Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
I used to work with a guy who regarded me as the spokesperson for the “Right-wing Thatcherite” FF/PD coalition. He was very left-wing himself, and despite living in a house provided by the taxpayer, having a medical card, children’s allowance and paying almost no income tax himself he would savage the government on a daily basis for being anti-working class. His solution to every thing was a 32 county socialist republic where people like me would pay far more tax.
Occasionally, he would declare that he would be happy himself to pay more tax to achieve “social justice”.
Then one day he turned up with a load of cartons of cigarettes which he’d bought off a fella on Moore Street which were not, shall we say, tax compliant. I challenged him on this.
Without a glimmer of shame he replied “Yeah, but the amount of tax on cigarettes is ridiculous!”
To his credit, he wasn’t being evasive about his tax evasion. When I pointed out that the billions raised on tobacco funded public services, he was only interested in how unfair the level of tax was. This from a guy who savaged me on every other day about uncaring cuts to health and welfare budgets.
He genuinely could not see the connection, and in fairness, who could blame him?
After all, who is making it their task to explain the link between taxes raised and public services provided, other than the odd ranting bearded columnist?
It’s not just Irish public spending. I had a discussion with a successful businessman who could not understand why government could not refuse to buy products or services from abroad. When told that other governments could do the same, he was genuinely perplexed that the two could be linked.
Watching debates about Brexit and Trumpist protectionism, it’s becoming clear that the very concept of critical thinking is coming under threat in modern western society. People want to be able to buy low cost items whilst complaining at the same time about free trade.
There are two sides to this. One is the social acceptance not necessarily of ignorance, but the belief that all opinions must have equal weight. Just listen to how much broadcast current affairs coverage is taken up with vox pops. You can hear heart-rendering stories about people struggling with homelessness, yet come away from the story not knowing how many housing offers by that same council were refused by people on waiting lists, and why. It’s almost regarded as impolite to challenge a non-politician on anything they say, although there is an exception made for HSE officials and anybody in any form of business.
Perhaps we need to teach globalisation in our schools as a subject in itself? After all, it is the single factor that will almost certainly shape the lives of the next generation of kids and probably their kids too. Globalisation as a subject would almost certainly be a lesson in critical thinking itself. I’m not talking about it as a defence of free market ideology either, because there are arguments to be made for protectionism as well. But as means of getting the next generation of voters to understand that the 21st century is a devilishly complicated and integrated place, and that pulling lever X will cause something to happen in Y.
From people who think that scrapping the government jet or TD salaries will solve all our problems to the man who rang up Joe Duffy suggesting that the government could reduce house prices by ordering everybody to knock a zero off their house value, we struggle to connect the dots. At few points in our secondary education, still the highest level most people will reach, will we be required to logically dismantle and explain big concepts like taxation vs spending, or international trade.
Instead, people are permitted to separate connected issues, and demand lower priced products, higher wages, and private sector innovation at the same time, as if they have no relationship to each other. People talk about how nobody elected the bond markets without grasping that you have to sell bonds to them and take their money in the first place for them to have any power over you.
Of course, we know where it leads. Venezuela is currently led by the most economically illiterate policy-decided-down-the-pub government in the world, ordering supermarkets to sell below cost and then wondering why there is no toilet paper on the shelves the following week.
That country also shows us where such a failure of rational thought leads: suspicion and constant fingers being pointed at “them”. We see the same in Brexit England and Trump’s America: an almost Salem-like belief that dark forces are the cause of all problems, and their eradication the solution to everything from job-replacing technology to consumer forces to demographics. Trump and Wilders and Le Pen are the modern Witchfinders General of the age of emotional suspicion over reason.
There’s a scene in the movie “Whoops Apocalypse” where Peter Cook plays an insane but extremely popular prime minister who believes pixies cause unemployment, and proposes to create jobs by throwing employed people off a cliff.
We used to laugh at stuff like that. These days, not so much. If we’re not careful, yesterday’s satire could be tomorrow’s presidential tweet.