A sideways look at economics

2020 was a remarkably revealing year. With what seemed like endless lockdowns, unprecedented uncertainty, and relentless family board games, by mid-December I found myself in a state of continuous thought I couldn’t escape. Like many people my age, coronavirus ejected me from an independent (and exciting) life at university to the all-too-familiar family home, in what seemed like the space of three weeks. As the months passed, I learnt a lot about myself and learnt even more about the power of human connection. I became increasingly nostalgic about the days playing for the local rugby club or drinking in a crowded pub. To counter this time- and energy-absorbing task, I tried a variety of self-prescribed remedies, which led to a personal discovery of philosophy.

Initially, I tried to run my time and worries away. I quickly learnt the intricacies of Strava alongside the aches and pains of road running. However, no matter how far I ran or what trainers I bought next, I always returned to a feeling of solitude and longing for more. Next came the planning. Designing the dream holiday, organising the day out with friends or making extensive preparations for the next sourdough loaf were common favourites and provided a feeling of control and certainty when such feelings were largely absent in other aspects of my life. This was no cure but rather a temporary, if much-needed, palliative. However, the effectiveness of this reduced over time.

Last on the list was reading. Whether learning of humanity’s evolution through Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens or words of inspiration from David Goggins, supposedly the ‘world’s toughest man’, I was truly fascinated and found a sense of escape I hadn’t found before. Admittedly, this discovery is belated for someone of my age. However, in a time of fast tech and ever-proliferating Netflix series (Ozarks being a particular favourite), it sadly took the grinding to a halt of ‘normal’ life to embrace this epiphany. After a series of initial forays into the world of books I found myself circling round the topic of philosophy – from Michel Foucault’s inspirational and intriguing life, to the Eastern philosopher Lao-Tzu’s Daoism system of thought, I was captivated, with each lesson drawing back the curtain on one of life’s never-ending lessons. Naturally, this serendipitous discovery has proved more useful as time has gone by, and has helped me, to a degree, face the dreaded 8 o’clock news specials from a wider and more placid perspective: more philosophically, so to speak. After returning from Fathom’s Christmas break, I have found even greater connections between the ideas underpinning philosophical thought and those framing the economics and politics of our times. Of these, two appear especially relevant.

Firstly, having studied John Locke, a late-17th-century  English physician, and his views on education I was left envious of the exemplary political leadership and pragmatism he showed during times of great uncertainty. Having lived through the Glorious Revolution and its associated economic upheaval, Locke became a proponent of toleration and stood in defiant opposition to the authoritarianism of the times. In his ‘Letter Concerning Toleration’, Locke outlines the necessity of challenging religious uniformity and fostering an environment of pluralism. His thoughts on education appear especially relevant in today’s world. He proposed the tabula rasa – the blank slate – as the model of every mind at birth. From that fundamental level playing field flows the imperative to develop morality and social interaction through experience and education. This perspective was aimed at countering the prevailing belief that innate talent determined how people experienced the world, and whether they succeeded or failed in it. This idea, of the importance we should attach to education, has extremely strong resonances today. According to the World Economic Forum 1.2 billion students were affected by school closures globally in 2020, leaving online communication the only viable means of providing them with an education of any sort. In the UK, this appears to be driving up educational inequality. Under the NRS social grading system, Ofcom found that an average of 72% of all 5-15-year-olds have access online via a tablet and 62% via mobile, which compares to 59% and 49% respectively for those from a working-class background. This inequality will clearly lead to unequal provision of education in a world where schools are closed, and is potentially exacerbated by the fact that 80% of graduate parents provide home schooling at least four days a week, compared to only 60% of non-graduates, according to an LSE report. Even Mario Itoje, or ‘Super Mario’ to many of England’s proudest rugby fans, has used his influence to build support for technological equality. Spearheading a campaign for increased laptop handouts to Britain’s most disadvantaged, he has gathered the support of 2000 headteachers. Despite 700,000 laptops being provided by the government, they have failed to fulfil their pledge to distribute 1.3 million during the pandemic, with many schools relying on public generosity and community projects.

With the schooling system increasingly shut down and online learning presenting troubling divergencies, the importance of education and its contribution to intellectual and financial equality appears a pressing issue we must confront without delay. Every week of school closure is a week’s less addition for many of those who are already less privileged to the tabula rasa we so critically need to develop in everyone. Ultimately, content-based learning forms the bedrock for all students regardless of setting. However, like many, I struggle to recollect much of this content with great accuracy or utilisation but rather cherish the social interaction and emotional dilemmas I faced on a daily basis when at school. The opportunity to debate contrarian ideas and witness a diversity of thought is of crucial significance for any young adult when discovering the world. I fear the detrimental impact online learning has on a student’s exposure to such experiences and I can only sympathise with the disruption faced by the young and hope for a swift return to educational normality.

The second broad strand of thought I have found myself drawn to is Kantianism and its insights into the developing role of government and responsibilities we all possess in everyday life. Immanuel Kant, like many of us in 2020, rarely left his home town (of Konigsberg, in what was Prussia). Crucially, Kant outlined the presence of a ‘categorical imperative’ within all our lives. This is the moral truth that we cannot avoid regardless of our particular circumstances and environment. Now, this may not seem revolutionary but, with every extra day in lockdown the decisions we make carry heavy implications for all our futures. The categorical imperative is Kant’s formulation of what is otherwise known as the ‘golden rule’: do to others what you would have them do to you. For Kant, the important thing is to consider what it is you think that everyone ‘should’ do if they found themselves in exactly your circumstances. Thinking about that puts you in the right frame of mind to make the right choice yourself: the choice that is consistent with your conscience. Rarely has that thought process seemed more important than now. In a similar vein, in his book A Theory of Justice, the American political theorist John Rawls proposed his own ‘golden rule’: to view society as if behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, that is to judge society from an objective standpoint removing any bias and ego. He proposes everyone should imagine the circumstances of the life you are born into being a lottery and questioning if you would be happy with your odds of a ‘positive’ outcome. Only when we are happy with the odds of this theoretical game have we achieved an egalitarian society. This way society can be built on a principle of fairness.

Considering the categorical imperative alongside Kant’s position on the government’s raison d’etre underlines its importance. Kant believed the central duty of government was to provide liberty for all, though not the modern libertarian version that is commonly seen today. Liberty, to Kant, was the ability to think in a rational and moral way and to act accordingly. Therefore, the role of government is to foster the inner logic and kindness within us all, enabling its application in modern society. We should all consult our consciences and act accordingly, and the role of government is to enable us to do so.

Whether clapping for heroes or using statistical analysis, like the infamous R number, we can see clear examples of the government’s reliance on our goodwill and our individual conscience, and their attempts to engage that. Ultimately, Kantianism underlines the conflict of interest between our inner duty and selfish pleasure, whereas Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance’ encourages us to apply the principle of fairness as a foundation for society. The effectiveness of government is not the subject of this blog, yet Kant highlights the tension between effective government and personal responsibility. Government can only solve the COVID problem itself by radically reducing our liberty; better for us to solve it ourselves through the rational, moral choices we make, respecting the voice of conscience.

Whether the compelling lessons of Locke, Kant’s teachings on liberty or Machiavelli’s controversial views on leadership, it has become clear to me in times of great uncertainty, there is much reassurance and relevant wisdom to be uncovered. So now I face the future with a feeling of cautious optimism regardless of the troubles it will inevitably involve. In a world of big data and computer modelling it is easy to forget philosophy is a cornerstone in the foundation of the economics of our society, with both truly intertwined.

Philosophy Locke Kant