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Independent experts and 'evidence-based policy'

    One of the common devices used to shut down modern political debate is to defer to the experts. ‘Experts’ say we should eat less salt. So government should act to regulate salt content in food. ‘Experts’ say we are drinking too much. So government should impose a minimum alcohol price. ‘Experts’ say childcare is increasingly unaffordable for many people. So government should subsidise it.

    The noticeable thing about all three of the examples above is the huge leap of faith made somewhere between the first and second sentence.

    We’ve all heard these types of argument before. Objecting to their premise is met with ridicule. A recent example I encountered went something like this: “Opposition to government involvement in industrial policy is a purely ideological position. What matters is what works.”

    There are two easily identifiable problems with this position:

    1)      All ideologies claim that they work – otherwise they would be completely meaningless. What matters is what the original aims are and for whom they work.

    2)      The statement assumes intervention is the role of government, which in itself is an ideological position

    For example, you could have a green energy programme which creates jobs in green energy and lowers our carbon emissions. But it might increase energy costs and reduce jobs elsewhere through the requirement for government subsidies and the increased cost of electricity. It therefore only “works” if you think the first points here constitute the primary aims. In other words, the leap of faith is presuming that the aim of the policy is somehow not an ideological judgement, and assuming that government should undertake this role. It denies the clear trade-offs which are taken in any policy position.

    Where interventionists go further is that they then make it sound like any opposition to more government is dangerous, wrong, and ignorant to evidence presented by said experts.

    Some of us, however, value freedom as an end in itself. Not just because we think it leads to the best outcomes economically or socially, but because we believe that freedom is a valued outcome which should be considered when judging policy. This is a point US conservative Jonah Goldberg has made powerfully – if we think about it, we soon realise we do all value freedom. We wouldn’t tolerate government taking 100% of our income to spend, for example, so at some point all people put economic freedom as a real freedom. Likewise, we would all regard freedom of speech and movement as important. Our differences occur because some of us value these freedoms as more important than other considerations. 

    This relates to today’s Leveson announcement as well. Many people are making the arguments over whether self-regulation ‘works’ and whether it needs to be replaced by statutory regulation. But in doing so, they are giving much more weight to the justifiable concern for the recent victims of phone-hacking than to the principle of press freedom, and all the benefits that entails, more broadly. They play down the trade-offs. Furthermore they are assuming that the proper role of government is to regulate, or oversee regulation of press output. This, in itself, is an ideological position.

    Which brings us back to the starting point of this blog. Whenever there are self-identified problems in the UK, you can always be sure that someone will call for state interference or regulation to cure it. Not only does this assume that regulation solves the problem (seemingly ignoring issues like regulatory capture and the record of the other bodies like the FSA), but it also assumes that this is a justifiable role of government. The second stage, in deflecting any criticism on freedom grounds by deferring to proposed independent experts, is used as cover for these original ideological judgement calls. As such it is profoundly undemocratic.

    Ryan joined the Centre for Policy Studies in January 2011, having previously worked for a year at the economic consultancy firm Frontier Economics.

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    Anonymous - About 2631 days ago

    Whilst in any trade off the true value both visual & hidden maybe hidden from us,we most surely see the effects of these trades in the workings of economies & moral social destruction,Ideology gets in the way of rectifying bad trades which damage whole economies,moral compasses to realise that repeated bad trades makes economic collapse inevitable,unless the re-balance occurs,be it economic,press or any other trade that is too one sided

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