Opinion

To understand economics, pass on the PopCon and read PJ O'Rourke instead

The rise of anti-intellectualism is really about stymying debate and pushing the ruling class narrative

American satirist PJ O'Rourke at Hay Festival, 2014. Image: Jeff Morgan/Alamy

“Cambridge University,” wrote PJ O’Rourke, “separated the study of economics from the study of moral sciences in 1903. A little soon.”

O’Rourke came to this after he’d finished writing his book on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. I have never read the Adam Smith original – it runs to nearly 1,000 pages and there are other things, pretty much everything, that needs to be done instead.

Also, it was so long that Smith didn’t even pen it himself. It’s believed he dictated it and some other sore-handed lackey had to get it all down on page; many, many, many pages. That’s the division of labour for you.

Besides, Smith doesn’t write/dictate like PJ O’Rourke. And frequently, only the great O’Rourke, who sadly left us two years ago this week, hits the spot. So, as a guide and interpreter he makes all the sense. What we could do now with PJ O’Rourke – and Christopher Hitchens – taking aim at the palisades of bunk and cant that have been built and promoted by the venal or those should just know better in the west. 

Smith is obviously the top banana when it comes to free trade and the small government set. The manipulation of his idea that the market will look after itself and that government should be tiny and that is the only way to build nations and boo hoo to you if you don’t get on that bus daddy-o, is one that has dominated in Britain, more or less, since Thatcher, with something of a Blair interruption.

That’s worked out well. So well, that PopCon, the Liz Truss movement that sounds like a diuretic, is giving it another lash. (Small government is all well and good until you need it – Covid furlough payments anyone?) Chances are Truss’s new move won’t land. But that is not the point. 

The point is this reading and representation of Smith’s free trade ideas is not the full picture. Yes, he believed free markets and challenges to tariffs would make the world better. But not for their own sake. For people and decency and a chance. 

“Smith preached,” said O’Rourke, “against the gravitational load of power and privilege that will always, if it can, fall upon our livelihood.” You’d imagine Smith would have quite a lot to say about the awarding of lucrative public purse contracts and associated beneficial trade for the cronies and financial contributors to those in charge.

Also, the ongoing claim of fighting a war on woke that is becoming a dominant noise in public debate now, tied to all this, is bogus. It’s supposed to represent a wholesome support for salt-of-the-earth common sense, a proper way forward into the future.

But it’s really about stymying debate and suppressing knowledge. There is an anti-intelligence and an anti-intellectualism to it which pushes the idea that some knowledge has no value and in fact is an expense, a middle-class privilege, and that value can only be assessed by those who decide if they like the thing that is to be valued. 

Part of this is the wider growth in cutting certain courses from universities. It stinks. We’ve seen the widescale debasement of language teaching. Most weeks there is another example of a university culling whatever doesn’t fit into the narrative as pushed by the ruling class. 

Last week the University of Kent revealed they were looking to bin languages, some humanities and philosophy degrees. Getting rid of all this implies working-class kids who pursue third level education can’t be great thinkers so they don’t need such courses. Whereas it’s absolutely fine for senior government members and their advisers to get their PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) degrees from various Oxbridge colleges.

There needs to be space for some of PJ O’Rourke’s moral sciences, and the rest. And don’t let anybody tell us different.

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter.

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