Niall Ferguson and the Decline of Everything (Including, Apparently, Evidence)

16/07/2012 09:12 | Updated 12 September 2012

I have recently listened to the last of Niall Ferguson's Reith Lectures. The lecture goes something like this: civil society is in decline, this is because of the growth of the State and the solution is to encourage the growth of private education.

The evidence does seem pretty compelling that civic society is in decline. What is not so compelling is the evidence that The State is the culprit. The State can indeed be seen to have grown at the same time that participation in civil society has declined, but this is no evidence of a causal relationship. Many other things have grown at the same time which range from increased consumption of television to the establishment of Freidmanite free-market fundamentalism as the dominant western political and economic ideology. In a world where there is no such thing as society it seems unlikely that is room for such a thing as civil society.

Ferguson was rather light on explaining why the growth of The State has led to the decline of civil society, deferring to the 200 year old opinions of Alexis de Toqueville, quoting widely from his book Democracy in America, including the following passage: "Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. " This immense and tutelary power was, of course, The State. But 200 years on it would seem you could substitute any one of a number of alternate suspects foremost amongst them being The Market.

Ferguson then leaps to the solution - the growth of private education. The evidence upon which this leap is based appears is even more fragile than that of blaming The State for the decline in civil society. It amounts to no more than the fact that his own civic participation is heavily skewed towards the educational alumni groups of which he is a member (hardly surprising given that he is an academic - indeed such participation might more rightly be classified as professional networking). Ferguson fails to provide evidence to suggest that his experience is common to all the beneficiaries of private education, nor does he provide evidence to suggest that beneficiaries of private education are more involved in civic participation that everyone else, or evidence to suggest that private schools, as institutions, are more effective than other institutions in generating civic participation. I went to a private school and also joined the Scouts. In my experience the Scouts beat private schools hands-down when it comes to encouraging civic participation.

Perhaps even more damaging to the overall theme of his lectures, namely the failure in the West of institutions, is his own failure to recognise the difference between a series of institutions and a system of institutions. This is a failure that lies at the heart of much of the current Government's approach to managing the system responsible for delivering healthcare, education or social services.

A series of competing institutions will always produce individual institutions of excellence - Ferguson was keen to highlight some of these. This is what competition does very well. But competition also has a tendency, indeed a requirement, to produce as many losers as it does winners. The impact of this tendency on a system or a society can be mitigated against if everyone can easily choose between the range of options available and if the ability to swap between options is possible. The losers therefore tend to die-off relatively quickly or not get off the ground at all. That is why competition between individual institutions is fine when it is a case Asda versus Tesco, or even Eton versus Harrow - but it doesn't work when it comes to providing a public system of education. The lack of a real ability for all to choose or swap, as a consequence not just of financial resource but also basic geography, will mean that we will end up with some winners, but also a large numbers of losers and an increasingly widening gap between the two. A situation that is not socially sustainable.

Ferguson cites that fact US universities comprise 21 of the top 30 universities in the world. However this success in producing excellence in individual institutions is not reflected across the whole system of university education in the US, which remains comparatively low.

To compound this problem, the factors which contribute to the success of the individual winners cannot be applied to raising standards across the board. A head of an individual school can improve performance by removing sub-standard teachers and replacing them with above average teachers. But this approach does not have to account for the wider impact these actions. The poor teachers go somewhere and the good teachers come from somewhere. The system itself will not benefit and all that will happen will be a widening of the gap between the good and bad schools. Likewise you cannot export the individual solution to the whole. Turning over 10 per cent of your staff is feasible in an organisation of around 100 people. Doing this across a system which, in the UK, employs 610,000 people is a hugely in-efficient, if not impossible, strategy. Far better to put in place a system which helps the poor performers improve.

Private education may be great, but it is not The Answer, to the provision of education or the regeneration of civic society. The answer has to be a system and that system cannot be provided by the market. This is the reason we have governments and civil servants (or as Ferguson calls them, the state and bureaucrats).

Perhaps the real problem we face is not caused by the decline or failure of institutions over the last 20 years, it is caused by the rise over the same period of an ideology that declares, on the basis of very little evidence, that unfettered competition, within globalised 'free' markets is the answer.