LSE & Libya: structure vs agency
The mess the LSE has gotten into after taking Gaddafi’s money raises an old question, of the relative importance of structural factors versus individual initiative. I mean this is two distinct ways.One is the degree of Howard Davies’ culpability in advising the LSE to take the cash. Here, there are two mitigating factors. One is that universities have for years been desperate for cash - so much so that one wonders whether they are not more dedicated to the pursuit of money than to the pursuit of learning. And desperation leads people to make choices they subsequently regret. Yes, the late Fred Halliday advised against taking the money. But he had the luxury of the freedom to make wise decisions. Sir Howard’s greater awareness of the need to raise funds meant he was not so lucky. Secondly, there was an element of peer pressure upon Sir Howard. Others were dealing with Libya. As he says in his resignation letter, it was the government that invited him to be an economic envoy to Libya. It’s well-known that peer pressure is a powerful force. I might be wrong here - if lots of other university heads had turned down the opportunity to raise £1.5m from Libya - then I would be. But my hunch is that Sir Howard’s error consists not so much in taking Libyan money - others in his position would have done the same - but rather in being so ambitious as to want to be in a job where he inevitably exposed himself to getting his hands dirty.The second issue concerns David Held’s relations with Saif al-Gaddafi. Professor Held says al-Gaddafi had a “deep commitment to liberal democratic reform of his country.” As Gideon Rachman says, this has not been much in evidence recently. And Professor Held has said that “his commitment to transforming his country has been overwhelmed by the crisis he finds himself in.”Again, this raises the question of structure vs. agency. Even if we grant that al-Gaddafi’s sentiments were sincere when he was at the LSE, isn’t Professor Held rather naïve if he is surprised that he has been “overwhelmed by the crisis“? The pressures upon al-Gaddafi to support the dictatorship must be enormous: filial loyalty, the words of friends and associates who have a massive self-interest in sustaining the regime, and so on. To believe that individual will can overcome these structural pressures is surely a stretch. To put this another way, how many times in history has the son of dictator succeeded his father and successfully transformed his country to a liberal democracy? Basic Bayesianism tells us that, with such a poor base rate probability, we should have not have been hopeful about al-Gaddafi.Now, I’ll own up. I’m biased here. My Marxist background plus my (over?-)reaction against the fundamental attribution error leads me to stress structural factors over individual agency. So maybe I’m seeing what I want. But isn’t it the case that the LSE’s troubles arise from such structural forces rather than from errors of individual judgment?