James Tooley battles bureaucritis

Sometimes, going about your normal life, your attention gets grabbed by a flurry of activity that disturbs the ambient rhythms around you. I’m sure you have experienced such things. It was such for me in the case of James Tooley and his book The Beautiful Tree.

The book describes how Tooley assembled evidence that annihilated the received wisdom, espoused by the clerisy, concerning the provision of education. I am not an educationist but I do study the clerisy. They are a species urgently in need of study. I immediately bought a copy of the book, and reading it persuaded me to go hunting for a speech by Tooley.

This speech appears to have been ‘topped’. It is not unusual. Those who post such videos often edit out messy openings in order to clean up the final product. I study messy openings, so the practice robs me of data, but I commend clean bald ones, so the practice provides me with examples to uphold. This, whether Tooley or the video editors made it, is a lovely bald opening.

At 01:32 there is an interesting incident. Tooley, with that excellent opening, appears to have hump nerves subjected under his heel and by now should be on a roll; yet he gets stuck, searching for the word ‘reconcile’ (and he never finds it). This is a classic nerve symptom, stress having a fiendish ability to diminish our capacity for thinking on our feet. Usually when I see such as this I know immediately what the problem is and what to do about it, yet without speaking with him I am at a loss as to what is going on. There are nerves there which shouldn’t be, not with a speaker as good as this.

And good he is! He has spurned the lectern and is shooting from the hip like a proper speaker. He is not using his few slides as signposts: he proves that when one of them appears out of sequence and he adjusts accordingly. His slides serve him, not the other way around. Using slides as signposts is a cheating trick used by those whose memorised structure is not good enough to stand on its own. His structure is very strong, which is why his message is so coherent. His evident passion for the message reinforces the coherence. He’s doing everything right.

His spurning of the lectern has an amusing byproduct. By stepping to the side he is now standing immediately in front of a reverend father who appears to be chairing the event. Not only is the father now masked, but because he has slightly tinted spectacles and we can’t see his eyes, he seems to be asleep at one point. Then he gives the lie to that by laughing.

The speech is very good, and clearly conveys the message that the world’s poorest – yes, the world’s poorest – are educated privately, not for want of state free schools but because the private schools are better. I invite you to re-read that sentence and let it sink in.

That is heretical to the clerisy. But then the clerisy is infected by an ailment I call bureaucritis. Bureaucritis is a viciously virulent, internationally metastatic, form of tunnel vision. Every proposition Tooley makes they dismiss out of hand, and progressively more aggressively.

Private schools for the very poorest don’t exist: yes they do, I’ve found thousands and here are the data. They’re useless: they out-perform the state schools and here are the data. The teachers aren’t qualified: I refer you to my previous answer. And so it goes on.

If a matter as huge as the world’s education of the poorest can be termed a microcosm, it is a microcosm of many of the social and political ills that afflict the world. Bureaucritic clerisy, sincere and well-meaning – though woefully misguided, are pathologically incapable of thinking outside their tiny box. The clerisy are learned but stupid. The reason is clearly explained by the great Thomas Sowell when he writes that decisions should never be left to those who pay no price for being wrong. The clerisy pay no price for being wrong, because their employment is invariably feather-bedded and their only measure of rightness is whether their bureaucritic peers agree with them.

Great speech. Great message. Admirable man. Important lesson.

Milton Friedman discusses humaneness.

Even though he has been dead for eight years, the teachings of Milton Friedman live on as robustly as ever, either directly through his books or indirectly through the works of his students.  He was mentor to the great Thomas Sowell, who continues to publish books like the excellent Intellectuals and Society.

The Free to Choose Network, which is lead by Robert Chitester, the man who probably did more than anyone to promote Friedman to the world at large, and which is named after Friedman’s landmark TV series and book of the same name, keeps his memory and teaching alive. Indeed we have the network to thank that this speech, which he delivered at Cornell University in (I think) 1978, is available to us.

Almost immediately Friedman commits an error.  In the first few seconds he tells an overt gag. All my trainees have been taught that – and why – this is almost guaranteed to fail (I’ll spare you the why). As a visiting celebrity professor, addressing a roomful of awestruck students, he’s packing a shed-load of ethos and could get at this stage a positive reaction from almost anything he said or did; yet listen to how agonisingly slow the reluctant laugh builds despite his working hard to stoke up the process by smiling benignly at the audience. There is a right way and there is a wrong way to introduce a piece of early humour, and this is the wrong way.

That horror dispensed with, he is now into his own territory. He lays out his stall very clearly and launches into his arguments.

Yet something is preventing him from concentrating on the matter in hand. Look how often in the first six minutes or so he loses his own track, stumbles, corrects himself, etc. I find myself searching for an explanation. I see no other symptoms of nervous stress, but something is preying on his mind and getting in the way of smooth thought.

At any rate from around the six-minute mark the gears stop grinding and then he gets properly into his stride.

I have quite often in this blog used the metaphor of aeroplane flight. The take-off and landing are the difficult and dangerous bits; the main body of the flight tends to look after itself. I remain puzzled as to why it took so long for Friedman on this occasion to climb to cruising altitude. Perhaps it was that ghastly opening!

If I remove my rhetor hat my only puzzlement concerning his actual message is that all his arguments and case histories were crystal clear when he made them. We now have nearly forty more years of experience and data proving him right, yet still governments – egged on by intellectuals – continue down their ovine path, making the same appalling mistakes.

We either need to question their motives, or we need to re-examine the definition of the word ‘intellectual’. Perhaps ‘intellectuals’ are merely people who might have read a book or two but otherwise are not bright enough to be called anything else.

Thomas Sowell. How I’d like to hear him today!

Thomas Sowell talks such abundant sense that I have long wanted to address one of his speeches on this blog. I have repeatedly tried to find a speech from recent years, but have failed. They exist online in transcript but not on video – unless a reader can show me differently. There are plenty of interviews with him on video. That requires a whole different discipline and if I ever get around to covering interview technique here I may return to him. Meanwhile he is addressing The Institute for World Capitalism in Jackson, Florida, in October 1993 – twenty years ago.

YouTube has two versions of this speech (which is just the first quarter of the full address). The other one includes a lengthy introduction and a brief preamble in which Sowell says that being introduced is like getting a sneak preview of one’s own obituary. I mention that because I am able to tell you authoritatively that this speech has a bald opening and is the better for it.

If you are going to lecture an audience on a subject it’s no bad thing to start with fundamental definitions. How fundamental depends on how you define ‘fundamental’. How far upstream should you go? Sowell starts with the Garden of Eden which is quite a long way upstream.

During his fundamental definition of economics he delivers a nice little (only two elements) epistrophe at 0:40. This makes me like him enough partially to forgive his use of a script – which he actually uses pretty discreetly. Nevertheless there is a strange, hesitant hiatus just after the one-minute mark. He tells us that “rationing is inherent whether it’s under capitalism, socialism, feudalism or any other kind of … method.” It’s almost as if he wanted to say “ism” instead of “method”. Had he done so he would have signalled that his list was another epistrophe – ending in “ism” – and I wish he had because the sentence would have been smoother. Which word was written in his script, I wonder?

At any rate, he concludes his definition with the statement, “Scarcity is the first lesson of economics.” Then he turns to politics in which the first lesson is, “…to forget the first lesson in economics”. He harvests a well-deserved laugh but more importantly signals the essential message of this address, which is that politicians tie themselves in knots in trying to bend economics to the expedients of their utopian philosophy; and this is, and always will be, ultimately futile.

Let us for the moment stand aside from whether we regard this message as palatable. The device of setting out your stall so clearly and so early in a speech is very effective, easy and obvious, but absurdly often overlooked. How often do we sit in an audience, trying to determine from the purple prose what it is that the speaker is actually trying to persuade us? Sowell, here and there, lacks some fluency and coherence (at least he did twenty years ago), but we are left in no doubt as to his message.

So let us return to whether it is palatable. I began this posting by opining that Sowell talks abundant sense. I am a fan of his aphorisms, which I deem as wise as they are unfashionable. You can find some here. Among them is this nugget, in which he acknowledges his unfashionability –

If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.