Friedrich Hayek © Flickr

Why the free market is a post-truth institution

Searching for reasons why the centre ground isn't holding
November 13, 2018

Political economist William Davies’s new book dissects society’s waning trust in experts. Many commentators have lamented the decline of a reasoned centre ground, but Nervous States goes further: it examines why we’ve found ourselves in a position where “technocracy”—whether that is in the form of the EU or the UK elite—has become a dirty word. Davies skilfully weaves together history and philosophy in a book that is both compelling and creative.

Davies charts over time why trust in the technocratic state began to splinter. The Enlightenment ideal of scientific progress always benefited only a select few. Once western nations turned their attention to foreign lands, modernity became a means of colonial plunder. Today, the narrative of progress within western states has also been overturned—with more than half the US population experiencing no economic progress for decades on end.

Meanwhile, market forces have reconfigured the pursuit of facts. Davies’s command of economic history shines in his pages on Friedrich Hayek. The British-Austrian economist believed that nobody should have a monopoly on truth, and that “facts” ought to compete in a marketplace of ideas. But markets proffer an odd sort of fact. Prices are constantly shifting, more adept at gauging real-time human desires than giving us a complete picture of reality. The market is a type of post-truth institution “that saves us from having to know what is going on overall,” Davies writes.

The institutions that stand for reasoned consensus have long failed to incorporate human emotions. Davies argues we must reset political analysis for a world inhabited by thinking, feeling beings. It’s a formidable task, but one that progress depends on, bringing to mind the words of philosopher Cornel West: “the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.”

Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World by William Davies (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)