Magazine article Public Finance

More Candide Than Candid

Magazine article Public Finance

More Candide Than Candid

Article excerpt

Dr Pangloss, the irrepressibly optimistic character in Voltaire's Candide, exhibits one major failing. His philosophy and sunny outlook fly in the face of overwhelming evidence from the real world. Pangloss maintains that all will be for the best even while those around him see this is not the case.

Perhaps it would be unkind to describe some of the pre-election encomiums now being uttered on behalf of the Labour government as Panglossian, but they certainly merit an occasional challenge from those of a more pessimistic inclination.

The important message that Voltaire sought to impart was that what we see and experience is a better guide to what is going on than what we would like to happen or what we think should be happening.

We can, of course, all see things in different ways. When it comes to Labour's record in office, a political opponent might see failure where there has been success, an egually Panglossian characteristic since it involves ignoring the evidence.

But what is the evidence? In Public Finance before Christmas, David Walker offered a paean of praise to Labour, questioning why the party's MPs were so often downbeat when their government had achieved so much. Crime had fallen, NHS waiting lists were shorter, the party was united (unlike in the past), schools were doing better and the economy was strong. Another election victory loomed; so why the long faces?

Apart from the obvious political setbacks, such as David Blunkett's resignation, Walker surmised that the gloom owed more to Labour's inability to crack its principal second term problem - 'the gap between public perception of public service delivery and "objective" outcomes'.

It never seems to strike the Panglossians that the reason for this gap could be that the benefits are not being felt, or not being felt widely enough for a difference to be made.

For every statistic that is deployed to show an improvement, it is possible to counter with another suggesting otherwise. Take crime. Walker is correct when he cites the fall in crime to include, in parenthesis, a caveat that this is only demonstrably the case when measured by the British Crime Survey. Recorded crime figures suggest an increase, certainly in violent offences, though the government says this is because the police measure crime in a different way.

But forget the statistics. Apply Voltaire's test. Do you think crime has got worse or better in your own experience? If the answer to that question among a majority of people is yes, it has fallen, then Labour will reap the electoral rewards. If the reality of most people's experience is that crime has risen, then the response during the election campaign to a claim that it has fallen will be a loud raspberry from the voters. …

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