The widening gaps in policy formation nowadays reflect the division of labour and increasing specialisation that has taken us from the sixteenth-century ideal of the Renaissance man. And today’s biggest policymaking gap has grown so large that it threatens a global catastrophe.
Just as the insistent demand for more ‘transparency’ is a sure sign of increasing opacity, the current clamour for ‘joined-up thinking’ indicates that the need for it far outstrips the supply. With its recent report on energy security, the UK House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee has added its voice to the chorus.
The report’s language is restrained, but its message is clear: Without a ‘joined-up’ energy policy, the United Kingdom’s transition to net zero by 2050 will be ‘disorderly’ (read: “will not happen”). For example, the policy aimed at improving home insulation is at odds with local authorities’ listed-building regulations.
In April, the government called on the Bank of England and financial regulators to “have regard to” energy security. What does this mean? Which institution is responsible for which bits of energy security? How does energy security relate to the net-zero goal? Never mind gaps in the data: The real problem is yawning chasms in thinking.
In a masterly understatement, the committee’s report says that “The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created global energy supply issues.” In fact, economic sanctions against the invader have contributed significantly to a massive energy and food crisis that threatens the sanctioning countries with stagflation and many people in developing economies with starvation.China provides key minerals for renewable-energy technologies, including wind turbines and solar cells, and supplies 66% of finished lithium-ion batteries. The report concludes that the UK must “not become reliant on strategic competitors, notably China, for critical minerals and components.” Moreover, the government “will need to ensure that its foreign and trade policies and its policy on net zero are aligned.” Quite a bit more joining up to do, then.
The widening gaps in policy formation reflect the increasing division of labour resulting from the relentless march of complexity. Today’s policymakers and their advisers know more and more about less and less, recalling Adam Smith’s description in The Wealth of Nations of a pin factory worker:
“The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.”
No one in Smith’s factory would need to know how to make a pin, or even what the purpose of producing one was. They would know only how to make a part of a pin. Likewise, the world is becoming full of ‘experts’ who know only little bits of their subject.
The ideal of the ‘Renaissance man’, who could do a lot of joined-up thinking, did not survive the growing division of labour. By the eighteenth century, knowledge was being split up into ‘disciplines’. Now, subdisciplines sprout uncontrollably, and communication of their findings to the public is left to journalists who know almost nothing about everything.
The biggest gap
Today’s biggest gap, one so large that it threatens catastrophe, is between geopolitics and economics. Foreign ministries and Treasuries no longer talk to each other. They inhabit different worlds, use different conceptual languages, and think about different problems.
The geopolitical world is divided up into ‘strategic partners’ and ‘strategic rivals’. Borders are alive and well. States have conflicting national interests and pursue national-security policies. Economics, in contrast, is the science of a single market: Its ideal is economic integration across frontiers and a global price mechanism that automatically harmonises conflicting preferences. Economics also tells us that commerce softens the asperities of politics, creating over time a single community of learning and culture.
The eighteenth-century English historian, Edward Gibbon described history as “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” But the end of the Cold War led to hopes that the world was at last growing up; in 1989, the American academic Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “end of history.”
Today, however, geopolitics is back in the saddle. The West regards Russia as a pariah because of its invasion of Ukraine; China, if not yet quite meriting that status, is a strategic rival with which trade in many areas should be shunned. At the same time, Western governments also insist on the need for global cooperation to tackle potentially lethal climate change and other existential dangers like nuclear proliferation and pandemics.
In 2012, for example, the University of Cambridge established the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk to help mitigate threats that could lead to humanity’s extinction. Sixty-five years earlier, atomic scientists from the Manhattan Project founded a bulletin to warn humanity of the possible negative consequences arising from accelerating technological advances. They started a Doomsday Clock, the time of which is announced each January. In 1947, the clock was set at seven minutes to midnight. Since January 2020, it has stood at 100 seconds to midnight, marking the closest humanity has come to Armageddon in 75 years.
The danger of nuclear proliferation, which prompted the clock’s creation, is still very much with us. As the bulletin points out, “Development of hypersonic glide vehicles, ballistic missile defenses, and weapons-delivery systems that can flexibly use conventional or nuclear warheads may raise the probability of miscalculation in times of tension.” Do those who urge the expulsion of Russian forces from Ukraine, by economic or military means, consider this risk? Or is this another ‘gap’ in their knowledge of the world?
It is a tragedy that the economic basis of today’s world order, such as it is, is now being put at risk. That risk is the result of actions for which all the great powers share responsibility. The ironically named United Nations, which exists to achieve planetary security, is completely marginalised. Its virtual absence from the big scenes of international conflict is the biggest gap of all, and one which jeopardises our common future.
(Robert Skidelsky is a member of the British House of Lords and Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University) (Project Syndicate)