Terence Kealey on the British ARPA

Terence Kealey has an excellent piece in CapX on the influence of Mariana Mazzucato’s work on the British “conservative” government. Boris Johnson has announced a new Advanced Research & Invention Agency (ARIA), a brainchild of his controversial advisor Dominic Cummings. It is an ambitious effort, as the government itself describes it as a “new research agency to support high risk, high reward science”. Here you can see the reaction of a few scientists who welcomed the news.

Terence begs to differ, and he does so by writing a short history of ARPA in the US, which he considers more a case of government failure than one of successful, “mission-oriented” public spending. At the very end of his piece, Terence reminds that some of Johnson’s voters, and Brexit fans, may have hoped to see the government shrinking once they regained “independence” from the EU. Sadly, they are going to be disappointed:

Some Brexiteers had hoped that leaving the EU would be a chance to shrink the state. Sadly for them, Boris Johnson knows he’s Prime Minister only because of the votes of the ‘left behind’, and such folk are none too keen on the bracing winds of competition: they are keen on high public spending, subsidies, and a corporate state within which they can find shelter.

And boy, is Johnson delivering for them, starting with an industrial policy based on vast corporate welfare – starting with research.

I am not so sure what the “left behind” would make of the building of a “British ARPA”. Is that helping in any way the left-behinds? I suppose the Johnsons of this world would make the case that the new agency is indirectly strengthening British business, keeping it at the frontier of technology and thus “saving jobs” from globalization and international trade. It is sort of variation of the old argument for infant industry protection.

But I also suppose that the left-behinds do care about improvements in their lives- here and now- and it is harder to make the case that a British ARPA would play any role in providing them with better job opportunities, or strengthening their purchasing power, or safeguarding their savings. It may please them as a symbol: the British flag waving over science- be proud of your government because it invests in science. We tend to overestimate the role of interests in real-life politics, but my takeaway from the last few years of ramping populism is that most of the time, people do not vote thinking of their immediate interests. They are mesmerized by symbols, and happy to be fed with them.

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Author: Alberto Mingardi


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