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Does Reason Matter?

by Evan Jones on Feb 5, 2016
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The academy is rooted in the axiom of the supremacy of reason.

Let us note that, in reality, academic ‘reasoning’ is typically paradigm-bound. Thus the conscientious rigorous academic will likely be engaging in a process of constrained ‘rationality’, never raising the head above the inherited parapet. The neoclassical economist is an exemplary representative of this routine. To think ‘outside the box’ is to imperil one’s career prospects.

But let us put that pervasive peccadillo aside and assume that the academic’s research and writing regime is at her/his most far-reaching, unconstrained, and admirable. The machine is powered by logic and evidence. There may also be a propelling force that encases in a set of values, let us assume ‘progressive’ (egalitarian, etc.).

And what if this apparatus is directed towards an analysis of some aspect of government policy? Not improbable.

Let us examine this issue in the context of the rise and implementation of that political agenda since the 1970s that is loosely labeled ‘neoliberalism’. Mountains of literature, academic and its popular offshoots, has been generated by progressive-minded academics not merely on the anti-egalitarian thrust of neoliberalism but also on its dysfunctionality.

Not least, the outcomes of the neoliberalist agenda do not cohere with the character nor the outcomes proffered by neoliberalism’s proponents.

All the key channels – deregulation, privatisation, public-private partnerships, managerialism, etc. – have been forensically examined by our well-meaning nay-sayers and the latter have pointed to outcomes contrary to the promises.

For example, in the banking sector, deregulation and privatisation have produced a succession of significant dysfunctionalities and corrupt practices. And this for a sector with a fundamental public role. Some of these adverse outcomes are transparently obvious to the general public, courtesy of a media that can’t avoid reporting on their general character. Yet the political and regulatory apparatus remains immune to the problems.

For the academic, complementing these known broad parameters in providing a more rigorous analysis of said sector, one is compelled to declaim – the evidence is there, why do not those in authority follow the evidence? Why do they not see reason!

Faced with this dissonance, our typical egghead academic plows on in the same furrow, refining the argument, inducing further evidence, simplifying the language, etc. The implicit mentality is that the evidence and reason must win out in the end.

I write this scenario from experience, as I have been preoccupied with government policy for my entire academic life. And I have become obsessed with the question of why those in authority do not confront the evidence and ‘see reason’. Apart from myriad articles in the mainstream media, I have written countless submissions to Parliamentary and official inquiries only to have the content of those submissions comprehensively ignored.

So the well-meaning academic is faced with an impasse. Frustration has long set in. Does one press ahead along the same lines hoping for what looks like needing a miracle to happen?

The stark reality is that those in authority do not see reason, and for good reason! They operate according to a different logic.

By all means, one should pursue and publicise an analysis of reactionary and dysfunctional government policies. But it is not enough. The official arguments for the implementation of the neoliberal agenda cannot be taken at face value, as if the political class has the same mindset as us ‘enlightened’ academics. One must allow the possibility that the proponents themselves don’t believe in the arguments they espouse. To endlessly criticise such claims from a rationalist perspective involves a considerable waste of talent and of energy.

But how to do otherwise? One confronts that acknowledging the impasse involves not merely a personal choice. It is a systemic issue, because harnessing the logic and evidence machine is what the academy does. It is its raison d’être. (Thus is the disdain when academics are found to have taken sponsorship from outside and both their work and the integrity of the institution compromised.)

One might surmise that the academic discipline of government/political science would be well placed to confront the impasse. Not so. This discipline remains as tied to the academic modus operandi as the rest.

A recent fashion in that discipline has been to emphasise the implementation of an ‘evidence-based’ policy regime – an idealist notion par excellence. Rare instances of application (cigarettes plain packaging) do not invalidate this idealist fantasy.

This impasse embodies a more subtle form of ivory tower-dom. And it needs to be acknowledged and redressed. Can one acknowledge that reason à la the academy rarely matters in the ‘real world’?

If one is not to participate in consigning the academy to continuing irrelevance, to the pursuit of utopian gestures, a change of orientation is required.

One needs to address directly the character of the political and policy-making process. It is an arena where lies and dissembling are an art form, ditto obfuscation and stonewalling. Apart from the circus of Parliamentary question time, letters from Members of Parliament in response to correspondence from the public enclosing observations/advice/entreaties provide evidentiary raw material for this state of play. Kafka is alive and well.

Cynicism and personal opportunism typically matter more than personal principle. In contemporary Australia, it is hard to find a politician at any level (certainly in the three major Parties) for whom the public interest is the motivation for their holding office.

In the face of government policies that appear to ‘make no sense’ (dysfunctional, as well as being inegalitarian on the moral compass), it is appropriate to look for the particular ‘rationality’ in that domain.

It is appropriate to inquire, whence the policies? In particular, are the policies dictated by sectional vested interests or by a ‘false’ ideology, or both?

Those who purvey neoliberal ideology are a multi-layered lot. Of this layering, there are undoubtedly true believers. The financial press, for example, has always been neoliberal – witness the stance of a succession of editors and key columnists at the Australian Financial Review. Select vested interests of necessity desire to render themselves opaque, so the employment of functionaries (if true believers, all the better) as public propagandists is an integral element of the influence peddling process. Then get them into the mainstream media as ‘informed’ opinion-makers. The Institute of Public Affairs is Exhibit A for this dual mechanism.

But how does one discern these and complementary elements in the origins of ‘bad’ policies? The typical academic is ill-equipped for the task. The bulk of the academic’s scholarly raw material is the work of other academics – a phenomenon I explored in an earlier piece ‘Oppose Book Worship’. A reinforced insularity may prevail, regardless of intentions to break out of the loop.

Equally as fundamental, the dogged pursuit of the political and policy-making process is intrinsically difficult. Some elements are secretive of necessity – release of government papers 25 years down the track consigns a deeper analysis and understanding purely to inquisitive historians.

Other elements are secretive by design because those involved would rather that the nature of their participation not be publicised. One is perennially reliant on investigative journalism, but that means is constrained by a media management complicit with those in authority, producing a tendency to sensationalist trivia (e.g. leadership battles).

Other possible channels of exposure are shackled. Whistleblowers are demonised, destroyed. Anti-corruption bodies are neutralised.

Even if the hurdle-jumping academic succeeds in providing a window into the political process on a particular policy development, say, and exposes this discovery to the broader public as well as the academic community, will it make any difference? Will it contribute to those with a capacity to influence matters ‘seeing reason’?

From my experience, no. One can see why academics stick to their last, or escape into topics both obscure and meaningless.

Reason matters, but its application remains caged, and it is generally an alien concept to politics. To appropriate W.H. Auden (who was referring to poetry):

For [Reason] makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its saying where executives

Would never want to tamper …

Believe in reason if it makes one feel good. But never over-estimate its power to persuade those who run the show.

Evan Jones
Evan Jones is an Honorary in Political Economy, having retired from the Political Economy Department in 2006. His current writing interests include corruption in the Australian banking sector and the French political economy.

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