Our (In)Coherent Elite


Let’s start with an easy one. What is truth?

Your answer is probably something of the form “A statement is true if it corresponds to reality” because that’s what most people think. But not all. A philosopher, one of that breed whose job is to suggest that everything you instinctively believe is wrong, would point out that the exact nature of “corresponds” in your answer is undefined and, if feeling punchy, might ask why you think that you can know what reality is since your contact with it is mediated by your fallible senses. This might seem nothing more than word-games and logic-chopping, but they are reasonable questions and they have led those who ask them to conclude that, much though we would like the definition to work, it doesn’t.

Now, philosophers may be odd, but they are not so odd that they think truth is unimportant, so they set to work to come up with a different, better definition. One attempt, associated with everyone’s favourite sex-mad pipe-smoking pacifist, Bertrand Russell, is to define truth in terms of “coherence” – a statement is true if it coheres with what you already know about the world. Like much of philosophy, this may not be very satisfactory, but it might be the best we can achieve.

To those who do not share my interest in philosophical geekery, this might be the sort of discussion best held in ivy-crusted quadrangles by the pretentious young or the tweedy old, but it goes to the very heart of that most pressing of questions: why is our politics so crap? Lest there are any foreigners tempted at this point to sneer at the poor benighted Brits, “our” in this sentence means “the Western World”.

The French economist Thomas Piketty may be a well-known lefty but even those who suffer from that affliction can, occasionally, have a point. For, in a paper from 2018, he turned his attention to the question of why educated voters no longer reliably supported right-wing parties. The answer, he argued, was that there were now two elites in society, the “Brahmins” who had turned left, and the “Merchants”, who had stayed on the right.

But it was not just in their voting behaviour which the two groups differed, they clustered in different professions. Brahmins work in sectors such as education, media, the civil service and the law while Merchants, in Britain, work in business or the City. These different professions make differing demands on their employees, however. Academics get rewarded for staying close to the existing body of theory in their subject, extending it but not overturning it, while the route to journalistic eminence lies through tickling the prejudices of your core readership – see every Matthew Parris article ever. No-one is particularly bothered whether a humanities professor or a columnist is right (which, for the latter group certainly, must be a relief) as long as they are working within the conventions.

Merchants, however, are encouraged to break with the established conventions, as long as they are right. Capitalism works by people seeking to find different ways to satisfy consumers’ demands. Markets work when people are willing to back their disagreement with the prevailing consensus with money (their own or other people’s). Those who are correct get rewarded. Those who are not, don’t.

To summarise briefly, a lawyer wins when their argument coheres with the law as understood by the judge, a trader when their prediction of market movements corresponds with reality.

In an ideal world, this would make little difference. If the models we use to describe reality were perfect, something which cohered with them would inherently correspond with the real world. But, dear reader, as you may have noticed, this is not an ideal world.

The statistician George Box said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful”. That is an admirably “Merchant” view, but how would a “Brahmin” react? As long as the model was coherent with itself, it, and any action which flowed from it, would not be wrong at all – as the old joke about economists has it, “Who cares if it works in practice as long as it works in theory.”

It may not have escaped your notice, but the Bank of England raised interest rates recently. As it has done before. And, as has also probably not escaped your notice, it has attracted a certain degree of opprobrium for doing so, the argument being that the latest increase would have been unnecessary had the Bank acted earlier and more aggressively. But this criticism has overwhelmingly come from the right, figures such as John Redwood, a man whose career as a “Merchant” in the City was so all-consuming that he did not find the time to learn the Welsh anthem. From the left, well, nothing really.

Rachel Reeves, on the morning of the latest hike, ostentatiously refused to criticise the Bank. Part of this may be political – why ascribe blame fairly when you can ascribe it advantageously? Part of it may be loyalty – she is a former Bank of England employee. Part of it is probably down to her Brahmin nature. She is a highly educated economist. Economic models are right, the Bank followed the models, therefore it is right.

Why is inflation so high then? Alongside “Liz Truss” and “evil Tories” in the word salad any lefty would provide in answer to this question, the word “Brexit” would crop up quickly. And there is no doubt that Brexit explains some of the difference in inflation between Britain and other countries, even if how much is unknown. The abolition of free movement has reduced the labour pool and given workers more bargaining power to demand higher wages. But, lest we take this as a reason to fall to our knees and beg Brussels to take us back, we should remember that the E.U. is a Brahmin project par excellence.

Those at the top are all extremely well-educated. They have spent most of their careers shuffling between academia, the bureaucracy and politics, never letting anything as demeaning (or as demanding of tangible results) as trade sully their pristine countenances. We might say that they have failed upwards but they would not accept that they have failed. The fact that youth unemployment in Greece and Spain is comfortably over 25%, that the continent’s economy has been stagnant for over a decade or that the defence of neighbouring Ukraine has had to be orchestrated by the nasty Anglos in America and Britain is not a sign of failure. They have acted in accordance with the models they have learned and so their actions are, by definition, correct. What the world needs now is not love (although that never goes amiss) but more Europe.

The E.U. may be extreme in its Brahminism, but it is not unique. There is no member of the opposition front bench who could reasonably be called a Merchant. There are some in the Tories, but the Brahmins in the Civil Service seem to have their measure. America is no different. Piketty may have seen Brahmins and Merchants as rivals, but when it comes to governance, there is only one team on the playing field, the latter contenting themselves with making enough money to insulate themselves from their rivals’ errors.

But not everyone has that luxury. For most, the quality of governance matters. It is not in their interests for public life to be dominated by those who are slaves to mistaken models. But how to improve it?

While there are some still around, Merchants should seek to treat Brahmins the way that they themselves would expect to be treated. Failure in the corporate world results in the loss of the job. Let it be the same in public life. Andrew Bailey was following his models, but the models were wrong. A City economist would be fired, so should he.

For its part, the electorate can play a role. If the problem is too many people in politics who have never held jobs in which they have had to pay the price of failure, we should not vote for them. They may tell us that they know how to run things, and show all sorts of impressive credentials, but absent some tangible evidence of delivery, the cross should go in another box.

This is not to decry intellectuals, many of whom are lovely people. But no-one is clever enough to understand the world in its entirety. Most of us are wrong about most things most of the time. What matters is the speed with which we realise this, and the speed with which we change our minds. And that is not what Brahmins are good at.

Perhaps best would be government by those who, like your correspondent, were educated to be Brahmins but chose to become Merchants. Like a Roman at his plough, I await my country’s call…

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.