Giles Fraser: Faith in the future is also irrational

23 June 2010

I had one of those light-bulb mo­ments the other day, when reading Polly Toynbee in The Guardian. She was invoking John Maynard Keynes’s so-called “paradox of thrift” to argue against financial cuts. The idea here is that if everyone tries to save, then there will be a decline in economic activity, and we will all end up poorer.

“Cuts make things worse when investing for growth is the only escape,” she said. David Cameron and Nick Clegg, on the other hand, are “pre-modern leech doctors”.

The part of this argument that really struck me was its faith in the power of the future. Its basic philo­sophy is: spend now, and pay back some time in the future, when we all have more money. This is why people such as Ms Toynbee are called Progressives: they believe in pro­gress, in the redeeming power of the future. And this is when the light bulb lit up. This veneration of the future is at the heart of the Left’s entirely secular “religious” faith.

Ms Toynbee is the queen of the new atheism, the President of the British Humanist Association, Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society, and so on. Time and again, she will attack the Church for believing in a source of values that cannot be seen, experienced, or verified. No wonder there is so much dangerous irrationality about in religion, when its ultimate source of values cannot be held to any sort of rational account, she argues. Actually, there is something in this argument.

Yet, like many Progressive atheists, she does not have the self-critical vigilance to recognise when such an argument applies also to her. The future is just as unavailable for rational scrutiny. Sure, it works in a rather different way. Indeed, many of us now recognise that New Labour’s theme song “Things can only get better” was windy rhetoric. Things did not get that much better. But no matter, reasons the progressive mind. That is all in the past. Things will be better in the future. They will always be better in the future.

Hegel and Marx are obvious fall guys for persuading the Left to over-invest in the future. I suspect, how­ever, that the future-orientated faith of modern Progressives has more to do with the infatuation they have with science and how it might transform the human condition. The problem with the future is that it can easily act as a mask for fantasy and self-deception. Project all of life’s solutions into the perpetually out of reach, and you will never have to answer for their shortcomings. But, like the debt, some things need sorting out now.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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