Forgotten hero offers new view of politicians

Latest article by John Blundell in The Scotsman

DUNCAN Black is a name almost unrecognised out of the rarified and abstract world of symbolic logic and mathematical economics. In my view, and in the view of wiser men than me, Black was the most important Scot of the last hundred years.

His discoveries are not easily rendered in a succinct form: algebra does not offer itself to popular exposition. Nonetheless, Black has described with shattering, and sometimes comical, detail why politicians are such rascals, civil servants such rogues and committees incapable of coherence. But his work is far more than cynicism. Black has given us mathematical propositions about human combinations which prove valuable insights.

Born in Motherwell in 1908 and brought up in Tayvallich in Argyll, then educated at Glasgow and Dundee, Black has no recognition in Scotland. In time, I predict, he will become national hero.

Black himself describes his “Eureka” moment: “Acting apparently at random, I wrote down a diagram bearing three curves. I saw in a shock of recognition that if I interpreted points on the horizontal axis as motions before a committee, and took the preferences of the members in relation to these motions to be represented by the three single-peaked curves, the decision by committee using a simple-majority procedure must correspond to the median optimum."

This may not make your blood race, but Black had opened up a new way of seeing how people really collaborate. Black was later to discover that other minds had tried to reach similar conclusions.

Machiavelli was dismissed as subversive. Condorcet, the French philosopher, was called impractical. Lewis Carroll – the Rev Charles Dodgson, a mathematics don at Oxford – had come close. Alice in Wonderland is a sort of allegory of political folly backed by sophisticated formulae.

What Black achieved was the ability to express politician ’behaviour as more interesting than merely venal. They are trading, or trying to trade, votes. They do it at elections but they do it among themselves, too. Public choice theory has also proved a tool for observing civil servants or local authority employees. Politely, they serve the public interest but co-opt resources for their own interests.

It would have been splendid to hear Black ’s comments on the vast over-run of the new Scottish Parliament. He was able to describe how all political projects go over-budget.

Black died in 1991 without a ripple, leaving all his assets to Motherwell Cricket Club. But his

great bequest has been the analytic tools which allow us to see public life in entirely new ways.

To my knowledge, the sole memorial to him is the Duncan Black Chair in Economics, situated not in Scotland but on the George Mason University campus near Washington DC.

Black gave us the intellectual equipment to reform the relative squalor of politics and see the vote market as a version of the real market for goods and services where public agencies

do not intervene. His classic The theory of Committees and Elections is never going to be a best seller. It might be summed up vulgarly as the description of a camel: a horse designed by a committee.

Black ’s modesty seems to have been a virtue that was close to being a flaw. He was too diffident in promoting his discoveries. Had it not been for US scholars such as Gordon Tullock and James Buchanan, I would not have even have heard of him and at least one Nobel Prize would have not been awarded.

I would relish seeing the brightest scholars in this new field analyse the deliberations of the European Commission where no votes are ever sought, let alone traded. By far the largest public agency in our landscape, it goes utterly unrestrained by the need to seek election, let alone re-election.

The shared illusion of all our politics is of ministers directing the bureaucracy. It is a mirage. The civil servants command the politicians. They operate a very subtle market in privileges and security. This is the real meat of public life. Black is so important because he opened up truth.

John Blundell is director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs.