Brown, Africa and “big ideas” – a dangerous combination
Gordon Brown and Ed Balls became famous as a pair for their infamous gobbledygook speech in which “post-neo-classical endogenous growth theory” was unveiled to an unsuspecting electorate. To some, these theories smack of “scientism” – an over-scientific approach to economic matters whereby reductionist ideas are applied in the hope that it is possible (contrary to Adam Smith’s view) to control all economic actors as if they were pieces on a chessboard that have no motion of their own.
Post-neo-classical endogenous growth theory is not quite that bad, but it should not be used as an excuse to increase government intervention in the economy or to come up with grand plans that are the solution to all our ills. Today, Brown does just that – though now he has turned his attention to saving the under-developed world and not just Britain. He has taken on a new role with the Global Campaign for Education. He did this, he suggests, because he is angrier than ever (which must be very angry indeed) about the injustice and waste in denying education to the under-developed world. Brown continues: “As well as boosting jobs and gross domestic product, the evidence is clear that education combats malnutrition, maternal and infant mortality and HIV/Aids. This month Unesco estimated that if every child could read, 171m children could be lifted out of poverty. Put simply, going to school is the best anti-poverty, anti-famine, anti-disease and anti-unemployment programme.”
This may or may not be so, but there is a question of cause and effect. At one time, no doubt, Gordon Brown was a believer in the idea that government-planned industrialisation in the under-developed world would lead to prosperity: instead it slowed rather than promoted economic growth and increased abject poverty. Brown, of course, believed that investment in human capital in Britain would increase our sustainable growth rate: instead the sustainable growth rate seems to have fallen and our education sector has become ever-more bureaucratic and expensive.
Evidence coming from many quarters suggests that government does not need to be involved with the education of children in the under-developed world, that its involvement is damaging and that increased levels of schooling progresses hand-in-hand with increasing prosperity. In particular there is a strong relationship between people moving from child labour to schooling as prosperity increases but schooling does not cause prosperity.
The real question should be, “what leads to increased prosperity?”. The answer to this is good governance, the rule of law, the absence of corruption and all the other factors that allow people to achieve prosperity by their own efforts in their own way. As families become more prosperous, increasing education becomes more desirable – and possible – as employment opportunities widen and there is less need to work simply to provide for necessities.
In many ways, Gordon Brown’s article in the FT, describing his new role with the Global Campaign for Education encapsulates the best and worst of Brown. He recognises the importance of trade and enterprise in increasing prosperity in Africa. But then he recommends big roles for government in education – 15% of government budgets should be spent on education, he argues; 1.2 million teachers should be recruited; and national teacher-training colleges set up to support this. Gordon Brown’s “big ideas” failed in Britain. “Big ideas” have failed Africa for decades. The combination of a Gordon Brown “big idea for Africa” does not seem very promising.