Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Somethings never change

One of the illusions you hold to working for an international development organisation is that evidence counts in policy making...

I remember sitting in the office of the then (and possibly now) Minister of Health of a substantial country, listening to a patient explanation by the appropriate local experts of the barriers dis-advantaged and poor people faced in accessing medical care. However, it was the intervention of a story of one victim of that exclusion, who happened to be a military veteran, that visibly tipped the balance in the subsequent (and highly favourable) decision making process. Emotion triumphed where evidence merely provided a cloaking rationale.

I was reminded of this in finishing Stephen Platt's excellent book on the Taiping Civil War in China in the nineteenth century.

The continuing refrain might be never allow evidence to impinge on, let alone correct, your view of reality.

I think every principal character acted from belief not evidence - what people imagined was (or could be) the case drove action. This was much to the detriment of most 'ordinary' people who wanted to grow rice, sell silk and puff away at opium and who got civil war, 'ultraviolence' and disease instead.

Meanwhile, there was a radical disjunct between what was the case and what people said to themselves, let alone others, was the case!

It has to be said that the British were especially competent at this bifurcated approach and one group, the missionaries, managed to practice it in favour of the Taiping and then against the Taiping in the course of the same conflict (having collectively changed their opinion within a couple of months principally on the basis of the unsubstantiated rumour of an American Baptist who had fallen out of love with the rebels. Almost everything he claimed to have happened proved to be false and quite quickly. Did that change anyone's opinion? No)!

So you had the British consul in one of the treaty reports repeatedly telling the Foreign Office that trade had collapsed after its fall to the Taiping even when the custom duties (on that very same trade, collected at the same rate) had increased by 80%. But the Taiping, being rebels, could not be good for trade so it could not be happening and, even if it was, it should not be. I will report accordingly.

This is why, unfortunately, liberals are at a continuous disadvantage because they believe in evidence and rationality and weighing the former with the latter in informed debate.  Occasionally the world slips into a momentary calm when such things become both possible and welcome but alas rarely... Think our present response to the civil war in Syria...

There is a wonderful moment when James Legge (the first Professor of Chinese at Oxford), who had befriended the Taiping 'Prime Minister' when the PM was a humble mission assistant in Hong Kong, gave a beautifully balanced and reasoned assessment both of his erstwhile friend and the situation in China and what his own country, the UK, might do in response. Did anyone take notice? No!

P.S. A friend, reading this, helpfully made me realize that by 'liberals' I do not mean the US variety 'liberals' as opposed to 'conservatives' (both of which may be misnomers - the conservatives fail to conserve in their fetish to worship the market and the liberals self-righteously interfere with people's liberties because they know what is good for them) but in the more philosophical sense (like John Stuart Mill as archetype) who may only exist in aspiration rather than reality. However, a deeper point is, of course, that we are all challenged by minds that are constructed from belief (and prejudice) and seeing what is there through our prejudiced minds is an arduous discipline that few of us more than partially achieve. But we need to: we need a greater sense of living with the texture of things. This used to be called humility, not a virtue that is greatly praised now.

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