donderdag 23 december 2010


Lately I heard Abram de Swaan in his Thomas More-lecture speak on “The financial regime, the consequences of a modern false doctrine”. It is a pleasure to listen to De Swaan in his double role as scientist and performer. His devastating story about the ridiculous belief of politicians and economists in the ‘discipline of the market’ and its poor results got a welcome reception with me and the rest of the audience.

An important message of De Swaan was: please also ridicule those bankers and executives who imagined themselves to be the best and the brightest. Because if they really are so clever, why did it all go so terribly wrong? And if they really think the market is that important, why do they let themselves be saved for billions by the state? And why then do they pass each other the plum jobs, in closed systems of cooptation? No, the free market is first of all for the others, for subordinates, not for the top.

Let scorn come over those bonus catchers, says De Swaan, and the scorning may be very well left to him. Yet I found De Swaan stronger at those moments when he, in the context of his analysis of the situation, put forward something else. Namely the finding that some parts of the false doctrine have a kind of irresistible attraction. For example the idea that the free market as an invisible hand manages to organize society. Or the complex mathematical models by which risks could be calculated (or be mislaid) and predictions could be made.

De Swaan confessed that he himself in his scholarly work liked to work with mathematical models and that he knows the fascinating charm that may emanate from them. These models, in which everything fits together neatly and logically, can generate such a rush that you truly start to believe that reality is like the models. Even in a free society it can apparently happen hat great minds get in the grip of a false doctrine.

Indeed, I think that's more interesting than scorn. Not only because De Swaan here brings himself into the game, which I certainly appreciate. But especially since he touches on an element that has great explanatory power when it comes to analyzing a stalemate as we have fallen into. It is not just ill will of some greedy bastards, but also the magical effects of logic and mathematical models that have been at work here. Say: the euphoria of thinking, also of thinking in good faith, such as by economic scientists. They, according to De Swaan, through their preoccupation with models and abstractions contributed to the legitimisation of financial malpractice.

Besides explanatory power, the phenomenon of deception by sheer thinking provides a better starting point for a constructive conversation than scorn can offer. There is undoubtedly a lot of greed in the world, but also a lot of well-intentioned illusion. And there's more to talk about the latter - precisely because there are good intentions behind it - than about greed because the latter is equivalent to ill will. And a conversation about ill will immediately will be an allegation.

Scorning the best and the brightest, who have made themselves so ridiculous, may be liberating and that appeared when we listened to De Swaan. But one should be cautious not to get into yes against no and into a fight to the finish. Because De Swaan and his audience will put it off then against “If you're so smart, why aren’t you rich?”, big money’s justification.