No Kate Bingham, science won’t solve our government’s problems

November 25, 2021  

A new breed of libertarianism argues that more scientific and data expertise are the only solutions to our democracy’s woes. Adam Lent counters that Westminster’s troubles originate in a crisis of legitimacy not a lack of smart people. And only community power holds the answer.

Kate Bingham, former Chair of the UK’s Vaccine Task Force, made an ‘intervention’ this week. In an Oxford University lecture, she accused Whitehall of being risk-averse, obsessed with process and, most importantly, lacking in the scientific knowledge and mind-set required to solve the nation’s biggest challenges. Her views received high-profile coverage and generated a fair bit of comment.

We’ve heard this before. Dominic Cummings bangs the same drum. It’s also an influential theme in hard-right intellectual circles in the form of ‘state capacity libertarianism’. Like classical libertarianism, this idea stresses the importance of ultra-free markets to advancing human wealth and well-being. But it also champions the role that intelligent government can play in creating the conditions for free markets to flourish, while also progressing scientific and technological endeavours. 

The obsession then of the libertarian policymaker is not just to shrink the state but also reconstruct it as a type of venture capital fund, developing and backing risky but ambitious ‘projects’. Indeed, adopting a “venture capital mindset” is Bingham’s first recommendation for how Whitehall needs to change.

Bingham’s is a far more credible voice than Cummings’. So it is important that Westminster avoids the temptation to follow her down the rabbit warren she has dug here. Because unlike the emerging community power movement, these views fundamentally misunderstand the nature of government and the challenges Britain faces. 

Few could object to the idea of having scientifically-aware people in Whitehall, but this is not a starting point for effective government. It forgets that political decision-making is not primarily about making the right technical decisions but about applying fundamental principles. 

Libertarianism itself, for example, is based on the belief that protection of individual property rights is the most important principle for any society. This is a core, foundational value not meaningfully subject to empirical proof (even though some may try to claim otherwise). Likewise, there is no conclusive empirical proof for the opposite view that protection of collective rights is more important. There is no intellectual endpoint for a debate like this where a group of scientists sitting around a table in the Cabinet Office can finally determine that individual property rights are or are not the most important principle given the data.

Because of their foundational almost faith-like nature, differing views on the principles that should inform a society’s future are irreconcilable intellectually. If you think the individual is the measure of all things, there’s not much room to reconcile philosophically with someone who thinks some form of collective (the nation or a class maybe) should be the guiding light. To secure legitimacy therefore, government can’t just be a bunch of bright people making the ‘right’ calls. It needs profound democratic process to ensure that those with irreconcilable views accept the decisions that are made rather than resorting to violence.

Community power doesn’t make these same naive mistakes because its starting point is that Westminster and Whitehall are afflicted by crises of democracy and legitimacy, not a lack of smart people. Our over-centralised, high-handed government is in a mess and society is increasingly divided because millions are excluded from the portentous decisions that affect their lives so profoundly. As a result, our democracy has lost the ability (if it ever truly had it) to find consensual ways through our differences.  

Community power’s solution to the failures of government is far deeper and more sophisticated than Bingham’s or Cummings’. It wants a profound shift in power away from the centre to communities where decisions can be taken by those actually affected by them in a participative and consensus-building fashion. Scientists, and even venture capitalists, would be free to join such deliberations but ultimately the big decisions on our future would necessarily rest with communities not them.

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