31 January 2019
Principles and mechanisms.
By John Watson
Last week politics was a wave motion. My colleague Mr Thomas pointed to the way in which the British left and right successively dominate the political scene until in their turn they fall back exhausted and the other takes over. Now the right has run out of steam, he thinks, so we can look forward to a spell of state control and taxation. It sounds likely enough, but I really hope there is more to it than that. Technical revolution and globalism have left us facing frightening problems. It isn’t enough to talk about turns. We need solutions from whichever political drawer they happen to come.
Take the bugs, as an example. No, not the listening ones left around by MI5 but the really super-duper bugs that will be proof against all known antibiotics. The slightest scratch will bring instant death; piles of corpses will be thrown into pits; flagellants will tour the streets blaming their own sinfulness; politicians will be out there blaming the sins of others. Yes, I mean really up-market bugs, capable of laughing in the face of penicillin. Naturally we hope that the pharmaceutical industry will be ready for them with some new form of medicinal fly swat, something which you can take when all the old antibiotics have failed. But why should they? That is the question. As there will be no sales until all the current antibiotics have become useless, there won’t be any profits until then either. Does that mean that the development of the new antibiotics will wait until they are needed so that, with lead times etc, they will not hit the shelves until there isn’t anybody left to be saved? That would indeed be a pyrrhic victory for the scientists.
Since this is the Shaw Sheet and not a horror magazine, I am glad to be able to say that it may not be as bad as that. The NHS has stepped into the breach and is paying for the researchers to get going now, so hopefully the test tubes will be ready in time. That is certainly a relief but it is not what this article is about. The point to note is that in the highly capitalist pharmaceutical world there are areas where capitalism doesn’t work, areas where the mechanisms of the state needs to step in.
Look at another global problem, that of plastic waste. The main line of attack must be regulations dealing with everything from permitted packaging to mandatory recycling schemes. Bureaucratic solutions, in fact. But then we also need science to invent ways in which plastic can be broken down, and to find viable substitutes. That could be controlled centrally but the Darwinism of ideas tells us that it would be better for lots of solutions to be devised with the best ones coming through by a form of selection. That mechanism belongs in the private sector.
So go on down your bucket list of global problems. No work for people to do as robots take over? The creation of new demand and the services to satisfy it are the province of the private sector. The fact that the ‘winner takes all’ nature of e-commerce means that money does not filter down to the poor? A state driven solution is clearly needed here. And so it goes on. It is nonsense to say that left-leaning or right-leaning solutions are intrinsically better than each other. They are just different sets of techniques available to be applied in the solution of the real problems. To say “I am for free enterprise” or “I am for state control” is as foolish as for a carpenter to say that he always favours a hammer or a screwdriver.
“Not again,” you may say. Not the Shaw Sheet sneering again at the rigidity of thinking in the main political parties. They have done that before. Can’t they ever say anything original? All right, try this.
Suppose, by way of an illustration, that the Chinese government had splendidly constructive policies on environmental matters which it imposed throughout its sphere of influence. Suppose that, as a result, world pollution was falling, the domesday clock had been wound back a few minutes and the plastic menace was under control. So far, so splendid. The fly in the ointment, however, was that China was ruled by a ruthless oligarchy and political opponents of the regime were horribly suppressed. Would you as the President of the United States impose sanctions on China to encourage it into the democratic fold knowing that, given a free vote, the people might reverse the policies on which the future of the world depended? Of course you wouldn’t. Indeed you might go further than that and supply the regime with the advanced equipment necessary for it to maintain its iron grip on power. Why? Because the real issue is the environment and in this context the promotion of democracy or its opposite are simply instruments to be used in the greater cause. Perhaps this is why so many protests to Western Governments over links with thoroughly nasty regimes go unheeded.