A response to the Reith Lectures by Niall Ferguson, 2012-07-10

This week’s lecture by Niall Ferguson ‘Civil and Uncivil Societies’ was the last of four in this year’s Reith lectures. It was controversial and will undoubtedly attract much attention. To start with Ferguson gained my full support when he noted that Robert Putnam in his classic study ‘Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of American community’ (1995) outlined the decline in the American belief in self-help and the power of community action, in ways which closely resemble the British system.

The situation has undoubtedly got worse for over the past 30 years attendance at public meetings has fallen 35 %; leadership of local organisations has fallen 42%m; serving on a local committee has fallen 39% and membership of parent-teacher associations has fallen by a staggering 61%. It seems as if ‘ordinary people’ have given up on public affairs.

Last week’s report from the Joseph Roundtree Foundation into the state of democracy in Britain warned of a long term terminal decline as the power of corporations remorselessly increases and politicians become ever less representative of their constituents. All this points in one direction; “the world of the early 20th Century so overemphasises the satisfaction of the individual that we have forgotten that it is only through altruistic, collaborative behaviour that societies thrive”. We have become a nation of spectators. Consequently I was easily able to concur with Ferguson’s fears expressed early in the programme but when he went on to say that a prime cause of that decline was what he saw as the dead hand of publicly funded education, I became distinctly uncomfortable.

Let me explain. Twenty or more years ago I commented that what England needed was not a docile workforce with a range of basic skills but an enterprising, confident, self-starting, quick-thinking and risk-taking set of individuals who could operate in collaborative situations. Such a range of skills, I argued, could not be taught solely in the classroom, nor could they be developed solely by teachers; they are best learnt through active involvement through the diversity of civil society. Niall Ferguson advances the neo-classical economists view that human beings can be best motivated when given the opportunity to be self maximisers of their own self-interest. With this view, Ferguson argues that markets which facilitate free economic exchange are therefore the institutions most conducive to human progress.

Ferguson extols those private sector initiatives which seek to reduce the power of locally provided state education. He commends strongly Michael Gove’s proposal of Free Schools and Academies as a way to break what he sees as the monopoly of state education but which people like me understand represents the ultimate responsibility of local people in a democracy to shape their future. Not that we have done that very well in recent years, and I have been as keen as others to point out the many misfunctions of Local Educational Authorities.

Of course Ferguson is not the first economist to advance such an argument. A very interesting study made in the year 2000, at the same time as Putnam was writing ‘Bowling Alone’, two economists were appointed by the World Bank to introduce an unfettered market economy into the old Soviet Union, produced a fascinating case study. The two men, Lawrence and Norita, had undertaken the work in the late 1980s with great enthusiasm, but when they returned in 1998 it was to see a country emerging where a minority were doing incredibly well, but where the standard of living of the majority had fallen dramatically for everyone else. The two men set out to find out more about the nature of human behaviour and the ultimate motives about the choices people make from day to day, believing that a search would enable them to spin a theory that would create better and more coherent social policies.

Studying many hundreds of research programmes they identified four ‘Drivers’ of human behaviour. They listed these as being (1) the Drive to acquire objects that improve quality of life and your relative status – the basis of modern economics. (2) the Drive to bond with others in long term relationships of mutually caring commitment, (3) the Drive to learn and make sense of the world and of themselves, and (4) the Drive to defend themselves, their loved ones. Here was the most interesting part of their research; they saw that each of the four primary drives had been established as deep seated predispositions in the human brain as a result of Darwinian evolution, because the existence of these drives improves the odds that their genes will pass into subsequent generations. Those primary drivers are present in everyone but they are like four ill-matched horses pulling a stage coach – unless there is a skilful driver balancing the strength and weaknesses of each of those drivers, then the fastest and strongest of the four horses would quickly land the carriage upside down in a ditch. A chilling analogy.

What the Russians in 1998/99 had really needed were not simply advisers rooted in neo-classical economics but what Lawrence and Nortia called ‘well rounded, seasoned general practitioners for an entire human society’, experts, to use an old fashioned term, in applied political economy. The two men concluded with regret that such a person just doesn’t exist nowadays and it is immensely dangerous to overplay one of the four human drivers of behaviour at the cost of ignoring the other three – they realised that their advice had caused Russia more problems than it had solved.

Niall Ferguson’s take on ‘Civil and Uncivil Societies’ is that the role of education is to equip as many people as possible to be so concerned with their own self-interest that they raise wealth, and the standard of living. What that argument forgets however, is that human society – both at the individual and community level – is made up of people pulling in all kinds of directions. His argument appears to be that societies will be better off if individuals are as free as possible to go their own separate way.

Public education in Britain takes it origin from John Milton’s conviction that without an educated populace, democracy can’t flourish. Thomas Jefferson, who extended de Tocqueville’s thinking in the early 18020s was firmly of the belief that if a people are not able to exercise their democratic rights effectively, the answer was not to take the responsibility away from them, but to educate them sufficiently that they are able to make these decisions for themselves.

Niall Ferguson is a highly intelligent, if rather over self-assured academic whose views are bound to attract attention because of his academic status and his links with Michael Gove. Yet I believe that he is totally wrong and his prescription is extremely dangerous. I am struggling to know how best to write this up in a simple and direct form. I need to do this partly as I would like to send it to Sue Lawely in the hope that that might influence next year’s Reith Lectures but I know that I need to get the argument absolutely right so that there is no confusion between Tony Little and myself, and both of us with Amanda and Robin Baird Smith.

I have had five goes of explaining aspects of this over the past four years hence my disagreement with Ferguson. These are…

  1. In the chapter about Civil Society in ‘OverSchooled but UnderEducated’
  2. In the short paper ‘Education; a question of democracy’ (Nov 2008)
  3. In the paper for Oliver Letwin last summer ‘A Complete and Generous Education’
  4. In everything I have written about British Columbia and their locally accountable School Boards
  5. And in my review of Diane Ravitch’s explanation of Charter Schools ‘The Death and Life of the Great American School System’ (2010)