Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Nick Cater's weekly column in The Australian 

More than 22 months after the disappearance of flight MH370, the people at ABC Radio National are getting impatient.

“I know you’ll say you’ll find it by June, but if you don’t, is this a bad look for the aviation industry?” Sarah Dingle asked Australian Air Transport Safety Bureau commissioner Martin Dolan.

Dolan took a second or two to compose himself before replying: “Our aim is to find the aircraft so we can help solve the mystery.”

Far from being a bad look, the methodical determination to find the missing Boeing 777 is a credit to an industry that has a rare capacity to learn from its mistakes.

In 1985 there were roughly 12 million commercial flights and 19 crashes. In 2014, the year MH370 disappeared, there were 32 million flights and eight ­crashes.

Aviation’s capacity for self-­improvement stems from a culture that Matthew Syed calls “black box thinking”.

“It is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors rather than be threatened by them,” Syed writes.

“Failure is rich in learning opportunities for a simple reason: it represents a violation of expectation. It is showing us that the world is in some sense different from the way we imagined it.”

The ability to accept a world that is different from our expectations requires a degree of self-­reflection, which is possibly why black box thinking is seldom applied in public policy.

If only the political class was willing to comb through the wreckage of its disasters as assiduously as aircraft builders, operators and pilots do theirs. Oh that they would reflect on their flawed assumptions and resolve to never make the same mistakes again.

Instead they are locked in a closed loop in which evidence of failure is misconstrued or ignored. Closed loops lead to stagnancy; open loops drive progress.

Syed’s recent book, loquaciously titled Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success (and Why Some People Never Learn from Their Mistakes), offers a perspective on innovation that the private sector will readily ­embrace.

Its subtle political message is likely to be lost, however, not least on the Left, where an inability to question its static world view has stunted its capacity for improvement.

In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet empire, there seemed to be no arguments left for socialism. West Germans were driving Audis, BMWs and Mercedes; East Germans were driving Trabants. Americans pushed trolleys around Walmart while the Russians queued for toilet paper.

Yet since the 2008-09 financial crisis, socialism is back in fashion. A recent New York Times/CBS poll found 56 per cent of Democratic voters had a positive view of socialism. They have an avowedly socialist presidential candidate in Bernie Sanders who is giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money. In Britain, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wears socialism as a badge of honour.

While the Australian Left has been slower to embrace the label, its corollary — antagonism towards the free market — is deeply entrenched. So, too, is a preoccupation with equality as the defining political principle.

The words “growth” and “prosperity” are no longer used on the Left unless they are tempered by an adjective. Growth must be “inclusive” and prosperity “sustainable”.

Like the hipster beard and pork-pie hat, the retro fashion for socialism begs an explanation. The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton throws some light on the matter in a recently released survey of postwar left-wing intellectualism, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands.

With hindsight the market-centred economic policies that the Centre-Left embraced in the 80s and 90s turned out to be a brief flirtation with pragmatism. Today’s new Left may dress in different clothes from its 20th-century predecessors, but its philosophical basis remains remarkably unchanged.

Scruton’s patient critique of major left-wing intellectuals since the war — from Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault to Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said and Slavoj Zizek — helps explain the resilience of this barren thinking. Their postmodern, post-colonial, post-industrial philosophy dominates the curriculum in most faculties in the Western world.

It is little wonder that today’s cultural elite in politics and the media should emerge looking at the world through the same distorted prism.

“Leftists believe, with the Jacobins of the French Revolution, that the goods of this world are unjustly distributed and that the fault lies not in human nature but in usurpations practised by a dominant class,” writes Scruton. “They define themselves in opposition to established power, the champions of a new order that will rectify the ancient grievance of the oppressed.”

The restless causes of liberating victims and emancipation from the “structure” of an oppressive society are the abstract crusades that feed their sense of virtue. “The goal of ‘social justice’ is no longer equality before the law, or the equal claim to the rights of citizenship ... The goal is a comprehensive rearrangement of society, so that its privileges, hierarchies, and even the unequal distribution of goods are either overcome or challenged.”

A fear of heresy and aversion to scepticism shields the Left’s ­assumptions from challenge.

One of the most important lessons of the last century — that the pursuit of equality comes at the expense of liberty — is seldom ­considered.

“Why is it,” asks Scruton, “that after a century of socialist disasters and an intellectual legacy that has, time and again, been exploded, the left-wing position remains, as it were, the default position to which thinking people automatically gravitate?”

The lessons of history, however, hardly matter to the philosophers of the Left such as Zizek who refuse to allow awkward facts to get in their way.

“I am a good Hegelian,” he boasts. “If you have a good theory, forget about the reality.”






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