“You can’t have it both ways, Prime Minister”

“we should never forget the immense value and potential of an open, innovative, free market economy which operates with the right rules and regulations” (Theresa May, at an event to mark 20 years of the Bank of England’s independence)

With the Leader of the Opposition due to demonstrate his lack of understanding of markets in his keynote speech to his party conference yesterday, it was only natural that the prime minister should use the opportunity given by an invitation to speak at an event to mark the granting of independence by, ironically, a Labour chancellor of the exchequer to the Bank of England, to mount a defence of the market economy.

But what conclusion are we to reach about someone who manages to contradict herself so thoroughly, not just from speech to speech, or within one speech, or within a paragraph, but within a single sentence. When does oxymoronic become plain moronic?

Wikipedia helpfully spells out the roots and origin of “oxymoron”, and its evolution. “An oxymoron is a rhetorical device that uses an ostensible self-contradiction to illustrate a rhetorical point or to reveal a paradox. A more general meaning of “contradiction in terms” (not necessarily for rhetoric effect) is recorded by the OED for 1902.”   There is no possibility that the sentence from her speech, quoted at the head of this posting, is a rhetorical device. Markets are either regulated or they are “free”. Definitionally, they cannot be both at the same time.

One of the axioms underpinning the Escondido Framework is that, in the absence of a raft of elusive conditions (perfect information, symmetry, “unbounded” rationality, perfect competition etc), regulation is always required to make markets work sustainably. Mrs May has indicated clearly since becoming prime minister that she appreciates this instinctively. Am I being too generous to her in wondering whether her apparently casual use of language is a calculated sop to appease the more bone-headed in her party (which gathers for its own conference in Manchester later this week) and they will only hear the word “free” and not notice the reference to “rules and regulations”?

I can’t help wondering what was going through the civil servants’ minds when they inserted the heading “A well-regulated free market” into the published text[1] of the speech. Cock-up or conspiracy? While stepping through the black door of Number 10 feels a bit like stepping through a looking glass and tumbling down a rabbit-hole simultaneously and, in serving their political masters, civil servants are required to “believe impossible things” [2], the combination of “well-regulated” with “free” is so impossible that conspiracy seems more plausible than cock-up. If so, to paraphrase the Queen of Hearts,“Off with their heads!”




[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-speech-at-20th-anniversary-of-bank-of-england-independence-event

[2] “Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Alice in Wonderland.