Sunday, 19 February 2012

Doubt and the problem of planning - a thought on conservatism

In recent times I’ve tried to explain to people that conservatism isn’t some form of brash, know-all ideological fix for mankind’s problems. Indeed, to proclaim something unquestioningly true is to deny an essential truth of conservative thinking.

Perhaps I should qualify this by pointing out that this view is an English conservatism – something of a philosophy of doubt and insecurity. Today, speaking with my wife, I observed that I no longer have the absolute certainty expressed in my youthful bedroom wall poster:

“I may have my faults but being wrong isn’t one of them!”

Who are we if, with the flimsiest of evidence and rarely evidence that is unchallenged, take it upon ourselves to claim that there is only one true path, one solution to a given problem? As conservatives we should always proceed with care and caution for we may be wrong. It is this appreciation of human fallibility that separates conservatives from liberals, socialists and other such ideologues.

This isn’t a cry for inaction but is intended to explain why change should not be imposed simply for that change’s sake and certainly not because it merely conforms to our ideological bias. The reasons why conservatives prefer the small state, opt for local over national and national over global is because we doubt that the state can really resolve mankind’s problems and challenges. This isn’t a rejection of the state but instead recognises that most of the time that old H L Mencken comment applies:

 "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong."

This helps explain why conservatives are doubtful of planning. It’s not an ideological objection but a practical one. To use the example of our “predict and provide” approach to housing - we employ experts to estimate how many houses we’ll need so as everyone has a roof over their head. I know just one truth about these ‘housing number’ predictions – they are always wrong. Not because the experts are inexpert but because it is impossible to make such estimates with confidence. Yet we make these informed guesses and then try to provide the houses. And the result is that (almost without exception) a wholly different number is actually built to meet the actual demand for housing.

For housing we could substitute anything else from coronary heart attacks to road accidents - the estimates of “need” are wrong and, as a result, the plans proposed tend to fail.

Now before you all assume that this is simply an argument for classical liberalism and laissez-faire social organisation (or should that be ‘un-organisation’) let’s be clear that planning for the future isn’t a bad idea. We just need to treat what the experts tell us with caution and proceed accordingly. To borrow another quotation – this time from Robert Heinlein:
“No statement should be believed because it is made by an authority.”

As conservatives our first question should be one of doubt – we should take St Thomas as our patron. When the expert – the authority – presents his solution we should begin by doubting its efficacy. We should recall that Lloyd George didn’t want to preside over the death of friendly societies – organisations he knew and loved - but, by introducing a state social insurance, he ensured their rapid demise.

England’s current polity is anti-conservative because everything it does – the core of its ideology – is rooted in action founded on planning. Our governors – the one’s who’ll be around regardless of the politicians – cannot conceive of an unplanned world. For sure, they’ll claim to admire Jane Jacobs, to support free markets and to value voluntary and local but the truth (perhaps – remember I might be wrong) is that they dislike all of these things.

Our governors want our cities tidy, ordered and regimented. They must regulate markets to make them ‘fairer’ (whatever that means). And they prefer uniformity of provision centrally-directed over local variation and variety.  This control is exercised through planning – ‘evidence’ is gathered (often ‘evidence’ prepared by the self-interested or even the down-right biased) and plans are drawn up on its basis. And when the plan fails – because the evidence was wrong – the solution is further evidence gathering followed by a new plan.

As conservatives we must begin to question – to doubt – this planning. We must start to reject planned solutions to grand problems and look instead at free action, at the local and above all at the voluntary. This, I know, isn’t a solution to those grand problems but since government has failed entirely in resolving those problems it might be a wise move to do a little less and, when we do act, to do so with care, caution and in as limited a way as possible.


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