In a weird way, I used to enjoy George Monbiot’s columns in The Guardian. There were not many authors who could evoke that mixture of bewilderment, disbelief, amusement and despair.
But not anymore. At some point, Monbiot must have run out of ideas. Nowadays, his articles seem to revolve around the same three points:
Last autumn and this winter, Monbiot wrote a number of articles effectively saying that there is not really such a thing as a free-market philosophy. Think tanks who call themselves ‘libertarian’ or ‘free-market’ are merely hired PR agencies, who say what their paymasters – big corporations and billionaires – tell them to say (e.g. here, here, here and here). Monbiot seems to believe that if you could hide a bugging device in the office of a free-market think tank, the conversations you would hear behind the scenes would go something like this:
- ‘I just finished my new paper. Complete baloney from the first to the last page of course - we all know that free markets don’t work - but who cares, it’s what the paymasters want to hear.’
- ‘Sure. And I’ve just given a talk pretending I believed in privatisation, can you imagine? Hard to keep a straight face, but I think I managed it.’
According to Monbiot, nobody really believes in libertarianism, not even those obscure paymasters he’s so obsessed with. This is because in his interpretation, libertarianism is not a world view in the conventional sense. It is a character defect, a desire to exploit other people and destroy the planet.
Sure, there are advantages in convincing yourself that your opponents are effectively bribed liars. It absolves you of the need to engage in substantive debates. Why try to rebut what your opponent is saying, when you know for sure that he does not even believe it himself? It is not just convenient, but also irrefutable. Of course Monbiot cannot provide the slightest evidence to back up his accusations, but then, why should he? Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. You can sometimes prove that somebody has fudged their arguments (through hacked e-mails, for example), but there is no way you could prove that somebody has not fudged their arguments. That’s what makes good conspiracy theories. Try to prove that the world is not controlled by super-intelligent space lizards.
The space lizard hypothesis and George Monbiot’s corporate mouthpiece hypothesis have two things in common. Firstly, neither is falsifiable. But secondly, while many real-world observations are fully compatible with them, they are equally compatible with much more mundane explanations. For example, rather than the donors determining the contents of think tank publications, the contents of think tank publications could determine the donors. But that would be boring, wouldn’t it?
Once you ignore Monbiot’s have-I-got-a-shocking-revelation-for-you rhetoric for a moment, you will find that he ‘reveals’ nothing at all. According to his ‘research’, Big Government think tanks are more likely to disclose the identity of their donors than Small Government think tanks. So? If true, this could simply indicate that donors are less reluctant to have their identities disclosed if they sponsor politically correct causes, but more reluctant when they sponsor more controversial ones. And quite rationally so, or do you remember the last time a company found its offices vandalised by a group of pro-capitalist activists?