Australian Notes

Australian notes

15 July 2017

9:00 AM

15 July 2017

9:00 AM

On expertise

The Wealth of Nations, by the Scottish Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith, is a great book. When you read it you can feel the scales fall from your eyes as Smith explains the power of the division of labour and of how self-interest can work in the general interest, indeed can produce a lot more human welfare and happiness than boatloads of people proclaiming to be altruistic ‘social justice warriors’ (to use the sort of jargon you’d hear today).

But a lot of people get Smith wrong. They think he was on the side of Big Business, what you might think of as today’s Davos Man corporate class. Mais non! I paraphrase, but Smith’s general view was that if you left a few big business types alone in a room you’d soon have a conspiracy against the public. Their self-interest was not pro-market; it was pro-them. Put differently, there is no reason to think they get things right or advocate views that will increase society’s utility.

Take Britain’s biggest business lobby group the CBI, or Confederation of British Industry. This business lobby group was against Thatcher’s reforms; it was in favour of the UK joining the EU’s ‘euro’ single currency; and today, right now, it is strongly pushing the Tory government to opt for an über-soft Brexit that keeps Britain in the single market (meaning no real Brexit at all). If there is some sort of expertise underlying a track record like that, it’s one you’d want to avoid like the plague.

And then there are the big corporate executives who use shareholders’ wealth to push contentious social policy prescriptions these managers happen to find congenial. Now of course ever since the establishment of the limited liability company there has always been the problem of how to keep managers acting in the interests of the shareholder owners. And there is no easy answer to that conundrum. You can say that shareholders are free to sell their shares and move on if they don’t like some publicly listed company’s CEO spending millions to push, say, the latest constitutional recognition proposal for aborigines. But that’s a blunt remedy and one that is basically worthless as far as pension funds are concerned. Plus, why should a highly paid manager himself or herself earning tens of millions a year have access to shareholder money to take sides on issues that split a country down the middle and that ought to be resolved through the democratic process? Are such CEO types acting in some altruistic way, or as Adam Smith would claim, are they acting in their own interests?


Again, there is no easy remedy to this problem as there is always the potential for such spending to be justified in terms of its increasing shareholder value – that it will bring in more business to the firm as the half of the population that agrees goes out of its way to buy from this company while the other half of the population that disagrees will rarely boycott such companies and their services (possibly out of indolence or indifference).   And who knows? That sort of claim about increasing shareholder value may or may not be true.

What we do know for certain, though, is that this has nothing to do with expertise or with these corporate chieftains having any more insights and knowledge about the social and political issues of the day than other voters do.

And if big business doesn’t seem like an arena where many of the claims to expertise have much plausibility, things these days seem even worse within journalism and politics. Yes, yes, yes I know that journalism departments at universities are left-wing strongholds. And yes, yes, yes I know that journalists as a class lean far more to the left than does the median Australian voter. Heck, even journalists on this country’s best newspaper by far, the Australian, are making a mess of their predictions. Greg Sheridan, whom I very much like reading, told us we could ‘take it to the bank’ that Hillary Clinton would win. Paul Kelly got the Brexit result wrong and the Trump/Clinton result wrong. As for Peter Van Onselen, well, I can’t remember the last thing he got right. Think back to his hagiography of Julia Gillard and the wonderful example she’d be to his daughter. Or to his claims about Trump, about Brexit, about how Turnbull would be a truly great PM. In most lines of work this sort of track record would see your manager suggesting to you that you might want to try some other career.

And that’s the best newspaper in this country by far, the one that back in 2007 – let us never forget – endorsed Kevin Rudd over John Howard, which has to count as the worst call in decades and contributed to a result we will be struggling to recover from for years to come.

But all that said, the political coverage in the Fairfax Press and on the ABC is miles and miles worse than in the Australian. To call any of them experts would be laughable. In addition, there is more diversity of opinion in the pages of the Australian, far more of it, than you see in either of those Green/Left media outlets. Indeed, we still wait for the ABC to hire a single, solitary right of centre presenter/producer for any of its big ticket TV current affairs shows. This is a complete disgrace, though not one that in any way at all motivated Team Turnbull to do anything about it with its choices of Guthrie and Milne to head that billion dollar a year biased behemoth.

Meanwhile, up there in the US the man whom 99 per cent of the media simply loathes, President Trump, continues to claim most of the media is insanely unbalanced (to the left if you need to be told). He simply dismisses the bulk of the media as having no expertise at all and as not being worth listening to. And all the while he has won six special elections, cut immigration, made (are you able to grasp this concept Messrs Brandis and Turnbull?) right of centre picks to the courts and bureaucracy, left the useless, virtue signalling Paris Accord, and a good deal more.

Maybe he’s right about so-called experts in the media, Hollywood and big business.

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