Why are governments so bad?


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Colin Tudge suggests that the reasons lie partly in our biology, partly in logistics — and partly in present-day, siloed education

To the standard list of global disasters – global warming, mass extinction, famine, war, poverty, inequality, and general nastiness and injustice – we should surely add “bad governance”. For all of the most obvious catastrophes that face us now were eminently preventable, and could still (just about) be reversed – and yet the world’s most powerful governments and their corporate and financial allies are continuing to lead the world down the same old paths, and to the very brink of meltdown. In large part too they fail to support, and or in some cases actively oppose and curtail initiatives that could truly help us out of our plight. So it is that successive British governments have failed to support small farmers who practice the methods of agroecology, or to give sufficient to support to “alternative” sources of energy. But the present government is “clamping down” on demonstrators who dare to question the status quo and suggest better ways of doing things.  In short, bad governance is at once a prime cause of the world’s ills—and also a road-block, making it more difficult, or indeed impossible for anyone else to do anything radically different, and better. To promote bad practice and stand in the way of things that ought to be done is surely the opposite of what governments should do; the opposite of what governments are for.  

Many governments in the history of the world have very obviously been bad: oppressive, cruel, and destructive.  Those governments in turn have commonly been led by people who by normal standards — the standards by which most of us live — are monsters. In my lifetime these have included Stalin, Hitler, and the lesser lights of Mussolini, Franco, Salazar, Ceausescu, Pinochet, and numerous Africans including Idi Amin. The present crop includes Putin, Xi Jinping, Netanyahu, Bashar-al Assad, Min Aung Hlaing, Kim Jong Un, various oil sheikhs and Donald Trump (who of course could well return). It’s amazing how much time and energy humanity expends not on looking after ourselves and our fellow creatures and generally trying to make the world a better place, but in fending off the excesses of a few weird individuals who might reasonably be classed as psychopaths. 

Britain for whatever reason has not so far suffered anyone that I can think of who was or is quite as awful as the individuals listed above. But the dire state of Britain right now tells us that Tory party rule these past 13 years has fallen far short of what is really needed.  All the necessary infrastructure of civilized life can properly be said to be in crisis: the NHS and welfare in general; housing; education; transport; the police and the prisons; and, of course, the state of the natural world is sad beyond measure. Despite the many follies and false moves these past few decades we still have the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world yet the poor continue to get poorer and the gap between rich and poor – and between rich and super-rich – grows ever wider. 

Outstanding government mistakes by both the major parties in recent memory include the botched partitioning of India (1947);  Suez (1956);  the election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979 which led us and the world into the age of neoliberalism – an economy based on self-centred, ultra-materialistic, acquisitiveness in which the prime virtue is to compete as ruthlessly as necessary for material advantage; the invasion of Iraq (2003) which was misguided to the point of wickedness; George Osborne’s age of austerity (2010); Brexit (2016); and now the callous and inept mishandling of immigration culminating in the plan to whizz people off to Rwanda. Although close observers say otherwise, our government has decreed that Rwanda is safe and eminently desirable, a tropical version of Butlin’s indeed, and what our government chooses to believe is, we are assured, ipso facto the case. As the Bellman says in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark

“I have said it thrice [and] what I tell you three times is true”. 

In the face of such enormities, many serious thinkers these past few hundred years (and doubtless for many centuries before) have advocated anarchism — which doesn’t simply imply lawlessness as is commonly assumed but literally means “no formally appointed leader”. Thus in 1900 after a lifetime under the tsars Leo Tolstoy no less in his essay On Anarchy declared that — 

“The Anarchists are right in everything; in the negation of the existing order; and in the assertion that, without Authority, there could not be worse violence than that of Authority under existing conditions”

And until his death in 1910 Tolstoy was something of a mentor to the young Gandhi, the future Mahatma, and champion of what became known as civil disobedience. 

The question is — how come? Why do we allow ourselves to be so badly governed? How is it that today, with all our powers of communication, and almost universal literacy, and the widespread, ostensible enthusiasm for democracy, we in Britain and humanity as a whole put up with such truly dreadful leadership? Why indeed does humanity — 8.5 billion of us – allow ourselves and our fellow creatures to be held in the balance by the ambitions and excesses of a handful of seriously anomalous men (and sometimes of women)? 

I do not presume to offer a definitive answer but I would like to offer a few thoughts. 

1: A matter of evolution 

First, we are mammals, and furthermore we are primates. Many or most mammals, like many if not most animals, are social beings, for the simple reason that the advantages of living in groups often or usually outweigh the drawbacks. Pace Tolstoy, groups generally do better when they have clearly defined leaders (provided they are reasonably sensible and responsible leaders). As all human societies have found, democracy is difficult (“The worst system there is”, said Churchill, “apart from all the others”). Some mammalian groups practice some forms of democracy up to a point, and so it is that alpha-male, “silverback” gorillas, though hugely impressive and apparently autocratic, are put firmly in their place by the sorority of senior females if they overstep the mark, or at least are sent to Coventry. But most animal societies rely on alpha individuals (not always males) nonetheless. 

Some people hate to think that their thoughts and attitudes are shaped to any significant degree by our evolution and are rooted at least in part in our genes, but the fact seems inescapable. So it is that most of us don’t go round sniffing lamp-posts not because it is socially unacceptable but because we are not dogs and have not inherited doggy predilections. Pragmatically, too, we tend unconsciously for reasons deeply embedded in our biology to follow Hilaire Belloc’s advice to his young friend James, which was: 

“ … always keep ahold of nurse/ for fear of finding something worse’

Indeed we seem inclined to go on clinging even when the nurse is obviously misguided or indeed is demonstrably insane. 

2: A matter of logistics 

Then there is the logistic problem: the people who are most likely to achieve the status and wealth needed to attain power are the ones who want it most. And the people who crave power and kudos most ardently are, in general, not the kind of people who ought to be in charge. For as Jesus said (according to St Mark (10: 42-44):  

“ … whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all”

The necessary virtues it seems are those of compassion and humility – not the kind of qualities we associate with the Putins of this world. 

Then of course there’s the problem that the Catholic historian and statesman Lord Acton drew attention to in a letter to an Anglican bishop in 1887: 

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” 

Indeed, only a few saintly individuals avoid this trap, including most conspicuously in recent years, South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu. If only there were more Tutus! Actually there are a lot – most typically to be found among teachers, doctors, nurses, care-workers, and indeed priests and rabbis and imams, though in truth they may pop up anywhere. But the would-be Tutus tend to remain below the radar, precisely because they prefer not to be too conspicuous. Tutu came to prominence only by dint of extraordinary historical circumstance (and rose spectacularly to the challenge). 

Although Britain’s present government is unquestionably awful and incompetent it is positively evil only in parts. Yet, I suggest, there’s a more immediate, practical problem. Our leaders, and indeed most people in positions of influence, are very badly educated. 

3: A matter of education 

The fault in education does not lie with the teachers, who in Britain at least are undervalued, underpaid, under-supported and overworked — generally heroic and often excellent. It lies with the approach to education and with curricula that in general are too narrow and also, even more to the point, are far too siloed. Teaching in Britain is divided too early and far too sharply into the “humanities” aka “the arts” on the one hand, and science on the other. At the same time the day-to-day skills of life (and notably of growing, farming and cooking) are generally down-graded and ignored in the standard academic curriculum, and the bedrock discipline of metaphysics has largely gone missing altogether. 

To be sure, the education of Britain’s and the world’s leading politicians is often of the most expensive kind. Rishi Sunak spent his formative years at Winchester and Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, David Cameron, George Osborne, Kwasi Kwarteng,  and goodness knows how many more went to Eton. All of the above (plus the state school educated Michael Gove, and Theresa May and Liz Truss) went on to Oxford. 

There they all studied subjects that are traditionally known as “humanities”. Cameron read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and so too did Liz Truss, who later in her mercifully ephemeral premiership employed her dubious talents and those of her chosen Chancellor, her Oxford soul-mate Kwasi, to trash the British economy with a zeal that was wondrous to behold. Gove read English. Rees-Mogg read history and went on to write The Victorians: Twelve Titans who Forged Britain (2019) – which was variously described in the national press as “staggeringly silly”, “morally repellent”, “plodding, laborious, humourless and barely readable”, “bad, boring and mindbogglingly banal”. Still, said the historian Kathryn Hughes, “At least we know The Victorians isn’t ghost written, since no self-respecting freelancer would dare ask for payment for such rotten prose”. But I haven’t read Rees-Mogg’s master work so I couldn’t possibly comment. 

Boris (and Kwasi) read Classics, which was traditionally supposed to provide the firmest possible grounding for a leader, drawing as it does on the wisdom of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, and of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and indeed of Cicero and Marcus Aurelius. The most prominent of the classics-educated politicians before Boris (albeit at Cambridge rather than Oxford) was Enoch Powell. He it was who in an infamous speech at a Conservative Association meeting in Birmingham on April 20 1968 gave voice to the fear of an alleged constituent that 

“ … in Britain within 15 or 20 years … the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” 

Indeed, said Powell, 

“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.” 

The Roman in question was Vergil, who coined the expression in the Aeneid.  There’s nothing like a classical reference to give the illusion of wisdom. The solution to the pending alien coup, suggested Powell, is 

“simple and rational: by stopping, or virtually stopping, further inflow, and by promoting the maximum outflow. Both answers are part of the official policy of the Conservative Party”. 

And indeed, more than 50 years later, they still are. The Tories are nothing if not consistent. At least in their general outlook on life. Day to day, especially under Sunak, they change like the weather.  To be sure, many of the ancients were indeed wise. But their wisdom does not necessarily rub off on those who affect to follow in their wake. 

The curriculum re-thought 

None of the above government panjandrums read science. Indeed, as the government’s former scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told the Covid inquiry in November 2023, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was clearly “bamboozled” by the models that described the likely spread of the virus. And this, we might reasonably feel, was a drawback since the likely spread of the virus was a crucial issue, to be addressed through the science and maths of epidemiology, and Boris was in charge of strategy. Neither apparently did Boris or his immediate colleagues see fit to consult the scientists when Rishi decided to encourage us all to eat out.  (Although Rishi says the scientists should have known. Don’t they watch the 7 o’ clock News?)

Absolutely not, though, am I suggesting that science can provide the complete answer to all the world’s problems, any more than a grounding in neoliberal economics can do, or classics, or theology, or even Eng Lit, as Michael Gove demonstrates  (although Eng Lit may well be the broadest and best of the bunch). After all, Margaret Thatcher read chemistry (at Oxford). Too much faith in science leads to “scientism” – the belief that only science is worth taking seriously. Scientism in turn leads on to “uncritical technophilia” – the belief that high tech (the kind of technology that’s rooted in scientific theory) and only high tech can solve the world’s problems. 

Specifically, in recent years this view of life has encouraged the belief among many of the world’s most influential people including Bill Gates and at least two former Presidents of the Royal Society that humanity can be fed only by high-tech industrial farming, including GMOs, and that anyone who says otherwise is an idiot and a dangerous dissident.  Yet in 50 years of research and hype GM technology has produced no new food crops that are of unequivocal value to humanity – or none that, with the right support, could not have been matched by traditional breeding, with fewer uncertainties and unforeseeable consequences. But the high-tech hype has helped to sweep aside many thousands (probably millions) of the small farms worldwide that in practice provide of the food for most of humanity, which could be far more productive than they are if only (like the high-tech companies) they had financial support backed by sympathetic legislation. The net effect has been to transfer control from people-at-large to the powers-that-be – which perhaps was and is an unintended consequence and perhaps was the plan all along. (It seems to me that some technophiles really are trying to do good, however misguidedly, while others know a “market opportunity” when they see one and are happy to cash in come what may).  

Surely, though, all formal education should provide some serious grounding in science – but science education itself needs radical reform. For science should not, as now is so often the case, be taught primarily or exclusively simply as the source of high tech, and technology should not, as now, be seen primarily or exclusively as a way to “compete” in the global market and to maximize short-term wealth. 

I suggest indeed that science should be taught primarily as an aesthetic and indeed a spiritual pursuit. Its role is not simply to control nature as Francis Bacon unfortunately suggested at the start of the 17th century. It is to help us to appreciate life and the universe more fully; to see how wondrous and indeed miraculous they really are. Albert Einstein clearly felt much the same and to too did many of the other greats, from Charles Darwin and Russell Wallace to Niels Bohr. The great pioneer scientists of the 17th century including Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle and John Ray saw science as an insight into the mind of God.  On a practical note, we cannot hope to live harmoniously with the rest of nature as is surely desirable and necessary, unless we see more clearly how wonderful the natural world really is, and how lucky we are to be part of it. 

Yet – crucially — science should never be taught without the philosophy of science.  That is, science is showing us how wondrous the physical universe and all that’s in it really are, and showing us too what can be achieved when reason and imagination work together. But “phil of sci” is needed too to point out the limitations of science, and hence the folly and hubris of scientism and all that follows from it. Beyond doubt, the present combination of uncritical technophilia and (equally uncritical) neoliberal economics is a toxic mix indeed. 

Similarly, economics should never be taught without a grounding in moral philosophy, to ask what is right, and why; and in ecology, to help us gear the economy to the realities of the physical world. Emphatically we should not, as now, see economics simply as the pursuit of ever-increasing material “growth”. That way of thinking leads to injustice and misery and is obviously self-defeating in a finite world. Still less should we allow ourselves to be led by economists, or at least by the kind of economists who now hold sway. 

But moral philosophy too needs reform. In particular moral philosophers need to face up to David Hume’s assertion in the 18th century that morality in the end is rooted in feelings. It’s feelings – attitude – that need to be cultivated.  Morality that is merely “secular” and arithmetical as in Jeremy Bentham’s “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” just will not do. Especially in this neoliberal age in which happiness is equated with material wealth (meaning that “good” is seen to be whatever makes people rich. Or at least makes some people rich. Or the rich even richer). 

Finally we need to acknowledge that all our biggest and most important ideas, whether of aesthetics or religion or moral philosophy or indeed of science, are rooted in the end in the uncertainties of metaphysics – the essential foundation of all deep thought which alas, as a formal discipline, has gone missing. All too obviously, a few years’ training or indeed indoctrination in (neoliberal) economics or in purely materialistic science or in the musings of ancient poets and philosophers, or even in the joys and insights of the world’s great literature, just will not do. 

Indeed the basic curriculum that all humanity now needs should on the one hand focus on the minutiae of life that really matter – including or especially the intricacies of farming and cooking. But it should also take the widest possible view of the world and its problems and all our endeavours should be rooted in the bedrock principles of morality (which asks what is right) and ecology (which asks what is necessary and possible). All the rest, including politics, the economy, the law, and applied science, are what builders call infill. 

Please add a comment. The essential search for better attitudes and modus operandi must be a collective exercise – true democracy in action.

A shortened version of this article, focused on education, appears in West England Byline Times:

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