15 February 2007

Politics as priesthood

Excerpts from India, by Shashi Tharoor:

In modern India …intellectuals remained aloof from the quotidian concerns of governmental policy…. Intellectuals were a deprived breed, shorn of that which made their elitist forebears respected – influence over the wielders of power. The spread of education had ended the Brahminical monopoly on intellectualism, but learning was now a means to an end, and the end that mattered was power. Anyone could be an intellectual, but only a few could exercise real authority. …

Despite the prolific punditry, the only ‘abstract’ thinkers’ whom [Indian] politicians bothered to consult were their astrologers.
I read this on the same day that a UNICEF report was released showing that New Zealand's children and teenagers are more likely to die before their 19th birthday than those from any other developed country. Wellington’s a small town but even here I think I detect not so much a disconnect between intellectuals and policymakers, but disconnects between (1) intellectuals and the people and (2) policymakers and the people. And learning does appear to be a means to certain ends; the ends becoming more and more about private goals, and less and less about benefiting wider society.

This is all subjective of course, but if true, what does it amount to? I think it does matter, because the specialisation of labour that works well in purely economic terms does not work when policymaking becomes a priesthood, removed from the concerns of ordinary people.

A few years ago New Zealand’s Government declared its economic objective: to return New Zealand's per capita income to the top half of the OECD and to maintain that standing. It’s a concern to me that GDP per capita is put on such a pedestal. Its flaws as a measure of social wellbeing are large and well known. A big national income can might be necessary to achieve certain ends, but it is not sufficient. Or perhaps the New Zealand Government’s goals do not include the welfare of children. In this sense, our political class might be just as removed from those of ordinary people as India’s. Then again, the UNICEF Report is not entirely to be trusted.

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