On a train from Manchester to Nottingham I was sitting at a table when I was joined (in Sheffield) by two academics from the University of Nottingham.
The two gentlemen talked (rather loudly) about the internal affairs of their department (which seemed to be a ‘social policy’ department, at least the term ‘social policy’ was used) and their nice trips to various European nations and to Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
What struck me was the total lack of interest in ideas that the academics showed – they both boasted of using the same talk again and again, and neither cared whether their talks represented the truth or made any contribution to knowledge.
I only spoke once. One of the academics was boasting of his trip to the “biggest city in New Zealand”, but could not remember the name of the place – so I told him it was called Auckland. But later he seemed to be under the impression that he was talking about the capital of New Zealand – so he may have meant Wellington.
For the rest of the time I just sat there in the hope that some sign of interest in ideas would be shown by either man, but it was not.
I remembered Professor R. of the Politics Department of the University of Nottingham. Professor R. had always been interested in ideas – although I can not say that I had always agreed with him.
Once at a conference in London I had expressed the fear that local councils would use the introduction of the Community Charge (the “Poll Tax”) as an opportunity to increase spending – and blame the bill on the new system (my own position was that a local sales tax would be the least bad option – as people could at least vote with their feet and shop in the cheapest areas thus, perhaps, forcing down the level of the tax).
Professor R. had replied that I was too cynical and that most politicians met well, they were just guided by mistake ideas. As my own view was that most politicians (and many other groups of people) were scum, our difference of opinion became quite sharp. Perhaps my anger was due to Professor R. reminding me of my father – a man who was betrayed so many times and yet maintained a strange (at least strange to me) faith in human beings.
Some years later (after some “modernization” of academic life) Professor R. killed himself.
As I have said he was man who was interested in ideas and valued them, but perhaps he had too much faith in human beings (just as, perhaps, I have too little faith in people).
I miss people like Professor R., they thought that other people were like themselves (and they are not), but the world would be a better place if they were correct and people (especially academics) were really honest and dedicated seekers after truth.
Still what would have I had heard had the two academics had been interested in ideas? The latest plan to reform the Welfare State – yet another pattern for the deckchairs on the Titanic?
Or (if the academics had been economists) the claim that the best way to promote prosperity was to “reduce interest rates and stimulate demand”.
I have even heard libertarians talking as if investment did not have to based on real savings ( fiat money and credit bubbles performing this function instead), and as if prosperity was based on consumption (rather than on work to produce goods and services of value to human beings). The madness of the boom bust cycle being presented as what “all serious economists” believe (as a columnist in the “Times” newspaper put it – referring to his idea that Germany’s economic situation could be improved by issuing more money “stimulating demand”).
What is worse? People who are not interested in ideas, or works of political philosophy, economics (and other subjects) that are filled with absurd nonsense and seeing this nonsense repeated in so many places, from leading universities to television and the newspapers?