What Chance a Genuinely Creative Intellectual Community?

Management Magazine, February 2011, p.9.

Keywords: History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy;

While like Colin James in his November column (Management Magazine), I would be delighted if New Zealand were to produce a economist or philosopher of the international quality of David Hume or Adam Smith – the leaders of the Scottish enlightenment – the prospect is unlikely, for we just do not have the environment. New Zealand not only fails to value such intellectual effort, but we discourage it. It is not just that the conventional wisdom suffers a colonial cringe, unambitiously imitating foreign fashions promoted by second rate overseas ‘experts’. It also actively discourages, and even represses, those New Zealand intellectuals who criticise its beliefs.

In the late 1980s a number of quality academics in the economics and education department of our universities left New Zealand because they found their careers blocked, while inferior academics were being promoted. Their crime? They criticized the prevailing Rogernomics ethos; today their critiques would be considered quite sensible, as the conventional wisdom, which so uncritically embraced the 1980s fashion, now accepts. Another academic was told he was an unsuitable for a professorial chair because he was ‘too controversial and published too much’. Again the crime was that he persistently criticised Rogernomics; while the economics department he was (not) being considered for proved to have the worst publication record in New Zealand.

Things really have not changed much since that time. Oh, sure, the fashions have, but the conventional wisdom’ attitude to critics persists. Rather than careful evaluations, because they might have something valuable to say, the critics are misrepresented and ignored, in effect suppressing alternative views.

It is no good assuming that the least moribund of our thinktanks may become a world leader. They are a long way behind the frontier of the world intellectual activity, while facing limitations from a tight funding which discourages any originality of ideas. Nor can we expect much from our universities; none in New Zealand are doing anything near the frontier issues with which economics (and perhaps some other disciplines) are grappling. This was nicely illustrate but a recent national economist’s conference in which there was not a single local paper on the Global Financial Crisis – which is only the biggest thing to have happened in economics (and challenge to economic theory) since the 1930s. Perhaps an independent scholar may make some contribution, but would we bother to listen?

Instead of looking for some major international contribution from our intellectual community, we need to set the less ambitious goal of fostering it. It needs to be genuinely innovative and more responsive to realities instead of trying to avoid change by holding the impossible conclusion that the conventional wisdom is so correct it will not change in the future; we need to be less taken by fashion, and pay more attention to gritty analysis. Indeed while the conventional wisdom sees our growth salvation in ‘innovation’ and is willing to spend a fortune on it, its antagonism to intellectual innovation means there is hardly a climate for its promotion, and as like as not we will drive commercial innovation offshore too. (Jumping on this sentiment, rather than mulling it over, is exactly the sort of reaction which undermines innovation.)

We need to expect of our intellectual community – economists not least – that they are in touch with international developments, but that they are sufficiently creative to adapt them for our particular needs; does it make any sense to assume that the New Zealand economy is just like the American one? Most of all we need to understand that while we need a conventional wisdom, it is constantly changing and that we should respect its critics, because they are helping us understand where it may be going.

Taking such an approach will not only mean our conventional wisdom will be more up to date – today’s still contains fallacies we knew were wrong twenty years ago – but it just might be that we will develop some world-class intellectuals, instead of driving them off shore.