encomia to the emptiest populist slogans that are dotted with words like “revolution” or “economic freedom”.

There is nothing that happens after the revolution or economic freedom – nothing, at least, that can be demonstrated by evidence.

This is the nature of populist rhetoric.

It requires no evidence and thrives on making demands that are impossible to meet.

Dr Ismail Lagardien is executive dean of business and economics at NMMU.

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